Fiction Reviews

The Genius Plague

(2017) David Walton, Pyr, £9.99/ Can$16.00 / US$14.95, 384pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88343-7


As page-turners go, this is a good one. It is well written and takes its time to reveal the full story; indeed, it keeps going right up to the end.

Paul Johns is a mycologist and he has been collecting fungi in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest. He is on a riverboat, heading back to Manaus, when they are attacked by ‘terrorists’. Jumping overboard, only he and fellow-passenger Maisie escape the onslaught but are then faced with a long walk through the rainforest; they somehow make it back to town, though with no memory of how they achieved it. They are soon repatriated to the States, where it becomes apparent that they are both suffering from a severe fungal infection; Paul just survives but Maisie does not. This is just the start, the rest of the story is told in the first person by his younger brother Neil.

Even as Paul is flying home, Neil attends an interview at the NSA (National Security Agency) for a post as a code breaker. If he gets it, he will be following in his father’s footsteps, though his father had retired early due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately Neil is hardly a normal office-type worker; he is young, inexperienced, and full of his own ideas; he fails to understand the norms of how government organisations work, annoys his interviewer, and generally makes a mess of the whole process. Fortunately, though, high-ranking officer Melody Muniz spots his unusual approach, especially his command of words and languages, and sees his potential; after all, to do well in that type of work one needs to think outside the box and, in his case, Neil does not seem to even see the box.

Having recovered, Paul is checked out of hospital but warned he will have to take an anti-fungal medicine for several years, advice he immediately ignores because he has become aware that, with the fungus’ help, he is clearer thinking, has almost total recall, and is generally even brighter than he was before. After a while, Neil notices too - Paul, who had never been good at the game, is suddenly winning Scrabble with high-scoring, rare words he had never known before.

Meanwhile, in his new job of trying to decode intercepted messages from suspected terrorists in South America, Neil spots that the messages are not so much coded as representing the very simple, tonal speech of the Johurá tribe from an obscure tributary of the Amazon. The tribe is isolated and only a few hundred strong, and their language only understood by a few western academics, yet this code is being used by a number of unrelated terrorist groups in all the neighbouring countries. As the NSA investigates further, it becomes apparent that the aims of these groups have changed from purely their own political desires to a somewhat united intention to protect the rainforest from the depredations of the industrial western societies. One after another, political leaders are being assassinated across the region and strong, pro-Amazon factions are forming.

Neil also spots that the movement started in the area where Paul had been attacked and that there have been increasing reports of fungal infections amongst those living in South American countries. They soon realise that the fungus has entered a symbiotic arrangement with its hosts; it soon infects the brain and its hosts find themselves with clearer thoughts and greater mental abilities (it even clears up his father’s Alzheimer’s, at least for a while) and are fully aware of the benefits the fungus has brought them. Although it is itself without thought, the fungus imparts the desire to be protected; its hosts are completely hooked and protecting the fungus becomes their sole desire. Once infected, no-one can resist the effect for long. The contagion is deliberately spread by those such as Paul, who see only the benefits it brings them. It spreads into the American military forces and soon nobody knows who is infected and who is can still be trusted. And thereby lies the danger to the world; the fungus has no plan but the countless individuals all have their own, unpredictable take on what they must do to protect the fungus and, what is more, have an automatic drive to co-operate with each other. Their plans are limited only by what the human mind can come up with - and some of those minds are extreme and completely heedless of the human cost…

The story is not deep but it ticks along very nicely and maintains its pace throughout; the pages turned very easily. All-in-all, an enjoyable read.

Peter Tyers

Editorial note: This book made The Wall Street Journal’s (a non-SF publication) list of best 5 SF novels of the year (2017).

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