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.

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Equations of Life by Simon Morden

 

Equations of Life by Simon MordenTitle: Equations of Life
Author: Simon Morden
Series: Samuil Petrovich #1
Published:
 1 April 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre: 
science fiction, post-apocalyptic
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
5/10

Samuil Petrovich keeps a low profile. After escaping the nuclear fallout in St Petersburg, he lives a spartan life in the post-apocalyptic London Metrozone. He’s just another immigrant, just a postgrad student, not worth paying attention to. In truth, he’s a genius when it comes to physics and computers, and he’s got a SECRET PAST that he’s kept neatly covered up for the last few years.  The last thing he wants is to get noticed.

But then Petrovich sees a young woman about to be kidnapped and instinctually moves to rescue her, dodging bullets and running from gangsters until his weak heart fails him and he’s rushed to hospital. The woman turns out to be the daughter of Hamano Oshicora, a Japanese mobster with criminal operations all over the city. Oshicora is extremely grateful to Petrovich and wants to reward him. Detective Inspector Harry Chain wants to know who Petrovich is and why he’d put himself in hospital for a stranger. A Ukrainian mobster named Marchenko wants Petrovich dead for ruining his chance to kidnap Sonja Oshicora. Sonja herself is now drawn to her cute young rescuer. And Petrovich is getting way more attention than he’s comfortable with.

He tries desperately to avoid getting involved with any of these people but instead he keeps getting more tightly wrapped up in their troublesome affairs. In addition, he and his research partner are on the verge of making world-changing breakthroughs in physics. Then something called the New Machine Jihad comes along and threatens to put London – if not the world – through a second Armageddon. Instead of just disappearing like he planned to, Petrovich reluctantly tries to do the right thing and save the city.

 

I decided to split this review into two parts, one for the first half or so of the novel, and one for the second. I felt quite differently about them, and most of what I want to discuss about the novel falls into one of the two sections.

So, Equations of Life starts out quite well. The London Metrozone is a post-apocalyptic society, but not a dystopian one. It’s recovered somewhat from Armageddon, a series of nuclear explosions set off two decades ago, in European cities. Obviously life isn’t the same, especially if you’re a poor immigrant, but on the whole it’s not too bad – there are cars (including self-driving models), a university, restaurants and cafes, decent infrastructure, reliable telecommunications etc.

I’m a bit sketchy on the political details, because Morden avoids info dumping and his characters have no reason provide a detailed explanation of global politics. What I do understand though is that Japan has been destroyed and America essentially destroyed it, or at least a political movement/party in the USA called the Reconstructionists did. For the sake of his lost homeland, Oshicora is creating a highly realistic VirtualJapan in which the Japanese diaspora will be able to hold on to some experience of home.

He asks Petrovich to help with the project, but Petrovich politely declines on the basis that getting involved with gangsters will be fatally bad for his health. He plays the situation very carefully, so that Oshicora is not offended but has great respect for him. In general though, I thought that Petrovich wasn’t really as cautious as the blurb suggests. He avoids attention, but once he finds himself in compromising situations he lets his temper flare. He tends to hurl a combination of brutal honesty and Russian invective at the rather dangerous men who have him at their mercy at various points in the novel. I thought this made him a more interesting character though; I had pictured someone older and rather timid, but Petrovich is smart, smart-mouthed, and often daring. What I don’t like about him is his tendency to do all his swearing in italicised Russian. And since Petrovich can barely utter two sentences without cursing in Russian, this quickly gets very irritating. It’s also a tad incongruous – he speaks perfect English otherwise, so I don’t see why he’d switch languages to swear.

Anyway. Another interesting character is Sister Madeleine, a genetically (I think) enhanced nun who is two metres tall, wears some pretty awesome body armour under her habit and carries a massive pistol. She’s a proper nun – vows and all – but she’s also a bodyguard for her church’s priest, who is targeted by the gangs of a nearby ghetto. Sister Madeleine saved Petrovich and Sonja Oshicora when Petrovich’s heart gave in, and from then on the two have a an uneasy kind of connection. with the result that Madeleine breaks her vows to help Petrovich when the shit hits the fan.

 

Which brings me to the second, less positive part of the review, about the second, less interesting part of the book. After a certain point – when the New Machine Jihad starts going seriously destructive, I guess – the book gets and chaotic, silly, and wasteful. Some of the more interesting ideas set up earlier in the novel get used in boring or relatively minor ways. I’d guessed early on what the New Machine Jihad was, only to find that it was actually a more dull version of what I’d assumed. Petrovich’s research partner Pif (Epiphany Ekanobi, a physicist from Nigeria) has done breakthrough work that Petrovich then builds upon, but it doesn’t have any real bearing on the plot. I hope Morden is at least saving that seed for later books.

The whole thing just descends into an absurd action/disaster plot. Petrovich runs around the city – sometimes accompanied by Madeleine – trying to stop villains, save victims and not die horribly as the city is destroyed by machines and the people turn violent. He gets the shit beaten out of him then keeps going like a good reluctant hero should. It reads like it would rather be an action movie than a book and drags on for far too long. Morden mentions in the acknowledgements that this novel began as a series of short stories set in this world, and it’s in this part of the novel that the seams start to show. There are too many ‘episodes’, too many different encounters, which is understandable if Morden tried to fit all those stories into a novel shape. Understandable but untidy.

As he runs for his life, Petrovich’s character becomes increasingly implausible. Note that he’s a skinny young man with a weak heart. Saving Sonja Oshicora puts such a strain on it that he had several heart attacks on the way to the hospital. He needs a new heart, and spends the rest of the novel worried about the twinges in his chest. And still he makes it through numerous heart-stopping fights and other dangers. I don’t know where he got the skills to survive either.

You have to wonder why Petrovich is willing to put himself through all this. Turns out he’s looking for redemption: he did bad things in his past and he’s trying to make up for it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Petrovich has to profess his determination to save Sonja, the Metrozone, the world, etc. with as much blustery Hollywood bravado as he can muster. It’s so ridiculous, like this moment when Petrovich learns that Sonja is in danger again and decides that he’s going to stand and fight instead of running away:

 “I am the one who decides when I’m going to die, you little shit. You want this done the hard way? Fine. I will take you down. I will cause you so much grief and pain that you’ll wish you’d never been born. And you can tell Sonja this: I’m coming. One way or another, I’ll save her. Have you got that?”

Petrovich also claims that he decided to “spit in the face of destiny” that he wants”to make a difference”, that he “made a promise I have to keep” even though it might all cost him his life at the end. He keeps chucking out lines like this, although the ones i hated the most came from Madeleine, explaining why she chose to risk her life helping Petrovich:

I’m possessed by some overwhelming madness that forces me to desert my vocation, my sisters, my duty, my priest—and go with you instead, you foul-mouthed, unbelieving, weak, selfish criminal who by some freak chance or divine plan has not only captured my stone-cold heart but seems to embody the virtue of hope in a way I have never experienced before, inside or outside the church. That’s why.

I cannot take this seriously. I’m not interested in reading any more of it either. When I started Equations of Life I thought it could be one of the few series I actually stick with. By the end, I’d decided to stop at book one. I liked the Petrovich I met at the beginning, but I have no interest in the clichéd, hard-headed bravado-spewing hero who he proved to be later on. Guys like that are all over the damn place and there are far more exciting ideas to be found in other novels.

The cover is really cool though; I almost bought the whole series once, just because they look so good.

Review of Doughnut by Tom Holt

Doughnut by Tom HoltTitle: Doughnut
Author: Tom Holt
Published: 05 March 2013
Publisher:
 Orbit
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, humour
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Theo Burnstein is, to put it mildly, down on his luck.

“You blew up—”

“A mountain, yes.” He shrugged. “And the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, and very nearly Switzerland. Like I said, one mistake. I moved the decimal point one place left instead of one place right. Could’ve happened to anyone.”

Once a respected and fantastically wealthy physicist, Theo now counts himself lucky when he finds a cardboard box to make his nights on the streets a bit cosier. Following his career-ending catastrophe, Theo’s fourth wife divorced him and took everything he owned with her. He would have been fine if he hadn’t lost his $20-million inheritance when the investment company went bust, and then lost all his friends, who apparently liked his money more than they liked him. Things kept going downhill from there, and he found himself completely unemployable, not only because the world in general now hates him, but also because the accident turned his hand invisible in a quirk of quantum physics, and employers find that creepy. Eventually he finds a job carting guts in a slaughterhouse, where his boss kindly allows him to sleep until he finds a place to stay.

Theo is saved by his ludicrous downward spiral by the death of his good friend and teacher Pieter van Goyen. Pieter leaves gives him $5000, and the seemingly useless contents of a safe deposit box – a small bottle, a manila envelope, a powder compact and an apple. He also tells him where to find a job – a massive and decidedly weird hotel that always claims that they are fully booked even though there are only two people staying there. With almost nothing to do all day, Theo eventually discovers the purpose of his strange inheritance – they are the means for entering and navigating custom-made alternate realities. It’s meant to be a dream come true, but Theo loathes every moment as he tumbles into worlds he cannot control and is almost killed by aliens or cute, shotgun-toting Disney animals. The only way he can return to the real world, is to find a doughnut and look through the hole in the centre.

Why did Pieter leave all this to him? And what are the strange people at the hotel up to? Why does it seem like someone wants him to do a set of calculations that may destroy the universe? Theo puts his scientific mind to the problem, and tries not to get killed in the process.

 

Like all of the Tom Holt novels I’ve read, Doughnut is thoroughly kooky and a bit chaotic. And like all the other Tom Holt novels I’ve read, it’s not really laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s amusing with a few clever moments – a decent option if you’re looking for light or humorous speculative fiction. One of the reasons I keep reading Holt, even though his novels are never quite as exciting as I’d like them to be, is that he writes about so many different things that he’s become a bit of a go-to author when I need to finish a reading challenge about, for example, werewolves or Norse mythology. And his plots always sound like a lot of fun.

Doughnut brings together sci fi and fantasy by combining quantum physics with alternative realities that draw on genre tropes. The first world Theo finds himself in is straight out of an epic fantasy novel. Another is a western, then a western with aliens. There’s a peaceful post-apocalyptic world where everyone lives in the sky on glass platforms. There’s even a reality where Theo is the Pope.

It’s fun and it’s entwined with the mystery of why this is all happening, but it’s not as good as it could be. The middle of the novel drags a bit because Theo is trapped in the hotel with no escape except for the other worlds, which are accessed through an empty bottle. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t really help him figure out what’s going on. The other people in the hotel could certainly enlighten Theo and the reader, but they don’t want to. As a result, the plot doesn’t move much for a good portion of the book. It takes Theo a while to gather a few scraps of useful information about the conspiracy he’s caught up in. Towards the end he suddenly figures everything out in one bright moment, after which he explains it all in a few conversations and quickly wraps up the story. It’s rather clumsy.

Still, I enjoyed it as a light read. The odd little worlds Theo ends up in are amusing, and I highlighted a couple of funny or snarky lines. The lack of information about what’s really going isn’t irritating in the way that I normally find these unecessarily prolonged mysteries to be. Like many of the Holt protagonists I’ve come across, Theo is nerdy and likeable, a bit of a loser in some ways but smart enough (a genius, in his case) to figure everything out at the end and give us a satisfying conclusion. The other characters tend to be forgettable, but I liked Theo’s insane sister Janine, who keeps trying to call him despite the fact that she’s got a restraining order legally forbidding Theo to ever call her back.

So, all in all, it’s nice if not great, and I’ll continue reading Tom Holt.