When I went to see Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, it was right in my wheelhouse. I am obsessed with space, and captivated with zero gravity, and attempts to capture the same on tape. (Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson is one of my favourite books, sparking this particular interest.) It's a darned good movie. It's solid, it's tense, and when I left, I was vaguely disappointed.
It wasn't the movie itself. It was the expectations I carried in. I know Cuaron can make movies as intense and difficult and amazing as Children of Men, and in comparison, Gravity feels like more of an exercise in action - well done action, but not what I'm looking for from that particular filmmaker.
I have a little of that feeling about Daryl Gregory's Afterparty. This is really a very good book. It's tense, it moves quickly, the characters are interesting and my attention certainly never flagged. But it also doesn't do what I've come to expect books from Daryl Gregory to do, the reason I most look forward to reading everything he's written.
To be specific, what I've been most enthralled with is Gregory's ability to take an idea and not only tell an engaging yarn with it, but to continue to push the idea and the implications of that idea further and further, beyond what I'd even conceived of, and into the truly tricky, metaphysical, and fascinating.
Afterparty gave me hopes of that - it seems to be building on at least one idea from a short story in his collection Unpossible, around the idea of religious belief, or a connection to a Divine, through pharmaceutical/biological ingestion. I was delighted - I liked his short stories but think he really shines in long form when these ideas are really taken out and aired.
And that is what this book is about - a biochemist in a mental institution in Ontario (like all Canadians, I like to point out when people who aren't Canadian notice us), with persistent delusions of an angel, after a massive overdose of a drug that triggers religious experiences, a feeling of connection. Numinousness, if you will, since Numinous is the name of the drug. She's been locked up since she and her co-creators all accidentally OD'd on it, with differing effects, but all of them with persistent hallucinations of a connection to the Divine, and a physical manifestation of it.
Lyda, the main character, believes it's a hallucination. She knows how the drug works, and is still, despite everything, an atheist. Her angel will not, however, quit hanging around. On the night of the overdose, she lost her wife, but doesn't entirely remember what led to her wife's death. When Numinous, a decade later, hits the streets, she gets herself released and convinces her sometime lover, a former (CIA?) operative named Ollie to break out and join her in hunting down a drug she believes is far too dangerous to hit the streets. It's not the high, it's the withdrawal.
This all sounds great, and it is really good. I buzzed through this book quickly, and enjoyed it a whole hell of a lot. But...that next step, where the idea itself goes in unexpected directions, both to the point I expected and then far, far beyond it? Didn't happen. We got to the point I expected, but that's about it.
I am being ungrateful, I know. This is a solid science fiction thriller, with a satisfying whodunnit thrown in, great characters, set in my country, and some provocative ideas. Not every movie can be Children of Men. I do know that.
So I recommend this. Strongly. I just hope there's more of what I most enjoy about Gregory's work out there waiting for me.
(Oh, and just one quibble, because a lot of it is set in Toronto - here, they're called universities. Colleges are quite different. And frats aren't nearly the huge part university culture they are in the States. That was the only thing that bugged me.)