Book review: Invasive Species gets under your skin

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Invasive Species, an ecological thriller by Joe Wallace, crawls under your skin from the outset.  A large and seemingly intelligent wasp in Senegal bores into hominid hosts like a tumbu fly.  Getting stung is almost always fatal to humans.  The wasps are nicknamed majizi, meaning thieves, by the locals.  What exactly the majizi are stealing from their hosts, other than their lives, is unclear at first.

Trey Gilliard, a globetrotting biologist, scurries across borders from Africa to the U.S. to Central America and back in an effort to collect specimens and prove the gravity of the threat to a skeptical American government.  At his side are Sheila, a medical doctor and daughter of one of the first American victims of the majizi, and Jack, a loudmouthed New York wasp expert.

The first half of Invasive Species is marvelous.  The majizi are ominous.  Trey, Sheila, Jack, and a curiously insightful Senegalese woman named Mariama are sympathetic because they are alone in attempting to sound the alarm bell.  Like a Crichton novel, the biological explanations and descriptions of the threatening species are convincing without being overly technical.  The well-crafted prose is enjoyable.

About half of the way through, the book shifts toward political themes.  Mariama is implausibly “disappeared” to a Caribbean island by the U.S. government, apparently because her knowledge is a threat to officials who are trying to minimize publicity about the wasps.  Scattered wasp attacks in the U.S. become the subject of debates during a presidential campaign.  At this point, Invasive Species begins resembling the 1980s alien invasion book, Footfall, where government officials become embroiled in reacting to an aggressive, otherworldly species threatening to annihilate humanity.

Like the herd mentality of the Fithp elephants in Footfall, the majizi exhibit a collective awareness.  The human team learn the hard way that the wasps’ hive mind makes them an even more dangerous foe.  Star Trek fans will detect parallels between the majizi and the Borg, the aggressive species of invaders that absorb their victims in order to expand the collective.

Although the book is on firmer footing when dealing with scientific rather than political topics, the novel is well worth a read.  Fans of Crichton or the pulp horror animal attack books of the 1980s will love this more contemporary, globalized heir to the genre.  Students of disease outbreaks and readers of books like the Hot Zone will appreciate the disturbing trends of international pandemics that Wallace highlights.

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