The Genius Plague, David Walton (Pyr 978-163388-343-7, $14.95, 400pp, tp) October 2017.
David Walton, who wrote the stellar Superposition and Supersymmetry, deserves to be a lot better known than he is. The tightly plotted and smoothly written The Genius Plague proves that.
Walton took on quantum physics with the Super duo. Here he takes on biology and code-breaking. Paul Johns is a mycologist collecting fungi in the Amazon; Neil Johns, Paul’s brother, is applying for an analyst job at the NSA. Paul returns from his trip… changed. Neil, who initially comes off like a privileged and cocky genius, uses lateral thinking in his interview that nearly get him tossed in jail. But, ultimately, he winds up where he needs to be to solve the puzzle – even if, by the end, the solution, while realistic, is less than comforting.
In Walton’s hands, what could be a straightforward “we must save humanity with science” thriller (not that there’s anything wrong with that), becomes, at times, a meditation on what makes us human and why that alone is a survival advantage. Those moments offer a chance to catch your breath before the next calamity, some of which our hero brings on himself. Walton makes Neil into a layered character, one who is frequently torn between family bonds and saving the world – and, frequently, making the situation worse because he is still working out that other people are also torn by their own layers. He’s also still learning that NSA security is never f-ing around.
Walton’s bio lists his day job as a top secret engineer who works in the US intelligence community. If true (and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t), the details of that experience make this setting seem lived in. Walton digs into what intelligence is for and how it is gathered without ever slowing the pace of the story. While the details of work as a mycologist aren’t as fully realized as those of code-breaking, there are enough to make it feel true. Combine that with the rest of what Walton has done and you have a winner.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the February 2018 issue of Locus.