Fiction Reviews

Symbiont: Parasitology 2

(2014) Mira Grant, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 518pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50193-2


This is the second part of the Parasitology trilogy that picks up almost exactly straight from where we left off with the first, Parasite. Do check that title out before reading this as the following review will contain spoilers…


As readers will have begun to suspect halfway through Parasite, and which was the big reveal at that book's end, the protagonist Sally Mitchell was not human Sally at all but the body of Sally with her brain actually that of the SymboGen implant. She had survived her implant turning her into a zombie, as was happening to many others across the US who had the implant, because her car accident induced head injury had allowed the parasite to cross the blood-brain barrier and successfully take over. Sally was never going to turn into a flesh craving zombie, but neither could she be considered human. This reveal is repeated in Symbiont's first 60 pages.

However Sally des need some surgery to repair matters, she keeps passing out, and this necessitates covertly going back to SymboGen for an operation. The operation goes well but getting out of SymboGen was going to be difficult and indeed she gets caught…

Now, I was impressed with Parasite by Mira Grant and lent it my support when we did our annual team roundup of best books of 2013 and I also gave it a positive review. Others elsewhere must also have liked it as it was nominated in 2014 for a Hugo. In short, I was quite looking forward to reading Symbiont to find out what happened next and to get unanswered questions answered.

To be fair, Symbiont does have a lot going for it. For a start, and most obviously, it has the momentum accrued from the first, Parasite, novel: a hard SF take on the cause, as well as an observer's view, of a zombie outbreak. This is a rare combination; as pointed out in my review of Parasite, most zombie novels shy from the specifics of the cause as well as normally dive in sometime (often a long time) after the outbreak occurred. And then we had the end-of-first-novel reveal that the protagonist was in fact no longer human: so this was a zombie novel told from the perspective of a zombie.. Then again, Symbiont will appeal not just to zombie novel aficionados but also juvenile, particularly female juvenile, SF readers with its teenage angst, constantly questioning who am I? Is the big, wide world truly such a fearsome place away from the familial home? Who can I trust? Teenage love interest. And so forth. Fans of the likes of Divergence, Maze Runner and Hunger Games could well get off on Symbiont.

Having said that, Symbiont certainly does have its downside. It is too much of more-of-the-same, and not much of anything else. Other than the opening big reveal, which we already had at the end of Parasite, the only thing new is the critical position in which one lead character from Parasite is placed (and this effectively takes that character out of the game for the duration of Symbiont). Once more characters from one side, and then the other, are taken captive. And once more the protagonist looses consciousness for many reasons. All very tedious and all too soon mind-numbingly boring: I found Symbiont an effort to read; unlike its predecessor, it simply did not engage with me. Indeed, again unlike its predecessor, by the end of it I was worn and certainly not looking forward to the final novel in the trilogy.  I asked myself, what happened with the author?

Well, I think I may have found out with the acknowledgements at the book's end. Apparently, originally the Parasitology trilogy was meant to be a duology. Apparently all the feedback, 'questions, critiques and suggestions about what [the author] could do to make [her] world more complete' made her decide to create an extra book. Big mistake. It is great that a novel stimulates discussion and ideas, as that is what good novels should do but leave that to the reader to contemplate, not the author who must not be tempted to fill these voids; the author's job is to create a world and a plot line that stimulates thought and discussion by and among readers. Of course the author and publisher must also have been tempted by the positive reception Parasite received from the SF community at large (including SF Concatenation) and the commensurate sales: surely another book squeezed in would do no harm? Well, actually, other than appealing to the author's die-hard fans as well as the not insignificant number into juvenile SF (the aforementioned readers of Divergence, Maze Runner and Hunger Games, etc), a more-of-the-same-and-not-much-of-anything-else book is unlikely to appeal to a broad sweep of hard SF/horror readers. Maybe the size of the former will outweigh that of the latter in which case the author and publisher will continue to have healthy sales? For my money, I suspect that readers' mini-reviews on bookselling sites and so forth, will be split between those pointing to Symbiont's positives (as I have) and those highlighting its flaws (again as I have). Only you can decide to which camp you align yourself: there is no right answer and so no prizes. And only the author can decide where next to take her writing.

Finally, there are all the questions left unanswered from the first novel. What were the initial researchers into the SymboGen really trying to do? (The suggestions loosely presented so far make little sense.) Why is the government holding back? (Can't believe it is because they think that one of the researchers can still help?) And what is really happening; are we seeing an artificial chimeric speciation? (Is the meiosotic nomenclature of the section titles a hard SF, teasing clue? And if it is then there is the gamete problem to sort out: how does the new hybrid species reproduce?) And if so to what human ecological end? Among others…

Maybe in a year's time I will have recovered enough to want to find out, but this mid-trilogy bloat did not help. Maybe Symbiont will attract enough fans to be so successful that the author continues with that vein of writing. In which case, genuinely good luck to her but I can't see myself being among them.  Alternatively the author and publisher might focus on what made Parasite so successful and concentrate on developing (as opposed to simply replicating) that. Nonetheless, all said and done, Parasite was the author's breakout novel and I do hope that the final novel in the trilogy sees a return to former strengths.

Jonathan Cowie

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