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This sci-fi thriller will make you fear the fungus

If you’re going to write a novel about an alien fungus threatening the planet, there are few places more suited for the setting than the damp, dark forests surrounding Seattle.

At least that’s how Benjamin Percy sized up the situation when he started writing “The Unfamiliar Garden,” the second book in his Comet Cycle sci-fi series.

“If I was going to write a story about alien plant life, why not go to one of the wettest corners of the country?” Percy says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You know, that moist quality of Seattle, right? You feel like sometimes you can just punch your hand through concrete and pull out a bunch of squirming earthworms.”

Steve Trudell, one of Seattle’s top mushroom mavens, says Percy made the right choice. “The Pacific Northwest is an excellent area, mushroom-wise — a big reason why I live here,” he said in an email.

A fictional University of Washington mycologist — that is, a scientist who specializes in the study of mushrooms and other fungi — is one of the main characters in “The Unfamiliar Garden.” And that’s not the only parallel between Percy’s plot and matter-of-fact mycology. Although the invasive fungus in his story is totally made up, the way it behaves plays off some of the freakier foibles of real-world fungi.

For example, some consider a fungal growth in eastern Oregon to be the world’s largest single organism. Thanks to the ability of a species known as Armillaria ostoyae to spread out its filaments underground, the “Humongous Fungus” has been found to cover more than 2,000 acres of Malheur National Forest.

Mushrooms of the genus Armillaria, which are more popularly known as honey mushrooms, also have a villainous reputation: They feed on the roots and bark of living trees, eventually killing them. That fit right in with the alien-invasion plot that Percy had in mind.

In “The Unfamiliar Garden,” the fungus is deposited in the forests of the Pacific Northwest by a passing comet.

“Just the idea that there’s this otherworldly fungus that comes from the comet’s debris, and it uses people in a similar way that this [Armillaria] fungus is using the forest … it’s creating a situation that reads like a contemporary ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,'” said Percy, who grew up in Oregon and now lives in Minnesota.

"Unfamiliar Garden" book cover
“The Unfamiliar Garden” is the second novel in Benjamin Percy’s Comet Cycle. (Mariner Books)

Percy plays off a recent wave of speculation about fungal intelligence, inspired by claims that some fungi show evidence of decision-making, spatial recognition and short-term memory. He also builds in some psychological parallels to the current COVID pandemic.

“What we fear right now, principally, is contagion,” he said. “And there is an invisible enemy that rides the air in this novel, in the form of spores. Sometimes, the person who you’re neighbors with, the person who you work with, the person who lives in your house or sleeps in your same bed — they could already be inhabited, and you don’t even know it. And that is a very ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ vibe.”

Before you start stressing out about your walk in the woods, take solace from Trudell’s reassurances that mushrooms aren’t really out to get us. In fact, a recent nonfiction book titled “Finding the Mother Tree” goes so far as to portray fungi as the quintessential good guys, thanks to the role that fungal networks play in the forest ecosystem.

“The buzz has gotten beyond what has been (in my humble opinion) reliably demonstrated as far as their ecological importance (which is hugely difficult to study),” Trudell told me in his email. “But it’s a cool notion, and folks want to believe cool things like mother trees caring for the forest.”

The story continues, for Percy as well as for Trudell.

Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy (Photo by Arnab Chakladar / Graywolf Press)

Percy has now published six novels — including the first two books of the Comet Cycle, “The Ninth Metal” and “The Unfamiliar Garden.”

“The third book is called ‘Sky Vault,'” he said. “‘Sky Vault’ takes place in Alaska and has to do with mirror matter and dark matter, and opens up the possibility of some interdimensional shenanigans. … I try to create in all of these books a kind of slippery science.”

Percy has also penned dozens of comic books, and he wants to build the Comet Cycle into a saga that could be as sweeping as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha Cycle.

“I wanted to take what I’ve learned from comics, take what I’ve learned from literature when it comes to these shared universes, and blur the lines and build a sandbox of my own,” Percy said. “Because as fun as it is to write, say, Wolverine … he doesn’t belong to me. I’m a custodian of him. And so I wanted to build my own shared universe.”

Meanwhile, Trudell continues to explore the fungal frontier. “Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest,” the book that he co-wrote with University of Washington biologist Joseph Ammirati more than a decade ago, still holds up as a definitive field guide to the region’s mycological marvels.

Steve Trudell
Steve Trudell (Photo via MycoWest.net)

“The diversity is higher in areas like the southern Appalachians and probably California, but we probably have well over 5,000 species of mushroom fungi,” Trudell said. “We get a lot of mushroom biomass, including the popular edibles like king bolete, chanterelles, morels and matsutake, which sustains a fairly large commercial industry.”

Seattle author Langdon Cook documented the Pacific Northwest’s mushroom mania in a book titled “The Mushroom Hunters” in 2013. Since then, there’s been a rapid uptick in the ranks of the hunters — and in the competitiveness of the hunt, Trudell said.

“The Puget Sound Mycological Society, largest of the many Pacific Northwest clubs, has on the order of 2,000 members,” he said. “And because memberships come and go, there are considerably more than 2,000 people who have been members at one time or another. There can be considerable competition for the popular edibles, and this has led to some friction. … For the most part, folks aren’t anxious to share the locations of their ‘patches.'”

Will the Comet Cycle revisit the Pacific Northwest’s patches in a future novel? The conclusion of “The Unfamiliar Garden” leaves the door open for a sequel in the grand tradition of Marvel movies. And even though Percy has lived in Minnesota for the past decade, he admits that memories of his native Northwest still hold a grip on his imagination.

“Having grown up in Oregon and Washington, all of that stuff is already embedded in my DNA,” he said. “And oftentimes, you know, when I close my eyes, that’s where I go.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

If you listen closely to the podcast, Benjamin Percy drops enough references to literary greats (ranging from short-story writers Raymond Carver and Alice Munro to sci-fi/fantasy novelists Octavia E. Butler and N.K. Jemisin) to add up to a pages-long reading list.

But when we asked Percy for reading recommendations from the past year, he named just one book: “The First 15 Lives of Harry August.”

“It’s written by a woman named Claire North, and she’s in the U.K.,” Percy said. “And nobody talks about this, but it’s just mind-blowing.”

The novel’s main character repeatedly dies and is reborn, retaining all the knowledge he’s gained from each life. Eventually, he learns that there are others like him — and that they’re enmeshed in a mystery involving nothing less than the end of the world.

"First 15 Lives of Harry August" book cover
“The First 15 Lives of Harry August” is a tale that involves death, rebirth and the end of the world. (Redhook)

All that, plus the fact that the book was published in 2014, makes “The First 15 Lives of Harry August” a perfect selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. For 20 years, the CLUB Club has been shining a spotlight on books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop.

There’s even a chance that “The First 15 Lives of Harry August” will be made into a movie, if the Hollywood gods smile upon the project.

Moviemaking is a subject of rising interest for Percy. He co-wrote the screenplay for “Summering,” a coming-of-age movie that will have its world premiere online this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.

There’s also a Comet Cycle project in the works. “I have been hired. I’m not allowed to say which studio, but I’ve been hired,” Percy said. “The pilot is underway for ‘The Ninth Metal’ right now. So I’m writing that, and I’m working on a few other TV pilots as well.”

“The Unfamiliar Garden” is available as a paperback, ebook or audiobook. Tickets for the Jan. 22 online premiere of “Summering” are available via the Sundance Film Festival’s website.

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. One of her short stories, “Our Vices,” appears in the upcoming 2022 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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