The genre Preston has inherited from the fiction writers draws you in by amassing small, even trivial details, and he is a master at this. But in a science thriller about the realities of AIDS and the threat of future epidemics, one might hope to find the insights of science as well as the ingredients of a thriller. Describing a tense moment when three Army officers arrive at a Virginia gas station to wait for a clandestine hand-off of some dead Reston monkeys for analysis, Preston pauses to tell us, "Nancy went into the gas station and bought Diet Cokes for everyone and a pack of cheddar-cheese crackers for herself, and she bought C.J. some peanut butter crackers." This junk-food prose would be fine if Preston gave more attention to the larger questions this story raises.
He reports, for instance, the Army's decision during the crisis to take actions it thought might be illegal. "You never ask a lawyer for permission to do something," the general in charge tells his staff. "We're going to do the needful, and the lawyers are going to tell us why it's legal." He also notes, as the Army prepared to move on the Reston monkey colony, that "half of this biocontainment operation was going to be news containment." Disregarding the law and deceiving the press may have seemed necessary at the time, but these decisions deserve some ex post facto scrutiny and serious contemplation. Here they get no more attention than those officers' snacks.
More important, perhaps, are the questions of science that are never explored. There are clues scattered throughout this story that our relation to viruses is more complex and less understood than our image of them as "individuals," as deadly predators, might suggest. Despite repeated dire predictions throughout these pages of epidemics similar to that in Crichton's classic Andromeda Strain, the early outbreaks in Germany, Sudan and Zaire soon mysteriously abated, leaving both the doctors and the scientists puzzled.
Of Sudan, Preston simply says, "For reasons that are not clear, the outbreak subsided and the virus vanished." And of fears that Ebola Zaire would devastate Kinshasa, "But to the strange and wonderful relief of Zaire and the world, the virus never went on a burn . . . and went back to its hiding place in the forest." And the Reston virus proved infectious but mysteriously innocuous.
Yet these curious facts are left strangely unexamined. It may be as vital to understand why these viruses retreated as to understand why they attacked, but this question isn't asked. "Viruses," Preston writes, "are molecular sharks, a motive without a mind. Compact, hard, logical, totally selfish. . . ." Indulgence in such anthropomorphism and metaphor reinforces a terrifying Darwinian view of "Nature, red in tooth and claw," but it blinds us to new views from molecular biology.
Current research suggests that viruses may be more like wandering messengers than alien predators, their visitations serving to exchange genetic information among individuals and species in an ecology more intricate and a biochemical balance more delicate than we have yet realized. One promising experimental drug for AIDS is based on this idea: it blocks a receptor site for the virus' message instead of working through the immune response.
Preston concludes that "AIDS is the revenge of the rain forest" for human incursions and overpopulation of the Earth. "It is only the first act of revenge," he adds. Marburg and Ebola pose the new threat of a virus "trying, so to speak, to crash into the human species." These images may owe more to the fictions we know than to the truths we have only begun to recognize. Peering into the edges of the rain forest, Preston shows us a landscape of infectious terror, but he misses a path into the frontiers of science.
Paul Trachtman is a freelance writer based in rural New Mexico.