I couldn't make it through pages 59 to 76 in
Richard Preston's The Cobra Event. The
chapter is innocuously titled "Kate," but it's no
personality profile -- it's "Kate" as dead person,
dead person whose autopsy is laid out in infinite
detail. If you've read The Hot Zone, which
covers an Ebola virus outbreak, you know that
Preston is not squeamish. And in The Cobra
Event (I might as well get this over with), we are
treated to descriptions of self-cannibalism (the
victims of the deadly virus eat off their lips and
more), plus the effects of decay on a corpse and,
yes, how it smells. Be thankful there's no scent
Disgust aside, this is a pretty good corker.
Sometimes it's easy to ignore the clumsy writing,
sometimes not. Grafting fiction onto extensive,
fact-laden passages doesn't really work. And
must we carry the science metaphors so far?
Traffic, for instance, "moved on the avenue like
blood swishing through an artery." Some marble
lobby walls "reminded her of a cancerous liver,
sliced open for inspection." "Her" is our Centers
for Disease Control heroine, whose name is Alice
Austen. But we'll call her Jodie Foster for short.
Indeed, The Cobra Event is so hilariously bent
on Hollywood, it reads more like a novelization
than a novel. There's plenty of "Men in Black"
FBI types, every chase scene leads to a cinematic
tunnel and there's a hint of romance between
Alice/Jodie and forensics hotshot Will
Hopkins/Kevin Costner/Bill Paxton. The kickass
government type has Tommy Lee Jones written
all over him. Bioweapons inspector Dr. Mark
Littleberry is "a tall handsome African-American
with a crewcut."
Snideness aside, I'll admit that Richard Preston is
a fine teacher. In the notes to the book, we learn
that he spoke to hundreds of inside sources about
"black biology." It shows. We discover that
weapons inspectors need only a cotton swab to
get the goods (they take samples of goo in
suspect buildings, then feed the data to a
biosensor). FBI snipers are taught to shoot
terrorists in the eyes, because that shuts the brain
down fastest, which means the reflex instinct that
prompts a dying man to pull a trigger/detonator
switch is shorted out. Viruses, Preston explains,
are vampirish; they need blood to survive but
often can be killed off by sunlight.
Even though I couldn't bear those 17 pages, I
admit the science is riveting in The Cobra
Event. The story, however, is only fair.
Recommendation? Stick to nonfiction, Mr.
Preston. Hollywood will still sniff you out. -- Salon
What happens when one crazed scientist takes it upon himself to develop and release a new biological weapon that will '"thin out' the human race? A doctor working for the Centers for Disease Control first notices some strange evidence in a young girl's death. Soon other bodies are arriving at the morgue in similar condition. The police, the FBI, and national medical and science personnel become involved in trying to get to the bottom of the deadly disease that is attacking New York City. Though the details in this novel are fictional, they are based on the history of biological weapons and the advanced genetic engineering and biotechnology that is available today. Despite the use of potentially confusing technical terms, the story line is easy to follow and fast paced. Sections of the narrative that sideline into history and worldwide political events are not crucial to the plot and may be skipped over. Realistically rendered characters hold center stage. The symptoms described in this story are frightening, and often presented in morbidly graphic detail. Fans of the horror genre are bound to enjoy this one. -- Anita Short, W. T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, Virginia