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Richard Preston is first and foremost a non fiction author, best known for the Hotzone, The Demon in the Freezer and Panic in Level 4. This comes across strongly in this book - and it does read in many ways like a non fiction account - if the subject matter were not so fantastic - at least with our current level of technology. Of course Preston knows far more about the current level of technology than I do as his primary field of research has always been biological warfare. Thankfully, Preston has made a deliberate choice not to share everything he knows, clearly stating he has changed the name of at least one substance, as well as few details to prevent his book being useful as cookbook for potential terrorists. This does not affect the story in any way - I've no idea which details he as altered other than the one name. I usually do appreciate books teaching useful science as well - but I'm sure I'll never have occasion to be cooking up weapons of mass destruction - and in all honesty microbes scare me - so I won't be needing more precise information.
The story begins as a home grown terror plot on American soil. The deaths are limited at first, the killer is using carefully controlled test cases to see just what his new toy will do. At first this is just an unknown disease but is soon becomes obvious that this is not a natural epidemic but an engineered biological weapon, which has been deliberately released on the American public. The results of this disease are graphic with bleeding out, self cannibalism and at times extreme violence - before the inevitable - death. No demands have been made, no group has claimed responsibility and the motives of the perpetrator are completely unknown. A team of scientists, FBI, and even a couple of UN weapons inspectors just back from Iraq must come together to find the source of this infection before the perpetrator moves on to full scale attacks.
The author gives us a brief background on the victims, enough to make them people rather than just statistics, but does not go into excessive detail bogging the story down. It has a pretty fast flow and is basically well connected. There is one section, a quick chapter on American biological weapons tests in the Pacific Ocean in 1969 which actually did take place which seems a bit out of place, and I still feel the author put this in to make a point, but it will tie in later. The blending of fiction and non fiction makes this book very believable as well. Mixing the specific agents here may seem unlikely - especially the genetic elements, but the overall premise is quite believable and the apparent ease with which it could be done staggering. Preston is a strong supporter of science and genetic research, but has grave concerns about biological warfare which I happen to share, and seems to feel the public should be made more aware. These tests have been largely written off as ineffective and this is given as the reason for discontinuing this type of research. There is no evidence to support this - the facts lean much more heavily to the premise that these tests did work - but worked too well. It's the old genie in the bottle problem - once you let it out - you may find containing it much more difficult.
The main character in this book is Alice Austin, a CDC pathologist. She is reasonably well developed. She is likable, as is agent Hopkins, but neither is exceptionally memorable. If memory serves correctly, Alice's father was a police officer - and she has a natural bent for investigative work. She is also rather reclusive, work oriented with few personal relationships. I very nearly named the disease itself as the main character - this is an interesting subject and extremely well developed a chimeric disease combining not only viral agents but the coding for a genetic disease as well. I would classify this book as very much plot driven or event driven rather than character driven - but I wouldn't mind reading another book with the same characters.
I positively hate spoilers and there are enough twists and turns in this book that I have already gone back and removed one section of this review - just in case it reveals too much. I will say if you love possible scenarios for a zombie apocalypse, you have to read this book even though there are no zombies in it. This will certainly make no sense if you haven't read the book - but once you have I think you'll see my point.
According to several reports - this book scared the pants off the American President at the time, Bill Clinton. apparently it kept him awake all night and he was so disturbed he ordered an intelligence evaluation of the book as well as increasing spending on research and preparedness for biological attacks. I suspect this is exactly what the author - to scare the pants off people with fiction, when in fact his non fiction in more frightening in my opinion. One word - ebola. If that doesn't frighten you I don't know what will - but you might consider the fact that 100% lethal strain of smallpox was meant to have been developed in the Soviet Union , as well as weaponized bird flu ( for research purposes only) by the USA. Fiction has the ever reassuring comfort of being fiction.
This book did not give me nightmares - but then I can't say many books ever have. Our worst nightmares are the things that have already happened as they say. I did not find it compelling - I could put it down and walk away for a day or two without being desperate to find out what happened next. I can not find any real faults in the book, but neither can I say it was the most entertaining book ever.It does entertain - but there are other books I find far more entertaining. But I can say the combination of the virus, some of the possibilities it presented will stay with me. It is a book that makes you think - a lot and I value that highly in a book. I find myself wavering between 4 and 5 stars, I've gone with 5 for these reasons.
1- I think more people should read this book - it will encourage an awareness of an incredibly frightening issue. I love science - I love the possibilities advances offer us. But I like fire too - just not in the hands of 2 year olds. The secrecy surrounding this work is frightening and if there is one guarantee in life it is a that sooner or later some one will **** up. This isn't an area where "oops" is a good word.
2 - I highly respect the authors decision to alter scientific facts to ensure this book could not be used as a do it yourself manual. The sheer controversy would most likely have generated massive book sales instead of leaving this as a bargain basement choice which I paid £2.12 for and is only available used. He appears to have put morality over profit.
3 - I think this man actually has an agenda other than profit . He appears to have real feeling for the suffers of a rare genetic disease Lesch Nyhan syndrome and goes out of his way to draw attention to this illness and the lack of funding to help. He also seems seriously concerned about the threat of biological weapons and he seems to think there is more than meets the eye in this area. He has far more opportunity to form an informed opinion than I have - so I'll have to admit - his fears do concern me as well.
4. I like believable fiction - and this is very believable.