The Cobra Event

by Richard Preston

(for hard-core SciThri fans only)

Year published: 1997
Category: science thriller; medical thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):


In New York city, a heroic city medical examiner unravels the mystery of a schoolgirl’s sudden death from seizures and “self-cannibalization.” A virus is to blame, a biological weapon linked to an evil terrorist operation in the former USSR and Iraq. Story climaxes with a chase scene through the NYC subway and ends with an ominous twist.


I read The Cobra Event and I thought of Satan. Not because of the book’s villain–a very bad person who does very bad things for reasons that aren’t entirely clear–but because of the author. Just three years before this book appeared in print, Richard Preston published The Hot Zone, a NY Times #1 bestseller and one of the greatest nonfiction thrillers ever. Like the angel Lucifer, he apparently wasn’t satisfied with his exalted status and he aspired to “greater” things. Lucifer’s aspirations led to his corruption and fall into Hell. Preston’s aspiration—to write a work of fiction—didn’t lead him to Hell, but his readers may find his sin unpardonable nevertheless, because The Cobra Event is a terrible disappointment. As a science thriller, it pretty much sucks.

The skeleton of the story is passable in a formulaic kind of way. Preston knows a lot about biological weapons—their history, their possible future—and peppers the plot with bits based on fact but fails to synthesize his knowledge into a compelling narrative. The story begins in present-day New York, then time travels to 1969. As a reader I found this confusing and annoying. I also didn’t get it when next, the story leaped to the deserts of Iraq. And I was at my reading wits’ end when the autopsy scene in New York read like a medical textbook. If there’s one thing you don’t want to read about in unimaginative detail, it’s the fine technical points of how an autopsy is performed.

Throughout the book, the already-weak story line is frequently interrupted by the kind of scientific/analytical excerpts that make Preston’s nonfiction so great. Here, they merely annoy. Characters, plot developments, and the chase scene at the end are all stereotypes of the genre.

Don’t read this book if: you’re expecting The Hot Zone

If you wish this were a better book, try: Second Genesis by Jeffrey Anderson, M.D.

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