The Secret Humanism of Seanan McGuire’s Parasite

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.

Memories…

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.

How the Heartstriker Series ISN’T Popcorn Fiction

How the Heartstriker Series ISN’T Popcorn Fiction

The other day, I was having a discussion online with an author I respect. He referred to Nice Dragons Finish Last (affiliate link) as popcorn fiction. I disagreed and I’m going to explain why, but before I get started with that, I wanted to point out that there is nothing wrong with popcorn fiction. The world we live in is pretty messed up. Just yesterday—as I write this—the House passed an atrocious bill that would make it impossible for me and million of others like me (self employed with a pre-existing condition) to get health insurance. If this becomes—and stays—the law of the land, I’ll die sooner. Sometimes when you face an evil backed by an entire government, it can seem impossible to do or see anything that’s any good.

When that happens, simple escapist fiction is one of the greatest things in life.

If you think I just got too political, I’m not sorry and you should just go fuck yourself. My existence, and the existence of those whose lives are more fragile than mine aren’t political.

He’s Not Like Other Dragons

Soo…what was that I was saying about the Heartstriker series not being popcorn fiction? That claim rests primarily on two things, the fundamental reality that what we read shapes how we look at the world and the entire premise behind the Heartstriker series.

See, the protagonist of the series is Julius, the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan and one that rejects the typical deviousness and everyone-is-an-enemy-ness of dragons. Everyone—in clan and out—is plotting and scheming all the time. Any alliance is simply a betrayal in waiting. Everyone is the enemy every minute of every day.

It’s messy and dangerous and stupid and Julius rejects it all. In doing do, he demonstrates several fundamental principles of being decent people.

Being Yourself in Spite of Family

Julius refuses to be just like his family. He’s been taught since he was a hatchling that it’s his nature to be callous and devious—that the right way to behave involves manipulating people into doing things for his benefit.

In refusing to accept these lessons, he’s not only refusing to be a stereotype, he’s insisting that his own moral compass is sufficient. He’s asserting that there’s more than one way to be a dragon, and that everyone else has it wrong.

When Julius has to deal with a dragon from a rival clan, he rejects the instinct to treat her as an enemy and treats her like a person. Sure, she’s similar to her clan in a number of ways, but she’s different in many ways as well. The result is an alliance built on mutual respect and understanding rather than political convenience.

Guess which lasts longer.

When a Weakness is a Strength

Sometimes, something that’s perceived as a weakness is actually a strength. You can see it today when the enemies of decency decry diversity. They think—in the words of V for Vendetta—that strength comes from unity and unity comes from faith.

Strength doesn’t come from unity, at least not in the sense they mean it. They take unity to mean sameness. Same background. Same religion. Same music. Same art. Same whatever, I’m already bored.

Strength doesn’t come from sameness, it comes from acceptance. It comes from humility. It comes from understanding that everyone has the right to be who they are. It comes from having a diversity of perspectives that offer a number of different solutions to every problem.

If all you know how to do is plot and scheme, you’re going to try to plot and scheme your way out of things that would be better faced with cooperation. When you see each person as an individual and not a stereotype, you can open yourself up to addressing different problems with different solutions.

You Can’t Fight Evil by Doing Evil

But none of that is the fundamental point of the Heartriker books—at least not so far. The further Julius gets in his adventures, the more pressure there is on him to succeed and the more dire the consequences are for him if he does not.

And yet, he persisted—or persists, I suppose, if you think grammar is more important than a callback to the real-world. There is a point at which Julius is in a fight—not figuratively—and he’s getting his ass kicked by a dragon he could beat.

He refuses to fight back, not because he doesn’t want to win and not because he doesn’t think he can win, but because winning the fight would mean losing the war. Julius understands one very significant principle. You can’t fight evil by doing evil. If you want to make the world less evil, you’re not going to accomplish it by doing evil. You’re going to accomplish it by doing good and letting other people see you do good.

And that, ultimately, is why the Heartstriker series isn’t popcorn fiction. It has a message behind it, and if more people heeded that message, well, we’d live in a better world.

How Phaethon is Trying to Save the World

How Phaethon is Trying to Save the World

It means “Shining One” and has been used to name everything from birds to more than one character in Greek myth to an asteroid and a maybe planet, but for our purposes, Phaethon is an attempt to save the planet.

This attempt comes in the form of a novel by Rachel Sharp (affiliate link) featuring a millennial couple that for some strange reason that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with ships and icebergs go by Jack and Rose. Jack and Rose are just folks, cobbling together a living with a part-time job and whatever they can scrape together by what my generation might call dicking around on the internet.

Some of that dicking around involves taking apart pieces of tech to see what makes it tick. When they get the newest, super-coolest phone—the Phaethon—they do what their followers expect and take it apart. What they learn sends them down a rabbit hole of weird that ends with them fighting some big-ass fae who are trying to take over the world.

When I say the book is trying to save the world, that’s not what I mean. I mean that if we were all like Jack and Rose, the world would be a much better place.

How? Why?

Curiosity

It starts with curiosity. Jack and Rose don’t take apart a Phaethon simply to generate YouTube ad revenue. They do it because they are curious about how the world works. They take apart tech because they understand tech, because they want to see what new devices do with existing tech, and because they want to pass on the knowledge to others, the philosophical underpinning of which is simple. The more we know about how our world works, the better we all are.

What they discover—and this is all in the Amazon description—is that the components in the phone cannot possibly do what the phone does. Do they chalk it up to magic and let it be? Hell no, they investigate and hack and pry and conclusively demonstrate that it’s magic. Their new phone is powered by a living being.

Conscience

Very few living entities are happy being the power source for a magical new phone. Rose and Jack rather quickly realize that this entity isn’t one of those few exceptions and take it upon themselves to track down the real location of this entity and see what’s what. When they accomplish this—using one of those sufficiently advanced technologies that is indistinguishable from magic—they realize that not only is the entity behind their phone being held prisoner, she is far from alone.

Someone else’s problem, right?

Mmmnope.

Jack and Rose have more than a bit of compassion for their fellow creatures and even though they’re more than a little freaked out by the existence of things that really aren’t supposed to exist, they do everything they can to help.

As one might expect, this causes problems. The evil overlords that are enslaving the fae aren’t really thrilled with the idea of someone coming along and freeing all their phone-enablers. It messes with their plans for global domination, don’t ya know?

Which is to say, the Big Bad fights back.

Responsibility

Jack and Rose are just folks and even though they have semi-unwillingly roped some friends into the battle, they’re not really equipped to fight with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

But…who else is there? While they use their tech skills to get the truth out there, that’s the kind of thing that takes time for people to grok and time is not something they have much of. The fight is now and they and their friends are the only ones who know there is a fight happening at all, so of course they go into the fight with everything they have even though it looks hopeless.

In many ways, we are what we read, especially when we read it at those ages where we’re figuring out who we are. If enough people read Phaethon, it will do its part to help save not just the planet, but those of us who inhabit it.

The curiosity to seek out knowledge of our world, the compassion and conscience to try to improve the situation of those who are being oppressed, and the responsibility to tackle a problem—even an absurdly large one—when nobody else is in a position to, these are traits we need more of in this world.

How Rogue One Showed Me What I Hate About Epic Fantasy

How Rogue One Showed Me What I Hate About Epic Fantasy

I love epic Fantasy. I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember—at least since first grade, and probably earlier. But somewhere around junior high, I started feeling this little tickle in the back of my brain telling me there was something wrong with it. It wasn’t enough to stop me from reading and enjoying it, of course. If there was a world I could get lost in, surely it was better than the real one even if it was under imminent threat by the greatest evil of all time. It was just that when the hero saved the universe, it always felt like there was something missing. It wasn’t until I saw Rogue One that I realized what it was.

A New Hope had something Empire and Jedi Lacked

As far as I’m concerned, Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since the original. True Star Wars Fans (TM) will almost universally point to Empire as the best and they have a point, but I don’t really care about movie making and while I care quite a bit about stories, their structure, and what creative people can do with them, Star Wars gets a pass on all of that.

The original came out in 1977. I was six years old when I saw it. When I hear that theme and when I see the crawl, I’m six years old again and all I really care about is how the movie makes me feel. Rogue One made me feel much like the original and I think that’s because it has something the original had that Empire and Jedi lacked.

Hope.

Empire, for all its excellence as a film, is pretty bleak. We end the movie with Han Solo frozen in carbonite and Luke Skywalker getting his hand replaced while dealing with the worst news he’d ever received. It wasn’t pretty.

Jedi was pretty and a lot of people knock it for that, but it had a bit of hope. After all, the second Death Star was destroyed. Vader and the Emperor were dead. The Rebel Alliance had just achieved a tremendous victory that was going to overturn the power structure of the entire galaxy.

It’s a big hope and, in some ways, a very impersonal one. To be sure, it was personal to Luke and the gang, but they had been joined by a whole bunch of people you didn’t know or care about unless you read the extended universe.

The hope in Rogue One was different, as was the hope in A New Hope and it’s that difference that showed me what I was reacting to in all the epic fantasy I was reading (it was a lot, folks).

No Chosen One, Just Folks

The original Star Wars didn’t have a chosen one. The retconning of one in the prequel trilogy is, was, and will always be asinine and midichlorians can kiss my entire ass.

I have at least two problems with the concept of the chose one. First, I find the notion of destiny to be entirely repulsive. If we don’t have some degree of free will, we aren’t really people.

And while we’re at it, people who present that false choice to the chosen one have a seat reserved for them right next to the people who talk in theaters. You know the false choice I’m talking about, it’s the one where the chosen one is presented with the choice between fulfilling the prophecy or of everything and everyone they love being destroyed.

It’s bullshit. I dare say there isn’t a one of us that would choose to have our entire world destroyed just so we could avoid doing battle with Lord Voldythings.

It’s About the Choices of Ordinary People

But there’s more than that. Epic Fantasy—and despite the spaceships, I think it’s entirely appropriate to fit Star Wars into the genre—is about the entire known universe fighting a tremendous evil, but in much of it, we don’t see the entire universe. There are often references to enormous armies fighting somewhere but it often happens off screen—until the movie adaptation, of course—while we center on the “real fight” which is always a one-on-one between the hero and the villain.

This, too is nonsense. Evil is not someone else’s fight.

The average everyday person is often seen as a bystander even if they take part in the fight. They may have names but they don’t have agency. They are, essentially, sitting around making time and watching the hero do everything.

This is what has always struck me as wrong. Maybe it’s the current political climate that made the issue so stark, but in Rogue One—as in A New Hope—we see ordinary people making the decision to make a difference.

Luke Skywalker is just a moisture farmer dreaming of something bigger. Ben Kenobe is just a crazy old man with memories of being something more. Han Solo is just a smuggler with a pile of debts and a price on his head. Leia—even though she’s introduced as a princess—isn’t very princess-like. We see her give a message to the droids and convince them to abandon ship, but we don’t know it’s her ship unless we’ve read it outside the film. And after those initial scenes, where she hides the plans in R2D2 and confronts Darth Vader, we see her get tortured and her planet blown up. By the time we see her do anything princess-like, we’re minutes from the end credits and she’s not much of a princess anymore.

They were just people. The same can be said of Jyn Erso and the rest of the main (ish) characters of Rogue One. They’re just normal folks who got it in their head that the world should be better than it is and decided to do something about it. Sure, Erso had a connection and the other guys had specific skills, but isn’t that true of everyone?

Two Hundred Thousand People

As I write this, #climatemarch is trending on Twitter as organizers estimate two hundred thousand people marched in Washington DC to draw attention to the problem.

Two hundred thousand people.

Some of them have skills. Some of them have connections. Some of them are just looking for some way to make their world a better place one tiny bit at a time.

And that, ultimately, is the problem I have with Epic Fantasy. They are tremendous, engrossing stories of the battle of good and evil, but they rarely involve the everyman. Sure, sure, farm boy made good and all that, but by the time they’re making a difference, they aren’t a farm boy anymore.

It’s like people took a look at Tolkien and saw how only a simple hobbit could carry the ring to Mount Doom and ignored the fact that all the simple hobbit did was carry the ring to Mount Doom. He didn’t raise an army. He didn’t battle the Dark One. There was no abstruse wand lore that meant Lord Voldythings couldn’t kill him. There was just a guy who wished he could go putter in his garden doing something he felt he had to do and it made all the difference.

Was The Flash’s Musical Episode Really Better than Buffy’s?

I don’t usually watch the CW superhero shows the day they air, so I was watching with some skepticism as the accolades rolled in for the Flash’s musical episode Tuesday night. The Twitterverse loved “Duet” and parts of it implied that it was the best musical episode ever. I’ve seen “Once More With Feeling” from Buffy too many times to take that at face value but then I saw the episode.

It was so much fun. It’s precisely the kind of we-don’t-take-ourselves-too-seriously fun that makes the Flash so much fun. It knows that everything from the premise of the show to the characters and plots of the show are completely ridiculous so it amps them all up to eleven and just has fun with it.

Duet does a lot of the things that made Once More With Feeling so great. It wasn’t just a regular episode of the show with some songs added—well, it was, but like Once More With Feeling, there was just enough explanation in the plot to make it make sense. In this case, the Music Meister shows up to teach folks a lesson and does it by locking Barry Allen and Kara Zor-El in a sort of dream state where they have to play out a musical to get out alive. While they’re off singing, the Music Meister goes off to rob a bank and if that doesn’t come back to mean something, I am going to be very disappointed.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the most popular musical episodes come in shows that have a fantastical element. It’s a heck of a lot easier to introduce a Music Meister or a singing, dancing demon in a show that has some fantastical elements than it is in other shows and that integral-to-the-plot-even-if-it’s-so-very-cheesy-ness of it is why it can work on The Flash but wouldn’t work on Mr. Belvedere.

There’s another similarity though, that I think is ultimately much more important. What happens during the songs is integral to the plot and more than that, it has an enormous impact on the relationships between the characters. This is how these episodes reflect on what it means to be a fan. When you’re a fan, you can’t help but treat characters like real people and not matter how much you know it can’t be so, you want them to be happy.

In “Duet,” the songs make Barry and Kara realize that they know how to be happy and they’ve done some stupid things that are getting in the way of that happiness.

In “One More With Feeling,” and I think this is why it is ultimately a bit better than “Duet” the things that happen during the songs impact more relationships on more levels in more directions than “Duet” does. “Duet” simply has two people in parallel situations where “Once More With Feeling” presages the end—at least temporarily—of two romantic relationships, the beginning of one very unhappy, very unhealthy romantic relationship, and it punches every relationship Buffy has with her friends right in their respective guts. It hits every important character from multiple angles and closes it out with the absolute epitome of how messed up everything is by having Buffy kiss Spike.