Being a mycologist is pretty weird. Despite the critical importance of fungi to our planetary ecosystem; despite the ubiquity of fungi all around us; despite how remarkably cool they are, a lot of people think fungi are icky and weird, and that I must be icky and weird to find them interesting. I assure you, I am not icky. The more I think about this common attitude toward fungi, the more fired up I get. Tom Bruns, the President of the Mycological Society of America, wrote an article in this month’s issue of Inoculum [PDF file] to remind us: we, the converted, need to tell others why they should care about fungi. Long denizens of the metaphorical and actual dark, fungi deserve some time in the sun.
So ok, being a mycologist is weird, but this week it’s off the charts. That’s because of Paul McEuen’s new thriller, Spiral, which was released March 22, 2011. In the novel, fungi are key players. Sure, the archvillain is a fungus with aspirations to take over the world. But some of the good guys are also fungi, whereas other good guys are Cornell professors. The novel’s partly set here, on the Cornell campus. And last but not least, the female protagonist, Maggie Connor, is a mycologist and Cornell herbarium director who isn’t me, but gosh, isn’t too far off either.
I can’t tell you what a relief it is, once one’s been semi-fictionalized, to find oneself semi-fictionalized in a novel that’s actually good. Along the way, I got to help the author make his fictional fungal villain convincing, and fill in some mycological details. Paul is a Physics professor here at Cornell–a notably gifted professor who specializes in very, very small things and their applications in nanotechnology. He is also a really nice and down-to-earth guy, who doesn’t immediately strike you as someone who can write a gripping torture scene.
In fiction as in life, fungi are sometimes bad guys, and sometimes good guys. Or, as my friend Larry says, maybe there’re no good guys or bad guys, only the eaters and the eaten. It’s harder to love a destroying angel than a bolete, perhaps, but both have their place in the world.
You, my dear readers… you are already fans of fungi, and you might enjoy this book. It’s a page-turner. Like you and I, it finds fungi interesting. And you know, books like this, that play on your fears by exploring the edge between truth and fiction, really make you think about the possibilities, good and bad.
Best of all, Spiral’s getting great reviews. You can read a little more about it here: