THE ANDROMEDA EVOLUTION by Daniel H. Wilson (Harper, 384 pp., $29.99)
Fifty summers ago, as men were landing on the moon, the story of another space project—one which had gone disastrously awry—had already touched down on the nation’s bestseller list.
Michael Crichton’s novel “The Andromeda Strain,” published in May 1969, was about a government mission to send unmanned satellites into orbit to collect extraterrestrial microorganisms that might be lurking out there — this with the noble aim of finding one useful as a biological weapon. Alas, one satellite broke orbit and crashed in Piedmont, Arizona, dispersing a microscopic pathogen which killed all but two of the tiny burg’s inhabitants: a dissipated old man and a squalling infant.
This catastrophe launched Wildfire, a government program-in-waiting designed to contain and control just such an organism, now dubbed the Andromeda Strain. After high doses of technojargon, recondite diagrams and the near triggering of a nuclear explosion, the pathogen simply took over and evolved into a nonlethal agent — a “plastiphage,” which destroys plastic, leading to more, if less grievous, problems.
Anyone who worried that the Andromeda Strain would continue to evolve had to wait half a century for their fears to be realized. For, yes, even though Crichton died in 2008, the pesky micro-entity has surfaced again in “The Andromeda Evolution” by Daniel H. Wilson, author of several previous books under his own name. Though Wilson has perfectly captured the suspense of the original, not to mention the aridity of its relentless techno-nonsense, we quickly notice that evolution has been at work in quarters other than the microscopic: Through some adaptive mutation, women have moved beyond the primitive roles of frightened wife and switchboard “girl” and have evolved into major players.
And so, we begin. Something big is going on in the Amazonian rainforest in the protected territory reserved for tribes that have had no contact with outside societies. A strange column, 100 feet high, “alone and colossal among the primordial trees,” has been spotted, perched exactly on the equator and, as it happens, pretty much where a Chinese space station had crashed not long ago. Vegetation has been killed around it, animals are seen fleeing from it, and the ground is littered with dead human beings. Worse, the entity is growing and mass spectrometer readings (complete with graph) show the presence of the Andromeda Strain. It is time to send in the 21st century Wildfire team.
Bristling with high-tech gadgets and emanating a nimbus of analytics, the group is dropped by helicopter into the Brazilian jungle. The mission is led by Indian-born Nidhi Vedala, a professor in nanotechnology at MIT and the inventor of an “aerosolized nanocrystalline cellulose-based Andromeda inhibitor.” Put into English, it means a spray that acts as a shield against the Andromeda microorganism. Also involved is another woman, Peng Wu, a Chinese astronaut, soldier and M.D. who is equipped with a “Dyclone-Wa portable field science kit.” Then there is Harold Odhiambo, a Kenyan expert in extraterrestrial geology and master of a flock of “canary drones.” He carries a “projectile-tipped seismic sensor package, 16 count. Single-use deployment, locally networked and AI-enabled.” Added at last minute is James Stone, a roboticist and expert in artificial intelligence, who is the son of Dr. Jeremy Stone, the Nobel laureate hero who saved the world from the Andromeda strain 50 years ago. Later, a brave little indigenous boy accoutered with only a spear joins the team.
The last member of the Wildfire team is Sophie Kline, an American scientist circling the globe in the space station “Wildfire Mark IV.” Attached to the spacecraft is a sealed module (“the only biosafety level (BSL) 5 containment facility ever created”) containing samples for study of the first and second Andromeda strains, AS-1 and AS-2. Kline is a victim of ALS, a condition which weightlessness ameliorates. She has been fitted with a “Kinetics-V brain-computer interface (BCI)” which allows her to operate her personal robot as well as control tests carried on in the sealed module, all with only her mind.
That’s the setup. Without spoiling your techno-thrills, the ominous Andromeda structure in the Amazon jungle seems to have its own nefarious designs. More sinister than that, not all the techno-whizzes at large in these pages have humanity’s best interests at heart. Indeed, what we might call the human element here, its intrigues, blunders, and triumphs, keeps things moving—much more so, in fact, than Andromeda’s elaborate, not to say preposterous, carryings-on.