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The Book Club Catches 'The Andromeda Strain'


It's that time again, the SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club. Regulars are gathered here. With me are Flora Lichtman, correspondent and managing editor of video for SCIENCE FRIDAY, Annette Heist, our senior producer. And this month, we had a page-turner, "The Andromeda Strain."


FLATOW: It goes very quickly, that book, doesn't it? Poof.

LICHTMAN: It did. I was thinking of 300 and something-odd pages, but I, you know, in one sitting, was halfway through. I couldn't put it down.

ANNETTE HEIST, BYLINE: It was hard to put down, and it's by Michael Crichton, we should say, also known for "Jurassic Park" and for you younger-ish folks, "ER."


LICHTMAN: Oh, yeah. I didn't know that about - I learned that via Wikipedia this morning.

FLATOW: She said you younger folks.

HEIST: Younger-ish.


FLATOW: Well, OK. Let's go - let's get right to the meat of it. Flora, what did you think of the book?

LICHTMAN: I am a sci-fi convert after the book.

FLATOW: Oh, so you don't usually read sci-fi.

LICHTMAN: No, I don't. I think I was either being snooty or because we cover the nonfiction, and so I'm thinking like, oh, you know, what does sci-fi, you know, bring to the table for me since I get to hear about science all the time on our wonderful program? And what I learned was that it's so much more exciting when you fictionalize it. I mean...

FLATOW: You don't have to worry about the accuracy.

LICHTMAN: Absolutely not.

FLATOW: Details, details.

LICHTMAN: It was like - I love fiction, and it was fiction, but with all my favorite characters. You know, we had the labs that I heard about in my daily life and the topics that we cover, but applied to this sort of fantastical world, which I enjoyed it.

HEIST: And while it is fiction, there's a lot of fact in here, and I liked that part of it. I felt like it could be true. I think that's what made it...


HEIST: ...so compelling for me. I was turning pages quickly.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, it was written like that. It really was true. That was the...


FLATOW: He didn't say - you know, start off with the preface or whatever. The preface was right into the book, and you thought...

HEIST: Here's what happened.

FLATOW: ...here's what happened. You thought he was starting right from the...

HEIST: And he has a references section in the back that looked like real scientific papers. I Googled a bunch of those. They - they're - they - the format is exactly right, but the papers aren't real, at least not the ones that I checked. I'm still not convinced. I might have to go through...

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. If you've read Michael Crichton's book, "The Andromeda Strain," you want to talk about it, it's our Book Club pick this week. 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri.

And now I'll chime in. I really liked the stuff, the way he taught science. He taught simple every-day facts that, you know, in a matter of sentences, you learned about proteins, how proteins folded and enzymes. It was beautifully written.

HEIST: And that all life forms that we're familiar with have amino acids.

FLATOW: Right.

HEIST: I liked that part of the book too. And he was setting us up for what comes later when they finally analyze the Andromeda Strain and the data comes out of the mass spectrometer, and you're the scientist. You're looking at just the raw data, and you're, uh-oh, something's wrong here.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is the SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

LICHTMAN: What about the ending? Can we talk about this, or is this a spoiler alert?

FLATOW: No. No. It's an old book.


LICHTMAN: Yeah. That's true enough. I was disappointed with the ending.

FLATOW: Yeah. I was too.

LICHTMAN: It fizzled out.

FLATOW: I thought it was a cop-out ending.

HEIST: Yeah. I - well, I sort of liked the ending. I'm going to be alone in this, I think, here. But, Ira, I sent you the review from The New York Times. This is from 1969, so can I just share the...


HEIST: ...end of this review? You said you liked it.

FLATOW: Sure. I said it was right. Spot-on, as they say.

HEIST: Here's the writer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and these are his words: So curse you, Michael Crichton. You led me on with a beautiful dud - a chocolate eclair filled with shaving cream. You with your gibbering, squeaking computers, you stole a night's sleep from me with a fast shuffle. If you don't do better next time, I'll mutate you.

FLATOW: Which is what happened to the germ in the book.


FLATOW: It mutated.

LICHTMAN: The Andromeda Strain mutated.

FLATOW: The strain just mutated and that's it.

HEIST: That's it, the end.

FLATOW: All this setup, all the drama, all the other stuff, all the possibilities and, well, we'll just have it mutate and it'll - the danger will be over.

LICHTMAN: That's right. It didn't actually have to get solved.

FLATOW: We don't need - yeah, that's right. You don't need a hero. We set them up all for the book. We set up this huge research lab.

HEIST: Well, wait. There was a hero. Dr. Hall was a hero. He saved the lab from a nuclear explosion.

LICHTMAN: But from - by brawns, not brains.

FLATOW: Well, he saved it after they set it off to self-destruct. But that aside, there are a lot of - a lot of novels have bad endings.

HEIST: Yeah. I still liked it.

FLATOW: You still - I would still recommend people to read it.

HEIST: Yes. Me too. It was the book I was looking for after our - a couple of books that we had done where there was no real narrative to follow. This was good, I thought.


FLATOW: It was - it - and you could read this - you know, you don't want to put it - it is one of these things you don't want to put down, and it reads very quickly. And I skipped through parts of what I call some of the details about building a laboratory, which I didn't care to hear. I wanted to hear the plot, you know? No, look at that.

Well, what's cute about it, how some of the dated part of the books are cute to read. The computer printout, they're still, you know, pictures written with stars like they used to in the...

HEIST: Like the dot matrix...

FLATOW: The dot matrix.

HEIST: ...and I guess before the dot matrix printer.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. No. And there was this vision of the future that was kind of Jetsonian. So this lab is this futuristic kind of lab, but, you know, people are eating pills and only drinking vitamin juices. Of course there's vitamin water, but, you know, it absolutely follows this model of how people think the future is going to be.

HEIST: And some of it came true, right? He has the method of identifying the people who are allowed into the lab by putting your hand, letting your palm be read, like a biometric type of scanner to ID people.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me get a quick call in from Terry(ph) in Brewster Town, Tennessee. Hi, Terry.

TERRY: Hello, Ira and you guests. Actually, there has been at least two copies, two printings of "The Andromeda Strain" where the foreword, Michael Crichton is explaining that the government contracted him to write that book about an actual incident.

FLATOW: Is that right? Yeah. I think that's the copy we have.

LICHTMAN: That's in this one, yeah. I love that because I read that at the end and thought oh, my God, did I miss something? Did this really happen? For a moment I really - I believed it. it's convincing.

FLATOW: Tell you what, what did you think of the book?

TERRY: I thought it was great when I first read it. It was - it is definitely a page turner and when you think about that technology that was available during World Ward II that we only found out about 20 to 60 years afterwards. I think, it could done - definitely do that/

FLATOW: All right. thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255 - forget it.


FLATOW: We'll - rushing to get the credits. We want to hear from you if you've read the book, you know, "The Andromeda Strain" by Michael Crichton. You can phone us at 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @SCIFRI - S-C-I-F-R-I. And when we come back, Richard Preston, author of "The Hot Zone" is all working on Crichton's unfinished book. So we'll talk about it after the break. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about "The Andromeda Strain," our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club pick this month. Here with me are Flora Lichtman, our correspondent and managing editor for video, senior producer Annette Heist. Joining us now to talk more about the book is Richard Preston. He is the author of "The Hot Zone." He also wrote "Micro," the book Michael Crichton was working on when he died and finished it up. It's an interesting story. It's now on paper back?


FLATOW: Richard, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.


FLATOW: How did you - how were you able to finish this book up for Michael?

LICHTMAN: Well, they brought me in when Michael passed away very suddenly. He was working on "Micro" at White Heat. And when I saw the manuscript, I was inspired. I thought, you know, somebody has got to finish this book. And I thought I had an idea where he was going with it. So I wrote up a little proposal and sent it to his widow, Sherri Crichton, and she liked it. So it went from there.

FLATOW: So let's get back to the book at hand, "The Andromeda Strain." What are your thoughts on that book?

PRESTON: Well, I think it's one of the best science fiction novels that's ever been written. It certainly turned me on when I was a 15-year-old, I read it for the first time. And I was so entranced by it that I faked illness to stay home from school in hope to finish it.

FLATOW: You can say you have "The Andromeda Strain."

PRESTON: No, I couldn't really make my blood clot up around my body.


PRESTON: But I had a really good fake cough.

FLATOW: Well, it didn't heat up the thermometer in the light bulb trick that did work that way. No.

What I discovered in actually trying to do a Michael Crichton novel is I discovered quite a lot about his research technique which I'm sure he used for "The Andromeda Strain." He was a veracious reader and he tended to read very highly technical scientific stuff, and you can see in "The Andromeda Strain" where he's been delving deeply into material that the public really didn't have any idea about. And for example, he obviously had read and knew a lot about the Army laboratories in Fort Detrick, Maryland, where the researchers, even back then in 1969, were working with space suits and dealing with extremely dangerous organisms. Back then, they had been working on biological weapons.


PRESTON: Really nasty stuff. Michael knew quite a lot about hits and he knew that the labs are divided into these levels, levels one through four. So for his fictional Andromeda Strain, he went one farther. He went to level five, of course. And..


PRESTON: And - but, you know, after hanging out in these labs and writing about them in a non-fiction way for "The Hot Zone," I could see exactly what he had learned. But what he did was he turned it into a - just a dynamic page turner, a real thriller. And it purports to be an after-action report. This is what the government does when there's a secret, classified action and they write up a classified report.

FLATOW: Right.

PRESTON: And he has himself as being the writer of it. So - and it's just filled with truly logical and factual material and all of these little details about how science works. In fact, I brought a little show-and-tell for you. I guess we have to tell, because we can't show. But.


PRESTON: Which was -this is a sample of Ebola virus here. Now, it's been completely sterilized.

FLATOW: Of course.

PRESTON: Here, I'll let you hold it.


PRESTON: No, no thanks? Anyway, what it is it's - let me describe it. It's a little small cylinder of transparent plastic, it's about the size of a peanut and it's honed down to sort of chiseled point. And right on the point, there is a black dot about the size of a poppy seed, and it's a sample of monkey liver. Now, as I said, it's been completely sterilized. The monkey liver was infected with Ebola Zaire virus originally, the hottest of the strains of Ebola - 90 percent fatality rate in humans.

Now, this little object that I'm describing is used to prepare a sample for an electron microscope which can magnify a virus particle, you know, 20,000 times or more till it looks like the size of a golf ball. And now, in "The Andromeda Strain," Crichton describes this object exactly. So you knew he had seen it but he gives it this wonderful thriller twist. Instead of the virus sample being this little black dot of tissue, he's got a glowing green which is cinematic.

LICHTMAN: It's amazing that you brought that, Richard, because I thought this was actually one of the most telling parts of the book, of how skilled Michael Crichton is at describing science. Because I was reading it enraptured with the process of preparing a sample for an electron-scanning microscope, that's incredible. I mean, that can be very dull very easily and he did make it so visual and the picture that I had in my mind really was pretty similar to now what I see it is. It's pretty cool.

FLATOW: He's very talented at that, you know, and all through the book, in just a few words, a few sentences, he can describe something that you might think I need to study biology or something for.

PRESTON: Yeah. And he has a wonderfully visual imagination, and that's what propels his language into these descriptions that you can just see in your mind's eye, you know, his description of the Wildfire Laboratory at Flatrock, Nevada where you go down underground and there are these different levels. The other thing that I thought was striking about "The Andromeda Strain," which actually adds to its realism, now, is the curiously anachronistic computer printouts that you see.



FLATOW: I love it.

PRESTON: This is state of the art in 1969, right, when computers would spit out these reams of paper with these little X's all over them.

HEIST: He goes into some detail about how computers work, too, that we don't really need to know now. When you read it, it's sort of like, yeah, we know that more than one person could enter data.

FLATOW: But you know...


FLATOW: What's also fascinating as always is the story itself, the story is the thing, and the unique ideas about trying to decide - this was one of the most fascinating things to me - the plot, where this Andromeda strain could have originated. And he says, you know, you might think it could come from outer space, like we, you know, something foreign. This one actually came from the Earth.

I mean, this is fascinating, you know, that the Earth somewhere maybe thousands, millions of years ago, a strain of bacteria got kicked up into the atmosphere, lived up there for a while, stayed up there, mutated, and came back and attacked us again. And sure enough this week, we saw a research that sort of talks about this not as Andromeda strain, but as a possibility for evolution.

HEIST: Of bacteria being up in the cloud.


HEIST: Kicked up from Earth, right?

PRESTON: Yeah. And nowadays, of course, we're finding out that bacteria have this amazing ability to live in environments that we would have assumed are completely hostile to bacteria. Michael, I think, was tapped into the zeitgeist at the time, at least in advanced science circles, where already, scientists were beginning to talk about the possibility of new and emerging infectious diseases that could enter the human population and sweep through it.

In particular, there was Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel-winning bacteriologist, who I'm pretty sure Michael had read, and maybe even have known him personally. But Joshua, in about 1966, predicted that bacteria would evolve resistance to antibiotics and that he thought that a new virus would be likely to come along out of the natural ecosystems of the world. And he predicted that it would be a sexually transmitted virus and it would be highly lethal. That was a prediction of the HIV virus decades before it occurred.

FLATOW: What did strike me in reading the book, because I'm a great fan of "War of the Worlds," both of radio play, the movie everything that followed, is that there is a similarity here about what killed it, you know, is that something strange on Earth itself that it was not ready for, you know? It - we didn't have to worry about killing it, in "War of the Worlds." It was at the common cold or something that killed the aliens.

PRESTON: Yeah. Well, Michael Crichton had a - he faced a narrative problem here in "The Andromeda Strain," which I've heard filmmakers in Hollywood when they're doing a great virus movie - you know, a panic in the streets, virus movie - they call it the problem with the third act.


PRESTON: If you have this lethal thing that is sweeping through the human population and people are dropping like flies in the streets, how do you stop it? You know, you drop a nuclear bomb on it, what do you do? And I think Crichton neatly sidestepped that problem by - I don't want to give too much of a spoiler away, but let's just say that...

You could spoil it if you'd like. It's an old book.

Yeah, probably, that's true. It's been around for a while. The virus, let's just say that it has its own agenda.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.


PRESTON: And that actually is - what has happened in real outbreaks where, for example, the Ebola virus in Washington, which turned out not to be that much of a threat, it just - it didn't go away because people fought it to a standstill. It went away because it wasn't able to reproduce really successfully in humans.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

HEIST: You said you read this book when you were 15. Did it have any influence on you wanting to be a writer?

PRESTON: No, because anybody who told me I was going to be writer when I was 15 I would have disbelieved it. But I think in retrospect, it certainly did because when I turned to non-fiction writing, the story of an Ebola outbreak, when I heard it, Army soldiers had been involved in it. And they were wearing spacesuits at the time, and people were white-knuckle scared. My immediate reaction was that sounds like "The Andromeda Strain."

FLATOW: Right.

PRESTON: And, in fact, I was - at that time, was interviewing Joshua Lederberg, the virus expert, the bacteriologist who - I was asking him about emerging diseases, and he told me about this outbreak of Ebola. And I said, wow, I didn't, you know, I never heard of that. That sounds like "The Andromeda Strain" by Michael Crichton. How can I learn more? And he said, well, I really don't know. I guess you'd have to call the Army.

FLATOW: Can you see hints of future novels to come in the way his mind is working from this book, what kind of subject material he would tackle later on?

PRESTON: Yes. I think Michael Crichton - one of the things that fascinated him was the distance scale in nature...

FLATOW: Yeah, Yeah.

PRESTON: ...and how organisms and - organisms run through an enormous range of sizes and that most living things are really a whole lot smaller than we are. Human beings are really actually on the very outer end of size of life. And so, you know, he had, you know, had thrillers about nanotechnology, really small things. And then "Micro," his last book, was about the insect world.

FLATOW: Right. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Ray in Washington. Hi, Ray.

RAY: Hey. How you doing?

FLATOW: Hey there.

RAY: I have to say that while agree with you about the ending, I didn't find the science compelling in the book. The best example that I can see is the ending, where all of the bugs mutate in the same way simultaneously. Evolution simply doesn't work that way. And I think that Crichton fundamentally is anti-science. He's a technophobe. And you can kind of see that in "The Andromeda Strain." But later when he does into full-blown climate change denialism(ph), you know, that you can really see that. And I'm wondering if any one else pickED up on that. I'll take my answer off the air.

FLATOW: OK. Ray, thanks for calling. Interesting point, Richard.

PRESTON: Well, I think that Michael Crichton had a very - not a very sanguine view of human ability to control or even understand nature. I think he was obsessed with technology. He lovede to write about it - it has great narrative potential. But you always - in his books, like in "Jurassic Park," you know, you find that when human beings try to manipulate and control nature, nature has a way of refusing to be controlled, and nature has its own goals, its own purposes, and we - sometimes it blows up in our faces.

FLATOW: Nature will find a way.

PRESTON: Nature will find a way as in "Jurassic Park."


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I've used that reference so many times over the years.


FLATOW: It was great. And is there anything else you like to add about the book? Or would you say that when - somebody at certain might like it more than anyone else or...

LICHTMAN: I've - I think this is good for all ages. But back to the caller's point about whether there's sort of an anti-science, I think that's an interesting question. One thing that I noticed - and I wonder if anyone else had this impression too - that the scientists aren't real heroes in this book.

And the underdog of this book is a doctor, a surgeon, who sort of gets, you know, cast aside by the scientist, who think that he is not useful at all, and then in the end, he's the one who saves everybody's life by climbing through, like a hatch in the ceiling and withstanding poison gas and darts and things like that. So I had sort of a sense that he may have a complicated relationship with the scientific community. But I wonder if you know more about that, Richard.

PRESTON: Well, I think he certainly did. I think he saw human beings as being very frail and weak, and he included scientists in that category. And in many of his books, the scientists can be - some of them can be exceedingly unpleasant people. They can even be evil protagonists. But, you know, the five scientists, who are the protagonist of "The Andromeda Strain," they all have their weakness and they are described in not very attractive terms. We don't really have, you know, a hardcore grade A hero in "The Andromeda Strain."

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It's not like "Contagion," which has definite heroes.

PRESTON: Correct.

FLATOW: Yeah. Right.

PRESTON: That's exactly right. Yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to Curtis(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, Curtis.

CURTIS: Hi. How are you today?

FLATOW: Hi there.

CURTIS: Hey. I'm referring to a comment that you talked about earlier, about how you're disappointed with the ending "Andromeda Strain." And I'm not sure how familiar with Michael Crichton's works, but it's a recurring theme throughout his books. I mean, if you look at "Jurassic Park," they abandoned the island. They don't give the dinosaurs, the chemical that they're genetically programmed not to produce, and they're just going to let all the dinosaurs die off.

And the end of "Sphere," everybody uses the sphere to wish like the sphere never existed. History goes back to the way it was before the story started. If you look at "Congo," there are huge - a volcano erupts, covers up the mine. Lost once again. It's a recurring dream theme throughout all his works, and he takes history, you know, they're all (unintelligible). He creates his bubble that he inserts the story into. And at the end of the story, he closes the bubble and the world, as we know it, goes back to the way it us.

FLATOW: Good comment, Curtis.


PRESTON: Awesome. Great comment.

FLATOW: Thank - we'll we have...


FLATOW: You must really - do you like Crichton - is there someone like him, another author?

CURTIS: I just like a lot of science fiction and I started reading all these stories, I'm like, well, that was just like this other story that I read. And I started looking up who wrote them, and they were all by Michael Crichton. This guy is cowered. He's unable to change the world as we know it.


FLATOW: Who do you like - who is your favorite science fiction writer?

CURTIS: Isaac Asimov. And but - and here is the deal. Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury stand side by side. Isaac Asimov has more pure science and futuristic, you know, insight into his stories. And Ray Bradbury just has that personal feel with the bit of horror and a bit of macabre in his stories that gives it the, you know, a real biting, page-turning effect, whereas, Isaac Asimov is more - I can see that happening in 10 years or five years, or already we've seen that happen type of thing.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for that great insight. Have a good weekend.

CURTIS: You too. Thank you.

FLATOW: I want to thank you for joining us today. Thanks for taking time to be with us today. Richard Preston is author of "The Hot Zone." He's also - he wrote "Micro," the book that Michael Crichton was working on when he died. It's out there in paperback now?

PRESTON: It's out in paperback.

FLATOW: Out in paperback. Thank you for joining. Let's...

PRESTON: Thank you.

FLATOW: But before we say goodbye to our Book Club, what's our next book?

LICHTMAN: Next month's book is "Gorillas in the Mist," Dian Fossey. And we'll be talking about that on February 22nd. So get your copies, start reading and call in with great comments like our caller did, please. And we'll meet you back here.

FLATOW: Meet you back here in a month.


FLATOW: Flora Lichtman, correspondent and managing editor of video for SCIENCE FRIDAY. Annette Heist our senior producer.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: And happy reading.

LICHTMAN: You too.


FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.