Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.
Thoughts: In the near future, drugs can be made by anyone with the recipe, the chemicals, and a chemjet printer to pump out pills and powders for the consumption of, well, anyone who wants to buy them. The story focuses on Lyda, a woman who starts out in a psych facility after an unfortunate drug-related incident that caused hallucinations and the death of her wife. And yes, you read that correctly; the cast of Afterparty is, by and large, not concerned wholly with white heterosexual characters, which already puts it one step ahead of the game at a time when more and more people are looking for diversity in their SFF. Anyway, when Lyda learns that a new arrival to the facility has committed suicide after finding drug-induced religion, she recognizes the symptoms as the very same ones that she experienced, which were traced to a drug she played a hand in inventing and that should not, under any circumstances, be being made, distributed, or even really discussed. Curiosity piqued, she gets herself discharged from the facility and starts to unravel the mystery, piece by drug-steeped piece.
Much of the novel takes a look at off-label drug use and the culture that can spring up around it. Taking a cue from the way Viagra was originally conceived as a blood pressure medication, Afterparty makes new drugs and invents new and unexpected side effects, ranging from a hypothermia treatment also causing increased wakefulness and, er, same-sex attraction until it wears off, to a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s that causes religion awakening and hallucinations. There was even a nod to the way many people now down energy drinks like water and consume caffeinated everything, with a drug named Clarity that provides that mental and physical boost but also rewires your brain until you’re a paranoid mess seeing connections in everything, whether or not they really exist. Off-label drug use is, weirdly, something that has fascinated me for a long time. Ditto the unexpected side effects of drugs in development that show they may be better suited to something other than what they’re being developed for. Gregory throws us into that world with more than enough detail to make it real, at times terrifying, but also in such a way that those without a background in medicine or chemistry can still appreciate it.
There’s plenty of dark humour in this book, with characters who feel real enough to step off the page, each with developed personalities, idiosyncrasies, and the majority of them being neuroatypical in one way or another. Gregory writes a tight story, equally well skilled across narration and dialogue, and he writes first-person limited in a way that doesn’t feel forced or provides all that extra information that people rarely think about themselves. (“My long brown hair gleamed as I brushed it, and my bright blue eyes looked back at me from the mirror.” Yeah, nobody thinks like that…) Lyda is an amazingly fun character to sit on the shoulders of, her thoughts caustic and witty.
It’s an ambitious thing to try to tie science and religion together, but I’d say that Gregory achieved his goal. Lyda is derisive of religion and faith, her experiences relegating it to the realm of drug-induced psychosis and so applying the same concept to those who find religion without the aid of chemicals. But what was so interesting was the way it all remained ambiguous throughout. There were hints dropped that perhaps the hallucinations weren’t quite hallucinations, that the drug actually did open one up to different aspects of the divine and they were made manifest… Or perhaps any actions affecting the physical world were done by the very human individual and they just hallucinated that it was done by a divine entity. There were no real concrete answers, just hints and speculation, and some wondering if it really matters after all, whether a person’s actions and decisions come from themselves or from a perceived connection to God. These are some deep concepts to juggle, and Afterparty did so with aplomb.
And the ending! I admit that I suspected the identity of the culprit who was manufacturing NME 110 (or Numinous, as it is alternately called throughout the book) about halfway through the story, so that reveal didn’t come as much of a surprise, but it was still interesting to see how it all played out. But what really got me was the final page, and I’ll say up front that it’s a rare book that gets to the very end and makes me do a double-take from one small reveal that ties so much of what happened together, and in a perfect and non-intrusive or non-awkward way. The story was broken up by parables inserted between chapters, insight into other characters, backstory, bits and pieces that make the story that much richer. Each written and signed by “G.I.E.D.” And when I hit that final page and realize just what that stood for… Such a small thing, and it hit like a bolt of lightning. Demonstrating Gregory’s serious skill at writing a complex story and having it stay coherent and multi-layered, and pretty much guaranteeing that I will read whatever else he writes.
It’s impressive, what kind of change can come with such a small thing.
Long story short, you need to be reading this novel. It’s the kind of book that will grab you, heart, mind, and soul, and pull you into an incredible story and refuse to let you go. Inspirational, insightful, thought-provoking, with incredible writing and perfect pacing that has no slow or dull moments to interrupt the ride. It’s the kind of sci-fi that I really can sink my teeth into, and now I’m craving more in the same vein. If you enjoyed Ramez Naam’s Nexus, you will adore Afterparty.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)