The Secret Humanism of Seanan McGuire’s Parasite
Seanan McGuire—writing as Mira Grant—has a way with zombie books. Her Newsflesh (universal affiliate link) series uses zombies as a stand in for terror to take a look at security theater and what governments really want. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that her Parasitology (universal affiliate link) series has a little something to say about humanism.
As the story opens, we’re in a hospital room with Sally Mitchell, her family, and a doctor telling the family that it’s time to pull the plug so Sally’s organs can save some lives. Then Sally wakes up.
She remembers nothing, not even her own name or how to speak, and it looks like we’re going to get a Memento-ish look at how what we remember influences who we are. There’s some of that but as it turns out, we’re in for something completely different. It’s simply a given from the get go that The Sally Mitchell who woke up is vastly different than the earlier version—so much so that she decides to go by Sal instead of Sally.
A Different Kind of Zombie
Things start to take a turn when Sal sees two instances of what the medical establishment calls the sleeping sickness—a euphemism for a kind of zombie-ism. One moment someone is perfectly normal and a few moments later, they’re a mindless zombie with appetites. Sometimes these zombies attack the people nearest them, sometimes they don’t.
In Sal’s world, almost everyone has intentionally ingested a tapeworm that has been designed to support their medical needs. Diabetics have tapeworms that control their sugar and so forth. It’s a tremendous boon to everyone who has a chronic condition and has made some people revoltingly rich.
In order to make the tapeworms more compatible with the human body, they used some human DNA to make them. As it turns out, they used too much human DNA and the tapeworms try to take over the body they’re living in by leaving the digestive system and implanting themselves in the brain.
When they do this, they take control but as they’ve eaten their way through much of the brain in the process, their control is limited.
The Big Reveal
Much of the story consists of Sal and her virologist boyfriend figuring out that it’s the tapeworms that are turning people into zombies and that the folks who made the tapeworms knew it was a possibility.
It’s only at the very end that we confirm what had been telegraphed for a few chapters, that Sally Mitchell actually did die in the accident that put her in that hospital room. The person we’ve been following, the person her boyfriend fell in love with, the person who has been doing all this investigating is a tapeworm inhabiting the empty body of Sally Mitchell.
This fact was telegraphed a bit, so it doesn’t come as the shock I think is intended, but there’s a very clear point here.
Sal Mitchell is a person. She has a gender identity. She has thoughts and feelings and plans and hopes and fears. There’s nothing a human being has that she doesn’t. She is, in every way that matters, a person.
And yet, her species is an existential threat to humanity.
Like many science fiction stories, Parasite argues forcefully for a broad definition of what it means to be a person, but Parasite has another point to make. Sometimes the enemy looks just like us.
So, the Humanism is Where?
The argument for a broad definition of personhood is very Humanistic. People who aren’t like us are still human and no matter how much we’d like to punch them in the face for having terrible views, we should refrain.
But the other point—that sometimes the enemy looks like us is also Humanistic. Heck, sometimes the enemy is us. It is very human to have a natural inclination towards people who are like us. It’s the root cause of any number of sins, but there’s something in Humanism that demands the truth and the truth often conflicts with our natural inclinations.
So yeah, sometimes people who look and act and sound like us are the bad guy and sometimes people who look and act and sound very different are the good guy.