It begins in Toronto, in the years after the smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and internet connection can download recipes and print drugs, or invent them. A seventeen-year-old street girl finds God through a new brain-altering drug called Numinous, used as a sacrament by a new Church that preys on the underclass. But she is arrested and put into detention, and without the drug, commits suicide. Lyda Rose, another patient in that detention facility, has a dark secret: She was one of the original scientists who developed the drug. With the help of an ex-government agent and an imaginary, drug-induced doctor, Lyda sets out to find the other three survivors of the five who made the Numinous in a quest to set things right. A mind-bending and violent chase across Canada and the US, Daryl Gregory's Afterparty is a marvelous mix of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, and perhaps a bit of Peter Watts’s Starfish: A last chance to save civilization, or die trying.
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Afterparty was a pleasant discovery for me, comparable to recent Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, but less geeked-out than the former and a little snarkier than the latter.
The initial setting is a near-future Toronto. A former neuroscientist named Lyda is in a mental hospital, in the wake of a series of breakdowns. It’s about a decade after her biotech startup discovered, while trying to cure schizophrenia, a drug that enables users to experience God. Well, in a manner of speaking. More specifically, Lyda and her colleagues overdosed on the drug and each now experiences a very convincing hallucination of a heavenly spirit companion. In Lyda's case, it's a moralizing winged angel named Doctor Gloria. In more controlled doses, the drug, nicknamed Numinous, makes people feel that they're in the presence of the divine.
It’s not the only mind-altering custom drug in this future. There's now a whole subculture of print-it-at-home drug manufacture, to say nothing of what more serious organizations do with the tech. Some products have amusingly harmless effects, but some alter consciousness in disturbing ways, such as one that removes one character’s natural empathy and turns him into a temporary sociopath.
When a peculiarly troubled teenage patient shows up in the clinic, it dawns on Lyda that Numinous, which her and her colleagues swore to keep secret, is now on the street, being distributed by a strange new “church”. So, Lyda must check herself out of the hospital, evade monitoring systems, get across the border, and track down her former colleagues in the US. Her only allies are a sweetly unaware young man who thinks his consciousness resides in the aquarium toy hanging from his neck, and a crafty American ex-intelligence officer whose own mind has been scrambled by too much "focus" drug over her career. And a cat. And, of course, the amusingly huffy Doctor G, who remains invisible to everyone but Lyda.
This is definitely a smart book, asking meaningful philosophical questions about the nature of being and the implications of messing with our brains/minds. Or of messing with other people's. It's also a witty one, with cleverly written scenes, oddball characters, and a lot of snarky quips from Lyda. For example, when a drug dealer sells a seemingly effective gay-for-a-day "product" to some straight dudebros at a college frat party, she retorts, "product? Don't you mean placebo?" (Well, it made me laugh.)
The story, once it gets going, is interesting. There's also a backstory that emerges, concerning the tragic events that took place at Little Sprout (the startup) ten years ago, what became of Lyda's wife and fellow scientist, who took too much Numinous, how Lyda ended up in the mental hospital, and what happened to her daughter, who she had to give up for adoption. While Gregory doesn’t posit a drastically altered future, I also enjoyed the creative, incidental little ideas that he drops in here and there, such as a plausible successor to smart phones. Like the plot of a good thriller, all the pieces come together in the end, but with some room for taking the characters and setup further, should he choose to.
If there are a few believability issues and the ending is a little predictable, it’s a thriller with a brain and an eye on an approaching bend in the road ahead. And the core questions -- if there is a better us inside ourselves, should we try to access it by tampering with ourselves? Or should we not? Is “divine experience” more about the divine, or the experience? -- are ones that Gregory keeps hovering in our peripheral vision throughout the book, but admirably never tries to answer for us.
Imagine going to church, taking communion, and as soon as you swallowed the wafer and wine, seeing God right beside you. Or, if not God, an aspect of God – one that you could converse with, argue with, beg, weep with, and scream at. Now, imagine all that if you were an atheist.
Regardless of what you believe or do not believe, as a science fiction fan you have to wonder: short of this miraculous wafer falling from the sky like manna, where is this drug coming from?
In the not too-distant future, anyone with a 3D printer and passable google-fu can print up DIY drugs. When a new drug called Logos starts seeping into the market, giving people a chemically fused Damascus experience, drug lords start acting like music executives, trying to halt the competition however they can. The thing is Logos, also known as Numinous, actually seems to transform sinners into saints, converting them into evangelicals of Logos: people who would lay down their lives for friends and enemies alike – especially if the outcome furthers the gospel of Logos.
Years ago, Lyda Rose was roofied with an overdose of Numinous – the very drug she helped create. It played a part in the death of her wife, stole the child she was pregnant with, led to frequent stays at various mental institutions, and blessed/cursed her with a constant guardian angel she can’t kick. When Lyda discovers Numinous has leaked out on the street, she and the angel living inside her head check out of their current mental institution, and hit the road to find out who’s been manufacturing Logos.
The road trip Lyda and her friends embark stretches across not only Canada and the United States but also maps free will, redemption, the nature of God, and examines the similarities of religion and substance abuse more explicitly than any other book I can think of (and there are a pretty fair amount of SF/F books that have made that comparison). I appreciate that it seems to treat its characters fairly - a lot of the evangelical-esque characters aren't monsters. They're striving for some kind of redemption - even if it happens to be a chemically induced one.
Also: it’s funny as hell, which is kind of surprising for what seems like such a dark book on the cover. But fans of Raising Stony Mayhall will want to check this one out too.
A large part of that is Tavia Gilbert’s narration - it's a perfect match for Gregory’s prose. Her work here as Lyda, Dr. Gloria, Ollie, and the rest of the gance comes off as intelligent, sharp, witty, and someone you'd want to roadtrip with.
Afterparty is a novel with a dark, chewy center that reminds me quite a bit of William Gibson's later novels, but with a style that cranks up the entertainment factor and laughs making this story way more fun than you'd expect it to be with such heady subject matter.