Daryl Gregory's Afterparty is a fantastic thrill ride, presenting an all-too-real future that upends our own world and replaces it with something far more strange. This is science fiction of the cutting edge, on par with stories such as William Gibson's Neuromancer, McIntosh's Soft Apocalypse and Orphan Black.
Consider, for a moment, the scene from The Matrix in which Neo is offered the choice of two different pills. One, he's told, will take him to reality, while the other will keep him dreaming. In the world of Afterparty, this is an exchange that's not only possible, it's commonplace. Welcome to a world where distributed computing brings about a time when anyone in their bathtub or van can print up whatever high or reality you'd like, in drug form. As he does so, Gregory lays out a world that's horrifyingly plausible.
Afterparty follows the so-called Smart Drug revolution: anyone with an internet connection can become a designer drug manufacturer. In a Toronto psychiatric institution, a teenager kills herself as she goes through withdrawal, saying that God has left her. It's troubling to fellow patient Lyda Rose, because she's one of the ones who designed Numinous. Take the drug, and for a short while, you absolutely believe in God. Overdose, and you believe forever. In Lyda's case, she's got Dr. Gloria following her around, her own guardian angel. There's no faith required, just a bit of biochemistry. What's worrisome to Lyda is that she and her fellow designers swore that they'd never build the drug again. Now, it's back on the streets.
Lyda leaves the facility she's been receiving treatment from, taking with her an ex-spook named Ollie who's had issues with memory and pattern recognition drugs while working for an intelligence contractor. Together, they weave their way through Afghani, matriarch-led drug cartels, pop-up Numinous churches, across the Canadian border and deep into the American heartland to uncover the source of this new wave of drugs.
Along the way, Lyda is guided by Dr. Gloria, a biochemical creation that is genuinely useful as she finds herself on the trail of Numinous. There's twists and turns as an assassin comes on their tail, and Lyda is forced to face the life which she left years before. The plot is taut, intense and the pages flew by. This book is as addictive as some of the substances which it describes.
Gregory's future is one that's plausible — even already coming true in some respects. Soldiers frequently use stimulants and depressants to function in the field, while the homeless have access to apps that help them seek out beds for the night. Canada and the United States are filled with auto-driving cars, drones, advanced mobile phones, networked computing and 3D printers.
The details of his world are never obtrusive, however; just as we're along for the ride, the details that pass us by are seamlessly woven into the story without the impression that they're dropped in because they're topical. Afterparty is a story that perfectly extrapolates our present and into a very plausible future, never sacrificing story, but does brim with new ideas.
What drives Gregory's book forward isn't the tech, but the people who occupy it. There's an excellent sense of not just what we'll be using in the future, but how we'll use it. Guiding this is an acute sense of how we tick as people. Each of Afterparty's lead characters has some sort of mental illness, induced by natural chemicals. Lyda's mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia (the motivation for creating Numinous in the first place). Another character, born to someone suffering a massive Numinous overdose, can pull out personalities like cards in a deck. Another, The Vincent, emerges from a mild-mannered miniature bison farmer after ingesting another type of drug.
The brain's relationship to personality is the crux of most of these drugs and our characters. If the human body is a biological machine, the drugs are the underlying code designed to make it function — or in these cases, reprogram it to heighten senses and abilities, or bring out new personalities. Dr. Jekyll would likely find this to be an enlightening book.
There's a question that's frequently asked here is "what defines 'real'?" and it's accompanied by an interesting theological debate: what if everything you sense, think and believe points to the existence of a God? Religion is often predicated on faith, rather than empirical knowledge. With Numinous, users get a hit of the divine, or at least they think they do. In some ways, its users are their own sort of Joan of Arc, seeing and utterly believing.
Some characters, such as Lyda, *know* that they're simply a creation, even as their brains *know* that what they're seeing is real. Others — two of Numinous's designers — have largely given themselves over to the figures that now occupy their attention. What terrifies Lyda the most isn't the potential for thousands of new prophets, but the impact of what happens when these prophets are left high and dry when their supply runs low, or the generations who will follow who're affected by the drug. What would happen to society?
Gregory doesn't really pose any answers to these questions, but there's the real sense that this particular adventure is the first step towards a major change and upheaval in how society will exist form this point forward. The genie is out of the bottle, and Pandora's Box has been opened. Like the internet, television and printing press, the people in this book are the fore-runners of change, heralding in a new era that'll be radically different than the years before it.
I'm reminded, in many ways, of Will McIntosh's brilliant short novel, Soft Apocalypse, which likewise shows a world in the process of changing. The books complement one another nicely, and it's good to see that there's more than one author with this on their mind.