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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.
10 of 10 people found this review helpful
This is the second book I've read by Daryl Gregory. He seems to like writing speculative fiction set in a near future, rather than settling into a series or a theme. "Raising Stony Mayhall" was one of the best zombie novels I've ever read. Afterparty, his latest, is also set a couple of decades from now, in a world where 3D printers have advanced to manufacturing pharmaceuticals, so anyone can "print" their own custom controlled substances.
Lyda Rose, the protagonist, was a neuroscientist who helped create Numinous. It was supposed to be a treatment for schizophrenia; instead, it helps its users find God. Or gods. Or some god.
The effect is spiritual if not supernatural: Numinous rewires the brain and provides you with your very own guardian angel (in Lyda's case, a judgmental winged psychologist named "Dr. Gloria"). The subjects are absolutely convinced they are receiving messages from the Divine, even if they know intellectually about Numinous. Lyda's conversations with her guardian angel, who she knows is a product of her drug-induced imagination, are believable because deep down, Lyda believes in her.
How Lyda came to be hooked on her own creation, and why she has to escape from a prison-hospital and track down the other former members of her little start-up company that was going to get rich, is a mystery that unfolds in a well-paced thriller with plenty of reveals and twists. There is an Afghan grandmother who is the most powerful drug lord in Seattle, a psychopathic hit man who calls himself "The Vincent" and raises bonsai buffalo herds in his apartment, a millionaire whose adopted daughter is a little prodigy assisted by her "deck" of "IFs" (Imaginary Friends), and of course, Dr. Gloria.
This wasn't quite a grand-slam of a book, but it was interesting and well-paced and original, with believable characters. Definitely recommended.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful