Parasite by Mira Grant
When I began getting into the pop music scene during the 1950s, I quickly noticed a rather odd phenomenon. If someone produced a hit record with a different type of rhythm or hook, it was likely to be rerecorded by other artists so we’d all have a choice of which version to buy, or other artists produced “different” but similar songs or instrumentals which aimed to cash in on the feature that had made the first so popular. Following the same logic, when an artist did have a hit, there was a tendency for the next record he or she produced to be a variation on the same theme. After all, the theory says if something works the first time round, it can’t hurt to try the same thing again. So this review is continuing my survey of the fairly prolific phenomenon that was christened Seanan McGuire but who also writes as Mira Grant. Why spend so much time looking at this particular author? you ask. Well, the answer is she’s actually quite fascinating as an author. Because I’m old and my brain cells (and some others) are dying off more quickly these days, it’s taken me up to now to work her out. Let’s start off with the good news, initially for publishers, and then for readers.
She’s a writing machine, producing a serious quantity of prose and, once her brand was established, delivering the product publishers want. At this point, I need a minor digression. Though I would wish it otherwise, the world of publishing has fallen to the tyranny of the genre. The marketers have been through surveys and focus groups to define the types of book most likely to sell in numbers. Better still, they have come up with fairly detailed specifications so each publisher can buy product to sell to each identified group of readers. This author has the relevant formulae down to a fine art and can turn on a dime to tailor each book very precisely to the required formula and length. It’s fascinating to watch the craft of writing shift for each series or type of book. For readers, there’s also a big plus. Although I find the quality of the plots a bit variable and not always strictly logical or coherent, there’s a very positive inventiveness about the initial plot ideas. Better still, there’s a very natural, often quite humorous, feel to the dialogue. When she hits the mark, it does produce smiles and, in these rather po-faced days, that’s always a big selling point. Up to this point in my reading, there’s the expected repetitiveness about books in the same series — once you have a formula, you don’t change it too much to keep the loyal fans happy. But there’s been sufficient difference between the series to keep us interested.
We now come to Parasite by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2013) the first in a new science fiction Parasitology series. Ah, well, I’m using the word “new” in the looser sense of the word. You would only think this new if you hadn’t read the Newsflesh trilogy in which the zombies are produced by exposure to the Kellis-Amberlee virus. In this iteration, the zombies are produced in San Francisco in 2027, when SymboGen Corporation persuades people to allow themselves to be infected by the Intestinal Bodyguard, a parasitic organism that’s supposed to keep the human body rather more healthy than usual. The plot idea is really rather pleasing and the hints explaining how this medical breakthrough was marketed are a delight. The medical aim was to build on the Hygiene Hypothesis which I’ve always found convincing.
Indeed, there’s a considerable amount of medical background trotted out to give the science of the premise some plausibility. Unfortunately, this also makes the book heavy on exposition. As to the characterisation, with one or two exceptions, they are somewhat generic. Our first-person heroine, Sally Mitchell, is a coma patient whose body is used in a research program to prove the treatment is both safe and effective. To everyone’s amazement, she wakes up albeit with complete amnesia as to her life before the accident. She has to relearn everything. Interestingly, by the time she’s finished, her crash education course in “life skills” really does make her seem like a completely different person. Six years down the line, she has a steady boyfriend, Nathan, and the corporation responsible for developing the “cure” has become wealthy and politically very powerful. Sally is anomalously naive with odd outbursts of insight but, as you read the book, you come to understand why she might not see the world in quite the same way as the rest of us. To enliven proceedings, there are a couple of relatively mad scientists and one delightfully psychopathic killer. Then there’s the curious way in which which the book ends. Most authors aim to build to a climax that leaves everyone trembling with excitement, perhaps with a major plot revelation to leave a cliffhanger for the next in the series. But this has our heroine literally walk and occasionally run away from the “bad” guys. She’s then driven to a place of safety where there’s a very predictable discovery. It’s not exactly finishing on a high.
Put all this together and this is just another zombie book, albeit one written with considerable wit and style. If I had not read the Newsflesh series which started well and then went steadily downhill, I might think this excellent. But having practised writing zombie books, you would expect this author to do better with the second attempt. Indeed, Parasite has been nominated for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel so a lot of people obviously like this. Personally, I think I’m back in the 1950s and 60s with pop artists recording and rerecording the same song over and over again.