Review: The Genius Plague
I was telling a friend about this book and the first thing that came out of my mouth was “I learned a lot about fungus.” Don’t worry! There are plenty of other fun things to recommend this book, such as NSA code breaking and creepy assassinations, but Walton has found an interesting hook and then amplified it until you will willingly read an entire book about fungus taking over people’s brains. Really.
THE GENIUS PLAGUE (Amazon) follows the lives of two brilliant brothers, Neil and Paul. Neil is a three-time ivy-league dropout, whose intelligence is (apparently) only matched by his ability to irritate campus administration. Frustrated by his failures at school, Neil makes a long-shot attempt and applies to be an analyst at the NSA, a job that his father held for many years before coming down with Alzheimer’s. Despite his lack of qualifications and a series of other unfortunate events, Neil is offered a position and begins working with a team whose purpose is to solve the ‘unbreakable’ codes that no other team can crack.
Although Neil is ecstatic about his new job, he worries about Paul, who has just survived a harrowing trip to the Amazon in which his fellow riverboat passengers were all gunned down by an unknown terrorist organization. Paul is also suffering from a severe fungal infection that he picked up in the Amazon. While Neil is initially worried about his brother’s survivor’s guilt, he soon fears that the real problem lies in Paul’s obsession with the fungus that infected him. Claiming that the fungus has made his brain more efficient, Paul infects their father, whose Alzheimer’s disappears almost overnight. Neil is horrified that Paul would use their father as a test subject for his new theory, but the trauma in his personal life is soon overtaken by the increasing chaos on the international political scene.
Neil soon realizes that connection between the mounting troubles in his private and professional life is Aspergillus ligados, the networked fungus that has infected Paul. Neil must use his codebreaking skills as well as his connection to Paul to try and stop the fungus that is quickly infecting thousands across the world as it single mindedly seeks to ensure its survival, even at the cost of humanity’s own.
THE GENIUS PLAGUE reads at a good pace, especially once Neil has been offered his position at the NSA. Walton keeps readers engaged with effective twists and turns and the glimpses we get of the NSA and Neil’s codebreaking are fun, even if you can’t tell a Playfair cipher from a Vigenère. Indeed, Walton is good at taking complicated issues and presenting them in ways that keep the plot moving but the reader still informed, without having to take huge swaths of text to do so. While there is plenty of information conveyed (both about codebreaking and fungus), Walton makes the information feel like a key to a puzzle, instead of deadweight.
Walton’s characters are generally less interesting than the information. Neil’s character is a stereotypical ‘genius’: “arrogant and immature […] the kind of charismatic charmer who everybody likes, who can talk his way out of anything” (345). There’s a reason this character type shows up time and again in thrillers–the entire premise of the novel usually hangs on the exceptional abilities of the protagonist, and a little arrogance and charisma certainly helps grease the wheels of the plot. Unfortunately, Neil’s arrogance extends to women. In one scene he’s surrounded by other recent NSA hires and starts giving the women cutesy nicknames. He literally winks at one. The one female co-worker that isn’t immediately won over by his charm eventually begins to respect him, and, mis-reading normal human friendship, he asks her out. Neil’s casual misogyny may not stand out to all readers, but some will find it grating.
Walton hits his marks, and the book does what thrillers do best–it reads quickly and provides readers with a hitherto undreamed of scenario in which the United States nuclear arsenal might by deployed. Exploring all the consequences of the fungus living in symbiosis with humanity is interesting, and gives the book a unique twist that pushes it from “competent” to “enjoyable.” If you enjoy thrillers, or are looking for a quick vacation read, this would be a good one to check out. Just maybe not if you’re visiting the Amazon.
- Recommended Age: 12+
- Language: None
- Violence: Yes
- Sex: None