From science to fiction and back: reflecting on Andromeda strain scenarios

Science fiction has drawn heavily from advances (or anticipated advances), promises and pitfalls of science. Writers keep creating possible future worlds and, in describing their make-up, often cover aspects involving health issues which pervade the core of human society. Science fiction’s imaginary worlds almost always take into account the implications of technological development, which can have a great impact on health. In many ways, science fiction stories have anticipated several possible developments in public health and their implications. Author, as well as director and screenwriter, Michael Crichton has served as one of the most eminent examples of how successful, influential and to-the-point science fiction can be.


Crichton was born in Chicago in 1942 and was educated at Harvard College and Medical School, but became a best-selling novelist with his work also spanning to cinema and television. Many of his novels, like his most notable Jurassic Park, heavily reflect his scientific background and meticulous research. Crichton was digging into science-in-the-making topics and was then writing his science fiction. Even personal experience from medical school has been his inspiration. For long periods of time he read only non-fiction and scientific journals. He was looking within the published articles for the what if that he could reincarnate into a book.


The Andromeda Strain


Perhaps the most notable and striking example of Crichton’s medical science fiction and the aforementioned relevant themes is The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, the story of the frightening possibilities of a biological emergency. While writing this novel, Crichton was following his clinical rotations at the Boston City Hospital. His frustration with the health care system but also his fascination with science, are apparently the inspiration for this book. Crichton built The Andromeda Strain around the awkward contours of seemingly real events. In the novel, a US governmental project has sent a number of satellites into space aiming to collect extraterrestrial microorganisms. It is revealed early though that the true aim of the project was to discover new biological weapons of war. When one of the satellites crashes on a tiny rural Arizona city and causes an epidemic that wipes out almost all of its population, four scientists that have designed a special government research establishment are called to the rescue. The team is compiled of: a Nobel laureate bacteriologist who is aware of the magnitude of US research into chemical and biological warfare; a leading clinical microbiologist; a pathologist with important research background on antibiotic-resistant microorganisms; and a surgeon who is single and takes responsibility for deciding on the potential atomic destruction of the facilities. During the next four days, these scientists face the experience of living in highly sterile facilities, collecting samples, examining the sole survivors (an older man and a baby that interestingly represent the end and beginning of life), and looking for answers while struggling to eliminate the chances of a widespread outbreak as political and greater scientific concepts come into play. The Andromeda strain is gradually revealed to be a crystal-structured extraterrestrial microbe that has the capacity to kill humans within moments through generalised blood clotting. Contamination in the lab triggers a countdown to automatic atomic destruction of the facilities with the surgeon rushing to turn it off with a few seconds left while he, together with the bacteriologist, had just figured the way to fight off the strain. In the end – consistent with the usual theme in Crichton that usual world order is restored – the Andromeda strain mutates to a nonlethal form and it turns out that an atomic explosion would have highly benefited its reproduction.


From Science to Fiction


The Andromeda Strain was written during the late 1960s, a time still dominated by the new understandings of genetics and the rise of antibiotics, the wonder drugs. During the previous decade the long anticipated biological and therapeutic revolution had eventually arrived, though it brought stricter safety requirements that slowed innovation, waning the enthusiasm. The next emerging fear was biological warfare with relevant articles appearing in the scientific literature in the early 2000s. Alluding to contemporary themes, the protagonists of the novel all represent 1960s’ scientific and cultural fears in a nutshell: the microbiologist, the bacteriologist who is knowledgeable about biological warfare projects, the pathologist working on atomic destruction, the single clinician – these could have been the leading topics on setting 1960s scientific and cultural contexts as a backdrop for the novel.


The decade saw information invade the homes (primarily through television) and upset the everyday life of common people. Popularisation of science in light of the groundbreaking developments in space travel brought about the concept of extraterrestrial invasion as opposed to the use of alien invasion as metaphor for the helplessness of humans in the face of ever evolving viruses. In this context, a great influenza outbreak that evolved into a pandemic broke out in 1968 in Hong Kong and resulted in significant mortality. Communication of the disease in the original outbreak setting was poor, setting the scene for another threatening spread of pandemic influenza. Scientists were beginning to talk about the possibility of new and emerging infectious diseases that could enter the human population with devastating effects. Joshua Lederberg in 1956 influentially discussed how bacteria could develop resistance to antibiotics and saw the potential for a new highly lethal virus evolving from the world’s natural ecosystems. Biological warfare was coming into play.


Michael Crichton, who tended to read very highly technical scientific papers, drew explicitly from these themes and more when writing The Andromeda Strain.


From Fiction to Science


Quite often the title or an extract of a successful novel may turn into a popular expression. The early science fiction novel Frankenstein is perhaps the most characteristic example. But it is not at all frequent for a popular novel to enter and establish itself into the consciousness of the world of scientific publications. The Andromeda Strain has managed to cross that great divide and, especially in the years following its first publication, caused a stir among scientific cycles, starting from 1971. In a 1972 Editorial (“Perspectives on Cancer”) in the journal Science News, an intriguing reference to Crichton’s book is made: “As might be expected, cancer virologists are not happy about regulations that stand in the way of making a human cancer virus… Apparently the threat Michael Crichton writes about in his novel, The Andromeda Strain – the chance of a virus leaking out of the laboratory and infecting the population – is always a possibility”. In his 1974 editorial in journal Bioscience, entitled “Andromeda strain?”, Dr Gairdner Moment wrote: “Further, alien genes from other species of bacteria and even viral DNA can now be grafted into a bacterium where it was not previously present. […] Clearly self-discipline by professional molecular geneticists is essential. To save ourselves we must impress upon everyone the world over not only the dangers of new and highly virulent strains of lethal bacteria but equally the dangers of both felt injustice and of rampant nationalism”. The early impact of the novel on the minds of scientists is also evident by Dan Donlan’s 1974 report in The English Journal that a group of science and mathematics teachers agreed to lead a discussion of Michael Crichton’s novel with the topic: Is ‘The Andromeda Strain’ science fiction, science fact, or science fantasy?.


Relevant intriguing scientific references during the 1970s followed the above. In an article published in 1977 in the American Scientist regarding recombinant DNA technology, the author mentioned: “Let us now turn to the specific problem of recombinant DNA. It is obviously easy to draw up unlimited hypothetical scenarios, and it is easy to magnify the problem by demanding assurance of absolute freedom from risk. But any realistic discussion must proceed in terms of probabilities, and for the Andromeda strain scenario we must distinguish three kinds: that experiments with a particular kind of DNA will produce a dangerous organism, that it will infect a laboratory worker, and that it will spread outside the laboratory”. Furthermore, in a 1979 paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr Karl Johnson discussed two recent mysterious Ebola epidemics in Sudan and Zaire, wondering whether these were “Andromeda strains or localised pathogens”.


A systematic search through the bibliographical databases of JSTOR, PubMed and Google Scholar reveals that there are no references to an Andromeda strain before the 1970s. Taking this fact into account along with the observation that the earliest articles that refer to that term cite Michael Crichton, it is reasonable to assume that it is a term introduced to scientific literature through Crichton’s book. Interestingly, a number of science fiction media productions in this decade, concerned with bio-invasion, used the word Andromeda in their title, notably “A for Andromeda” (BBC, 1961) and its sequel, “The Andromeda Breakthrough” (BBC, 1962). “A for Andromeda” had a tie-in novel and even a children’s version. It is highly likely that Michael Crichton was aware of these when he made use of the Andromeda concept, and introduced the Andromeda strain. Notably, as evident by the above examples, by mid-1970s scientists mention the Andromeda strain or Andromeda strain scenarios without even referring to Crichton anymore. This suggests that the readership of these scientific journals was by then quite familiar with the term and the notion perhaps even without having read the novel.


By referring to Andromeda strain scenarios in cases relevant to recombinant DNA, human cancer viruses and viral experiments, it is science that kept that lurking feeling of invasion that kept the book alive throughout the decades. The novel proved timeless as its plot harvested cultural meanings and fears of invasion, not just within the contemporary society but from historical memory of pandemics and the possibility of future bioterrorism. Ever since, the Andromeda strain scenarios is a rather common expression in scientific writing and popular press alike (McCormick, 1986; Ostermolm and MacDonald, 1995; Lau et al., 2002; Aguzzi and Rajendran, 2009) and stands as one of the most characteristic examples of fiction’s influence on science. Its contents remain strikingly contemporary. In fact, in a recent example, researchers from the Texas Biomedical Research Institute presented a study – co-funded by the Defence Threat Reduction Agency and National Institute of Health – on a means for detecting bioterror threats (Sherwood and Hayhurst, 2012). The annual report of the Institute called the method a response to an Andromeda Strain scenario.


Concluding Thoughts


Michael Crichton has been a keen reader of scientific work from which he drew his inspiration and ideas for new novels. The Andromeda strain came to be one of his most well-known and influential books. The emergence of previously unknown infectious diseases has been high on the medical and political agendas over the past 20 years. However, apart from capturing the interest of his readers, on this occasion he created a lasting and widely accepted scientific term. In fact, as an institution, science fiction has been unexpectedly reluctant to deal with matters medical, and when it has, it consistently displayed ambivalence and distrust, views worth examining if one is to understand how society at large conceives of medicine and how medicine must adapt if it is to enjoy the support of society at large. The novel’s plot is indeed deeply rich for harvesting cultural meanings in terms of fears of invasion, pandemics, illness, bacteria – scenarios that have been considered to be largely out of the control of science; yet the characters are struggling to dominate over them.


Michael Crichton himself was not drawn into a scientific career like his charactrs; instead he kept finding his literary inspiration in science. In turn, he eventually came to inspire science back. And  in his Andromeda Strain, he created an agonising race towards a rescue from an unknown invader; a rescue that is impeded by the immaturity of scientific knowledge, the conflicting social and political factors, and the limitations of human nature; all strikingly relevant in any modern case scenario.


Let us keep educating ourselves.




PS. Here are all the interesting references used to pull this piece together:

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