The Hot Zone

by Richard Preston

(extraordinary; top 10% of SciThri)

Year published: 1994
Category: nonfiction thriller; science thriller; medical thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY {from the back cover}:

A highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There is no cure. In a few days 90 percent of its victims are dead. A secret military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists is mobilized to stop the outbreak of this exotic “hot” virus.


Brace yourself, the story you are about to read is true. So true that I made it assigned reading in a college microbiology class I taught, so engrossing that students read it in one sitting and thanked me for the assignment. The Hot Zone is probably the greatest nonfiction science thriller of all time.

Just reading it, you might not believe it’s (narrative) nonfiction. Sure, you’ll recognize that it’s an incredible story that you can’t put down. But NONFICTION? Yes, this is a work of popular science told in a gripping narrative style like a novel. It packs in a ton of accurate technical information about viruses without ever letting up the tension.

The real-life incident that inspired the book involved a batch of monkeys imported to the U.S. for research. Not wanting to spoil the fun, I’ll say no more about that. The reader’s journey actually begins and ends in Africa, where Preston dramatically traces how a deadly virus escapes the obscurity of the jungle and finds its way to American laboratory freezers, leaving partially-liquefied bodies in its wake. The characters are real people with real names; this is one jazzy piece of investigative journalism.

As you read, you’ll effortlessly learn a fair amount about hemorrhagic fever viruses, emerging diseases, zoonoses, biocontainment facilities, electron microscopy, disease transmission, and immunohistochemistry, though you won’t find all those words actually in the text. This book did introduce some new words to the popular vocabulary, including Ebola, USAMRIID, biosafety level four, and “hot”. It inspired a truly awful movie adaptation (Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman).

The Hot Zone does contain some medically graphic scenes (PG-13, I’d say). They’re gruesome, not violent, and pretty tame compared to what appears in many thriller novels.

Don’t read this book if: you ever plan to travel in Africa

If you like this book, you might enjoy: Demon in the Freezer, also by Richard Preston; Flu by Gina Kolata