Minor Thoughts

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Review: Parasite [★★★★☆]

Parasite

Parasite
by Mira Grant

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 20 June 2014 - 22 June 2014
Goal: Awards

This is the second 2014 Hugo nominee that I’m reading, before voting.

About three months ago, I listened to an EconTalk podcast episode about autoimmune disease and parasites. Russ Roberts, the host, interviewed Moises Velasquez-Manoff about his book, An Epidemic of Absence.

Roberts and Velasquez-Manoff discussed why allergies and autoimmune diseases have been increasing over the last 50 years. Epidemiologists have recently theorized that these diseases are increasing because of an overly hygienic environment that’s causing a decrease in various microbes and parasites. Some people have theorized that we could actually make people healthier by reintroducing parasites into our bodies and several groups are running FDA trials to test that theory.

This is a theory that I’ve read about a handful of times in the past 2 years. I was ecstatic when I discovered, a few pages into Parasite, that it was about exactly this idea. The story takes place in the near-future.

In 2016, SymboGen gained FDA approval to sell a genetically engineered parasite—based on a tapeworm—called the Intestinal Bodyguard™. Patients ingested the parasites in pill form. From there, they grew in the intestines and cured asthma, allergies, and diabetes. They also secrete natural birth control and prescription medications on a regular basis, freeing patients from the tedium of managing schedules for different drugs. They became the miracle drug that humanity had been looking for.

Our narrator, Sally Mitchell, had an implanted Intestinal Bodyguard™ when she suffered a seizure while driving and crashed head-on into a bus. Ten days later, her doctors declared her brain dead and tried to persuade her family to let her body die. Then she woke up. Her memory was completely gone but, somehow, she’d lived through the brain death that should have been fatal.

The story proper begins 6 years later, in 2027. SymboGen has been paying for her medical care for the past 6 years, investigating how her parasite saved her life. Sally (now preferring to be called “Sal”) has built a new life and just wants to be free of SymboGen, psychologists, and the constant medical examinations. That’s when the “sleeping sickness” starts, quickly growing into an epidemic. It appears to be linked to the Intestinal Bodyguards™ and as the world’s most famous survivor, Sal is right in the middle of the chaos.

Mira Grant’s story captivated me. I read well-nigh the entire thing in less than 24 hours. I could not put it down or—once put down—resist taking it up and devouring it in large chunks. The pacing and tension were superb, effortlessly driving the story forward.

Best of all, this story was true speculative fiction. Mira Grant took an on-going scientific debate, ran it on fast-forward a few years, and then wrote a compelling story about one possible implication of pursuing the science. It’s been a while since I’ve read speculative fiction and I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the excitement of thinking through the implications of scientific discoveries.

Mira Grant’s story isn’t perfect. The biggest flaw is that too many of the characters are one-dimensional. Sally Mitchell, our narrator, is fully realized. Her motivations and conflicts are believable and understandable. Unfortunately, few of the people around her are similarly well fleshed out.

Dr. Steven Banks, one of the putative villains, is mostly a caricature of the evil profit-grubbing scientist. Sally’s parents and sister are insubstantial. Her boyfriend is too, although to a lesser degree. Some of this is understandable, as Sally is the narrator and has all of six years of life experience. It’s understandable that she would feel distant from her family and wouldn’t know them intimately. Given her expressed desire to learn though, the story’s lack of strong secondary characters is a weakness.

Don’t let that weakness dissuade you from reading Parasite. It’s an intriguing scientific idea, woven into a thriller of a horror story. It’s easy to see why it was nominated for a Hugo award.