What do an alcoholic derelict and a fussy baby have in common?
This is the question posed by The Andromeda Strain, and the answer might just save the human race from extinction.
The Ebola outbreak currently ravaging West Africa and threatening to leapfrog across the planet brought Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller and its 1971 film incarnation to mind this week as another example of science fiction colliding with current events. In retrospect, it seems eerily prescient with regard to its depiction of bureaucratic dithering in crisis, the challenge of warding off an impending epidemic, and the unintended consequences that occur when precautions that seem bulletproof are put to the test in real life. When you’re trying to stop a contagious disease, the shadow of Murphy looms large and the laws of probability evaporate.
I’ve not read the novel, but the movie scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. Here’s how it all goes down, and I’ll try to avoid being spoilerific:
A satellite crashes near a little community in a remote corner of New Mexico, and the government sends a recovery team, which almost immediately goes radio-silent. Another team goes in with full hazmat gear, discovering the first team and the entire population of the town is dead, their blood congealed into a nasty powder. Everybody is dead, that is, except for a crusty old wino and a squalling infant.
Team 2 collects the bum, the baby, and the satellite, and all are transported to Wildfire, a super-secret-secret-squirrel bio-agent confinement and analysis lab buried several hundred feet below the Mojave Desert. Wildfire’s scientific Dream Team sets to work, and they find a previously unknown, incredibly virulent, and very lethal microorganism contaminating the satellite. The plague is apparently of extraterrestrial origin, and it’s mutating faster than anything they’ve ever seen.
The survival of the bum and baby remains a mystery, but it’s clearly the key to stopping this terror.
Until it mutates the ability to eat plastic and breaks free from containment.
Not to worry—our best minds designed this facility. It’s foolproof. Wildfire’s automatic failsafe starts the clock on a nuclear bomb meant to sterilize the site if security should somehow be breached. Our heroes, however, realize an atomic detonation will both accelerate this particular disease agent’s multiplication and launch it skyward, where the upper atmosphere’s gentle zephyrs will waft it across the globe.
Nervous yet? This is as far as I’ll go with a recap. Many other things go badly wrong, and much perspiration is perspired. Watch the movie. It goes well with carefully sterilized popcorn and stars some fun acting talent like Arthur Hill, James Olson, Paula Kelly, and David Wayne. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Mr. Crichton himself.
I suppose this movie made such an impact on my younger self because it so clearly portrayed the idea that many of the people I relied upon to keep my world safe and orderly might not be so reliable as I imagined. Leaders confronted with the unknown in The Andromeda Strain didn’t make good decisions under pressure, and scientific knowledge, though important and helpful, was far from comprehensive or infallible. Smart people could and did screw things up royally.
Plus, Space Germs.
Ebola, meanwhile, isn’t our first plague and certainly won’t be our last. It’s a horrifying disease, but with regard to virulence, it pales in comparison to the Black Death or the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. It’s containable, although, given our current level of bioscience skill and technology, it’s a bit surprising we haven’t come up with an effective treatment yet. We’ve known about this savage little bug since 1976.
Perhaps if it had arrived in New Mexico on a satellite, we’d have shown more of a sense of urgency.