INTERVIEW: Daryl Gregory on AFTERPARTY and Smart Drugs
Daryl Gregory is an award-winning writer of genre-mixing novels, stories, and comics. His novels include The Devil’s Alphabet, Pandemonium, Raising Stony Mayhall, and the collection Unpossible. His new novel is Afterparty, a near-future SF novel about neuroscience, drugs, crime, and the numinous. (For more information about Afterparty, check out Daryl’s Afterparty Tour page.)
Andrew Liptak had the opportunity to speak with Daryl about the genesis of Afterparty and more…
Andrew Liptak: Afterparty takes place in a reasonably near future US where computer and pharmacological technology has reduced the cost for manufacturing drugs. How did you come to a story about this?
Daryl Gregory: I like how you asked that: How did I come to this? And now all I can hear in my head is David Byrne shouting, “Well? How did I get here?”
It’s a tricky question to answer. For every novel of mine there’s a long chain of half-baked ideas, plot requirements, mistakes, and in-the-moment improvisations that lead to whatever story ends up on the table. Sometimes I’m just grabbing stuff from the fridge and throwing it in the skillet. After it’s published, I can’t quite remember all the steps in the recipe, but I’ll take a stab at it.
When I started brainstorming this new book, I knew I wanted to write about neuroscience and religion. Over the years I’d written several hard SF stories about weird questions in consciousness, but it felt like it was time to tackle the subject at length.
So, I needed a character whose brain gets modified to experience “the numinous,” that ecstatic feeling that you’re in touch with a higher power. But for that kind of rewiring, you have a couple narrative options: Disease, Drugs, or Disaster (AKA, head trauma). I love writing about neurological diseases, but I realized that if I used drugs, I could construct a fast-paced thriller, and I’m a huge fan of crime novels. I worship at the church of Elmore Leonard.
All the science needed to construct such a drug is possible now, if you have a reasonably-equipped lab, and you get lucky. But I knew I wanted the story to take place ten years after the drug was invented, when its first victims (including the main character, Lyda) have been living with the effects of an overdose.
So that put me into the near future, and gave me more toys to play with. Given the option to show how drug manufacture works now, and how it could work soon, the speculative is more interesting. And with the very near future, you’re not inventing something out of whole cloth, but extrapolating from current tech, or combining existing technologies to make something new.
For example, take Bitcoin, make it truly anonymous, and you get HashCash, the currency-of-choice for the novel’s drug dealers. Or take smart phones, add flexible screens, and you get smart pens where the screen unrolls from the body of the pen like a fan.
(One trick to making this kind of tech sound plausible is to not make a big deal about it. You could have a character in a novel set today explain to the reader how computers use the underlying TCP/IP protocol to get the news–but that says more about the character than about the tech.)
But you were asking about the computer and pharmacology technology. In the book, ordinary people can buy and run “chemjets” that print out designer drugs on rice paper. That idea came from combining 3-D printers, precursor chemicals sold in foil packs, and molecular recipes provided by the open source internet culture. Voila! Instant desktop drug lab.
I feel like this is a party game we can all play at home.
AL: One of the things that I’m noticing as I read this is the sheer depth and amount of things that seem to be just on the cusp of reality, but aren’t quite here yet: things like printable drugs, smart pens (think mobile phone), augmented reality and more, but there’s a real grounded feel to the world you’ve constructed. What research have you been doing to build your story’s surroundings?
DG: I said online the other day that near-future SF is just the present with the sell-by date scraped off. So while I did do a lot of research about pharmacology and neurology, most of the “furniture” of the world — like the smart pens, the augmented reality — comes from noticing things that are going on right now, or could easily happen.
For example, in the book I referred to an app that homeless folks could use to find shelter for the night. It was a throwaway line that I inserted because Deanna Hoak, the copyeditor of the book and a friend of mine, said that I should include a few more futuristic details in the opening chapter to signal that this was SF. The app seemed completely doable with today’s tech. Fast forward to last week, when I heard about exactly that app on NPR.
And sometimes it’s fun to point out that the jetpacks have not quite arrived. One of the characters has a self-driving car, ala the Google car. But he can only drive it in certain states, on certain highways, and so he’s excited when he gets to try it out on a New Mexico interstate.
AL: Drones make their appearance as well, as well as the vast US security apparatus. One of the interesting takeaways I took from that was the behavior on the battlefield, where soldiers are continually taking stimulants and depressants to wake up and go to sleep and keep moving while in the field.
DG: Pilots have been taking uppers since at least World War II. And science fiction has postulated all kinds of pharmaceutical enhancements for soldiers — including my man Captain America. (I was imprinted on Cap as a child; don’t hate me.) In the real world, most of these enhancement don’t work out very well.
In Afterparty, I wanted to include “smart drugs” as a tool of the intelligence analysts. One of the characters, a former consultant, used a drug called Clarity to enhance her powers of pattern recognition. But this also doesn’t work out well: too much of the drug makes you susceptible to a large number of false positives, and drives you into paranoia. If you took this as commentary on the US Government’s hyperbolic response to 9/11, that would be fine with me.
AL: Drugs play a really prominent part of the story here, and it seems like there’s a pharmacological solution for just about everything. We’ve got a dealer changing the sexual preferences of an entire frat house, a mild-mannered guy turned into a very scary person, and our lead character seeing (and believing) in a guardian angel. What’s behind this?
DG: One of the themes of the book is that all experience is subjective and vulnerable to chemical manipulation. So Clarity makes you recognize patterns more easily, Numinous gives you the feeling of being in contact with the divine, and party drugs like Flip mess with sexual arousal.
But it’s not just perceptual manipulation. Everything about your personality — including empathy, moral reasoning, and free will — is also affected by chemistry… because brain. (Bias alert: I’m a materialist. There’s no self, no consciousness, without a body to generate it.)
Which is why there’s that mild-mannered guy named Vinnie, who can can only perform his job as a torturer and hitman with the help of Brick, a drug that dampens empathy and turns him into a sociopath. We know that there ARE sociopaths out there, and their condition seems to be largely a result of brain chemistry, not choice. If the brain can malfunction like that on its own, why not a drug that can do it on command? I think the market is there. It may be that sociopaths are happier on average than neurotypical folks.
AL: There’s a character that that reminds me of: The Vincent. He’s clearly got some sociopathic tendencies, but they’re brought on by a course of drugs. Is this the only causation, or are there more deep-seated neurological factors at play here?
DG: I’m not sure. Most of the time he’s just “Vinnie,” a lonely guy who takes care of miniature bison in his apartment. But then he takes Brick, a drug to induce sociopathy, and becomes the Vincent, an interrogator and hit man for hire.
In the book there’s not enough information about Vinnie to know if there’s something more wrong with him than just the dependence on Brick. There are a few clues that he’s been doing this for some time, and that without the drug his conscience would eat at him. Morally, Vinnie is responsible for the Vincent’s acts, because it’s Vinnie who take the money, swallows the Brick, and puts on the black hat.
AL: This is one of the more fascinating parts of the book, at just how people can chemically control parts of their minds, yet they’re also supported or visited by various deities. How do they rationalize this contradiction?
DG: I think that’s one of the questions in the book. Different characters cope in different ways. Some take the deity at face value– because belief in the reality of the divine presence is one of the effects of the drug. Others, like Lyda, our neuroscientist protagonist, know rationally that the gods are hallucinations, and continuously struggle against accepting what feels real. My only hope is that the reader struggles a bit, too.
AL: One of the main traits out of the folks who overdose on Numinous see and believe in God absolutely, and we see several characters either give themselves over to these entities or swap them out at will. Who’s the real person, here?
DG: That’s an excellent question.
Oh, wait, you want me to answer that? I don’t think I can. This notion of a “self” gets very tricky.
AL: There’s a focus on drugs for most of the book, but there’s another element that you explore, distributed manufacturing. Right now, 3D printing is talked about quite a bit, and the distribution of drugs in your book seems to mirror this quite a bit.
DG: The traditional drug dealers are a little bothered by this DIY drug culture. The dealers are like record labels and book publishers. Chaos is bad for business!
AL: One of the things that I kept going to while reading was Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Were you influenced by this at all?
DG: I didn’t think of that consciously, but of course it’s an obvious connection — though in this case the doctor is the new personality. Perhaps one of my alters had it in mind!
The literary / historical figure that I was thinking of consciously was Joan of Arc. It had to be a wonderful feeling to be in direct contact with God, and to know for certain that he wanted you to drive the English from France.
Filed under: Interviews
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