Friday, March 16, 2012

Adventure classics -- They didn't come in peace

The Andromeda Strain

by Michael Crichton


When I first read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, the story about an extraterrestrial virus merely thrilled me. When I learned something about the craft of writing, the ability of a medical student to write such a wonderful hoax astounded me. (Where did he even find time to write? Aren’t doctors in training notoriously sleep-deprived?)

When I researched this blog post and learned Crichton wrote half a dozen earlier novels under pseudonyms, I understood his apprenticeship in writing. But even still, how did he manage? It was as if he knew that for him, as for so many of his characters, time would run out too fast. He died in 2008, leaving two final novels behind.

His website, lists only his Poe Award-winning mystery, A Case of Need, of his novels published under a pseudonym (Jeffery Hudson, an historical dwarf). But a little sleuthing turned up other tongue-in-cheek names -- John Lange (“long” -- Crichton was six feet nine); and Michael Douglas (co-written with younger brother Douglas).

The earliest Lange novels predate Andromeda, published in 1969, and also reflect Crichton’s interest in science and suspense. So how did Crichton know Andromeda would be the book to make him famous, the one he needed to put his own name to? It’s another mystery, one his site doesn’t answer.

The website, in fact, is both so secretive and so obsessively detailed, I wondered initially whether it was another of Crichton’s hoaxes, like his delicious mixing of real and fictional characters in The Andromeda Strain and other books, or the elaborately specious documentation he develops to support his stories.

Documentation such as the acknowledgement of actual persons like NASA pilot Roger White in support of fictitious organizations such as Wildfire, the locked-down facility where scientist Dr. Jeremy Stone and his colleagues confront the deadly and rapidly mutating organism from space code named “Andromeda strain.” If the scientists fail,
they and Andromeda will be -- in bureaucratic euphemism -- “cleansed” through nuclear annihilation.

(Having fun yet? The character name “Jeremy Stone” is that of a real American scientist later surprised to find himself fictionally portrayed in Andromeda.)

I thought I’d caught Crichton on one detail -- the night-scavenging vultures who devour unfortunates killed by the extraterrestrial microbes. Vultures (aka buzzards) are unequivocally diurnal, according to (I’m not making this up) the Turkey Vulture Society,

However, as in other Crichton books, nonhuman species often ignore what humans think about them. A brief article in the Autumn 1988 Journal of Raptor Research ( ) reports a nocturnal flight by the vulture species ubiquitous in the United States. Crichton, I think, would have loved it.

(Next Friday -- Adventure classics continues in a paranoid twentieth century vein with James Hilton’s tale of Shangri-La, Lost Horizons.)

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