Mira Grant is the science fiction side of Seanan McGuire, the fantasy writer responsible for the OCTOBER DAYE and INCRYPTID fantasy series. Her last outing was the NEWSFLESH trilogy, which I loved (especially the first book, Feed). Now she’s published the first novel in the PARASITOLOGY duology, Parasite. And it’s a doozy.
Parasitology opens with the transcription of a video recording. Dr. Shanti Cale is speaking directly to the camera about her experiments with diphyllobothrium symbogenesis. We have no idea yet what this is, but we watch her inspect the intestine of a brain-dead human male, into which she implanted eggs of her living invention six days earlier. And sure enough, there are now living worms in the man’s intestine.
Eew, you say, and who can blame you? Why would anyone create a worm capable of living in the human gut? But this is one of the first stages in SymboGen’s development of a tapeworm that massively improves the life and health of all the human beings who choose to ingest a pill containing the worm, living in apparent symbiosis with the creature as it eliminates harmful germs, viruses and bacteria.
Here’s where the real science comes in. In Grant’s story, the tapeworm is the corporation’s answer to the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in the late 1980’s. This hypothesis holds that more people are developing life-threatening allergies and autoimmune conditions because they aren’t getting enough exposure to infectious agents when they are children, thus not enabling their bodies to develop the means to fight them off. When every soap we use is an anti-bacterial soap, and everything we touch is sterilized to within an inch of its life before we use it; when peanuts are essentially banned in public places; when every animal we eat has been pumped full of antibiotics, thus pumping us full of antibiotics, our bodies no longer have any work to do, and therefore they don’t. Grant takes this hypothesis to what seems to be a logical conclusion: because we don’t have the proper antibodies, a mechanism like the tapeworm is necessary to protect human health.
We see the value of the organism in the next scene. Sally Mitchell is dying, slowly but surely, after having been rendered clinically brain dead in an automobile accident. Her doctor is pleading with her family to take her off life support, arguing that Sally is gone and isn’t coming back; if they take her off life support now, her organs can be used to help others to live. But even while the doctor is pleading his case, Sally wakes up. She has lost everything — her ability to speak, to walk, to read — but her life. And her personality has changed enormously. Indeed, she is now a much nicer person than the old Sally was, in just about every way. The only explanation is that the tapeworm inside her has somehow managed to repair the damage inflicted on her body, including her brain. SymboGen is taking credit for her recovery, in any event, and keeps close tabs on what is happening with Sally as she returns to her family and tries to start a new life. In fact, Sally is required to undergo psychotherapy and periodic intense medical testing to ensure that her health continues — and, presumably, to find out why her implant worked as it did.
But all is not well in the halls of SymboGen. For one thing, a sort of sleeping sickness has started up, apparently only in people with tapeworms; but somehow SymboGen has been able to keep this development out of the news. What’s up with SymboGen, anyway? And why are they keeping such close tabs on Sally, who, for all intents and purposes, appears to have fully recovered? And where does Sally’s boyfriend, who happens to be a parasitologist who has refused to swallow the pill that would give him a tapeworm, fit into things?
I love that Grant makes the most outlandish biological conditions sound absolutely reasonable. Her science is strong, and a good extrapolation from what we know in the present. I know some folks find the notion that anyone would voluntarily take a tapeworm into his or her body to be completely outlandish, but I also know plenty of people who wish they could have a tapeworm for just long enough to lose that last 10 pounds. How far from that idle wish is it to the acceptance of a medical treatment that keeps you healthy so long as you are in symbiosis with it? We all know that there are plenty of organisms that aren’t human already living in our bodies, so how big a step is it from that to accepting one that seems to be unambiguously beneficial? And how eager would a pharmaceutical company be to press such a “product” on a market at tremendous profit without quite making sure it’s completely safe over the long term?
Grant combines good scientific extrapolation with suspense so thoroughly that it’s hard to put this book down. Still, any reader paying attention is probably going to figure out what’s really behind Sally’s miraculous recovery fairly early on. But that isn’t the end of the story. You’ll finish Parasite eager for the next book.