Last week I reviewed David Walton’s latest, The Genius Plague (click here to read my review), and absolutely loved it! Today I’m happy to welcome David to the blog to chat more about fungi, code cracking and linguistics. And if you want to know how all those things come together in a science fiction story, then you’ll just have to read the book! And don’t forget to enter the giveaway at the end of this post! Pyr books is offering up two copies to my readers, and the giveaway is international!
Let’s start with a quick bio. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’ve been writing for about 20 years. Most of that time was writing short stories, and most of the early ones weren’t very good and weren’t published. My first novel won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2009, and I’ve written six more books since. Besides writing, I work as an engineer for Lockheed Martin, and I have seven children at home ranging in age from seventeen down to four. I attend Tenth Presbyterian Church in Center City, Philadelphia, and I love to talk about the intersection of religion and science. In my free moments, I enjoy strategy games and improvising on the piano.
How would you describe The Genius Plague to readers who aren’t familiar with the book?
The Genius Plague is about a fungal infection that alters people, not in obvious ways like a zombie virus, but more subtly, so that they don’t know it’s happening. The fungus even benefits them — making them smarter and curing brain disease — so that many of the infected consider the next stage in human evolution. And if they also start to think spreading the plague around the world is important enough to kill for, then hey, they’re just trying to benefit humanity, right?
The main character fights this plague on a global level, as people begin to assassinate world leaders and take over armies, but also on a personal level, when his brother intentionally infects their father to try to cure his Alzheimer’s. But it’s like fighting a zombie horde where the zombies are still alive, and smarter than you are. It’s a battle for the free will of humanity, and if he can’t turn the tide, there just might not be any humans left.
When I started reading the book, I expected more of a horror-centric tale of a killer/mysterious plague. It is that, but I was pleasantly surprised to find there is so much more, including Neil’s story about his job with the NSA and his work as a code cracker. What made you decide to include this storyline?
Because code cracking is awesome! Also, because I wanted to be able to tell a global story of the fungus affecting nations and governments, and so I needed a character who would have access to that information and have some means to do something about it. Also, my strategy for coming up with original stories is to squash together two or more topics I find really interesting, and find a way to tell a story that draws from all of them. In this case, the topics were (1) the extraordinary properties of fungi, (2) computer encryption and code cracking, and (3) the linguistics of rare and unusual languages. Sometimes disparate topics just won’t be squashed together, but sometimes the combinations suggest ideas to me that spawn unique and interesting stories.
The Genius Plague is loaded with lots of technical details about computer hacking, viruses, government intelligence, Alzheimer’s, mycology and much more (and for the record, I enjoyed every single word!). Not only did you make these details interesting to the layperson, but you incorporated them so well into the story. What sort of research did you do to get these details just right?
Well, I made good use of the internet and my local library! When I do research, I want facts, of course, but more than that I’m looking for people’s experiences. I don’t just want to know details about Brazilian culture; I want to know what it feels like to be there (even though I’ve never been). I don’t just want to know facts about Alzheimer’s; I want to know what it feels like to live with it, or with a loved one suffering from it. The same is true even of things like government intelligence: I didn’t want to perpetuate James Bond style myths of what it’s like to work in the intelligence community. I wanted to show ordinary people going to work each day using their education and skills to attempt to make sense of a crazy world. So the books and blogs I read were in search of a human perspective on each of those topics, which is I think what makes them feel genuine and familiar in the story, even if you aren’t already familiar with any of those things.
Most of the story is told from Neil’s first person point of view, although the prologue is told from his brother Paul’s POV. How did you make these narrative choices?
Well, one reason to choose Neil’s first-person point of view for most of the story is hard to address here, since it would be a spoiler for later in the story. Let’s just say I thought it was important to be inside Neil’s head, and you will know what I mean! I chose to write the prologue from Paul’s point of view, however, because he is the first character to encounter the fungus, and his perspective was the best one to give an initial glimpse of its origin in the Amazon and what effects it was starting to have.
In today’s social and political climate, it often feels like the end of the world is very near, and reading The Genius Plague gave me one more thing to worry about: eco-terrorism by fungi. How plausible do you think the scenario in your book is? After all, there are real examples of fungi that control other organisms.
Well, fungus has some amazing properties, and genetically it’s closer to us than plants — that’s why we get such good pharmaceuticals from it, and why “magic mushrooms” can alter our minds. The general idea that your thinking and personality could be altered by a fungal infection is quite plausible. There are already drugs derived from fungus that do just that. And as you say, fungi often live inside animals and influence their behavior. You have fungal micro-organisms living on you and inside you right now. The scenario in my book pushes the idea to an extreme, of course, but the elements of the idea are all perfectly true.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve seen quite a few science fiction stories popping up lately that deal with the unsettling horrors of fungi. What it is about the properties of fungi that lend itself to the SFF/horror genres?
I think we have the marvelous BBC Planet Earth documentary of zombie ants to thank for that. Fungus that takes over an ant’s brain, forces it to climb to the tops of plants, then grows out of its head and explodes into spores? Wow. I think a number of authors, myself included, saw that episode and couldn’t help but spin a story out of it. M. R. Carey’s fantastic book The Girl With All The Gifts even references the BBC documentary directly in the novel. When I started writing The Genius Plague, however, I hadn’t read The Girl With All The Gifts, and I didn’t know there was a video game (The Last of Us) that drew from the same idea. I thought I was doing something no one had done before, and so I was quite annoyed to read Mike Carey’s book and find that he had beat me to the punch, and with such a wonderful story, too! Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter very much, because The Genius Plague takes a different approach than The Girl With All The Gifts, and I think there’s plenty of room in the world for multiple stories about the horrors of fungi!
I personally have a long way to go before I’m tired of reading stories about mind-controlling fungi:-) I’m so excited to hear about your next project! Can you give us any hints as to what’s next for you?
My next book is called Three Laws Lethal, and it’s about self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. With advanced sensors and algorithms, self-driving cars can identify all obstacles in a fraction of a second and choose the best possible action to avoid a crash. But not all accidents are avoidable. Which is better, to swerve into oncoming traffic, or to run over the child who jumped out into your way? Should your car hit the truck to your left or the motorcycle to your right? Not everyone can live in every scenario. Sometimes, the cars have to choose. The book is about machines that are programmed to determine which humans should live and which humans should die.
It’s also something of a love letter to the genre. One of the main characters, Naomi, is an almost painfully introverted avid reader who is soaked in science fiction and spends her days hiding from people and writing software. The book is packed with references to SF books and films, as I draw from so many previous treatments of artificial intelligence and add my own ideas to the mix. I try to present what I think is a plausible near-term road toward a kind of AI, using a good understanding of machine learning and how it works, at the same time as I question what AI means and what human intelligence and consciousness really is.
OK, that sounds amazing. Sign me up! Thank you David, it’s been a pleasure to have you visit:-D
About the author:
DAVID WALTON is the author of the international bestseller SUPERPOSITION, a quantum physics murder mystery, and its sequel, SUPERSYMMETRY. David’s first novel, TERMINAL MIND, won the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award for the best SF paperback published in the United States for that year. In his latest book, THE GENIUS PLAGUE, a pandemic threatens to destabilize world governments by exerting a subtle mind control over survivors.
“David Walton is one of our very best writers of science-fiction thrillers”
–Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Quantum Night
“This is the way sci-fi ought to be.”
—WALL STREET JOURNAL
David lives near Philadelphia with his wife and seven children.
Don’t miss this opportunity to win your very own copy of The Genius Plague! This giveaway is kindly sponsored by Pyr Books and is open internationally. Simply fill out the Rafflecopter form below. Good luck!