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?
David 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.
Yes! 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.