Daniel H. Wilson builds on Michael Crichton’s first technothriller in ‘The Andromeda Evolution’

January 15, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 15, 2019 2020

The Andromeda Strain pitted a small team of scientists against a mysterious virus that has killed all but two residents of Piedmont, Ariz. The 1969 Michael Crichton novel culminates in a desperate race against time. Its protagonists exhibit feats of intellectual prowess as well as a few acts of bravery. One might argue that the book is the original technothriller.

The Andromeda Strain inspired a 1971 movie version directed by Robert Wise, who had previously helmed West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and who would later bring Star Trek into the cinema; a miniseries adaptation with Ricky Schroeder and Viola Davis aired in 2008. Given corporate America’s propensity to recycle and reboot ideas, it’s mildly surprising that The Andromeda Strain had mostly lain dormant for years.

Enter The Andromeda Evolution, published late last year, which has Crichton’s name emblazoned on the top third of the cover. Although Crichton is listed first in the book’s author biographies, he seems to have had nothing to do with the plotting or writing of this volume, which is labeled “A novel by Daniel H. Wilson” in much smaller type on the bottom of the cover.

Wilson, who holds a doctorate in robotics and master’s degrees in that field and artificial intelligence, made a splash in 2011 with his debut novel, Robopocalypse; Steven Spielberg purchased its movie rights prior to publication. (A cinematic adaptation may or may come out this year; word emerged nearly two years ago that Michael Bay had optioned the book after Spielberg’s attempt fell through.)

I’ve not read Wilson’s earlier books. I did read, and had mixed feelings about, the 2014 anthology he edited and contributed to, Robot Uprising. His story in that volume, “Small Things,” struck me as a mix of Apocalypse Now and Michael Crichton’s nanobots-run-wild novel Prey; I didn’t have strong feelings about it and couldn’t have described it without taking a peek at the collection, which I’d checked out in March.

I had mixed feelings about The Andromeda Evolution, which in many ways is a worthy successor to Crichton’s work. Wilson builds on the original in interesting ways and borrows a bit from other entries in the Crichton oeuvre. The narrative seems a bit formulaic at times, especially early on, but Wilson introduces some unexpected twists as things progress. He also does a terrific job ratcheting up the tension as the end of the book approaches.

On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly inspiring about The Andromeda Evolution. While the story was enjoyable, the characters never truly came to life for me. Taken as a whole, the book seems like an exercise in brand expansion.

The fact that the copyright is held by the corporate entity CrichtonSun does nothing to dispel that impression; nor does the notice on the book’s copyright page that “CrichtonSun™ and the CrichtonSun™ logo are trademarks of CrichtonSun LLC.” Nor does the postscript by Sherri Crichton, the late writer’s widow, which characterizes The Andromeda Strain as “a celebration of Michael’s universe and a way to introduce him to those discovering his worlds for the first time.” (Sherri Crichton founded CrichtonSun in 2014, six years after her husband succumbed to cancer.)

The story begins in a remote part of the Brazilian Amazon called FUNAI when an aerial drone detects a tower rising from a heavily forested area no construction equipment should be able to reach. Word soon reaches Project Wildfire, the secret scientific organization from The Andromeda Strain, which promptly dispatches four specially trained, highly gifted experts to Brazil.

The quartet, led by materials scientist Nidhi Vedala, includes a geologist/anthropologist/biologist named Harold Odhiambo, a taikonaut and pathologist named Peng Wu, and a roboticist named James Stone, the son of the protagonist from Crichton’s 1969 story.

The group, naturally, carries a helpful set of gear and gadgets. Stone packs 12 miniature canary drones, which can map the local area and do other handy things. Vedala brings a big canister of “Andromeda inhibitor”; once applied, the contents should in theory protect wearers from Andromeda particles, although it hasn’t yet been tested in the field. (I failed to understand why those coated in the inhibitor didn’t suffocate or collapse from heat exhaustion, but maybe I missed something.)

The explorers’ support team includes a cadre of indigenous Brazilians meant to guide them through the deep jungle, which is inhabited by numerous uncontacted Indian tribes who are likely both hostile and vulnerable to outsiders. FUNAI — which is also the Portuguese acronym for the organization that administers the reserve — is home as well to a tribe called the Machado. This group has some experience with Western culture and technology, which may make them all the more dangerous.

The four scientists are monitored from afar by U.S. Air Force Gen. Rand L. Stern and Sophie Klein, a biologist and roboticist stationed on the International Space Station. Stern is determined to limit the spread of the new Andromeda infection, although the prescribed method of doing so — bombing the site — may not be the best approach. And Klein, like one of the guides and at least one of the field scientists, seems to be operating with some kind of ulterior motive.

That’s one of the mysteries that Vedala and company realize they must unravel as they survey the outside of the Andromeda structure:

A wave of air washed over the back of her neck, and Vedala heard the whir of a canary. She also smelled coffee. James Stone emerged from the trees, carrying a tin cup in each hand. He was already hypothesizing out loud.

“The breach there is caked in the same ash substance we found before,” he said, pointing with a glinting cup. “Some pieces are missing from around the tunnel mouth. I’ve got the canaries on constant alert for airborne toxins, of course. But there don’t seem to be any. Anyhow, we’d already know by now if there were.”

Stone sat down on the log beside Vedala, handing her a cup.

“We’d be dead,” he added.

“I’ve been mulling that,” said Vedala. “The ash and flaked rocks are solid substrates. But a lot more material must have been vaporized by an explosion. The Machado breathed in the cloud of dust, only trace amounts, and it activated inside their bodies, slowly at first… but it drove them crazy. Very similar to Piedmont.”

Vedala sipped her coffee.

“But why would it explode?” she asked. “Odhiambo says this area is volcanically dormant for five hundred miles in every direction. It’s not likely to have been a natural process.”

“I don’t think it was,” said Stone. “I’m not ready to reveal my pet theory without more evidence, but I think what happened was a mistake. A human mistake.”

Vedala shot Stone a look of concern. She lowered her voice and faced forward as she spoke her next words.

“I look forward to hearing your theory. As you’ve seen, elements of this expedition have been compromised. Some people have been keeping secrets. And I need to be able to trust you, James.”

It’s been quite a while since I read a Crichton novel, but The Andromeda Evolution pays tribute to what I recall of his style by incorporating footnotes and a bibliography. The volume also includes a warning before the table of contents that the contents are top secret and “[t]he courier is required by law to demand your card 7592.”

Earlier, I dismissed The Andromeda Evolution as a corporate exercise. This may be a bit unfair. While Wilson’s book isn’t a great piece of science fiction, it’s an interesting sequel to Crichton’s earlier work and a solidly entertaining technothriller.

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