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.

Who’s To Blame?

Back at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, we were a closed community.  Well, not completely closed, as much as some may have desired it.  When a communicable illness came to campus it quickly spread.  No wonder—we were required to all gather twice daily in the chapel, and there was the passing of the peace during mass.  And the sharing of a common chalice.  The germs of the Lord were readily spread.  One of the faculty members would refer to the vector of the illness as “Typhoid Mary,” a rather sexist remark in the mostly male environment.  Still, Mary Mallon came to mind as the current crises has settled in.  “Typhoid Mary” was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.  A working-class girl from Ireland, outbreaks of typhoid followed her in the various houses in New York City where she worked.

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

The current coronavirus outbreak in New York City seems strangely similar in some regards.  Although COVID-19 is less likely passed by asymptomatic carriers, according to what I’ve read from the World Health Organization, it is still a possible vector.  While out getting necessary supplies in the area I recently noticed store employees without gloves or masks, both of which I had on.  One of us was underdressed.  I went home, washed my hands thoroughly, and pulled my copy of The Andromeda Strain from the bookshelf.  Self-medication can come in several forms.  Some people still look at me funny for wearing a mask, but many other customers are now doing the same.  The Center for Disease Control recommends it.

Before I’d ever heard of Nashotah House, I worked in a grocery store.  I was a college graduate with facial hair that had to be removed.  “Customers don’t trust a man with a beard,” I was told.  Back then if you walked into a store with a mask on there would’ve been trouble.  Contagion can drive you crazy.  Nobody wants to be a “Typhoid Mary,” and yet it’s difficult to be out in public with a mask on.  “Who was that masked man?” they used to ask of the Lone Ranger.  From the theater and psychology I’ve studied, I know that hiding behind a mask can be a liberating experience.  Aware that nobody knows who you are, you are free to act most any way you please.  But this is different.  Maybe it’s because my mask is made of a paisley-ish bandana,  the kind old westerns show outlaws wearing.  Or maybe it’s because of the guilt a religious upbringing so generously left with me.  After all these years the old cliches are coming back to life.

Dead Language

Tis the season for returning from the dead.  Goodreads is one of the few websites that I allow to send me notices.  I try to check them daily, and I even read their monthly updates of new books by authors I’ve read.  I was a bit surprised when November’s newsletter began with The Andromeda Evolution by Michael Crichton.  I really enjoyed The Andromeda Strain when I was in high school.  The fact that I was in high school four decades ago made me wonder about the robustness of Dr. Crichton, especially since I knew that he had died over a decade ago himself.  I don’t know about you, but the writing industry feels crowded enough without dead people keeping in the competition.  It’s like those professors who refuse to retire, but also refuse to teach or do research.  Some people, apparently, can never get enough.

We live in an era of extreme longevity.  In the scope of human history, people haven’t lived so long since before the flood.  Some of us—not a few, mind you—work in fields with limited job openings.  We are the sort who don’t really get the tech craze, intelligent Luddites who’d rather curl up in the corner with an actual book.  There are very few professorates available.  Even fewer editorships.  And anyone who’s tried to get an agent without being one of the former knows that there are far too many writers out there.  Now the dead keep cranking ‘em out.  I’ve got half-a-dozen unpublished novels sitting right here on my lap.  Crichton’s gone the way of all flesh, but with an active bank account.

The end result of this Novemberish turn of events is that I want to read The Andromeda Strain again.  I haven’t posted it to Goodreads since when I read it the internet itself wasn’t even a pipe dream, except perhaps in the teenage fantasies of some sci-fi fans.  Since you can’t rate a book twice on Goodreads, and because paper books don’t disappear when you upgrade your device, I can do it.  I can actually walk to the shelf and pull a vintage mass-market paperback off it.  Even if the Earth passes through the tail of some comet and all networks are down.  And I seem to recall that the original strain came from outer space.  As did the strange radiation that brought the ghouls back to life on The Night of the Living Dead.  Now if only some of the rest of us might get in on the action.