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TPG reviews: Brain Plague, by Joan Slonczewski

October 26, 2013

I can’t really remember how I first heard about this book. All I remember is that I saw a synopsis and immediately decided that I absolutely had to read it. I mean, read the blurb and then just try telling me I could have passed this one over. Seriously. I dare you.

An intelligent microbe race that can live symbiotically in other intelligent beings is colonizing the human race throughout the civilized universe. And each colony of microbes has its own personality, good or bad. In some people, carriers, they are brain enhancers, and in others a fatal brain plague, a living addiction. This is the story of one woman’s psychological and moral struggle to adjust to having an ambitious colony of microbes living permanently in her own head.


My rating: 7/10

It is difficult to describe the plot of Brain Plague, if only because there basically isn’t one for much of its length. This is a novel, more so than any other I’ve come across, which runs almost solely on its base concept. Even when the plot finally materialises, it is quiet and unobtrusive as though ashamed to even be there. Had the concept been less solid, this would have been a train wreck of epic proportions.

As things are, the novel just about holds up.

The concept, put as simply as possible, is this: in the far future, colonies of sentient microbes have begun to interact with and live within human beings. The microbes perceive time much faster than humans do – for instance, an hour of our time is equivalent to around a month of theirs – and so many perceive humans as gods due to humans’ seemingly infinite lifespan. A few microbe colonies, however, have learned differently: they know that by manipulating dopamine levels in their hosts’ brains, they can effectively take over and themselves become the gods. The microbes are developed in ample detail over the course of the book and I consistently found them utterly fascinating; for that matter, I was fascinated by much of the world building seen in this novel.

Brain plague follows the experiences of Chrys, a poor artist who accepts a microbe colony in the hopes that they will help her in her work. In this regard, they help handily; in others, they quickly cause problems. Chrys finds herself being treated with suspicion by many non-carriers, and her “people” are ever-keen to grant her the reward of dopamine should she allow them to do so. Chrys muddles through the various trials that being a carrier brings; that really is the closest to a plot that this book ever gets.

The writing itself is great, albiet a tad dense in places. Chrys and her microbes are developed wonderfully, each with distinct personalities that evolve over time. The same can’t be said, however, for the rest of the book’s humans; all too often they seemed to bleed into one another, and there were a couple of points where I had to go back and remind myself who someone was.

This book is, in fact, the fourth book in a series. Several other reviews recommend reading the previous book first, though having not done that I can confirm it is by no means compulsory. Overall, this is a book far better suited for SF readers than for readers in general, though the former will probably get quite a bit out of it.

If anyone has read this book or anything else by the author, then I’d be keen to hear your thoughts. Go ahead and post ’em below 🙂


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