Some people go on vacation during spring break. I managed instead to spend some quality time in the basement of my parents' home. It's the house I grew up in and is therefore a treasure trove of childhood memories. On this occasion I tracked down stacks of old magazines, back issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I was on a quest.
My efforts were rewarded when I paged through the November 1969 issue of F&SF. There was Alexei Panshin's column on recent books (pp. 46-51). His prose was as pungent as I had recalled. In fact, my memory of the book review's acerbic tone had initially sent me on a wild-goose chase, because I had been certain that Harlan Ellison had been the columnist. No, it was Panshin, and he was reviewing a novel by Michael Crichton.
The Andromeda Strain was a bestseller and led to a moderately successful movie. (Perhaps Harlan reviewed the movie. I'll have to check that out, too.) Now that Crichton is a favorite of the climate-change skeptics and, in particular, a "science advisor" to the president of the United States, it might be interesting to see Panshin's comments from three dozen years ago.
[The Andromeda Strain] has been favorably reviewed by Life, Look and the New York Times, and it has sold to the movies for an impressive sum. It is also cheap, sensationalistic, hastily written trash.... The story is either a plausible thriller—that is, you believe in the plague and in the efforts of the scientific and medical team to cope with it—or it is nothing.I wonder what Panshin would have to say about Crichton's State of Fear, a dramatized cut-and-paste job of every conspiracy theory espoused by the global-warming deniers?
Crichton bolsters his story with easy expertise and massive documentation, but the story never hangs together. The main reason is that Crichton invents his story as he goes along and is satisfied to put down the first thing that comes to mind, and one lie contradicts the next. Thus you have a bacteriologist who has won the Nobel Prize for work done in his spare time as a law student (Crichton consistently oversells)—but who doesn't know that he has a vein in his wrist.... Thus you have an Army van with a rotating antenna on top tacking back and forth across the Mojave desert taking triangulations every twenty miles on a grounded satellite—the landing site of which has already been predicted with an error of a few hundred yards. Two vans, we are told, would be suspicious. Thus you have a portentous scientific report on the probability of contact between man and other life forms with all figures to four places and a list of possibilities of encountering a life form more advanced than our own (the “7 +” level of data handling, if you please), or the possibility of encountering a life form radically different from our own, or the possibility of encountering no life at all. Crichton's documentation is fake, his expertise is false, and even his basic problem turns out to be a fraud—after a few days the plague ups and goes away.