The Genius Plague by David Walton (Pyr, 2017)
We all know that the goal of a species is to not die out, a goal that can be achieved in many ways: living in mutually beneficial relationships with other organisms; spreading further geographically so if there are problems in one region, the other regions survive; killing off competition for resources; etc. The whole survival of the fittest idea.
David Walton’s newest book The Genius Plague creates a villain in a fungus that threatens to end humanity as we know it, not by being extraterrestrial or intelligent, but just by evolving to improve its chances of survival. It has adapted to live in a human host, entering the lungs first via inhalation then traveling to the brain. Once in the brain, it is able to mimic neurons and influence neural pathways.
But obviously, if you’ve got fungus in your brain, you are going to want to get rid of it, right?
Wrong. Because this fungus has evolved to have a seemingly mutually beneficial relationship with its hosts. Here, that means that it literally improves upon our neural pathways. Those infected are significantly smarter and need less sleep, two things almost every human would be pretty excited about. The insidious part is that it has learned to influence human behavior as well, allowing it to protect itself. Basically, if you are infected and think about something that would hurt the survival of the fungus, the fungus floods your brain with really bad emotions. If you think about something that will help its survival, it floods your brain with really good emotions. You can see where that could get a little out of control.
The science gets a little weird, I’ll admit. Walton is fond of flooding the pages with technical vocabulary to sound like an authority, which sometimes made me trust the science less. And while the science has sound parts, it also takes a quite a few leaps of imagination and faith. Hey, that’s why we read sci-fi, right?
The fast paced plot is narrated by Neil, a codebreaker for the NSA who is watching (and participating) in these events as they watch the fungus spread from the Amazon into surrounding countries and up toward the United States. In addition to his witnessing the political events through the NSA, Neil has a front row seat to the infection itself, as his brother is among the first infected in the United States. The story balances the action-adventure of the political drama, mystery of the fungus, and family drama of Neil’s brother, mother, and father, who has early onset Alzheimers, to create a well rounded story. It also occasionally mulls over ethical questions, like if a momentary respite from a degenerative disease is worth the pain of reliving the symptoms and what it means for a nation to protect its people. It’s a rich read, full of ideas and creativity.
Unfortunately, The Genius Plague is a good story told by a mediocre story teller. The prose is heavy-handed, filled with unnecessary details, like the exact outfits of his colleagues and an explanation of how to pull out of a parking spot. Characters frequently over-explain things in excessive technical detail for the benefit of the reader. If you were just shot at and escaped into the Amazon with no map, no food, no water, and no supplies, would you really want a fungus lesson?
The problems extend past the writing itself and into the very building blocks of the story. Neil is an annoying protagonist, a twenty-one year old whiz kid who gets hired by the NSA without a college degree because of his “potential,” if you will. Then he starts work, picks a random message to decode, hears a guy whistle at lunch, realizes that the code is really a whistle language spoken by 200 people in the world, and unlocks the key to a huge international terrorist group’s communications. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find “Eureka” moments fun to read. The whole set up of the plot was so ludicrous to me that it detracted from how fun the actual concept was. To be fair, Walton does poke fun at Neil and how the world falls at his feet, mostly through a colleague who has no patience for entitled whiz kids not used to putting in the work. Overall, the same story told through a different vehicle would have been significantly more enjoyable for me.
Verdict: The Genius Plague is the sugary breakfast cereal of action adventure sci-fi — extremely fun but not very satisfying.
[Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House]