BOOKS & MOVIES



Hardcover
Published in 1969
by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Paperback
Published in 1992
by Ballantine Books

"This book recounts the five-day history of a major American scientific crisis. As in most crises, the events surrounding the Andromeda Strain were a compound of foresight and foolishness, innocence and ignorance. Nearly everyone involved had moments of great brilliance, and moments of unaccountable stupidity."




Bestseller
Written while Michael was still in medical school, The Andromeda Strain
Vogue Magazine, September 1970.
caused an immediate sensation: partly because the author was still in his twenties; partly because it focused on a biological crisis when most people were thinking about nuclear crises; and partly because of the cool, non-fiction tone it adopted to tell its story. Many people wrote to ask if the book was true. The author became a celebrity.




Lunar Landing
The novel was published just weeks before the first lunar landing,
New Yorker Magazine, September 13, 1969.
and for weeks there had been concern about whether the astronauts would bring back germs from the moon. NASA's decontamination procedures seemed oddly to mirror those in the novel, and the young author appeared on television with Walter Cronkite the night of the lunar landing.
The "germs from outer space" theme was treated lightly in some quarters.


Technology
Readers in the 1960s were fascinated by the technologies discussed in the book: remote surveillance; voice activated systems; computer imaging and diagnosis; handprint identification; hazmat suits, and biosafety procedures. This was very new to readers forty years ago.


Politics and BioWar
Politics, not science, was the reason the novel
Russian release, 1971.
was quickly published in Russia , where it was viewed as a radical left-wing, anti-American, anti-militarist work. In the US, many critics drew the opposite conclusion: its Harvard-trained author was located firmly in the establishment, and many questioned whether Michael was acting unethically, by giving the military new ideas for biological weapons. (He wasn't.)
Thus the pattern of political controversy that would follow much of Michael's work was established very early.
But as Michael repeatedly explained, his purpose in writing had nothing to do with politics. His point concerned science. He intended to give a fictional example of a particular kind of scientific crisis-one that, once begun, can't be satisfactorily ended. He argued that we need to understand there is a category of technological error-an oil spill is a good example-that is best dealt with by never letting it happen in the first place. Once it starts, it will run its course and little can be done to alter or modify it. These crises, he said, occur irrespective of the particular people involved, and their particular personalities. We tend to think that crises can be resolved by good leaders, but technological crises often cannot be influenced at all. A skilled leader-one that is more technically trained, or smarter, or quicker-acting-is unlikely to be able to deal with an oil spill better than anyone else. Major technological crises proceed with complete indifference to personalities. The book tried to make that point, too.


Movie Version
Robert Wise directed the film version, released in 1971. Michael was present for much of the filming, and appeared in one scene.
Michael on the set of Andromeda Strain, 1970.



"Father of the Technothriller"
In the 1980s, Tom Clancy began to refer to Michael as the father of the techno-thriller, and the term has stuck. Michael points to a strong tradition of technical thrillers that preceded his own writing: Peter George's Red Alert (1958), Richard Condon's Manchurian Candidate (1959); Burdick and Wheeler's Fail-Safe (1962), and Knebel and Bailey's Seven Days in May (1962), all of which became movies.


Subsequent History
In the years after the novel's release, any newly-discovered biological agent tended to be referred to as an Andromeda Strain. The term became synonymous with any potential pandemic: Marburg, Ebola, Bird Flu, and so on. In the early years of AIDS the virus was often referred to as an Andromeda Strain, and the novel was erroneously cited as predicting such new strains.

Technology Review
March/April 2006.
Scene from The Andromeda Strain, 1971.

Michael eventually wrote about it in an essay about AIDS:

Someone wants me to speak at a medical convention on "AIDS: the modern day Andromeda Strain." I get invitations like this every few weeks.
"No," I say to the caller. "I won't do that."
"You'd be performing a public service..."
"No I wouldn't. Because AIDS is not the Andromeda Strain. And people don't need to be made more fearful right now."
For the last year, the rumors have been flying. The AIDS virus was manufactured by the CIA. (It unquestionably wasn't.) Mosquitoes can infect you with the AIDS virus. (Unproven, and unlikely.) Doctors who care for AIDS patients are getting the disease (none has, except those in a known risk group.) One hundred percent of the population of Zaire now has AIDS. (Wrong.)
So I am not going to add to the rumors in any way. I refuse to speak.

Eventually the term Andromeda Strain became synonymous with any potential pandemic from a new agent: Marburg, Ebola, West Nile, and so on.
However, the novel stands as the first popular work to alert the public to the growing power of biological science, and to hint that biology would eventually replace physics and nuclear technology as a source of public concern and interest. Thus, the hazmat-suited figures that were so exotic in the movie forty years ago are now all-too-common:

Scenes from The Andromeda Strain, 1970.


Clockwise from top left: Anthrax scare in Washington D.C., Bird Flu investigations in Asia, Ebola patient care in the Sudan and researchers in the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute in Maryland.



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