Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira GrantTitle: Parasite
Author: Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire)
Series: Parasitology #1
Published: 29 October 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, thriller, horror
Rating: 5/10

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”. 😀

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.

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's KinTitle: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 4/10

Four months ago, an alien ship parked in Earth’s orbit. Contact was made, and while the aliens remained reticent, they assured humanity that they were there on a mission of peace. Two months later the UN granted the aliens – known as Denebs – permission to set up an Embassy in New York Harbor.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner has just published an important paper on mitochondrial DNA, and because of her discovery she is invited to the Embassy to meet the aliens when they finally decide to share their reasons for visiting. A deadly spore cloud wiped out the populations of two of their colony planets, and in ten months that spore cloud will hit Earth, before heading for the Denebs’ home planet. What the Denebs want is to work together with Earth’s scientists to find a vaccine for the spores, which will otherwise cause everyone to die a horrible death. Although their technology is mostly superior, their medical technology is less advanced, so they need the help of local scientists.

Marianne is invited to join the researchers at the Embassy. With three grown children and a grandchild on the way, she feels deeply invested in saving humanity. Nevertheless, she has some very conflictual relationships with her children. Elizabeth, who works in Border Patrol, is an isolationist and doesn’t want aliens on Earth any more than she wants immigrants in America. Ryan, a botanist considers the aliens an invasive species. Both of them believe the aliens are actually conspiring to do something sinister. Noah, the youngest, doesn’t seem to care, but then again he’s the kind of person who considers topics like politics, religion and isolationism to be inconsequential. Noah is primarily concerned with sustaining his addiction to sugarcane, a drug that allows him to feel like a different person every time he takes it.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read with a clear story and ideas. It feels like sf for beginners. It’s got some hard science, but whether or not you understand it the basic concepts are easy to grasp and it’s easy to understand what they mean for the narrative. It’s got some great, thought-provoking ideas. The characters’ motives are very clear where necessary. It makes family and motherhood an integral part of a story about aliens and an impending apocalypse, dispelling the stereotype that non-fans have of sf, that it’s all about tech/science/aliens/rayguns etc. rather than human relationships.

It’s all very simple and very neat but it’s actually what made me dislike Yesterday’s Kin. Simplicity can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also mean rudimentary or unrefined, and I feel that this book belongs in the latter category.

There is a lot of clunky infodumping. It’s set in New York and barely looks outward, even though the plot is of international concern and the aliens’ presence is public knowledge. Although the aliens have some interesting aspects, and we get some idea of their monocultural way of living, they’re pretty flat and dull. They refer to their planet, very prosaically, as “World”.

The human characters are more vivid at least, but there’s still something perfunctory about them. Each of them has one or two definitive characteristics: Ryan and Elizabeth are combative xenophobes, Noah is a drug addict desperate to be anyone but himself, Marianne is a scientist and mother, her friend Evan is a cheerful and encouraging gay man. I think the problem is that these attributes fail to make the characters seem like real people. They’re little more than tools shaped to serve the purposes of the plot as opposed to well-rounded individuals. As a result, their personal conflicts feel like cheap melodrama, especially all Marianne’s prosaic blathering about motherhood.

Then there are a couple of characters whose only purpose seems to be to die tragically. The book treats this as something serious, and Marianne expresses grief, but it’s hard to care when the characters were so lifeless to begin with.

An additional problem is a twist in the plot that I saw coming from such a long way off that it seemed like I spent half the book waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up. It’s not something that you’d only notice from your privileged perspective as a reader – plenty of characters are privy to the enough information to at least ask the right questions. It’s ridiculous then, that a bunch of award-winning, world-class scientists don’t notice it.

Consequently, the ending is anticlimactic, with a bunch of trite criticisms about the nature of humanity and American society to wrap up the themes running throughout the book. Quite frankly, the whole point of the book seems to be to provide a vehicle for those criticisms. While I’m inclined to agree with them, it does absolutely nothing to make this uninspired story enjoyable. This really shouldn’t have been my first Kress.

The Cure by Douglas E. Richards

The CureTitle: The Cure
Author:
 
Douglas E. Richards
Published:
 
17 September 2013
Publisher: 
Forge Books
Genre:
 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
3/10

When she was a child, Erin Palmer’s family was brutally murdered by a psychopath. She grew up devoting her life to preventing something like that from happening again. She worked through her trauma so it would not paralyse her. She trained in martial arts so she could defend herself. And she studied psychopathy in order to understand the condition, and stop psychopaths from ever hurting anyone again.

For years she runs tests on them in a medium security prison under the pretence of collecting data for her PhD. In truth, she’s working for Hugh Raborn, a neuroscientist who claims to have found for the cure for psychopathy, but needs Erin to test it to find the exact formula. The thing is, Erin has never actually met Hugh in person, even though she’s betrayed her university, broken the law, and risked her freedom for this scientific endeavour. When she tries to find him to celebrate after finally figuring out the exact formula, she finds out that he lied about his identity.

In addition, an old, misleading quote about her research got her kicked off her prison project and led to unwanted headhunting by shady corporation. Erin ends up on the run from the corporation, as she tries to find out who she was really working for and why. She meets up with Kyle Hansen, another mysterious but seemingly trustworthy man, who reveals that the fate of the world is at stake and the cure was developed for reasons Erin couldn’t even have imagined. But what is the right course of action to take? Erin and Kyle find themselves battling with both moral dilemmas and the people chasing after them.

 

Plot-wise, this book sounds ok, but what it actually is, is pretty crap. It’s been ages since I read this sort of thing. It’s the kind of book that I used to find lying around the house after my mother bought it at a sale and then forgot about it. A book no one’s heard of with a dull cover but, based on the blurb, it could be an entertaining mystery/thriller/adventure. I’d ignore it until I was bored with nothing else to read in the middle of the school holidays, and probably find it enjoyable in that context. In my limited experience I might not have noticed how The Cure is like a made-for-TV movie with an unknown cast of bad actors. Now, however, it’s the kind of book that I swear and yell at.

Where to begin? Well, one of the first things that struck me was the shamelessly clunky info dumping. For example, while Erin is waiting for a prisoner to fill out a questionnaire, she just so happens to think back on her first conversation with her thesis supervisor. The flashback functions as a narrative device for explaining what her research is all about. That would be ok if it wasn’t such a deeply implausible flashback – about a chapter long and far too detailed for what is only a few minutes of reflection. In addition, Erin intentionally played dumb so that her supervisor explained all sorts of basic things about psychopaths. Erin’s excuse was that she tried to keep the professor talking in order to assess him, but it’s absurd for someone with her research interests and qualifications to pretend to be uninformed about the fundamental characteristics of the people she wants to study. It’s so obviously being done purely for the reader’s benefit.

Similar info dumping occurs frequently, not always in that as-you-know-bob manner, but typically lengthy and unrefined. Mind you, there are plenty of daft and awkward things you’ll just have to put up with to read this. Like the fact that Erin risks everything for a man she’s never met, who offers her a cure that’s virtually impossible to create. W find out how it was possible later, but Erin signed on without that information. Similarly, Raborn contacted her and asked for her help with his world-changing but very dangerous and illegal research based on an interview in a community newspaper (apparently he sensed her passion in the article). In her search for Raborn, Erin goes to a lab where they test products on animals. She gets in very easily, and a lab assistant actually gives her a tour, even explaining what they do to some of the animals (like turning them radioactive). What kind of moron just gives out highly controversial information like that? To someone who could be a journalist? This doesn’t even have any purpose for the story; I think maybe the author – a molecular biologist – is just telling us this stuff because he can.

Other problems include boring characters. Like Erin who is just so blandly perfect. She’s stunningly beautiful:

She had a flawless complexion, a figure a bikini model would envy, and a grace and agility that had arisen from years of training in martial arts and other forms of self- defense. Her hair was a deep chestnut-brown, and glowed with health and vigor, and her features were strong but delicate.

She’s kick-ass. She’s intelligent and highly educated. She worked harder at university than most students are capable of working. Her childhood trauma causes almost no problems for her, because she has learned to control it. When all sorts of dodgy people come after her, she has the skills to fight or escape them. And even though these people are professionals, Erin can outsmart them because – get this – she reads lots of thrillers.

When Kyle Hansen meets her, he just can’t stop saying how beautiful and brilliant and amazing she is (it’s nauseating). He’s some kind of computer expert who only reads sci fi, making him open-minded enough to accept the extraordinary things in this plot, but leaving him a bit short other skills. He keeps emphasising that he’s just a geek, which means he’s super-lucky to be going on the run with a super-hot smart chick like Erin. Cue extremely cheesy romance.

The Cure is so full of shit like this that it actually detracts from any possible plausibility. The plot is based on the idea that the 1% of psychopaths in the human population have a massive detrimental influence on the whole. They cause pain, from breaking their partner’s hearts to starting wars and oppressive regimes.  In fact, they will eventually cause the downfall of the entire human race. Curing that 1% will supposedly save us and make the world a happier place. If this was a completely different book, then sure, I might buy that. But here, it just sounds… dumb. And gets dumber. The author even uses the concept to set up the western world (and America in particular) as an essentially good, compassionate entity that’s being manipulated by evil psychopaths from the Middle East. In fact, this story is taking place in America, and not anywhere else, because no other country could be trusted to take the right course of action. Yes, really.

Now admittedly, and in spite of my overall feelings about this book, there are a few things I liked. All the information about the nature of psychopaths was actually quite interesting and even useful (another recent read featured a major psychopathic character). It’s mostly delivered as if this were an undergrad psychology lecture rather than a novel, but it’s the kind of lecture I would enjoy. A couple of the ethical issues that Erin faces are sort of interesting. And although I thought the book was lame, I somehow found myself curious enough to want to follow the story to the end. Which annoyed me because this is a stupid book and the ending held no surprises anyway.