The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory
You know you’re in trouble when the author, Daryl Gregory, sets a novel about DNA shifts/human evolution in a hick place called Switchcreek, Tennessee. This is like the author taking a rubber hammer and driving a spike into the reader’s head to get him, her or the other to pay attention. How else are we to understand something is “significant”? Sadly, this naïveté is symptomatic of a very pedestrian story of everyday rural folk who wake up one day to find the ones who survive the transformation are suddenly three or, may be, four different species. Ho hum, was there ever such a day! Off to bed as Tennessee white trash, the next day awake as Alphas, Betas, Gammas (no,wait, that’s Brave New World) so this must be Argos, Betas and Charlies. Perhaps that’s why the author called the novel The Devil’s Alphabet, keeping the Deltas up his sleeve for the sequel.
This is a mystery story buried in a portentous story about how one isolated community might suddenly be kicked into a different evolutionary path. It’s a kind of Midwich Cuckoos event and may presage the first attempts of an invading virus from a parallel world to gain a foothold in our neck of the woods. Or perhaps that’s an invasion from three different worlds or dimensions. Frankly, I lost interest after the first efforts to explain what might be happening. That the author keeps having different attempts at explanation is slightly desperate because it doesn’t get any better each time it comes around.
So we have the usual ragbag of tired plot devices. The rest of Tennessee avoids the town like the plague (which is hardly surprising because the inhabitants have been struck down by some kind of mass epidemic). There are the usual drive-by attacks by these unfriendly neighbours until, slowly, they grow bored. No-one else falls ill. It’s not contagious or infectious. Yawn. Then, thirteen years after the first, a village in Ecuador has the same problem so the US army encircles Switchcreek in a quarantine and, to assure the local population of their goodwill, they shoot the first couple who try to leave town. Those soldiers. . . Fresh from Iraq, you can always rely on their welcoming spirit.
In the midst of all this stuff, one of the older transformed women apparently commits suicide. Yeah, right. So we all start guessing whodunnit. To help us through the tangled web, a returning man, not apparently affected in the original outbreak, runs from one local character to another until we have met the assembled cast of potential killers. Roll up, roll up! Place your bets. And it turns out it’s the always obvious. . . although the reason for the killing is actually quite clever so score one for the author in this one-horse-race.
Overall, this is a somewhat tiresome and rather boring book that offers a vague sfnal explanation for some rather weird physical transformations while investigating a fake suicide. Our hero (for want of a better word) goes through the usual PI travails of being beaten to a pulp for daring to stick his nose where it’s not wanted, getting hooked on some a strange vintage brew, and emerging from the whole thing in one piece by virtue of finding enough buried bodies with which to blackmail to key players into letting him go.
Not recommended unless you are desperate for something to read.
As an added note, The Devil’s Alphabet was a finalist in the Philip K. Dick Award 2010 for Best Novel.