Back when I was in middle school a lot of people were talking about a disastrous infection that had come out of an exotic place and was threatening millions of people, just like COVID-19.
It had a much better name, however – The Andromeda Strain – and it was much deadlier. Happily, it was also fictitious.
The Andromeda Strain was the first book by Michael Crichton and it was a sensation, breaking into best-seller lists at a time when science fiction was usually confined to the edges. It made Crichton internationally famous, although now he’s better known for Jurassic Park.
Why mention this bit of literary ancient history, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year? Because The Andromeda Strain is the topic of NHTI’s book club, known as Campus Reads. I’ll be part of an online panel discussion about what the book does, and does not, tell us about our current pandemic. That takes place Wednesday evening at 7 (Zoom ID is 95849047229); on Thursday at 7 will be a general book discussion via Zoom.
The Andromeda Strain has all the characteristics of 1969 science fiction. It’s chock-full of geeky details about interesting stuff, including several probability tables involving something called the Odd Man Hypothesis; it has clumsy but not painfully bad writing; and there’s hardly a female or non-white person to be seen. (Today’s science fiction still loves geeky details but no longer regards white males as the only plausible characters. The writing is much better, too.)
Wednesday’s session has quite a mixed panel. I’m there representing the unwashed masses; Concord City Councilor Byron Champlin is representing government response; NHTI sociology professor Neil Nevins, who owns Main Street BookEnds in Warner, will ponder the literary and ethical side of things; and Dr. Jennifer Eggers, a physician and public health expert who also teaches at NHTI, will be there to keep us scientifically grounded.
I asked Dr. Eggers what she thought about Andromeda Strain, which she hadn’t read previously. She said the book has lessons to teach us, but not the medical or techy ones you might expect.
“It’s not a home run in terms of what we’re experiencing in 2020,” she said, putting it mildly.
In a nutshell, the story concerns a super-deadly infection that evolved in low-Earth orbit and was brought down as part of Cold War efforts to find new bioweapons. A crack team of brainy guys are gathered to figure out how to react and things almost go very, very wrong.
As a guide to the present, it has lots of problems. For one thing, the Andromeda Strain isn’t a virus. It’s not a bacteria, either, or a prion; all we really know is that it’s hexagonal.
It also has an unrealistically high mortality rate, killing almost everybody within a few minutes of exposure. (Figuring out why a baby and an old drunk weren’t killed is one of the main plot points.) Fortunately, that’s not the case with the CoV2-SARS coronavirus.
And it evolves incredibly quickly, almost from day to day – that’s another plot point, one that leads to the (spoiler alert!) let-down of an ending. COVID-19 evolves quickly because it’s a virus, but not that quickly.
So what does Andromeda Strain teach us? Eggers points to “the themes of human nature and having blind spots.”
“Skepticism … about new discoveries, that’s part of human nature, and part of what we’re hearing in this pandemic. Humans are skeptical of science, of new discoveries – we have to figure out how we can speak to that skepticism and make people feel comfortable with science, with knowledge,” she said.
In fact, one of the best lessons that a geek-heavy work like Andromeda Strain could teach, she said, is to ignore its storyline and realize that it takes more than a geek-heavy approach to solve global problems like COVID-19.
“You could also think about this as a contrast. It puts the solution with the scientists – they’re going to be the people solving the problem. If we contrast that today, the solution is with every single person. We’re not going to get out of this with just the scientists doing their job, every person has to do that,” she said.