Invasive by Chuck Wendig

About two months ago, I had a small ant infestation in my apartment. I’d bought a houseplant that brought some of the pests with it and it took me a couple of weeks to wipe them all out. Mercifully there was no queen, and they had no means of reproducing before I managed to get them all. Still, there was a couple of weeks where I was intently scanning the walls and floors at all times, flinching at every tickle against my skin, wondering if I’d seen the last of them yet. I’m really glad I didn’t read this book until well after it was all dealt with.

Invasive by Chuck Wendig follows FBI consultant Hannah Stander, a futurist who was raised by hardcore survivalist doomsday preppers. When a body is found skinned in a remote cabin in the woods, they soon determine that a new genetically engineered ant species is responsible. Hannah tracks down the scientist behind the Myrmidon ants, as they are called, and the lab where he works with the reclusive genius billionaire Einar Geirsson, who is explicitly compared in the text with the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. The plot follows a pretty solid thriller track, with just the right amount of scares.

So, guys… Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are interesting dudes, and I like how this book spent time examining that archetype. The real-life Tony Starks, genius billionaire (playboy?) philanthropists. There’s something enigmatic about them, and alluring. You want to be them, you want to be with them, and above all, you want to know what’s going on in those brilliant minds. But this book emphasized another great point: sometimes they are absolutely not to be trusted, no matter the facade they put on for the world. Sometimes they do indeed put that genius to self-serving purposes, because, well, human nature.

But this book wasn’t really about Einar. Hannah Stander, our protagonist, is really fascinating to me. As an adult, her career is in looking to all of the futuristic ways that humanity could wipe itself out, and she came into that life due to her upbringing. Her parents lived off the grid, homeschooling Hannah, and preparing for the doomsday that they were (and still are) certain would come in their lifetimes. Survivalist preppers are a cultural subset that’s both interesting to me and kind of freaks me out (because I would die SO FAST in literally any kind of apocalyptic scenario; I am Not Prepared). And seeing how Hannah’s thought process works, seeing her evaluation of threats, was a really different point of view – she’s someone who doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the doomsday thing herself, but she knows far more than most about it.

The genetically engineered Myrmidon ants are an eerily plausible threat to humanity. I’m not at all an anti-GMO person – I think without genetically modified organisms, we would’ve starved to death already (go ahead and look up Norman Borlaug). But it’s also entirely too easy to imagine some bitter or just irresponsible asshole going one step too far or splicing the wrong combinations of genes together and creating something that literally kills us all. I tend to take a far rosier view of the future than Hannah or her parents. I think we’ll figure out a way to save ourselves and make things better and just… the future won’t be so bad. But sometimes I wonder if I believe that, or if I just… really really hope it’s true.

One of the things I really liked about this book is that you can tell Wendig did a great deal of research for it. I very much doubt that he was an expert in ant biology or in doomsday preparation culture before writing this book, but he certainly writes as if he’s known both his whole life. I like it when it’s clear that a writer knows what they’re talking about, and isn’t just pulling it out of their ass. And I like it even more when they don’t do long, rambling infodumps, instead delivering the information exactly when you need it to continue the story and not a moment sooner.

I think one of the interesting things about thrillers to me is how they’re only borderline science fiction. Most thrillers tend to focus on a level of technology that is, at most, twenty minutes into the future. Next Sunday, A.D., if you will. The technology presented can vary in degrees of plausibility, but in my experience, the best ones are the ones that are totally believable. Other than the very plot of the book and required devices, the world tends to be exactly like the real world. I think that’s a tricky thing to manage, getting just the right level of, not necessarily realism, but verisimilitude. It’s part of why I seldom, if ever, write things set in the real world. Reality is stranger than fiction.

So, this was a really fun book, and god damn it, I have no idea how I keep doing this, but this is also the second book in a series. Much like one of my other recent reviews, this series, the Zeroes series, apparently doesn’t need to be read sequentially, although I realize in retrospect that I totally know what happens in that first book now. Well, I guess I’ll have to pick that one up too at some point, though I admit I don’t feel a particular urgency about it. I totally recommend this one, though, if you like thrillers and don’t mind feeling some formication (the sensation of ants crawling on your skin) while you read.

God damn unmarked series on the covers what the hell.

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