I thought The Andromeda Strain was a great title, but for many years I had no book to go with it. I worked on draft after draft, never completing one, obsessing about the project. And all because I was so fond of the title I couldn’t abandon it.
The story itself was originally suggested by a footnote in George Gaylord Simpson’s scholarly work The Major Features of Evolution. Simpson inserted an uncharacteristically lighthearted footnote saying that organisms in the upper atmosphere had never been used by science-fiction writers to make a story.
I set out to do that.
Eventually I finished a whole draft and sent it to my new editor, Bob Gottleib, at Knopf. Bob said he would not even consider publishing it unless I was willing to completely rewrite it from beginning to end. I was twenty-five at the time, and Bob was only in his early thirties, but he had a very large reputation as an editor because he had edited Catch 22. So I gulped, and said I would rewrite it according to his directions.
Bob said that the novel should read like a New Yorker profile, that it should be absolutely convincing. I wasn’t really sure what that meant; I had read New Yorker profiles and found they varied widely. But he started me thinking about what The Andromeda Strain would look like, if the story were true. Where would I have gotten the information? How much would I know? And in what style would I write it, if it were true? I began to look at science non-fiction writing by people like Walter Sullivan, who wrote for the New York Times. And I began to imitate that factual, non-fiction writing style. It yielded a very cold, detached book that was also weirdly convincing.
After I sent Bob Gottlieb the rewritten manuscript, he called up and said I had done very good work, and therefore I only had to write half of it all over again. I gulped, and said I would. And after that, he would just call me every few days: rewrite the beginning of this chapter. Redo this description. This character isn’t right; fix it. Add a chapter here. And on, and on. I began to feel persecuted by these demands, which seemed interminable, and increasingly nit-picking. (I did not yet know how rare good editing is.)
When the book was published, lots of people thought it was true. It was pretty interesting. When Bob Wise set out to make the movie, his researchers assumed that everything was true, too, so they went out and found all the things the book talked about — the underground laboratory, the computer programs, the biometrics security. After a while I stopped telling people that I had made it all up, because it turned out that it was based on true things. But I didn’t know that when I was writing the book.