The threat of biotechnological warfare and/or terrorism is the focus of this carefully researched and riveting novel by the author of The Hot Zone. The term "science fiction" doesn't quite do justice to this tale which lies just to the other side of Preston's usual domain of literary nonfiction. Though the particulars of this story of a genetic engineer who designs lethal virus bombs to thin the population and the counterterrorist group of scientists who attempt to stop him are fictional, the possibilities of such threats are real.

The counterterrorists are a motley and sometimes contentious group of recruits from the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the U.S. military. Their agendas and methods differ, but the immediate death threat to the unsuspecting inhabitants of New York and Washington D.C. unifies them into an effective if not always efficient team. They discover the virus when five cases appear of what seems to be an acute and horrifying permutation of a rare neurological dysfunction that induces violent seizures and compulsive self-destruction by chewing on one's own flesh. The virus turns out to be a graft that could only have been produced by artificial means.

The search for the "mad scientist" with equipment capable of this sophisticated work takes weeks during which a handful of people have to live with the secret that a potential pandemic could literally explode in a local subway. The resolution, while in some ways satisfying, hardly dispels the uneasy implications which invite readers not only to serious reflection on our collective attitudes toward weapons research and development, but to activism.


This story demands a great deal of readers, including the will to confront the real and present danger we are all in and to reassess the systems of protection we rely on to keep "the world safe for democracy." The novel cuts close to the bone; its fictional aspects seem a thin veil over the lucid, hard-edged investigative reporting for which the author has gained just renown.

It raises appalling, political questions of an urgency that makes one wonder how much media drivel is designed to divert us not only from the threats of foreign development of biological weapons, but from our own participation in such research. The possibilities outlined in this very readable but troubling book point, among other things, to the changing role of the World Health Organization, the CDC, and other major centers of public health supervision and research.


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count