It has recently come to my attention that a lot of people out there are reading (or re-reading) Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone as a reference because of the current Ebola outbreak. I was shocked to hear this because I remember swiftly flipping the pages of this enthralling novel in high school. Yes, you read that correctly, novel. I thank my Twitter acquaintances (and science writer idols) Seth Mnookin (@sethmnookin), Maryn McKenna (@marynmck), Ed Yong (@edyong209), and Vincent Racaniello (@profvrr) for bringing a horrifying truth to my reality, The Hot Zone is classified, distributed, and sold as a nonfiction book!
Despite the “terrifying true story” tagline, I have always classified The Hot Zone as a fictionalized science novel–and you should too. It is a story that was admirably researched by Preston and provides some true accounts of people (patients, doctors, & scientists) involved in ebola outbreaks, but it is presented as a fictional worst case scenario adventure. Preston’s dramatization includes the all-too rapid spread of the infection, as it “jumped from bed to bed, killing patients left and right”. As well as the overly embellished symptoms of disease, “people were dissolving in their beds” as infection with ebola “transforms virtually every part of their body into a digested slime of virus particles”.
As this novel was one of my earliest motivations in pursuing immunology and infectious disease research for my career, I find it difficult to smear Preston’s reputation. I also had the opportunity to meet this captivating author after a speaking engagement about The Wild Trees at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies a few years ago. He kindly autographed my copy of Panic in Level 4 while inquiring about my immunology research on memory T cells. So I will only go so far as to recommend that The Hot Zone NOT be used as your reference for Ebola information. Please use these other references instead:
David Quammen’s Spillover (particularly the Thirteen Gorillas chapter) or Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
World Health Organization (WHO)
And somewhat ironically, this suspenseful Richard Preston article in The New Yorker