The Big Idea: David Walton
Posted on October 4, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 18 Comments
You want thrown gauntlets? David Walton throws one in the first sentence of this Big Idea piece for this novel, The Genius Plague. Read on to see it, and whether you agree.
Zombie books just aren’t creepy enough.
They’re exciting, don’t get me wrong. When some drooling dead guy is breaking down your door to sink his teeth into your flesh, it’ll get your blood pumping. But the thing is, he’s dead. He’s not a person anymore. You can shoot him in the head and not even feel guilty about it.
But what if the zombies weren’t mindless? What if they were smarter than you? What if you let them into your house because you didn’t know there was anything wrong, because they didn’t even know they were zombies, and when they stabbed you in the back and infected your family, they truly believed they were doing the right thing?
My zombies aren’t really zombies at all, not in the classic undead sense, although they’ve been infected with a fungus that sends microscopic tendrils to set up shop in their brains. The fungus doesn’t turn them into moaning, decaying corpses, though. It’s much more subtle than that.
At first, it even seems to be beneficial. The fungus streamlines certain pathways of the brain and makes the hosts smarter, with better memory and learning ability and communication skills. Researchers think it could cure Alzheimer’s and dementia. Kids start taking it as a drug to do better on their exams. But the more beneficial the fungus appears, the more committed its hosts become to protecting it and spreading it to every human on Earth.
And why wouldn’t they? It’s a good thing, right? And if they have to kill anyone that gets in their way, that’s just what’s best for humanity. Or for the fungus. Whatever.
My zombie horde is spreading the plague on purpose, and they’re smarter than you are.
I first thought of this idea when I heard the suggestion that from an evolutionary perspective, wheat is the most successful organism on Earth. After all, wheat has taken humans that used to roam wild and domesticated them, getting them to spread its seeds all over the globe, and then enslaved them to weed out any competing plants and eradicate pests. All so stalks of wheat can grow tall and strong by the trillions.
It’s an amusing notion, and it’s not exactly wrong. But I realized that fungus is even better suited to using humans than wheat is, not because we want to eat it, but because fungus already directly manipulates animals to spread its spores. The zombie ants are the famous ones, of course (go watch the Planet Earth video if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but there are various other ways that fungus subverts animals to do its bidding. And fungus is smarter than you think — some single organisms create vast networks of microscopic tendrils that spread through an entire forest and pass information about where the moisture and nutrients are, basically acting like a giant Internet. Or a giant brain.
So what would you do, if there was a drug that could make you smarter? Or cure your dad of Alzheimer’s? No need to be squeamish about a little fungus living in your brain — you already have trillions of microorganisms living in your mouth, throat, stomach, lungs, and all over your skin. You won’t feel a thing. It’s a simple choice, really, given all the problems you have in your life. There’s not much at stake: just the free will of every human on Earth.
The Genius Plague – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | BAM | IndieBound | Powells
The Genius Plague – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo
Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
Really intriguing concept. Reminds me of the old idea that a chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs.
OMG, OMG, OMG. What a cordyceptilicious book!
Hey David – are you in touch with (or possibly one of) the large, well connected, and voracious (aka mycelial :-) ) mushroom community on line? All of whom would probably devour this book and sing its praises to the hills?
Great promo. Even minus the mushroom content, I’ll be reading this! Also, I like the comparison with wheat. Similar to the point Harari makes in Sapiens.
OK, off to share this on FB and make some mushroom geeks VERY happy.
PS: hey John can I forage on your property for morels this spring? Pretty please? Can we all come?
Meh. Amazon UK says “usually dispatched within one to two months”
Yes, that is certainly creepier than normal zombies.
Shades of Sheri Tepper’s “Raising the Stones.”
Reminds me a bit of the mutant Ophiocordyceps unilateralis in “The Girl With All the Gifts”, though taken in a different direction.
There’s always a price, in nature. What amazes me is how parasitic (or symbiotic) organisms can have marvelously clever life cycles suggesting evil (or at least amoral) plans, without a single bit of cognition ever having been involved. Just random mutations and environmental factors, over time, yielding adaptations.
A very good idea, but I’m sorry it has an “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” aspect to it. It would be more interesting, morally, if your free will weren’t in danger—in fact, if it were strengthened through seeing and understanding more practically-realisable choices—and maybe even, in fact, if it were health-improving, life-extending, and so on. Do you have a right to keep your kids from getting infected with it in that case, or (for that matter) not to be infected with it yourself if that state could readily lead you to do stupid things that endanger other people?
In a “Futurama” episode a stupid character decides to ‘be himself’ and rid himself of symbiotic worms that make him smarter, stronger, and so on…it seemed like a _terrible_ decision. In Poul Anderson’s “Brain Wave”, there are bad consequences to a general intelligence increase, but things seem to work-out very well for the people who are still alive.
@geraldfnord. There is a bit of a “Body Snatchers” feel to this but for me that was a feature and not a bug. We enjoyed it over at Fantasy Literature. I think the free will issue is more complex in the story than you might think from a spoiler-free essay.
Interesting comments on an interesting idea. Reminds me a little of the so-called ‘Smart Drugs’ and the once-popular notion that Prozac and its like would make people ‘better than well’ and should be put in public water supplies.
“It would be more interesting, morally, if your free will weren’t in danger—in fact, if it were strengthened through seeing and understanding more practically-realisable choices—and maybe even, in fact, if it were health-improving, life-extending, and so on.”
That is similar to the situation in Damon Knight’s CV (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CV_(novel)) in which an alien creature hopes from human to human, leaving each one a bit more rational, and less prone to “sunk cost” fallacies.
“hops” not “hopes”!
I fear that your fungus’s dumber sibling is already gaining a foothold across much of the world.
What amazes me is how parasitic (or symbiotic) organisms can have marvelously clever life cycles suggesting evil (or at least amoral) plans, without a single bit of cognition ever having been involved.
Darwin’s way ahead of you… discussing the life cycle of parasitoid wasps (laying eggs in a live paralysed host) he wrote “what a book a Devil’s Chaplain could write about the wasteful blundering low & horribly cruel works of Nature!”
The book definitely sounds interesting. Writing characters of superhuman intelligence is a very difficult thing to do, and I’ll look forward to seeing if he pulls it off…
“hops” not “hopes”!
Nihilist beer drinkers of the world, unite!
On the off-chance David is lurking this thread, when could we expect to see an ebook available in the UK? I definitely want to check this one out, but sadly there’s not much room in my life for paper books these days.
This is very creepy. But it reminds me of the new evidence linking toxoplasmosis and cat lady syndrome.
So how bad could it be.
To add to the works with similar themes – Brian Stableford’s City of the Sun (Daedalus Mission 4)
Liz: Pratchett books were always available in the UK a few months earlier than here in Ohio, USA so I bought them via Amazon dot co dot UK. You may have to fight with your browser to get to amazon.com from there but worth it, lots of booksellers are happy to ship their books.
No idea if this or a VPN that tells Amazon that you’re in the US would work for an ebook.