The Hot Zone, Richard Preston

Anchor, 1995, 422 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-385-47956-5

It’s invisible. Undetectable. Incurable. It can affect over ninety percent of the world’s population. It eats your insides, liquefying your internal organs. In the final stages, you’re essentially a bag of blood held together by flesh. Near the end, it will make you go in convulsions, sending body fluids everywhere. It rides on the blood, ready to prey on other humans.

It’s Ebola.

It’s not every day that you can read a book sporting a blurb in which Stephen King says “One of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read.”

After reading The Hot Zone, you might want to question the value of horror novels. Because The Hot Zone is nonfiction. Ebola is real. It kills and cannot be cured. The human race is singularly helpless before this microscopic predator. Far scarier than a couple of bomb-toting terrorists, vampires or doomsday devices.

Richard Preston wasn’t exactly a novice when he published The Hot Zone (besides being a regular New Yorker contributor, he had published two other scientific / technical non-fiction books) but this is the book that made him famous. A chilling Ebola outbreak happened shortly after the book’s release and for a few weeks, The Hot Zone went up the charts and into public consciousness. At least one heavily derivative movie (OUTBREAK, 1995) was made. The French translation of The Hot Zone is simply called Ebola. My own paperback copy of The Hot Zone is a fourth printing.

But beyond its great reputation, The Hot Zone is more than a book that happened to be at the good spot at the good time. Richard Preston has fashioned a good, solid, even gripping account of the virus threat.

The Hot Zone is divided in four parts.

The first one describes Ebola, and its initial outbreaks in Africa (Zaire, mainly) and Europe. Preston doesn’t miss the chance to describe extensively the effects of the virus and so we get lovely descriptions like:

When a virus multiplies in a host, it can saturate the body with virus particles, from the brain to the skin. The military experts then say that the virus has undergone “extreme amplification.” During this process, the body is partly transformed into virus particles. In other words, the body is possessed by a life form that is attempting to convert the host into itself. The end result is a great deal of liquefying flesh mixed with virus, a kind of biological accident.

After that, The Hot Zone moves to Reston, a suburb of Washington where an Ebola outbreak decimates a monkey house. Parts three and four of the book deal with the growing alarm, and decontamination of the Reston site.

Part four is fairly unique: Preston packs his travel kit and goes to investigate Kitum Cave, the most likely source of the Ebola virus. He obviously survives to tell the tale, but the effect is delightfully unsettling, boosting both the book’s tension and the author’s credibility.

The Hot Zone is that rarest of scientific books; A true-life thriller, a compulsively readable account and a lucidly described exposition of a complex subject. It does push the Big Buttons a lot, but with adequate reason to do so.

The Hot Zone is not only a non-fiction account that will teach you things (with it, you might spot mistakes in OUTBREAK), but a largely-read book that reserves its reputation while at the same time making a substantial point: The world is a lot more dangerous that we complacent, civilized, contemporary humans seem to be ready to believe.

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