cover image The Cobra Event

The Cobra Event

Richard Preston. Random House (NY), $25.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45714-5

""The nonfiction roots of this book run deep,"" writes Preston while introducing his much anticipated first novel, a kind of fictional sequel to The Hot Zone. Indeed, where that bestselling report on natural viruses run amok employed fiction techniques to dramatic effect, this exciting tale of bioengineered viruses on the rampage leans on the sort of cool, fact-packed prose usually associated with nonfiction--or with the sort of cautionary science thriller aced by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton, who's an obvious influence, Preston knows how to explode from the gate: his opening, in which a schoolgirl attacked by an unknown virus spasms and bleeds and eats her own lip, will plunge readers into shock. The subsequent story proceeds crisply, focusing on how a female physician at the Centers for Disease Control and assorted FBI agents trace the incident to a madman who aims to decimate our species through explosives laden with the virus--nicknamed ""Cobra."" There's authoritative exposition about viruses and their exploitation by military, political and financial interests, as well as abundant forensic and procedural descriptions, including graphically detailed autopsies. There's a pumped-up finale, too, as feds chase the terrorist through the New York subways. What's missing--and what separates Crichton from Preston--are vigorous characters and the passions and strong dramatic arc they can embody. Preston's heroes and villains are neatly tagged but only molecule deep; none develop substantially and all exist only to further the plot, which itself seems designed only to further an idea: that bioterrorism is viable, and terrifying. Preston marshals his narrative with sufficient precision to persuade and terrify readers (who will be legion)--but more from the horror of a grotesque diorama come to life than from the moral terror that more accomplished storytelling can engender. 300,000 first printing; Literary Guild main selection; film rights to Fox2000. (Nov.)