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.
The other side of Seanan McGuire — author of the ongoing affairs of faerie misfit October Daye — Mira Grant got off to a great start with the Newsflesh books. The first of the three, Feed, was ostensibly about bloggers during the zombie apocalypse, and whilst it won none, it was nominated for any number of awards, including the Hugo. I enjoyed it an awful lot.
Feed, however, felt complete to me, so when Deadline was released the next year, I didn't know quite what to make of it. I read it regardless, and found it... fine. Entertaining enough, but not notably so, not innovative in way its predecessor was, and certainly not necessary. In the end, my nonplussedness was such that I never bothered with Blackout beyond the first few chapters: though it bears saying that the Best Novel nominations kept on coming, for book two of Newsflesh and the conclusion, overall, the series seemed to me to define diminishing returns.
But it's a new dawn, a new day, a new time, and I'm feeling good about the future. Parasite marks the beginning of a brand new duology, and I'm pleased to report that I've got my Mira Grant groove back. Indeed, I've rarely been so keen to read a sequel, in part because Parasite doesn't so much stop as pause at a pivotal point, but also because it's a bloody good book.
So have you heard of the hygiene hypothesis? I hadn't, so let's do as I did and Wiki it quickly. Apparently, it has that "a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms [...] and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing natural development of the immune system." Which makes a certain amount of sense, yes?
Well, in the near future of Mira Grant's new novel, the bulk of which takes place in San Francisco in 2027, a medical corporation called SymboGen have made their millions on the back of a parasite genetically engineered to stop short these potential problems. It's pretty much a magic pill in practice — the Intestinal Bodyguard™ even secretes designer drugs — and everyone who's anyone has one. That said, Sally Mitchell's is the first to single-handedly save a life... at a cost, of course:
I have to remind myself of that whenever things get too ridiculous: I am alive because of a genetically engineered tapeworm. Not a miracle; God was not involved in my survival. They can call it an "implant" or an "Intestinal Bodyguard," with or without that damn trademark, but the fact remains that we're talking about a tapeworm. A big, ugly, blind, parasitic invertebrate that lives in my small intestine, where it naturally secretes a variety of useful chemicals, including — as it turns out — some that both stimulate brain activity and clean toxic byproducts out of blood. (p.23)Declared brain-dead after a car crash six years before the book begins, Sally's parasite somehow brought her back — with no memory, however. Indeed, she had to learn how to walk and talk again, and has since developed a significantly different personality than she had before the accident. Now she's got a part-time job and an awesome boyfriend; little by little, she's getting to grips with who she is... she just isn't who she was.
Everyone who knew me before the accident — who knew Sally, I mean, since I don't even feel like I can legitimately claim to be her — says I'm much nicer now. I have a personality, which was a worry for a little while, since they thought there might be brain damage. It's just not the same one. I don't stress about the missing memories anymore. I stress about the thought that someday, if I'm not careful, they might come back. (p.94)
There are, alas, bigger problems on the horizon. An outbreak of what people are calling sleeping sickness has hit the city in recent weeks. Sal and her parasitologist partner Nathan see one individual fall victim to it firsthand while walking in the park one afternoon, and are so surprised when it's not on the news that they begin to suspect shenanigans. Nathan goes fishing for figures and finds out that "worldwide infections were probably somewhere in the vicinity of ten thousand, and climbing — which just made the lack of major media coverage more alarming. Someone, somewhere, was spending a lot to bury this." (p.180)
The more time Sal spends at SymboCorp, where she's required to present herself for regular tests, the more she suspects that they have something to do with this conspiracy. But why? What could they possibly have to hide? And why is one of the company's fallen founders demanding a chat with our protagonist? Excepting the obvious, what's so special about Sal in any event?
That's for me to know and you to find out, I'm afraid, though I wholeheartedly recommend you do so as soon as possible. Parasite isn't perfect by any stretch: it's paced strangely, like a vast first act, incredibly exposition-heavy and, as I said earlier, entirely absent an ending. To top it all off, the big ol' twist which stands in for that latter is telegraphed too transparently for it to have much in the manner of impact. You'll see it coming a mile off, I imagine... yet you'll still need to know what happens next; how Sal handles the ostensible revelation with which Grants bids us a ghastly goodbye.
Largely, that's thanks to a very convincing, not to mention naturalistic cast of characters, the majority of whom are everymen, though there are a few colourful supporting folks too — like Tansy, a miniature monster who reminded me of Borderlands 2's Tiny Tina, and SymboGen's butter-wouldn't-melt head honcho Stephen Banks, who we get to know through the excerpted interviews Grant appends to each chapter of Parasite. All this is underpinned by a sympathetic protagonist who, despite being six years old in a sense, is witty, wily and remarkably well-rounded, such that her first-person perspective is a particular pleasure.
In premise Parasite is less exceptional, but in execution — aside the decision to divide what is clearly a single story down the middle, and the consequences we noted a moment ago — Grant's new book makes for a legitimately gripping ride into early Cronenberg territory, by which I mostly mean Shivers. There's not actually a whole lot of that film's visceral horror herein; the safe money says the worst effects of the so-called sleeping sickness are yet ahead. But the trademark tension that everything's about to go horribly wrong — that the human body is good and ready to rebel — is there from the first, and resoundingly realised before the frustrating break that is Parasite's primary problem.
Otherwise, it's a whole lot of awesome; I enjoyed it more even than Feed, and I'm certainly much more inclined to keep reading the series than I was the novels of the Newsflesh.