Book Review: Parasite by Mira Grant
In the year 2027, human beings are healthier than ever thanks to the Intestinal Bodyguard™, a leap forward in healthcare brought to us by the biomedical geniuses behind billion-dollar corporation SymboGen. Nearly everyone now has an Intestinal Bodyguard, which is a safe, effective method of providing ongoing medical care, such as effectively eliminating allergies and other medical issues stemming from our society’s over-reliance on anti-bacterial soaps and other sterilizing methods — which, according to the “hygiene hypothesis”, have led to a decrease in our ability to defend ourselves from our own environments.
And, oh yes, did I mention that the Intestinal Bodyguard is a genetically modified tapeworm?
All together now: Ewwwwww.
Our narrator and point-of-view character in this engrossing (and sometimes just gross) novel is Sally Mitchell, a sort of medical miracle herself. Sally was in a devastating car accident six years prior to the beginning of Parasite, as a result of which Sally was declared brain dead and her family was forced to confront the decision to discontinue life support. But… miracle! Sally’s Intestinal Bodyguard implant seems to have jump-started her body’s healing, and she survived with no lasting physical impairment, other than a complete and seemingly permanent case of amnesia.
Sally — now preferring to go by Sal — has had to rebuild herself and her life from the ground up, relearning language, social niceties, and how to read, among other tasks. In some respects, when we meet her, she’s been alive for only six years, as she has no knowledge of the person she was before, and is told repeatedly that she seems like a completely different person. Sal also owes her life to SymboGen, which provides her with all of her ongoing medical care and therapy at no cost, in return for which she is required to submit to regular check-ups and testing.
But this is a medical thriller, and as you might expect, when humans start tinkering, things have a tendency to go very wrong, very quickly. Cases of a bizarre type of sleepwalking start popping up, as people seem to check out suddenly and become completely non-responsive, even as their bodies continue to live and move. And once in the sleepwalking state, people don’t wake up again. As the cases mount and incidents escalate, both the government and SymboGen take an active interest, as it becomes clear that the danger is growing and that an epidemic may be underway.
Conveniently, Sal’s boyfried Nathan is a parasitologist, and as the clues pile up, Sal and Nathan start to realize that SymboGen may not be telling the whole story, and there are secrets to be discovered if they dare to look for them.
Parasite is creepy good, and so hard to look away from! Interspersed within the narrative are interviews, journal entries, and other documentation of the processes behind SymboGen’s discoveries, and these let us know that all is not as it seems. The tension and dread mount, chapter by chapter, as we readers discover well ahead of the characters that something is very, very wrong.
Mira Grant tackles the science head-on, providing a LOT of explanation of parasites in general, the science surrounding genetic engineering, and how biotech companies approach testing and FDA approval. At times, the amount of exposition involved verges on information overload, as it involves page after page of scientists explaining their research methods and innovations. Interesting, yes, but also just a heap of information provided in intensive doses.
Sal is an interesting and sympathetic character — and even in her moments of abject terror and confusion, she shows a certain feistiness and humor that help break the tension. (Want examples? See this week’s Thursday Quotables post!). Many of the secondary characters are quite strong as well, including one who is memorable in a disturbing, slightly psychotic yet endearing sort of way. I liked the San Francisco setting, which the author uses effectively to ground the story in a real place with recognizable social and geographic markers.
Overall, I’d rate Parasite quite highly. It’s definitely disturbing and will give you a big case of the ickies. I mean, if reading about tapeworms makes you happy, then you’ll love this book — but otherwise, you’ll shudder and shiver from start to end. There are sections that I thought went on a bit too long, and at 500+ pages, I did feel that I would have appreciated a little tightening up in general. That said, though, the story is original and compelling, hard to put down, and utterly impossible to get out of your mind after an up-too-late reading session.
I’m hooked, and may have actually squeaked out a “No! Don’t make me wait!” slightly after midnight last night, when I reached the final page and saw those three little words I hate so much: To Be Continued. From what I understand, Parasite is book one in a duology, and while I couldn’t find a release date for book #2, I did see that it has a title, Symbiont. In my opinion, it can’t come soon enough!
Meanwhile, I think I’ll seek out the author’s Newsflesh trilogy, just to make sure I don’t run out of creepy, upsetting, icky things to read before Parasitology #2 is released. Which is worse — zombies or tapeworms? I’ll get back to you on that one.
Title: Parasite (Parasitology series, #1)
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Orbit Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Orbit via NetGalley