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.

World Ends

My grandmother thought it was the second coming of Christ. We were star gazing, she and I. We had one of those old ratty blankets with holes in it that ‘the chiggers could take if they wanted to.’ She kept pointing out the constellations and I tried to follow her finger as it shook with the onset of Parkinson’s.

“That one’s Orion. You see his belt right there?” Point. Shake. “There’s a bull he’s fighting, you can see off to the side…”

Her red-shellacked nail gave birth to the meteor. It seemed to sprout right out of her wrinkles and surge towards the moon. It was beautiful. I wished for the usual things a kid wishes for; new dolls, new dresses, hell, I was cliché enough to want a pony.

I was just deciding it would be a palomino when it tore into the moon. My happy shooting star turned into an asteroid before my eyes. I was so fascinated I didn’t hear my grandmother screaming beside me at first. I watched as that moon spat out glimmering shards, and somewhere in my head my third grade teacher’s voice reminded me that the light came from the sun reflecting off its surface.

“Sweet Jesus take me!” She shrieked, running down the hill, her sun dress fluttering. “Sweet Jesus sweet Jesus take me home!”

I watched after her and started giggling. When she fell over and her legs started twitching I laughed harder. My mother stepped out onto the porch and started screaming as well, first at the sky, then at grandma, tripping over herself to get to her.

She’d had a heart attack. She died three days later. I guess Jesus said yes.

I remember a lot of news reports after that. Neither of my parents really gave a damn about the news before, but now they were addicted. Men in white coats would look out soberly from the screen, dark bags under their eyes, making predictions like soothsayers trying to read the palm of fate.

“The moon has lost approximately half its mass and its orbit has been drastically altered.”

Collective gasps from mother and father. I continued playing with a box of Legos I’d taken from my brother’s room. I asked him if he minded and he said no, but I could tell by the way his nose wrinkled he was lying. I took them anyway.

“Those closest to the coast should begin evacuations immediately. Massive flooding is predicted, but you still have time. Please follow the instructions of the National Guard. It is imperative panic be avoided…”

The white-coated man was replaced by a news reporter standing in the street. People were running around behind him frantically. They reminded me of what the ants did when I sprayed water down their hole with the hose. They tripped over one another, they trampled each other. I saw one man grab an older woman and slam her head down into the fender of a car.

“Riots have broken out in New York. Businesses are being broken into in broad daylight. Crime is rising unchecked, and it’s not safe to be-”

A gunshot. The video cut out and the audio relayed the sound of gurgling. The scene shifted again and a pale-faced fat man in a suit started babbling about politics.

My mother started to cry. I dropped the Lego-sphere I’d been building and whispered “boom.”

We were in the Midwest. We made our home on the bible-belt, Oklahoma. My father was a Preacher. After the moon was hit, the pews got much fuller. He would raise his hands up towards the stained glass and everyone would start chanting after him.

“Lord, protect our brothers and sisters from the floods!”

“Protect them, protect them father!”

“Lord, may your great hand deliver them from harm!”

“Deliver them, Lord, deliver them!”

They wept. They bowed down. They poured their money into the offering plate and sent it to New Jersey.

One hundred million people died. I guess God said no.

Before everyone was mad about the immigrants coming in from Mexico. My grandfather used to rant about it, talk about how they were stealing jobs nobody else wanted. He had a shotgun he called Bessy sitting right by the door, and he was ready to ‘shoot them illegals if they ever came through his property.’

They didn’t like the immigrants from the east and west either. At first we welcomed them, but then the food started running short. There wasn’t enough to go around, and the weather was changing fast enough that things stopped growing. My father started handing out gift baskets instead of letting folks inside. Most took them gratefully because it was more than others offered. Then one night a big guy with three kids tried to break into our house. He gave my mom a black eye, and my dad chased him out with a shovel.

After that, we didn’t open the door when someone knocked. Dad dusted Bessy off and kept the bullets next to the cross on the mantle.

He didn’t preach anymore.

It got really cold. People stopped flooding in and out of our town. Instead it was just us, and whatever neighbors decided to stick around. Rumors started flying about bunkers the government was building. They sounded to me like the promise of Oz being just over the rainbow, like any second the Tin Man would come traipsing over the hill asking for oil for his creaking joints. Mom hung on every word. She stopped eating and started giving me and my brother her portions. Her eyes would get that gleaming faraway look, and she would ask people to tell her more about these magical places where she would be safe.

Then one day Dorothy turned into Judy Garland. Mother downed a bottle of pills with a glass of straight whiskey. Dad said it was an accident and we buried her in the garden where the tulips used to bloom.

I’m sixteen now. We’re leaving. My brother’s face looks grim and tired, and I’d almost think he was older than me if I didn’t know any better. We’re packing the canned goods we have left and the smoked deer jerky my dad brought in with Bessy. It’s still pretty fresh. There’s a bloody stain on the cement in the garage where he peeled off its skin.

“You think it’ll really be better in the South, Jason?” I ask, stuffing my backpack. “You think we’ll make it down there?”

He’s looking out the window. Across the street, our neighbor trudges through the snow towards the mailbox. He puts the flag up as he opens it to stick in his letter and removes the one he put in yesterday. His eyes light up, like they do every day, and he tears it open, weeping at the sight of his own handwriting and at the signature he forged at the bottom. His son’s.

“Yeah, Amy. We’ll make it.”

His nose wrinkles a little. I can tell he’s lying.

Written March 2015.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse)

Here there be spoilers. Reader beware. (If you want to skip the review to enjoy the book without spoilers, Leviathan Wakes has a rating of one gerfunkle.)

One piece of helpful advice on writing I’ve received pertains to forming an ‘anchor character.’ Someone you can sincerely relate to as a reader. Somebody you can latch onto, feel a world through, and relate to. As long as you anchor a reader firmly enough, they’ll still have somewhere to land, a sticking point to make things more believable – no matter how weird shit gets.

Which is all a very long-winded way of describing how I felt about Miller.

We know Miller. We’ve met Miller before. He’s our down and out detective, our grizzled, jaded man who’s seen it all and gotten tired of it. His job consumed him so much he got a divorce. The untreated stresses of what he’s seen behind the barrel of a gun have driven him to alcoholism. He knows the world is shit, but that little kernel of wanting to make it better is still somewhere inside of him, kicking around his ribs like a heartbeat trying not to die. Is he a cliché? Yeah, he is. He’s a trope. But damn does he work, and the popularity of this formula is like a really good recipe.

We can enjoy the weirdness of the protomolecule through Miller’s eyes. We never meet Julie Mao except in the very first chapter, and yet we learn so many important things about her through Miller that I wouldn’t even count her as a fridge character. James S. A. Corey cleverly conveys the kind of person she was through our stalwart detective: a young woman born into so much privilege, yet recognizing the horrible disparity in the solar system and breaking away from that birthright to help those less fortunate than she. In turn, Miller pursues Julie because to him, she’s an anomaly. By rights, she should be spoiled. Entitled. In spite of that, she threw in all her weight somewhere she thought would do some good. And if she can do that, maybe he can keep the kernel beating a little longer.

I found the ending between Miller and Julie to be heart-wrenching in the best of ways. We see how much of a broken man he is, but we follow him through what feels like his personal story of redemption. And we get to finally see Julie’s own strength, powerful enough to steer the alien monstrosity of Eros away from Earth and towards dead Venus.

Characterization in this book was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. It’s a 5/5 stars for me.

There’s a lot of great worldbuilding ideas in this story. All in all, the way that humanity has begun to ‘other’ one another feels all too real. Frighteningly so. The elongation of the belter’s bones, the establishment of entire new languages – all of these details just added so much to defining the world itself. I admit that first conversation Miller had with a witness completely threw me off – I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what she was saying, (long arm what now?) but that was clearly intentional. It’s classic low-fi building blocks, and it’s done flawlessly. In particular, I loved the hints of cultural mixing: the music, the people, even everyone’s last names. In my view, science fiction should be inherently diverse. It makes no sense to me otherwise.

Worldbuilding is another solid 5/5.

As for the plot: like Miller, there’s a lot about it that feels familiar, especially if you love science fiction. An evil corporation makes decisions that effect countless people, mostly for personal gain. This story does raise some really interesting questions, though, about coming into contact with an advanced alien race. Even just seeing its technology has to make us question everything, and within the context of the story, the technology found is billions of years old. When confronting the scientist that ran the horrible experiment on Eros, he points out that compared to humanity, these beings are essentially gods. If they chose to end us, they could do it without a thought.

If you’re a sci-fi geek like I am, you probably got just as giddy as I did during this scene. Because it’s true. On the grand scale, we better f***ing hope we’re forerunners. Because if we’re late to the game of sentience and space travel, people, we’re completely and utterly screwed.

Plot, you guessed it, is another 5/5.

Finally, here’s a great one. Guess what?

This book has a rating of one gerfunkle. (If you don’t know what a gerfunkle is, you can find that information here:

This shocked me. It’s so rare that I read a novel in this genre which doesn’t contain themes like this, but Leviathan Wakes has none.

You can read and enjoy this five-star book completely at your leisure.

I sincerely hope that you do.