When I wrote about the candidates for the Best Novel Hugo a few weeks ago, I judged a couple of the books on the basis of, not the full novel, but rather an excerpt. The three books published by Orbit Books (Charles Stross’ Neputune’s Brood, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and “Mira Grant”s Parasite) only had extracts included in the Hugo Packet, for voters who had not read those books to judge them by. I’d already read Stross’ book, but neither of the other two struck me enough based on its excerpt for me to decide to pick them up in full.
However, the decision not to put the full books in the packet seems to have been a very controversial one, and so Orbit have backed down about as graciously as possible without actually changing their stance — all three books are on sale in the UK as ebooks for £1.99 for the month of July, and so Hugo voters can pick them up very cheaply. (Alas, they’re all DRMd, but it’s easy enough to strip the DRM). So I decided to pick up the two books I’d not read.
I’ll be writing about Ancillary Justice when I finish it, but thought I’d post my (SPOILER-FILLED) thoughts about Parasite right now.
I hated it.
In fact, it was possibly the book that made me angrier, on a pure craft level, than any I’ve read since Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis. It’s a book that assumes the reader is an idiot.
To explain why, here’s a brief summary of what we know by about page thirty:
Our protagonist, Sal, is someone who was in a car accident and was ruled brain-dead, but then miraculously awoke, but with complete amnesia. Her life was apparently saved by an implant she had — a genetically engineered tapeworm that people have started to have implanted to help them heal, but when she awoke she was reduced to the level of a baby and had to relearn everything.
Sal’s personality after waking from her coma is vastly different from that before she was in the accident, and she never has any memories of her pre-accident self, but every night she dreams of a warm red darkness and a sound like a heartbeat.
And now, a few years after Sal’s accident, people with the implant are suddenly starting to become like zombies — their minds go completely blank and they are reduced to the level of babies.
Now, from this, you can tell how the story’s going to go, right? Sal is going to realise that she actually died in the accident, and that her new mind is actually that of the tapeworm, which has taken over her body. You’d expect this realisation at maybe a third of the way through the book, as the big twist for the first act climax, and for the rest of the book to be about her dealing with that knowledge while trying to stop the tapeworms from taking over everyone else, and bringing the company that made them to justice.
You’d be wrong.
Oh, not about her being the tapeworm — of course she is — but about how the book is structured. What should have been a big twist a little way through the book is in fact revealed on the very last page, as a “surprise” ending and setup for a sequel. This means that for about five hundred pages (it’s a ridiculously overlong book for what is a very, very slight excuse for a story) you’re screaming at her “you’re the tapeworm, obviously!”
It wouldn’t be so bad if there was anything interesting about the journey to the resolution, even if it is a twist of almost Shyamalanesque banality, but the plot, such as it is, consists of people alternately handing each other the idiot ball, sulking (our protagonist knows there’s a test for the mystery illness that’s destroying thousands of people’s minds, but refuses to tell anyone in a position to do something about it because she’s grumpy at her dad for grounding her. No, I’m not exaggerating), and then suddenly being pulled into the next piece of plot by authorial fiat.
Our protagonist is not only the daughter of one of the top brass in military intelligence responsible for dealing with outbreaks of disease, for example, but her boyfriend just happens to be the son of the inventor of the tapeworm. This amazing coincidence is not explained (though there are hints that her father, at least, is part of the reason for her condition and that this might be explained in a future book) — it’s just luck.
The whole book is pure buildup, with no resolution. Nothing actually happens. Yes, our protagonist collects a few plot tokens and discovers what any even moderately attentive reader had figured out in the first ten minutes, and yes some supporting characters get turned into zombies, but there is nothing one could really call a plot here, and nor is there any kind of exploration of the decent SF idea behind the story.
That would all be OK if the protagonist was at all interesting, but since we’re not supposed to guess the big twist her thought processes are entirely human — but those of an extraordinarily selfish, spoiled, whiny, human who it’s not really pleasant to spend time around.
Had this been cut down to a third of its length, it would have made a decent first part of a book, and there are many nice little touches, like the children’s book that’s quoted from throughout. I could even have accepted it ending where it did if it were a novella. But as it is this is a bloated, rambling, structureless mess.
This is harsh but fair. There’s one pont where the central characters spend what felt like several chapters stuck in a traffic jam, which seemed a good metaphor for the entire book.
I enjoyed the book while reading (it’s a page turner), but that ending has really curdled in my mind over time and makes me like it less and less. Also the fact that it’s the first in a series makes it difficult to say this is anywhere near an award winning book…
And all science in the book is horrible wrong. Even worse than in her earlier zombie trilogy. Not an easy feat, but she manages to do it.
Thank you for writing your review! I thought I was going crazy, reading all those raving reviews about this horrible, horrible book. I couldn’t agree more about the flimsiness and transparency of this storyline. What bugged me just as much were the terrible and inconsistent dialogues throughout. Awful book.