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Louis Untermeyer


The Hot Zone

By Richard Preston
Anchor Books, 422 pp, 1994

"From deep in the rain forest," intones the slick insert inside the cover, "A KILLER VIRUS stalks the human race."

Ooh! Scary.

Well, it is and it isn't. Let me explain.

Preston recounts an Ebola outbreak that infected lab monkeys in Reston, Virginia. Though humans were infected with the virus, they did not get sick. In fact, this strain of Ebola, to this point unknown to all, was harmless in humans, though it wiped out the poor monkeys.

Naturally, when Ebola first showed up, no one knew it was a new, harmless strain. So the army and CDS went into action, killing monkeys, sanitizing the lab, testing blood samples, the whole nine yards. All for, well, nothing. 

But not really for nothing, of course, because now we have Ebola Reston to add to the list of viral nasties, such as Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan. These are horrible, dangerous viruses that have no cure and usually kill the poor sap who should happen to catch one. I now know all about these viruses, in addition to Marburg, because Reston spends the first half of the book telling us all about them. 

See, he knows the false alarm in Reston isn't enough to carry the book, so he needed to fill some space with graphic descriptions of all the various stages of Ebola. It ain't pretty, folks. You don't want to get it.

That's the book. Some history and an outbreak of harmless Ebola. A bit anticlimactic, considering the hype inside the cover.

But be afraid. There are no cures to these viruses. They can appear anytime and spread across the globe like wildfire, wiping out the human race. Preston almost seems to wish for it. Near the end, he sermonizes "The appearance of AIDS, Ebola... appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere." That's encouraging. Catch Ebola and die a painful death, and it's your fault. 

Ah, but the earth isn't taking this destruction peacefully. "In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species. It is beginning to react to the human parasite, the flooding infection of people, the dead spots of concrete all over the planet, the cancerous rot-outs in Europe, Japan, and the United States, thick with replicating primates, the colonies enlarging and spreading and threatening to shock the biosphere with mass extinctions. Perhaps the biosphere does not "like" the idea of five billion humans." The earth is pissed with humans, and is "attempting to rid itself of the human parasite."

Didn't know you were a parasite, did you? Didn't know the earth does not want you here, did you? You fool. What right do you have, living and multiplying and filling the earth? How selfish! The planet is suffering, and what do you do? Reproduce! Create more parasites! 

What's that? You say if humans are parasites, all living things are parasites, because all living things live off the earth? And there are more of other creatures than humans, so why isn't Mama Nature pissed at mosquitoes and cockroaches? 

What kind of question is that? Shut up and take your medicine. Preston says you'll die because you're a parasite and it's your fault and you deserve it. Because you're here.

You should be ashamed.

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