The Razor's Edge 

Panic is universal. Living to tell the tale is not.

The last hundred years have been hard on René Descartes. Farewell, pure reason. Modern science has discovered what the poets already knew. The rational mind is not a separate, privileged faculty, as Descartes believed, but more like a rider atop the ancient, panting beast of the unconscious.

This inspires disturbing thoughts. What happens when the beast gets angry? What happens when it gets scared? Is reason helpless to resist?

No and yes, reports Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival, an often fascinating if sometimes rambling study of the ways people react in extreme circumstances, including shipwrecks, air crashes, and wilderness disasters.

Gonzales, a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure magazine, has delved into the latest scientific research in neuroscience, psychology, and accident theory. The news is not good. Take us out of our familiar surroundings, put us in danger, and a surprising number of us will simply shut down and die.

A mere one or two people in ten are wired to respond well in a crisis. They are not necessarily the buffest or the bravest. (In fact, Rambo types often go first, survival experts say.) But they do share the ability to adapt under pressure. Gonzales calls it the ability to "be here now."

Unfortunately, most of us lack this inconspicuous but essential talent. Sometimes confusion comes on subtly, as in the case of the Army Ranger on vacation who fell out of a river raft, refused help with a laugh (Rangers lead the way, after all), and cheerfully drifted downstream until the current pinned him against a rock and he drowned. Other times, confusion takes the form of full-blown terror. Navy fighter pilots, for example, are sometimes overwhelmed by the urge to get their planes down to the carrier flight deck -- an internal struggle one officer quoted in this book compares to a "knife fight in a phone booth."

"Evolution took millions of years to come up with emotional responses," Gonzales observes. "It has not yet had time to come up with an appropriate survival response for Navy fighter pilots on quarter-mile final, trying to land a 50,000-pound stovepipe on the heaving deck of a ship."

Nor, probably, has it devised an appropriate response for what to do when your life is threatened by a videotape possessed by an evil spirit. No wonder Kazuyuki Asakawa panics when it happens to him:

"Covering his mouth, he ran to the bathroom. Chills ran up and down his backbone, waves of nausea swept over him."

Asakawa is the hero of Ring, Koji Suzuki's hugely successful Japanese novel, now out in English for the first time. A best-seller in its author's home country, it inspired several film and television adaptations, including Ringu in Japan and The Ring in America.

As the story begins, four healthy teenagers die simultaneously of heart failure, their faces contorted in horror. The coincidence catches the attention of metropolitan newspaper reporter Asakawa, whose investigation leads him to a cabin at a countryside resort, where he discovers a nightmarish videotape that ends with the admonition, "If you do not wish to die, you must ..." But that crucial bit of the tape is missing, leaving Asakawa seven days to unravel the riddle before falling victim to the same fate as the unfortunate teens.

Seven days. A classic ticking clock. Horror, however, needs more than a deadline. In Stephen King's formulation, horror is a "moving, rhythmic search" for the phobic pressure points in the mind. Ring, instead of laying a hand on the mind, does little more than absentmindedly pet the reader's hair.

The clunky prose is a constant distraction. Granted, translation can be deceptive. Sentences such as "The minute he entered the grounds of Pacific Land he was confronted with lavish accoutrements" may sound exquisite in the original Japanese. But Suzuki's attempts to evoke dread fall as flat as the diction:

"It was the first time in his life he'd experienced such terror. And it wasn't over. Six more days. Fear tightened softly like a silk noose around his neck. Death awaited him."

The novel's fatal defect, however, is built into the chassis of the plot. The killer videotape is a clever update of the mummy's-curse motif. But the mummy is frightening because he might appear at any time: He is as arbitrary and implacable as death. The seven-day dispensation in Ring, on the other hand, ensures that nothing dreadful will happen for the long middle section of the book -- as, indeed, it does not.

English-speaking fans of the Ring movies might find the novel interesting for the light it sheds on aspects of the story that were altered or imperfectly digested onscreen.

The rest of us will seek our dose of fear elsewhere. Scary novels suffice for some. Others, who need stronger stuff, kayak dangerous rapids or climb sheer cliffs. The real diehards fly competitive aerobatics.

"Aerobatics ees stressful because you are not on the ground. This ees feerst emotional stress," says Kazakhstani aerobatics pilot Sergei Boriak, as rendered by journalist and pilot Joshua Cooper Ramo in No Visible Horizon, an entertaining and thought-provoking book of essays on the sport of Unlimited Aerobatics.

It is also the first thrill, writes Ramo.

Attracting little attention in the United States, aerobatics is one of the world's most dangerous sports. In some years it kills between one in thirty and one in forty of its participants. So many things can go wrong. A microscopic structural flaw or a hairbreadth miscalculation can end a pilot's life in seconds. A top-notch plane can roll more than one-and-a-half times a second, zoom three thousand feet straight up, and withstand forces that would tear normal planes to matchsticks. Pilots regularly subject themselves to stresses ten times the force of gravity and flirt constantly with unconsciousness. Over time, they risk developing the dread "wobblies," a mysterious and unpredictable form of vertigo.

Yet they keep flying, drawn back to the severe beauty of the sport. No Visible Horizon offers deft sketches of the idiosyncratic characters who make up the tight community of pilots -- characters such as Leo Loudenslager, the seven-time US champion who flew patterns so hard they broke blood vessels in his eyes and made him whimper in pain.

In sentences that snap like crisp maneuvers, Ramo, writing from firsthand experience, evokes the violence of extreme flying.

"I steady the plane at 110 knots. A deep breath in. Stick back quick. Then, fast as you read this, right rudder to the floor, hard as I can. The plane spirals around with a scream."

The fear of death is never far, but the great pilots channel and transform it. "I try to translate my fear into respect for my plane and the conditions," Loudenslager once said. "And into victory," Ramo adds.

Here is a glimpse of the coolheadedness Gonzales studies in Deep Survival. Rather than steer clear of disaster, the elite aerobatic pilot must embrace its possibility. To survive and fly well, the pilot must pass beyond fear, beyond training, and stake everything on faith. For a certain kind of personality, Ramo writes, the experience transcends mere thrills, and passes into the realm of the sublime: "It is, in some of our minds, an early glimpse of heaven."

Remember that the next time you fall out of a river raft into the rapids.

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