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The Andromeda Strain (1969)

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The Andromeda Strain
Date: 2012
Source: Wikipedia

The Andromeda Strain (1969), by Michael Crichton, is a techno-thriller novel documenting the efforts of a team of scientists investigating a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism that rapidly and fatally clots human blood, while in other people inducing insanity. The Andromeda Strain appeared in the The New York Times Best Seller list, establishing Michael Crichton as a genre writer.

Plot Summary

When a military satellite returns to Earth, a recovery team is dispatched to retrieve it; during a live radio communication with their base, the team members suddenly die. Aerial surveillance reveals that everyone in Piedmont, Arizona, the town closest to where the satellite landed, is apparently dead. The base commander suspects the satellite returned with an extraterrestrial organism and recommends activating Wildfire, the government-sponsored team that counters extraterrestrial biological infestation.

The Wildfire scientific team studying the unknown strain is composed of Dr. Jeremy Stone, bacteriologist specialist; Dr. Peter Leavitt, disease pathology; Dr. Charles Burton, infection vectors specialist; and Dr. Mark Hall, M.D., surgeon, biochemistry and pH specialist. Hall is the "odd man", since he is the only one without a spouse. The Robertson Odd Man Hypothesis[1] states that unmarried men are capable of carrying out the best, most dispassionate decisions during crises and he is given the only key that can disarm the self-destruct mechanism. A fifth scientist, Dr. Christian Kirke, electrolytes specialist, was unavailable for duty because of appendicitis.

The scientists believe the satellite, which was actually designed to capture upper-atmosphere microorganisms for bio-weapon exploitation, returned with a deadly microorganism that kills by nearly instantaneous disseminated intravascular coagulation (lethal blood clotting). Upon investigating the town, the Wildfire team discovers that the residents either died in mid-stride or went "quietly nuts" and committed bizarre suicides. Two Piedmont inhabitants, the sick, Sterno-addicted, geriatric Peter Jackson; and the constantly bawling infant, Jamie Ritter, are biologic opposites who somehow survived the organism.

The man, infant, and satellite are taken to the secret underground Wildfire laboratory, a secure facility equipped with every known capacity for protection against a biological element escaping into the atmosphere, including a nuclear weapon to incinerate the facility if necessary. Wildfire is hidden in a remote area near the fictional town of Flatrock, Nevada, sixty miles from Las Vegas using a sort of purloined letter approach, by locating it in the sub-basements of a legitimate Department of Agriculture research station.

Further investigation determines that the bizarre deaths were caused by a crystal-structured, extraterrestrial microbe on a meteor that crashed into the satellite, knocking it from orbit. The microbe contains chemical elements required for terrestrial life and appears to have a crystalline structure, but lacks DNA, RNA, proteins, and amino acids, yet it directly transforms matter to energy and vice versa.

The microbe, code named "Andromeda", mutates with each growth cycle, changing its biologic properties. The scientists learn that Andromeda grows only within a narrow pH range; in a too-acid or too-basic growth medium, it will not multiply — Andromeda's pH range is 7.39–7.43, like that of human blood. That is why Jackson and Ritter survived: both had abnormal blood pH. However, by the time the scientists realize that, Andromeda's current mutation degrades the plastic shield and escapes its containment. Trapped in an Andromeda-contaminated laboratory, Dr. Burton demands that Stone inject him with Kalocin ("the universal antibiotic"); Stone refuses, arguing it would render Burton too vulnerable to infection by other harmful bacteria. Burton survives because Andromeda has already mutated to nonlethal form.

The mutated Andromeda attacks the neoprene door and hatch seals within the Wildfire complex, racing to the upper levels and the surface. The self-destruct atomic bomb is automatically armed when it detects a containment breach, triggering its detonation countdown to incinerate all exo-biological diseases. As the bomb arms, the scientists realize that given Andromeda's ability to generate matter directly from energy, the organism would feed, reproduce, and ultimately benefit from an atomic explosion.

To halt the atomic detonation, Dr. Hall must insert his special key to an emergency substation anywhere in Wildfire. Unfortunately, he is trapped in an unfinished section with no substation. He must navigate Wildfire's obstacle course of automatic defenses to reach a working substation on an upper level. He barely disarms the bomb in time. Andromeda eventually mutates to a benign form and is suspected to have migrated to the upper atmosphere, where the oxygen content is lower, better suiting Andromeda's growth.

The novel's epilogue reveals that a manned spacecraft, Andros V, was incinerated during atmospheric re-entry, presumably because Andromeda Strain ate the plastic heat shield of Andros V and caused it to burn up.

Odd-Man Hypothesis

The "Odd-Man Hypothesis" is a fictional hypothesis articulated in the novel's story and named in the film. In the novel, the Odd-Man explanation is a page in a RAND Corporation report of the results of test series wherein different people (married, unmarried men and women) were to make command decisions in nuclear and biological wars and chemical crises. This is in the film:

Results of testing confirm the Odd-Man Hypothesis, that an unmarried male should carry out command decisions involving thermonuclear destruct contexts.

The Odd-Man Hypothesis states that unmarried men are better able to execute the best, most dispassionate decisions in crises—in this case, to disarm the nuclear weapon intended to prevent the escape of organisms from the laboratory in the event the auto-destruct sequence is initiated.

Statistics follow, Group: Index of Effectiveness: 0.343 for married men, 0.824 for single, male scientists, et cetera; then each scientist's command decision effectiveness index: Stone 0.687, Burton 0.543, Kirke 0.614, Leavitt 0.601, and Hall 0.899; thus, Dr. Hall is given the key to halt the Wildfire Laboratory's automated self-destruction, should it become necessary. Moreover, considering Hall's knowledge of electrolytes (a field in which Kirke also specializes), Leavitt admits that the Odd-Man Hypothesis is essentially why Hall was drafted to the Wildfire team.

In the book, Stone admits the Odd-Man Hypothesis was essentially a complicated work of fiction created to justify handing over a nuclear weapon to private individuals (the Wildfire team).

In both book and film, Hall is briefed on the Hypothesis after his arrival at Wildfire. In the film, he is criticized for failure to read the material ahead of time, while in the book, his copy of the briefing materials has the Hypothesis pages removed.

This fabrication of scientific documentation (numbers, charts, etc.) is part of the false document literary technique (Wikipedia, 2012).