Good science fiction is not about the future so much as the present, and Afterparty by Daryl Gregory is good science fiction. The novel deals with mental illness, drugs as both medicine and poison, the nature of religious faith, and even the question of whether humans have free will. It amplifies the societal insecurities of today and projects them into tomorrow without losing track of the human element that drives dramatic storytelling.
Afterparty takes place in the not-too-distant future. Society is more or less the same. The United States government (with some help from Canada) continues to wage the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, and is no closer to victory on either front than it is today. Marijuana remains illegal, and cigarette taxes are still high enough to support tobacco bootleggers. Gangs of Afghan refugees sell drugs on the street. Criminals everywhere have adopted the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
There are no jetpacks or robots or interstellar space ships in the novel. Gregory’s predictions for scientific development are all realistically grounded in current technology. Communications devices are continuing to shrink so that cell phones are now called “pens” and contact lenses can browse the Internet. Reproductive technology has advanced to the point that two women can have a daughter who shares their genes equally, although at great cost and with a high chance of failure.
But the most significant technological advance is the invention of the chemjet printer. With the right chemicals, a chemjet can print designer drugs onto blotter paper. This has made both legal and illegal pharmaceuticals cheap and easy to acquire.
The narrator is Lyda Rose, a neuroscientist who helped develop NME 110 or Numinous. Intended to treat schizophrenia, Numinous instead triggers the same biochemical response as religious fervor. Those who take the drug exhibit the best traits of religious adherents, becoming more compassionate and mindful. But those, like Lyda, who overdose on Numinous are haunted by divine-seeming hallucinations and risk institutionalization, imprisonment and suicide. Even worse, Lyda is haunted by the death of her wife (whom she may or may not have murdered in a Numinous binge), and does not know the fate of their daughter, who was taken from her at birth.
Lyda’s Numinous-induced hallucinations and substance-abuse problems have landed her in a mental hospital. One of her fellow patients commits suicide after displaying symptoms of Numinous overdose, even though the drug had been considered too dangerous to ever take to market. Lyda suspects one of her co-creators has been secretly manufacturing and distributing it. One visit to the Church of the Hologrammatic God confirms her suspicions.
She then sets out to stop the spread of Numinous with the help of some wonderfully-eccentric characters. Ollie is a former CIA agent who can achieve superhuman powers of analysis—and also boundless paranoia—while taking a drug called Clarity. Bobby wears a plastic toy treasure chest around his neck that he believes contains his consciousness. Rovil, Lyda’s former intern, was raised Christian but now finds himself in the constant presence of the Hindu god Ganesh thanks to Numinous. Experiencing a similar phenomenon, Lyda’s constant companion is Doctor Gloria, an angel-winged psychiatrist who functions as her conscience. Lyda knows Doctor Gloria is a hallucination, yet the two engage in a constant dialogue (often to the confusion of those around her).
The novel moves along at a brisk pace as Lyda runs down clues throughout North America with her oddball allies. She must avoid both Canadian and American law enforcement, as well as some geriatric gangsters and The Vincent, who uses a conscience-suppressing drug to turn into a terrifying assassin. With elements of a good mystery, Afterparty is full of twists and turns and red herrings on the way to an unexpected and satisfying resolution.