Tag Archives: Richard Preston

American Steel, Richard Preston

<em class="BookTitle">American Steel</em>, Richard Preston

Avon, 1992 reprint of 1991 original, 278 pages, C$12.00 pb, ISBN 0-380-71822-7

Even two decades later, journalist Richard Preston is still best-known for The Hot Zone, a mesmerizing account of deadly viruses run amok.  A few follow-ups, including The Demon in the Freezer and the novel The Cobra Event followed; his collection of non-fiction pieces was even titled Panic in Level 4 as a nod to his best-selling work.  But Preston’s bibliography is more diverse than just deadly viruses, and 1987’s American Steel is a good demonstration of his versatility in telling us about the renewal of the US Steel industry as exemplified by the construction of a Nucor facility in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Preston was allowed access to the site as it was being built and tested; no insignificant achievement as the “Crawfordsville Project” tried to build a new kind of facility at a time where few were willing to even bet on the company’s chances of success.  The history of US steel-making, explains Preston, is one where gigantic steelwork operations were gradually replaced by nimbler, smaller competitors.  The “mini-mills” led by technological innovation, a willingness to deal in smaller profit margins and a belief that they could do better jobs if they specialized in specific market niches.  The Crawfordsville project was one of those status-upsetting move; an American company using German technology to develop a machine that could transform rusting carcasses into shining new metal.

One of the most surprising facts from American Steel, especially to 2011 readers, is the blanket statement that over half the steel used in the US in the mid-eighties was recycled.  (This figure has since gone up significantly.)  Newer steelworks don’t refine iron ore extracted from the ground as much as they recast existing iron in newer forms; the Crawfordsville location was selected in part because it was geographically located close enough to the ruins of the “rust belt” and amply served by train lines carrying recyclable metal.

But machinery is far from American Steel’s only concerns, especially not when steelworkers prove to be such memorable characters.  It takes a special kind of man to work in a steel foundry, explains Preston; trying to manipulate hot steel with cold steel is a bit like building a water machine with ice, except that renegade hot steel tends to explode, melt human bodies and destroy buildings.  Working in such facilities means always being ready to run outside at a moment’s notice, breaking bones after jumping down platforms if the alternative is being burnt alive.  Those steelworkers are the focus of the book, and hanging with them as they work hard and party even harder becomes one of the Preston’s ways to involve the reader with his subject matter.

You would think that presenting a corporate history of parent corporation Nucor would be relatively dull in comparison, but that’s not considering the tortuous road taken by automobile manufacturer REO (as in “REO Speedwagon”, the O of REO also standing for “Olds” as in Oldsmobile –it’s a complicated story) as it transformed itself in a Nuclear-focused company (hence “NUclear CORporation”), then as a holding company for various ventures before realizing that the best profits were to be made in the steel industry.  Nucor eventually became one of the most aggressive of the US steelmakers that renewed US steel production.  What contemporary readers know is that the electric arc furnace-driven mini-mills as exemplified by Nucor did manage to remake the US steel industry to their image: Once-mighty corporate behemoths such as blast furnace-powered Bethlehem and U.S. Steel have closed down, bought by mini-mills or been restructured in smaller entities.  There’s a darker side to Nucor’s success in its opposition to labour unions, but Preston also portrays a corporation with few management perks, a strong emphasis on humane working conditions and no layoffs to date.  The safety of Nucor’s plants is disputed throughout the book; a spectacular blow-out with fatal consequences at the Crawfordsville plant is discussed in one of the last chapters.

While the book isn’t perfect (some of the dialogues are so steeped in steel-making jargon that they give a flavour of the workers but no real understanding) and could now use at least one updated afterword to bring us up to speed with the latest developments regarding the industry, American Steel is a fine and gripping non-fiction account of a fascinating and dangerous industry.  Considering our reliance on steel produced in facilities just like the Crawfordsville plant, it’s not a bad idea to pay attention to those kinds of things.

The Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston

Ballantine, 2002, 292 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-46663-2

It’s not required to have read the first two volumes of what Richard Preston calls his “Dark Biology” trilogy (The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event) in order to appreciate The Demon in the Freezer, but it does help. While this book isn’t, strictly speaking, a sequel to The Hot Zone, it does exist in a very similar context and features a number of the same scientists as characters.

In The Hot Zone, Preston studied Ebola, an exotic disease that may, someday, cause a widespread epidemic. In The Demon in the Freezer, he takes a look at another disease, one that has already killed more humans than anyone can count: smallpox.

In many ways, it’s an even more interesting subject than Ebola. I’m part of the first generation that never had to worry about smallpox: Thanks to worldwide efforts by the health community, the disease was eliminated in 1975, the year I was born: Doctors vaccinated entire populations, setting up “firebreaks” the once-rampant disease couldn’t infect. Safely contained, smallpox burned itself out and disappeared from Earth in one of the most significant public health victories in humankind’s history.

Officially, existing stocks of the disease were consolidated in two places: Atlanta’s CDC and Vector, a research facility on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Officially, all agreed to keep copies of the virus “just in case”, maybe for developing better medicines. Officially, that’s where the trail end.

Unofficially, this is a much spookier story. Evidence exists that, the lax state of Russian security being what it was in the 1990s, copies of the virus have been made, replicated and tested… maybe even sold to other countries, or stolen by agents of these countries. Given the extremely contagious nature of smallpox, the most paranoid virologists have long dreaded an engineered strain of a disease with smallpox’s transmission characteristics coupled with the devastating effects of, say, Ebola.

Now public research is making progress in areas that are related to such a nightmare. A mousepox virus that just tears through existing vaccines. A successful attempt to make monkeys sick with human smallpox. Genetic engineering always progresses forward, and Preston faithfully report on it: “I spent days with Chen during the time he engineered the mouse supervirus. ‘It’s not difficult to make this virus,’ he said to me one day. “You could learn how to do it.’” [P.267]

The supreme irony being that the virus is still out there, waiting to be re-used. This demon still awaits in the freezer. In the book’s perfect concluding paragraph, Preston notes that “the virus’s last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power.” [P.283] In this post-2001 age of anthrax letters and hyper-terrorism (all covered in here), who’s to say what’s next?

Granted, I’d advise a bit of scepticism. In The Hot Zone, Preston makes a lot about “the coming plague”, a claim later disputed by books such as Ed Regis’ Virus Ground Zero. (Preston even takes a break to defend his argument in this book). Similarly, his inferences may be a touch too alarmist: While the back cover trumpets “Iraq (…is) almost certainly hiding illegal stocks of the deadly virus”, later events have shown this assertion to be, er, false. (On the other hand, Preston’s narrative is less categorical, and even includes an interesting scene in which White House officials almost pressure Peter Jahrling in saying that the Anthrax letter could have been produced in Iraq [P.225]. Hmmm…)

Nevertheless, it’s good (and entertaining) to be swept along by Preston’s prose. With his novel The Cobra Event, he confirmed his talent for writing a compelling narrative and many of the tools he used then are repeated here: Smooth transitions from exclusive interviews to historical narrative, powerful anecdotes and a careful arrangement of material. I find it regrettable the the paperback edition of the book doesn’t include an index (a general flaw of non-fiction books that bothers me more and more with time), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reader-friendly pop-science book on the subject. It’s splendidly entertaining, more than a little scary and unbelievably gripping. With The Demon in the Freezer, Preston scores a solid third hit in a row; I wonder what’s next on his publishing schedule.

The Cobra Event, Richard Preston

Ballantine, 1997, 432 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-40997-3

Most accounts of Richard Preston’s previous non-fiction book, The Hot Zone, commented on its terrifyingly high suspense factor. This reviewer wasn’t an exception, going as far as to question the appropriateness of horror novels in the face of The Hot Zone‘s realistic subject matter of viral plagues.

Well, Preston seemingly listened to the reviewers and wrote The Cobra Event, a gripping novel of -what else?- biological terrorism in the continental United States.

It begins as a teenager dies gruesomely in a high school art class. Soon, a CDC medical pathologist is on her way to New York to see what caused the death. She discovers that the teenager isn’t the only victim… and that the deaths might be part of a biological warfare test run.

Viral infections are scary enough that there’s really no need to imagine cold-blooded terrorists hatching a global depopulation plan. But that’s where The Cobra Event chooses to go, and the result is gripping.

This novel’s greatest strength -credibility- is almost a given from the author of three non-fiction books. Even though there’s no stopping an author from inventing spurious facts, false references and imaginary events (it’s fiction, after all), this reviewer is firmly convinced that careful homework shows. It informs the narrative and gives it an extra layer of credibility that is essential.

The Cobra Event is, right down to its very narrative, loaded and enhanced with facts, descriptions, actions and plotting that have to be modeled on real-life. The most immediate effect is to assign an unusually high plausibility to a basic idea (terrorists do bad things) that had been done time and time again elsewhere. A less-obvious effect is to engender a delightful feeling of dread. This is not a novel for the squeamish: many deaths are very violent and clinically described. The book contains two full-fledged autopsy scenes that will make even the most hardened reader squirm in their seats.

But, as many inept techno-thriller writers have demonstrated inadvertently, credibility isn’t enough for a successful book. You have to make it serve the story and to deliver a novel that’s compelling in its own right. Above all, it must be presented in a way that will be accessible to thousands of airplanes passengers all over the world.

Here too, Richard Preston excels. As readable as The Hot Zone was, The Cobra Event is even better. Good sympathetic characters, fast pacing, hypnotically readable prose all merge and make up a superior thriller. Down to the conclusion, which isn’t as tidy and wrapped-up as we would have liked to believe… just like a real-life bio-warfare event would presumably be.

Memorable, entertaining and credible, The Cobra Event is pretty good effort for a first novel, letting us speculate on a long and successful dual career for Preston, alternating non-fiction books with novels.

BRIEFLY: In comparison, Pierre Ouellette’s The Third Pandemic is, if you’ll pardon the pun, anaemic. Though it deals knowledgeably with a plague caused by bacteria and doesn’t stop right before the abyss, The Third Pandemic isn’t exactly enjoyable. Good set-pieces can’t erase the bad taste left by an annoying pessimism about human nature, very suspicious plotting, anti-technological bias (the second-to-last paragraph of the book is almost offensive) and lack of large-scale vision when dealing with a global disaster. The writing is also unnervingly ineffective, transforming exciting scenes in hum-drum descriptions. Read Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event instead.

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.