It's been said that if Lucifer Rising was Jim Mortimore's tribute to Larry Niven, then Parasite is his tribute to Arthur C. Clarke. Like Lucifer Rising, it's an Artefact story. A whopping unknowable alien unknown appears in the solar system and our heroes spend a whole book just trying to decide what makes it tick. That's it. That's the whole story. That's the kind of thing Clarke loved to do, sacrificing everything else in a novel for the sake of a sense of wonder. When it works, it's awesome. Many people hated Parasite, but I thought it was astonishing.
Quite apart from anything else, you'll get Mortimore being Mortimore. That won't be to everyone's taste, but me, I'll always queue up for that. The Artefact is flesh-shreddingly hostile, often in gross ways that'll make you worry about Jim's brain, but it's a weird and beautiful world. The cover painting doesn't do it justice. If you want to visit a land of wonder and have your skin crawl in a hundred different directions, read this book. Consider this: there's a cannibalism motif, but it's the most mundane bit of the novel since we've seen similar material elsewhere in Beltempest and Venusian Lullaby.
Virgin forced Jim to include a villain, but you can tell it's a last-minute addition. People are almost irrelevant in a story this big. We want to know how the Artefact works and whether it'll eat the solar system. (In a Mortimore novel, that's very possible.) Though having said that, the baddie doesn't detract from anything until the end and I liked the Elysium back-story behind his presence. It's just background, but it's fun background. It's always nice to see futuristic worldbuilding in Who a bit more sophisticated than three actors and a BBC corridor.
The TARDIS crew are fine, though the Doctor disappears for large chunks of the book. I suppose an Artefact story like this wouldn't give much opportunity for juicy Doctorish scenes, but that's something of a Mortimore trademark. None of his solo NAs gave the Doctor much screen time. There's a theme of change - everything is changing, from the characters to their environment. By then Ace's departure in Set Piece was only two books away, while there's even apparent foreshadowing for the TVM. The Doctor seems to brood about an impending regeneration. (Was it around this point that Virgin hoped to do a story arc with a temporary regeneration, in which McCoy would briefly become David Troughton?)
Side-note for continuity hounds: this book takes place in the 25th century (p140, p165).
If you're familiar with Artefact stories, this one subverts the cliches. Normally they're the work of higher beings beyond our understanding, yadda yadda, but this one is... no, I'll let you find out for yourselves. This book probably contains more bio-pain, ickiness and gross twists than all the other Virgin NAs put together. If your storytelling preferences are for fluffy fun instead of alien environment hard SF, run away! This book is Mortimore-ish right down to its itty-bitty flesh-shredding microbes and as uncompromising as hell. That's why I love it.
Aaaaaaaaaaargh, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrgggg, haaaaaarrraaaaack, blaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!
Okay, well, now that I've got that out of my system, I'm going to attempt to explain my reaction to PARASITE. On second thoughts, I may have gotten it right the first time just by screaming incoherently.
PARASITE is a hard science-fiction story punctuated by people in pain, in agony, and generally not having a pleasant time of it. It takes place in a gigantic structure called "the Artifact", large enough to house entire moons. It's a zero-gee environment, populated by floating forests, detached mountains, and space-monkeys. The first hundred pages or so are spent just describing and exploring the grand entity, and I found this section to be utterly absorbing. Mortimore obviously spent a lot of time and energy in coming up with this setting, and I think that investment really paid off. The plot is virtually at a standstill while the foundations are being laid, but the world-building itself is excellent.
Unfortunately, pieces start falling off at about the halfway point. It becomes too weighty and bloated for its own good; plot threads that had carefully been developed during the beginning and middle sections are promptly dropped, never to appear again. Many of the items mentioned on the back cover fizzle out long before the resolution of the book. The preview tells us about "a solar system on the brink of civil war", but I'm really not sure why this is important. By the end, some of the large scale of the story comes quite a way towards redeeming the book. The revelations concerning the gigantic Artifact are genuinely fascinating. But to use a metaphor: the bottom of the ladder is basically secure; the top of it is similarly sound; however, it's the middle rungs that appear dangerously rickety, and unable to support the weight of the whole.
Mortimore creates a lot of interesting characters in this, one suspects purely for the sake of killing them off in a variety of gruesome ways. I liked many of the secondary characters, especially the strange semi-corporeal character named Midnight, who, unfortunately, I kept visualizing as Strong Sad of Home Star Runner fame (www.homestarrunner.com). Not all of them are constructed well, but those that are become quite interesting. The downside to the writing in general was that as soon as Mortimore started torturing his characters (and he starts early), my interest in them began to wane. Putting people through the wringer can be a great way of increasing the tension, but doing it too much makes the narrative monotonous. (And you know the characters are in a lot of pain, because when we see their internal monologues, their grammar starts to break down and they construct extremely long run-on sentences like this one describing their pain, what their pain feels like, what horrors they're experiencing, and, oh, how bad it hurts, and generally repeating how much it hurts, it hurts, oh, it hurts, and the pain, and the agony, and the hurting, oh, my toes, and the pain, oh, oh, and then a bunch of dashes are put in to break up the - agony since the creation of the universe - pain that everyone is going through. If that sentence irritated you, then you may want to read selected portions of PARASITE with your eyes closed.)
And there are lots of little flaws that crop up throughout this book. Characters make strange leaps of logic, or appear suddenly in places without any indication as to how they got there. There's an example near the beginning of the book. Ace and Benny have left the Doctor and the TARDIS behind in a jungle, and they float away towards a distant mountain. Through a series of misadventures, Benny is injured and left on the mountain while Ace races back to the jungle hoping to obtain some medicine from the TARDIS. Meanwhile, the Doctor is still in the jungle, running very quickly away from some alien menace that presumably wants to eat him. While Benny is awaiting Ace's return, the Doctor suddenly appears on the mountain with no explanation as to what happened in the jungle, how he got to the mountain, how he knew she was there, how he managed to pass Ace without seeing her, etc. Now, is this by itself a major flaw? No, I can easily imagine a set of circumstances to get the Doctor from point A to point B. But it's indicative of the book in general. There's too many of these little quirks and illogical progressions. Grand ideas, but sloppy in execution.
There's a inadvertently accurate summary of PARASITE on page 289: "[Benny] had vague memories of panic, of fear, of horror, of great gulping sadness of which, when she looked back on them later, not very many seemed to make a great deal of sense." I wouldn't be as hard on the book as Benny's summary would indicate, but it's not far off from the truth. I can't say that I liked PARASITE exactly, but I think I feel safe saying that I appreciated some of the Big Ideas that Mortimore was throwing around. He was thinking big, and I can definitely respect that. He may not have hit everything he was aiming at, but the things that he was successful at here left me very impressed. It's a pity that the entire book doesn't feel very cohesive. It has a rushed flavor to it, which may point to the possibility of the book being better if Mortimore and the editors had taken more care. There is a hell of a lot of potential here, but only about half of it is fulfilled.