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The Sum of All Fears

Thriving Amid the Worst-Case Scenarios

November 07, 2001|GALE HOLLAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The strangeness of their situation is not lost on the creators of the bestselling "Worst-Case Scenario" handbook series.

The "Worst-Case" books, which began appearing in 1999, were supposed to be the apotheosis of the previous age of manufactured anxiety, when we all scared ourselves silly over Chinese food and airplane peanuts.

But when the news began to offer scenarios that topped anything in the books, it seemed that their faux-earnest advice on withstanding unlikely calamities--"Fend Off a Shark!" "Jump From a Building Into a Dumpster!"--might seem irrelevant, or worse, unfunny. Co-author David Borgenicht, a book packager, admits he experienced a moment of doubt when the shock of the terrorist hijacks finally wore off and it dawned on him that his lucrative franchise could also take a hit.

But it seems that the ironic, pop-culti wink-wink sensibility of the books has lost none of its original appeal since Sept. 11. The paperback edition of the original handbook from Chronicle Books is scrambling up the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Book No. 2--"Worst-Case Scenario: Travel"-is moving smartly. Book No. 3--"Worst-Case Scenario: Dating and Sex"--entered bookstores last weekend. And a TBS superstation series based on the worst-case concept is scheduled to bow next July.

"We thought we might see a downturn after the 11th because people wouldn't be interested in what for most people was a humorous book about highly unlikely disasters," said Borgenicht, on the phone from his Philadelphia offices. "But it seems to still work because people are thinking more about survival than ever before."

The last thing Borgenicht, 33, and his partner, Joshua Piven, 30, were thinking when they first urged readers to get in touch with their "inner MacGyvers" was surviving \o7 real\f7 worst-case scenarios. The two Penn University grads were inspired by action movie and TV programs, the what-if fantasies that float through your head as you watch a big-screen Bruce Willis dive through a skyscraper window or fling himself headlong from a cliff into a river.

And though the books work as a sort of armchair adventurism--"impractical reference" guides, Borgenicht calls them--they rely on real, painstakingly researched advice from survival experts. And none of the experts have answers for what the terror merchants might be cooking up, Borgenicht said.

"It's easy to predict how wild animals will behave--a shark will behave like a shark, a wild bear will behave like a bear. But when it comes to humans and all the what-if factors come into it, there's no clear course of action," Borgenicht explained.

Not that life after Sept. 11 didn't intersect with fiction, or at least "Worst-Cases"' brand of factoid-fiction. Surviving a hostage situation is in the "Worst-Case" travel book, only the advice--lie low--would have been of no use to victims of the hijack terrorist attacks. "The experts were addressing situations in which very clear demands and goals were being asked of a government or a country or individual," Borgenicht said, not the sort of situation we saw in September.

Contracting anthrax was another scenario Borgenicht and Piven considered, and rejected, for the first book.

"We didn't think it was that interesting: ID the symptoms and take Cipro," said Borgenicht, who nonetheless used the anthrax setup on a "Worst-Case" calendar. They also posited a plan for landing a plane, but a small private aircraft, not a commercial jetliner, he added.

To the authors' utter shock, the books have actually helped people get through sticky real-life situations, Borgenicht said. Readers contacted them after Seattle's 6.8 earthquake in late February, for example, to thank them for their entry "How to Survive an Earthquake."

"When we were writing the book, it felt like an interesting idea that might sell 100,000 copies and entertain a few people. But when you have a bestseller like this, the odds increase that at least one of 2 million readers reading the book in the bathroom or picking it up off the coffee table might encounter one of the situations," Borgenicht said.

The anthrax scenario is up on the WorstcaseScenarios.com Web site, and Borgenicht thinks it just might help someone get through the current crisis. One Worst-Case Scenario that Borgenicht hopes will not pass through the porous veil between fact and fiction is a nuclear attack. A "Worst-Case" calendar "goes into interesting detail about what water is safe to drink after a blast and whether it is safe to eat animals or fruit that have been killed," Borgenicht said. "Of course, nobody's been through that before. In practice, it remains to be seen."

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