Book Review: The Andromeda Strain

This review will contain spoilers! If you want to avoid that and you only want the gerfunkle report, there are no gerfunkles in this book. Granted, there really aren’t any female characters whatsoever so that’s pretty easy on the author, but I digress! Level one gerfunkle, go ham my dears.

I dug this. Of course, I’m the ideal reader. I work in microbiology and I’m a science major. So naturally, I have an appreciation for SCIENCE. I was familiar with most of the terminologies thrown at me, and I found it easy to infer those I wasn’t. For those who don’t have my background, though, Crichton does a good job elaborating on what he means through metaphor. The metaphors can get lengthy, but if you’re interested in learning a bit about molecular structures and how contagions function, you’ll stay entertained.

I will say that to some degree this felt like a tense, drawn-out prologue. That’s not a bad thing. I have no issue with kicking off a series that way – and I can see there is a sequel to this book, though it wasn’t written by Crichton himself. What matters is that despite that vibe, plenty of things happen in this book. All of it, assuming I’ve pinned where this story is going, is very relevant information. It feels like a strong foundation to build on.

We’ll start with characterization. I can’t say it was very strong, so I’d give that 2/5 stars. Crichton does manage to give us a lot with a little: he defines cut and clear depictions of the characters at the beginning of the book, then pretty much leaves them at that. While I wouldn’t enjoy that in usual circumstances, The Andromeda Strain quite obviously wasn’t written to focus on characterization. It was written as a way to explore intriguing scientific theories. That means the characters are left weak – or at least as outlines that aren’t fully fleshed – but I wouldn’t say that’s unintended on the author’s part. He had somewhere he wanted to be, so he focused on getting there.

The plot was great. The book was lightning-fast paced, a swift read even as it threw heaps of scientific jargon up in your face. I have to laud the man’s ability to make a bunch of scientists working in a lab seem white-knuckle intense. I doubt I could do that shit, personally. Flashes of what’s happening outside of the Wildfire project lend fuel to the intensity too, all the more because for most of the book our intrepid nerd-men don’t even realize what’s going on due to a technical issue. The creeping horror of the Andromeda Strain mutating into something else is delightfully implemented. The reader gets a little bit of a break just for a moment when Stone and Hall realize that the virus has evolved beyond human virulence – but only for a moment. When Stone mentions that the organisms (which eat plastic and polymers now, oh boy,) are trapped in the atmosphere, I felt a cold dread.

The epilogue is about a spacecraft being compromised by the virus and crashing to earth, so that dread successfully manifested.

The plot gets a 5/5 from me.

Finally, we get to worldbuilding. Crichton’s strength here isn’t so much in pure creativity: everything happens on earth, based on very real science. His strength is the depth of his research, and the way he masterfully applies it to the terror of the Andromeda Strain. I think the most success comes at the end, where we as the reader are left with many delightful questions supplied by his steady drip-feed of information. It’s mentioned by Leavitt that the organism may be a means of transporting information through the vastness of space: as in, not natural, but created by another sentient species. When we’re left with a spaceship-eating virus drifting in the clouds – with the implication that it’s trapping us on the planet – that opens up a slew of uncomfortable possibilities. Was this an intended consequence? If so, was the intention to trap us on the planet? And in that event, were we the only species hit by this manufactured plague? Hell, is this Crichton’s take on the fermi paradox?

If so, it’s a fun one. 5/5 stars for worldbuilding.

All of this is really why I mentioned it felt like a prologue to me. I’m certainly eager to see where the story goes from here.

Finally, our gerfunkle report is pretty cut and dry. There’s no time for any of that bullshit here, we’ve only got SCIENCE to worry about. Probably the weakest thing about the book is the complete lack of character variety. Admittedly I had trouble telling Stone, Hall, Leavitt, and Burton apart (and even now I’m thinking there was a fifth guy, but I’ll be damned if I remember his name.) I just sort of pictured them all as the same generic cutout. The book might have been helped by a touch more variety in the ‘cast,’ but still, you can merrily read it without any worries for gerfunkles.

Enjoy, ladies and gents.


Character Sketch: Evelyne Rale

[This is a sketch for one of the POV characters for my current novel. These excerpts may go into the finished product or they may not, but the hope is that they help me understand the characters better. If you want to join me in these exercises, I’ll include the prompts I used to write them. For this excerpt, the prompt was: ‘Write about something your character has lost.’]


Her mother always claimed she hadn’t picked the name until her sister was born. Most babies came into the world screaming. Raised fists and eyes screwed shut, primed and ready for a fight. ‘You looked fit to beat the world, Evelyne,’ she said, laughing. ‘I wasn’t sure it was ready for you.’

Not Eden, though. Eden came out quiet as a breath. The doctor looked worried at first – turned her over, slapped her on the bottom. She didn’t cough anything up. She didn’t cry, even then. She just stared around her with round-eyed wonder. Then her lips started to work, opening and closing, her little brow furrowing. When at last they placed her in her mother’s arms, she looked up and smiled.

‘Like a sunbeam, Evelyne,’ she used to say. ‘She was like a ray of light. And I thought, well, maybe she knows something we don’t. Maybe things are better than they seem. Maybe they’ll turn out alright.’
And she was a sunbeam. She was relentless about her warmth, though she’d never burn you. When they were young, she’d often catch Eden sharing food with other children. Their father didn’t have a good job, but he had a job, so they weren’t on basic. They had more than most of the other families living in the outer ring of the city. You could survive on universal income, but only just. Everything put in their neighbor’s hands went in their mouths in the same breath.

‘Why do you do that?’ Evelyne asked once. She watched a scrawny boy Eden had just fed totter off. ‘We don’t have much.’

Eden really thought about the question. You could always tell when she was thinking: she got that look, that furrowed-brow look she’d been sporting right out of the womb. Existence was a marvelous puzzle she was bent on solving.

‘You know how dad digs trenches to make the water flow out in the field?’


‘It would all get soaked up by the first couple plants if he didn’t.’

Evelyne tilted her head at that. ‘I guess so.’

Eden shrugged. ‘I don’t think kindness builds bridges. I think it digs trenches.’

She never truly understood Eden. Beside her, Evelyne felt like a dandelion blooming next to a rosebud. She’d see weeds in concrete and think that’s what we should be like. But Eden made the concrete her loam. It didn’t matter to her that they were growing up on the outskirts of the city. It didn’t matter that they were always barely scraping by. She turned surviving into thriving, and it was a power so fragile that Evelyne was afraid to question it.

She didn’t want the stem to break. It didn’t have any thorns.

Eden disappeared when she was ten.

They never knew what happened. She went out to play with her friends in the bright light of day. No one saw anything – though there were whisperings that a car had been passing through at the time. Nobody on the outskirts of Osage City had cars. They all took the rail system when they wanted to get anywhere, and they rarely did. Evelyne used to see cars in the distance sometimes: shiny balls of metal that went whipping by faster than a blink, barely skirting the houses, blitzing out into the long empty desert beyond.

Eden’s case got a month’s worth of attention. Then she was filed away somewhere, a couple lines of code tossed into an archive by people with more important things to do. The shrine lasted longer. They set it up on the empty lot where she was taken. It felt like defiance. There were fresh flowers every week for two years, so long that her picture faded and all that was left was her smile.

Her mother staggered in the night the flowers stopped coming. She saw Evelyne down the hall. They stared at each other for a moment, the silence filled with sorrow and the smell of whiskey.
‘It shoulda been you,’ she slurred. ‘You coulda survived without water.’

Evelyne said nothing. Mother went into her room and slammed the door.

Lots of things wilted after that. Mother fell deeper into the bottle. Her father’s pain was more quiet. He threw himself into work so hard even his dark skin wrinkled beneath the sun. He worked until he was exhausted, and then he came home and slept. She figured it was the only way he could sleep at all.
The worst part was not knowing. The never knowing. The gnawing thought that one day maybe they’d find her, maybe she’d walk through the door again and bring life back with her. Sometimes, on nights when her mother went into rages and her father had to keep her from hurting herself, Evelyne wished they would find Eden. It would be better if they knew she was dead. Then they could bury the hope and move on with things, try and forget about the garden.

When Evelyne became an investigator, her father was thrilled. He never said it, but she knew he thought she’d done it for Eden. Maybe there was always a bit of him in her sister. Maybe that was where she got it. ‘You’ll do great things for people,’ he said once, and it was the closest she ever saw him come to tears.
Her mother knew the truth, though. She spoke it in a whisper one night after her husband went to sleep, his blistered hands coated in cream that smelled as antiseptic as her breath. She watched Evelyne walk in the door, gray hair on her temples, dark eyes glittering in the light of the moon coming through the window.

‘It was rage, you know,’ she said. ‘From the very first moment. You were rage. I see it sometimes in you. All this time, and it’s only been growing.’ She shuddered. ‘You didn’t cry. You screamed.’

Evelyne stared at her. Her face was cast half in shadow, her beautiful black skin ashen. Worn. Tired.

‘Are you gonna make it pay?’ her mother asked. ‘The world? Will you make it pay for what it did?’

The expression on her face was hard to read. If it was hope, it was a crooked sort. A fox’s grin right before it broke the rabbit’s neck. Her mother watched her, fingers curling and uncurling in a way that said she’d do it herself if she could.

‘Yeah, mom,’ she told her. ‘‘Till my knuckles bleed.’

‘Good.’ Her words were a rasp. ‘I love you.’

It was the first time she’d said it since Eden left, and she knew the words weren’t meant for her.


He smelled like cigarettes and cheap cologne. Whenever he came to visit I always thought the cigarette smell was better. It suited him, it was the fragrance of cancer and he was the malignant tumor. I wanted him to go away, but no matter what I did he kept growing back.

“I’m getting better, Joany,” he’d say. His face had a gristle of unshaved beard that scratched when he hugged me. “I’m getting better and one day I’ll take you home with me.”

I didn’t want to go home with him. I wanted him to let me go. I wanted him to stop coming to see me so I could find a new family, a real family with a mother whose sweet scent wasn’t just a cover for her rot.

I sat in the back of his pickup as he sped down the highway. I gripped the seat as he flicked his ashes out the window and yammered at me, his teeth born like a grinning rat.

“You’re going to love this, Joan. You ever been to a carnival?”

I shook my head, staring at the back of his seat as his eyes bored into me from the rearview.

“Well, you’ll love it. Best place for twelve year olds. I used to…”

“Thirteen,” I muttered.

“What’s that, kiddo?”

“I’m thirteen.”

The silence was instantly uncomfortable. He wove around a semi-truck and cut it off to the sound of its clarion horn. He thrust his hand out the open window and flipped the driver off.

“They’ve got this guy there from Germany – heh, geezer by now, for sure – he dipped my hands in wax and I got this casting. You’d think it’d hurt, but it doesn’t. We’ll do that, get you one of your very own. You get to pick the colors, too! Pink, right? You like pink?”

“Yeah, pink’s great.” I hated it.

“I thought so,” he said proudly. The truck lurched off the highway and down a gravel path. It rolled into the churned up, muddy parking lot with a groaning sound, and he killed the engine.

“Come on, come on!” He pulled the door open and my sneakers squelched as I followed him. There weren’t many people flooding in. It was late afternoon and most had already had their fun. The faces of the parents looked tired and the children’s were flushed. A brother and sister used sticks to try and see who could pop the other’s balloon first. He won. She cried. His drifted into the sky like a soul that wrongfully won heaven.

The entrance was hung with a frayed rope that had a golden hook at the end. The man accepting money for access was dressed up like a clown. It was muggy and he was sweating – it made the red makeup around his mouth run down like blood dribbling to his chin.

“Check it oooouuuuut, Joany.” My father pranced before me, splaying his arms to show the tents around him. “They got camels here, you ever seen a camel up close? They say they spit. That’s funny, isn’t it? You want to go see?”

“Sure, dad.”

It reeked. It was hotter inside the tent than it was outside, and even though they weren’t bothered by it they made the place smell rancid. People were climbing up to an elevated stand to get on their backs, and one of the carnival workers would lead them around the cramped ring slowly. The camels chewed cud, eyes rheumy and half-lidded, tails lifting so they could take a shit.

“Cool right?” He stood pointing at the nearest one. “Did you know they store water in their humps so they don’t die in the desert?”

“Oh, neat.” I knew they didn’t really.

I watched him from the corner of my eye. His leather jacket had holes on the ends of the sleeves, and his stomach bulged too far past his pants. There was a sign nearby; ALL RIDES ONLY $10! He glared it down angrily.

“C’mon. I don’t want to get spat on.” I turned and trudged towards the entrance.

“Heh, yeah. Good call, good.”

I heard his BIC flick on behind me. A mother gave him a dirty look, herding two toddlers away from him with shooing motions. Coming up beside me, he took a defiant drag and let it out through puckered lips.

“Old bitty should mind her own business.”


“Got all these health nuts now ready to turn their noses up.”


“All that second-hand bullshit’s for the birds anyway.”

We walked and my eyes fell over the NO SMOKING sign. I didn’t say anything, I just looked at it. He dropped the cigarette and ground it out under his heel.

“Come on. They got a carousel here. You’ll love that.”

The embers were starting to eat at the drought-browned grass, and I finished snuffing them for him. “I’m sure I will.”

There wasn’t a line. Dusk was hovering, and people were chowing down on everything deep-fried for dinner. He thought he was subtle when he asked if it cost anything to ride, but I was already walking towards it while the carny running it shook his head. The lazy spin came to a halt, and I climbed aboard.

It was old. The horses looked almost ceramic, the paint chipping off bit by bit so their eyes were white and ghostly without the pupils. I picked one with half its leg shattered off. I imagined it limping its way around tirelessly, round and round, always moving even though it knew something was missing. We had a kinship.

It started. My valiant steed moved up and down the pole, letting out a high screeching sound at points. It needed oiled.


I glanced over. My dad was sitting in a carriage nearby, fingers drumming nervously against the front, darting his eyes towards me and back ahead again.

“I’m trying real hard, Joan. You know that, right?”

“I know you are.” But if you really wanted me, you’d try harder.

“Times are tough. I can’t afford to take care of you right now, but I will. I promise. I’ll get a job and we’ll be together, big old happy family, you and me. Right?”

My knuckles went white around the pole. I stared at the fake golden painting, flaking off and fluttering down. I wanted to scream at him, call him a deadbeat, tell him I hated him for not being able to take care of me. I wanted to tell him that I knew full well I’d just keep on living at that foster home, watching others come and go while I stood there like some aging statue forgotten in a swamp.

I wanted to tell him I wish he’d never had me.

“Sure John. Sure dad. I know.”

We sat there quietly as we rode forward to nowhere.

Written March 2015.