Lowdown: Things going wrong with a society that relies on parasites for medicine, as told by a woman whose life was saved by such a parasite.
My love affair with Seanan McGuire, also known under the pen name of Mira Grant, is well documented. I got to know her through her Newsflesh trilogy of books telling us of a near future world dominated by zombies. That zombie scene was used to tell us a lot about the world we live in, specifically a world where anyone can report the news. Now McGuire/Grant is up to a new trilogy, Parasitology, and me? I couldn’t wait.
Our story revolves around Sal. Formerly Sally, this young woman has had herself a car crash and was declared clinically dead. Yet through the parasite in her she somehow managed to come back to life, although equipped with a brand new consciousness – that of Sal’s. How could that be and what is this parasite thing? Well, in the near future – a decade or so from now – medicine as we know it will almost cease to exist. Instead, the bulk of society will put a tailor made parasite into their stomachs, a parasite based on the tapeworms inflicting the poorer people of our world. That parasite looks after its owners health for them; it’s just that Sal’s parasite took an extra step for her.
We join Sal’s very Newsflesh like first person account of events as things start going wrong around her at her San Francisco environment. Specifically, people seem to be randomly taken over by something that turns them into some sort of a zombie. Could this be parasite related? You betcha. Could the pharmaceutical conglomerate that brought the parasites to this world be involved with whatever is going on? You betcha. Could our Sally, with her unique parasite experience, find herself at the thick of things? You betcha, you betch, you betcha.
Clearly, styling and plot wise, Grant hasn’t ventured too far off familiar grounds with her new trilogy’s opener. Proceedings resemble a Tarantino movie: lots of talk about the seemingly mundane, followed by key eventful scenes, followed by more talk. To me, the difference between Parasite and the Newsflesh trilogy was in what I could take out of the story: the earlier books dealt with news telling in a terrorised society (just replace zombies with 9/11 and you’d be on track), but what is this one trying to say? If it tries to warn us about the dangers of doing science without conscience, it manages a bit; if it tries to warn us of a world where health is governed by pure capitalism, it manages a bit. It never fully convinces, though. Ultimately, I felt this to be a good adventure story with not much depth behind it for support.
Perhaps it is the scientific angle that had me lost. The excuse for the parasite medicine being as effective as it is in the book’s world is "The Hygiene Theory". That theory dictates that a lot of our modern day illnesses, such as autoimmune issues and the rise of allergies, are to do with us over-sterilising our environments. This could be the case in the real world, but we are far from any verdict. The most recent article I read on the matter at a March issue of New Scientist speculated such problems could be the result of less variety in friendly stomach bacteria, the result of the industrialisation+globalisation of our food supplies. If that is indeed the case then the solution would involve stomach bacteria intake rather than a parasite. Still, scientific debates aside, the science behind Parasite does not detract from the story telling. It is other factors that do.
By far the biggest issue I found myself having with Parasite is that of inconsistency and thus lack of reliability. I can point at numerous examples but I will limit myself with the aim of limiting bloopers. First there is a Sal visiting a building where a major outbreak takes place, just to learn – after the event – that her boyfriend was in the building at the same time for a job interview. The reason why the boyfriend did not inform Sal of his interview is never disclosed.
Second is the matter of this mysterious infliction that turns people into zombie like creatures. It turns out the hospitals and the army are hard at work on identifying the symptoms yet they all fail. Eventually, when we finally get some clarity on the matter, the affair seemed far too trivial for me to blindly accept these institutions failed to see what was going on right before their eyes.
The third incident has our Sal and her boyfriend stuck in a long line of cars that are not going anywhere. After they’re there for a while the boyfriend, in the heat of discussion, takes his hands off the steering wheel; Sal is immediately upset, being the victim of a traffic accident that she is, and the boyfriend apologises. Seriously, are we to expect him keeping both hands on the wheel for hours when the car isn’t going anywhere?
I will stop here. My point is simple: between my inability to perceive much depth, my perception of a rather laborious account on affairs (whatever happened to short and sweet?), and the various issues detracting Parasite of a lot of credibility, I found myself rather disappointed with this book.
Overall: Parasite’s attempt to ride on the Newsflesh wave of success did not work too well on me. This 2.5 out of 5 crabs affair will probably see me skipping the rest of the trilogy.