First things first: The plot of the book is much less...I don't want to say complex...it's much more focused in the book than in the miniseries. For instance, there is no intrepid reporter hiking through the deserts promising God he'll never, ever again get high.
So, let's start with a brief plot synopsis -- of the plot in the book. Keep in mind, it was written in 1969, with 1960s technology in mind. Also keep in mind that, being published in 1969, it was written in the era of manned space flights but before Apollo 11.
The idea here is that there are likely organisms living in the upper atmosphere that humans would have limited or no immunity for -- rather like what happens when long-separated populations meet again. Simple things can be very, very deadly.
To study this, NASA sends up satellites that "scoop" material from the upper atmosphere (thus, Project Scoop) and bring it back to Earth to examine.
One of the Project Scoop satellites comes down outside Piedmont, an isolated town in Nevada. Within hours, everyone in the town except one old man and one infant, is dead. Most died instantly, the blood in their body congealed into flaky, dusty stuff. Some went insane and killed themselves in weird ways.
So, a bunch of scientists who had previously signed up for Project Wildfire are called into action. They work in an underground lab that sounds an awful lot like Stargate SG-1's Cheyenne Mountain.
Their goal is to discover the source of the contagion and to eliminate it.
After much back and forth and drawn-out explanations of things we all take for granted today (seriously, he explains electron microscopes), they come to the stunning conclusion that it has mutated and is harmless.
Okay, stuff happens in between (turns out the folks that survived it survived because their blood chemistry was messed up -- the old guy had acidosis from an untreated ulcer and the baby's blood was too basic because (I absolutely kid you not) he cried too much and had too much CO2 in his blood), but basically, the conclusion is that it's not made of protein, it is in regular hexagons (so it's probably a crystal) and that it mutates.
So, let's get into comparing the book with the movie.
Things the book did better:
* The plot is almost largely contained in Piedmont and within the Wildfire installation -- we're not having to follow government agencies, army units, and some reporter guy detoxing in the desert
* The science is more believable -- there is no time traveling, there are no wormholes, there are no buckyballs...it sticks with the one premise that this is something weird and something alive that may or may not have come from outer space
Things the movie did better:
* ...Individually, all the scientific things they talked about in the movie (wormholes, time travel, buckyballs) are things I find intellectually fascinating (though presented all at once, it...strained credulity)
* The end. Well, rather, the solving of the Andromeda puzzle. The keeping of Andromeda on the International Space Station? Not so much. (I mean, really....)
Things the movie did worse:
* Um...most of it
* No, seriously, most of it. The plot was a mangled, overwrought, overcomplicated mess.
Criticisms of the book:
* I had to read the ending three times to actually believe that after the whole frelling thing, everything was okay because Andromeda itself had mutated and wasn't dangerous anymore
** I mean, Andromeda is more or less the "bad guy" here -- and it just dissipates harmlessly on the wind
* I don't buy that the very smart scientists made the errors that Crichton made them make -- like not dissecting the lab rats that died from Andromeda. These guys are supposed to be the best in their field, and they are supposed to be trained to deal with a threat that could come, literally, from space.
** It's not so much the errors -- is the number and frequency of them, and the fact that they are all the critical errors that make the whole thing last longer (not that it matters, 'cause Andromeda reforms itself and stops killing people...sigh). It's too convenient.
Overall, it's a serviceable story, I suppose. And, I realize that part of the point of the story is that we can't predict organisms that live in the upper layers of the atmosphere, or in outer space, etc. etc. etc. But from a dramatic point of view, there's no climax.
The seals around Andromeda break down, and this guy is hyperventilating in order to try and stay alive, and, oh-my-gosh, everything's okay, 'cause Andromeda doesn't kill people anymore -- and we know that because it's already over Los Angeles and no one is dying or going crazy.
What the heck?
I mean, that's...that's the equivalent of Voldemort fading away in a puff of smoke just before the Battle of Hogwarts, never to bother anyone again. You gear up for this showdown -- you think, "Oh, yay, they've got it! They've figured it out! All they have to do is mess with the blood's pH...make everyone take antacids, and it's all good!" -- and then Crichton says, "Oh, ha ha, never mind -- I made the problem fix itself."
Until the last fifteen pages or so, I actually really liked the book, in a mindless, Angels and Demons kinda way. It was a puzzle that I didn't take as literal fact, but I enjoyed following along as we tried to solve the puzzle, if that makes sense.
Final grade: C
(It would have been a B if not for the ending. Grr.)