David Walton answers 3 Big Questions about THE GENIUS PLAGUE

David Walton’s latest book is The Genius Plague, about humanity’s struggle against colonization, not by extraterrestrials but by a common earthly entity. (You can read our review here.) Marion asked Walton three quick questions about his book, and his answers are entertaining and intriguing. Three random commenters with US or Canadian addresses will win a copy of The Genius Plague.

Marion Deeds: I really enjoyed The Genius Plague. Fungi are certainly fascinating and you managed to make the premise here plausible. What was your inspiration? And what sources did you use to develop your fictional (I hope) mycelium?

Author David WaltonDavid Walton: Thanks! The original inspiration was the suggestion (which I’ve heard from a number of sources) that wheat is the dominant organism on the planet, since it has manipulated people into spreading its seeds around the planet and working day and night to eliminate any plants or insects that might compete with it. It’s a fun perspective, and I wanted to write about a plant that accomplishes the same thing in a faster, more direct way.  Fungus, however, is more suited for such a role than plants are, given how readily it influences the plants and animals it comes into contact with. (If you’ve never watched the Planet Earth episode about zombie ants, it’s a must-see.) Fungus lives everywhere, from the gigantic networks in the soil underneath forests, to micro-organisms living on your skin and in your lungs. I read a number of books on the subject, mostly notably those by mycologist Paul Stamets, who has done some remarkable work to bring to light some of the more remarkable traits of fungi, on which many of the concepts in The Genius Plague are based.

There is a small, remote Amazon tribe in the book, and their unique language plays a large part in the plot. I wondered if you based them on the Piraja.

Cover of The Genius PlagueYes! I think linguistics are fascinating, and the learning how to speak an entirely new language that no outsider has ever spoken before is an incredible feat. I read linguist Daniel Everett’s book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, which is an account of his experience doing exactly that with the Piraja. The language they speak is so tonal that fluent speakers can communicate in the language simply by whistling the tones, which is enough information to infer the rest. There are a number of different languages around the world, unconnected to each other, which can be whistled like that. I didn’t want to use the name of an actual people group for the story, largely because I made the missionary/linguist who cracked the language a character in the book, and I didn’t want to give them impression that I was writing about any real people.

Neil defines himself as something of a failure, and in the early parts of the book, so does the story; yet he is the hero, in some small part because he doesn’t think the way others around him do. Was it difficult to envision a rebellious character working in a large intelligence bureaucracy like the NSA?

I wanted to present the NSA as realistically as possible in the book, as a large organization filled with all different types of people. Both military and civilians work there, and although they are similar in that they all have to pass a security clearance, they have different political persuasions, different personalities, different backgrounds, and different reasons to be there. Some are good at their job, some aren’t. Some live for the mission, some are cynical about it. And the NSA is, as you say, a large bureaucracy, which means all kinds of inefficiencies in paperwork, process, organization, and bizarre rules that made sense years ago but that nobody seems to know how to get rid of.

A few of Neil’s experiences — particularly the humorous ones — are based on real stories of people I know who have security clearances. Some of these people are uncommonly brilliant, but that can go along with a certain lack of awareness of one’s surroundings. I know a mathematician who, working a problem in his head on his way out of the office, walked through a plate glass window without noticing. He only stopped walking when people chased after him to see if he was all right. (I couldn’t include that story in a book, because nobody would believe it!) I also know someone who, like Neil, forgot to return his badge when leaving a government site and backed up his car to return it, quickly attracting serious men with guns.

Certainly rebelliousness could be a real problem in an intelligence agency, but Neil isn’t rebellious, exactly — just brilliant, reckless, and tending to act to solve problems before he thinks about the consequences. And yes, that’s a combination likely to get you in trouble with security pretty quickly, which Neil does. I also wanted Neil to be quite intelligent, but also relatable and likable. I did that by balancing his intelligence with a certain cluelessness about his own abilities, and a passionate nature that tends to get him in trouble.

Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you liked it!

David, thank you for spending time with us. I sent these questions to you and your publicist with no advance discussion, and you turned them around in one working day! I was impressed.

Readers, let us know your thoughts in Comments. Three random winners in the USA or Canada will get a copy of The Genius Plague.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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  1. Think this sounds really interesting! Thanks!

  2. I don’t usually go for the thriller types of books but this one sounds too interesting to bypass!

  3. Sandyg265 /

    I like the concept. This’d give my brother one more reason to avoid mushrooms

  4. I’m a medical anthropologist, so books about plagues, especially ones involving linguists are hard sells for me. Maybe too close to home. Maybe too many with too little background research. But you’ve managed to allay my fears on the second (research) part of that. Be the pathogen, I always say!
    I think this one goes on my TBR.

  5. I’m looking forward to this one. I really like science fiction that has some true science basis.

  6. Shawn Mansouri /

    Colonized by fungii? Insanity, I love it.

  7. mary henaghen /

    I love this book’s premise. Yet another addition to the TBR pile.. I love it!!

  8. John Smith /

    I’ve been very much appreciating the cool Mobius-style cover! Maybe the fungus victims turns into geniuses….

  9. This book sounds like so much fun. Thanks for your linked review and this interview.

  10. It’s since sounded interesting since I’ve read the back matter and promotional materials.

  11. Leland Eaves /

    I’ve seen this one around and am intrigued…

  12. I have been to NSA before. It is a labyrinth, and easy inspiration for any government conspiracy theory scifi authors might cook up. Folks working there are, indeed, diverse. I know several and have met many more. The odd thinkers tend to be marginalized. Not everyone working for NSA is smart. Sometimes brilliant work is stymied by the regs, but plenty more by human ambition.


    • Most people don’t realize how gigantic the place is; it’s like a small city. All sorts of different people working there, with different talents and goals, similar to a corporation. Plenty of computer geeks with nerdy things pinned to cubicle walls, as well as ambitious managers trying to rise in the ranks. And unambitious managers eager to go home and watch football. No conspiracy theories in the book, though: just people of all stripes, good and bad, doing their jobs with imperfect information and personal flaws.

    • Taya, I just looked at your blog. Nice stuff. Your point that a person trying to gender-swap in Japan would have an entire linguistic challenge to face; great insight.

  13. Connie /

    Sounds fascinating! Definitely interested.

  14. What an intriguing concept for a SF novel! Kudos for the creativity involved. I’ll have to lay my hands on a copy. BTW my maiden name was Walton, so another reason for me to be interested in David’s book, lol.

  15. Kirk Hutchison /

    Came here from Reddit, very excited to check out the book!

  16. McKenzie /

    This book looks incredibly interesting and it definitely on my to read list!

  17. Sethia /

    Interesting concept, deffently adding to my TBR list!

  18. Connie /

    Sounds fascinating, would love to read this!

  19. Paul Sparks /

    Would love to read this!

  20. This is now on my Toread list!

  21. Brian Pipa, Leland Eaves and Yvonne, if you live in the USA, you each win a copy of THE GENIUS PLAGUE!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  22. This sounds like such a great book!

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