The Hot Zone

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Innovation and Curiosity vs. Hubris Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Power of Nature Theme Icon
Human Error and Fragility Theme Icon
Globalization Theme Icon
Innovation and Curiosity vs. Hubris  Theme Icon
Bravery and Teamwork Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Hot Zone, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Innovation and Curiosity vs. Hubris  Theme Icon

In The Hot Zone, Richard Preston chronicles the incredible medical and technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet he also makes clear that human curiosity and advancement can go too far, and can in fact end up aiding destructive diseases such as Ebola. While human innovation is useful and life-saving, human hubris—excessive self-confidence, in this case involving innovation and curiosity—can be destructive and deadly. The Reston Primate Quarantine Unit provides a perfect example of the double-edged sword of human innovation. The monkeys in that facility are imported so that scientists can use the primates for research, yet in the events Preston describes the monkeys actually pose incredible danger to humans, whom they could easily have infected with the Ebola that they carry. Countless examples of curiosity that verges on hubris run through the book, such as when USAMRIID scientists sniff a vial of Ebola and potentially infect themselves. At the end of the narrative, Preston himself becomes an emblem of both human curiosity and human hubris. He decides to enter Kitum Cave, which he knows is infected with Ebola, in order to see it for himself. Although he emerges unscathed, he acknowledges how foolish the decision was, and how fearful he was of being infected.

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Innovation and Curiosity vs. Hubris Quotes in The Hot Zone

Below you will find the important quotes in The Hot Zone related to the theme of Innovation and Curiosity vs. Hubris .
Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

As Army scientists Nancy Jaax and Tony Johnson of USAMRIID prepare to dissect a monkey that has been purposely infected with Ebola, Preston describes them in very different terms. He makes sure to note the humans' kinship to the monkey, reminding readers that genetically, we are all primates, and therefore very similar when it comes to contracting Ebola. This fact will be particularly significant when it becomes clear that the Ebola virus infecting the Reston monkey house is fatal to monkeys, but completely harmless to humans—an unspeakably lucky genetic mystery.

Preston also takes care to emphasize how much "older and more powerful" Ebola is than either monkeys or humans. Although humans are "master[s] of the earth," taking over and studying everything that we find, we can easily be laid low by microscopic organisms such as viruses. Specifically evolved to infect and spread, viruses have existed on this planet for billions of years longer than the human race. While reading his narrative, Preston wants us always remember this fact, and to view viruses as far more dangerous and powerful than humans could ever dream of becoming. 


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[Nancy] had almost caught Ebola from a dead monkey, who had caught it from a young woman named Mayinga, who had caught it from a nun who had caught it from a nun who had crashed and bled out in the jungles of Zaire in years gone by.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

As he discusses Nancy Jaax’s near miss at the Institute, Preston takes care to outline the chain of infection, tracing the Ebola virus strain in question back to its original source: a nun in Zaire. In this way, Preston is able to show how easily a single infected source can spread their illness to many, many others. Even though the nun died many years ago, the virus found in her blood still remains powerful and deadly. Nancy is removed from the nun by both time and space, and yet she was still in grave danger from said virus.

Even as he draws a clear line of infection from Nancy all the way to the original infected nun, Preston also implies the mysterious nature of Ebola’s source. We have no idea how the nun he mentions got infected; whether she received Ebola from another human, or whether it made the jump from animal to human. An understanding of this question—how Ebola makes its way into the human populace in the first place—is a crucial one, as it may help scientists and researchers to prevent future outbreaks before they occur.

Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker), Eugene (Gene) Johnson (speaker), Charles Monet, Peter Cardinal
Related Symbols: Mount Elgon and Kitum Cave
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Preston describes the reaction of researcher Gene Johnson as he realizes that Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal, both of whom died of Marburg virus, each visited Kitum Cave days before their deaths. The “prickling sensation” is because Johnson knows this cannot be a coincidence. Somewhere within Kitum Cave is the source of the Marburg virus. Although a chilling thought, Johnson is also excited and curious—if he were able to find this source, it would be a huge breakthrough for Ebola research as a whole.

Preston next asks a series of questions, helping his readers to understand all the possibilities that scientists must consider as they study a virus. Marburg might be spread through touch, it might be spread through the air, or it might incubate within an animal found in the cave. Of course, Preston also adds a touch of foreboding to the questions, helping readers to understand how simultaneously terrifying and illuminating such a discovery would be.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

[Peter Jahrling] had held in his gloved hands virtually every hot agent known, except for Ebola and Marburg. When people asked him why he didn’t work with those viruses, he replied, “I don’t particularly feel like dying.”

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker), Peter Jahrling (speaker)
Related Symbols: Spacesuits and Gloves
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

During this passage, Preston introduces Peter Jahrling, a well-known virologist who often deals with monkey diseases. Despite his skill and his bravery, however, Jahrling refuses to handle Ebola, explaining, “I don’t particularly feel like dying.” Preston has included this quote for several reasons: first of all, it is ironic, considering that Jahrling will shortly (and unknowingly) be handling Ebola despite his wishes. Second of all, Preston wishes to emphasize just how dangerous Ebola is considered in the scientific community. Even a courageous and accomplished man like Jahrling believes Ebola too deadly to handle directly.

His attitude contrasts with that of someone like Gene Johnson, who finds the disease both terrifying and fascinating. Attitudes towards Ebola, Preston implies, can help us learn more about the individuals who hold those attitudes. Jahrling, for instance, is cautious and considered, in contrast to Gene, who is far more risk-taking and adventurous—but thus also more prone to the risks of hubris.

A freezer can be as hot as hell. When a place is biologically hot, no sensors, no alarms, no instruments can tell the story. All instruments are silent and register nothing.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker), Peter Jahrling (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Preston narrates the very beginnings of the Reston Monkey House Ebola outbreak. As Dan Dalgard and his employees freeze monkey corpses without realizing what has infected them, the narrator strikes an ominous tone. Without the necessary precautions (which Dalgard and his men are not equipped to take), a freezer will do absolutely nothing to stop the Ebola virus from spreading. 

This quote also points towards one of Preston's broader themes: that although humans believe we know a great deal about the natural world, our mechanisms of measurement are extremely limited. There are no tools to tell humans when an area has been contaminated by Ebola. Although we can take certain precautions (spacesuits, gloves, etc.), we have no way of knowing when those precautions are actually necessary. These limitations are especially dangerous in situations like the Reston Monkey House, when humans do not know (and have no reason to think) that a space has become contaminated.  

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

Be exquisitely careful. Know where your hands and body are at all times. If you get blood on your suit, stop what you are doing and clean it off right away. Don’t let blood stay on your gloves. Rinse them off right away. With bloody gloves, you can’t see a hole in the glove.

Related Characters: Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax (speaker)
Related Symbols: Spacesuits and Gloves, Blood and Bleeding
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

The Army begins to prepare for a major operation to sterilize the Reston Monkey House, and Nancy Jaax issues instructions to the soldiers under her command. Despite the fact that all the soldiers will be wearing spacesuits and gloves, her orders emphasize how easily they still might be exposed to Ebola.

This quote also highlights the importance and danger of blood within the narrative. Blood can either give life or—if it is infected—take life away. Nancy's emphasis on blood reminds us of her own near-exposure, while also reminding the soldiers (and the readers) of the billions of viral particles that these monkeys' blood contains. 

It is also important to note the bravery of both Jaax and the soldiers under her command. Despite the immense danger that they are facing, the USAMRIID scientists and soldiers are clear-eyed and unflinching. They understand the importance of their mission, and are committed to keeping people safe, even at the expense of their own well-being. 

Part 4, Chapter 1 Quotes

The paving of Kinshasa Highway affected every person on earth, and turned out to be one of the most important events of the twentieth century. It has already cost at least ten million lives, with the likelihood that the ultimate number of human casualties will vastly exceed the deaths in the Second World War. In effect, I had witnessed a crucial event in the emergence of AIDS, the transformation of a thread of dirt into a ribbon of tar.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker)
Related Symbols: Kinshasa Highway
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

As he travels to Mount Elgon, Richard Preston describes his childhood, some of which he spent near the construction of the Kinshasa Highway, which ended up spreading HIV/AIDS throughout many African nations because of the ease of travel—and thus of disease transmission—that it allowed. By telling the story of the Kinshasa Highway, Preston hopes to show that human progress can often have unintended consequences. Although the highway was supposed to be a source of trade, convenience, and modernity, it in fact provided a quick and easy way for HIV/AIDS to expand its range.

Preston puts the story of Kinshasa Highway in dramatic terms, saying that the highway has "already cost at least ten million lives" and calling its paving a vital twentieth-century event. He wants his readers to understand how easily and yet unpredictably humans can cause destruction, especially when viruses are involved. Preston's message is clear: the fact that HIV/AIDS spread so quickly and easily means that Ebola could one day do the same. 

Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

Say “Ahh,” Kitum Cave. Do you have a virus? No instruments, no senses can tell you if you are in the presence of the predator. I turned off my lights and stood in total darkness, feeling a bath of sweat trickle down my chest, hearing the thump of my heart and the swish of blood in my head.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mount Elgon and Kitum Cave, Spacesuits and Gloves, Blood and Bleeding
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:

Towards the end of the novel, the narrative turns personal, as author and narrator Richard Preston explores Kitum Cave himself, in a spacesuit, in order to learn more about the Marburg virus that lurks within it. He emphasizes to his readers that though he's protected by a spacesuit, he has no way of knowing if he is being exposed to viral particles at the moment or not. To emphasize his blindness, Preston turns off his flashlight and stands in total darkness, unable to see his surroundings just as he is unable to detect the possible presence of Marburg.

As he stands there, Preston observes his sweat, pulse, and blood pumping—all signs of an alive but intensely vulnerable human body that could easily be attacked by Marburg or some other "predatory" agent. Preston is implicitly comparing his own small, human fragility to the massive, ancient cave, and to the hidden menace of Marburg that lurks somewhere inside of it. 

The emergence of AIDS, Ebola, and any number of other rain-forest agents appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere. The emerging viruses are surfacing from ecologically damaged parts of the earth…In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species…Perhaps the biosphere does not “like” the idea of five million humans…Nature has interesting ways of balancing itself. The rain forest has its own defenses. The earth’s immune system, so to speak, has recognized the presence of the human species and is starting to kick in. The earth is attempting to rid itself of an infection by the human parasite. Perhaps AIDS is the first step in a natural process of clearance.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker)
Page Number: 311
Explanation and Analysis:

Preston begins to wrap up his narrative by returning to one of the core theories of his book: that human encroachment on nature is directly responsible for the emergence of more and more deadly, contagious viruses such as Ebola. Here he creates a fascinating metaphor, theorizing that viruses are a kind of "immune response" against the huge human population that is in essence infecting the earth. 

This theory about tropical diseases like Ebola and AIDS is a hugely pessimistic one, as it suggests that the very innovations that have prolonged human life—modern medicine, convenient transportation, urban centers of trade—are also in fact destroying it. 

Even more foreboding here is the idea that humans have had a wholly negative effect on the earth, and that nature is taking steps to correct us. Modernizations such as cities and roads, which seem so natural to us, are in fact (Preston implies) disturbing the natural balance. In his eyes, diseases such as AIDS and Ebola are inevitable, as Nature tries to regain equilibrium. 

I suspect that AIDS might not be Nature’s preeminent display of power. Whether the human race can actually maintain a population of five billion or more without a crash with a hot virus remains an open question. Unanswered. The answer lies hidden in the labyrinth of tropical ecosystems. AIDS is the revenge of the rain forest. It may only be the beginning.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker)
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:

As his narrative ends, Preston comes back to the topic of HIV/AIDS, which he has often used as an example of a terribly destructive virus that passed from monkeys to the human race. Despite the enormous death toll due to AIDS, however, Preston asserts that there may be far more deadly viruses on the way. 

The author also discusses a "labyrinth of tropical ecosystems," another reference to the mysterious and intricate quality of nature, which humans have studied for centuries but which still remains unknowable and unpredictable. To Preston, AIDS is a perfect example of the tangled, complex web that nature can create—but it may not be the most dramatic or destructive example. He views AIDS not as the pinnacle of nature's catastrophic power, but as a kind of opening shot. In other words, the author seems to say, the worst (very possibly in the form of Ebola) is yet to come. 

Life had reestablished itself in the monkey house. Ebola had risen in these rooms, flashed its colors, fed, and subsided into the forest. It will be back.

Related Characters: Richard Preston (speaker)
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final scene of The Hot Zone, Richard Preston visits the Reston Monkey House, and finds that various types of flora and fauna have begun to return to the building, which was thoroughly and completely sterilized by the Army after their operation.

In a different narrative, this might be a hopeful symbol that life, no matter what, always returns. For Preston, however, the fact that plants and animals—as well as bacteria and viruses—have returned to the facility is an ominous sign. Nature, he emphasizes yet again, is stronger than humans will ever be. No matter our efforts, nature will always prevail. If plants and animals can return to the primate facility, then Ebola can return as well.