The Past is a Foreign Country: The Andromeda Strain

I love the phrase from the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”: “The past is a foreign country”

For the author it was a hook for readers, but for me it is an axiom that only becomes more apt the longer I look at it. The past is strange. The people who inhabit it do not have the same culture we do. They don’t speak the same language. They don’t watch the same TV. The care about different things and have different priorities.

And sometimes it takes effort to visit.

I haven’t read “The Go-Between” but something I have recently read that struck me with how foreign it felt was Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel “The Andromeda Strain.”

The setting is the United States in the late 60s or early 70s. As such I was expecting a recognizable landscape. This led to several surprises.

First was how plausible American Exceptionalism seemed. The US was the leader of scientific thought in the late 60s. They had just reached the moon. They were outspending other nations in defense, but also at the same time scientific research and thoughtful contingency planning. It was plausible for Crichton to write that the US would invest $22M ($136M today) on a project with no direct applications to existing endeavours, but whose returns they expected to see in other related fields of inquiry and enterprise. That level of largesse coupled with the inevitability of knock-on benefits even if the program failed could only exist in a country that believed in its own ingenuity. It was stunning.

Second was how a portion of the scientific community planned for crisis. They sent a letter to the President with both allusions to the Einstein letter and containing highly technical terminology, expecting both of those things to be understood by the recipient. Two out of the past three administrations wouldn’t understand the letter. The other wouldn’t have reacted with haste, or with such extravagant funding, or at all, to the threat as described. Underlining the strangeness was how the fictional scientists were satisfied with government response to a theorized crisis. I can no longer imagine a US government response that the scientific community would applaud as satisfactory.

Third was the overt sexism. There were no women in the novel. Sure, they had a “girl” operating the switchboard and another “girl” running lab results and still others sprinkled about… but no women. Only two were permitted names, and one of those was a recording.

Fourth was the unfiltered promotion in the cover. The cover blazed that the book was able to rivet you to your seat to equal or greater measure than the televised walk on the moon. Given how exalted that moment has now become, given how small and commonplace scientific discoveries are now treated… it is both astonishing in the temerity of the copywriter’s claim, and in the fact that a comparison to a scientific achievement is being used in advertising at all.

There were dozens of smaller hitches: anything to do with computers or automation was a little too “gee whiz” and now seems quaint, the excessive page area devoted to ASCII art, the cover design… But I’ve read early Michael Crichton before, so these things I expected to a certain degree. Even the books in the back listed for mail order at prices between 95c and $1.25 (plus 10c postage) only stuck in my mind long enough to pull up an inflation calculator and realize that, actually, those are sensible book prices (though postage costs quite a bit more now).

All of these together (placed into an engaging, if flawed, narrative) emphasize the importance of experiencing old media. By seeing the differences and imagining and inferring how they made sense at the time we can broaden our own understanding of our own time and how naive, quaint, biased, or flawed we might appear in the future

With or without a metaphor, travel to a foreign country is illuminating. I recommend it to all who have the time and capability.