Review of Parasite Pig
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, July 14, 2003 (Updates on July 27, 2003)
Parasite Pig is a sequel to Interstellar Pig. The main character is 16-year-old boy named Barney who previously met up with a bunch of aliens playing an interstellar game to capture something called the piggy. Now working after school at a library to pay for the damages the aliens did to his parents' beach house in the last book, he starts a new adventure by recruiting another player to what he thinks is now just a board game. The recruit is an alien tapeworm who kidnaps Barney to help win the real game. Another alien kidnaps Barney's friend Katie. Barney has a parasite in his brain that controls his behavior through hormones, but also gives him immunity to an alien lichen that has the piggy. The parasite needs Barney to be eaten by alien crabs in order to complete her life cycle. Barney and Katie end up prisoners of the human-eating crabs. Katie helps Barney overcome the parasite's control, escape the crabs, get the piggy, and return to Earth with the tapeworm alien.
I'm not a biologist, but I found it rather implausible that the simplest of life forms, cysts and tapeworms and especially lichen, could be self-aware, develop FTL starships, and have telepathic powers. The book says the aliens believe the one with the piggy at the end of the game is the only one to survive. But it was never clear to me why species with incompatible biology would compete against each other for survival. (Perhaps this was covered in the previous book which I haven't read?) It was also difficult to believe that aliens would find humans edible (we can't even eat most of the living things on our own planet), and certainly not likely that a self-aware cyst would evolve to use imported humans as a host to complete her life cycle. How this same cyst would then provide immunity to yet another alien life - a lichen that can move like a slime mold and eats everything in its path - is just, well, nonsensical. The token game "rule" that some of the aliens must use breathing masks to visit various planets seems silly alongside these illogical assumptions. However, this is fiction, and no one can say that these things are impossible. It certainly was creative and humorous to have a tapeworm as a primary character.
Barney is concerned that his onboard weeks will be months or years back on Earth because of time dilation effects. The alien tells him not to worry, that by going faster than light (FTL), the time passage will balance out. Current physics states that nothing can go FTL, and that only light can go that fast. As a body speeds up to light speed, its mass becomes infinite, and its time (as viewed by the outside observer) slows to a stop. It is not clear what would happen if a body could go faster than light because that is considered impossible. The math seems to indicate that objects might appear to move backwards in time the way a slower car seems to fall behind another on the freeway even though both are moving forward. So perhaps the alien is correct saying that time would balance out in this impossible situation. However, instead of using FTL drive to avoid time dilation and communication problems, I would have preferred the aliens slip in and out of wormholes or other dimensions - both of which are allowed though unproven to exist by current science. Still, the use of FTL is so commonplace in science fiction, I can't really take off any points for this. I applaud the author's mention of relativity and offering a plausible explanation rather than ignoring the problem altogether.
Another technology used in this book is called a disguise selector. The person or alien presses a button and becomes some other shape. Barney and Katie use it to be crabs, and must learn to walk and see sideways. This gadget makes as much sense as a Star Trek transporter (another thing these aliens have), in other words, it doesn't. It probably works by the same principles as the impossible FTL drive. The author wisely didn't make up some techno-babble to explain these things, but rather just used them like we would use a microwave or car without stopping to explain how they work.
Experienced readers who expect the kind of characterization and plot complexity found in Harry Potter will be disappointed with Barney and his story. He is about as unsophisticated as the purple TV character of the same name. (Whose image I had trouble getting out of my head, especially when Barney is inside a dinosaur with the tapeworm. Was this on purpose?) Reading about his experiences in the previous book, it just wasn't credible that he could be so easily fooled into thinking the alien player was a human. In this and his reactions to being kidnapped and imprisoned, he came across as a gullible, yet likeable, 12-year-old. He's supposed to be 16. His deepest thoughts were about his mother's cooking. The gross descriptions of the tapeworm's habitat and of two girls being tortured by the crabs are sure to entertain 9-year-old boys, but will probably have girls of any age looking for something else to read. It wasn't the grossness that bothered me as much as the fact that the kids didn't try to rescue these girls or any of their fellow victims. They selfishly just got themselves out and went home. They showed more kindness to the dumb dinosaur. I think the book is best suited for 8-12 year-old boys who haven't done much reading, and thus won't easily guess what must happen next.
I give this book 1 point for consistency, 1 point for interesting alien characters, 1 point for clarity of descriptions and terms, and 1 point for readability (I didn't find even one typo!). It loses 1 point for not using science in the plot or solution of the problem, and 1 point for providing no insight or new perspective on the future. Total: 4 points. Parasite Pig is a "grossly" entertaining book with no real science content that may be most enjoyed by middle-grade, and mostly male, readers. Rating: Okay.
Title: Parasite Pig
Author: William Sleator
Ages: 12 and up (but I think for younger readers)
Number of Pages: 192
Retail Price: $15.99