Sena, Hideaki. Parasite Eve. Trans. Tyran Grillo. New York: Vertical, 2005. Summary
: Dr. Toshiaki Nagashima thinks he has it all. His wife Kiyomi is beautiful and devoted, his research on mitochondria in human liver cells is coming to fruition, and he just had an article accepted by the prestigious science journal Nature
. But it all comes crashing down around his ears when Kiyomi dies suddenly in a car accident. Desperate to salvage some memory of his beloved, he agrees to allow her kidneys to be donated, and on the sly, he extracts some of her liver cells to cultivate in his lab. Unfortunately, there is something exceedingly strange about Kiyomi's cells, which start to mutate and multiply rapidly. An ancient—and malevolent—sentience has awakened to seize control of its own destiny, and only Toshiaki will be able to stop it…or, rather, her
: In 1986, infamous eromanga creator Maeda Toshio began serialization of Chojin Densetsu Urotsukidoji
, popularly known in the West as Legend of the Overfiend
and forever remembered for its tentacle porn. Just a year later in 1987, a team of scientists published an article which used mitochondrial DNA to trace back human ancestry to a so-called “Mitochondrial Eve.” Question: What do these two factoids have in common? Answer: Both were surely bouncing about in the head of Pharmacology graduate student Hideaki Sena after too many hours pushing pipettes in the lab—and their unholy mating eventually spawned the story concept for Sena's 1995 debut novel, Parasite Eve
Japanese pop culture aficionados in the West are most likely to recognize Parasite Eve
through the popular franchise of videogames first released back in the late 1990s. These videogames are set in the same world as the novel, but their action takes place well after the events Sena's original story. You do not need to be at all acquainted with the games to appreciate and enjoy this surprisingly erudite piece of prose. In fact, the novel was intended to stand alone. Of course, those who loved the games and want to know exactly how it all started will definitely want to read the Parasite Eve
novel as well.
However, it may not be quite like the gamers expect. Given the lurid reputation of its pop cultural afterlife, it is surprising how sober—tedious, even—broad swaths of the text actually prove to be. Sena is a PhD of Pharmacology who is writing about (wait for it) cell biology: Prepare to be blinded by science, escorted through the hallowed halls of the academic institution, and stultified by all-nighters in the lab. The day-to-day labor of biomedical research is all quite beautifully described in scrupulous detail (with a pleasing, natural translation courtesy of Tyran Grillo) and should be easy for even a layperson to understand. (Apparently, Sena professes well.) It is instantly convincing, and it comes alive in a way, alas for those expecting to be entertained by base, gory horror, that the Mitochondrial Eve monster never does.
In fact, Eve does not make an appearance in the *ahem* flesh until more than halfway through the three-hundred page novel, and it's at that point that you may be half-glad, half-disappointed, that this book has no illustrations. There is just something about Toshiaki opening up his incubator to see selected pieces of his deceased wife's anatomy masturbating themselves that works better as a visual than as a passage of prose. You know what I mean? Ditto the vintage erotic-grotesque scene that involves Eve copulating with Toshiaki. Suffice it to say that Sena writes better scenes of graduate students giving conference papers than of mutant cellular masses giving head.
Unfortunately, the characters are not particularly interesting, either. Despite a large cast of female supporting characters, including kidney recipient Mariko, doomed wife Kiyomi, lab assistant Asakura, and the Mitochondrial Eve herself, none of them are particularly nuanced, well-developed personalities. They are just plot vehicles…and incubators. Male supporting characters, on the other hand, tend to spontaneously combust. (There's yet another dirty joke to be cracked here, but I will refrain this time.) Only Toshiaki truly comes alive; you cannot help but sympathize with a guy whose ordinary passions for his work and his wife go so terribly wrong.
The resolution is the least satisfying aspect of Parasite Eve
. Given the existence of the videogame franchise, it would not be too much of a spoiler to say that it is an open-ended, ambiguous one. But besides the way in which the immediate crisis is resolved, which again seems like it was extracted from a Maeda manga at the cellular level, we never learn why it was Kiyomi
's mitochondria which rebelled. Sena himself admits as much through the narrative proxy of Asakura. Nor is it ever made clear why the liver cells Toshiaki cultivated became Eve, but why the mitochondria in the kidney donated to Mariko were Eve's “sisters.” Still, it certainly leaves ample room for sequels, and sequels, as we know, were had in abundance. Rating
- A reasonably smart, thought-provoking horror novel for serious science buffs.