The Numinous is a drug like no other. It doesn't make you happy or hungry or horny; it doesn't sharpen your senses, or take the edge off your day in any way; nor does the Numinous convey many medical benefits, though overdosing on it has been demonstrated to lessen your dependency on what are, in relative terms, second-rate chemical cocktails—albeit by way of a bit of a bait and switch, in that addiction to it is the last habit you'll ever need to heed, because the Numinous gives you something no other high can, be it natural or not. In short, it gives you God.
His presence is certainly felt in the promising prologue of Daryl Gregory's new novel—by Francine, a hopeless lass with no home whose whole life changes after she tastes a communion wafer: "a piece of paper with a single word printed on it: Logos" (p. 12), through which all things are made, according to the Gospel of John. Unfortunately for Francine, days after her drug-induced discovery of the divine, she's arrested for solicitation and sent to a secure facility:
But as the days passed in the detention center, something was changing. God's presence faded, as if He was moving away from her, turning His back on her. She began to panic. She prayed, and wept, and prayed some more. Then a female guard caught her creating her own sacrament, swallowing scraps of toilet paper, and thought she had smuggled in smart drugs. They took her blood and swabbed her tongue and made her pee in a cup. Two days later they transferred her to a hospital west of the city, and locked her up with crazy people. (p. 13)
Crazy people like Lyda Rose, Afterparty's protagonist: a disgraced scientist infamous for her involvement in the development and testing, a decade earlier, of New Molecular Entity 110, a compound created to benefit schizophrenics which was abandoned because of some unforeseen side effects—side effects such as the abrupt devotion Francine feels. Lyda doesn't have much of a chance to question her, however, as the new kid on the NAT ward commits suicide soon after she's forsaken by her sudden-onset savior.
This is the last push Lyda needs to leave the institution she landed in after a bona fide bender years previous. Determined to get to the bottom of the Numinous's new lease on life, she takes to Toronto to hunt down her former colleagues—like dogs, to paraphrase her pledge—each of whom swore to keep the substance off the streets, not least because the last time they tried it, they lost one of their number: Mikala, Lyda's lover, and the other mother of their long since adopted daughter.
Luckily, Lyda isn't alone in her quest for closure. She has an escaped inmate on her arm, and Ollie is damaged goods too: an ex-signals intelligence agent and, not unrelatedly, a Clarity addict:
The drug—or rather, the proteins that the enzyme manufactured—set fire to the forest that was the prefrontal cortex, burned down the trees and encouraged massively interconnected bushes of white matter to grow up in its place. Repeated use at high doses made the new structure permanent.
Nobody used Clarity anymore. (p. 66)
For good reason, too. It's made a mess of Ollie, who struggles to sort every object she sees, even people; for her, the signifier now signifies nothing naturally. But Lyda, knowing she'll need some dirty work done, knowing there's nobody better, lands Ollie a supply of something similar to the smart drug that destroyed her.
This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Gloria, our protagonist's other companion in much of the frenetic fun to come, and her conscience in the story's more subdued sequences. Dr. Gloria is among the highlights of Afterparty, actually. She just so happens to be make-believe—an angel, complete with witty biblical banter and wings which throw off "megawatts of holy glow" (p. 22)—or so Lyda, ever the faithful atheist, insists:
The doctor was my permanent hallucination, a standing wave thrown up by my temporal lobe and supported by various other members of my mental parliament. My supernatural companion was a fake, but unlike Francine, I knew it. (p. 23)
Taken together, The Parable of The Girl Who Died and Went to Hell, Not Necessarily in That Order, and The Sixth Sense twist at the back of the first chapter, when it dawns on us that Dr. Gloria is a pharmaceutical figment of Lyda's lively imagination, do a terrific job of eliciting interest—intrigue, even—in Afterparty, but what follows is, if not flat, then fairly familiar. Too soon, Gregory disposes of the doctor—she has a good Christian conscience, of course, so Lyda's abuse of Ollie bothers her—and in her absence, Afterparty becomes a more mundane chase-and-escape affair than the suggestive start of the book moots: it's revealed to be a thriller as opposed to a thinker, less Philip K. Dick than Lee Child or the like.
It's a credit to Gregory that the going is engrossing in any event, in large part because of its pitch-perfect pace: a race to the finish line, in fact, between Lyda's lot and a cowboy contract killer called Vincent—pardon me: the Vincent (don't ask)—by way of a series of exciting set-pieces, such as the party's botched border crossing after an uncomfortably close encounter with an elderly Afghan drug distributor. The plot only pauses when the tension engendered borders on the intolerable, to dole out doses of backstory; to wit, we learn how Lyda came to be so broken at the same time as she sets about single-mindedly righting the wrongs done to her and hers, be damned the impact her own actions have on Ollie—whose love of Lyda comes at an awful cost—and the other innocents caught in the crossfire.
She's clearly no hero. Nevertheless, she's a superb central character in her own right, if better balanced with Dr. Gloria on her shoulder. Absent the maybe angel's influence, Lyda is selfish, certainly, yet sympathetic by dint of her heartbreaking history; she's destructive, undoubtedly, however she hurts herself as much as anyone else, and in service of something she sees as singularly significant: saving the human race from itself, in a sense . . . admittedly by bulldozing the very idea of belief.
Afterparty's portrayal of faith goes further than this, though. As one of the scientists involved in the disastrous development of New Molecular Entity 110 argues, "people need the divine in their lives. Science is a pale, unconvincing story compared to faith. You offer nothing—a mind that dies with the body. Numinous offers a living god. A god of love" (p. 298). This character answers, incidentally, to some sort of flame deity; another of the afflicted, or else blessed, is given Ganesh; and there are, in the interim, any number of spirited discussions about destiny versus the self and accountability as it relates to spiritual forgiveness. Many religions are represented in Afterparty, and wonderfully, no one seems more equal than the others despite the text's first-person perspective.
Appearances, then, are demonstrated to be deceiving by what is an appreciably inclusive book; inclusive in terms of faith, firstly, but also in its depiction of race, age, addiction, disability, sexual orientation, and so on. Afterparty's near future feels like a much more welcoming world than ours on the one hand; on the other, we see so little of it that the differences seem superficial. We're told that the tale takes place "after the fall of the towers and the bombing of the trains and the wars in desert cities, after the chemical attacks of New Delhi and the Arab Spring chilled into the Autumn of the Iron Boot" (p. 61), in a time where people can print their own poisons, but beyond that? A backdrop, at best, with which the major players only occasionally engage. That said, they are a sight for sore eyes in their comprehensive rejection of convention, and the author is to be applauded for the diversity and affection with which he approaches most other aspects of this character-focused affair.
Afterparty's setting might be slight, and the pedestrian turn the text takes after the remarkable first part is fairly frustrating—dismissive, initially, of the powerful questions Gregory asks at the outset—but this drug-addled parable finds its footing in time to prove an exhilarating and moderately thoughtful thriller, if not the provocative piece promised.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.
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