I know when most of my American readers see the words “Parasite Eve”, the first thing they are going to think of is the 1998 PS1 game and maybe its shitty sequel. But this is not what I am here to talk about today. I’m here to talk about what came before it.
Allow me to whisk you back to the distant past. The year 1995. During his graduate studies to become a pharmacologist, a young man named Hideaki Sena decided he wanted to write a sci-fi/horror novel. What he produced was immediately lauded by the Japanese public and instantly started winning awards. That little novel of his was, you guessed it, Parasite Eve.
Like most American audiences, I played the video game first. And I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoy it even more now that all of the science-speak involved in it does not go right over my head. But, I found it weird that one of the characters was talking about past events and a similar phenomenon that happened in Japan. We, as the players did not get to see these events, and I for one, found it really strange that they would be talking like that.
Some time later, I discovered that the game was based on a horror novel, and it was that to which the character was alluding. So, I eventually got my hands on it and it sat on my bookshelf for another couple years as I moved three times and kind of forgot about it. Then, early last year, I finally said, “Fuck it! I am reading this damn book and there’s nothing you can do about it!”.
So, after finally reading it, did Dr. Sena deserve such immediate adoration? Well… yes and no. While the actual premise is interesting and well-founded, and it’s all backed up with Dr. Sena’s scientific knowledge and understanding of microbiology, the actual narrative of the novel is a bit disjointed and poorly executed.
Now, I read the version translated by Tyran Grillo, so maybe it was just a less-than-perfect translation. Even if that were the case, that’s actually only a small part of it. Poor translation or not, I think when outlining the order of events in the story, Dr. Sena could have used a little help.
Example: Parasite Eve begins with the wife of the main character (named Kiyomi) getting into a car crash. The accident causes brain death and sets in motion all of the events to come. Sure, that’s fine. But peppered throughout the rest of the novel are weird flashback moments told from the point of view of the now dead woman. To me, these flashbacks always destroyed the flow of the novel. Most of the time, you don’t get any new information from them. I think they were supposed to give us some sort of insight into the antagonist or explain exactly what’s going on. But, the whole first 3/4 of the novel are already doing that. Maybe they were supposed to build tension and mystery? But again, the rest of the book was already doing that. Perhaps it was some kind of character development? But if that were the case, why should we care, really? We know first thing that she’s going to die. That’s her whole purpose. If we are supposed to be made to care about this woman, it should be through the words and actions of those that survived. In fact, that would have been better for the characters that are actually moving the story forward. It would have given us better insight into the main character’s (named Toshiaki) psyche.
If he absolutely had to have the flashbacks in there, he should have opened with them. We should have been made to think that Kiyomi was the main character and grown to care about her, and then she should have died. It would have been a big surprise, and I think we would have become much more involved with the events to follow. And I know that kind of thing can be effective, because Alfred Hitchcock totally rocked that plot twist in Psycho (1960) when Vera Miles got shanked in the shower part-way through the film. It would have built the mystery much higher, and I wouldn’t have been saying, “Yeah, I already know what’s happening. Do we really need to know all of this?”.
Even if all of that had been sorted out, there are still several other problems that I need to address. The big one is the point-of-view switching. Every time a new chapter begins, the narrative switches to the POV of a different character. This is not an easy thing to do well. It can be a great way to learn about individual characters and build dramatic irony*. A great example of effective POV switching is Myst: The Book of Ti’ana by Rand and Robyn Miller. It’s something that I really hope to be able to emulate in my own writing (not here, of course. That’d be downright silly). A great example in ineffective POV switching would be… well… Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena. So many chapters could have been removed entirely and the story would not be any worse for it. They give us no new information, or some new information on a character that doesn’t matter. They simply don’t move the story forward, and sometimes stop the story altogether.
I mentioned briefly above the author took 3/4 of the book explaining what was happening. That wasn’t really a joke. After the initial car accident and death of Kiyomi, it takes a long time for anything to happen. And if you had a problem with all of the science talk in the video game, stay far away from the novel! Dr. Sena spends more of the novel explaining microbiology, the purpose of every piece of scientific equipment, the exact procedure of kidney transplants, etc. than anything else. And though I kind of enjoyed learning all of that information, I’m willing to bet that most people reading a horror novel don’t really want a science lecture. A lot of the scientific information that he gives us has no real bearing on the story itself. I can respect trying to combine entertainment with education, but Hideaki included a bit too much of the latter.
And because of that, the horror aspect of the novel suffers. There are some tense and creepy scenes here and there, just to remind us that we are indeed reading a horror novel and not a microbiology presentation. So then, he kind of has to squeeze all of the horrific stuff into the last 70 pages. And once that happened, everything definitely became more exciting, but it became less about the feeling of horror and more about grossing out the audience. He had to fit an entire novel’s worth of shock value into the last quarter of the book, and it certainly suffered for it.
There’s one last thing that I need to mention. As you may or may not know, Japanese culture is not exactly at the forefront of respecting women. And it kind of shows in a few parts of Parasite Eve. It’s weird, because women are the absolute most important part of the novel. There are extremely intelligent women all over the place. A woman graduates with a PhD at the top of her class at the end. So, it seems Dr. Sena doesn’t really have a problem with women and understands that they too can accomplish great things… But… there are still one or two parts that made me cringe, simply because of their lack of respect. Remember how Kiyomi was brain-dead? She’s taken off of life support and is going to have her kidneys donated. As they are prepping her body for surgery, the book goes out of it’s way to point out that the dead woman’s nipples were hard. And the fourteen-year-old girl that receives one of Kiyomi’s kidneys? As she’s being prepped for surgery, the author makes a point of describing her pubic hair.
Now, I’m not a prude or anything, but I cannot think of one reason for including that. Is it somehow important that we know about the teenage girl’s pubic hair or the dead woman’s hard nipples? No. It’s not pertinent to the story. It’s not entertaining. It’s not interesting. Fuck, it’s not even sexually arousing (unless you’re into necrophilia or pedophilia. And really, Dr. Sena, is that the kind of audience you want to attract to your novel?)! It’s just scummy. It takes these women, for whom you seemed to have at least some respect, and turns them into objects. And that, dear readers, is not cool.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s some kind of severe culture gap, but to me, those just seem like horrible things to include in your novel.
All of that aside, the actual premise behind Parasite Eve is solid. The premise alone is enough to bring my rating of the whole book up from Okay to Good. I think had Hideaki teamed up with someone that had more experience with fiction writing, it would have gone from Good to Holy-Shit-Mind-Blowingly-Awesome-Blargh! But instead, it’s just good.
Since this is my first book review, I’ll explain my rating system. Unlike movies and video games, a novel is not easy to break down into categories like Graphics and Acting. They’re much more imagination based, so instead of rating different aspects of the book and taking the average, I’m only going to rate two categories: Story and Storytelling.
*For those that don’t remember, dramatic irony is when the reader/viewer has information that the characters do not.