review of Hiron Ennes's novel Leech

I know I am dreaming, but the dream knows it too.

I loved this. It sets exactly the mood I wanted for October. I probably would've loved it even if I'd gone for the print version instead of the audiobook, but Abigail Thorn's performance really helps immerse you in the gloom.

Personal identity - what defines the boundaries between one mind and another - is one of my favorite topics in philosophy and science fiction, so of course I think it's delightful that this book is told from the point of view of a parasitic hivemind. The gradual shift in the narrator from seeing herself as that hivemind to seeing herself as a person it victimized is unsurprising but well-executed.

Many patients, in times of stress, will recount dreams haunted by images of their bodies falling apart. Sometimes, they tell me stories of paralysis, or rotten extremities dangling by thin skins of flesh. Most commonly, they talk about their teeth painlessly and inexplicably falling from their gums. These dreams never fail to horrify their dreamers, and I can understand the discomfort in watching one's parts detach. But never do these dreamers experience what it's like to be the limb that rots away, to be the tooth that falls from the mouth.

Being a sentient parasite would involve some serious ethical quandaries, but Ennes doesn't choose to paint the Institute as a morally ambiguous figure. Its willingness to kill not just to survive, but to corner the market on its chosen profession, makes it hard to deny that the Institute is a villain. I confess there's still part of me that wants to root for it, though. The parasite's ability to make humans cooperate and to provide a kind of immortality seems utopian from a certain standpoint.

It's fascinating that the narrator feels she cannot disclaim responsibility for crimes she committed under the parasite's influence; she compares it to the rapist Didier's attempt to disclaim responsibility for his crimes because he was under the influence of trauma. From a determinist and consequentialist perspective I'd say the analogy fails in two important ways. First, feeling guilty would serve a purpose for Didier: it would encourage him to change himself so that he stops hurting others. This is not true for the narrator, who, with the parasite neutralized, now has no inclination to behave like the Institute. Second and relatedly, part of why society would be justified in shaming and punishing Didier is the hope that this would deter others like him from acting as he did. In contrast, holding the narrator accountable would not have any deterrent effect - it won't deter the Institute, since the Institute won't experience her punishment; and it won't deter people from being infected by the Institute, since that's not something they do knowingly or willingly anyway.