Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review - Parasite by Mira Grant

Short review: Sally Mitchell died. But then she didn't. Now SymboGen pays all of her medical bills so they can study the genetically modified tapeworm inside her. And then things begin to get really creepy.

Deadly accident
Miraculous survival
Creepiness ensues

Full review: Sally Mitchell is a lucky woman. Well, she's not entirely lucky because she was nearly killed in a car accident. In fact, she was so badly injured in the accident that her brain stopped functioning and the doctors caring for her had brought her family in to discuss harvesting her organs for donation. But Sally has a SymboGen Implant - a genetically engineered tapeworm designed to release antibiotics and other medications in order to preserve her life - so she didn't die, but instead woke up right when the doctors were recommending turning off her life support. But now Sally can't remember anything from before the accident, and seems to have a new, entirely different personality. Maybe Sally isn't so lucky after all.

Parasite is a biological terror novel about the dangers that can be unleashed upon humanity as a whole by the hubris of a few. The novel is also about how willing people are to accept without much question a solution to their troubles that is probably too good to be true, and the terrible costs that such unquestioning acceptance can impose. The novel is also about the search for identity, as Sally Mitchell must grapple with the question of who she is now, as she retains no memories of who she was before the accident. These three threads weave together through the novel to the fairly obvious, but still extremely disturbing and unsettling conclusion.

As Sally Mitchell is the character at the center of the novel, the technology at the center of the novel is the genetically modified tapeworm she and millions of others carry in their gut. Manufactured by the biotechnology giant SymboGen, and marketed under the name the Intestinal Bodyguard, these living implants are something of a magic pill - keeping their hosts healthy by secreting chemical assistance to help combat everything from head colds to infected wounds. By the time of the events in the novel, these "intestinal bodyguards" have largely replaced most pills and shots, revolutionizing the field of personal medicine. Those implanted with this new technology no longer need to consult with a doctor when afflicted with an ailment, but instead can proceed with the confident assumption that their benign parasite will take care of the problem.

In the story itself, Sally is brought back from the brink of death, presumably by her implanted tapeworm. Because Sally's medical issues were so severe, her recovery is something of a mystery, and as a result SymboGen agrees to pay her ongoing medical costs so long as they can study her. When she woke up, Sally did not even remember basic life skills such as how to feed herself or how to speak and had to be remanded into the guardianship of her parents even though she was technically an adult. Despite the best care SymboGen's money can buy, six years after the accident, Sally still has no memories of her life from before the moment she woke up in her hospital bed. But if Sally has no memories of the twenty-something years she lived prior to her accident, can she truly be the same person she was before? Even though Sally appears to be a much kinder, nicer, and generally better person now than she had been before her near death experience, these differences still serve to unsettle and disturb her family.

Sally's crisis is set in a world in which other, even more disturbing things are taking place. People, it seems, are falling ill in a very specific way: First behaving erratically, and then falling into a coma from which they never recover. The medical community in the book is stumped, but the cause is fairly evident, at least from the perspective presented to the reader. In short, something is going wrong with the Intestinal Bodyguards, and it is also apparent that SymboGen is covering this fact up. Through the novel, SymboGen, and its charismatic and obviously overconfident CEO Dr. Steven Banks, is presented as a company that has enough power as a result of their unique position as the manufacturer of the Intestinal Bodyguard that they are able to get away with almost anything, including covering up a crisis that is a threat to the life of anyone with one of their products implanted in them.

The story stays focused on Sally while she attempts to deal with her own problems. Accompanied by her incredibly loyal and understanding boyfriend Nathan (who happens to be a medical researcher), Sally follows clues sent to her by a mysterious individual who promises to reveal what is happening, both to her and to the people suffering from the mysterious affliction that turns them into vicious, mindless automatons before they slip into a permanent coma. These clues are accompanied by excerpts from the incredibly creepy and extremely obscure children's book Don't Go Out Alone, a book that Nathan is surprisingly familiar with. The trail leads Sally to Dr. Shanti Cale, one of the missing founders of SymboGen, who had been presumed dead. Dr. Cale also turns out to be Nathan's mother, which is one of the elements of the book that seems a little bit too much of a pat happenstance. When this coincidence is combined with the coincidence that Sally's father is the commander of an Army unit investigating SymboGen, and Sally's sister is a medical researcher with that same unit, the entire book feels like it relies a bit too much serendipity.

One might also criticize the book on the grounds that the "big reveal" at the end of the book is telegraphed to the reader almost from the beginning of the story. But this transparency is not only not a negative element in the book, it is necessary to create the very tension that the story relies upon. The reader knows what has happened to Sally (especially after Dr. Cale's experiments are revealed), and what is happening in the world around her, even if the characters in the book do not. This dichotomy of information between the actors in the story and the reader reading about them serves to create the discordant pressure that builds until it is released in the brutal revelation that takes place in the final pages of the book. It is a mark of Grant's skill as a writer that she can essentially tell the reader what is going to happen almost up front in her story, and yet still craft a book that is still loaded with the high volume of suspense found in Parasite.

In the end, Parasite is a well-written and engaging techno-zombie thriller that approaches the subject from a biotech angle. Featuring a sympathetic and well-drawn central character, the story carries the reader through its somewhat predictable, but always interesting twists and turns, instilling into the read a rising sense of horror until the curtain is finally pulled back and one realizes exactly who one was rooting for through the book's pages. But this revelation really only serves to confirm what the reader probably already knew, leaving a final, deeply disturbing question: How could SymboGen (and, to be honest, Dr. Cale) not have already known what was revealed at the end? Given that there seems to have been almost no way for them not to have known, their silence on this subject through the book seems to be part of some sort of larger plan, a realization that should be disquieting to say the least. If you like stories about biotech induced terror, you will like this book. If you like stories about zombies, you will like this book. If you like stories filled with suspense, you will like this book. If you like all three, you will love this book.

Subsequent book in the series: Symbiont

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