According to gossip, Clive Cussler hated the movie Sahara for exactly the reason I liked it: because the hero, Dirk Pitt, isn’t the suave unflappable type who shrugs off ridiculous action sequences as if they’re all in a day’s work. He pants for breath, whoops in joy when crazy plans work, and generally acts like somebody you would want to know. So I have to applaud this week’s Spark of Life guest, David Walton, for recognizing that it’s vulnerability more than sangfroid that can make us connect with a character.
Action heroes are hardy folks. They run from fist fight to car chase without pause, shrugging off bullet wounds and never stopping for breath. But most of us aren’t action heroes.
In my latest novel, THE GENIUS PLAGUE, Neil Johns is no different than the rest of us. But his life is turned upside-down when his brother becomes the vector for a fungal pandemic that alters the minds of its survivors. Neil runs from crisis to crisis, avoiding those who would intentionally infect him, ducking terrorist bombs, trying to stop a war, and restraining his own father from murderous violence. It’s a breathless sprint, made all the harder by the anguish of watching those he loves succumb to the plague and become his enemies.
I hadn’t planned to write it this way, but at one point in the story, I realized it was all just too much for him. This guy wasn’t James Bond. He’d been eating poorly, he’d barely slept, and he could only keep it up so long. And so in a public hospital cafeteria, Neil breaks down. Once he starts crying, he can’t stop, all the pent-up emotions crashing in on him as soon as he takes a moment to breathe.
James Bond wouldn’t have done that. A traditional action hero would have found something extra-macho (and probably incredibly stupid) to do instead. But Neil is a mathematician, not a Navy Seal. He’s fighting this battle because he cares about his family members, not because he has something to prove. He’s an ordinary person, and ordinary people have limits to how much they can endure.
It was one of those moments when a character becomes real on the page with an authenticity that had nothing to do with the needs of the plot, and as an author, you have to recognize those moments and just go with them. When planning a novel, it’s easy to let the plot rule events, but sometimes the characters know better.
In THE GENIUS PLAGUE, that moment gives Neil a chance to regroup and gather his courage. And he’s going to need all the courage he can get for what’s coming. The plague impacts world politics, tearing governments apart from the inside, and putting control of the US nuclear arsenal in jeopardy. Neil is one of the few who understands what’s happening and has the knowledge to contain it, if he can manage to avoid being infected himself.
It wasn’t much: just a small, unexpected spark of life that pulled Neil off the page and made him more real, but despite its quietness, it turned out to be one of my favorite moments of the book.
From the cover copy:
In this science fiction thriller, brothers are pitted against each other as a pandemic threatens to destabilize world governments by exerting a subtle mind control over survivors.
Neil Johns has just started his dream job as a code breaker in the NSA when his brother, Paul, a mycologist, goes missing on a trip to collect samples in the Amazon jungle. Paul returns with a gap in his memory and a fungal infection that almost kills him. But once he recuperates, he has enhanced communication, memory, and pattern recognition. Meanwhile, something is happening in South America; others, like Paul, have also fallen ill and recovered with abilities they didn’t have before.
But that’s not the only pattern–the survivors, from entire remote Brazilian tribes to American tourists, all seem to be working toward a common, and deadly, goal. Neil soon uncovers a secret and unexplained alliance between governments that have traditionally been enemies. Meanwhile Paul becomes increasingly secretive and erratic.
Paul sees the fungus as the next stage of human evolution, while Neil is convinced that it is driving its human hosts to destruction. Brother must oppose brother on an increasingly fraught international stage, with the stakes: the free will of every human on earth. Can humanity use this force for good, or are we becoming the pawns of an utterly alien intelligence?
David Walton is the author of the international bestseller SUPERPOSITION and its sequel SUPERSYMMETRY. His novel TERMINAL MIND won the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award for the best SF paperback published in the United States for that year. He lives near Philadelphia with his wife and seven children.