In the video game The Last Of Us, a fungal infection turns people into mindless zombies. But while David Walton’s new sci-fi novel The Genius Plague (paperback, digital) is also about a fungus among us, he says that not only was his novel not inspired by that game, but also that his infected aren’t really zombies, and they’re really not mindless.
To begin, what is The Genius Plague about?
The Genius Plague is about a fungus that infects your brain and, if it doesn’t kill you, makes you smarter. Under its influence, thousands of people gain better memories, pattern matching, communication skills, etc., but at what cost? Is it a symbiotic evolution where both parties benefit, or are humans being subtly influenced to make choices that benefit the fungus, thinking that those choices are their own?
The two main characters are brothers, Neil and Paul Johns, on opposite sides of the conflict. Paul is a mycologist [a biologist who studies fungi] who thinks the fungus is beautiful, the next stage of evolution, and the answer to many of humanity’s problems. Neil is an NSA analyst who sees the big picture as world politics are turned upside-down, and fears humanity is the pawn in this relationship. The conflict ranges from the global to the personal when Paul intentionally infects their father, who is dying of Alzheimer’s, in the hope that it might cure him. As the plague spreads and more and more people are affected, militaries are mobilized, and world leaders assassinated, threatening world war.
Where did you get the initial idea for The Genius Plague, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
The initial idea came from the amusing suggestion that wheat is the dominant lifeform on our planet, since it has successfully domesticated humans and trained us to plant it all over the planet, and then enslaved us to remove weeds, pests, and anything else that would interfere with its growth and survival. It made me consider the idea of a plant whose survival strategy involved manipulating humans to do its bidding, even if the plant itself wasn’t intelligent. The suggestion of a friend and a lot of research turned the plant into fungi, which are remarkable organisms that regularly subvert plants and animals in pursuit of their own survival.
The shape of the novel is largely as originally envisioned, though there are always great ideas that occur to me only when I’m in the middle of writing, and I have to choose whether to include them or not. Usually I do, though sometimes the idea would break the outline to badly to work out.
The plot of The Genius Plague kind of reminds me of the video game The Last Of Us. Though your novel is, obviously, not about fungal zombies. Was that game an influence on The Genius Plague?
The game was no influence at all. When I wrote the book, I’d never heard of it. As a full-time engineer, an author, and the father of seven children, I don’t have a lot of time for video games, and I’ve never tried playing the game or seen it played.
It’s also not a zombie book, not in the classic sense. There are no moaning, decaying people. It’s what happens if the zombie horde is smarter than you are, and they don’t know they’re being affected. It seems perfectly reasonable to them to leave their old interests and pursue a common goal that just happens to mean making the fungus the dominant organism on the planet.
M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts was also not an influence on The Genius Plague, even though it’s about a fungal plague. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years, but I didn’t read it until I was already well into writing The Genius Plague.
So are there any games — or for that matter, movies or TV shows — that had an influence on The Genius Plague?
Video games, not too much. As I said, they don’t fit very well in my life right now, though I do play a fair amount of chess and Go with coworkers.
In general, some of the films that have been most influential on my writing are Inception, The Prestige, K-Pax, and Gattaca; films in which a technology drives people into unique and mysterious circumstances. The Genius Plague reflects my love of this kind of tale, though I don’t think any of those films directly influenced part of the story.
The only direct film influence I can think of comes from the X-Men series, which suggests that any special skill or technology that comes to light will be followed quickly by those who will try to control and use it to gain power.
How about more literary influences; are there any writers or specific books that you see as being a big influence on The Genius Plague?
Neil Johns, the protagonist of The Genius Plague, was inspired by the real-life character of Leo Marks, a young genius cryptographer during World War II, as Marks himself described in his memoir, Between Silk And Cyanide. Johns, however, is living in a different era, one in which computers do most of the work of code making and breaking. As a nod to Marks, Johns is in love with World War II-era ciphers, and collects them and deciphers them by hand, a skill that works out in his favor during his interview at the NSA.
Even more than Marks, though, the character of Neil Johns was inspired by one of the most brilliant characters in speculative fiction literature, that of Qvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ marvelous novel The Name Of The Wind. Qvothe inhabits a medieval, fantasy world, not a modern intelligence agency, and there are many ways in which his character and story are utterly different than Neil’s. But part of Qvothe’s charm is his reckless self-endangerment, his willingness to throw 100% of himself into any action with no safety net, and his apparent unawareness of his own creative brilliance. Neil Johns has all these qualities, and Leo Marks did, too, if his memoir is any judge. The combination of both of these people — one real, one fictional — had a strong influence on the development of the character of Neil Johns.
Interesting. As you said, Neil is an NSA codebreaker and Paul is a mycologist. In deciding how they would behave in their respective professions, did you base their depictions on real people or non-fiction sources? Besides the stuff you just said, of course.
Well, I did a lot of research on mycology, especially reading real-life mycologist Paul Stamets’ books. Paul Johns is named after Stamets, though I can’t say his character is based on the real man, since I don’t know anything about him as a person. His thoughts about fungi, however, had a significant influence on the book and on Paul’s views. As I said before, Neil was a mix of Leo Marks and Qvothe, though some of his coworkers and experiences at work were based loosely on my own workplace environment.
One aspect that required significant research was the portion of the novel that takes place in Brazil. I’ve never been to Brazil, but the action of the novel ranges around that country, through several different cities and rural areas. To accomplish this, I read travelogues of people who had visited Brazil and wrote about their impressions of the people and culture. To get all the details right, I relied heavily on my friend Celso Antonio de Almeida, a native of Brazil who I met when he corresponded with me as a fan of my earlier books. The Brazilian character Celso in The Genius Plague is named after him, of course, and a lot of the details of food and language and music and culture were vetted or suggested by him.
Speaking of Neil being an NSA codebreaker, your day job is — as it says in the press materials — “a top-secret engineer working with the US intelligence community.” Obviously, your job isn’t so secretive that you can’t tell anyone it’s top-secret, but given that The Genius Plague has a character who works for the NSA, did you have to show this book to your boss before you submitted it to your editor?
So to be clear, I can’t say anything about the work that I do. Not what the work is, nor what departments of the government I do it for. There are very good reasons for those secrets, and it isn’t something I even tell my wife about, never mind write in a published book.
Since I can’t talk about my work at home, I long ago realized that what I can talk about is the people I work with and the drama of those relationships. In the book, therefore, I try to capture the essence of what my work environment is like: how people think and feel who do this kind of work, what’s important to them, and what it’s like to work in such a place. It’s nothing like you see in the movies — much more ordinary, in many ways, with a variety of ordinary people — and I’ve included in The Genius Plague versions of some of the funny mishaps that people I know have had.
The Genius Plague is about a mind-controlling fungus, and I can guarantee that’s nowhere close to any of the things I work with.
As you know, publishers love it when a book is not just a book but is the first part of a larger saga. So, is The Genius Plague a stand-alone novel or the first book in a larger story, and what made you decide to do whatever you did?
The Genius Plague is only planned to be a single, stand-alone novel. I’ve found that in my own reading, I’ve started to prefer single novels over series, and when I write, I much more find myself wanting to start something completely new than continue with the same idea over and over again. The Genius Plague certainly ends with more story possibilities, and I could certainly write another book in that world, but I’d rather leave the story rich with potential — and with the reader wishing for more — than wring it out past what it has to give.
Of course, if The Genius Plague is a mega-bestseller with millions of fans, I might reconsider. But for now, I’ve moved on to the next idea.
As I mentioned earlier, The Genius Plague reminds me of the video game The Last Of Us. But has there been any interest in adapting your novel into a game? Or a movie or TV show for that matter?
The Genius Plague has yet to catch the eye of Hollywood, but it’s early days yet. I have great Hollywood agents — the same folks who represent George R. R. Martin, in fact — and if there’s a way to make it happen, they’ll find it.
But Superposition, which is by far my best-selling book, has been optioned for a TV series. The screenplay was written by Emmy-nominated screenwriter Harley Peyton, one of the principal writers of Twin Peaks, and the director on the project is Jeremiah Chechik [National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation]. It’s being pitched to studios now, but whether it will actually get filmed and aired or not is yet to be seen. It’s a hugely competitive business.
If The Genius Plague was to be adapted into a movie or a TV show, who would you want to see star in it and why?
Answering this question always makes me feel presumptuous, as if I will jinx myself by pretending well-known, high-priced movie actors might want to be in an adaptation of one of my books. But since we’re in imaginary space, the sky’s the limit, right?
An actor who might be a good fit for the role of Neil Johns is Chris Pine [Star Trek, Wonder Woman], who can pull off the right touch of self-deprecating humor, and come across as an ordinary guy while he’s saving the world. He might be a bit old for the role by the time a film would actually be made — he’s in his late thirties, and Neil is supposed to be in his early twenties — but actors often play much younger people, so maybe it would work out.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Genius Plague, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
I would recommend trying Superposition next. It’s where I started to settle in to the smart sci-fi thriller style, so if you enjoy The Genius Plague, then Superposition, and its sequel, Supersymmetry, would probably be the best place to start.