Fiction Reviews

Parasite: Parasitology 1

(2013) Mira Grant, Orbit, £7.99, pbk, 502pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50192-5


Sally Mitchell had a very near thing having been in a car crash that left her nearly brain dead. But then Sally came back! It was a miracle. Well, a miracle in the sense that it was another example of the wonder that SymboGen had conferred on humanity: an engineered living intestinal parasite that kept people healthy and, apparently, brought them back to the living after a near fatal car crash.

There was a small problem; Sally Mitchell did not remember who she was. She could not even remember English let alone how to speak. However this was only a small problem, after all she could learn everything: the important thing was that she was alive and well.

Months later she was getting used to her life. SymboGen was being really good taking care of her recuperation and expenses in return for her and her family letting them study this latest manifestation of the benevolence SymboGen's treatment conferred… But then came the reports of others having some sort of the sleeping sickness. Worse, some of these cases became aggressively violent: mindless people who maimed and killed those nearby. Fortunately, the cases were few and far between… But they were increasing…

With Parasite Mira Grant has crafted a fairly neat, hard-ish SF biomedical thriller combined with a zombie story. But this descriptor is far too simplistic: Parasite is more than that…

For starters Parasite is the first in a trilogy. OK, so we don't (yet) know where the two sequels will take us, but it is clear that Parasite itself is addressing just the beginnings of a major outbreak. Now, matters may not get catastrophic, or even global (we do not know yet), but clearly there are the potential for those in the developed world (where the SymboGen biotechnology is used by many) to be severely affected. If matters do go this way, then in Philip K. Dick terms such a story is brave: Dick is noted for saying that he finds it easier, and more rewarding, dealing with the after-effects of some global-changing event than setting stories before or during such events. Secondly, this is not just your run-of-the-mill zombie novel: for example, there are distinct echoes of Greg Bear in the mix.

Finally, there is the science. There are enough science terms used reasonably deftly for this to appeal to readers of harder SF in addition to horror and zombie types. OK, so cestodes (our parasite is a heavily GM-ed tapeworm) aren't exactly known for their brains but tapeworms have potential biomedical uses such as a contraceptive. However I am not sure whether Mira Grant has a biological background. She does use the out of date phylum term Protozoa (we are meant to use the kingdom term 'Protoctista' these days) although usage is still allowed as a collective noun 'protozoa' (lower case), not to refer to a phylum but for an ensemble of phyla: Rhizopoda, Zoomastigina, Apicomplexa and Ciliophora. Now, this may not mean much to you but it is a bit like the biological equivalent of the astronomical Pluto being demoted from a planet to a minor planet or asteroid. Here I am a bit Sheldon Cooperish having a fondness for Protozoa, and this made me wonder whether Mira was also that way inclined? Anyway, I was glad that protozoans had a cameo in Parasite.

(I think I may have gotton a tad nerdy there. Meanwhile, back at the review…)

So what we have with Parasite is a decidedly solid, soft-horror with a hard-SF edge that ends on a revelation that neatly tempts us onto the sequel that could well be darker, and it also has the potential to go in a number of directions. I, for one, look forward to whatever is coming next.

Jonathan Cowie

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