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.)