Author: Mira Grant
Genre: Horror, Medical Thriller, Speculative Fiction
Publication Date: October 2013
Hardcover: 504 Pages
A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.
We owe our good health to a humble parasite – a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the tapeworm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system – even secretes designer drugs. It’s been successful beyond the scientists’ wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.
But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives…and will do anything to get them.
Stand alone or series: First of a planned series
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher (via BEA)
Format (e- or p-): Print
It is the near future, and the face of big pharma has changed. The SymboGen Corporation has managed to sell the unsellable – they have created a genetically engineered tapeworm (Intestinal Bodyguard) that lives in perfect symbiosis with its human host, that secretes helpful chemicals that protect said host from a slew of very unpleasant ailments. You see, the Hygiene Hypothesis is a real thing, and with the emergence of super resistant viruses and bacteria, the Intestinal Bodyguard is a much-needed and highly desired preventative measure.
What’s more, SymboGen’s miracle product turns out to be even more miraculous than even its founding trio of scientists had ever dreamed. When a young woman named Sally Mitchell has a terrible car accident, she is rendered virtually brain dead and doctors urge her family to pull her life support systems. But then the impossible happens – Sally wakes up. Not only does she emerge from her impossible coma, but the trauma suffered by her brain and internal organs are miraculously repaired, all thanks to her up-to-date SymboGen Intestinal Guard. The only problem is that Sally has no memory of anything of her prior life. She has to relearn how to speak English, social cues, and how to walk and move. But with SymboGen’s help – footing the bill, but also intensely scrutinizing Sally’s state of mind with endless tests and counseling sessions – in just six years, Sal (“Sally” no longer) has made a miraculous full recovery. She’s found a job she likes volunteering at the local animal shelter, she gets along better with her younger sister and her father, and she even has a hot doctor (of parasitology of course) boyfriend.
But then things start to get really crazy – people are zonking out, slipping into bizarre fugue states in which they act like mindless sleepwalking zombies. No one knows why people are being affected – but SymboGen and its miracle Intestinal Guard seem to be at the heart of the conspiracy. And for some reason, those sleepwalker zombies seem to have some kind of fixation with Sal…
The first book in a brand new series from bestselling and award-nominated author Mira Grant, Parasite is an entertaining, quick read with a great premise. It also, however, suffers from significant writing flaws and reads like a recycled (not quite as good) version of the Newsflesh books… with tapeworm zombies, instead of Kellis-Amberlee zombies. But I’m getting ahead of myself – first, The Good.
On the plus side, Parasite is vintage Mira Grant with the author’s trademark witty, zippy dialogue, heavy (and fascinating) medical exposition, and one killer premise. The thing about Parasite that really hooked me in was the premise – the idea of a corporation in the future commoditizing tapeworms for human symbiotic betterment is nauseating but utterly brilliant. AND, on the heels of that revelation, the idea that this Intestinal Bodyguard tapeworm could turn on its human hosts? Well that’s also inevitable and fodder for true horror excellence. As she did in Feed, Mira Grant discusses at length the benefits and drawbacks of parasitology, blending medical research fact with some speculative fiction fringe twists – it’s a potent blend, and I appreciate everything Grant does to flesh out the medical science. Similarly, the Big Bad Corporation trope (complete with Mad Scientist who experiments on herself) is handled with adroitness and plausibility. I do not doubt a big pharma company like SymboGen could amass the type of power we see in Parasite, and I similarly don’t doubt that it would have little qualms about the human lives it affects with its not-so-perfect miracle tapeworms.
Also on the side of the good: the story is a breeze to read through (although the plotting is a little uneven with a slower first half of the book), the mystery of the tapeworm zombies is fun, and I even appreciated some of the huge soap opera-ish twists that are revealed over the course of the novel. Thematically, too, Parasite aspires to ask the big questions: the healthcare system and pharmaceutical companies that are entrenched in it are deeply flawed; they offer miracle, magical cures that harm more than help. This is taken to a hyperbolic extreme in Parasite (tapeworms that can cure dog allergies is good; tapeworms that migrate to a host’s brain and make them zombies is not so good). Although I’m not convinced Parasite asks these questions in a successful or effective way, I appreciate the attempt.
Parasite is by no means a perfect book…or even, really, a very good one. My beef with Parasite is twofold: 1. The characters (especially Sal) sound exactly the same and are inconsistent and unbelievable; 2. The book is ridiculously similar in structure, tone, and actual story as the Newsflesh books (so much so that it feels like a blatant attempt to cash in on that previous series).
In terms of characterization, the thing that kept pulling me out of the text is Sal’s voice. This is a character who reminds readers repeatedly that she remembers nothing of her life before the accident. She woke from her coma with no command or understanding of language, and none of the socialization humans acquire over exposure to others. And yet… for some reason, in just six years, Sal has mastered english to the extent that she can think in phrases like the following reflection on architecture:
I waved back, and turned away from the car, facing the SymboGen building. It looked as pastoral and welcoming as it always did, thanks to hundreds of architects and public relations designers, and part of me – the part that had come first, during my endless hours of physical therapy and laborious progress – still thought of it as home. I knew that years of work had gone into creating that façade, the perfect blend of glass and stainless steel, representing scientific futurism, with growing plants and artificial waterfalls, representing a connection to the outside world.
Or her familiarity with music – sorry muzak:
[…] the first strains of Muzak drifting out into the morning air. It sounded classical, but I knew if I pulled out my phone and triggered the app that was supposed to help me identify songs off the radio, it would come up as a generic pop song, slowed down, sweetened, and stripped of whatever raw power it might have had when it was new. No matter how comfortable I felt at SymboGen, I needed to remember how good they were at taking things and reducing them to their lowest common denominators.
And can identify and communicate the hidden notes of complex scents:
I took a deep breath as I stepped over the threshold into SymboGen proper, shutting out the music in favor of savoring the carefully balanced perfume suffusing the lobby. The scent was a custom blend, according to Joyce: a mixture of apple, orange blossoms, and fresh corn.
And is utterly at home with colloquialisms and jokes like:
“Time and insurance are cruel masters,” I said automatically.
COME ON NOW. This, to me, is Parasite‘s most egregious offense – the main character sounds like every other Mira Grant character I’ve read, and nothing like a six year old. As I described to Ana in an email, I liken this book to actress Zoey Deschanel – who is wonderful and beautiful and quirky and adorable. All the characters she plays (as of late) are wonderful and beautiful and quirky and adorable. I don’t see the actual growth or range in character, and I don’t particularly think she’s acting. In Parasite the same applies – Mira Grant’s writing voice is smart and witty and fun, but It. Is. Always. The. Same.
This applies to the plot and book structure, too. For some reason, Parasite is written in the same epigraph/found-document heavy structure as the Newsflesh books (while this was a great technique for a series about access and the news, I don’t actually think this format actually makes sense for Parasite with its amnesiac heroine), which only exacerbates the glaring similarities between the two series. Like Feed, Parasite features a main character who truncates her name to a masculine nickname (Georgia becomes George in Feed; Sally becomes Sal in Parasite) – both main characters grapple with a form of handicap (George had retinal KA, Sal has no memories whatsoever), and both main characters also happen to be incredibly knowledgeable about epidemiology. This is to say nothing of the convenience of the book’s many side characters – not only does Sal possess an incredible amount of scientific knowledge on her own, but her boyfriend is the world’s best parasitologist (basically), her father works for USAMRIID as a senior epidemiologist, and her sister is a similarly gifted epidemiologist. Oh yeah, and then honest for goodness ZOMBIES show up, before both Parasite ends with a huge hulking twist (Feed‘s twist was far more effective; Parasite‘s is basically telegraphed from the get-go). No joke, I was half expecting an explanation for the zombiism in Parasite to somehow tie into Kellis-Amberlee territory and make this a full-fledged Feed crossover book.
I appreciate that this is the case of trying to recapture lightning, to please the many, many fans who loved the Newsflesh books and want more… but to me, personally? Despite the fact that this is a very readable book, it’s a little insulting to have a story so transparently recycled to cash in on past success. But that’s just me.
I’m sure Parasite will find an eager and hungry audience. I think I’ll pass on the next dose, though.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 5:
The Embarcadero encompasses a series of grassy lawns and jogging paths along the San Francisco Bay. It’s one of the most scenic places in an already beautiful city, and even on a workday afternoon, it was decently crowded with a mix of tourists and natives. The sky was a flawless blue, the color of surgical gloves, which probably had something to do with the size of the crowd. There’s something about a beautiful day that just encourages trips to the seaside, even when the seaside is only a few blocks from your office. Maybe especially when the seaside is something you can see from your window while you’re pretending to care about work.
Nathan and I walked along a stretch of grass near the street, close enough to each other that we didn’t feel like we were in danger of getting separated by random joggers, far enough apart that we could enjoy the day on our own terms. Nathan liked to look at the ground as he walked, watching for interesting plants and examples of the increasingly rare local wildlife. I preferred looking at the sky. Somehow, the endless blueness of it all never stopped amazing me.
A man jogged by with a black Lab at the end of a nylon leash. The dog looked miserable, dragging her feet and carrying her tail tucked low between her legs. I stopped walking to watch them go by. “That’s weird…”
“What?” Nathan stopped in turn, turning to face me. “Sal?”
“Did you see that dog? The black Lab?” I pointed after the man and his dog. Well, presumably his dog. A dognapping could explain the animal’s distress, which was only growing as the pair moved on. Now she was visibly pulling against the leash, trying to get away. “You never see a Lab that unhappy. They’re the best-natured dogs in the world. That’s why they wind up being used as service animals so often.”
“You can’t save every animal you think might not be optimally happy, you know.” Nathan squeezed my shoulder. “I wish you could, but you’d run out of room at the shelter before you ran out of animals that needed help. I run into something similar with patients. I want to help them all. I can’t.”
You can read the full excerpt HERE.
Rating: I am torn between a 5 and a 6 – a 5 because this book is so ridiculously regurgitated and it’s so frustrating to me because I know Mira Grant is capable of so much more; but I think I will be generous and go with a 6 – Good, Recommended with Reservations because even with its many flaws, this is still an entertaining book
Reading Next: Allegiant by Veronica Roth
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