Author: Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire)
Series: Parasitology #1
Published: 29 October 2013
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, thriller, horror
How is it that I read two novels about tapeworms this year? This isn’t going to become a trend is it? Because, eww. But at least Parasite isn’t nearly as repulsive as The Troop.
In the near future, SymboGen revolutionises medicine with the creation of a genetically engineered tapeworm it calls the Intestinal Bodyguard. Via one little pill, this parasite takes residence in your small intestine and performs all sorts of useful medical functions – administering chronic medication, secreting natural birth control, preventing allergic reactions, modulating brain chemistry, boosting the immune system etc. With the Intestinal Bodyguard, no one ever has to worry about having enough money for medication or missing doses. By 2027, almost everyone in the world has one, and there are even special models for impoverished communities where food is scarce.
But, unsurprisingly, having a parasite specifically designed to tinker with the human body has dangerous consequences. There are cases of what is referred to as “sleeping sickness” – people unexpectedly shut down, becoming completely catatonic. No one can figure out how to restore them. Later cases show increasing levels of violence. It’s basically the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, except the zombies are called “sleepers” and the problem is a tapeworm, not a virus.
For Sally Mitchell, the Intestinal Bodyguard brought her back from the dead, but in a good way. After driving her car into a bus, she ended up in a coma that no one expected her to recover from. The doctor was trying to convince her parents to switch off the life support when Sally miraculously woke up.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t really ‘Sally’ anymore – she’d lost her entire twenty years of memory, absolutely everything leading up to the car crash, including the basics of how to walk, speak, read, etc. She had to learn everything from scratch and her new personality is nothing like her previous one.
Six years later she calls herself Sal, has a job, a boyfriend, and functions like a normal person, although she is denied the freedom to live a normal life. SymboGen, pays for all her medical care and requires her to come in periodically for a battery of tests. She has to see a psychologist she hates. Despite being an adult, her parents have been made her legal guardians, and they won’t give her permission to move out. This puts Sal in a position that is both difficult and useful as the sleeper epidemic grows worse. She and her boyfriend Nathan (a parasitologist) take the initiative to figure out what’s going on and find a cure.
Parasite was nominated for a Hugo this year, and my rather uncharitable reaction to this was “WHY?”. It’s not dreadful, but it’s not award material. Granted, the Hugos generated quite an uproar this year because some of the nominees were there for ridiculous political reasons, but presumably Parasite wasn’t one of those. I have to wonder if it got nominated at least partly because Orbit made it available as a Read Now file on NetGalley. For those who don’t know, NetGalley is a site that distributes digital review copies. If a book is marked as “Read Now” it means that any user can download it without having to get approval from the publisher. Most Read Now books are obscure titles from small presses. As a Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) novel from a publisher as big as Orbit, Parasite would have been in demand anyway. As a Read Now available for months, it must have ended up on the reading devices of most of the sff fans on the site. And since it’s a select group of fans who choose the nominees, the Hugos are, in part, a popularity contest. Parasite might have gotten a head start simply because it’s written by a well-known author and a large group of influential readers got a free copy. Also, it’s got enough thought-provoking ideas to capture people’s attention, and it’s entertaining enough that most people would probably enjoy it. Since most of us only have time to read a few of the year’s latest releases, it could easily stand out.
So the lesson here is for the big publishers – if you want your sff titles to be nominated for Hugo awards, mark them as “Read Now”. :D
Anyway, Parasite. I was baffled by the award nomination because there’s so much about the novel that’s either problematic or just not great. It’s messy. The writing is bland. The characters are flat and their emotions are often unconvincing, coming off as melodramatic. They sometimes behave in ways that are silly or senseless. Sal can be surprisingly smart but also unbelievably stupid. There’s one scene where there are sleepers outside her house and she stands around in her bathrobe playing the brainless victim. There are lots of little things that bug me throughout, like when Sal is desperately trying to contact her boyfriend Nathan on a landline as if he no longer possesses a cellphone, or why she has a pathological fear of driving if she doesn’t remember her accident. Overall, this book reads like a B-grade thriller I picked up at the airport. A good B-grade thriller, but not much more than that.
There are two major issues that I want to discuss – Sal’s character, and the structure of the plot. I’ll tackle Sal first. In some ways, she’s fascinating. She’s a 6-year-old adult, trying to live a full life without actually having had one. Who would you be without a childhood? Who would you become, surrounded by people who remember you as someone else? What kind of friendships and sexual relationships would you have when you’ve only had six years to learn how to socialise?
Lots of potential for a complex character here, but Sal is mostly unremarkable. One character calls her the “poster child for dull”, and I agree. Sal talks about being six years old, living in Sally’s shadow and building her vocabulary, but it’s mostly just talk. She might have behaved strangely after coming out of her coma, but now she’s pretty normal and there’s nothing wrong with her vocabulary. She has a happy sex life. People often treat her as if she’s still weird or creepy, but for the reader there’s nothing particularly unsettling about her behaviour. Except the way she tends starts screaming if the person driving her around takes their hands off the wheel or their eyes of the road.
Not only do I feel that she should have been way more nuanced, but I thought the author missed out on an opportunity for serious struggles with identity. Sal is very confident about who she is, and although I’m actually happy for her, I find this unlikely. Her only real difficulties come from other people treating her as a bit of a freak, and her parents treating her like a small child with limited rights and privileges. But what if Sal had identified as male? What if she were gay? What if her parents were less accommodating, perhaps because of cultural or religious beliefs? What if she wanted to do things or live in ways that society found unacceptable? Instead, Sal is is straight, white, middle-class and well-adjusted, and even though her life was totally fucked up, she’s had as easy a time of it as you could hope for under those circumstances.
Then, the structure of the plot. The characters work their way up to two big reveals, one in the middle, and one at the end. However, the reader knows what the characters don’t, so it’s irritating rather than mysterious. You see, the tapeworms are the only notable thing about this future that differs from our present (another reason this book is a bit bland). It’s the technology upon which the entire story is built. So obviously it’s the tapeworms that are turning people into zombies. But this isn’t obvious to the characters and it takes half of a 500+ page novel for them to confirm it.
Then, once they’ve caught up to you, the story sets the process in motion again. When Sal is given the rundown on the connection between the tapeworms and the sleeping sickness, she learns a big shocking twist. For me, the twist was the first really gripping thing to happen in the novel, the first time since I started reading that I thought there was some award-worthy material here. Unfortunately at this point, Sal has had to absorb a lot of terrible new information, and just can’t deal with the new reveal. So she faints, and forgets about it. And because it has some devastating personal implications, she avoids facing up to it for the rest of the book. She keeps referring to something she should remember or figure out, only to get distracted or decide that she has more important things to focus on. Several other characters know all about this thing she’s avoiding, but none of them talk to her about it, even when they should, or have little reason to keep silent. There’s one character in particular who has absolutely no tact and yet she tiptoes around the issue for Sal’s sake in a way that seems absurdly out of character.
Of course, the thing Sal doesn’t want to confront is completely obvious to the reader (you could guess it at the start, if you’re paying attention), so once again you’re waiting for her to catch up. You wait until the final paragraphs, in fact. And this time the reason for Sal’s ignorance feels forced.
On the bright side, the second half is where the novel gets interesting in an award-winning sort of way by presenting us with some very strange ideas and ethical questions. Sometimes it’s hard to take those questions seriously, but at least they’re there. And despite all my reservations, I mostly enjoyed reading this. I huffed and rolled my eyes a lot, but I kept going because I wanted to know what would happen next. I have to give it some credit for having weirdly thought-provoking ideas, and I enjoyed taking a break with a novel that didn’t need me to try very hard. I’m thinking of reading the sequel, for fun. I just wouldn’t nominate it for any awards. If anything, I think the award nomination might actually be detrimental, because it raises expectations that the novel most likely won’t fulfil. Rather just go into it expecting an sf thriller and you’ll be fine.