Afterparty by Daryl Gregory
There are some books that are made for people like me to review. Whereas some people sit on the fence on all questions of religion, I’m as complete an atheist as it’s possible to get. When presented with a book like Afterparty by Daryl Gregory (Tor, 2014) which suggests faith in God can be induced by taking a drug, my eyes lit up. Just as the poor guy in The Matrix can take a pill to open his eyes to the reality of the world around him, this book’s premise is that a chemjet printer can be programmed to come up with drugs to adapt the mind to any particular point of view. So, for example, Ollie was a brilliant intelligence analyst who took a drug called Clarity. This enabled her to see patterns in databases and human behaviour that no-one else could see. Unfortunately, when her dosage ran too high for too long, she began to see threats that were less real. This led to her declaring a terrorist alert over a national holiday. The false alarm did not go down well with her superiors and landed her in a mental hospital. At the other end of the threat spectrum, The Vincent is the personality of a paid killer that emerges when a mild-mannered man, who has adapted his apartment to farm miniature bison, takes another type of drug.
This is a future world in which the ability to develop highly specific drugs has been refined to a fine art. Our protagonist, Lyda Rose, was one of a small team to develop what became the God pill. The other members of the team were her genius wife, Mikala, Gil the IT guy, Edo the money man, and Rovil the guy who did a lot of the spade work in the lab. They began a company to develop a drug to fight schizophrenia (Lyda’s mother had schizophrenia and was the motivation for creating the drug later called Numinous). Unfortunately, when celebrating the entry of the drug into clinical human trials, Mikala spiked their champagne with the drug and they all overdosed. Mikala was stabbed to death with Gil taking the blame. Edo seems to have become hopelessly insane. Lyda is also declared insane and locked up along with her invisible companion, a guardian angel called Dr. Gloria. Only Rovil seems functional, going on to a successful career in a pharmaceutical corporation.
When word of a new drug comes into the institution were Lyda is held, she suspects the God pill has been put into production. This was not supposed to happen, so she talks her way out of the hospital on licence, and begins to track down this drug. If it’s confirmed as her drug, she wants to shut down production before too much harm is done. If you want to know the detail of why she thinks chemically inducing a belief in God might be a bad idea, read the book. In a nutshell, it’s one of these nature/nurture arguments.
If we assume the personality is a direct mirror of the way in which the brain works, we can program the brain to produce the desired personality. In fact, we’ve been doing this for centuries through the socialisation process. Parents and other authority figures influence the child during the formative years, and hope to produce the desired type of adult. All these chemists do is assume the body is a biological machine and make drugs to reprogram the brain’s chemistry and so induce specific shifts in behaviour or belief systems. So, for example, one of the new drugs on the market temporarily shifts sexual orientation or, in this case, creates the belief the person is able to talk directly with God or one of His angels. Lyda, as a rational person, knows exactly what has happened to her and so is able to have a moderately reasonable relationship with her angel. When people fail to realise they have taken a drug, the changes in belief and behaviour seem a completely natural conversion to, or a deepening of, their faith. For the record, the drug is ecumenical and individuals interact with their culturally specific god or gods. Rovil as a Hindu, for example, has routine meetings with Ganesh to guide his life’s journey and career.
With this set-up, all our hero has to do is deal with the psychopathic Afghan mothers, negotiate with the cigarette-smuggling North American Indians to cross the border, and make her way across America. It’s an epic journey in thriller terms, considerably enlivened by the appearance of the Cowboy about one-third of the way through the book. When the dust has settled, we find people have losses and gains. Even the fate of the bison is added to the mixture, whether as fiction or as a parable told by the angel.
Taking the book as a whole, it represents an outstanding contribution in several different categories. As a novel, it overcomes a slightly slow and confusing start to become a gripping read. As a discussion about the nature of belief, it makes some shrewd observations on the mechanisms for transmitting faith from one generation to the next and from one individual to another. The idea the socialisation one receives as a child can be resurrected by a drug as an adult is fascinating, as is the entire drug culture the book explores. It also considers the circumstances in which a person comes to lose his or her faith. Whether this is through a slow and natural erosion over time, or because of some more traumatic event, or by going cold turkey, the sense of loss can be felt keenly. Put all these factors together and Afterparty is one of the best relatively near-future science fiction stories I’ve read in the last year. I strongly recommend it.