The scariest thing about this fact-based book is not that it takes place within an hour's drive of Washington, where one of the deadliest viruses on Earth threatened to break out of a badly secured monkey house five years ago.
The scariest thing isn't that the Ebola Reston virus -- one of four strains with an astonishing kill rate -- can leap through the air, unlike AIDS, and has no known cure.
The ultimate terror is that nature may intend for us to die this way.
"I think it could happen," says Ebola discoverer Karl Johnson nonchalantly while fly-fishing. "I'm not worried. More likely it would be a virus that reduces us by 90 percent."
"Nine out of 10 humans killed?" author Richard Preston asks. "And you're not bothered."
A look of mysterious amusement crosses the scientist's face. "A virus can be useful to a species by thinning it out," he says.
The book's detailed reportage and graphic descriptions are the framework on which Mr. Preston builds his disturbing contention: Global population has made diseases ever more communicable, and environmental conditions encourage mutations. Diseases spring up faster than we can fight them, and we spread them around faster than we can contain them.
Mr. Preston believes AIDS zoomed out of East Africa before it could be quarantined, partly because the newly paved Kinshasa Highway gave migrant workers far more access to prostitutes -- 90 percent of whom were probably infected with the disease. He's afraid something like that will happen with an Ebola strain, maybe one yet undiscovered.
That fear is what keeps "The Hot Zone" from being more than a tempest in a radioactive teapot.
After all, nothing tragic happened in the winter of '89. Not one person died because the infected monkeys came to the United States. But the possibility that it could have happened -- and could happen soon -- keeps you churning through these pages.
That's fortunate, since Mr. Preston has rudimentary writing skills. He reports thoroughly, inevitably having to guess sometimes at what people thought and felt (but letting us know that he's guessing).
He explains details thoroughly and clearly, a blessing in any science-based nonfiction. Yet he seems curiously insecure about his subject's value.
He constantly reminds us that the killer virus stalks us all, giving it nicknames like "slate wiper." He refers at least twice to the fictional Andromeda Strain and to "a doomsday germ," as if the facts alone wouldn't shake the backbone out of us.
To drive the book forward at top speed, he writes in maddening, repetitive bursts: "The shower stopped. She opened the door and flung herself into the staging area. She came out of the space suit fast. She shucked it. She leaped out of it. The space suit slapped to the concrete floor, wet, dripping with water."
Mr. Preston does have the gift of gross-out gab. Ebola and its killer cousins turn the entire body into a bag of blood that emerges at every orifice, and the author labors lovingly over passages of putrefaction. Even in print, what happens is as revoltingly fascinating as the melting faces in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (If you can get through the first decomposition-filled chapter, you'll be fine the rest of the way.)
Readers seeking heroes may be disappointed. The cast is too large and varied for Mr. Preston to focus on any individual, and he's not writer enough to make people come to life in a few sentences.
Nancy Jaax, the U.S. Army colonel who finds out that Ebola is airborne, has the largest role, but even she remains an elusive figure. (Maybe that's a defect inherent in the story. Jodie Foster was supposed to play Colonel Jaax in a movie based on the book but withdrew because her part was too small.) Mr. Preston keeps us abreast of her life -- father dying of cancer, brother-in-law murdered -- but doesn't make us feel anything on her behalf.
Mr. Preston does try to make himself a hero in an egotistic 30-page coda. He visits Kitum Cave in east Africa, where the first Ebola strain was found, to stick his head into the lion's jaws. Space-suited, air modulated by a respirator, he walks through the valley of viral death -- and nothing happens. It's as if archaeologists broke into a pharaoh's tomb and found a dusty pair of flip-flops.
Molly Dunham Glassman's children's books column will return next week.
Title: "The Hot Zone"
Author: Richard Preston
Publisher: Random House
Length, price: 291 pages, $23