Orbit, 2013, 512 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 Intestinal Bodyguard worm 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.
Oh dear, yet another book that I actually quite liked but had glaring glitches rooted in authorial bugaboos that annoyed me like the occasional thumb in the eye while reading.
I really, really liked Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy. The last book flailed a bit and provoked some eye-rolling from me, but it was good, readable entertainment. Nonetheless, I would probably not have read Parasite if not for its Hugo nomination, since the blurb made it look an awful lot like a redo of the last series.
Guess what? It's a redo of the last series.
This time, we have only one psychologically fucked-up protagonist: Sally Mitchell, a young woman who nearly died in a car crash and awoke from her coma with (literally) no memories and a giant genetically engineered tapeworm in her gut.
As in Newsflesh, it's the near future (2027), and the SymboGen corporation has developed the "Intestinal BodyGuard," which is a giant tapeworm that lives in your stomach and attends to most of your medical needs. Birth control, diabetes, infectious diseases, allergy, asthma, you name it - the Intestinal BodyGuard takes care of it. Just take a little pill and play host to a giant tapeworm and you practically never need any medications again. Sounds pretty good, right? Except the part about having a giant tapeworm living permanently in your gut. Grant has shown a copious amount of research (as in Newsflesh) that makes the premise sound almost believable, even when the giant tapeworms, predictably, turn out to behave not quite exactly as advertised.
I appreciated that she covered SymboGen's extensive PR work to get the public to accept the idea of voluntarily hosting tapeworms, but I still felt like the degree to which there would be resistance, revulsion, and suspicion was a little underplayed.
Sally, one of the earliest beneficiaries of the SymboGen parasite, had to relearn everything, from eating and dressing herself to who she is. She has none of her old memories or personality, which means she is a stranger to her family, and they to her. She has a cute doctor boyfriend, who is one of the few people too paranoid to accept a SymboGen parasite. When people with the parasite begin going zombie, it's Sally and Dr. Fashionably Half-Asian Dreamy who go digging for the truth. (Hint: Mira Grant is the sort of the writer where it's a pretty safe assumption that big corporations are always evil.)
Parasite cooks along as an entertaining medical/horror conspiracy, with a cast of Fashionably Diverse (tm) characters who were mostly Newsflesh characters with new names and faces (even Sally Mitchell's family, while not quite as fucked up as George and Shaun's, seem basically patterned after the same template). Like Newsflesh, it was fun and highly readable. Unlike Newsflesh, I'm not much interested in reading the rest of the series, because I've already read it once.
And now, I must give vent to my irritation, because as entertaining as this book was, I cannot believe that anyone who reads more than a handful of their favorite cozy authors actually thought this was the best fucking SF novel of the year! I mean, do you read anything else? This was a Mira Grant book nominated by Mira Grant fans because Mira Grant.
Yes, feel free to label the rest of this review as "Grumpypants reader grumping about the Hugos." It's an annual tradition, and since I'm voting this year, I get to grump too!
I already did all this medical research, so why write something new?
No, really, Parasite does very little new that we haven't already seen in the Newsflesh trilogy. Instead of zombies unleashed by irresponsible scientists in a near-future America, we have murderous tapeworms unleashed by irresponsible scientists in a near-future America. The tone was the same, the characters are mostly the same (complete with the gun-toting manic pixie psychopath in service to the sinister scientist who's gone underground because she knows The Real Truth but can we trust her?!), and the random left-wing political rants are the same too. (In Newsflesh, a world populated by zombies, we still got a lecture about gun control. Like, really? For real? In Parasite, the evil sociopathic CEO takes a moment from his Dr. Evil Telling You His Evil Plans speech to rant about how without the SymboGen parasite, women who want birth control would still have to deal with "doctors deciding whether or not they're whores." Umm, really? In 2027? And even if you buy that, I did not buy that Dr. Evil, even while adopting a facade of Giving a Fuck, would choose that particular topic to rant about as his justification. This was purely the author using the bad guy's speech to raise a middle finger for her own issue.)
Don't let consistent characterization get in the way of a good snark
Sally, for all practical purposes, began life six years ago as a blank slate. Now and then she reminds us of this with her unfamiliarity with certain vocabulary words and her need to think through what the correct social response is to certain situations.
Other than that, though, she acts just like a 20-something young woman who's spent a lifetime raised in modern culture. She snarks, she quips, she idioms, she has hot bunny-sex with Dr. Fashionably Half-Asian Dreamy, she gasps and is overcome with horror, righteous indignation, and empathy, just like an adult woman. Albeit a rather bland and useless adult woman. George, at least, while being batshit crazy, had a personality and was proactive. Sally mostly whines and stomps her foot at her parents, and cringes from bad guys.
In other words, Mira Grant cheats. I thought the presence of "George" in the second book of the Newsflesh trilogy was a big fat cheat, but Sally (and several other characters in Parasite) frequently display behaviors and knowledge that is inconsistent with their supposed backgrounds, just for the sake of writing more of Mira Grant's weakly Whedonesque one-liners. Sally was a rather cardboard character to me, and most of the others were defined largely by a set of quirks that passed for personalities.
Big Reveals visible from orbit
Mira Grant loves Big Reveals. You read the entire book only to discover the Awful Truth in the cliffhanger final chapter.
I figured them all out pretty easily in Newsflesh, but Parasite is even lazier. If you've ever read any other horror or SF novel ever, you will probably suspect what the Big Reveal is in this one just by reading the blurb above. If not, you should have figured it out by the end of chapter one.
By the last chapter, when Sally finally gets it, I was waiting for someone to hand her an anvil marked "Clue."
That anyone could consider this to be shocking, surprising, or a great twist, is insulting to the intelligence of the adult reader.
Mira Grant's manless men
Another thing that I kind of noticed in Newsflesh but couldn't quite put my finger on, bothered me much more in Parasite.
Mira Grant doesn't seem to like men who act like men, and she certainly doesn't write them. I once posted a Saturday Book Discussion post about the failings of authors writing characters of the opposite gender, and the consensus seemed to be that men are usually worse at writing women than the other way around. Which I think is true. But there are women who don't write men well, and Mira Grant is one of them.
I do not mean by that that male characters should be acting like hyper-masculine action heroes. No, it's more subtle than that. J.K. Rowling, as much as I loved the Harry Potter books, could not quite write real males either, which is why Harry never really seemed like a real boy to me. More like a woman's soft-edged version of a real boy. And Mira Grant's male characters, good guys and bad guys alike, all have that same quality that makes me picture a woman dressed in male drag and pitching her voice low. It's not that they act "feminine" — it's that they don't act real. They are never angry, belligerent, or scary in an actual masculine way — oh, sure, Dr. Evil has unleashed medical hell, and other guys carry guns and will threaten to kill you, and Sally's military officer father blusters, barks, and commands... but there's never any sense that they will actually follow through. (And after his most aggressive scene, Sally kicks her father in the groin. To which he responds: "Oh, my balls." Boy, I could spend a while unpacking that alone.)
Dr. Fashionably Half-Asian Dreamy, Sally's boyfriend, was the most annoying. She's got a phobia of car accidents, thanks to her horrible traumatic near-death experience of which she has not a single memory, so when Nathan momentarily becomes upset or angry and takes his hands off the wheel or becomes distracted while driving (which he does multiple times during the book, so that we totally get the point), Sally freaks out and he immediately goes into obsequious contrite mode. Sally narrates to us at great length how Nathan never even tried to touch her until he was totally absolutely sure that she totally absolutely wanted it and lets her be totally absolutely in control at all times. (Okay, okay, "enthusiastic consent" yay, but do we need to be hit with a soft-swaddled anvil?)
When the manic pixie psychopath (who is about the only character in the book who actually has balls) scares them, Nathan screams along with Sally.
It's not any one thing. It's not a particular, sharply-defined set of attributes that Grant does or doesn't write. It's just a general sense that she is not comfortable with dudes.
It's cool to hype your Social Justice cred with a bland straight white girl MC as long as you've met your minimum quota of queer POC
In Can we stop talking about the Hugos now?, Justin Landon made a number of observations about the Hugos (starting with them being "utter twaddle"), including the following:
No, the Hugo voter has a certain style it looks for in its fiction. Hugo-style, if you will, is like Gangnam-style only without the distracting Korean guy riding a horse, replaced with Charles Stross and Connie Willis on a podium holding a. . . rocket ship. I admit Gangnam-style doesn't have nearly as much sex appeal. In other words, Hugo nominated books tend to be recognizable. On the one hand because they are mostly written by Stross, Willis, John Scalzi, China Miéville, Robert Charles Wilson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ian MacDonald, and active members of the Live Journal community, but also because they fit a certain motif that’s difficult to pin down. I’ll fall back on the old pornography argument, "I know it when I see it."
I agree. Add Mira Grant to that list.
Mira Grant is very much part of the Cool Kids Social Justice club in SF. #weneeddiversebooks! So she writes comfortably straight white main characters and populates the rest of her book with multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-oriented characters as colorful background detail.
Let me be clear: first of all, I don't care if your main characters are white and straight or not, and second, I am generally in favor of diverse characters. But when you're writing straight white characters who are just like the straight white characters that other authors get excoriated for defaulting to, but hey, look, random gay friends and POC sidekicks? One suspects that checking boxes is about being seen as diverse rather than an actual studied examination of how well your book reflects society, or an effort to write interesting, fully-developed characters who are not like you.
Just as the subtle "unmaleness" of Mira Grant's male characters made them stick out, so does the subtle blackface painted onto her queers and POCs. Again, I would not single out any one character as definitely flawed in manifestation, but the cumulative effect of them. Sally's boyfriend, Dr. Nathan Kim, is half-Korean. This is mentioned in passing a few times, but otherwise irrelevant. Yes, that's good and fine because in a modern cosmopolitan society, we would expect that someone being half-Korean would be mostly incidental. But add the queer Indian girl who tells a hah-hah funny story about how she realized her parents-wanted-an-arranged-marriage prom date was a queer Indian boy (this has no relevance to the plot or her characterization, it's just letting us know "Oh, hey, the incidental secondary character is gay!"), the Scottish dude (I think he was Scottish - that's the accent the narrator of the audiobook gave him, anyway) who casually flirts with anyone of any gender (this has no relevance to the plot or his character, it's just letting us know "Oh, hey, the incidental secondary character is bi!"), and all the other characters whose #diversity seems to exist mostly so Mira Grant can say she is being #diverse, and I become skeptical that they're more than window-dressing.
I've read books with a wide variety of characters of different races, backgrounds, sexual orientations, etc., who all seemed believable and fit organically into the tapestry of the novel without making me feel like the author was emphatically hashtagging each of them with #diversity. Parasite is not one of them.
I know I probably sound pretty mean here. I liked the book! And I've enjoyed most of what I've read by Mira Grant. Some of my reaction here is probably backlash against what I see as aggressive and uncritical fannish devotion.
But do I think this book deserves a Hugo? Well, in a word, no.
Have you read Parasite?
Have you read any other books by Mira Grant?
Verdict: Entertaining, derivative, readable, a Mira Grant product for fans of Mira Grant. I liked Parasite but it did not in any way impress me, and the ways in which this Hugo nomination did not impress me were sufficiently irksome for me to belabor them in more detail than I usually snipe at books I'd otherwise write a mostly unmixed positive review for. If you liked Newsflesh you will probably like Parasite, but don't expect anything new.
Also by Mira Grant: My reviews of Feed, Deadline, and Blackout.
My complete list of book reviews.