The Genius Plague: The mycelium strikes back

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The Genius Plague by David Walton science fiction book reviewsThe Genius Plague by David Walton science fiction book reviewsThe Genius Plague by David Walton

Fungi are fascinating, successful, scary organisms, and in the past several years speculative fiction writers have been making the most of them. David Walton steers away from the brooding, surreal and creepy approach to fungi others have chosen in favor of straight-up science fiction adventure in his 2017 novel The Genius Plague. An outbreak of a fungal infection leaves the survivors smarter, more visionary… and fully loyal to mycelia. Soon a greenhorn NSA codebreaker is fighting to save humanity and his own family.

The Genius Plague wastes no time getting us into the action as Paul Johns, a young mycologist, heads home from a field trip collecting specimens in the Amazon basin. The riverboat he catches back to civilization is attacked by people in Brazilian navy uniforms, and everyone but Paul and one other tourist are killed. Paul and the woman begin making their way back on foot.

The point of view shifts to Paul’s twin brother, Neil. Neil is not as successful as his brother; he is rebellious, and he’s worried about his final chance to get a job working as an analyst at the NSA. Neil’s concerns are also personal as he helps to care for his father, who lives with dementia. Dad worked for the NSA and was a brilliant code analyst; now he can only put together three-letter words in Scrabble games, and often he doesn’t recognize Neil at all.

When Paul returns home he is sick with a fungal infection. Anti-fungals seem to treat it, but Paul has changed. In Neil’s new job, he is given a series of unbroken coded messages, and discovers that they represent sound — a whistling language used by only one remote tribe in the Amazon. And a new “smart drug” is making the rounds of upper-middle-class schools in America. Neil thinks these things are connected, but before he can figure out what is happening, there are acts of terrorism in Brazil, and then a hot war heading for the borders of the United States. And soon, Neil realizes no one can be trusted, because the “enemy” is truly within — inside people’s brains.

Walton has the ability to make complicated science understandable, and in between ambushes, bombings, narrow escapes and deciphering mysterious messages, The Genius Plague shares a lot of interesting things about mycelia. The story has plenty of action, but all along the way we wonder, with Neil, if the colonization of individuals by the fungus really so bad. This becomes emotionally powerful for Neil and the reader because of Neil’s father. If a fungal infection brought back brain function that has been lost to Alzheimer’s, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

I had one moment early in the book when Neil brought his brother on a tour of the NSA that I thought, “Oh, no.” Later, when the thing I suspected would happen did happen (remember that the reader knows more about Paul’s condition than Neil does), I thought, “I don’t believe it.” By the end of the book, though, the story convinced me that maybe that thing actually could have happened, so even though my suspension of disbelief wavered, Walton managed to win me back just by keeping the other details of the story so congruent.

I wished for more codebreaking! I don’t feel that this was a gap or a failing in the story; it was just so interesting I hoped for more of it.

The Genius Plague moves at a brisk pace but still leaves time for some serious questions. Fundamentally, Neil’s challenge is to get military thinkers to stop applying human rules to the war they are fighting, because their adversary is not human. There are plenty of times that the colonized people make believable arguments for how much better their lives are. This definitely raised the stakes for the uninfected humans. The book wraps up the threats laid out in the opening pages, but leaves plenty of potential for more stories. I reached out to David Walton on Twitter to ask if this was a series, and he said No… unless it becomes a best seller, so if you enjoy this book and want to read more, you know what to do.

I expected to like The Genius Plague and found I liked it even more than I expected. The day I wrote this review, I had planned a chicken dish for dinner that included mushrooms. As I was writing this I thought, “Hmmm… Maybe not…”

(Update: I did include the mushroom, and I haven’t changed at all. Not at all.)

Published October 3, 2017. THE CONTAGION IS IN YOUR MIND. In this science fiction thriller, brothers are pitted against each other as a pandemic threatens to destabilize world governments by exerting a subtle mind control over survivors. Neil Johns has just started his dream job as a code breaker in the NSA when his brother, Paul, a mycologist, goes missing on a trip to collect samples in the Amazon jungle. Paul returns with a gap in his memory and a fungal infection that almost kills him. But once he recuperates, he has enhanced communication, memory, and pattern recognition. Meanwhile, something is happening in South America; others, like Paul, have also fallen ill and recovered with abilities they didn’t have before. But that’s not the only pattern–the survivors, from entire remote Brazilian tribes to American tourists, all seem to be working toward a common, and deadly, goal. Neil soon uncovers a secret and unexplained alliance between governments that have traditionally been enemies. Meanwhile Paul becomes increasingly secretive and erratic. Paul sees the fungus as the next stage of human evolution, while Neil is convinced that it is driving its human hosts to destruction. Brother must oppose brother on an increasingly fraught international stage, with the stakes: the free will of every human on earth. Can humanity use this force for good, or are we becoming the pawns of an utterly alien intelligence?

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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3 comments

  1. This sounds like so much fun!

  2. look forward to giving this a read thanks!

  3. ★★★½The premise of this book is very interesting. When I read the summary I was hooked and added it to my TBR list immediately. And it has done well with its premise. This book plays with what we think as us. It’s a very interesting and scary to read a book where people’s mind are controlled so easily making them think that what they want to do is something right even though it’s not. It highlights how easy our mind can be controlled. While there are no fungi in this world that can infect and control human mind there are countless studies where scientist discover how and what type of trigger that can prompt us into doing something. Well, actually there’s this one type of fungi in this world that’s similar to the fungi in this book but fortunately it only infects ants, and hopefully, it’ll stay that way. What I don’t particularly enjoy is how the author several times put his words or opinion into his characters’ mouth. There are better and subtle ways to tell what you think in a book without putting it up front. Another thing that’s not so well done in this book is the characters. They’re not bad but they’re also not good either. They’re what I call an “ok” character. A character that doesn’t make you want to throw the book away but a character that you’ll forget before the week ends. If the characters are more unique and make you care about them this book would be so much better. But, unfortunately, they’re not. Neil is like a guy that I sit next to on a bus, I only tag along but no interaction between us. I see other reviews that praise the character but I’m just saying what I feel so if you like the characters, good for me. And the plot is alright, I guess. This book doesn’t stir any major emotion me besides making me uncomfortable, and the character that did this is the fungi. But I’ll still recommend this book just for the sake of making people uncomfortable.

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