The Genius Plague: The mycelium strikes back

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 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, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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  1. This sounds like so much fun!

  2. look forward to giving this a read thanks!

  3. The 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.

  4. Brian Akers /

    THANK YOU for not only reviewing this book – bringing it to attention in so doing, and telling a bit about it. I’m a bit startled by what I’ve learned of this novel from your review notes – doubly. On one hand, the storyline as traced hews to a distinct neo-scifi narrative pattern, both literary and cinematic.

    Among the more noted literary architects of this type ‘mind parasites’ novel – Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters” – eventually filmed by that title, w/ Donald Sutherland. Ironic casting maybe since he’d also appeared – in the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The 1956 original is an icon of this new narrative development in scifi – contrasting with the pre-war HG Wells stage in which nothing covert or infiltrative figures. The invasion is purely physical, external and a matter of more advanced technology.

    The invasion m.o. of humans as hosts – transforming them into an alien equivalent of zombies or slaves – emerged and quickly diversified – only after WW2. In scholarly analysis, some have posed INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (and other variations of this type tale) as an allusion, whether deliberate or ‘unawares’ to – The Red Scare (i.e. commie menace).

    To be zapped by ray guns from Martian war machines is scary enough for a 1938 Orson Wells broadcast to scare its pre-WW2 audience. But there wasn’t any infiltrating (“winning”) hearts and minds, i.e. an alien conquest – without anyone noticing.

    The genius of the post-war development was to re-invent the subjugation of humanity as – real peaceful, no need for bloodshed “without a single shot having to be fired” – a yet-scarier idea that took shape only post war. Heinlein’s novel was published 1951. Cornerstone films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS – a few years later.

    Another 1950s cinematic classic in this vein, INVADERS FROM MARS innovated the notion of a neurosurgical ‘thought control’ device – the alien implant.

    In this type ‘secret’ (or ‘quiet’) alien take-over – the ‘home team’ was automatically cast as the good guys, heroes we root for – us humans, ‘right or wrong’ – at first. But as the ‘covert’ storyline unfolded even that became thematically ambiguous by the mid 1960s – as offerings like THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH hint, the ‘moral of the story’ might end with us rooting for – them, not us.

    From real life to fiction – and back to real life – leading into the present era (in which this novel now appears, i.e. figures): the theme (once-and-originally science fictional) of alien mind-parasitism – seems to have crossed over, or been ‘borrowed’ – in, for and by psychedelic subculture – as a ‘theorizing’ innovation about magic mushrooms.

    The ‘idea’ (i.e. narrative) of psychedelic mushrooms “possibly” – in ‘reality’ being an alien intelligence that wants in to our minds (to “help” us, true to the Paul character in this novel) – and that what we experience “tripping” is – unbeknownst to Earth scientists – a kind of contact being made with us by ET – was cooked up by one Terence McKenna – Timothy Leary’s famous successor, or infamous depending upon one’s perspective.

    This novel, as I read about it – thanks to your review – echoes deeply a massive subcultural welter that lies low – “out of sight, out of mind” – beneath the surface of media radar and general public awareness.

    Inside the psychedelic circus tent such exclusive ‘theorizing’ as – maybe these mushroom aliens are good for us, and we need to get humanity properly ‘hosted’ – prevails. On one hand it displays much the same type ‘intellectual appeal’ that glitters in many a tabloid brand of exploitation ‘scholarship’ – Ancient Astronaut theorizing etc.

    BTW the “Paul” character name may, or may not be coincidental. Because it’s the real-life name of a perniciously prominent promoter of this storyline’s non-fictional versions i.e. dubious to downright fraudulent ‘theorizing’ about mushrooms being ‘possibly’ ET – invoking Terence McKenna reverently. It’s a core part of Paul Stamets’ traveling magic mushroom ‘medicine show’ and (if you have your mind hosted right) ‘salvation show’ rolled into one.

    Interesting times, almost like some Chinese fortune cookie blessing. May we live to see more like this and – thanks for your fascinating, not to mention informative review of this novel, with all it captures seemingly, reflects – almost like symptom perhaps – of the times in which we live.

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