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In his novel The Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston addresses the American public’s increasing concern about the threat of terrorism after the events of 9/11. As the anthrax scare began spreading through the country, people became more fearful about what might happen next. This novel tries to alert the public to the looming threat that such a biological terror attack could pose. Preston uses uncertain diction and short, startling sentences to create apprehension in the reader that impresses upon him the menace of biological weapons.
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Preston begins by using numerous words that indicate uncertainty, wording many of his sentences to reflect the fact that he is uncertain about some details concerning smallpox. The word choice directly affects the reader as Preston’s uncertainty translates into uncertainty in the reader. For example, when Preston describes the smallpox vault at the CDC’s repository, his description is full of guesses and conjectures:
The variola vault…may be disguised. You might look straight at the vault and not know that your eyes are resting on the place where half of the world’s known smallpox is hidden. There may be more than one variola vault. There may be a decoy vault…it could be disguised to look like a janitor’s closet, …it may be kept in mirrored form: there may be two freezers, designated the A freezer and the B freezer. The A and B freezers (if they exist, which is unclear) would each contain identical sets of vials. (Preston 80)
The words “may,” “might,” and “could” are repeated here over and over, stressed over all other words, and dominant in the passage to form a growing feeling of uncertainty. This doubt then correlates to an apprehension in the reader. The author knows that he has written a book for the layperson, for a nonscientist who himself posses no great knowledge of diseases. Preston can therefore portray himself as an expert on this subject, though he still chooses words to indicate that even he is not completely confident of details surrounding the CDC’s smallpox vault. These specific choices of diction are thus doubly frightening to the reader: even an expert researcher is unsure exactly of the whereabouts and status of smallpox in the United States, not to mention the rest of the world. To the reader still new to the subject of biological terror, Preston’s language indicates that nobody in the world knows the true locations of all these pathogens; the reader is considerably frightened by this realization. Even experts, as Preston puts it, are worrying about “chemical and biological weapons that some countries might or might not have” (83). Preston here takes advantage of the time at which he published the book, shortly after the two planes flew into the World Trade Center. He seizes upon the reader’s fear of other nations’ biological weapons, fears formed from the anthrax scare that ran though America after 9/11. By noting (again with his words indicating uncertainty) that some countries “might or might not” harbor those sorts of weapons, a mood of apprehension is created. The word “might” signifies the ambiguity of the situation to the reader; he or she is again insecure about the exact nature of the lethal threat. Through such words Preston forms a sense of disquiet, and hence is able to arouse a feeling of fear in the reader.
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Preston goes even further and indicates through hesitant diction not only doubt about man’s control over smallpox, but also about the pathogen itself. For instance, Preston observes that smallpox “just might have a little unnoticed reservoir somewhere in rodents” (59). Once again, words like “might” are used, indicating a vagueness in thought. This insecurity is unsettling to the reader, who would like to think that experts have a firm grasp on such a deadly disease as smallpox. Knowing that this information is unknown is disturbing. The word “might” also forces the reader to think about the issue critically himself. If the author does not take an authoritative stance on an issue, but uses diction that suggests that the answer in unknown, the reader must decide himself what to believe. However, as the target audience is the layperson, the reader is forced to realize that he himself is not informed enough to know the true answer. As such, the uncertain words serve a double function—not only to generate uncertainty, but also to force the reader to appreciate just how little he or she actually knows. Both of these functions allow the author to generate a greater appreciation for the magnitude of the danger that biological weapons pose. Similarly, when describing possible Russian smallpox creations, Preston quotes a scientist who says that “‘our vaccines might not protect us’” against a bioengineered virus. As before, the word “might” forces the reader into discomfort and trepidation. Preston’s overall goal in this novel is to alert the populace about the possibly imminent threat of biological weaponry, and a powerful way to catch attention and generate interest in a subject is through fear. Therefore, one of his most commanding tools for educating people is by creating a sense of fear that draws in the reader through the continual use of uncertain diction.
Another potent force that Preston uses to startle and unnerve the reader is short, abrupt sentences. Often these fall on the last sentence of a paragraph—sometimes on the last sentence in the chapter—to not simply emphasize the sentence, but to also unsettle the reader because it so differs from the surrounding words. One example of this tactic occurs when Lisa Hensley is working with Ebola in a lab and accidentally cuts through her safety suit. Amidst a description of her accident lies a simple sentence at the very end: “It is believed that a single particle of Ebola virus introduced into the bloodstream is fatal” (Preston 118). By setting off this sentence from all the others, Preston stresses the solemnity of the statement. The reader is startled with the suddenness of this deadly claim that is pressed upon him, a claim in stark contrast to the preceding tame, ordinary description. In addition, the change in sentence length parallels the overarching idea of uncertainty. Just as syntax can be varied and unpredictable, so can be the smallpox. This idea is still further bolstered by the passive verb configuration at the beginning—it makes the sentence not a statement of certain fact, but rather shades it as only as an idea believed by some scientists. Thus, the short sentence initially surprises the reader and then indirectly suggests ambiguity and apprehension to him. In similar fashion, after a description of Jahrling’s experiment marked by long, compound sentences, Preston drops a literary bomb: “Then, out of nowhere, came a discovery that shook the smallpox experts to their cores” (126). Placed as last in a chapter, this sentence represents a total change in ideas from the preceding text. A sentence this short does not have room to explain—instead it simply states. The explanation of what happened comes afterwards, in this case in a whole new chapter. This initial disparity between the statement and the explanation serves to not only create suspense, but to initially disconcert the reader, who at first is unsure what or why something happened.
Preston goes even further in some of his short sentences by explicitly placing within them specific phrases of uncertainty. In these, the doubt from the words themselves is amplified by the power of a short sentence, resulting in an even more dominant feeling of unease. Illustrative is when, after some monkeys are infected with enormous doses of human smallpox, Preston comments that “It was impossible to say what variola would do” (143). In this case, the feeling of uncertainty is not created with a specific word, but with the meaning of the sentence as a whole (especially by the word “impossible”). However, this feeling is greatly intensified by both the sentence length and location. The relative abruptness of the phrase clearly signifies greater importance, drawing attention and highlighting the lack of certainty in the scientific community. The location of the sentence also greatly assists with this mood of insecurity that Preston produces. It is carefully placed as the last sentence in the chapter (in fact, the last of an entire section), and the reader is left with no further words to read, and only that sentence to consider. Thus, as the reader is compelled, by the sentence’s location, to ponder these words, he or she is alarmed because not even the experts know what to expect from smallpox. Similarly, when describing the suspicious cooling systems observed on Soviet missiles, Preston points out that “Refrigeration implies life. The missiles appeared to contain living weapons” (88). Here, two short sentences are strung together at the end of a paragraph, following a lengthy twenty-two word sentence. The reader is given a break in sentence length so that the implications of the statement may be fully realized. It is telling that even in these two sentences, there is no statement of absolute truth, only an inference and an implication. Yet again the reader is confronted with a statement of uncertainty. The words “implies” and “appeared” reveal that the experts do not know the truth, but only rely on circumspect evidence to make assumptions. There is no way to know for certain if countries have the missiles that could annihilate thousands. Thus, Preston’s short sentences not only generate anxiety from syntax and location alone, but also combine uncertain diction to increase apprehension in the reader.
Through syntax and diction choices, Preston successfully creates a feeling of unease within the reader. People dislike this uncertainty, and the reader is frightened: some of the information on biological weapons, some of the information that could threaten his or her life, is uncertain, and even to an expert is unknowable. The reader finds this fear disquieting, and it is through playing upon this fear that Preston is able to capture the reader’s attention and impress upon him the gravity of biological terrorism.
Preston, Richard. The Demon in the Freezer. New York, NY: Random House, 2002.
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