On the back of the unsightly excitement of Parasite, something like rigor sets in as the second half of what was a duology turns into the middle volume of a tolerance-testing trilogy. Symbiont isn’t a bad book by any means—it’s accessible, action-packed, and its premise remains appallingly plausible—but absent the ambiguity that made its predecessor so very unsettling, it’s lamentable for its length and lack of direction.
The first part of Parasitology chronicled the apocalyptic consequences of SymboGen’s latest and greatest innovation: the ubiquitous Intestinal Bodyguard—a magic pill meant to protect against allergy, illness and infection—was a worm which, in time, turned; a symbiotic organism supposed to support its host yet set, instead, on supplanting said. Before long, of course, this conflict of interests turned the population of San Francisco and its suburbs into zombies of a sort—sleepwalkers, as Mira Grant would have it.
The transition went differently for a few folks, though. After a catastrophic car crash, and at the cost of her every memory, Sally Mitchell’s parasite saved her life… or so she thought.
As revealed in the fraught final moments of Grant’s last, that Sally didn’t actually survive the accident:
Sally, with her human upbringing and human ideas about the world. Sally, who wasn’t afraid of riding in cars, and who had never experienced the collapse of civilisation, or the discovery that she wasn’t what she believed herself to be. Sally, who was as alien to me as I was to her, but whose body I had taken over without so much as a by-your-leave.
Sal, on the other hand—Sal the parasite—is as alive as you like. She has a warm, working body to call home and, as of now, a new family to have and to hold, including the conflicted co-creator of Diphyllobothrium Symbogenesis, Dr. Shanti Cale, and a couple of other so-called “chimeras”—one of whom is in terrible trouble. Tansy was captured whilst saving Sal in Parasite’s last act, and a lot of this novel’s plot revolves around rescuing her (or what remains of her) in return.
Putting this plan into action takes approximately five hundred pages, I’m afraid. First, Sal and her man—Shanti’s sometime son—head back to the apartment they abandoned in a panic, the better to get their precious pets. That their selfless efforts are interrupted by a hungry horde isn’t even slightly surprising:
They didn’t run, thankfully; they weren’t coordinated enough for that yet, and they might never be. But they shambled with remarkable speed, and many of them were taller than me, which meant that for some of them, each of their unsteady steps was the equivalent of two of mine. So I kept running, and they kept following.
Nor is it noteworthy that Sal’s subsequent jaunt to the hospital—contrived a matter of moments before this beat by way of a condition which serves no role in the story except insofar as it fills the book out a bit—nor is it noteworthy that this endeavour is also scotched by the zombies, goshdarned galoots that they are.
There are a number of other such digressions in Symbiont—incidents for incident’s sake—which, taken together, utterly undercut the uncertainty that made the sleepwalkers so potent previously. As an unknown quantity, deliberately deployed, they presented a threat in Parasite, such that “the thought of being helpless with a skinwalker closing in was enough to make my skin grow tight with involuntary terror.” Here, however, there’s no end to the things, and they’re pests, at best; such innocent idiots that Sal starts saving them at a point in Symbiont. Take that, tension!
Absent that intensity, the action, in turn—however much of it there may be—loses a large part of its impact. As cleverly conceived as these sequences seem, they fade from memory almost immediately, coming and going in the course of a truly interminable amount of to-ing and fro-ing. As Sal’s partner puts it:
“It’s been a long night, you know? First we’re fugitives, then you’re having your arm ripped open, and then you’re passing out again—and suddenly that’s a good thing, since without all the fainting, we might not have looked at your MRIs closely enough to realise what was going on in that head of yours before it was too late.”
And that’s hardly the half of it. “I was starting to feel numb all the way down to my toes. Too many revelations at once will do that to a girl, I guess.” Too many increasingly tedious chases and escapes without stakes will do, too.
When Grant played her hand in Parasite, she played it carefully and she played it confidently. She only needed another couple of cards for the win, but instead of waiting patiently, in Symbiont she upturns the entire table, throwing the greater game into such disarray that I for one am no longer sure I want to play.
Symbiont is available November 25th from Orbit.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.