AFTERPARTY by Daryl Gregory is a near-future sci-fi thriller that explores what happens when anyone can cook up a batch of the latest designer drug–or create their own–in their garage. Overdoses, mental illness, and crime are at the heart of this novel, but before I make it sound like a real downer, I should point out that AFTERPARTY is funny, clever, fast-moving, and the characters really shine. I tore through this book, and recommend it highly.
AFTERPARTY begins with a parable (one of many in the book) of a young girl who experiments with a new drug, the Numinous, and experiences the divine. But when she goes through withdrawal while in detention, she commits suicide (this is on the rear cover, so I consider it a minor spoiler–in fact, I’ll just say this now MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.). A fellow patient at the facility, Lyda Rose, recognizes the girl’s symptoms.
You see, years prior, Lyda was a biochemist trying to cure schizophrenia. But when her startup was celebrating their successful drug and eminent payday, the co-creators were drugged. Terrible things happened, and they were left with a permanent reminder of their overdose in the form of a religious hallucination permanently hovering over their shoulder, or in Lyda’s case, an angel named Dr. Gloria. Understandably, they agreed to keep this drug from ever hitting the streets. And even locked away, Lyda thought that agreement was still standing.
Lyda manages to get paroled to figure out which one of the co-founders is releasing Numinous. We follow Lyda (and a former-spook who redlined on the drugs of her trade) from Canada to the American southwest, interacting with drug dealers who manufacture drugs using chemjet printers, make deals with full-time smugglers and part-time human traffickers, explore smart homes, and evade corporate-sponsored hitmen.
Along the way, readers also confront the limits and limitations of reality and perception. What is God if our perceptions are the result of chemical reactions? If there’s nothing beyond those reactions, is there free will? What if a person’s brain chemistry has been warped by drugs? What do you think, and what does the angel on your shoulder think? If there is disagreement, what does that mean?
AFTERPARTY is Gregory’s fourth book, but my first exposure to him, and I’m a new fan. The pacing is quick, the plot is tight, and the writing is quite clever. Chapter breaks are spiked with surprises or reversals that made me question and re-think what I had just read (putting me in a watered down version of Lyda’s hallucinatory world). His worldbuilding is also wonderfully done, extrapolating near-future communications technology, transportation, the democratization of drug-making, and more.
But it’s Gregory’s characters that I really enjoyed, particularly Lyda and Dr. Gloria. Lyda is driven by fear and regret, and it causes her to do some bad things, including using her friends for her own ends. She’s self-aware, and tries to rationalize or downplay her errors, or at least deflect them using sarcasm (that I found colorful, witty, and well-written). But even then, there’s only so much her conscience can take–even Dr. Gloria will fly away to sulk if Lyda goes too far.
AFTERPARTY is a quick, clever, and fun read. You’ll probably finish it in an evening or over a weekend. But it’s not a toss-away thriller. There are deeper issues here about technology, chemistry, and religion. And the way Gregory handles them kicks his novel up to a higher tier. Highly recommended.