A review by Nalini Haynes
In the Andromeda Strain, the US government captured a sample of toxic space matter that killed dozens of people and nearly escaped containment to destroy the entire planet. Now it has evolved. The Andromeda Evolution is Wilson’s sequel. Cue assembling of scientists, ‘savage’ porters and a half-American guide who threatens to abandon the scientists when he first meets them. Add a dangerous hike through the Amazon jungle where, surprisingly, people and the Andromeda Evolution are their biggest threats. Not snakes, spiders, toads, predators… just people and toxic particles.
Brazilian observers notice an object growing in a protected part of the Amazon forest where no such geometric shape had a right to exist. US observers confirm an Andromeda Strain sighting. The US government gathers together an international team of scientists to hike into the Amazon forest to investigate.
They are protected by an aerosol spray… that somehow prevents this airborne ‘virus’ from entering their lungs while breathing and not wearing respirators. Then the team is walking through dense jungle — until they find “a field of corpses”. But no one comments on the field part, just the corpse part (p. 106). Then the field turns back into “shadowed jungle”. And apparently all the monkey corpses were, pre-corpse-state, moving in species groupings at exactly the same speed per species and exactly parallel with all those of their species. To fall in concentric circles designated by species. I suggest a new drinking game… plot hole? Drink. Predictable character arc event? Drink.
Actually, don’t. A drinking game based on plot holes in this book will put you in hospital unless you’re drinking water. It would be unhealthy, perhaps even life-threatening even if you’re only drinking coffee.
The jungle is so dense they can’t get a radio signal out — even military radios still require unobstructed line of sight. But writing messages in branches lying on the ground? Totally works.
I’m getting off my soap box. Temporarily.
The short version
Andromeda Evolution is a poorly written sequel to a 1960s novel and is as racist, sexist and ableist novel as anything written in that era. Crichton’s work was ground-breaking at the time (Andromeda Strain was published in 1969 when Crichton was 27) then his work evolved. His later novels reflect a more equitable society and more skilled storytelling. For example, horror Jurassic Park has humour. And kids for that ‘aww’ moment and to humanise some of the adults. Timeline has romance. However, Wilson’s sequel is as abhorrent, out of date and flawed as anything written in the mid-twentieth century even though he’s endeavoured to work with the right ingredients.
Two cooks: one bakes a chocolate cake, the other a brick.
Wilson’s story is evidence that two cooks with the same ingredients can turn out very different products: Crichton made chocolate cake while Wilson made a brick. Wilson’s narrative is frequently one or two steps removed from the action. In an action sequence, instead of staying in the action in active tense he diverts to “the historical records say this…” dryness or, worse, he delves into backstory instead of TELLING THE BLOODY STORY. Wilson also confuses literary foreshadowing with saying “this person will die”. That’s not foreshadowing. That’s not Chekov’s gun. THAT’S A SPOILER. FROM THE NARRATOR.
I read this book so you don’t have to.
If you want more information, I hope that at some stage someone will write a full and detailed essay or even a thesis on the racism, sexism and outright vilification of disabled people embedded into this novel. Until then, here are a few notes. Please note: when I talk about disability, I will mention a late-novel spoiler but only well after the author stated that thing would happen. I will talk about the message that the event sends.
Syfy has an interview with Daniel Wilson that starts with Wilson talking about his friend who wrote Ready Player One. Remember that book/movie that could have been good if it wasn’t racist and misogynistic?
- Dissecting Ready Player One and its biggest problem
- Ready Player One: why tokenizing is terrible
- Ready Player One and the unbearable whiteness of 80s nostalgia
Author writing racism, sexism and ableism has friends who write racism, sexism and ableism. So why would you get him to write an iconic sequel? I read Crichton’s Prey, recommended to me by Dr John Court, an eminent counsellor in Adelaide when I was studying under him in 2004. But I remember Prey as coming a LONG way from the sexism and racism embedded in Andromeda Strain the movie. I hope Crichton is haunting whoever made that decision.
Andromeda Evolution vs Gender
The original story has few women and is so misogynistic that it was hard to watch (I saw the movie). One of those women, Dr Ruth Leavitt (played by Kate Reid) had a form of epilepsy that she was covering up. This type of epilepsy caused mini-seizures and short-term memory loss whenever she saw the colour red. Totes what you want in a laboratory environment where RED MEANS DANGER, AmIRight? (Note: she didn’t seem to have any problems in the Red Zone of the top-secret government facility.) Anyway, thanks to her lies and coverup, the planet was nearly destroyed because she didn’t notice or recall the red light showing danger or the red light showing a possible solution. ARGH.
50 years later, the Andromeda Evolution tries and fails to make amends. Colonel Hopper has the perfect temperament for her job: she is loyal, patient and persevering even in the face of increasing dismissal of the importance of her work. Then she confirms the outbreak and dismisses her staff whose only function was to wait and watch and warn in the event of another outbreak. Shortly afterwards, she disappears from the narrative.
Of the other women in Andromeda Evolution, none are likeable nor truly worthy of the position of trust they hold. Peng Wu withholds crucial information. Nidhi Vedala is emotional, going so far as to spit in the direction of a scientist she believes appointed to the team for reasons other than merit. And yet someone gave her leadership of both a laboratory and this mission? Puh-lease! Female conflict impedes the team. And don’t get me started on the disabled woman, Kline.
Note: those few of Crichton’s novels that I’ve actually read showed better representation of women. Whether that’s a reflection of the movie creators devolving women or a reflection of Crichton adapting to a changing society as they both aged, I do not know. And I don’t really care: there’s not a huge amount of TV from the early 1970s that isn’t white patriarchal ableist crap. However, Wilson more than compensates for his slightly improved treatment of women (compared to the original) by using a disabled woman to fill the role of pitiful disabled person, inspirational disabled person, and disabled monster threatens humanity.
Andromeda Evolution vs disability
Dr Sophie Kline is introduced as someone who enjoys looking down on planet Earth from the International Space Station because it “gave her a sense of utter superiority, as if everything below were a part of her own creation” (p. 48).
The next paragraph suggests she will die before the end of the novel.
The next paragraph states that she’s disabled.
So Wilson embraces Paul Darke’s normality drama trope where the disabled person dies at the end to resolve conflict. (Darke, P. (1998). Understanding cinematic representations of disability. The disability reader: Social science perspectives, 181-197.)
Tall, despite her disability
Wilson describes Kline as “tall, despite her disability”. What relevance does a disability have on height? At nearly 6 feet, I’m tall ‘despite’ my disability too. Wilson continues, “her striking eyebrows and gaunt cheeks lent her a predatory appearance, softened only by a smattering of freckles across her nose and forehead.” We’ll see what this says about her personality as the novel progresses.
Wheelchair as disability access or ‘wheelchair bound’
Kline’s disability is her motive to work in space, so she can float or fly instead of being gravity-bound. Wilson does not use the term ‘wheelchair bound’ but it’s written in the white spaces around what he does say, especially when he refers to Kline’s ‘wasted body’ and commenting that ‘she did not have to worry about the muscle-wasting effects of weightlessness’ (p. 49).
Apparently, doctors predicted Kline would be dead by 12 but Wilson has written that rare specimen, an inspiring disabled person [snark]. If he’d done 5 minutes of research he would have learnt that this trope is abhorrent to disabled activists and Stella Young called it in her Ted Talk. Wilson then flip-flops between inspiring disabled person to narcissistic megalomaniac motivated by anger. So Kline isn’t that inspiring after all. I wish Wilson would MAKE UP HIS MIND.
Disability as advantage because disabled person’s body doesn’t matter
Wilson establishes that Kline has an advantage over nondisabled astronauts because she doesn’t have to worry about muscle depletion. Presumably because it doesn’t matter if Kline’s muscles deplete because she’s disabled. Either that or Wilson is saying her muscles won’t deplete because they’re not normal. Both implications are ableism.
Kline is physically capable and competent on the space station and that she’s more than earned her place. Then Wilson says her body will not obey her orders. Argh.
Wilson attributes Kline’s success to “humankind’s ever growing mastery over nature” (p. 60) but all the nondisabled scientists — everyone else — has earnt their place on the Wildfire team through their own abilities and attributes.
Remember what I said earlier about Wilson not actually using the term “wheelchair bound” but I could see it in the white spaces? This whole thing about “being trapped in a body that refused to obey her orders” is the same ableist crap. How many nondisabled people feel that their bodies don’t obey their orders? How many runners win? Conversely, how many people stumble, fall, can’t quite reach their goal because their body is not perfect? We learn to use what we’ve got and to work within our personal limits. To emphasise physical limitation because of disability despite achievement is a form of ableism.
Telepathic disabled person has superpowers
Kline is a cyborg: she’s been implanted with a neural network that reads her mind (p. 50). Thus, she has an almost telepathic connection to the space station’s computers. Because of Kline’s cyborg interface and “the wasting effects of her disease”, “only Sophie Kline could control the Wildfire Mark IV laboratory module with her mind” (p. 59). TV Tropes includes Disability Superpower. Enough said. Except if you want to go down a research rabbit hole, look up disability and cyborg. Start by reading Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
Wilson calls nondisabled people Hopper or Colonel Hopper, Stern or General Stern. Although he occasionally referred to Kline as Dr Sophie Kline, for the first ten pages on her, Wilson calls her Sophie Kline. And imbues her with attributes to set readers’ hackles on end. Kline (as Wilson calls her later) is a cancerous growth, a blight on the body of humanity. And Wilson treats her as such. ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE NOVEL. It got so bad that I ended up procrasti-cleaning and twit-crastinating because Wilson’s hatred of disabled people oozed off the page, infecting me like the Andromeda Evolution.
Disabled person dies at the end
Please note that the ‘press release’ in the next paragraph with the link is a bug. The text should read “Show the Spoiler”. I don’t know how this bug was introduced into the code and I’m trying to fix it.
On the first page where we meet Kline, Wilson tells us she will die. His plodding narration style emphasises his hatred and fear of disabled people. Especially is hatred of this character. He tells us she’s angry. And yet I’m reading this thinking that the same actions could have been driven by US governmental agencies wanting a global advantage. If Kline had shared her dreams and goals, she would have had presidential support although the location would have been moved to somewhere like Area 51 instead of the Amazon. Instead, Wilson’s disgust with disabled people and his eugenics agenda are exposed in his story.
And then Kline dies. She is suicidal: she knows her actions will kill her but she’s ok with that BECAUSE FREEDOM FROM A BROKEN BODY. The eugenics message is horrifyingly clear.
Then she’s in great pain and dying but she’s still working to endanger everyone. The brilliant doctor who has achieved more than most is blind to the fact that the Andromeda Evolution is literally killing her and threatens the entire planet because she’s now insane as well as physically disabled.
Finally, her death is the equivalent of ‘death by cop’ mentioned in Darke’s essay ‘Understanding cinematic representations of disability’. She dies so others can save the world from her megalomania. Her death goes unmourned. It’s justified. Because she in her disabled body became the disabled monster who threatened the world.
If we’re in any doubt, this a Trump world where disabled people and brown people and women are surplus to requirements. It’s ok to kill them. It’s kill or be killed. It seems to me that Wilson possibly received editing feedback and was told to break the racism up by inserting a couple of passages about white colonialism. It seems to me Wilson possibly received editing feedback that his treatment of women was so appalling that he needed to have a romance that included allowing one of the women to live. (I say this in part because he specifically states that someone else in the team is going to die then they don’t. He might have been referring to Kline but she was never really part of the team and, by that stage, she was clearly demarcated as the enemy.) But no one mitigated the vile ableist diatribe in this novel because vilifying disabled people is deemed acceptable.
Andromeda Evolution vs race people of colour
Dr Nidhi Vedala was born into the untouchables Indian caste but, without any of the advantages money and education buy, she scored #1 in the statewide aptitude testing. All due to her own hard work of course. This is a contradiction of Shapiro’s* (see Mills**) research that shows that black students suffer academically because poverty includes educational disadvantage.
Shapiro’s research shows that white people will list parental help for getting into and attending college but suddenly suffer amnesia and claim to be ‘self made’ when discussing their own achievements and wealth accumulation. But in this novel we’re going down the neoliberal inspirational individual effort path. At least Wilson won’t write another woman who’s going to destroy the world, right? This one has to be useful (despite being brown) or he’ll be accused of misogyny as well as racism. Sigh.
“Vedala had never failed a test in her life” (p. 77). It sounds like she never tried. Failure is a proving ground, especially important for scientists who inevitably experience setbacks and whose modus operandi is try, try, and try again. So Vedala is emotional and judgemental, expressing these flaws in highly anti-social ways (like spitting at Jeremy Stone, mentioned in the Gender section) that would preclude her from academic success and from consideration for leadership positions. Wilson is fast losing credibility with scientists and black women in STEM.
Andromeda Evolution elevates the menz. Except when they’re colored.
Wilson seems intent on establishing the dominance of driven, ambitious women on this mission, perhaps to counter accusations of misogyny levelled at the original. But very early on he stated that it is one of the few men who will save the day. This undermines characters and the reading experience as well as establishing the world-saving presence of the only white man in a team that includes one coloured man and a couple of coloured women. What do you call a Mary Sue when it’s a white male author?
Finally, we meet the native Brazilian guides all of whom appear to be men. If you assume ‘men’ when the author does not explicitly reveal their gender. We hear about the local uncontacted tribes the scientists should avoid. Wilson keeps calling them Indians. Native Americans used to be called Indians because centuries ago ignorant Europeans thought they’d landed in India. Times change and they’re no longer called Indians. But in Andromeda Evolution, Wilson refers to Indigenous people as Indians. A quick google shows some sites that refer to Indigenous people more respectfully while others still use the term Indians. I’m sure a French person would LOVE being called English, which isn’t dissimilar in principle [snark].
Not only are the indigenous guides mostly nameless robotic slaves but they are encoded as alien.
The Matis spit betel juice on the ground, his lips rimed in the blood-red plant extract… In the fading light, the bamboo shoots embedded in his nostrils gave him an unearthly presence (p. 128).
This is like saying “The Australian…” to refer to one of a group of Australians. For most of the novel they are nameless interchangeable servants.
Overt racism while discussing racism
Despite the implications of the narrative, Wilson overtly discusses white racism.
Historically, indigenous peoples of often been judged for not having “evolved”. The same weapons, religious beliefs, and societal infrastructure as those in the West. Even the word “It is civilisation” is a loaded term, as its definition is traditionally dictated by self-appointed gatekeepers of progress… (p. 154).
It is ironic that a text with racism so deeply embedded would acknowledge this truth, and yet Mills (2007) discusses racism and white ignorance in detail, explaining how both sides of this coin can be present in one narrative.
My horror mounts throughout the book as the USA collaborates with Russia, China etcetera, but violates Brazilian air space. Despite bringing other nations into its confidence, despite 50 years of national collaboration and (admittedly incomplete) information-sharing regarding the Andromeda Strain, the USA acts unilaterally and invades Brazilian air space to seize control of a swathe of the Amazon. This is consistent with Wilson’s narrative devaluing Brazilian natives and treating the nation’s government as if they are at a significantly inferior stage of technological development subject to white colonial interference without recourse. All this despite Wilson’s occasional statements about race interwoven in the narrative that challenge racist attitudes.
Andromeda Evolution vs Australia
One of the characters wears “an Australian bush hat with one side pinned up” (p. 81). Does Wilson know NOTHING??? ‘Australian bush hat’ probably refers to an akubra but when it has ‘one side pinned up’ it’s a ‘slouch hat’ worn by the army. What is the point in a ‘bush hat’ that doesn’t protect you from the sun?
The final wrap
I hated Andromeda Evolution. It’s not as bad as Simon Ings’s Wolves, a book I destroyed instead of giving it away. And yet every time I continued reading Andromeda Evolution I felt as if Wilson was seeing me, attacking me, with his vilification of disabled people and his other associated supremacist bigotry (racism).
At first I hoped that I could enjoy the novel by segregating my reaction to minority representation but Wilson’s writing is truly awful. Instead of immediate descriptions with sentences growing shorter to build tension, his sentences grow longer… and he sidetracks into information dumps about his research. Or into detailed backstory that he should be showing through characters’ reactions not through info dumps. Or, even worse, he does both. Did we really need a history of the International Space Station dispersed as digressions mid-action scene? Turgid prose, worse representation of minorities, I nominate Andromeda Evolution for any and several Wooden Spoon (last place) awards.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
ISBN 10: 1460752759
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
Release date: 18/11/2019
Format: paperback, pp.384
Category: fiction, speculative fiction
Shapiro, T. (2004). The Hidden cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. (2007). White ignorance. Race and epistemologies of ignorance, 247, 26-31.
And you could read my reaction to Mills’s article about white ignorance that seems peculiarly appropriate https://www.darkmatterzine.com/white-ignorance/.