Review: Parasite

This review contains spoilers.

I’d heard of Parasite a few years ago, floating round the book blogosphere when I was at university. I didn’t think that much of it till I found out recently that the book’s author, Mira Grant, is none other than Seanan McGuire, author of the Toby Daye urban fantasy series – whose first novel, you will remember, I finally got around to reading recently.

I liked it, obviously. That’s why we’re here.

So: the conceit of Parasite is both straightforward and hard to convey without what I’d consider major spoilers. Unfortunately, the spoilers are also on the book’s blurb.

What’s a girl to do?

(put a spoiler tag at the top, obviously. okay. bear with. bear with. back.)

So, here we go: San Francisco, near future. Big Pharma corporation SymboGen has developed a genetically modified tapeworm that lives in human intestines and keeps people’s immune systems healthy – a panacea for everything from diabetes to diarrhoea. It’s been an astronomical success around the world, supporting the immune systems of the hyper-sanitised West and providing cheap medical care for people in developing countries who can’t easily access more intensive treatments. SymboGen’s made a bunch of money. Everyone’s happy.

Except…then people start turning into zombies.

Our heroine is Sal (not Sally). She survived a car accident six years ago that left her with complete amnesia: she cannot remember anything of her life before the accident, and by all accounts she’s a completely different person now than she was then. And not in the “people change with time” way. SymboGen has been studying her since the accident, because her tapeworm helped her recover from her injuries and they want to know why. So when things start to go wrong with the tapeworms, she and her boyfriend Nathan are drawn in pretty quickly.

SO. It’s a critical commonplace nowadays that zombies are to be read as manifestations of anxiety about late capitalism and how it brainwashes us into consumerism; how neoliberalism as a system is dead but refuses to die. That’s a reading that works pretty well here, I think: we can read Parasite as a novel about how capitalism colonises even our bodies. (Content warning for some quite graphic body horror – it was probably right on the edge of what I can read without metaphorically looking away.) That works both at the level of the individual and the system: Sal’s body is fair game to SymboGen, who are paying all her ongoing medical costs in exchange for the rights to study her. And each section of the novel begins with excerpts from interviews, lab records and letters documenting SymboGen’s development of the tapeworms, in which it’s revealed that they trampled all over all kinds of regulations in the knowledge that the public would overlook these trespasses in exchange for the convenience of SymboGen’s cure. SymboGen exploits bodies and it exploits societies.

I’m wondering, though, what becomes of this reading when we bring the tapeworms into play. Because the tapeworms are, at least in a few cases, intelligent, rational agents who crave the bodies of their human hosts. Grant explicitly calls them slaves: slaves to SymboGen, we’re supposed to conclude; part of the horror here is the idea that virtually all of humanity has become unwillingly complicit in enslaving thinking beings.

But, and this I think is at the heart of my problem with Parasite, that’s only a small part of the horror – partly because the relevant reveal comes very late in the novel, which ends, irritatingly, on a cliffhanger. The body horror is much more potent, much more visceral. The effect of this, whether Grant intended it or not, is that we-the-reader are intrinsically on the side of humanity; we’re biased against the tapeworms. Which is a problem, when you’re coding parasites as slaves, especially in an American context. It’s a problem because the best solution Grant suggests is to send the tapeworms back into dormancy so their hosts can survive; in other words, to continue their slavery and thus consolidate the power of SymboGen.

It might be that this issue gets worked out in more detail in the second novel; I’m not yet sure if I’m going to read it. (Maybe if I’m desperate at the library.) But it’s a troubling moral wrinkle all the same; especially given all the things that Parasite gets right.

It’s particularly good on representation, in a low-key way that’s surprisingly rare now I think about it. There are people of colour, a lesbian couple, a wheelchair user. They’re all secondary characters, but they all feel like they have lives and purposes beyond their minority identities. The novel doesn’t draw attention to those identities; they just exist. They’re just allowed to exist. I think that’s surprising because of the kind of novel Parasite is: a thriller, a piece of entertainment rather than a thinky novel. It would have been so easy for everyone in the background to be white and straight. And they’re not. It’s great.

Then we have Sal herself: a woman with amnesia and PTSD. Again, the novel isn’t about these things. It just allows her to have them, to do what she needs to do to cope with them, and then to go and do badass stuff anyway. Her relationship with Nathan is also surprisingly healthy given the standards of relationships in SFF: they actually talk about stuff and worry about each other and do practical things to help each other and they have their own priorities too and this, too, is great.

I just don’t know how to square this with the larger moral problem the novel has; and also the emphasis it places on hiding information. As Sal and Nathan discover more and more about the mysterious zombie disease it becomes less and less easy to root for their strategy of not telling anyone anything – including the US military, who are for once not doing anything particularly nefarious and actually just want to develop a cure. Our heroes are hiding information that could save lives. And that’s a trick that’s repeated structurally: the novel hides information from us that’s been painfully obvious since page one. Nobody realises that the tapeworms are turning their hosts into zombies until about halfway through, apart from every single reader of the novel, who have all been spoiled by marketing. This makes a lot of Parasite quite tedious. Although we could read it, I suppose, as a meta-commentary on the capitalist colonisation and commodification of art and information. I think that might be stretching it a little, though. It’s a muddled book. I don’t particularly recommend it.

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