Thursday, September 26, 2013

Medical science gone too far

Science has a way of taking something that seems completely commonplace and making it into the next leap forward. Medicine especially can take the strangest things, like white willow bark, turn the extracted acetylsalicylic acid into salicylic acid, and market it as Asprin. Russia took a different route to fight bacterial infections than the West, and now uses a variation of a microbe found in the sewers called bacteriophages to attack the specific infection found in the patient without damaging surrounding tissues. Ideas that not too long ago were the stuff of science fiction have been appearing in the real world.

In Parasite, by Mira Grant, the scientists and SymboGen Corporation have taken that idea a step further. They've genetically engineered the tapeworm parasite into a whole healthcare system. It can secrete hormones such as insulin, making most maintenance medications obsolete. It has just enough markers similar to human DNA to avoid an immune system response, and it's unable to reproduce, so it can't escape into the wild.

Her symbiote is the only reason anyone can figure that Sally Mitchell survived her car accident. After being in a coma, with a diagnosis of "clinical brain death," her family made the painful decision to take her off of life support, so her organs could be used for other patients. As they were saying their final goodbyes, however, Sal's eyes snapped open. 

The only lasting effect from her accident seemed to be a profound amnesia, which left her a complete blank slate. The last few years have been spent learning to walk and talk, feed herself and interact properly with others. Now, Sal's able to work part-time at an animal shelter, and even has a boyfriend. She's also turned into SymboGen's pet guinea pig, since no one else has ever come back from such massive trauma, symbiote or no.

That's not the only thing that SymboGen has on its plate. People have been acting oddly. Sal's seen it herself. People will be perfectly fine one minute, and then turn into something like sleepwalkers. They'll simply stop what they're doing and wander off, eventually falling into comas. And as both SymboGen and her parents become more and more controlling, Sal will have to start finding answers on her own.

Parasite give a lot of information to the reader very quickly, starting most chapters with 'excerpts' from news articles and biographies involving SymboGen and its founders. Grant excels at this type of info-dump, never making the reader feel talked down to or bored. While a few of the characters, especially Sal, occasionally react in ways that make the reader want to shake them by the shoulders until they see what's right in front of their faces, Parasite is an inventive rollercoaster of a novel, that slowly turns from a near-future science-fiction novel to eerily creepy horror.

Highs: Tansy, with a very Harley Quinn style personality, is one of my favorite characters in a long while

Lows: As smart as many of the characters are, it's as if they were being purposefully dense about one particular plot point

Verdict: Mira Grant is back in fine form, with a new universe to explore

Further Reading: Feed, Machine Man

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