Human minds have a socio-geographical component, which is especially evident when the mind enters an altered state. The hallucinations and delusions associated with schizophrenia appear to vary by cultures and nations. One study showed, for example, that patients from Germany had far more delusions regarding poisonings and persecution than patients from Japan. Mind-altering drugs, too, have their own geographies: fairly or not, the popular perception in the United States associates cocaine with bankers, heroin with urban slums, and crystal meth with the rural poor.
Given all this, it's rather surprising that SFF, a genre obsessed with innovative worldbuilding and socio-political environments, only infrequently explores what a truly "futuristic" drug might entail. The Making of Miasma, the first novel by Henry Escaya, serves up an interesting and hallucinatory answer.
That's not to say that stories about drugs are uncommon. Altered perception, and the human desire to numb ourselves against reality, are timeless stories. Science fiction has hundreds of examples of fictional drugs that serve as plot points. Famous examples include the time-warping Spice of Dune (1965), the disturbingly literal Dreamshit from Perdido Street Station (2000), and Soma of Brave New World (1932). And there are hundreds of genre works in which mundane drugs give generic, plot-unrelated highs.
However, Miasma stands out from those narratives, where the drugs are an integral part of the world and its social structure. In Miasma, the relationship is reversed: the world and the social structure are an integral part of the drugs themselves.
The Making of Miasma is set five minutes into the future—literally, as Obama is still the U.S. President, though it's never mentioned which term he's serving. The U.S. is at war with Sunacia, a faceless hostile nation in the "Fertile Crescent." In the US, genetic engineering of some sort exists, as do "heroes," the nickname for genetically superior soldiers and policemen who are responsible for security. The ones that we see in the book are all truly good people, albeit with a frisson of stupidly good. Maxwell "Mac" Chambers, our manic junkie first-person narrator, comes from a family of such "heroes." But genetics can be cruel, and he was born normal, leading nearly everyone in his life to treat him as a shameful disappointment.
To deal with this, Mac uses an endless series of drugs, which eventually cause him to lose a lucrative job. After a consolation binge on a designer drug called Cerulean, he's caught by the authorities. The penalty for his offense ought to be conscription into the war with Sunacia, but the military officer in the hospital offers a second way out: join a clinical trial for a medication called Dobrom (presumably from the Slovak for "good"), which is meant to treat people who are "addicted to addiction," as the officer puts it.
Unwilling to get shot at, Mac chooses the trial, which is sketchy from the onset, though he apparently doesn't think about it—or is past caring. Either way, Dobrom turns out to be a little too successful, and immediately spirals out of control. The patients in the trial decide to spread Dobrom beyond themselves, and introduce the drug to the rest of New York City. And so begins a new epidemic of addiction, complete with multiple government conspiracies. By the end, however, it becomes clear that it's not just the drug users who are abusing the drug.
Miasma blends a number of genres, but first and foremost is the drug narrative, which is where this book's ideas stand out. Cerulean, the first drug that Mac uses, is information theory in pill form. Cerulean flattens out the world to extract out its patterns:
There's a clarity of the systems around you—everything is a system. You could watch children on a playground for hours, discerning their rules and hierarchies and permeable philosophies. The unimportant stuff—the decorations, the elevator music, the small talk—vanishes, as if to save space for what really matters. Patterns are cut short. Alternating stripes on a wall might just appear once or twice and then fade to an average color.
Mac, at one point, uses the high of Cerulean to pull a darkly hilarious Sherlock Holmes-esque moment where he stands in a bar, deducing a jerkass patron's sexual history.
Cerulean is eventually combined with Dobrom. Mac starts out not knowing what Dobrom is doing to him, although he notes that some people don't "take to" it, and become gibbering messes. But for him, the high is so good that he decides it needs to be spread to the rest of the population. Manically energized by Dobrom, he becomes a distributor and evangelist, writing drug-fueled manifestos on Facebook and renaming himself "Mac Miasma." But as the novelty wears off, and he begins to clash with the other drug dealers in the small network he's created, he begins to realize just what Dobrom is doing to him.
Dobrom's effects include creating the desire to share the drug, and as long as you obey this urge, the high continues, and your hallucinations remain positively amazing. But the minute that you start to work against the drug, it reacts violently to your brain and wrecks you, one neuron at a time. As soon as Mac realizes this, he also realizes that if he wants to live, he has no choice but to continue spreading Dobrom into the world.
What makes this story stand out is that these drugs' highs are directly tied into our data-saturated future, or at least our cyberpunk nightmares of it. Cerulean—as well as the author's spare prose style—immediately calls to mind William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2003), but it's also steeped in the current reality of information theory, metadata, and the fear that our digital trails are there for anyone with enough processing power to find. Cerulean is that nightmare in pill form, and the junkie on the street corner—or worse, the corporate executive on Wall Street—might be riding on its high.
And whereas Cerulean allows you to see the network, Dobrom ruthlessly exploits it, through the user. Mac takes a combination of Cerulean and Dobrom, using it to find his connections and spread Dobrom as quickly as possible, recruiting more users through the Internet. A major reason that Dobrom spreads like wildfire is because it starts out in the dense urban environment of New York City. This is, of course, a mistake that Mac's military overlords realize far too late.
Much as Miasma scores with me on its concepts, the execution of these concepts sometimes falls short. This is a debut novel, and the rough edges are apparent. The pacing is a little rocky at points, and some of the hallucinatory passages are abrupt and unreliable. This is probably because almost too many genres are at play in Miasma—drugs! genetic enhancement! military fiction! conspiracies!—and while they're all well done on their own, they are not integrated very well, leaving me wondering several times if the book had switched genres. (I can say, without spoiling, that everything is actually tied together quite neatly at the very end, but that may be too late for some.) The book was quite a short read, and might have benefited from a higher word count. Many of the interesting details in the book—such as the relationships between Mac and his best friend Edwin, or his family—are well done but frustratingly brief.
In addition, speaking purely as a person who loves cities and has amateur interests in urban studies, Miasma doesn't always go as far as it can when it comes to the urban landscapes that are as important to the book as Cerulean and Dobrom. Sunacia and nearly everything about it are left disappointingly vague, and Mac's home turf of New York City, where most of the book is set, felt a little generic-urban. I also had high hopes for discussions of how cities, and the deeply ingrained patterns of human infrastructure in them, affect Mac's experiences on the drug, but Escaya doesn't explore this intersction of Dobrom and urbanity. Finally, I would have enjoyed reading how Dobrom affects populations that aren't socially and technologically connected in the same way as NYC is. I feel that this was a missed opportunity: Dobrom is introduced to a new population at the end of the book, and we have almost no idea how it's going to affect it. The strong implication is that it will be a disaster on the level of NYC, but I would have preferred to find out that the next Dobrom disaster takes on a different geometry of spread, because the population and environment it is applied to are implied to be extremely different from NYC's.
Much like any drug, your mileage will vary on Miasma, depending on what effects you were hoping for, and where you, the reader, are coming from. Miasma is chock-full of interesting details, runs on a manic energy that never stops, is full of smart concepts, and finishes with a chilling but inevitable conclusion. For myself, Miasma was clever and thoughtful enough for enjoyment, and if this is a true taste of what Escaya will be capable of in the future—with some of those rough edges filed off—then I will be there to try out his next product.
Z. Irene Ying is a research scientist and science writer. She blogs about the science in pop culture (and every so often, the science in real life) at Aperture Science Journal Club.