With regards the reviews I write, I feel it is necessary to provide this caveat.
The initial section right up to the button that opens the full synopsis is the teaser where I try to give a look into the book without revealing too much.

The section within the button is a full synopsis. No detail will be hidden at all.

Be warned!
The final section (Food for thought) is a series of thoughts on the book. This is a personal take on the book and does mention important parts of the books. It should be considered as much of a spoiler as the previous section!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Book Review: Parasite by Mira Grant - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall. This week I'll be reviewing an interesting book that came my way. Hypochondriacs be warned, this is a science fiction thriller with alot of medicine!
Well, sort of science fiction, there may not be much cosmos involved, but there's certainly science gone wild in this review of:
Parasite by Mira Grant

Cover art copyright of Orbit

This is written by Seanan McGuire under the pen name 'Mira Grant.' It is a science fiction thriller that doesn't disappoint, featuring some of those lovely things we've come to fear in the modern age: Medical science gone wild and unethical corporations. Parasite is the first of a two part series called Parasitology. The second book is called Symbiont.
If you feel a worm of doubt about this, don't worry, that's just the parasite settling.


'Every so often, some conspiracy nut starts in with "what they aren't telling you" and "the things they don't want you to know", and you know what? Not one has produced verifiable scientific evidence that the Intestinal Bodyguard is harmful in humans' - Dr Steven Banks, co-founder of SymboGen

A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of disease. We owe our good health to a humble parasite. The Intestinal Bodyguard protects us from illness, boosts our immune system - even secretes designer drugs. Now, almost everyone has a SymboGen parasite living within them.

But these creatures are getting restless. They want their own lives - and will do anything to get them.' - Parasite, Mira Grant [2013]

This is a lovely book filled with brief interludes of transcripts from various doctors and starting with Doctor Shanti Cale, the fictional character behind the creation of Diphyllobothrium symbogenesis; the tapeworm that became mankind's Intestinal Bodyguard™ and heralded a disease free world. It follows the story of Sally Mitchell, a young woman who had entered a coma during a car crash. Eye witnesses claim Sally had seemed to experience some sort of seizure at the wheel of her car before she pulled out into an oncoming vehicle. The medical experts were convinced Sally was dead and that keeping her body in life support was merely a waste of time because she had suffered 'clinical brain death.' And then Sally woke. Sally's miraculous survival from the car crash was attributed to the Symbogen implant within her, making her an instant celebrity.

However, Sally, a young woman in her twenties, came to with amnesia and doesn't remember any aspect of her prior life at all. Symbogen provided medical healthcare at their expense as she is rehabilitated following her awakening. Her personality as a result is entirely different from the Sally her family used to know as she doesn't have any of her formative years of life, nor her education. She was effectively a blank slate. Symbogen offers the free medical care in return for the opportunity to run tests and for the six years of Sally's life (here meaning her life since she woke up) she's been working with Symbogen's animal shelter.

We see the part of the world through the struggle of Sally as she comes to terms with the world around her and much of her views on the world around her are innocent (in the naive sense). She has to deal with a world almost alien to her. Exposition of the world is also revealed in the form of fictional articles that precede each chapter, giving us a small glimpse into this future. It is effectively a modern world baring the arrival of this genetically engineered Intestinal Bodyguard™ which has revolutionised the health industry.

However, as time goes on, Sally discovers that all is not well. People have begun to develop strange symptoms. Symptoms that the Intestinal Bodyguard™ is failing to stop. Symptoms that Symbogen is working hard to ensure that nobody else hears about. Sally is left in the middle of an unfolding disaster that could mean the end of the human race.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food For Thought

At the heart of Parasite is a story about growing up. A story of the struggle of adulthood and the responsibilities that lie with it. The reality is, everyone grows up, though the gap between childhood and adulthood is often very large. We discover as we grow up that the world was nothing like we thought it would be. Children enter the world with dreams of changing the world, unaware that the truth of the matter is that we are shaped by the world we grow up in instead. People are the product of their environment, the person that reaches adulthood is not an open-minded individual. His or her opinions have already been shaped during their journey to adulthood, influenced here and there by events and by other people that we trust or look up to.

The easiest example of being shaped by our environment is the process undergone by children everywhere. Through your childhood you learn from your parents what behaviour is acceptable and what isn't. Children mimic their parents because they have learnt from their behaviour what achieves results. However, children also learn from the others around them, from the people they interact with.
If the parents are uncomfortable around dogs and take extra pains to ensure their child is safe, so too will the child develop a fear of dogs. This fear can nevertheless be removed if the child is in an environment where the child can come into frequent contact with friendly dogs and their owners... provided that they interact of course.

In Parasite we see Sal, who has only been 'alive' for six years being thrust straight into an adult world because it was required of her. To all intents and purposes, she is weird. Weird because she didn't 'grow up' in a the environment that we see as 'normal.' She likes watermelon juice with tabasco and she is comforted by the smell of bleach for example. Her personality is effectively shaped by the world she grew up in but being of an adult age, she was granted more freedom to develop her personality outside of the 'norm.' The fact that she was cared for by Symbogen first simply highlights that. Her parents want Sal to fit the Sally Mitchell mould despite her complete lack of memories of her past life and even without the underlying plot, Sal would never be Sally Mitchell because she didn't have the experiences that had shaped Sally. A large portion of the book is the struggle of her identity. She is an individual whose identity is completely separate from Sally Mitchell but she nevertheless has Sally Mitchell's body. Her parents want their daughter back, not the stranger in her body. She wants to live her life as the individual she is now, not to be fit into the mould of a dead woman and as the world around her begins to change for the worse, she has no choice but to grow up fast.

In addition to this story there is a warning about the power of trust here. In the modern age we ascribe to our doctors an infallibility derived from their medical knowledge. We trust our doctors to be able to heal us and identify our problems. This is a story about an entire world that has wholly trusted their doctors with their health or specifically Symbogen, a medical corporation. Symbogen has promised a brighter and better world through their Intestinal Bodyguard which has been human tested and approved by the FDA (US Food & Drug Administration) but all they have really done is opened the door for a great catastrophe. Symbogen is a public company with a very large amount of trust given to it thanks to the Intestinal Bodyguard. The article excerpts that precede each chapter indicate very early on that Symbogen had cut corners here and there. But taking shortcuts is only cause for alarm if something goes wrong. The lack of protest to the Symbogen Intestinal Bodyguard throughout the book suggests that the general public trusted Symbogen enough that their 'shortcuts' could be waved aside.

The modern era though is hardly shocked at the idea of an 'unethical corporation.' If anything the stereotype is actually overused. Corporations are by their nature easy to see as unethical because on paper they are a faceless organisation rather than people (although, admittedly it is an organisation comprised of human beings). It is far too easy to perceive a corporation as unethical because they are run by humans who have proven very capable of unethical behaviour in the name of profit. 

Look at Chang Guann Co. A company that had been buying 'gutter' oil and selling it as lard oil. Gutter oil is another term for oil recycled from grease traps and kitchens. Chang Guann claims to have been unaware that they had been purchasing oil from an illegal factory. Mistakes do happen, but in today's society, it is very easy to perceive Chang Guann of deliberate fraud, because we're inclined to distrust the executives on account of the fact that it is hard to accept that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing (although in corporations this does happen). 

The book also throws a mirror up to our conception of what is acceptable in our society. In today's world, barring a few extreme weightloss techniques, the concept of voluntarily ingesting a tapeworm is rather revolting. Parasite is a take on how easily we can accept an offputting concept if it leads to direct and immediate benefits. People happily have their implants because of the greater levels of health they enjoy as a result. It's a glimpse of how society can embrace and adapt to huge changes in lifestyle when these changes bring with them a better standard of living. 

This book briefly touches on the concept of the soul as well. Not directly, but in a more subtle manner. When the sleeping sickness takes a victim this is because the host's implant has crawled into the brain. However, when the implant takes over, none of the original memories of the host are retained, giving a rather loose conception of the soul. Modern neuralogical science doesn't really quite get sentience yet. We know it isn't a matter of processing power (we've built computers with more processing power than humans and they don't spontaneously develop sentience). We're not really sure it's just a matter of chemical inputs in the brain simply because other animals experience much the same but don't display self-awareness. Even in today's world, we still hold close this concept of the soul. The idea that our self-awareness is not tied directly to a physical aspect of our body. The book deals with that sensitive issue by suggesting the tapeworms cannot access prior memories of their host (despite the fact they are using their brains) which implies that there is a soul because those memories were unique only to the host.

Following from the concept of the soul, consider this last, interesting concept. This story, despite its analogies to zombie plots, features the concept of engineered sentience. In the world of Parasite, the public lives healthy through ingesting sentient parasites, killing them every two years to ingest a new one (to ensure they don't grow large enough to endanger the human body). The parasites may not be human, but our treatment of these sentient creatures wouldn't exactly engender friendship. Sal's father doesn't view the victims of the sleeping sickness as people, even though there is a guiding sentience, but by what right do we have to deny the Intestinal Bodyguard its right to life? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on the assumption that the most important thing in the world is humans because of our sentience. Is the term 'human' merely a word for us alone or a phrase that should extend to cover any self-aware creature? We put alot of weight into the value of a human life, treating human life as a sacrosanct thing, but is it right to place humans above the Intestinal Bodyguard?

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