Richard Preston is a versatile and unique writer. He’s penned nonfiction and fiction, both to popular and critical acclaim. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he’s written books about the vast intricacies and limitlessness of outer space; about microscopic, infinitely complex and deadly viruses; and -- well before September 11 -- about the all-too-real threat of biological terrorism.
Preston is best known for creating a media frenzy and subsequent shockwave of terror in 1994 with his critically acclaimed, No. 1 New York Times bestseller, The Hot Zone. In a gripping, narrative style, The Hot Zone, relates a gripping true tale: In late 1989 in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., strands of the Ebola virus were found in the carcass of recently imported monkey from Africa. The book recounts the heroic efforts of soldiers and scientists as they attempted to avert a deadly outbreak of the virus, which is highly contagious and reputedly kills 90 percent of those it infects. Stephen King called it “one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read.”
The Hot Zone succeeded, not solely because the story was infectiously compelling and masterfully told, but because it was chilling to the bone. People were genuinely frightened. Everyone wanted to know, “Can this actually happen?” and “Are we really prepared if it does?”
Preston’s next project, The Cobra Event, still has readers asking these same questions. The amazing achievement here: It’s a work of fiction. About a biological terror attack on New York City, the plausibility of such a scenario is now, in our post-9/11 world, even more believable and scary. In fact, when then-President Bill Clinton read The Cobra Event, he was horrified. The New York Times reported: “Mr. Clinton was so alarmed by The Cobra Event that he instructed intelligence experts to evaluate its credibility.” Preston recalled in a magazine interview: “So I get this frantic series of calls on my answering machine; ‘Newt Gingrich is trying to reach you. He’s been instructed by the President to call you and get your advice.’ So I think, right, sure. But I end up talking with Gingrich for quite some time about biological terrorism.” Preston has since appeared before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism & Government Information and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Chemical and Biological Weapons Threats to America.
Of The Cobra Event,Newsweek wrote, “…Preston has inadvertently created a new hybrid of fact and fiction…” Inadvertent or not, Preston’s almost indistinguishable blending of fact and fiction makes for a great read. Like his nonfiction, the characters are highly developed and the pacing is swift. And the fear factor: intense long after the last page is read.
Like fellow nonfiction writers Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) and Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air) and novelist Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Timeline, etc.), Preston has perfected the art of character. Science provides the backdrop to his work, but it never gets in the way of the story. After all, he’s not a scientist. “I’m a writer, pure and simple,” Preston once said. “I write about people.”
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An asteroid is named after Richard Preston. Called Asteroid Preston, it is approximately 3-5 miles across, and could actually collide with Mars – or Earth! – in approximately 100,00 years.
The Hot Zone inspired the 1995 hit movie Outbreak, which attracted an all-star cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Donald Sutherland. The actual film version of Preston’s book never got made; it stalled, and the competing project that became Outbreak was the one that made it to theaters.
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