Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

In Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston presents a chilling revelation of the threat of bioterrorism in the 21st century. Using the lens of the anthrax “Amerithrax” attacks in the U.S. following September 11th, Preston dissects the current international biological weapons climate, focusing on the threat posed by humanity’s most feared and devastating killer—smallpox, or the variola virus.

Preston opens the book in October, 2001, with the discovery of an anthrax-laden letter addressed to U.S. Senator Tom Daschle. The investigation of the source of this crime and the fear that smallpox was involved forms a loose plotline for the book, with many tangents providing historical background recounting the eradication of smallpox in humans and the subsequent debate regarding the destruction of the reserves of the virus. Preston astutely draws upon the fear that arose from the anthrax scare to contextualize the threat of similar use of the variola virus, which has otherwise been forgotten by most of society because of its successful eradication, but which would have even more condemning implications than anthrax if it were successfully deployed in an attack.

After establishing the potential for disaster of smallpox-laced anthrax, Preston launches into a brief history of smallpox and its eradication, introducing the ambiguity of current locations of strains of the virus. Despite the existence of only two World-Health-Organization-sanctioned holding places (the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Vector Laboratories in Russia), there is fear that smallpox still exists in back-room “freezers” elsewhere in the world, resulting from either innocent oversight or, more frighteningly, insidious intentions.

The majority of Demon in the Freezer is devoted to establishing the real potential of a biological attack using smallpox, and the devastation that would result. Preston accomplishes this by weaving together brief chapters and anecdotes following different characters, such as introducing the stories Vladimir Pasechnik and Kanatjan Alibekov (Ken Alibek)--two ex-Soviet scientists specializing in biological weapons who defected--to reveal the scale of the Soviet biowarfare program of the 1990s, and following the lives of government scientists and officials such as Peter Jahrling in their pursuit of progress in developing antiviral treatments for smallpox.

Whenever authoritarian knowledge of smallpox and wise insight regarding its use as a weapon is desired, Preston turns to D.A. Henderson, head of the Smallpox Eradication Program, and consensus smallpox know-it-all. Henderson serves almost as an omniscient, mystical character, whose interviews are cited whenever he really wants to hammer a point home. According to Henderson, “dropping an atomic bomb could cause casualties in a specific area, but dropping smallpox could engulf the world.” And regarding how best to solve our current dilemma: “What we need to do is create a climate where smallpox is considered too morally reprehensible to be used as a weapon.”

This technique of introducing concepts, details, and arguments through individuals’ eyes is one that Preston relies heavily on, and it works. Because of it, Demon reads like a sci-fi page turner, and through our sympathy with each new character we feel the triumph of eradication, the heartbreak of the world’s paralysis in destroying the last strains, and the very real fear of the potential for a biological attack using smallpox. Seemingly every chapter ends with a generic all-encompassing statement summarizing—in case we’ve forgotten—the stakes of such an attack. On page 285, Preston exemplifies this by saying, “virus engineering is cheaper than a used car, yet it may provide a nation with a weapon as intimidating as a nuclear bomb.”

All in all, though such textbook suspense-novel cliffhangers run rampant in Demon in the Freezer, Preston has clearly done his homework, and the reader emerges with a very clear and entertaining overview of the history of smallpox eradication and the post-eradication tension, after having encountered everything from suspense to historical accuracy to scientific introduction along the way. Yes, Demon in the Freezer can be enjoyed by the average fiction reader, but it is a true, incredibly informative, and resonating account of an issue with a historical importance and a current relevance that deserves as much attention as it can get, so, despite some simplifications and corny devices, Preston’s attempt at bringing the smallpox issue to the mainstream is more commendable than anything.

-Andrew Beck

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