Strain to SEE

When I'm in the right mood, I'm a sucker for really awful sci-fi movies. For example, Saturday night I stayed up far too late to watch the end of the tv-movie version of The Andromeda Strain, based on the book by the prolific and recently deceased Luddite Fiction writer Michael Crichton. It's been twenty-plus years since I read the book, but I recall it being a whole lot better than this piece of garbage.

Crichton's original novel about a crack research team dealing with a disease of alien origin is remarkable for being somewhat understated. The action focusses on the scientists attempting to find a way to fight the disease, and the ultra-high-tech research facility where they're working. The origin of the disease is never really spelled out, and there's relatively little detail about what's going on outside the facility.

The tv movie, on the other hand, adds a sub-X-files conspiracy-theory subplot whose daftness is exceeded only by the lengthy discussions of the origin of the plague. It appears that it was sent from the future, via a wormhole in orbit. They know this because it arrives packaged in "buckyballs," which the token Asian team member explains are:

1) Named after their inventor, Buckminster Fuller

2) An advanced form of nanotechnology,

3) Beyond our ability to create,

4) Octahedral in shape,

5) Consisting of 60 carbon atoms.

That's an impressive piece of work (20% sucks even in baseball), considering that all of these mistakes could've been avoided by looking at Wikipedia.

This televisual turd is a wonderful demonstration of the need for the new initiative that Jennifer Ouellette is heading up, the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program backed by the National Academy of Sciences that aims to improve communication between the scientific community and people in the entertainment industry who would like to do a better job portraying science and scientific activity.

What does the Exchange offer?

Spanning the range of science topics, The Exchange can find experts that will work with you to identify and effectively portray the science details that complement a storyline. We can help flesh out ideas that depend upon accurate details relating to insects, extraterrestrial life, unusual Earth-based life forms, or the mysteries of oceans. We can refine concepts relating to emerging science concepts in areas such as space travel, multiple dimensions, nanotechnology, computer technology, and engineering. We can find experts in environmental and ecological issues, health, medicine, and disease, and U.S. educational practices. We are also well positioned to work with you on public policy issues that relate to science such as stem cell research, global climate change, and teaching about evolution and the nature of science.

Basically, the idea is to put writers and producers in touch with scientists who can answer questions, and work with them to refine their ideas so as to produce plots that are dramatically satisfying without insulting the viewer's intelligence. It's a great idea, and I hope Hollywood takes advantage of it.

(There are probably benefits to be gained from collaboration in the other direction, as well. A lot of scientists and science policy groups could do with a few pointers in how to appeal to a mass audience.)

This comes too late for the people behind the tv-movie Andromeda Strain, but it's not likely they would've made use of it, anyway. After all, if they wanted to make a non-stupid book about scientists investigating an alien disease, all they needed to do was stick to Crichton's book.

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Crichton's book had its own problems--if I recall correctly, it's stated that the organisms grow by somehow converting radiant energy to matter (which is why the self-destruct nuke in the facility would be a Very Bad Thing), and he doesn't seem to understand how mutation works either. What was great about it was the way it used a quasi-scientific style to maintain suspension of disbelief in the face of all this. It was a trick that Crichton retained for most of his career, though he eventually starting using it for shady purposes.

It's been twenty-plus years since I read the book, but I recall it being a whole lot better than this piece of garbage.

Which is unfortunately one of the only things it's better than.

As noted above, the science utterly sucks. Bad enough in itself, worse when you consider that Crichton was an MD and thus had no excuse for such tripe.

As literature, it's my favorite bad example of what happens when an author hits the page limit agreed in his contract. Crichton had a nail-biter running up to the absolute last page, then pulled one of the worst deus ex machina endings out of a bodily orifice by having every single one of the microorganisms suddenly and conveniently mutate together into something relatively harmless.

Give me a freaking break. Talk about leaving the suckers who paid for a copy with the literary equivalent of blue balls ...

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 16 Nov 2008 #permalink

Not surprising that the book was better than the movie; that seems to be the usual case. But the book still leaves much to be desired, as other commenters have said. Like D. C. Sessions, I was highly dissatisfied with the ending. Also, given that in more than one of his later novels I caught him overstating his case on a topic I knew something about, I can't trust that he got this one anywhere close to right.

The Andromeda Strain wasn't nearly as atrocious as Crichton's later novels, but it was bad enough that I gave away my only copy. I seldom give away books that aren't duplicates.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Nov 2008 #permalink

As noted above, the science utterly sucks. Bad enough in itself, worse when you consider that Crichton was an MD and thus had no excuse for such tripe.

Considering the sheer volume of quack and crank doctors out there, it seems clear that having an MD is no guarantor of being good at science. Deepak Chopra got his MD from Harvard, fercryinoutloud.

Dave @6:

Robin Cook is an MD also and he's hurt my head the few times I've read him.

Chad, I am rather sure that Crichton was not a Luddite but more really a fanatical anti-Luddite. Crichton despised environmentalism and opposition to advanced technology such as nuclear power. He believed in the libertarian idea of very "free" markets (not heeding the advice given in The Washington Monthly you quoted in "links for 2008-11-17.") Crichton more resembled Julian Simon than Ralph Nader, who isn't really a Luddite anyway but plays one in the propaganda of the Lumo-style Right.

Libertarians also usually don't appreciate the government's role in the operation of the economy through money supply (like, the Fed playing with interest rates and causing all kinds of changes and problems for some people) and pretend falsely that the economy is "free" unless specifically meddled in through legal regulations.

Also, I don't think Deepack Chopra's quantum psychobabble is any worse than the hopeful, but IMHO ineffectual, sophistry put out in defense of the indefensible idea that "decoherence" can solve the quantum collapse problem.

(Re Chopra: re # 6 Dave W. Dave's comment reflects what seems to be the consensus of physicists on Chopra's ideas on the implications of QM. BTW does anyone know of cogent professional critics of Decoherence, other than that Roger Penrose is skeptical of it?)

The first half of the Andromeda Strain is rather impressive, the second half (where the explanations are given) is a dreadful rubbish. The finale is a real letdown - this is a typical flaw of most Crichton novels.

I suppose the TV version was five times worse because film/TV people have no idea about how science is done, and they have these ridiculous stereotypes about mad/evil scientists in their alchemy labs. It would cost them very little to rent out a real lab at some cash-starved university science department, and they would get plenty of good advice for free - a definitely cheaper solution than building some phoney lab in the studios.

I think the last decent science thriller from Crichton where the science did not get butchered was Binary (he wrote it under John Lange pseudonyme). In fact Binary was so convincing that in USSR some military people thought that US posessed binary chemical weapons far more powerful than VX-agents. They argued more research was needed for the East Bloc to match this advance in chemical weaponry. Unfortunately Russiand did find much nastier nerve agents in this re-newed research, they named the Novichok.