Straining Andromeda

As corona-life settles into just the way things are, I pulled out my copy of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.  I read this in high school, and, judging from the state of my copy I originally found it in the book bin at Goodwill.  I actually didn’t remember how the book ended, but some of the scenes—particularly the bizarre suicides that the virus first initiates—stayed with me.  I really felt no compunction to read it again until our daily reality was one of infection, protection, and fear.  In other words, the time was right.  I can say that I found Crichton’s confident prose a bit overblown at times, especially given the resolution of the crisis, which I will not give away here.  Some of the rest of you may want pandemic-themed reading, after all.

Something I had forgotten, and since this is near the beginning I don’t mind giving it away, is that the Andromeda Strain was brought to earth by military intentions to develop new biological weapons.  Although the death toll is nowhere near what that of COVID-19 has been, the potential lethality of the strain is what keeps the compressed five-day story tense.  That tension makes for quick reading, and it seems pretty clear that some of the ideas here have been used for other pandemic story-lines.  I’ll write about one of them later this week.  The extraterrestrial life form of Andromeda is cause for discussion in the novel, but the explanation is never clarified.  Crichton’s later novels improve on this score.

A clear point in the novel is that the government, although aware of and complicit in the experiment, lacked the foresight to successfully see it through.  Governments are only human, after all, and can function effectively only when those with superior abilities are in charge.  Looking out for oneself and exploiting others are not superior abilities.  We can see the result of this with our own, nonfictional pandemic.  Still, the novel does raise the specter of dabbling in things we don’t fully understand and can’t, in any real sense, control.  The thread of the plan being military in origin isn’t fully seen through, but it does raise the larger question of morals.  Some of us go through ethical training for our jobs.  Some of us have it often.  It’s obvious, however, that the real deficiency of governments tends to be their lack of ethics.  In this current day and age that qualifies you for the sobriquet of evangelical Christian.  And now we have our own strain to deal with.

The New Neighbors

Apartment dwellers often ponder new neighbors. If anything gives the lie to being in control of your own destiny, renting your domicile does. Still using the old, aristocratic terms landlord or landlady, we know that we are under someone else’s authority. “As long as you’re under my roof,” my bully of a step-father liked to huff, “you’ll obey my rules.” When you rent, you can’t choose your neighbors. Those who own the property have final say. If they play the stereo too loud (“game” is probably the modern equivalent, but I was born before Pong even came alone) and won’t listen to your plea for a more monastic setting, you throw yourself on the mercy of your lord or lady. We got new neighbors this week. Not just us, but the whole galaxy. Seven new earth-like planets—surely ruled by Trump-like dictators—have been discovered. Let’s hope they’re early to bed, early to rise types.

During the Bush administration I often fantasized about the aliens landing on the White House lawn. I thought, with a president so obviously lacking intelligence, what would our new neighbors think of us? Would they complain to the landlord? You’d think that after that long trip across cold, vast interstellar space they’d maybe have the right to expect to find the brightest and the best in charge, right? Mission accomplished. The sign says so right there. Or to put it in a modern key, “Earth first, Earth first.” If they’ve got their intergalactic television on, I hope it’s switched to a different channel.

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Contact, the novel by Carl Sagan, suggested the first contact from the aliens would be of Adolf Hitler. Among the first poisoned radiation this planet flung off into space was the fascist propaganda of 1930s Germany. Earthlings, not yet tempered by the Trump brand, were shocked. Surely this is a sign of hostility! Unless, of course, you control both the legislative and executive branches. Then you can just decide not to show up at the town hall and tell everyone you’ve got more important things to do. So, what will our new neighbors think? Do they just want the bodies of their compatriots from Roswell back, or is it a more serious discussion to be held behind closed doors? After all, African slaves were merely chattels in a negotiation between a more powerful culture and unhuman indigenous dullards with nothing better to do. On the spaceship back to their extraterrestrial slave mines, I do hope they have the common decency to keep the music down to a reasonable level.