The Cobra Event

Katharine Whittemore reviews 'The Cobra Event' by Richard Preston


Katherine Whittemore
November 21, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Confession time: I couldn't make it through pages 59 to 76 in Richard Preston's "The Cobra Event." The chapter is innocuously titled "Kate," but it's no personality profile -- it's "Kate" as dead person, dead person whose autopsy is laid out in infinite detail. If you've read "The Hot Zone," which covers an Ebola virus outbreak, you know that Preston is not squeamish. And in "The Cobra Event" (I might as well get this over with), we are treated to descriptions of self-cannibalism (the victims of the deadly virus eat off their lips and more), plus the effects of decay on a corpse and, yes, how it smells. Be thankful there's no scent strip.

Disgust aside, this is a pretty good corker. Sometimes it's easy to ignore the clumsy writing, sometimes not. Grafting fiction onto extensive, fact-laden passages doesn't really work. And must we carry the science metaphors so far? Traffic, for instance, "moved on the avenue like blood swishing through an artery." Some marble lobby walls "reminded her of a cancerous liver, sliced open for inspection." "Her" is our Centers for Disease Control heroine, whose name is Alice Austen. But we'll call her Jodie Foster for short. Indeed, "The Cobra Event" is so hilariously bent on Hollywood, it reads more like a novelization than a novel. There's plenty of "Men in Black" FBI types, every chase scene leads to a cinematic tunnel and there's a hint of romance between Alice/Jodie and forensics hotshot Will Hopkins/Kevin Costner/Bill Paxton. The kickass government type has Tommy Lee Jones written all over him. Bioweapons inspector Dr. Mark Littleberry is "a tall handsome African-American with a crewcut."

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Snideness aside, I'll admit that Richard Preston is a fine teacher. In the notes to the book, we learn that he spoke to hundreds of inside sources about "black biology." It shows. We discover that weapons inspectors need only a cotton swab to get the goods (they take samples of goo in suspect buildings, then feed the data to a biosensor). FBI snipers are taught to shoot terrorists in the eyes, because that shuts the brain down fastest, which means the reflex instinct that prompts a dying man to pull a trigger/detonator switch is shorted out. Viruses, Preston explains, are vampirish; they need blood to survive but often can be killed off by sunlight.

Even though I couldn't bear those 17 pages, I admit the science is riveting in "The Cobra Event." The story, however, is only fair. Recommendation? Stick to nonfiction, Mr. Preston. Hollywood will still sniff you out.


Katherine Whittemore

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