Richard Preston may be no Stephen King, but he sure knows how to scare people. And Preston, a writer for The New Yorker, does it without making anything up. Anyone who reads even a couple of pages of The Hot Zone (400 pages. Random House. $23) will recognize a pro at work. Preston knows just the right tone to use: rational, dispassionate, sort of Claude-Rains-meets-National-Geographic. "So often in a case like this," he deadpans at the outset of his tale, "it's hard to pin down the details. The doctors remember the clinical signs, because no one who has ever seen the effects of a Biosafety Level 4 hot agent on a human being can forget them, but the effects pile up, one after the other, until they obliterate the person beneath them."
The person in question is Charles Monet, a Frenchman living in Kenya who spent New Year's Day 1980 poking around Kitum Cave, a spooky cavern so vast that whole elephant herds roam around inside. Only a few days later, Monet was dead, his body having been literally dissolved by a Level 4 virus he caught somehow around Kitum Cave. The disease was Marburg, a highly infectious, extremely lethal rain-forest virus. Marburg, along with Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan, make up the recently discovered filovirus family. Marburg is the mildest of the three, killing only a quarter of the people who catch it. Ebola Zaire is the most virulent, killing nine out of 10 of its victims. It is, in Preston's words, a "slate wiper."
If you were unlucky enough to get so much as a paper cut while reading about Charles Monet, you would scream bloody murder. But you would probably keep reading. The Monet episode is a mere warm-up for Preston's main event, the discovery in 1989 of a building full of Ebola-stricken monkeys in Reston, Va., a few miles outside Washington. Preston's account of U.S. government efforts to contain the virus reads like a movie script, with a wise and craggy virus hunter abetted by a plucky female veterinary pathologist. It's no wonder that when a shorter version of this book appeared in The New Yorker two years ago, Hollywood producers knocked each other down to chase the rights to his story. This account of how the decimated rain forests have unleashed a wave of murderous diseases on their human invaders is a top-drawer horror story.
It is also not surprising that a movie based on Preston's book has already run aground with script problems, prompting its two stars, Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, to bail out. Preston's tale, though skillfully spun, is not the sort that makes Hollywood happy. It has too many loose ends. It has no bad guys. And it ends inconclusively: the strain of Ebola that killed the Reston monkeys, dubbed Ebola Reston, does not attack humans, although it could, given one of the quick genetic mutations of which these viruses are capable.
"The Hot Zone" has other problems. Preston is so intent on packing a narrative punch that he sacrifices substance. Near the end, for example, he reels off a list of viral and bacterial diseases that have lately made a mockery of scientific advances in immunology. Then, having ignited our curiosity, he drops the subject. While we have been mightily entertained by "The Hot Zone," we haven't been learning all that much.
Preston's book may be the best literary roller coaster of the fall, but if you're looking for the ultimate short course in new killer diseases, wait until October, for Laurie Garrett's encyclopedic and absorbing study, The Coming Plague (730 pages. Farrar Straus Giroux. $27.50). A science writer for New York Newsday, Garrett lacks Preston's stylistic verve, but her thoroughness easily outclasses his glibness. From Ebola to Machupo, from toxic-shock syndrome to cholera, she runs down every major microbial disaster on the planet. Like Preston, she has a soft spot for "disease cowboys," and she has lots of good jungle stories of these loner docs who corral plagues with nothing more than guile and ingenuity. But she is equally at home with the desk jockeys and political hacks who dominate and, all too often, obstruct the plague wars. Her lucid 100-page chapter on AIDS superb-ly summarizes that subject's weird blend of science, sociology and bad politics, and in the bargain, she provides a global perspective so woefully lacking in most accounts.
Garrett illuminates a field marked by bureaucratic infighting, drug-company indifference and the double whammy of environmental degradation and population explosion. In an argument both terrifying and persuasive, she posits a world health crisis in which diseases old (malaria, cholera) and new (AIDS, Ebola) stalk a planet increasingly unable to defend itself. It is not the sort of book to make Hollywood come calling, but for anyone who still prefers the truth to a happy ending, this brilliant downer is must reading.