© 1969 Michael Crichton
Hours after an American space probe crash-landed in the Nevada desert, the entire populace of a small town nearby deserted their homes to die in the streets, where they were noticed by a US air pilot performing a flyover of the scene. There's something rotten in Piedmont.
The US Army is not entirely surprised to find the city a necropolis. They did, after all, design the probe to gather potential microorganisms in Earth orbit for use in biological warfare. In a way, the outbreak is a success: they've got a genuine killer on their hands. Too bad it's out of their control for the moment -- but that won't be the case for long, Moving swiftly, they isolate the area and quarantine suspected contagions. Agents dressed in hazard suits survey the wasted town, and find two survivors: a crying baby and old man spitting up blood. While most of the victims appeared to have died instantly, others appear to have killed themselves in fits of insanity. The scientists and government officials associated with the "Wildfire" project must discern what agent caused these deaths, from where it originated, and how it might be stopped.
Although I expected a The Stand-type horror novel, Crichton's work is altogether different. It reads as a technical documentary, Crichton employing a framing device that cites official reports and includes graphs. The exposition is extremely detailed, describing the whole of the Wildfire installation -- a hidden, underground base used for isolating and containing bio-warfare specimens -- elaborating on possible sources for the virus, its structure, and detailing the ways the scientists' and government officials' thinking and plans went wrong. The narrative voice assures us from the start that things will go to hell, although the reader is left to anticipate to what degree the outbreak will ravage the United States and the world. I can't say I expected the ending: I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did -- somewhat.
Although the book succeeded in keeping me wondering how the plot would be resolved, what fascinated me most was the origin story for the organism brought down to Earth. The Andromeda Strain is probably worth your while, especially if you enjoy medical and scientific thrillers.
- The Stand, Stephen King