In the future depicted in Afterparty, Daryl Gregory’s excellent new science fiction novel, making designer drugs has never been easier. Since the Smart Drug revolution, anyone can create and print their own pharmaceuticals, whether they’re copies of old-fashioned street drugs or wild new inventions that are as likely to damage your mind as give you a solid high:
Any high school student with a chemjet and an internet connection could download recipes and print small-batch drugs. The creative types liked to fuck with the recipes, try them out on their friends. People swallowed paper all the time without knowing what they were chewing. Half the residents of the NAT ward weren’t addicts; they were beta testers.
As Afterparty gets started, a young homeless girl is drawn to the Church of the Hologrammatic God, where the pastor dispenses the “Numinous” like a sacrament to his flock. After the first dose, the girl feels like someone is watching over her. She feels loved. She feels that, maybe, she could be forgiven for her sins.
After a few days of basking in God’s love, she’s picked up for vagrancy during a random sweep, but transferred from regular detention to a mental ward when a guard catches her eating toilet paper in an attempt to administer her own sacrament.
Cut off from the Numinous drug and from God, she commits suicide… but not before Lyda Rose, another inmate/patient in the NAT (neuro-atypical) ward learns about the strange girl who’d found God in a drug and then lost Him—a situation that sounds eerily familiar both to her and to Gloria, the invisible angel who watches over her…
Afterparty is a book that took me by surprise in a number of ways, all of them pleasant. Based on the synopsis, I expected something very dark and unpleasant, a Philip K. Dick-like story full of disturbing doubts about the nature of reality and divinity. While there is some of this to be found in Afterparty, it’s also a smart, action-packed and frequently funny page turner full of unique (and uniquely disturbed) characters.
Lyda Rose is the central character who ties the past and present strands of the plot together. In the past, she was part of the small group of scientists who helped create Numinous, a drug intended to combat schizophrenia, with the odd side-effect that people who took it started believing in a supernatural supreme being that watched over them—an angel, Allah, Ganesh, etc. When taken in large doses, this effect became permanent. Production of the drug was discontinued.
Fast forward to the present. Lyda has now spent significant time in a mental institution, together with her angel Gloria and several other inmates, including Ollie, a brilliant former US government agent. When Lyda learns that someone out there is manufacturing Numinous again, she sets out to find her former colleagues.
The resulting story is a wild chase across North America, involving a drug ring managed by a terrifying group of Afghan grannies, a sociopathic wannabe cattle rancher, and, looking across the board, very few characters who are entirely sane.
Aside from the small contingent who have been chemically convinced that there’s a Supreme Being personally watching over them, there’s also Ollie, whose brilliance at deducing knowledge from patterns led to an A Beautiful Mind-like state of mental chaos, requiring such a strong medicinal response that she can barely recognize the shapes she sees as people or objects anymore. (“Ollie used to do things for the US government, and the US government used to do things to Ollie.” ) And there’s my personal favorite, Bobby, a young kid who is convinced that his personality resides not in his brain, but in a tiny aquarium-style treasure chest that he carries on a chain around his neck.
What’s interesting, not to mention touching, is that many of these people have somehow managed to carve out a relatively normal life despite their various psychoses. They work together to help each other cope with the challenges of everyday life, not to mention the very un-everyday challenges of being chased across the continent by terrifying criminals who have a vested interest in discovering the source of the Numinous drug themselves.
The diversity of this cast of characters is wonderful, too, starting with the main character, who is a middle-aged, neuro-atypical lesbian. Several age groups, races, and sexual orientations are represented. The most badass character in the whole novel is Fayza, a terrifying immigrant from Afghanistan who, in the past, used a microloan to launch the Millies, now Toronto’s largest drug ring and still run by elderly Afghan ladies. Even setting aside the neurodiversity, Afterparty offers a wonderfully rich mosaic of characters.
The novel also raises some really interesting questions about the nature of worship and divinity. Lyda is aware that her angel is the product of a drug overdose, but despite this awareness she helplessly relies on her presence and advice: whenever the angel leaves her, she’s heart-broken. (During one of those absences, she imagines that the angel “would have made some comment about the likelihood of two brain-damaged patients holding it together during the world’s craziest road trip.” which says an awful lot about the tenuous hold on reality some of these characters have.)
Interestingly, the divine appears to different people in different forms, and in one case appears to have subsumed someone’s personality completely. Maybe most controversially, whoever’s been “afflicted” by such an imaginary divine companion seems to have no further need for any other drug. (This is why the Millies’ drug cartel is so interested in finding the source of the Numinous: it’s cutting into their profits.)
Afterparty is one of those odd books that’s really dark when you look at it closely, but at the same time is just a blast to read thanks to the fast-paced plot, tons of action, and chipper dialogue. Yes, everyone’s barely holding their minds together, but at the same, it’s also just a blast to read. Afterparty was my first novel by Daryl Gregory, but based on the amount of fun I had with it, it definitely won’t be my last.
Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.