Mira Grant—a penname for Seanan McGuire—can often be found on the Hugo ballot, and this year is no different. Admittedly, the central conceit of Parasite is a large pill to swallow, and takes a bit of handwaving to gloss over the details.
In Grant’s near future thriller, the majority of the world has willingly ingested an Intestinal Bodyguard, a designer parasite intended to aid our weakened immune systems. On top of that, all the parasites are all owned by a single company—SymboGen. But once you’re on board, Grant unfurls an interesting and briskly-paced narrative.
Grant seems very comfortable utilizing the first person narrative, which she also used in the Newsflesh trilogy. Parasite employs the first person to tell the story through the voice and experience of Sally “Sal” Mitchell, a young woman who has miraculously recovered, thanks to her SymboGen implant, from a vehicular accident that left her in a coma. Parasite opens about six years after Sal awakens, having now relearned how to walk, talk, and generally function in society. Despite being an adult, she is also legally a ward of her parents (her father conveniently works as an epidemiologist for USAMRIID, the US Army’s Infectious Disease unit), who treat her like a child. She’s also required to report in with SymboGen so her mental and physical health can be monitored. Her sister, Joyce (also conveniently an epidemiologist like her father) seems to like Sal’s current personality better than whatever she was like before the coma. In a sense, Sal is only 6 years old, but she won’t hear any of that. She has a job as a veterinary assistant and a boyfriend (Nathan Kim, who conveniently is a doctor specializing in parasites), after all, and she yearns to be more independent.
Sal begins to notice strange things: people are becoming mindless sleepwalkers (NOT ZOMIBES), who are sometimes violent but definitely not themselves. First a young girl and her parent, then a man walking his dog, at which time Sal’s affinity towards animals comes into play. She calls the dog, Beverly, away from its shambling (NOT A ZOMBIE) owner and effectively gains a four-legged companion. These transformations from people into “sleepwalkers” (NOT ZOMBIES) continues and escalates as the novels progresses. There was one particular scene where the sleepwalkers surround Sal’s home that was very effective. Grant captures an extremely claustrophobic feel in that scene, which also highlighted just how helpful a loving, protective dog like Beverly could be in such a situation. This was in the latter half of the book, and the emotional fallout, as well as the story fallout as a result of that scene ratcheted up the tension for the remainder of the novel.
In SymboGen, Grant has given us the requisite not-so-benign Medical MegaCorp. The majority of the chapters are prefaced with quotes from “interviews” with SymboGen’s CEO Steven Banks and an unpublished autobiography of co-founder Dr. Shanti Cale, who has disappeared. The third founder, Richard Jablonsky, committed suicide prior to the events of the novel. So yeah, that all makes for quite a shady organization. Incidentally, many chapters are also prefaced with quotes from a fictional and very creepy children’s book Don’t Go Out Alone. (I for one would buy a fancy limited edition of Don’t Go Out Alone should it come into existence).
Grant unpacks a lot of the science behind the parasites through character dialogue and it mostly works, though the frenetic pacing of the novel as a whole usually meant I had to re-read them. I said earlier that there’s a leap of logic required to fully absorb oneself in Parasite, and that includes being able to just shrug along with all the many coincidences. There are quite a few plot conveniences, most prominently that Sal’s father is high up in the military division responsible for defensive / countermeasures against biological warfare, where her sister Joyce also works. And her boyfriend just happens to have a strong connection of his own to the world of parasites, even beyond his day job.
Having read and enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy, I noticed quite a few familiar beats in Parasite. Sal could be an analogue to George/Georgia (Newsflesh’s protagonist) and Tansy felt like a crazier cousin to Becks. I also found it frustrating that the novel avoids the word “zombie.” The sleepwalkers exhibited all of the signs associated with zombies, from the shambling to the attacking, but no one so much as mentions the term. The pacing also seemed a bit odd, and the novel ends like a freight train zooming at high-speed into a gigantic wall. It makes me wonder if the duology was originally a single novel split awkwardly in two.
I will say that Grant has a powerful narrative that managed to pull me through its twists and turns regardless of my quibbles. Parasite is a fun but occasionally frustrating read. It is equal parts horror, conspiracy thriller, and science fiction novel with a large influence of Stephen King in its text. (Grant/McGuire, like myself, is a big fan of Stephen King). I found myself reading the book very quickly, absorbed in the story, and enjoying as I read it, so on the whole I’d say Parasite was a successful book for me.
Is it worthy of a Hugo though? That’s an easier question: I don’t think so. Like Charles Stross (also on this year’s ballot), it seems Grant’s name is practically an automatic thing on awards ballots in recent years. The prose pulled me along, but I’m not sure Parasite will stand with me for a long time afterwards. While an enjoyable novel, it isn’t one that says Award Winner to me personally, but sound off in the comments if it has your vote this year…
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff, and writes for SF Signal as well as here at Tor.com. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, and beer you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.