Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Erica's Infrequent Book Reviews Presents: AFTERPARTY by Daryl Gregory

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory
Tor Books
Buy at Powell's or Amazon

Neuroscientist Lyda Rose has just learned that the experimental drug which drove her crazy and caused her wife to be murdered is loose in North America. The drug, codenamed "Numinous," causes users to experience a hallucination of God, and to believe in it. Lyda breaks out of the mental health facility where she's being detained to find out the source of Numinous and stop it from spreading. Part near-future science fiction, part murder mystery, Afterparty is a novel for anyone who likes smart fiction.

I first discovered Daryl Gregory's writing in 2012. Searching for novels recommendations, I went to the list of Philip K. Dick Award nominees and checked out some of the synopses. The one for The Devil's Alphabet stood out to me, and I fell in love with the novel. I went on to read the rest of Gregory's output very quickly (always a marathoner) and was just as impressed, particularly with Pandemonium, which was hands down the best novel I read in 2012, holding my attention despite a general preference for short stories. So when I read that Gregory was working on a novel that combined my two favorite subjects, recreational pharmaceuticals and spiritual inquiry, I was immediately intrigued. And then I had to wait a year and a half! Such is publishing, I guess.

Like his previous novels, Afterparty delivers healthy doses (so to speak) of philosophy, well-rounded characters, and not a small amount of dark humor. That's especially true when describing the many pharmaceuticals in use in his near-future setting, like the sexual orientation-altering drug "Flip," which straight frat boys use to have a night of raunchy sex with their buddies. Another example is the apartment rancher/hired killer Vincent, who uses a designer drug to strip away his moral code. I get the feeling that Gregory is using these drugs less to make commentary on (prescription) drug culture than he is to investigate the mechanisms that make us what we are, and how easily biology can override what we believe to be true about ourselves.

Gregory's damaged characters are painted with great detail, from the driver Bobby (who wears his consciousness in a plastic aquarium toy around his neck), to Lyda's girlfriend/co-conspirator Ollie, whose paranoid tendencies were solidified with a drug that causes her to see patterns in everything. Lyda and Ollie sneak across the Canada-America border to investigate the spread of Numinous, but the conspiracy goes deeper than they think--all the way back to the five scientists involved in the creation of the drug and the fateful afterparty that left one of them dead and the rest of them locked into a permanent relationship with their unwanted spiritual guides.

The book is structured like a thriller, but the real meat is in the philosophical questions Gregory brings to the table. Is God only a chemical reaction, and if so, does that make the spiritual experience any less valid? (We are our minds, after all.) How do you regulate drugs in a world where everyone can be an amateur neuroscientist? While it doesn't have the same kind of world-shaking conclusion that Pandemonium did, I was still blown away by the ending, which features a crucial and surprising choice by the atheistic Lyda about the nature of drug-induced faith. It's also a diverse novel, with a lesbian protagonist and a rainbow of characters much like one would expect to populate Toronto a generation from now.

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory gets my highest possible recommendation, but then, I have a severe soft spot for philosophical writing and drug novels. (Like I told Rob when reading him the synopsis, "it's like it's written for me!") This is kind of like a novel Philip K. Dick himself would have written if he'd been allowed to edit and hadn't had hang-ups about women. Thanks to Gregory for writing it, and to NetGalley for the advance copy.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

2,833 Miles

So, we're in Portland now.

There was a more impressive welcome sign a few hundred feet from here, but I missed it.

I'm not going to get much into the trip itself, because I'm saving that for the split zine I'm making with Rob, but suffice it to say that it came out much, much better than we expected it to. All three cats are still alive, though Oxford managed to destroy his own carrier. The most beautiful state we went through (including Oregon, which is half desert) was Utah. The worst state was Idaho, with the caveat that we only traveled through the south of it, and the panhandle is supposed to be way better, and we were also getting very tired of traveling by that point. Everyone we met was friendly as hell. Seriously, the Midwest has the most ho-hum topography but the best people. We went through twelve states, eight of which were new to me, and somewhere in Wyoming the terrifying visage of Abraham Lincoln passed judgment upon me and found me lacking.

Rob pulled a U-ie to see this. It was worth it.

Our apartment is fantastic, a very short walk from the bus stop and a longer walk to the Alberta district, home of a fancy waffle shop I imagine I'll be frequenting quite a bit. Surprisingly, I haven't been doing much biking since I got here, since our apartment's one downside is that there is no way to lock up your bike in the front. We have a tiny back yard, but it has a fence around it and is only accessible through the apartment, and my bikes are both 35+ pound behemoths with wide handlebars. I'm thinking about selling one or both of them and getting this contraption, which I'll actually be able to carry easily through the door/apartment. What biking I have done, however, has been glorious. People aren't actively trying to kill me anymore!

It's very peaceful here. We're still mostly in the setting-up phase, and haven't started jobs yet, so that could be part of the reason for the calm. But there's also such a sense of friendliness here, of community, which is strange considering that three-fourths of Portlanders are transplants, but there you go. While I hate to be one of those people who constantly compares Portland to the place they come from, I do think that the friendliness reminds me a lot of Pittsburgh. You know how people in Pittsburgh kind of smile and do a little wave at each other, even if they're complete strangers? Sort of like that, only minus the wave, because come on, that's creepy. It's very flat here and you can walk for miles without getting tired, and Rob's health is improving so much.

This terrible statue in Nebraska is supposed to represent the Oregon Trail. Isn't it ugly?

So yeah: Portland. It's a thing that's happening, right now. I've already met a few writers here, and I'm looking forward to meeting more people in both the science fiction and zine communities, as well as putting together some paying work! Oh, and it's barely rained at all, although it is spring. I like rain anyway.

In writing news, I've sold my short story "We Take the Long View" to Shimmer, one of my favorite magazines! I've been a reader of Shimmer since my friend K.M. Szpara had a short story in one of their previous issues. I'm very excited to share this bit of shimmery science fiction with you all.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Coast to Coast

Rob and I are almost exactly halfway across the country, spending the night in a Motel 6 in the tiny town of Big Springs, Nebraska. It's been a smooth move so far, maybe the smoothest move we've ever made, largely because this is the one big move (aside from the original move to Pittsburgh) I've really wanted to make. Some random observations:

  • If you're moving any distance at all, I strongly recommend using professional movers to pack your stuff for you. We used family for the last two moves (PA > Baltimore suburbs > Baltimore) and it took three times as long and they didn't do half as well. Best use of approximately $200 ever.

  • There is a distinct smell line where Corn Country becomes Beef Country. Kinda not looking forward to going through Wyoming tomorrow.

  • Moving with cats kind of sucks because you can't get out of the truck and see anything, or anyone. There are things and people we would have visited, but alas, cats.

  • We are almost exactly following the real Oregon Trail.

  • I have eaten far too much fast food on this trip, especially McDonald's, which are right next to almost every gas station we stop at. I guess I can consider it a last hurrah, since there is never any reason to eat fast food in Portland.

Tomorrow we cross the Rockies. I think the stress of crossing a major mountain range is dwarfed by the excitement we'll feel at seeing scenery that doesn't look like Desert Bus.

Oh, and in writing news, my flash story "36 Interrogatories...," originally published at Daily Science Fiction, is up at Toasted Cake! My second podcast. Enjoy!