In places this well-crafted bit of cold war history reads like a spy thriller, so much so that I was convinced after a few pages that I was not reading a personal story, but rather the hand of a ghost writer, as a quick glance at the cover makes it clear. It’s not a bad thing, but the structure of these things, often put together by a staff writer on the big American magazines, is so formulaic that you come to expect ‘now they’re going to jump back in time’ or ‘now they’re going to slot in a surprise.’
Don’t let that put you off, though, the first person narrator Ken Alibek, a former Soviet manager in the biological weapons programme, has a fascinating and chilling story to tell. We see his growing involvement in the industrial scale sites producing the likes of anthrax and smallpox, with plenty of scares and terrifying achievements along the way. Right from the beginning of the book, where (in a classic ghost-written jump forward) he is given the challenge of providing enough anthrax to fill multi-warhead ICBMs it’s a tense story, especially bearing in mind this was taking place in an increasingly unstable country that supposedly had given up biological weapons years before.
It’s very readable, and emphasizes just what a level of threat biological weapons were and may still be. The only reason it doesn’t score better is that, though there is a scientific context, which is why it’s here at all, it is relatively minor. We do seem some of the science of the biological agents, but primarily this is a book about politics, management and technology. Even so well worth checking out.
Review by Brian Clegg