Throwback Thursday – The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Strain Cover.jpg

Publishers: Brilliance Audio (Audiobook Edition – 26 May 2015)

                        Knopf (12 May 1969)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 8 hours 15 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at a classic techno-thriller from legendary author Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain.

The Andromeda Strain was released nearly 50 years ago, in May 1969, and represented a bold new direction from Crichton, who had previously done several pulpy crime novels, such as Odds On and Scratch One, under the name John Lange, as well as the medical crime thriller A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name Jeffrey Hudson.  The Andromeda Strain was considered to be part of the new techno-thriller genre and is still considered to be a major example of this genre.

I have only read three of Crichton’s books before, including Jurassic Park (for obvious reasons), The Lost World and Pirate Latitudes.  While I have always intended to go back and read some more of Crichton’s works, I have never had the time to do so.  However, with the recent announcement that The Andromeda Evolution is being released in November to correspond with the 50-year anniversary of The Andromeda Strain, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to check out one of Crichton’s earlier books.  For that reason, I listened to the audiobook version of The Andromeda Strain narrated by David Morse.

When a military satellite comes down in the small town of Piedmont, Arizona, nearly all the residents in the town die.  They are victims of a mysterious new pathogen that either instantly clotted all the blood in their body or drove them to suicide.  The military quickly activate the Wildfire protocol, and a small government team of scientists and doctors take command of Piedmont and the satellite.

Believing that the satellite contains an extraterrestrial organism, the team bring it and the two survivors of Piedmont, an old man and a baby, to a secret and secure underground Wildfire laboratory for study.  Deep in the laboratory, the team attempt to identify and categorise the organism which has been given the codename Andromeda.  However, Andromeda is evolving a way no member of the Wildfire team believed possible, and not even the laboratory’s nuclear bomb safeguards may be enough to keep it contained.

After listening to The Andromeda Strain over a couple of days, I found it to be an extremely thrilling and complex novel that I really got into and which I am eager to review.  However, after 50 years and thousands of reviews I am not too sure how much I can really say about this book that has not already been said.  That being said, when looking at this book from a 2019 perspective, I feel that The Andromeda Strain is still an extremely strong techno-thriller, with some expert storytelling and an in-depth scientific base that is still relevant in this modern era.

In this book, Crichton utilised a very dry, detailed and scientific approach to his writing, slowly covering every aspect of the events unfolding before each of the protagonists, while also providing the reader with backstory on the characters and briefings on the various relevant scientific and political components of the book.  Despite this somewhat less exciting writing style, Crichton is still able to create quite a thrilling atmosphere throughout the book as the story gets closer to the inevitable disaster part of the plot.  Crichton really adds to the suspense by mentioning the various mistakes that the protagonist are making and hinting at all the problems going on around them that will eventually lead to the release of the Andromeda microbe.

I did feel that the book ended rather suddenly, and I was surprised that the investigation part of the story was still going with only a short amount of the book left to go.  I found it interesting that the part of the story that dealt with the release of Andromeda and the subsequent race to stop the nuclear explosion about to wipe out the lab was introduced so late in the book and solved so very quickly.  I was expecting a large portion of the story to focus on the main characters getting past all of the impressive contamination protocols in order to stop the nuclear explosion.  Instead, this was all solved within about 10 minutes of audiobook narration, or probably five to 10 pages of a normal book.  While I was surprised about this, I suppose it does make sense in the context of the rest of the story, where the characters and briefing material did mention several times that there was a three-minute delay between the bomb arming and the explosion.  This was all extremely thrilling, and I felt that the book is still capable of keeping authors on the edge of their seats.

One of the things that really surprised me about the book was the advanced level of technology that was featured within a story written and set in 1969.  Perhaps this is simply ignorance as a result of being a child of the 90s, but I feel it is more likely the result of Crichton having a great understanding of technology and potential future advances that might be utilised within a high-level government laboratory.  Certainly, the scientific features of this book are extremely impressive, and I felt that they were still extremely relevant and understandable in a 2019 context.  For example, all the extreme quarantine methods surrounding the Wildfire laboratory sound like perfectly reasonable steps that modern laboratories could use to keep pathogens contained.  All the discussions about viruses and micro-organisms were also incredibly detailed, and I felt that much of the information discussed around those is still relevant today, and modern audiences will still be able to understand and consider it quite easily.

I did find the concept of the Odd-Man Hypothesis to be extremely interesting.  In essence, the Odd-Man Hypothesis states that out of all the humans in the world, unmarried men are the most likely to make the best and most dispassionate decision in the face of an emergency.  This becomes a key part of the story, as one of the characters is designated as the Odd-Man and is the only person with the ability to shut off the laboratory’s nuclear self-destruct device.  Now this is one theory that does not translate to more modern times, although, in fairness, most of The Andromeda Strain’s characters did not take it that seriously either.  That being said, it was an extremely intriguing element to read about, and I enjoyed the discussion around its viability and use within the context of the story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to The Andromeda Strain in its audiobook format.  There are actually a number of different audiobook versions of The Andromeda Strain out there, each with different narrators, such as an earlier version narrated by Chris Noth.  I ended up listening to the most recent audiobook version of this book, although I imagine a new version is sure to follow soon, especially with a sequel about to come out.  The version I listened to was narrated by actor David Morse and was released in 2015.  This version is 8 hours and 15 minutes long, and I found myself powering through it very quickly.

I think that the audiobook was a really great way to listen to The Andromeda Strain, as it allows the reader to absorb the huge amount of scientific detail and discussion a lot easier.  I felt that David Morse was an excellent narrator for this book, and that his basic narration voice perfectly fit the books tone and style.  Morse also comes up with some great voices for this book, and I was particularly impressed by his weary old man voice.  As a result, I would highly recommend the audiobook version of The Andromeda Strain, as it is definitely an outstanding way to the listen to this fantastic story.

Overall, I loved this dive back into the past and I had a lot of fun listening to this classic techno-thriller.  Crichton is an amazing author, especially when it comes to a more science-based story, and I am incredibly impressed that his story still holds up 50 years after it was first published.  I am extremely curious to see where the upcoming sequel, The Andromeda Evolution, takes the story, and how well new author Daniel H. Wilson replicates Crichton’s style.  This book has also encouraged me to check out some more of Crichton’s works, and I am looking forward to reading some more of this author’s excellent techno-thrillers, as well as some of his intriguing historical fiction pieces.

Throwback Thursday: The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

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Publishers: Paolini LLC, Knopf Books, Random House AudioBooks

Publication dates:

Eragon – 2002

Eldest – 2005

Brisingr – 2008

Inheritance – 2011

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For my first edition of Unseen Library’s Throwback Thursday series, I have decided to review an important series from my youth, the Inheritance Cycle.  Loved by many, strongly criticised by others, the Inheritance Cycle is a highly inventive young adult fantasy series with an epic narrative of good versus evil

Released between 2002 and 2011, the Inheritance Cycle is the first series from author Christopher Paolini and contains four books.  Since its initial release, the first book in the series, Eragon, has been adapted into a movie starring Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Robert Carlyle, Djimon Hounsou and Rachel Weisz.  Despite its strong cast, the movie was a poor adaption of the source material and flopped both critically and financially.  As is often the case, however, the books are stronger than the film.

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I received a copy of Eragon as a birthday gift a short time after its initial release in 2002 and powered through it in short order, as I was instantly hooked by the ambitious plot, massive amounts of lore, and the inventive fantasy elements.  Following Eragon I made sure to grab every other book in the Inheritance Cycle as soon as they came out and I considered it one of my favourite series.  Having re-listened to the entire Inheritance Cycle a few times on audiobook I still massively enjoy the series, although I have noticed a few flaws with the franchise.

The books are all set in the world of Alagaësia, a land filled with classic fantasy elements such as dragons, elves, dwarfs and magic, in addition to a few unique creatures and powers.  Many years before the start of the series, an order known as the Dragon Riders were formed to keep peace and harmony in Alagaësia.  The elven and human Riders were bound to their sentient dragons and formed a lifelong partnership with them, gaining powerful magical abilities as a result.  Following years of peace, the Dragon Riders were wiped out by a crazed former member of the order, Galbatorix, and his followers.  After destroying the Riders and driving the dragons to near extinction, Galbatorix conquered the human kingdoms of Alagaësia and forced the elves and dwarfs into hiding.

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The first book in the series, Eragon, starts with the titular character, the young human Eragon, receiving one of the last surviving dragon eggs, which hatches forth the dragon Saphira.  Following an attack by Galbatorix’s servants, Eragon, Saphira and their mentor, Brom, are forced to flee their village of Carvahall and travel throughout Alagaësia before finally joining up with the rebel organisation, the Varden.  Along the way, Eragon and Saphira lose Brom, encounter the mysterious Murtagh, and rescue the elf Arya from Galbatorix’s captivity.

The following books in the series follow Eragon and Saphira as they lead the fight against Galbatorix while also learning about their powers and the history of the riders.  They encounter new mentors, find out terrible secrets about Eragon’s past, and eventually confront Galbatorix in a final battle.  At the same time, Eragon’s cousin Roran becomes a fugitive from the crown and must lead the entire village of Carvahall in an epic journey to the Varden.  There is also a focus on young political rebel Nasuada, who becomes leader of the Varden in the second book, and examines the trials and tribulations of leading a war against an all-powerful magic tyrant.

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The last two times that I enjoyed the books in the Inheritance Cycle, I chose to listen to them by audiobook, which are narrated by the outstanding Gerard Doyle.  Eragon is the shortest audiobook at 16 hours 27 minutes, while Inheritance, the finale, clocks in at 31 hours 28 minutes.  I am a huge fan of listening to books with large amounts of internal lore, history and background as it means I am less likely to miss an interesting fact or accidently skip over something with tired eyes.  As Paolini has created a massive amount of background lore and detail to accompany his story, I would heartily recommend listening to the Inheritance Cycle, as I felt that I absorbed so much more from the series as a result.  Doyle is an excellent narrator for this series, and at no point did I find his voice work either distracting or annoying.  His character voices are done very well, and he was able to produce excellent voices for both the male and female characters, as well as the various fantasy species.  I particularly enjoyed the Scottish accent that Doyle attributed to the character of Murtagh, as I felt it fit the character perfectly and made him very distinctive throughout the series.  Other features of the audiobook editions of this series that might appeal to potential listeners are the exclusive interviews with the author that were included at the end of two of the books.

Without a doubt, the best feature of this entire series is the sheer amount of imagination and lore that Paolini has invested in his book’s settings and history.  Each of the books in the Inheritance Cycle contains an incredible amount of background information, elaborate settings and a huge range of fantasy creatures, each with their own skills and history.  Paolini’s immense creativity is particularly evident in the series’ complex rules of magic that are a major feature of all the books.  The detailed explanation provided in Eragon is massively expanded upon in the later books in the series, and represents a significant part of the narrative.  It is also incredible to consider that Paolini created a completely new language for this magic.  With huge amounts of effort expended in creating complex lore, magic and history for all the races and peoples of Alagaësia, it is worth reading this entire series just to see all of these wonderful inclusions.

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There are some amazing story elements contained within the Inheritance Cycle books.  Paolini has created an epic fantasy adventure that draws the reader in and makes them care about the battle for Alagaësia.  This series has everything from impressive duels to large-scale battles that range from small groups of soldiers fighting to massive pitched battles and sieges.  There is also a significant amount of magic, politics, intrigue, romance, family and everything else that makes up a great fantasy story.  The main character, Eragon, is a classic hero coming into his great power storyline that fantasy fans will appreciate and enjoy.  However, I personally thought that the storylines that focused on Eragon’s cousin Roran were the best parts of the entire series, and business really picked up when he was made a point of view character in Eldest.  Roran is a much more grounded and likable character than Eragon, especially as he has to rely on his skill, cunning and luck to survive in a world where massive monsters and powerful magicians run rampart.

The first book, Eragon, is the only edition in the Inheritance Cycle that is told completely from the viewpoint of its titular character.  This book is a superb introduction to the series and spends significant time laying down the groundwork for the next three books.  Some great characters are introduced within this first novel, and there are a range of terrific battle scenes, the establishment of some fantastic relationships and some deep emotional moments.

The second book, Eldest, is another amazing part of this series.  Eragon spends a significant part of the book physically crippled following the final battle in Eragon, and Paolini’s descriptions of his despair and hopelessness are particularly vivid.  I am a real sucker for fantasy teaching sequences, so the scenes where Eragon learns magic, history and other subjects in the elven kingdom were really enjoyable for me.  However, the standout parts of this book focus on Eragon’s cousin Roran and the inhabitants of Carvahall.  Eragon’s actions in the first book results in Carvahall being targeted by Galbatorix and his forces, and Roran and the villages must first defend their home and then attempt to flee to the Varden.  Their exodus has some great scenes, including an extended voyage at sea, and is it fascinating to see how Eragon’s adventures impact the people he left behind.  Special mention should also be made of the scenes told from the viewpoint of Nasuada as she takes control of the Varden and leads its invasion of Galbatorix’s kingdom.  The final battle sequence of the book is another huge highlight, as the reader gets to see Eragon unleash his new powers in a massive battle scene.  The combination of the book’s three storylines into one conclusion is particularly enjoyable and epic, and there are some amazing battles and several important character revelations for the protagonist.

The third book, Brisingr, represents another fun addition to the series.  Eragon sets out on a journey of discovery during his arc.  Of particular note is the extremely intriguing look at dwarf politics and emotional reveals about Eragon’s heritage and family.  Roran’s arc is action-packed and exciting as it focuses on his role as a new member of Varden as he works his way up to becoming a high-ranking commander in the army.  The devastating conclusion to this book provides an emotional punch to the reader as one of the most likable characters meets their end.

Inheritance, the final book in the Inheritance Cycle, draws this story to its epic conclusion.  Readers who have enjoyed the first three entries in this series will have no choice but to see how this adventure ends.  Once again Roran’s arc shines through as the most enjoyable part of the entire book.  Not only does this arc focus on his own fantastic siege storyline, but it is through Roran’s eyes that we watch the massive battle for Galbatorix’s capital.  While Eragon and most of the other supporting characters are fighting Galbatorix, Roran is the only point of view character observing the fierce street-to-street combat happening in the city below.  Roran’s epic battles in this sequence more than make up for certain deficits with the main fight between the remaining Dragon Riders above.  That being said, Eragon, Arya and Angela’s earlier confrontation with a group of fanatical priests in tunnels below an ancient temple has a certain sinister edge to it that will appeal to some readers.  Offering a satisfying conclusion with a number of intriguing storylines left open for future books, this is a superb final chapter for the entire Inheritance Cycle.

While this series has a lot of great features and positive points in its favour, there are a few negative issues that need to be addressed.  When it was released, one of the main criticisms the Inheritance Cycle received was about its similarities to other works, and it’s honestly not hard to see some striking resemblances to the original Star Wars movies.  The Dragon Riders are extremely similar to Jedi, down to the unbreakable, colour-coded swords.  Obi-Wan Kenobi’s monologue from A New Hope about the destruction of the Jedi can pretty much be substituted for Brom’s description of the fall of the Riders.  The main character, Eragon, is essentially Luke Skywalker.  When we first encounter him he is living with a gruff uncle and suddenly receives a MacGuffin (in this case a dragon egg rather than a droid) that dramatically changes his life.  The arrival of the MacGuffin results in the death of his guardian and he flees the only home he knows with a mentor character.  The mentor character, Brom, the former Rider, has way too many similarities with Obi-Wan as he gives the protagonist his early, uncompleted training, provides him with his first weapon, and then dies about two-thirds through the first volume.  In the course of the first book Eragon also meets up with a rogue-like character, rescues a trapped female who he first sees from a distance (through magical scrying rather than a hologram) who later turns out to be a princess, and then flees to a rebel stronghold for an epic confrontation.  In later books Eragon meets a Yoda-like character in Oromis and finds he is related to the Darth Vader equivalent, Murtagh (after Murtagh obtains a red sword).  He eventually faces the Emperor-like villain, Galbatorix, at the very end of the series, and is forced to have a final duel with Murtagh in front of him.  Upon Galbatorix’s death and the utter destruction of his ultimate base, the heroes liberate the whole world from the control of the evil empire and Eragon sets out to teach a new generation of Riders.

These are only some of the more obvious similarities to Star Wars, and they are pretty glaring; however, this has never ruined the series for me.  Other criticisms about similarities to fantasy works such as Lord of the Rings, due to the inclusions of dwarfs and elves are a bit harder to credit, as these are hardly unique fantasy races anymore and Paolini does a fantastic job creating distinctive histories and traits for these races.

One thing that I really disliked about the series, however, is the terrible romantic arc between Eragon and the elf Arya.  Eragon pretty much falls in love with her the second he sees her, but Arya is strongly opposed to his romantic advances for various reasons.  Eragon’s unrelenting pursuit of her, especially in the second book, is very uncomfortable, and his depression and self-pitying attitude following her rejections are some of the worst parts of the series.  While their relationship in the third and fourth books becomes more natural and builds up as a result of mutual respect, I’m personally glad that Paolini doesn’t pull the trigger on their relationship at the end of the series.

I was also not a big fan of the extreme amount of self-doubt that Paolini injected into his protagonist, possibly to counterbalance the overpowered nature of Eragon.  Eragon spends way too long feeling sorry for himself, and the scenes where he deals with these feelings of inadequacy and doubt are some of the hardest to get through.  These character flaws, along with the Arya romance subplot, make it hard for the reader to like Eragon at times, and are part of the reason that I feel Roran is the better hero in the series.

While they did have some amazing parts, the third and fourth books in the series did seem to drag at times.  While I enjoyed Brisingr, when you view the whole series, I feel that Paolini could have probably gotten away with turning the series into a trilogy and simply incorporating some of the key story points into Inheritance instead.  The final conclusion of Inheritance is also a bit clichéd, especially when, out of nowhere, Eragon is able to use magic to make Galbatorix understand all the pain his actions have caused.  It’s a pretty weak way to end this epic confrontation, but luckily the reader isn’t too disappointed, especially with the epic Roran storyline down in the city ramping up the action in this part of the book.

Despite the above criticisms, I still rate all of the books in the Inheritance Cycle four stars out of five.  While this rating may be slightly bolstered by nostalgia, I do believe that this is an excellent series that will appeal to many fantasy fans, especially those younger readers who are only just starting to read the genre.  With an absolutely incredible amount of fantasy details, world history and established lore, I am still amazed by Paolini’s sheer imagination every time I go back to this series.  There are some electrifying storylines within all four of these books, as well as enough action, be it physical, mental or magical, to make any action junkie’s pulse run wild.  Readers looking for the next epic fantasy series to enjoy will find an incredible adventure awaits within the Inheritance Cycle.

My Rating (Series and Each Book):

Four stars