If you’re ever on the Cape Verdian island of Fogo during the fall, you will find every tree branch and every power line is an anchor point for the web of an Argiope spider. Sometimes dozens of spiders will connect their webs to the webs of other spiders, creating a wall of spider webs. Unlike other spiders that lurk in the vicinity of their webs until prey is snared, the Argiope spiders sit right in the middle of their webs. They’re not small either. The biggest ones would span the palm of your hand.
Fogo also doesn’t have electricity around the clock, so when you walk at night you walk in the dark. One night I was walking down a mountain road, and I walked into one of these spider webs. In a moment of pure instinct I had a Tazmanian Devil level freak out – spinning around in circles, flailing the web off of me wherever I felt it, and hopefully ensuring that some giant spider didn’t climb down my shirt.
I share this experience because it is in moments similar to this one that Chuck Wendig’s protagonist in his novel Invasive finds herself having pensive flashbacks about her upbringing by her prepper parents. I didn’t find myself having any flashbacks during my encounter with the Argiope spider web. I was single-mindedly focused on getting myself free of the web.
For better or for worse Invasive is filled with decisions like this by the author. These decisions happen frequently enough that they detract from what would otherwise be an interesting examination of some of the developments in synthetic biology that are on the near horizon.
Why did I read Chuck Wendig’s Invasive?
This book was in a daily Kindle deal a few weeks ago, so it was on sale for $1.99. It looked like a good fit for Kindle, which to me means it will be a light read with little need for annotations. Usually, Kindle daily deals don’t grab my interest, but this book did for a few reasons. Although I hadn’t read anything by Wendig, I was familiar with him since he has written some recent Star Wars novels. Part of the reason I didn’t read these was because they weren’t well reviewed – primarily because people didn’t like Wendig’s style or approach to writing these novels.
After reading the summary of Invasive, it checked off a few of my boxes: biotech, genetic engineering, an eccentric billionaire, and an author who allegedly makes interesting/controversial stylistic decisions. I figured that even if the book itself wasn’t phenomenal, this could be one of those books that is instructional when it comes to improving my own writing. My bet paid off. It turns out the book itself wasn’t that great. I gave it two stars on Goodreads. It also turns out that there are things that an aspiring writer can learn from Wendig – especially one like me who is currently working on a project that shares a lot in common with the subject matter of Invasive.
If you have read Jurassic Park, I don’t suspect you will be surprised by much in Invasive. Wendig faithfully follows every convention Crichton set forth in his genetic-engineering-as-Frankenstein tale. You have the eccentric billionaire, the plucky protagonist trying to make sense of it all, a know-it-all scientist, a remote island, the team of myopic, cocksure scientists that can’t fathom anything possibly going wrong, and monster(s), as well as all the unintended consequences that come with them. So chances are, you are already familiar with this story.
Wendig does try to make his novel fresh by making some notable departures. Unfortunately, it is these departures that make the story fall flat. For example, while Invasive is primarily a tale about the unintended consequences of genetic engineering, it is also a crime drama told from the point of view of someone on the side of law enforcement. From the opening scene, the verdict is already in on genetic engineering and synthetic biology. This shuts off the novel from playing the role of creating a space where controversial new technologies can be explored both from their potential for good and potential for menace. Of course, there is no rule saying the author needs to do this, but it does make the story less interesting. Don’t be surprised to get to the end of the book and discover there were no surprises.
Consider Jurassic Park and Dr. Alan Grant’s character arc. Dr. Grant loves dinosaurs >> Dr. Grant is introduced to dinosaurs brought back from extinction through genetic engineering >>Dr. Grant is enthralled by these new living dinosaurs >>Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler love new living dinosaurs so much they bury their arms up to their shoulders in dinosaur feces just to get to know their new reptilian – or are they avian? – friends a little better>>Dinosaurs start eating people>>Dr. Grant learns that technological advancement can come with some pretty steep costs, and in the case of bringing back dinosaurs these costs are probably higher than we should be willing to pay since we’re talking about an existential threat to our species.
In short, Dr. Grant goes through some pretty dramatic changes in the course of the story that could reasonably be shared by someone else in his shoes.
Hannah Stander is the protagonist of Invasive, and here is her character arc: Hannah Stander is paranoid of any negative outcomes that could come from scientific advancement, which is why she is a futurist for the FBI>>She learns that genetically modified organisms can be frightening and dangerous>>She investigates who made these genetically modified organisms only to find that these people are as frightening and dangerous as the genetically modified organisms>>Hannah ends up learning that she was right from the start that genetically modified organisms are frightening and dangerous.
Hannah is the same person at the end of the book that she was at the beginning. The only difference is she now has real-world proof to back up what was previously just innate common sense.
I suspect that Wendig’s editor was concerned by the lack of development of the main character, so he was tasked with fleshing her out. This was most likely accomplished by leaving the manuscript intact, then going and adding a few poorly-timed flashbacks to give Hannah some back story. Writing flashbacks that work is a tough business. Giving your character these flashbacks while they are facing mortal peril is an even tougher business. To go through all that work and only have the flashbacks reveal things we already now about the character is silly.
It’s always a letdown when you as a reader realize you have to work harder to find things to enjoy in a book besides the development of the main character.
One of the reasons I decided to read this novel is because I am interested in seeing how contemporary authors are writing the independently-wealthy-philanthrope-on-a-power-trip character. Given the growing number of real-world analogs for this character (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Peter Diamondis, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.), it is not surprising that this is a character type that is showing up frequently in our books and movies. This is happening probably for the same reason that Shakespeare wrote so frequently about royalty. If you want your fiction to be influential in the world, make it do the work of imagining what influential people with resources would do in a space where the stakes are fake because they’re fiction. In modern Western nations, super-empowered individuals have more capability to change the world than almost any government actors – and even the most powerful government actors have restraints. These characters capture our imagination and fuel the individuality cult that underpins much of our culture. For all these reasons, I will usually give any story a chance that tries to tackle one of these characters.
Wendig writes with multiple points-of-view. Most chapters are told from Hannah’s POV. However, there are some chapters where her ally in the FBI gets his own POV chapters. Her entomologist friend gets a POV chapter. There is an outbreak sequence where you get a montage of victim POVs similar to the outbreak unfolding in Stephen King’s The Stand. I’ve got nothing against multiple POVs, and I’ve read books where this narrative strategy became the defining strength of a book. With that said, I don’t know why Wendig never took us into his billionaire’s POV.
It kind of felt like his research for writing his billionaire character consisted of reading a few Bernie Sanders speeches about the CEO of Monsanto. Aside from being a walking grab-bag of clichés, most of the character’s actions do not make much sense. He appears and disappears when it is convenient for the author. He doesn’t have compelling motivations or a discernible code to determine his actions. When you finally get to the novel’s big reveal about what is driving the core conflict, your reaction is, “Sure. Whatever. I guess that makes as much sense as anything would at this point.” I would be surprised if that is the reaction Wendig wants from his readers by the time they get to that point.
So, ultimately, Invasive‘s billionaire became a case study of things to avoid when trying to write a character like this.
Wendig writes in the present tense. I’ve seen reviews that complain about this. I suspect most people don’t notice. I didn’t notice most of the time. I actually think it was one of the novel’s strengths. If the use of present tense had actually been coupled with some real character development, this would have been a really good book. Wendig also does this thing where every now and then he writes a series of sentences where none of the sentences are complete sentences. If I recall correctly they didn’t have verbs. I don’t mind when writers decide to get kind of wacky with things like this as long as I can see some justifiable reasons for it and it adds to the story. I believe if you’ve truly learned the rules of language, then a lot of fun can be had in breaking them. But this has to function like an inside joke and the reader has to be in on the joke. With Wendig I wasn’t quite sure if I was in on the joke, and as a result, the stylistic flourishes came across as tolerable but unearned. In other words, if his editor had won the battle and made him take them out, I would have basically read the same novel. By contrast, if Cormac McCarthy’s editor made him rewrite Blood Meridian and actually adhere to commonly accepted standards of style, you would be reading a very, very different novel.
With all that said, Invasive is a novel that whiffs on several different levels. If you’re someone who only has time to read a few books in a year, chances are you probably already have better books on your list of books to read. However, if you’re someone who is actively exploring what makes good fiction work and what makes well-intentioned fiction fall short, either because you’re an aspiring writer yourself or because you like even your entertainment reading to involve some level of intellectual exercise, then Invasive is a good case study.
Ben is reader, writer, father, husband, one-time logger, one-time restaurant owner, one-time online marketing consultant, and entrepreneur. Currently, Ben works in the U.S. Senate. Coincidentally, he has opinions about books. At times, he entertains delusions of grandeur that he will one day write and publish books himself. He lives in Springfield, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter: @benjaminburr