The Andromeda Strain is Michael Crichton's story of man's intrusion into space gone horribly wrong, when a probe sent into the upper atmosphere brings back with it a deadly plague that comes frighteningly close to infecting mankind. The narrative is presented as if it were truth, with a title page that is made to look like the front page of a classified document, and a fictitious acknowledgements section that states in its first sentence, "This book recounts the five day history of a major America scientific crisis." Nowhere does Crichton break the narrative dream in which he submerses the reader from the beginning: the experience of being involved in a crisis of immense proportions.
Alexander Cook states that The Andromeda Strain "reads like a thoroughly scientific report on which all human life depends". The work is complete with illustrations, graphs, fictitious letters from high ranking officials, crude computer printouts, charts, maps, and the like, all used by Crichton in order to drive the reader further into the reality of the scenario that he has created. The language used by Crichton reads almost like a lab manual in places, often including such lengthy stretches of scientific explanation as, "The plastic was cured in a special high-speed processing unit, but it would still take five hours to harden to proper consistency. The curing room would maintain a constant temperature of 61 degrees Celsius, with a relative humidity of 10 per cent. Once the plastic was hardened, he would scrape it away, and then flake off a small bit of green with a microtome. This would go into the electron microscope. The flake would have to be the right thickness and size, a small round shaving 1500 angstroms in depth, no more" (Crichton 203). This sort of minutia would be out of place in most bestsellers, but it fits perfectly in Crichton's chosen format of the scientific report. Crichton's medical degree and Harvard education certainly add to the joy of reading the work, the reader feels as through he is being let in on privileged scientific information, and as he accepts Crichton's authorial voice that is so steeped in the logic and rhetoric of science, the reader is inevitably sucked deeper and deeper into the narrative dream, until the line between actual science and science fiction are almost indistinguishable.
Most reviewers realized that Crichton's hard driving, almost inseparable blend of science fact and science fiction represented a dramatic change for the genre of science fiction, and for best-selling fiction in general. A review of the book in the June 8, 1969 edition of The New York Times Review of Books declares, "Crichton's book is both a backwards look to the 19th century realistic novel (written to transmit social and industrial information) and a projection, I suspect, into the future, when the novel will organize and synthesize the findings of technology and science". A slightly less enthusiastic Alex Comfort writes that, "Science fiction has undergone an unwelcome change. It used to minister to our need for prophecy; now it ministers to our need for fear. The better Crichton tells his tale?the more upsetting it is to a concerned scientist?(the author) titillates and scares. This is mere scientific pornography. We run a real risk of dying titillated, through the leakage of fear and fantasy into science and back. If I am being over-serious about an entertainment, and am failing to do justice to a very skillful and well-observed piece of fake actuality it is because the self-destruct mechanism bothers me. Apathy and mental disorder could make our science into just that, and cosmic catastrophe scares, however cleverly done, seem to belong to that matrix of thinking" (Comfort 4). Comfort, although he is very critical of the novel, manages to bring up several key points that are important to understanding the popularity of the book.
Comfort is correct when he calls The Andromeda Strain a piece of "fake actuality" that "titillates and scares". The "scare" factor was increased tenfold by virtue of the fact that the book was published at around the same time that the Apollo 11 mission first put mankind on the moon. The novel could have appeared on the scene at no better time than the summer of the first Apollo mission. The extraordinary amount of media attention focused on the moon mission primed the American public for a work such as The Andromeda Strain , in which the public's newfound interest in the possibilities of space was transformed by a skillful author into fear and apprehension, making for riveting entertainment. M.B. Wenger states that, "( The Andromeda Strain ) should be read by anyone concerned with the future of the space age," making clear the relationship between the book's publication and the moon landings that were contemporary to it. It is interesting that Wenger phrases his praise of the book in this manner. Wenger does not say that the book should be read by those concerned with the future of science fiction, or even with the future of fiction's changing role in the space age. Wenger instead relates the book directly to the actual events of the space age, lifting the novel out of its fictional context and placing the work directly in the realm of fact. Crichton's authorial voice as a scientific researcher relating the events of a catastrophe is brought off so well that the book seems to be fictional only in the sense that its events haven't happened yet. Wenger goes on to say, "When any science fiction can be read with such realism, there is no longer the hint of fiction- but of truth. The author has developed the storyline with a great deal of research and understanding of his subject" (Wenger 2485).
If there is still any doubt as to whether the events contemporary to The Andromeda Strain 's publication (namely the Apollo 11 mission) helped to catapult the book to best-selling status, one need only search the trade journals of the time. Retailers were directly advised by the August 11 issue of Publisher's Weekly that, "Interest continues high. Display with news stories of the moon rockets." This is clearly an assumption (and a right one, judging from the book's success) that readers interested in news stories about the Apollo mission would also be interested in reading The Andromeda Strain . The connection between the public interest in both the moon landing and The Andromeda Strain was clearly a determinate factor in the book's becoming a best seller.
The plot of the book is so mired in the actual events and fears of the early space age that it is almost impossible to isolate one without talking about the other, but in terms of pure aesthetic value, the book is sometimes lacking. Arthur Cooper is correct in his opinion that, "like most science fiction writers, he (Crichton) fails to create characters of human dimension, he is concerned with moral values, and makes graphic the dangers of exploiting science for such goals as the perfection of chemical and biological warfare techniques" (Cooper 125). The characters of The Andromeda Strain are not particularly memorable, and they sometimes seem to be little more than mouthpieces through which Crichton tells the story. An author of a June 8, 1969 New York Times Review of Books article expresses the lack of depth of characterization in the work when he states, "As art, The Andromeda Strain lacks human heat." By far, the most interesting character in the novel is the authorial voice itself, the omnipresent force that drives the story forward. Most bestsellers contain at least one character that captivates the reader, and it could be argued that in The Andromeda Strain this character is not to be found in the novel itself, but in the form of Crichton himself. Alongside the 1969 New York Times Review of Books review of the novel is present an equal sized blurb about Crichton's life, detailing his accomplishments. Who could not be captivated by the young graduate of Harvard Medical School, who paid his tuition by writing thrillers (sometimes in a matter of days) under an assumed name? The book's popularity was certainly not hurt by its having as an author a young, striking (Crichton is 6'9"), brilliant man who could churn out thrilling works of fiction seemingly at will.
The implicit concern with the dangers of scientific developments mentioned by Cooper is what elevates the work above, in Comfort's terms, "scientific pornography". The Andromeda Strain 's purpose is not as shallow as mere titillation; it is a prophetic warning of what could be. If Crichton titillates and scares, it is only to warn mankind of the dangerous implications of modern scientific developments. The book cannot be dismissed as mere pornography, designed to entertain the masses through fear, as it takes on these weighty moral and ethical issues.
As a bestseller, The Andromeda Strain demonstrates how effective relating the subject matter of a novel to contemporary events can be in boosting sales and popularity. There could be no Andromeda Strain without the backdrop of the space age and modern science. It is simply not the kind of novel that can be set in a variety of different backdrops and still work. Its characters are not enduring enough, and the plot is so linked to events of a particular time as to be inseparable. This being said, it is impossible to know if The Andromeda Strain would have still reached best-selling status without the moon landing occurring only months after its publication, but it is a safe assumption to say that the Apollo Mission only helped sales.
The combination of Crichton's riveting new blend of science and fiction (what The New York Times article calls "knowledge fiction"), Crichton's unique personal story and charisma, and the temporal proximity of the publication of the novel to the Apollo 11 moon landing helped to send The Andromeda Strain to the top of the best-sellers lists.