The Andromeda Strain – Reread

When you’re graduating from reading young adult novels into more meatier fair, Michael Crichton is pretty much the perfect author to cut your teeth on. At least, he was back in the 90’s before the young adult genre exploded all over every dystopian future that ever existed. He was one of the first authors I read that didn’t write what amounted to Christian fan-fiction. No, Michael Crighton wrote about cloned dinosaurs, and alien artifacts under the ocean, and SO MUCH DEATH!

 

T-Rex roaring Do you have a moment to talk about Jesus Christ?

 

Rereading of one of my old favorite authors may seem like it might be connected to a recent Hollywood smash hit…but its not.  It’s simple ADHD in my Audible purchases last month.  They must have just re-released a bunch of the old audio books, because all of a sudden my recommended queue was full of Michael Crighton best sellers.  And one caught my eye.  Not the one with hungry dinosaurs, but rather the one with so many people dying from an alien virus: The Andromeda Strain.  I remember reading it when I was a kid, shortly after watching Outbreak and just gobbling it up.  To this day, my favorite kind of disaster / thriller is of the disease running rampant variety.

Just so’s you know, this is kind of a review of the audio book as well.  I actually do a lot of my reading via audio book, because it means I can code and read at the same time.  Also, I commute so basically I’m consuming stories all the time.  So, audio books, valid reading in my opinion.  If you don’t think so you can go to someone else’s blog and complain.

Anyway.  The Andromeda Strain was one of Crighton’s earlier novels, published in 1969 aaaaannnnnd it kind of shows. Crighton never wanted to be associated with the Science Fiction crowd, even though he was writing science fiction, if not straight up fantasy, but he wanted to be considered main stream and not genre.  Still, the science fiction vibe is strong with this.  Now, since the novel is fracking 46 years old, spoiler warnings don’t apply.  Really.  There’s a statute of limitations on these things.

For those who aren’t familiar, and have read my previous notice, The Andromeda Strain is about a team of doctors assigned to study an alien microbe that attached itself to a crashed satelite and killed at town out in Arizona.  Mistakes are made, the virus mutates, a couple more people die and it all comes down to the line at the end with our heroes almost destroyed by a nuclear detonation that would have kicked off World War 3 AND caused infinite propagation of the viruus.  Crighton has all sorts of elements in play here, talking at length about, what was, at the time, cutting edge technology, cold war paranoia, kinda-maybe valid science circa the 1970’s, and lots … and LOTS of description.

The big question is, did I enjoy the book? Yeah. It’s still a decent read.  But did I enjoy it as much as when I was a kid? Not really.  Having learned a lot more about writing and the construction of a good story, I’m finding its easier to pick things apart, and find ways to improve upon them.  For instance, The Andromeda Strain has a really, freaking slow start.  Crighton devotes a ton of time to explaining the Wildfire Initiative (the organization put together just in case an alien microbe ever started killin’ folks).  He talks about the history, the people involved, the facility they had built, and on and on before we even get our group of heroic doctors together.

The narrative skips between all of the doctors, who each kind of screw up equally in causing the near disaster, which is what drives most of the story.  And this is a great thing! It’s the good part.  But we don’t even interact with them until we’re several chapters in.  This is a book that really should have started, mid-crisis, as a tired and confused Dr. Mark Hall is dragged out to the Wildfire facility with little explanation, and then caught up on the shit that’s going down as they go through the quarantine levels.  They spend a lot of time talking about the quarantine levels of the Wildfire Facility… and very little story happens.  Its just kind of there for its own sake, because none of the things they go through impact the story in any real way.  The only thing that actually matters is the nuclear fail-safe, that only Mark has the key to for science reasons that they also explain in detail but aren’t really important.

 

4 doctors, standing side by side Three of these people made a terrible mistake.

 

But, in the end, it’s the nuclear fail-safe that might prove to be every bodies undoing, since they discover the virus would mutate uncontrollably and probably destroy all life on earth, if exposed to the energy of a nuclear detonation.  So, of course, the virus escapes containment, triggers the auto-destruct, and they have to abort the detonation sequence, which only Dr. Mark Hall can do.  Only, he can’t, because the government contractors who built the facility forgot to put the required number of safety stations into the place. Thriller!

No, it really is kind of tense there at the end…but not really because of the virus.  It mutates into a form that is deadly to polymers (a new technology!) but not to organic life.  So, its able to escape, but since it isn’t a threat anymore, its a non-issue once the bomb is defused.  In my mind, this is the weakest part of the book, since it literally means that, if no one had done anything at all, the threat would have passed and no one would have known.  The protagonists have literally nothing to do with solving the main conflict in the book.  The threat just goes away.

While The Andromeda Strain does take a while to get going, and has kind of a disappointing ending, it is still a pretty good read.  Although there are a few things kind of common to a Michael Crighton story; chiefly, the “person who does something sciency that everyone around them should realize is the dumbest thing ever”.  In Jurassic Park, it’s the idiot who kept breeding raptors, even after they discovered how magnificently deadly they were to have at a theme park, like hiring a guy to be Mickey Mouse even after you learn he’s a cannibal.  In The Andromeda Strain, it’s a general in charge of coming up with new biologic agents to use as bio-weapons, but darn it, they run into a wall and can’t create anything deadly enough from what’s on earth.  He read a paper that said there were probably super dangerous organisms in space, just waiting to be brought to earth that no one would have any resistance to and extremely hard, if not impossible, to cure.  So, this moron comes up with an idea to send satellites into space with the sole purpose of bringing back one of these super bugs, and NO ONE FIRES HIM ON THE SPOT! Or even protests.  His success condition is exactly the problem in the book…that still magically solves itself.  In the epilogue, no one mentions this guy getting fired into space himself…he apparently suffers no consequences.  Also, none of the main characters wonder just how someone that stupid could put on his own clothes in the morning, let alone be put in charge of a multi-billion dollar defense initiative.  Probably because Russia was just that scary?

Still, for all its faults, The Andromeda Strain is a decent read.  This is pretty much establishing Crichton’s great pattern of “kinda-science, isolation, people dying” but you’ll be able to tell its pretty dated.  I, for one, am happy that we don’t have automated doctor drones as standard in every doctor’s office, as was predicted. Now, every one go wash your hands.  And for Crichton’s sake, don’t use antibacterial soap.  We’ve got enough trouble with space rabies without all you people making super-bacteria here on earth! Put that anti-bacterial gel down! I’m watching you.

 


Fire Emblem: Awakening – A study in lost writing hours

I love my wife.  She knows me.  She gets me.  We just celebrated our first anniversary just a month ago, and this wonderful woman got me a toy that I’ve been wanting for a while: A Nintendo 3DS.  Not only that, but she got me the XL and she got me a blue one to boot.  To sum up, I’m a very, very happy nerd.  Also, a lucky one.

The 3DS has only recently been on my “Want” list since its been a little sparse on games up until now.  Fire Emblem: Awakening was the first game that I knew I wanted to play.  Sure, there were random other games that I was kind of interested in.  Ocarina of Time, which I’ve never played before, sounded like it would be perfect in 3D.  The new Kid Icarus also looked interesting and there were few others that were popping up.  Still, Fire Emblem was the kicker.

I’ve played some Fire Emblem games in the past but I don’t think that I’ve ever really gotten into one and beaten it.  The whole “permadeath” of units isn’t something that sits well with me, and Fire Emblem is a little notorious for having a very unforgiving nature.  Still, I needed a tactical RPG before the system would really be worthwhile, so it was the first thing I picked up when I was gleefully breaking the system in.

Seventy hours later, I have finally put down the final boss.  I admit, I also put it off for way longer than I needed to.  My main fighting force were all leveled to the point where they were gods compared to whatever else the game might throw at me.  The final boss, even at an impressive skill rating of 200 didn’t manage to hold a flame to me.  My average skill strength was 200 per unit, with several of the stronger ones approaching 250.  Skill rating is the sum of all the units skill points, and gives you a quick idea of how strong a unit is.  For example, the final boss was at 200, the enemies leading up to him were between 100 and 150, chumps are usually at 60-90.

So…yeah.  I really got into the game.  I dig tactical RPGs.  I love being the general and commanding a flawless campaign.  I also love RPGs, seeing units level up and become stronger; nursing them through the low levels and slowly making each a bad ass in their own way.  Fire Emblem is great for this.  Its also great in that you need some real tactics to make it through some challenges, and you find that as you learn more about the game mechanics, the better you do in matches.  Here’s a few things that I learned:

  1. No one goes off by themselves … unless they’re Donnel (more on him in a bit).
  2. Build relationships. The conversations are fun, but the bonuses you get from having units that get along with each other are more than worth it.
  3. Whenever possible, have units fight next to each other.  Not only does this build their relationship level (see above) but it also limits the number of attacks a unit can take AND provides chances for the units to work together to mitigate damage or dual attack.
  4. Do not underestimate the power of ranged attacks.  Get a couple good bowmen, and a couple good mages.  Make sure your melee units all have a way to range attack later in the game too.  Most weapon types have a “throwable” weapon.
  5. Save your powerful expensive weapons for when you need them.  This is just basic economics, since your weapons wear out and you have to buy new ones.  Better to use up your cheap Iron Spear rather than the rare and powerful Silver ones.
  6. Don’t use Master Spheres and Second Spheres too soon.  You want to get both skills (at least) out of a class before you change their class.  Also have an idea of what you want to do with each unit.  Don’t take your mage and make him an archer.  Keep him magicing it up to build his Magic stat as high as possible.
  7. Don’t be afraid to grind.  This will help you both build experience and relationships between units.
  8. Don’t be afraid to reset.  Unless you want to accept the death of a valuable character.  I could not do it.
  9. Accept that you’re going to be losing quite a bit of time.

I’ve got more, but that’s probably enough for now.  In short, I loved the game.  The game play was top notch.  The graphics, especially the 3D was beautiful.  I’ve got a friend who doesn’t play with the 3D on unless his system is plugged in, but I’m more than willing to wear the batteries down.  The story was marvelous, and building relationships between units was worth it, if just for the little conversations that go on between them.  One of the characters, Gregor, a mercenary with a Russian accent, routinely cracks me up.  There’s a ton of content and downloadable bonus maps and challenges; there’s even DLC available with more on the way (from what I understand).

If you like tactical RPGs in any way, you should give Fire Emblem a go.  This game alone made the 3DS worth owning as I’m going to be coming back to it for years, trying the campaign on higher difficulty settings, and besting challenges.  If you’re a fan of the Fire Emblem series, you really should play this game.

A final note for those who follow my advice.  Early on in the game, you’re going to get the first paralogue and in it you will have a chance to recruit Donnel, a seemingly useless villager.  MAKE SURE YOU DO THIS.  He will look like the weakest unit in the game and will be for a while, except for one thing.  He comes with a talent that gives him a bonus to skill growth.  If you take a little time, and nurture him along he will become the DESTROYER OF WORLDS.  He will be your boss slayer and none shall stand before him.  By the end of the game, I was leaving him out of my party half the time because he was taking experience away from other units.

Ok…now on to more writing endeavors.  I’ve got some Edge of December to work on.