Pale Wire (Popscene)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Last night I finished Richard Preston's Demon in the Freezer. It's an expanded version of a New Yorker article he wrote about the dangers of biological weaponry and the anthrax scare that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In his typically facile voice, Preston employs the events of "Amerithrax," the FBI's codename for the anthrax case, as bookends for a detailed account of the history of biological warfare. He places special emphasis on what he and his sources think of as the most dangerous threat to humanity's health, smallpox.

Eradicated completely from nature more than 20 years ago by a dedicated group of scientists, the pox virus, which once claimed 2 million human lives each year, now only officially exists in two highly guarded labs. However, it is believed to be the subject of experiments in secret government testing centers and, perhaps, other private facilities around the world. The possibility that pox, or a genetically modified form of "superpox" could be loosed — intentionally or not — on a world lacking an effective vaccination strategy is, according to Preston and the government and military experts he consulted, very real.

This is a book meant to scare you. It has sentences like this:
Virus engineering is cheaper than a used car, yet it may provide a nation with a weapon as intimidating as a nuclear bomb.

Preston is, as always, an efficient and effective storyteller. In his words, the science is accessible and the personal details about the characters enrich the narrative. In case you didn't know, he's the dude who wrote The Hot Zone.

I also finished David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire this past week. It's great. Remnick, now the editor at the New Yorker, was the Washington Post's correspondent in Moscow through the 80s and early 90s.

Despite all I learned about Russia, all the great characters I met and the whole epic national stuggle thing, what I enjoyed most about the book is the sense of purpose I read between Remnick's lines. I have no idea what it's like to take on a project of such weight, what it's like to face such awesome responsbility as a reporter, but from afar this story feels like the one, given his heritage and education, that Remnick was born to tell.

I think that part of the reason I find journalism so satisfying and exciting is that it gives me a sense of some purpose being fulfilled, of some witness kept, some use being provided, of a life well-spent.