Some of the information contained in this review may spoil the book for you, if you plan on reading it. Please be aware.
To this day, one of my favorite popcorn film remains Outbreak, the 1995 thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr. as they battle a sudden outbreak of an impossibly deadly African filovirus on American soil. Something about it fascinated me—for several years, in fact, I decided that I wanted to become a virologist, such the was the hold that this new concept of the deadly virus held on me.
Though I knew that Outbreak‘s “Motaba” was based on the very real Ebola family of viruses, it wasn’t until very recently that I realized the story for Outbreak was based on a real book, itself based on a real event surrounding a real virus. Richard Preston’s 1995 novel The Hot Zone was one of the first widely popular “scientific thrillers,” a sort of blend of hard science and soap opera drama.
Without giving away many of the details, let me sum up The Hot Zone concisely:
- A number of people get filoviruses while in Africa, and die in horribly descriptive ways. Filoviruses, though more difficult to transmit, are perhaps the most deadly disease known to man (the Ebola Zaire virus claiming a 90% mortality rate).
- Monkeys in a secure(?) near Washington, D.C. have some sort of filovirus. Nothing comes of it.
And that’s it. No communities infected with a sudden outbreak of world-ending virus. No particularly heroic CDC or USAMRIID risking life and limb in pursuit of a cure No human actually becomes sick—though several people end up with the virus, which is apparently benign in humans. In fact, the focus of this part of the novel focuses much more on that fact that many of the main characters are doctors of veterinary medicine, and don’t like the fact that so many monkeys have to die.
So, The Hot Zone as a narrative was very disappointing. What was far more interesting was the first part of the novel, which talks about the history of filoviruses, beginning with Marburg and ending more recently with strains of Ebola. There was a lot more virology here—albeit a pop. sci. version—and was able to hold my interest marginally longer.
But here’s the thing about Richard Preston: imagine if Dan Brown paired up with Jerry Bruckheimer to create a science thriller: you’ll end up with a lot of poor, repetitious writing—for instance, Preston repeats the character’s job titles—and their full name!— multiple times in a row (e.g. Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax) without shortening to “Jaax” or even a pronoun (“she”), these structures of the English language apparently being too boring for such a story. Everybody strides everywhere, making grave one-liners about doomsday, opining in simplistic, third-hand ways about the matter at hand. It really is a summer blockbuster, but in book form, and with some truly awful writing habits added in for color.
It must seem like I’m giving Preston a hard time. Truth is, he basically launched the genre. And, in his defense, he has a lot of talent as a writer—at least, for fits of sudden poetic inspiration—but he must be slumming it here. It’s tacky Michael Crichton fare, and it feels like it; it’s made all the more insulting that the events it describe ultimately lead to…. nothing. Nothing happens, despite all the building. Monkeys die, and the virus that was so dangerous actually wasn’t…. but it could have been! Really!
To be honest, the movie Outbreak was, though equally simplistic in many ways, a much better story. The Hot Zone was a disappointment both in its narrative and largely in its style. I can’t in good conscience recommend it very highly.