In Mira’ Grant’s Parasite science fiction meets horror in a potentially terrifying future, where science and medicine can give people perfect health and even bring them back from the (almost) dead. Sally Mitchell was in a coma after a car crash, but a seemingly miracle technology from SymboGen had brought her back. However, Sal cannot recall anything about her past life. Her saviour is a parasitic tapeworm, designed by a team of scientists including Dr Shanti Cale and Dr Steven Banks.
SymboGen have created a parasitic implant which means that people never get sick and never need to take medicine. The tapeworm is genetically engineered to benefit the host, and to not follow the normal evolutionally requirements of a natural animal. Sal is still looked after by SymboGen, 6 years after her accident, although she is trying to build a new lie with her boyfriend, Nathan (who refuses to have a parasite), and her job at the local animal shelter. However, people all over the world are suddenly getting sick, even though they have the parasite. They are known as sleepwalkers, as they have the symptoms of a somnambulist.
A trip for a regular check-up at SymboGen ends in tragedy and suddenly Sal is thrown into a world of secrets and lies, as she tries to make sense of what is happening to her friends, family and those who control her life. She learns about how the tapeworms came into existence, and that those she trusted are not necessarily who she thought they were.
Mira Grant, who is the alter-ego of fantasy author Seanan McGuire, is the author of the zombie horror series known as Newsflesh. This novel, Parasite is called Parasitology 1. The novel structure highlights an issue with realistic near-future science-based science fiction. There is an awful lot of exposition required so that the reader can follow the plot. This is achieved in Parasite by beginning each chapter with the fictional extracts from biographies and interviews from the scientists who developed the tapeworm, as well as extracts from other books and articles. This is a particular effective concept as it allows the actual plot to develop unhindered by too many scientific explanations.
Grant has a very interesting knack of talking about mundane detail just before something unsettling, or even horrific, happens. Two early scenes in particular are key: Sal is the mall with her sister before they witness a sleepwalker outbreak. Not long after, she is buying a king sundew plant (a carnivorous plant) for Nathan just before they come across a sleepwalker in the park. At this point they come into ownership of a new dog, who becomes integral to the narrative. There are clever subtleties within these passages and clues to the eventual plot outcomes too. This is an apocalyptic science fiction story, and also a warning (as all good science fiction is) about the arrogance of scientists.
The subtext in this novel is about medical ethics generally and possibly vivisection. Is it ok to experiment on a few to save millions? Are people subjects, or people? The fact that the animal shelter and dogs appear to be vital to the plot hint at the wider meaning. The characterisation is the strongest point of Parasite. You feel like you get to know Sal and understand her. You feel for her when she runs into problems with her family. Tansy – who we meet late in the novel – is a great creation, while unfortunately, another character Adam seems to have been forgotten about by the end. There is a good mix of ethnicity and sexuality amongst the characters without them being issue-driven. Although Sherman’s use of the English affectation ‘pet’ feels forced, as if it is the only English-ism Grant knows (maybe she watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) – no-one says pet as much!
However, I’m not convinced at Grant’s vision of the future. It is a less effective version of human potential that her previous outings. For example, although it is only set in 2027 people are still emailing each other and using thumb-drives. Think back to 2003 and see how far tech and communications have come, and I don’t think they’ve progressed enough in Grant’s 2027. It’s all too similar to today. It doesn’t feel like the future at all.
The biggest problem with Parasite is its external context. It feels like an introduction. It feels like the beginning with no middle or end. Because it is already a number 1 in a series, we know there is more to come, and although I was constantly expecting a bigger apocalypse to occur, I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t.
Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed Parasite. It put me in mind of Blood Music by Greg Bear and John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes. The narrative is great, being both a popcorn apocalyptic adventure and a parable about science and medical ethics simultaneously. The characters are great and reservations, the ambition is admirable. Bring on the next book in the series.