A for Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot

As you well know, I love science fiction because it posits bizarre but universal circumstances and watches humanity respond. Orson Scott Card asks how we would respond to an inscrutable alien race. Ursula K LeGuin asks what we would do in response to gender imbalances and another messiah figure. Hoyle and Elliot ask what we would do when given a gift that seems too good to be true.

The book is slow to begin but short. A long afternoon is plenty of time to follow Dr. Fleming, brilliant astronomer and computer genius, as he discovers a signal from the Andromeda galaxy, interprets it, and comes to deal with the results. The signal codes for a computer faster and more complex than anything dreamt of at the time (written in the 60’s, set in the 70’s) and a program to feed into the computer. While Dr. Fleming and his team work to build and run this supercomputer, political forces push and pull and Fleming himself begins to suspect that this gift has strings attached. The computer begins to learn about humans and prompt them to experiment, eventually resulting in the creation of Andromeda, the beautiful young woman who may be the salvation of humanity or its destruction. Through it all, Dr. Fleming fights with himself, his friends and colleagues, and the powers that be, trying to learn the truth and prevent eventual disaster.

While the book is an easy read, it is not particularly action packed or fast paced or detailed. Character development is left to the reader to infer as large blocks of time pass with only a few sentences to mark them. I would have enjoyed more details in general because I love the act of creating images in my mind that reflect the action. I feel so much more involved in books that give me more to work with. That being said, I think the authors, one of whom is a professor, expect a certain amount of autonomy in their readers. It’s as if they gave me what I needed to craft the story and left the details for me to fill in. The details that are there are creative and interesting. They describe one man’s voice as ‘whinnying’ and Andromeda is described as blonde, with high cheekbones and very baltic looking. I’ve never seen that descriptor but I imagine that the readers of the 60’s did. It is clear that the authors are scientists and academics as the villains of the book are of course the government and the military while the scientists are the last line of defense in a war no one knows is on.

The interesting scenario is this: the computer Fleming creates and the woman it designs present a cheat for the British government. With her ability to communicate directly with the device and with its vastly superior problem solving ability, the government has a quick fix for medicine, agriculture, economics, and defense. However, it is alien technology which Fleming suspects has an ulterior motive. It is almost inevitable that the bureaucratic powers attempt to monopolize the advantages and trivialize the dangers of this new technology, even after several ‘accidental’ deaths by electrocution.

By creating a beautiful woman to act as its liaison, the machine takes advantage of gender dynamics to disarm the overwhelmingly male authority figures. While raising awareness about gender stereotypes was likely not the primary goal when writing this book, the fact that the authors chose to use a female character to serve as the ‘slave’ of the computer illuminates a deep seated perspective of women as subservient and sexual to the exclusion of individual personality. One of the politicians licks his lips when looking at her inert body during its development and our protagonist uses kissing and caressing to try to show her what it’s like to be human. These acts make sense in context and are extremely likely under the circumstances, but that’s part of why this choice raises the issue of women in storytelling. It’s supposed to show how bad the nasty politicians are and how achingly human Fleming can be but it feels cliche in what was otherwise nontraditional story telling. Add to that the fact that Andromeda loses her life only hours after she gains freedom from the machine and we see a female character who has nothing to offer except as a foil for male characters.

The romance was equally placid. She’s a spy set on him and he’s a big brother type who falls easily in and out of ‘love’. She’s conflicted about her roles and he’s oblivious and childish. Perhaps it’s just human but it’s so far outside my experience that it rings hollow. I almost don’t even remember the love interest because she spent the whole book wringing her hands and trying to get out of her responsibilities.

While I found the book entertaining, it is also jolting; plodding and skipping ahead by turns. The first half of the book is about Fleming discovering the message, decoding it, getting excited, getting dejected and playing around with boats and fast cars like a teen hit hard with affluenza, getting passionate, getting apathetic, and eventually getting his way but not really. I love the idea of finding, creating, and figuring out a trojan horse from outer space, but I feel like a rewrite could make so much more from this concept. The writers are obviously intelligent, but so much is missing that it feel less than a news story. It could have been a short story and had a greater impact while taking less time to write or read. It is a good idea and the writers are obviously intelligent, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by detailed writing that paints rich images in my mind and find a book that relies on me to fill in the gaps too abrupt to enjoy in retrospect. While reading it it was great but I’m already prepared to move on.