Book Article

Spreading Like a Plague

An abundance of virus books released -- Many imitations after the success of ''The Hot Zone''

Sure, Pandora's Clock takes the scary virus concept to new heights, but it's hardly the only germ-infested novel hitting stores right now. In the wake of The Hot Zone's huge success, virus books are breeding like...well...viruses.

Welcome to the really hot zone.

Got a thing for nuns? Ebola, a 1991 fact-based novel that has just been released in paperback to capitalize on the trend, features Sister Lucie, a Flemish nun and nurse on the front lines of the '76 Ebola epidemic in Zaire. The author, Dr. William T. Close (Glenn's dad), was finishing up a 16-year practice there when the outbreak hit.

Like moms? Patrick Lynch's Carriers is about a woman's frantic search for her two daughters who are missing in the paleo-virus-infested jungles of Indonesia.

Urban settings more your speed? Joseph R. Garber's high-rise thriller, Vertical Run, is Die Hard meets North by Northwest meets Apocalypse Now meets — that's right — a virus.

Technophilic? Virus, by Graham Watkins, features two doctors battling a computer virus that starts to act like the biological kind.

And coming in January: Contagion, veteran medical novelist Robin Cook's latest, about regular viruses that turn deadly thanks to the resistance we've built up to antibiotics. (Back in 1987, Cook published Outbreak — nope, not the same as the recent Dustin Hoffman movie — about a killer virus, but he concedes The Hot Zone is the inspiration for the current crop of viral thrillers.)

Despite the proliferation of such books, Cook and his fellow authors insist they're not troubled by the competition for readers. ''It doesn't matter how many books about this there are,'' says Pandora's Clock author John J. Nance. ''As long as you get readers to care about the characters, they'll respond.'' Adds Phillip Sington, one of two British writers who constitute Carriers' pseudonymous Patrick Lynch: ''There's no Cold War anymore. One of our major public enemies and greatest fears has evaporated. Now the most threatening thing to mankind are issues related to the environment.''

Which means that novelists may be wreaking havoc on the biological order of the planet — in the name of our reading pleasure — for years to come. ''Think of the possibilities,'' jokes Villard publisher David Rosenthal. ''With a good serial killer, you're getting six or seven murders. Here, you're getting thousands, maybe millions.''

As for the author who kicked off the trend, The Hot Zone's Richard Preston, ''I am amused and honored,'' he says. ''I feel like the little kid in the Swiss Alps who set off a firecracker and caused an avalanche.''

Originally posted Aug 11, 1995 Published in issue #287 Aug 11, 1995 Order article reprints