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.
- Ryan "Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good."
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature as a joint review (me and Marion).
Marion: Daryl Gregory’s pharma-tech novel Afterparty is good entertainment with many wonderful moments. At times it is wildly inventive — filled with images like an apartment full of tiny genetically-engineered bison roaming the “range” of wall to wall grass, or an angel named Dr. Gloria who wears a business suit, white coat, glasses, carries a clipboard and has wings.
Kat and I read this book about the same time. We both gave it four stars but we may have liked different things, so we’re going to discuss the book together. Kat’s comments are in red.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the story. In the near future, a neuroscientist with a deity in her head checks herself out of an institution and goes searching for the people who are distributing the street drug called Numinous (or sometimes, Logos). Lyda Rose is intimately familiar with the drug because she helped invent it, as a treatment for schizophrenia… and, because of an overdose of the drug at a disastrous “afterparty,” she is intimately familiar with its effects. Specifically, it puts a god in your head. Dr. Gloria is Lyda’s personal god.
Kat, you’re a neuroscientist, and this book is packed with neuroscience. What did you think about it? Was it realistic?
Kat: Yes, I thought it was frighteningly realistic. Scientists have been working for decades trying to tweak drugs that will be more effective treatments for schizophrenia. Gregory gets this just right as he talks about the neuroscience behind drug design. Also, a really hot topic in neuroscience these days is “consciousness” or “self-awareness.” What is consciousness? Which brain areas are involved? What happens when you change activity in those areas? What kind of psychoses or other perceptual experiences may develop when you mess with these areas? Schizophrenia involves change in brain activity and some of the symptoms, such as auditory hallucinations and delusions (which are often religious in nature) involve self-perception. These are fascinating things to speculate about.
Marion: There is a really chilling plausibility and immediacy to that part of the book, particularly when Lyda opines that “any high school student with a chemjet printer and an internet connection could download recipes and print small-batch drugs.”
When we talked about this by email, you and I both used the words “William Gibson-like,” and so have other reviewers. I liked that aspect of the book — the zany, almost-underworld characters like the Millionaires’ Club, the guy raising miniature bison in his apartment.
Kat: Or how about the paranoid guy who thinks he keeps his “self” in a small container around his neck? He made me laugh so many times (and he was particularly well done in the audio version I listened to). Yeah, many of these characters could have walked right out of a Gibson novel, yet they were all unique. But, as we discussed, this is almost over the top. Nearly every character is some sort of bizarre and it comes off as trying just a little too hard. I wish Gregory had saved a couple of those ideas for future books. But still, I loved them.
I was also reminded of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde which is a similar type of weird paranoid adventure. Fans of Gibson and Stephenson will love Afterparty.
Marion: I agree, although I did have some trouble with the “when” of the story. I think there is even a specific year given at one point, but it didn’t stick, and I struggled with just now “near future” we were. On the other hand, I thought the border-crossing scene was spine-tinglingly intense, and there were amazing descriptions. One of my other favorite scenes is the party in New York, when Lyda takes what I’m going to call “the color drug.” That was vivid and hilarious. Dr. Gloria’s reaction to that drug actually had me laughing out loud.
Kat: Those were some of my favorite scenes, too. One of the best lines in the book comes from that Color Bomb scene: “’How are you doing?’ he asked chartreusely.”
Marion: I loved that line!
Kat: It was all very clever. And yes, all throughout the book there were vivid descriptions and apt similes and metaphors. I admired Gregory’s style and look forward to reading more of his work.
As for the timing, it didn’t bother me that I didn’t know exactly. Based on the science, I could tell it was very near future, like within the next 10 years. These are things that could happen very soon. (I don’t think they will, just that they could.)
By the way, because of the science, I could really relate to Lyda. I also studied neuropharmacology in grad school and had a fantasy of finding the perfect treatment (or cure) for schizophrenia. Lyda has a family history of schizophrenia and knows it’s in her genes. She’s desperate for a treatment, as anybody with her knowledge and background would be. I totally understood her. And I was intrigued by the fact that as readers, we don’t know if her current problems (alcohol and drug addictions, invisible angel) are caused by her genetics, the drug she was exposed to, or the immense amount of stress she’s encountered (which can trigger psychoses in people with genetic predispositions).
Marion: I have to say that I had a little bit more trouble with the main character than you did. I think Gregory did himself a disservice by creating Lyda the way he did. Late in the book, one character says that the deity in your head is supposed to make you a better person, and throughout the book various characters express different ideas about whether the effect is a delusion (“your” god) or big-G God. That’s part of the point of the story. Still, I felt with Lyda there were times when Gloria was too literally “the better angel of her nature.” My favorite character was Ollie and probably my second favorite was Sasha, although she is closely tied with Dr. Gloria for sheer awesomeness.
Kat: Dr. Gloria was my favorite character — she was like the classic sarcastic sidekick, but because she was quiet, refined, and sophisticated, she never became annoying (as many sarcastic sidekicks do). As for Ollie, I was intrigued by her special mental powers that came from taking a drug called Clarity. It was just reasonable enough to be almost believable and I enjoyed thinking about that. I’m particularly interested in neuropharmacology, so I found a lot to think about in Afterparty.
Marion: I just wished I could take Clarity myself. By the way, what did you think of the whole God thing?
Kat: Ah, you ask me that because you know I’m a Christian. This is another area that cognitive neuroscientists are interested in these days — what is the nature of religious experiences? How do people experience God? If there’s a place in the brain where neural activity makes people feel spiritual, does that mean that God is an illusion? (Hint: No, because I can stimulate your brain and make you think of your grandmother and you wouldn’t say she’s not real.) Can drugs make us believe in God? If so, does that mean God doesn’t exist?
These are fascinating things to think about. I’ve answered them for myself (based on my own research in the scriptures, history and other areas, not based on “feeling” or “intuition” that I know is so easily altered) but Daryl Gregory leaves these crucial questions unanswered and the ending is ambiguous. Is Lyda’s angel/god real? Nobody else sees Dr. Gloria, but occasionally she can physically alter Lyda’s circumstances. Lyda “knows” Dr. Gloria is just an affect of the drug, but she’s not surprised when miracles happen. I appreciated the ambiguity that Gregory left us with. I thought it was well done.
Marion: I thought he had some powerful points about the nature of faith, but also in the power of fellowship; that the movement associated with Numinous is not top-down and hierarchal, but genuinely grassroots. That was an interesting choice.
I would say we’re pretty much in agreement that Gregory pulled off an entertaining, original story here.
Kat: Yes, and let me say something about the audio version. It’s 11 hours long, was produced by Audible Studios, and read by Tavia Gilbert. Gilbert was so convincing in all the different roles that I completely forgot I was listening to a performance. I think that’s high praise. Readers, this is a great audio choice!