Zombies are so passé.
That is certainly no indictment of Mira Grant’s science fiction/horror novel, Parasite. In fact, Ms. Grant manages to inject an intriguing terror-from-within vibe into her newest work without invoking a single rotting flesh inference which I, for one, find refreshing. (Is that something that can be considered good in this subgenre: “refreshing”? At any rate, this modifier should not be considered off-putting and I mean no disrespect in using it.)
The year is 2021. Sally Mitchell, a typical, somewhat obnoxious, somewhat headstrong young woman has been in a terrible car accident. Suffering massive head trauma and declared brain dead after slipping into a coma at the hospital, with no hope for recovery, it is during an emotional discussion about turning off life support and donating her internal organs that Sally suddenly and inexplicably “comes back to life”. The only explanation for her sudden revival is her Intestinal Bodyguard (TM) – an organic implant on the cutting edge of medicinal science.
I have to remind myself of that whenever things get too ridiculous: I am alive because of a genetically engineered tapeworm. Not a miracle; God was not involved in my survival. They can call it an “implant” or an “Intestinal Bodyguard”, with or without that damned trademark, but the fact remains that we’re talking about a tapeworm. A big, ugly, blind parasite invertebrate that lives in my small intestine, where it naturally secretes a variety of useful chemicals, including – as it turns out – some that both stimulate brain activity and clean toxic byproducts out of blood.
The good news is that she is definitely not dead. The bad news is that she has suffered total and pervasive amnesia. Not only does Sally not remember the accident, or who she was before the accident, she does not remember even rudimentary learning processes, such as social idioms, language, or relationships. That Sally Mitchell is gone. Whether or not the amnesia is because of her implant is unknown. What is not unknown is the certainty that, without the Intestinal Bodyguard, the new Sally Mitchell would not have been alive.
Fast forward six years. Sally – who now goes by “Sal” – has made vast strides in her recovery. Although her memory has not been restored, she has been able to accelerate her learning of language, social expectations, book learning, and empathy. Living with her parents and sister in their comfortable neighborhood (her father is a high ranking officer in the government’s medical service, her mother is a occupational volunteer), she accepts all the trappings of her earlier life, and, except for struggling with an expansive modern vocabulary and nonsensical social mores (she is “only” six years old, conceptually), she is a highly functioning, self-sufficient young woman, with a job and a boyfriend and a wicked sense of self-deprecating humor.
Of course, she is not the same woman as she was before the accident, and this haunts her. And her life is also one of continual monitoring, of constant observation and examination by SymboGen Corporation, the makers of the Intestinal Bodyguard implant. They have completely underwritten the entirety of her medical care and all associated expenses ever since she “woke up” in that hospital room, but they also expect her to undergo a regular schedule of tests, consultations and procedures, both physical and psychological – which is not surprising, considering that while millions of people have benefited from their Intestinal Bodyguard implants, no one else has ever been saved from traumatic death by it.
So while Sal does not look forward to the constant sessions with her therapist, or the six month checkups that have her visiting the main SymboGen headquarters and research facility in San Francisco to go through an intense battery of tests, she does so as she is indebted to them for her medical care. Her health is still somewhat wonky – unexpected complications and physical reactions to her environment can even now provoke her body into a sudden and catastrophic shut down – it’s not like it’s been all sunshine and rainbows since the accident. And there are her constant dreams of warmth and darkness, and the sounds of drums layered deep within her psyche that should be alarming, but bring her an intensely personal sense of peace. So she goes to the sessions, she goes to the appointments, she endures the tests – but that doesn’t mean she likes it.
When things start to slide sideways, Sal is not sure if something is truly wrong, or if it’s simply her interpretations that have yet to click into place again. The staff at SymboGen is professional and efficient, but it’s not exactly like they are welcoming, and she has an overriding sense of being a lab rat to them instead of a person. She doesn’t ask many questions – it’s not like she’d get answers, anyway, and she has other things to worry about, like, how to keep from always running late, how to deal with the frustrating dyslexia that she came out of the coma with which has her puzzling more complicated texts, and how to finagle more time with her boyfriend Nathan, an up and coming parasitologist, and one of the few remaining people left in the civilized world without an Intestinal Bodyguard.
Then one day, on a routine trip to the mall with her sister (well, routine for her sister, not so much for Sal), she sees a confusing and very unsettling sight.
There was a new air of confusion to the general chatter in the mall. I’d been too busy focusing on Joyce to notice it before. I twisted in my seat, following her gaze to a little girl outside the boundaries of the food court. She was too young to be on her own – no more than six or seven – and she was half-walking, half-staggering toward the exit. From the way she was moving, she’d hurt her foot recently. If she’d been older, I would have suspected her of having had a stroke. And yet her gait managed not to be the strangest thing about her, possibly because the sight of a little girl towing a full grown woman bodily along was weird enough to make everything else seem incidental.
Along with the little girl, another “sleepwalker” shambles into view, heading in the same direction. Although they pay no attention to anyone else (including the girl’s mother, who is tethered to her child in the girl’s unholy grip), they do acknowledge each other before mall security appears and is able to subdue the pair and whisk them off to a more secure area.
The next day, Sal encounters the same behavior in a random stranger while out for a stroll with Nathan during his lunch break. This time, a man walking his dog along the Embarcadero goes slack before their very eyes. Just before his transformation (or the departure of his formation, as it were), the otherwise docile dog had become very agitated, as if she could tell that something was overtaking her master – this was what first alerted Sal that something strange was happening. When the now empty-faced, shambling man turns and starts lurching towards Sal and Nathan, they grab the dog and run.
By this point in the book, almost every reader will know what is going to happen, to some degree. What is so enjoyable is not not knowing what it happening, but in watching the story unfold, and in following along with author Mira Grant as she weaves a tale that is eerily terrifying in how believable it is, from the corporate spin, to various individuals’ ability to rationalize their actions, to the mindless way that society lets itself be led if the advertising tagline is clever enough. By interjecting excerpts from various forms of media outside of the book’s narrative, such as an interview with the co-founder of SymboGen in “Rolling Stone” magazine, the unpublished autobiography of one of the inventors of the Intestinal Bodyguard, a study on American advertising throughout the years, and a sufficiently creepy out of print children’s book, we are able to glimpse into the larger picture beyond Sal’s understanding, allowing us to shiver in deeper anticipation even as she enters that dark hallway that everyone knows you should never go down alone.
Okay, so it’s not like Sal actually goes down many dark hallways on her own. In fact, it’s the many characters in this book who accompany her into this parasitic horrorshow, characters who are witty, fun, sarcastic, and downright irresistible (for better or worse) that help bring Parasite to a higher level of body-snatcher entertainment. From Sal’s almost-perfect-but-not-quite boyfriend Nathan, to Sherman, the one person at SymboGen who makes Sal feel like a human instead of a white laboratory rat, to Tansy, an disarming yet totally unbalanced mixture of pixie and mercenary, Mira Grant gives us a cast of characters worth turning the page for. Along with the not-too-complicated yet seriously scientific explanations that need to happen to allow for the harrowing turn of events, the reader will never feel shortchanged or underestimated (in sense or sensibility) in this first volume of a “Parasitology” series. Yes, at times the author goes on a little too long in ensuring we understand every nuance of a situation or environment, and we can see the end reveal from a long way off, but Parasite is truly a book where the journey is a whole hellvua lot more fun than the actual destination. And on this journey, you better keep a tight grip on reality, because this trip to the outskirts really is a very fun – and chilling – ride.