What happens when a fungus spreads it’s tendrils into a new host, mankind, and begins to take control? You get an interesting story concept! But does it work?
This book was gifted to me right at the beginning of 2020 and I remember being excited to read it as soon as I opened it up.
But then, before I had a chance to get to it, the world entered the shit-show that is also known as the Covid-19 pandemic and well… the idea of going through what we’ve all went through with this pandemic and then wanting to READ a book about a plague of some sort… well… unfortunately it made it too easy to push this one a little further back on the shelf as a “someday” read.
2022 was finally the time, as I decided I was going to challenge myself to go on a super eclectic journey and FINALLY get through my entire TBR pile of all the books on my bookshelves and on my Kindle that were sitting, abandoned and unread.
After the non-fiction of Nick Offerman’s – Where the Deer and the Antelope Play and the massive journey through the entire short fiction collection of the classic science fiction of Arthur C Clarke in The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke, I decided to tackle The Genius Plague by David Walton.
The book description promised to be a fast paced read, a sci-fi thriller, an “un-put-down-able” read, and after the long, slow, contemplative journeys through the previous two books, a fast paced thriller sounded perfect.
Then I read the prologue/introduction and was absolutely gobsmacked by SO much science talk.
It opens with Paul being down in the Amazon, coming back from a journey to study fungus and getting nearly killed by a group of gunmen that wipe out the entire group he’s with. That part is exciting and sets the stage well… but the REST of that introduction is FULL of scientific jargon about fungus varieties and quite frankly I wondered if this book was going to be way over my head.
Thankfully when the first proper chapter rolls around, the science speak is tamed and the story kicks off in proper.
We meet Paul’s brother Neil, who is an arrogant 21 year old that is terribly smart but flunked out of college. He’s living at home with his Father, who is suffering badly from Alzheimer’s, and is in the process of trying to get a job with the NSA to follow in his Dad’s footsteps.
Now, without saying too much more about the story itself(in order to not give away ANY spoilers), this was one of a great many moments in this book where we, as readers, are asked to just “go with it” for the sake of the story.
Neil manages to land his job with the NSA, impossible as that would seem, and this puts the brothers on a crash course to clash in the future as Neil works to STOP the fungus driven plague while Paul works to spread and enhance it’s network because he is convinced it’s the next evolution of humanity, humans 2.0 you could say.
Ok – enough of the summary type thoughts. Let’s talk about the good, the bad and the ugly about this book.
First, even though the writing can be a bit science(and later military based) heavy at times, when it comes to the use of jargon from those fields of study, it’s actually very enjoyable. Walton does a nice job with the pacing in this book and while I didn’t find it to be “Un-Put-Down-Able” as the cover claims, I WAS fully drawn into the story.
Second, I know a lot of people will be a bit disappointed with the ending of this book. I get it totally because it builds and builds and builds to what feels like should be some sort of MASSIVE ending, only to kind of go out with a bit of a fizzle in terms of HOW the story resolves. But I won’t say I disliked the ending because, for me, there was so much left open to think about, especially in terms of how easily things could spiral out of control again based on humanity doing human things. I thought it was a pretty satisfying ending with a bit of a tenuous, or temporary, feeling victory.
Third, and this was the thing that hit me the hardest about this book, the fact it’s listed as a “science fiction/thriller” is accurate, however with a bit deeper look into the story I feel like “horror” or maybe even just “dark fiction” could be added.
As this story unfolds and we see more and more about just what is happening with this fungus, both wonderful and beautiful things as well as the truly terrifying, it’s so easy to understand BOTH brothers and their viewpoints. More importantly it made me really think about humanity and the extent people will go, regardless of the risks, to find a CHANCE at what they perceive as happiness. Couple that with how easily people can be convinced that one path or another is the correct path, and it’s downright HORRIFYING how easily humans can and are manipulated every single day.
There is a large sub-story that happens with Neil and Paul’s Father and his battle with Alzheimer’s that really hit home in a big way for me. Losing my own Grandpa in 2019 to dementia, I saw how terrible this disease can be. And the story arc presents a dilemma that made me truly stop and think about just how hard of a decision it would be for these brothers.
The Bottom Line
One thing I’ve decided is that I need to make sure that my “bottom line” section is not turning into a long segment just like the review segment! I know, I can ramble a bit.
So here it is.
The Genius Plague is NOT a perfect book. It asks you to take a TON of leaps of faith with the story and just “go along with” some extremely convenient character plotting.
Let’s face it… this whole thing is so highly improbable that there’s likely no way ANY of it happens. Is there?
That’s my point though.
While the ending WAS a bit weak, I enjoyed how it left some things a bit open. Not open enough to suggest a sequel, which this book does NOT need, but open enough that it left me thinking about just how finely humanity is having to tip toe the fine line between victory and total apocalypse.
Yes, we are asked to be ok with the totally inexperienced, and quite frankly arrogant, Neil as he continues to stumble into being our hero. It’s a trope to a degree, but you know what, it was fun. And there are some twists with that character that really do a nice job of subverting that trope and making him more unique.
Finally, my biggest issue with this book. The summary and description hint at an alien intelligence. Here’s the quote from the Goodreads summary which I believe is also on the back of the book:
Can humanity use this force for good, or are we becoming the pawns of an utterly alien intelligence?
While the book certainly lives in the mix of military strategy, political posturing, and plenty of science, there is absolutely NO presence of any actual, off planet, alien ANYTHING happening here. I know, I know. The “alien intelligence” doesn’t HAVE to mean anything from outer space.
But it’s very much implied that there is a sinister being(or race of beings) that are contained within or somehow using this fungus to conquer Earth. And that’s why the ending feels a bit weak I think, your mileage may vary as always.
I give this a 3 out of 5 stars(would have been a 3.5 if Goodreads would allow half stars)
It’s not perfect, it gets a little science and military jargon heavy at times, it asks you to just roll with some massive coincidental leaps of faith for our characters, but it’s a damn fun ride.
It’s moderately fast paced with an interesting story premise that, upon further examination, can leave you REALLY feeling like mankind is teetering on the edge of total annihilation at any moment. And when you start to really think through the ramifications of what is presented in the book, there is just enough horror to leave you feeling a bit uneasy at the thought it could happen someday.
If that sounds good to you, I think you’ll enjoy the ride so give it a look. I enjoyed it enough to recommend it.
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