BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A woman who long ago overdosed on the designer drug Numinous sets out to discover who is pushing the drug on the streets.
PROS: Amazing characters traveling through a diverse and convincing near future based on speculative neuroscience.
CONS: A possibly overly optimistic view of mental illness.
BOTTOM LINE: Fast-paced and engaging with a great narrative voice, perfect for those who like their science fiction to explore the borders of human consciousness.
With the title of his fourth novel, Daryl Gregory has given his game away. In his four novels so far he starts his stories where other people might end theirs–after the party, after the crisis. In his Crawford-award winning debut, Pandemonium, the main character is still a mess twenty years after being possessed by a demon. In Devil’s Alphabet, a town has settled into a new ‘normality’ after a mutagenic plague hit them; the protagonist comes back to try to heal his old wounds. In Raising Stony Mayhall, the zombie plague was intense but short lived; the few remaining zombies have been living underground, and the title character is the only zombie baby to have grown up. In the hands of other storytellers, these stories would be centered on the demonic possession, the mutagenic plague, or the zombie apocalypse. For Gregory, those moments of drama are back story, traumatic events that haunt the main characters for the rest of their lives.
And so we come to Afterparty. Lyda Rose was once a biochemist with a start-up that was poised to strike it big with a drug called Numinous that allowed users to tap into the feeling of the divine. At a party to celebrate their success, all the participants wound up overdosing on the drug, resulting in the death of Lyda’s wife. Lyda has spent a good chunk of her time since in a mental ward, talking with doctors and with her permanent hallucination, a sharp-tongued guardian angel named Dr. Gloria. When, after ten years, Lyda sees another patient in the ward who seems to have been exposed to Numinous, she leaves the hospital and works to find out who’s been releasing it onto the streets. The novel is by turns a procedural as Lyda works her way through the drug culture of urban Canada and rural America, a road trip novel as she travels with her sometime lover and fellow mental health patient Ollie (once an intelligence operative who overdosed on various alertness drugs), and murder mystery as Lyda’s journey takes her closer to the events of the fateful night of the party.
As always with Gregory’s novels, the characters are its primary strength. And this one plays to my preferences almost shamelessly. When I reviewed Devil’s Alphabet for this very site, I commented: “I think I’m still waiting for the Daryl Gregory novel that takes one of his amazing women characters, either from the margins of his novels or the centers of his short stories, and makes a story for her,” because I’d loved the voices of the women in stories such as “Second Person, Present Tense,” “Dead Horse Point,” and “Damascus” so very much. Well, this is that novel. Instead of the male GenX protagonists of his first three novels, Lyda is very much her own creation. Her self-awareness is palpable and sometimes almost painful–as both the designer and the victim of her own drug, she knows exactly what is happening to her and yet can’t break free of it. The cynical air of her interior narration strikes me as precisely the right defense mechanism that a person in her situation would adopt.
Then there’s the richness of the world through which she moves. This is classic three-minutes from now near future science fiction. The main driver is the availability of consumer drug “printers,” home assemblies that let almost anybody synthesize their own drugs. Which leads to a lot of rapid and sloppy innovation as street kids and college students become the unwitting guinea pigs for other people’s experimental drug protocols. As Lyda and Ollie traverse this landscape, they run afoul of an Afghan drug ring run by women using beauty salons as fronts and American Indians who take advantage of being able to work both sides of the border. This is no all-white all-male default, paint-by-numbers future.
The most significant quibble I have comes from the many characters with mental health issues who populate the book. Especially Ollie and one of the main antagonists of the piece, The Vincent, have mental health problems that turn out to be quasi-super-powers. Although there is a price to be paid for using them (but isn’t there always with super powers?) the way they are manipulated into being incredibly useful for the different actors in the story doesn’t strike me as being the typical course of a person with mental illness, many of whom are tormented and find it difficult just to be functional, much less super heroic. Lyda is at least aware of how manipulative she is being, although it doesn’t stop her at all (even her angel gets disgusted with her). A few characters are able to take charge of their own neurological issues however, and some may find that empowering.
Still, none of that kept me from more or less devouring the book cover to cover. I’ve always loved Gregory’s writing style and his narrators with their wry observations of their own circumstances. The plot moves briskly, and the final reveal is quite satisfying. Afterparty moves faster than his other three novels, and I think it has a chance of appealing to an even wider audience. So go out, buy it, read it, and spread the word. This is some of the best of what science fiction is doing in terms of exploring the neurological frontiers of consciousness. While there are other authors playing in this sandbox (ones that spring to mind are Greg Egan in the 90s, as well as Nancy Kress and Peter Watts), Gregory is one of the best. And the way he takes a moment of intense crisis, then tells us the story of what happened afterwards–what happens to the people who don’t necessarily live happily ever after a huge traumatic event turns their lives upside down–makes him one of my hands-down favorite authors.