If fiction is not horrifying enough take a look at reality: ebola

The Hot Zone explores a world of the highly infectious diseases that fall under the classification of filoviruses. The three viruses that fall under this category are Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan, and Marburg. Being nonfiction, the book seeks to be informative and accurate. It begins with the story of Charles Monet, a Frenchman that worked in a sugar factory in Kenya. Through the character of Charles Monet, we are introduced to the disease, and the way it spreads, as seen on page 16

“A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth. All of the earth’s cities are connected by a web of airline routes. The web is a network. Once a virus hits the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day – Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, wherever planes fly. Charles Monet and the life form inside him had entered the net”

Throughout the book Preston compares the instances in Africa to the discoveries occurring in the America and Europe. He alternates between the stories of hospitals that become infected in regions such as Congo to the vials of blood serum that are sent off to the CDC in Atlanta. This allows us to see the disease in a broader sense, rather than a simply isolated issue taking place in one country. A large part of the book is devoted to exploring the origin of the disease. A few portions of the book look at the possibility that Ebola could be the cause of the end of humanity. How does Preston’s description of the contractibility of AIDS allow readers to perceive the disease? Does the notion that Ebola being an airborne disease evoke a sense of urgency in Preston’s descriptions of transmission?

The disease is spoken about in excruciatingly gruesome terms. We are made aware of the red and black substance excreted from the mouth, the skin peeling off the skin and genitals, the liquefaction of the liver and many other effects the disease causes. The way in which the disease is spoken about varies from explicit details written to horrify us to biological explanations of the disease as a strand of RNA possessing the strain of the virus. Alternating between scenes of people’s deaths as a result of blood splattering from their bodies to the zone 4 area in which Nancy worked in displays separate approaches to disease, allowing us to recognize the way regular people versus medical professionals view it. How do these distinct accounts allow us, as readers, to reflect on our own response to disease? Also, in various parts of the novel, the disease is described by military biohazard specialists as a metaphor for a plane.

Like in many other works we have already taken a look at, the disease is euphemized. Rather than being called its true name, it is referred to as “the epidemic” in French. This was seen in Black Hole when the STD was referred to as ‘the bug’. Similarly, to other novels, the disease is assigned its own agency in The Hot Zone. This can be seen on page 24.

 “Having destroyed its host, the hot agent is now coming out of every orifice, and is ‘trying’ to find a new host.” 

Not only does it act as an independent body, but also, it acts as a transformative disease. Once it infects people, they change into a new person.

“His personality is being wiped away by which the liveliness and details of character seem to vanish. He is becoming an automaton. Tiny spots in his brain stem are liquefying. The higher functions of consciousness are winking out first, leaving the deeper parts of the brain stem (the primitive rat brain, the lizard brain) still alive and functioning. It could be said that the who of Charles Monet has already died while the what of Charles Monet continues to live” 

The way the book is narrated is different from the previous works we have studied, for example there are constant references to the sources of information in order to maintain the work’s credibility. Preston often states who told him the information, and whether he interviewed the person, or he is simply speculating. The book sometimes asks questions, “Did Monet put his hand in the ooze?” (page 16) What effect do the questions have on the readers? Do the questions allow readers to engage in the story? Does the self-reflection of the book causes it to be more credible? 

On page 81, we are made to reflect on our relation with the disease and other creatures around us.

“They were two human primates carrying another primate. One was the master of the earth, or at least believed himself to be, and the other was a nimble dweller in trees, a cousin of the master of the earth. Both species, the human and the monkey, were in the presence of another life form, which was older and more powerful than either of them, and was a dweller in blood”.

How do we, as humans, place in the biological process of the world? Are we really the ‘masters of the earth’? Is Preston satirizing humanity?


Take care guys,

Azmyra, Maisie, Sharon and Laura


 Add your comment
  1. I think you have discussed some really important points in your post, which draw thought to the reasons for which the novel was structured in its unique form. In my opinion, a lot of what you have brought up including the use of questions and the long descriptions of the bodily effects of the disease, in large relate back to the idea that the novel is nonfiction. These seem to be mechanisms that Preston uses to re-iterate and remind the audience of the factual nature of the novel. The lengthy descriptions of the effects of the disease on the sufferer, for example the instance where Charles Monnet is throwing up black vomit, “a speckled liquid of two colours speckled with fresh red arterial blood [that] smells like a slaughterhouse” (p.18) when he is aboard the flight to Nairobi to be admitted to hospital, as well as the descriptions on pages 105 to 109, are indeed gruesome, but are also used as shock tactics to confirm to the reader the true brutality of the disease. As you have mentioned, the disease is euphemized in the text, as it is referred to as l’épidémie, which is interesting considering that the descriptions of the effects of the disease are given no such treatment of restraint, which I feel serves to show that Preston was trying to make the audience remember at every stage possible, that his novel is indeed based on real-life accounts, and thus it is fitting that the versions that he has published in his book are of such a vivid and lurid nature. Within these descriptions, Preston also makes biological and medical references such as: “the skin develops red spots, called petechiae” (p.105) and “…white blisters mixed with red spots known as a maculopapular rash” (p.105), which further highlights the factual basis of his novel. In regards to the questions that are posed by Preston in the novel, I think that they do, to some extent, allow the book to be more credible, whilst still adding to the non-fiction aspect of the work. The very fact that Preston does not admit to knowing all details of the accounts he includes in his novel, and that he openly acknowledges – by asking these questions – that his knowledge is limited, pays testament to the fact that most real-life accounts do not claim to have all the intricate details, nor do they try to fill these gaps with assumptions or biased conclusions.

  2. Preston’s pressing need to inform us that his knowledge is limited, in the great examples you provided, does desert him at key points, like the monkey seen we will discuss in class tomorrow. Providing preference to the type of tree they wish to reside in (p161) and calling their predators ‘evil’ perhaps is pushing the literary method of the book too far. Why do you think Preston chooses to abandon his ‘I don’t know everything’ refrain at the point it is most required?

  3. The last class discussion, which was very amusing for many, destroyed the sensationalism that Preston adopted for his non-fiction literature about discovery of ebola. I watched my favorite “Nature’s Microworlds” again after class that day and now I cannot enjoy it the same way because it is hard to rid of this new lens in which the show is engulfed in commercial purposes with imparted knowledge limited to small nuggets between sensationalized pretty scenes (although to a much less degree than is present in Hot Zone). In fact, Hot Zone can have more dangerous consequences than such commercial exploitation. Especially in the wake of ebola panic, it can aggravate panic when in fact ebola is just another disease which targets the body. The same literature for the anatomy can be used for other more common diseases that are not such a source of mass panic. Even when information is not as sensationalized as done in Hot Zone, is there an underside to knowing more about a disease such that you can visualize its effects inside your body if your body catches it?
    Further, Hot Zone reinforces popular notion of consolidating all parts of Africa into one. Ebola originated in a specific region in Africa and has not spread to all parts, which themselves are very isolated from one another. As a work of non-fiction, it definitely does not do a good job of outlining this important detail.

    However, I still do not believe the same jab of sensationalism can be made at the nuances with which discoveries in science are featured. The tapoica pudding model reference is hardly exaggerated narrative. The Bohr’s atomic model (a fundamental concept) is taught in textbooks through analogy of a plum pudding. Nonconductors are likened to fruitcakes because the immobility of the charges can be understood by seeing them as similar to embedded fruit nuggets and raisins in the cake.
    And the observation of the crystalline beauty of the ebola virus is not that different from our own fos reactions to watching the emission spectrum in lab a couple of weeks ago.

  4. I think that we should talk about this book, comparing the presumed purpose of it (“the book seeks to be informative and accurate”) and what it is indeed. Preston tries to make this book a scientific one, meant to present the real state of Ebola, but his style of writing is definitely wrong from numerous points of view. He involves emotions in his writing, revealing compassion, mercy, pain, suffering and thus he loses the objectivity necessary in this kind of work. Moreover, the alternation of the first person and the passive voice makes the book a little ambiguous (again, from a scientific point of view), as he combines a certain subjectivity, with a clear detachment of the actions presented.
    Also, we can talk about the he way he use certain stories to create an image of Ebola as one of the most dangerous diseases, which can lead to the end of the world. But this is certainly not true, and we can easily see here a desire for sensational, a desire to impress by his book, not only to present the real situation as it is. As a part of the nowadays consumer society, the truth is not as important as what people what to hear, i.e. if the truth doesn’t sell well, modify it until people would pay money to hear it and this is what Preston does in his book. I might add that Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is more scientific that this book, as, even if Defoe also involves emotionally in the story he tries to present the real situation of the plague as objective as possible (and definitely the plague could have been considered the end of the world compared to Ebola) and remains focused on a certain area (not the whole Earth) and thus, he really creates the impression (if not this was his real goal) that, despite he writes a novel, it is meant to provide some scientific and historical information, not only to help him to achieve fame, and this is the way followed by a valuable writer.
    So, although I might appreciate his book as a fiction or horror one, I totally disagree that the purpose of it is to provide scientific information. Even if the situations presented are real and from all over the globe, they don’t reflect the real state of facts because he uses an inductive reasoning, which is known not to be a scientific one, as he make a generalization from some particular events. And, as the book is not built on a scientific method, it cannot pretend it is a scientific one.

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