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Breathing Fire

Until Proven Safe

9780374715335 fc
Digital, MCD × FSG, 2021

Geoff Manaugh

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Nicola Twilley

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Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley explore the history and future of quarantine, from the Black Death to Big Data.

Quarantine has shaped our buildings, cities, and borders for centuries, yet, as a concept, it remains both feared and misunderstood.

In Until Proven Safe, journalists Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley climb through the ruins of quarantine hospitals in Venice, Dubrovnik, and Malta, don hardhats to visit a new federal quarantine facility in the heart of the United States, and attend simulated pandemics—one eerily similar to COVID-19—in New York and Washington D.C.

Although quarantine, at its heart, works by separating people suspected of illness from those known to be well, even this simple distinction leads to entire realms of philosophical uncertainty, ethical risk, and the potential abuse of political power. What if we don’t know we are infected? Quarantine has been an effective medical tool for 600 years, but it is also an unusually poetic metaphor for any number of moral and religious ills: it means waiting to see if something hidden inside you will be revealed.

You must remain in quarantine—until proven safe.

Until Proven Safe tracks the history and future of quarantine around the globe, chasing the story of emergency isolation through time and space—from the crumbling lazarettos of the Mediterranean to the hallways of the CDC, to the corporate giants hoping to disrupt quarantine today armed with surveillance technology and Big Data.

Yet quarantine is more than just a medical tool: the authors also drop deep into the Earth to tour a nuclear-waste isolation facility beneath the New Mexican desert, strip down to nothing but protective Tyvek suits to see plants stricken with a disease that threatens the world’s wheat supply, and meet with NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, tasked with saving the Earth from extraterrestrial infections.

The result is part travelogue, part intellectual history, an exhaustively researched trip that could not be more urgent or timely—and a book as compelling as it is definitive.

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  • "What does it mean to isolate threats: people carrying diseases; the microbes, themselves; radioactive materials? For centuries the primary tool of isolation has been quarantine, and in this globe-trotting tale of history and today’s COVID-19 crisis, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley offer answers that will make your jaw drop. Nothing about “quarantine” is as simple or straight-forward as you think."

    LAURIE GARRETT, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance
  • Until Proven Safe combines history, geography, epidemiology, and the ethics of space exploration—how can this be? Because, as the authors explain in a very entertaining and wide-ranging way, quarantine, ironically enough, crosses borders of space and time to make a complex knot of stories. Timely, eye-opening, provocative—you will see the world differently after reading it.

    KIM STANLEY ROBINSON, Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning novelist, and author of Ministry for the Future

  • “An engrossing study of the ways in which quarantines have changed social, emotional, and political life over hundreds of years, and a fascinating exploration of the perennial roles of fear, conspiracy theories, greed, and prejudice... Perfect for our time.”

    ELLEN ULLMAN, author of Close to the Machine and, most recently, Life in Code

  • “What makes [Until Proven Safe] compelling, besides [Manaugh and Twilley’s] extensive experience as journalists, is the depth of their research coupled with a firm conviction that quarantine, a mighty yet dangerous weapon, must be used ‘more wisely in the future’ . . . The informality of the authors’ engaging prose, bearing few scholarly trappings save for the source notes, more aptly resembles that of an article in the New Yorker . . . This is an exceptionally powerful book.”

    A. Roger Ekirch, The Wall Street Journal

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