The Genius Plague
by David Walton
Cover Artist: Eric Nyquist
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pyr Trade Paperback / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9781633883437
Date: 03 October 2017 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Genius Plague is a non-stop hard SF thriller about mind-control, interspecies warfare, and mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms.
Stepping away from the quantum physics at the core of his previous two novels, Supersymmetry and Superposition, author David Walton has come up story equal parts biotech and eco-thriller, and almost impossible to put down.
When mycologist Paul Johns steps out of the Amazonian rainforest where he's been collecting fungus samples for his lab, he has no idea that the world is about to turn upside down, but when the tourists on the riverboat he's taking back to civilization are all gunned down, he should have guessed that something was up. What's up is that the rainforest, or specifically one species of mushroom, is fighting back, and it's not taking prisoners. Well, it doesn't really have to, because it's managed the evolutionary trick of infesting humans and giving them a powerful hit of dopamine when they think about preserving the fungi or its habitat, the rainforest.
Now, that may sound like a lot to swallow, but by the end of the book, you'll be a believer, or at least willing to give author David Walton the benefit of the doubt. He's done his research and filled in a lot of the holes with solid science and well thought out consequences.
When Paul gets back to civilization, he collapses at the airport, infected with fungal pneumonia, and though he responds to treatment, he's placed on a regimen of anti-fungal meds that will last for years to keep the fungus from taking hold in his system. Except that he's already figured out that the fungus has taken hold, boosting his memory and associate ability in the process by spinning a network of mycelium strands around his synapses.
Paul's younger brother Neil is a prodigy mathematician who's been expelled from MIT, Princeton, and Carnegie Mellon but now he's got a shot at a job at the NSA doing cryptography, his passion, and a chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, a brilliant mathematician who worked at the NSA before being sidelined by Alzheimer's. The Genius Plague is really Neil's story and quickly becomes a battle between brothers as the real effect of the plague becomes apparent: a total devotion to protecting and spreading the fungi/plague with little regard for the host species.
Starting his job at the NSA, Neil is assigned to a group that works on decrypting messages that don't fall into known cipher schemes. One stream of messages leads right back to the rainforest and guerilla activity between normally warring factions that now seem to be working together, using brilliant tactics and strategies and creating new ciphers as quickly as Neil and the team can break them. It takes Neil a bit to put stories of it together, but when he gets there he realizes just how bad things could get.
The infected are unable to see the problem, aware only that they're suddenly able to think faster and see connections they'd never imagined, and any thought that the condition, or that the mushroom's influence isn't the best thing to ever happen for all is met with aggressive denial. Mankind is about to go to war with an enemy capable of mind control and rapid infection vectors. Fans of earlier SF will see the parallels with Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, but this time with a home-grown threat.
The action is fast and furious. Neil is no special-ops type but manages to stumble through the center of the storm one geeky step after another. The tone of the novel is more techno-thriller than deep thought, but there are real questions there just the same. Is the plague a parasite or symbiont? Does free will really come down to a positive reward mechanism, and if so, did we ever have it? The story moves quickly forward and the sides are clearly drawn, but right up to the end you don't know how it's all going to turn out.
What's more important, you're not completely sure who you're rooting for. All I'm sure of is that I'm rooting for more books like The Genius Plague from David Walton.