“Choose life. Choose Health. Choose SymboGen.”
Mira Grant (a pen name for American urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire) had her breakthrough with the three-part zombie series Newsflesh. She returns with the Parasitology series, starting with Parasite (Hatchette, 2013). And what a way to open the series, with a story that is combination of sleek corporate thriller and mind bending science. As a horror junkie obsessed with the most disgusting parasites, bugs and disease Grant’s new series, while a departure from her previous work, reflects of these passions.
The story begins in 2027, and centres around Sally, who has miraculously recovered from a car accident that left her brain dead. Why has Sally recovered? Well it’s thanks to a tapeworm. Not any tapeworm, a worm that has been engineered so that instead of damaging its host heals and protects that individual. The company SymboGen has developed this tapeworm that means you never need to worry about illness or medication again. SymboGen of course, has become a giant corporation, and nearly everyone on the planet who can afford a tapeworm has one.
Sally, not remembering much about her life pre-accident, is doing the best she can. It appears, however, her character has changed. She’s no longer the difficult, tempestuous woman everyone recalls.. Having had a long recovery and still trying to figure out the world she lives at home, works in a pet shelter, and has a loving boyfriend. Of course, if it was this straightforward, there wouldn’t be a story. Sally is learning to live again, and starting over with her family. And then it begins. People stop on the spot, their eyes glaze over, and then they shuffle. Isolated incidences become hordes of individuals. And those hordes become violent. Of course, SymboGen know what’s going on. But the cause may be rather surprising, and it may be that parasites have their own ideals.
This book explores the concepts of identity, acceptance of the disturbing, and corporate conspiracy,At heart it is actually a tale of revolt and liberation. The concept of a tapeworm, something we so find repulsive, as beneficial to one’s health is a very interesting concept. To take it one step further, the tapeworm is seen as non-sentient and effectively is a slave, engineered to keep humans alive and healthy. But what if the assumption of non-sentience was wrong? Grant’s approach of crediting something like a tapeworm with intelligence is something quite unique, and leaves one wondering whether the roles of human host and worm parasite are actually the other way around.
While a work of speculative fiction, the science that Grant draws on is factual, with gene editing, biological agents as medicines and of course, behaviour modifying parasites all existing (Toxiplasmosi gondii, and the ‘zombie fungi’ Ophiocordyceps unilateralis being notable examples). While the scientific concepts the story is based on are real, at times the science felt somewhat a little far-fetched or impractical. The overall tone was that the speculative science was a little too convenient, serving more to fit the narrative and goals of the author in driving the story. This unfortunately, made the science and the scenes around it feel unbelievable.
The execution of the story is clever. The main storyline is told in first person by Sally. Interspersing this narrative are excerpts from interviews and an unpublished biography of the researcher who designed and ‘built’ the SymboGen worm that precede the main story. While providing a point of difference in the narrative, this method of presenting the story also gives a somewhat unbiased and ‘factual’ background to the story, as it is not written from a particular character’s point of view.
The biggest flaw of this book is that it is predictable. The characters were somewhat stereotypical and a little simplistic – the lying corporate CEO, the naïve main character, the army man who goes against orders and the villified scientist whose discoveries were stolen, make up the main cast. The typical ‘evil big corporation’ that is up to no good is the crux of the story, and the twists and turns that occur can be seen coming from well before they happen. Finally, as this is the first book in a series, there is no clear conclusion; the ending is somewhat satisfying, yet does leave one feeling like they want to know where the story goes.
Despite the absurdity of the science, and the predictability of the story, Parasite still is a great read. As a reader it is important to keep in mind , that this story shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The story explores some important issues – identity, enslaving the living, corruption and when science is used for profit. If you enjoy rollicking stories of corruption, speculative fiction, a little anarchy and a different way of looking at parasites, then this book is for you.
Scientist who when not in the lab can often be found buried in a book. Organiser of a book club and avid consumer of the written word across many genres. Most fascinated by books that explore the darker side of life, science, writing as an art form, medicine and the intersection of technology and humanity.