Richard Preston: A cultural scientific author

Richard Preston's novel that accounts the Ebola virus

While aesthetic appeal and canonical importance are possibilities of scientific literature, other works purport only to spread information to the masses of American readership. In the case of The Hot Zone (1994), the author Richard Preston purposefully uses simplistic and efficient language so as to strike fear into a wide range of readers that ensures those that read this work will not soon forget the information it provides. A biography of Richard Preston from Contemporary Authors Online accurately points out that The Hot Zone “was responsible in part for transforming the Ebola virus from an obscure African malady into a well-known international killer” (Contemporary Authors Online). Preston’s account of the virus is so horrifying, that the biography, while quoting a review of the novel, points out how the reviewer calls the novel a “top-drawer horror story” (Contemporary Authors Online), and the back cover of the novel quotes Stephen King as saying that The Hot Zone is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read. What a remarkable piece of work.” The novel had a massive effect on American culture, because it placed fear of Ebola, and by extension all potentially lethal viral infection, in the forefront of the mind of many an American. Another of Preston’s novels, Demon in the Freezer (2002), chronicles the eradication of Smallpox, and has the same protagonist as The Hot Zone, the great military virologist Peter Jahrling. In order for scientific advancement to be financially possible, it usually needs to be relevant in broader American culture. Today, 18 years after publication of The Hot Zone, we as a scientific community are very close to having a cure for viral infection that is as efficient as the remedies we possess for bacterial infection. Though Ebola is certainly not the only virus our culture fears, fear of virus is what has made this impending breakthrough a legitimate possibility.

The 10 pages I assigned from The Hot Zone chronicle the acute incubation of the virus in one of its earlier victims (Preston uses the name Charles Monet out of discretion for the man and his family’s privacy) while he boards a flight from Mombassa to Nairobi, ending with his death while waiting for medical attention in the waiting room of the Nairobi Hospital. Preston’s descriptions of each phase are highly vivid, and it very much reads like the Ebola virus is a super villain from a horror story. What is most frightening, however, is that the account is entirely accurate. Once it reaches an acute level of incubation, the Ebola virus lyses cells and replicates in others so quickly that it completely liquefies every single organ inside the body until the skin and bones of the human body can no longer hold its contents. What was once a complicated network of cells, tissues, organs and systems has become a giant soup of blood and macromolecules, and it bleeds out of the infected human’s body, taking with it the last trace of the host’s life. The thought of a virus (the common cold is a virus) being able to do such a thing is absolutely terrifying, and Preston’s account of the virus is utterly fascinating. While The Hot Zone may never show up in a canonical anthology, its impact is most certainly felt by the American culture.

One interesting piece of trivia:  Richard Preston and his protagonist Peter Jahrling are both  current employees of the University of Texas. Both conduct virology research in Galveston for the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Hemorrhagic rash brought on during the acute incubation phase of Ebola infection

Electron Microscopy rendering of an Ebola virus

Introduction and Reading

Where does science fit in with American Literature, and what sort of works are produced at the interface of science and literature?

Kurt Vonnegut: A canonical scientific author

Official CDC website Ebola page

Works Cited

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2 thoughts on “Richard Preston: A cultural scientific author

  1. Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone is far from beautifully written, but I actually found it much more intriguing than Vonnegut’s Galapagos; though I’m not sure why this is. The style of Preston’s writing is blunt, and seems to be more focused on sensationalizing the story in a way that is graphically terrifying, than crafting a story line. Vonnegut, on the other hand, writes in a way that is more aesthetically appealing (as you mention in your introduction) than Preston’s. And still, I am somehow much more drawn to The Hot Zone than Galapagos, and of the two I will certainly buy the former to read long before the latter. Because of this, I wonder why it is that it is Galapagos which will be anthologized but never The Hot Zone. I would consider The Hot Zone a non-fiction of sorts, though it is a story, it is based on and depicting true events. Should there not be a branch of the American Literary Canon which allows for non-fiction accounts, especially those as important as this? I wonder if this will ever be the case, or if Preston and authors like him will always take the back burner to those who write in a more fanciful way, yet fail to scientifically inform their audiences. Why is it that we place more value on writing style than actual content?

    • I agree with you completely. I too find that Preston’s efficient communication of the horrors he is describing resonates much harder in my mind than a work of aesthetic appeal. Not to say that I don’t appreciate aesthetics in writing, as I think they resonate on a different level of metaphysical intellectualism, but the vivid description of this very real threat to the human condition has been heard loud and clear by many a morbidly fascinated ear. This novel was able to successfully contribute to the uprising against viral threat, and for that reason, I find this work to have a place of utmost importance pertaining to the improved proliferation of the human species.

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