Hugo Awards: Parasite

One of the complaints frequently leveled against the Hugo awards is that the same folks tend to get nominated every year. This makes a certain sort of sense, since the Hugo is a populist award, and a lot of authors tend to put out novels at a roughly once-a-year pace. There is a bit of truth to this, but on the other hand, there are folks who seem to break into this process fairly often. Mira Grant (a pen name of Seanan McGuire) has somewhat recently established herself as an annual resident on the Best Novel ballot, securing nominations for each of the last 4 years (not to mention several nominations in other categories, like novella or novelette, etc...) Alas, the Mira Grant style seems to encompass a zombie sub-genre, with 3 of the last 4 nominations being part of one series of zombie books. This novel, Parasite, is the first in a new series, and while it starts out as a sort a medical thriller, it is basically a zombie story as well.

The story takes place in the near future, about a decade out from now, when genetically modified tapeworms have become a sorta universal healthcare solution. Like any good capitalist solution, there's a planned obsolescence and replacement regime, but the tapeworm also provides a very reliable means of regulating the human body, even going so far as to administer various medications at the appropriate intervals, and other such conveniences. Our protagonist, Sally "Sal" Mitchell, was in a car accident and while initially thought to be brain-dead, she manages to come back with the help of her "Intestinal Bodyguard" (the innocuous name Symbogen has given to this seemingly helpful tapeworm). She has no memory before the accident, and has to relearn basic social skills and knowledge, living a life of a lab rat mixed with socially awkward teen (as the story opens, she's basically 6 years old, though she has the body of an early twenties woman). Of course, all is not what it seems, and we quickly see a series of sleepwalkers that are becoming more and more violent (and frequent) over time.

For the most part, I can see why these Mira Grant novels are so popular. I am pretty emphatically not a zombie story fan, but this novel worked well enough for me. It helps that there is a rational scientific explanation for the zombification process, but on the other hand, many of the supposed revelations in this novel are not all that surprising. I hate to be that guy, you know the one, who claims they predicted the final twist early on in the novel, but this isn't a claim of superiority. I suspect most, if not all, readers would come to the same conclusions much sooner than our hapless protagonists. The ending, in particular, is unsatisfying, settling on a cheap reveal (which, again, is entirely predictable) and sequel setup, rather than an actual resolution. I would assume that Mira Grant's fans are eating this stuff up and eagerly awaiting the next book in the series, but as an awards nominee, it feels rather incomplete.

It is certainly a page turner, which is an accomplishment in itself. The characters are, for the most part, personable and relatable. Sal is a fine protagonist, though because we get the grand majority of the story from her perspective, we perhaps get a bit too much in the way of uncertainty and anxiety. Add in the predictable plot twists (which Sal somehow does not see coming), and you've got a character who is sympathetic, but not all that bright. Her family has some typical hesitations when it comes to her condition, but for the most part, they're fine (until they take a harsh turn later in the book, where Grant relies on miscommunication as a plot device, which always frustrates me). Sal also has pretty much the greatest boyfriend in the history of the planet, fictional or non-fictional. He shows some frustration from time to time, but even those instances are somewhat restrained. Other side character range from the very colorful (the sprightly Tansy) to obviously devious (CEO Dr. Banks).

In the end, this takes the form of a slick medical thriller, with some SF tropes sprinkled in for fun. Again, I Can see why this sort of thing is popular with the Hugo voters, and it is a very easy going read. On the other hand, it is a bit predictable and its ending leaves a bit to be desired. There's a forthcoming volume that is supposed to finish off the story, but I find it hard to judge this book in that it's so clearly not finished. Given recent history, I guess we can expect the next book to be nominated as well, but for now, this is not a book that will unseat Ancillary Justice or Neptune's Brood from the top of my Best Novel voting.