Sunday, May 13, 2012

"The Devil's Alphabet" by Daryl Gregory: Snuggly Soft Biological SF

I first encountered Daryl Gregory's work through the short story "First Person, Present Tense" in an anthology, and thought it was one of the best short stories I've read in months (and I read a lot of the things!). So, naturally, I sought out the rest of his writing. He's a fairly new writer, which is both good and bad: good because there's hopefully a lot more to come, but bad because when I find an author I like I need to read everything they have written ever, and with only three novels and a collection I'll be done with Gregory's oeuvre in a month. But anyway, with that one story selling me on the writer, I looked up his novels, and started with the one that seemed most interesting.

The Devil's Alphabet is present-set science fiction, taking place in Appalachia, that involves themes of evolutionary biology and mind-bending drugs. Seriously, it's like the thing was written just for me. Twelve years before the story begins, the small town of Switchcreek, Tennessee was struck by the non-communicable "Transcription Divergence Syndrome." In practical terms, that means that most of the people of the town began to mutate into one of three creatures: super strong, ten-foot-tall argos; hairless red people called betas (who are mostly female and reproduce through parthenogenesis); and quarter-ton charlies, some of whom just happen to secrete a psychotropic drug through their skin. All the clades, as the groups are called, are as different from one another genetically as they are from human beings, and with the exception of the argos they're fertile, with a desire to spread their non-human genes as far and fast as possible. The main character, prodigal Switchcreeker Paxton Martin, is a "skip," meaning that the mutations passed him over completely... or did they?

Pax returns to Switchcreek for the funeral of his beta friend Jo, after her suspicious suicide. The investigation of Jo's death provides the framework for this story, though this mystery is by no means the only thing going on here. Among the other secrets in Monster Town are an embezzlement of federal funds by the new mayor, the issue of birth control among the early-blooming beta girls, and Pax's growing addiction to his father's strain of "vintage" (the drugs the charlies produce). The book is mostly in Pax's point of view, though it dips into two other character's heads periodically, which I thought made a nice balance.

Halfway through the book the plot takes a major left turn when (SPOILER ALERT) TDS breaks out in Ecuador, and from there the speculation as to what TDS is flies fast and furious, and while no definite answers are given (this being Charmin-soft SF), the most viable possibility is genes being sent from a parallel dimension as part of some kind of multiverse-wide genetic war. The national guard is called out, and Switchcreek is put back under quarantine, and that's when the riots start. Pax must try to break his addiction to his father's sweat (seriously, how awesome is this book?) and do what he can to save Jo's daughters, two "natural" betas who provide insight into just how different the inner world of the changed is from that of humanity.

Another detail of the story I liked a lot: Pax is bisexual, yet this is not remarked upon positively or negatively in any way, which is as it should be but almost never is. It's extremely rare to find fiction about non-straight characters (especially bisexuals) that doesn't make a Huge Deal about their orientation, that treats it just like being left-handed. Romantic/sexual relationships aren't exactly a focus here and it would have been very easy just to make Pax "default straight" but Gregory didn't do that.

The only "problem" I had, which isn't really a problem at all, is that the book seems to be mis-marketed. The creepy cover, the title, and the blurb on the cover (which claims that The Devil's Alphabet "evokes the best of Stephen King"... not that I dislike King per se but this book isn't at all reflective of his style or themes) all seem to be attempting to market this as a Southern gothic thriller, which it isn't in the slightest. The cover doesn't even mention the book's very deserving nomination for the Philip K. Dick Award. I gather that Gregory's other two novels do align more with Southern gothic fiction (being about demonic possession and Haitian-style zombies, respectively), so perhaps this was only the publisher's desire to retain previous fans. Still, I might have passed over this novel completely if I hadn't read "First Person, Present Tense," and that would have been a shame.