Fiction Science Club

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.


‘Martian’ flower basks in the Oscar glow

Image: Solanum watneyi
The bush tomato called Solanum watneyi has purple flowers. (Chris Martine / Bucknell / CC-BY 4.0)

Timing is everything, even when it comes to naming plant species. Bucknell University botanist Chris Martine found that out last fall, when he announced that a newly identified species of Australian bush tomato would be named after Mark Watney, the central character in a little movie called “The Martian.”

The announcement about Solanum watneyi made a splash, in part because it came just as the hype over the movie was reaching a crescendo.

Now there’s a second splash: The description of the plant is being published in the journal PhytoKeys – just as “The Martian” and Matt Damon, the actor who played Mark Watney, are basking in the glow of the Academy Awards spotlight.

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