We’re reading PARASITE by Mira Grant

13 Nov

Bio-horror gets under the skin but misses an important nerve, says Frank Swain.

Orbit, £7.00

Parasite is Mira Grant’s latest novel, having wrapped up a trio of Hugo-nominated, zombie-themed political thrillers in the Newsflesh series. This time she is charting a course through old school Crichton-style bio-horror, pulling a popular science off the shelf and running it through the Frankenstein mould. So, not for the first time in literary history, a self-aggrandising scientist creates a powerful technology which subsequently runs amok.

Despite the title, the theme Grant has chosen is symbiotes rather than parasites, in the form of genetically engineered tapeworms that secrete helpful pharmaceuticals directly into their host as required. Soon, every human on the planet has a worm turning coils in their gut like the snake on Asclepius’s staff. But as the worms rewrite the terms of their special relationship with their hosts, people are being steadily turned into dead-eyed, violent, don’t-call-them-zombies. The book is written in the smooth unchallenging prose that’s a hallmark of bestsellers, and reads as if it were already a screenplay destined for a Hollywood mogul’s desk, which it undoubtedly is. The opening lines contain instructions on how the camera moves through the scene, and at one point the lead character opines that “this was all starting to feel like some big action movie”. This is a book for people who like watching films. The usual tropes are in operation: evil pharmaceutical suits, an ingénue heroine, her emotionally distant father, her perfect doctor boyfriend, a mysterious insider – even a children’s book with spooky riddles in it. And of course, with pluck and determination, the heroine exposes the conspiracy and retrieves the disc with the deus ex machina files needed to stop the outbreak of definitely-not-zombies.

The science, so far as it matters, is slapdash.The pharmaceutical tapeworm central to the story contains “human DNA” as well as parasites of several different taxonomic kingdoms (barnacle Sacculina and protozoa Toxoplasma both make an appearance). I should point out that if there’s such a thing as human DNA, the banana I had for breakfast is half human. The worm defies biology, growing roots, communicating with others outside the body, and migrating through the body to wherever the plot needs it to be. Researchers in Level Four biohazard facilities protect themselves with nothing more than lab coats and scrubs whilst treating infectious, ravenous patients. San Francisco’s Bay Bridge is described as a Faraday cage that blocks tracking devices, even as the characters chat on a mobile phone while they drive through it. None of this really matters, as the bits Parasite leaves out are more problematic than anything that goes in.

The idea of non-human organisms conquering and controlling people from within is ground fairly well trodden in science fiction. But while Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing used the trope to explore themes of paranoia, isolation, freedom and conformity, Grant eschews these to focus on a Big Pharma conspiracy thriller. The chief components of Grant’s uber-parasite are lifted directly from the pages of Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex, and sure enough there’s a nod to this science bestseller in the end credits. So it’s a shame to find Grant taking the visceral elements of these parasites and leaving behind their rationale. Yes, Sacculina‘s gender-bending of crabs and Toxoplasma‘s suicidal effect on rats are ready-made biological horror, but what’s far more interesting is a lifestyle that incorporates these nightmarish tricks as an essential survival strategy. Parasite Rex already revealed that humans can be prey to mind-altering parasites. The role of fiction shouldn’t be to reiterate that fact – zombies exist! – but rather map out our response to this unsettling revelation.

How would society react to a plague that turned men into women? Would knowing someone’s mind was partly under the influence of a microbe change the way you interacted with them, the value you placed on their decisions, the measure of their humanity? This latter point is at least identified in Parasite. But it is left to the reader to fill in the answers to this question, as the book tumbles to its conclusion, without ever exploring where post-human intelligences might fit into the world.

Likewise, Parasite never peels back the lid on a society in which we become dependent on internal parasites. The social impact of personalised medicine that comes in the form of proprietary, symbiotic worms is never raised. The consequences of the worldwide populations’ sudden improvement in health are not discussed. Ideas about access to medicine, pharmaceutical infrastructure, black market variants and planned obsolescence get passing mention, but this fertile ground is largely missed by the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery. The next books in the series might go there. Personally, I hope they do. Just as likely, though, Grant’s after a different audience: that vast but rapidly diminishing cohort who remain unaware that behaviour-warping parasites exist.

@SciencePunk

Frank Swain wanders “Beyond the city limits” in Forever alone drone (Arc 1.4), out now.

And on the blog, Frank explores inside-out art at Liverpool’s FACT gallery.

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