Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
“Everyone develops a tolerance to happiness,” or so says Lyda Rose, the main character of Daryl Gregory’s excellent new novel, Afterparty. It’s a cynical line from a sincere character, but it might be a sincere line from a cynical character. I’m not quite sure which. I am sure, however, that Mr. Gregory wrote that line long before Pharrell’s ear worm topped the charts. No one develops a tolerance to that song.
Whatever the case, cynical or sincere, there is a fuzzy, demilitarized zone between the two concepts that illustrates one of the great strengths of Daryl Gregory’s work: He is able to negotiate a détente between the warring factions of science fiction and fantasy that obviates the need for distinction. The two are inseparable and, ultimately, inconsequential.
“Fantasy involves that which the general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which the general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances.” Or so says Valis, a Philip K. Dick stand-in who appears in Gregory’s debut novel Pandemonium. The trick, he elaborates, is that the objective truths for what is possible and impossible are often occulted by the reader’s subjective belief. Do I believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, to use an extreme example, or do I believe the Earth is a unique planet in the cosmos? Whether true or false, my answer informs how I might classify a book that takes either assertion as true.
Questions concerning what is possible are almost immaterial when it comes to Daryl Gregory’s work. Like the best speculative fiction, his stories are not predictive of a future landscape. Rather, they describe the world we live in vis-à-vis an extrapolative fantastic reality, whether it’s a world in which demonic possession is a pervasive scientific/cultural phenomenon, as is the case with Pandemonium, or one in which an underclass of live undead might organize behind a the leadership of a zombie messiah, as it is in the author’s third novel, Raising Stony Mayhall.
In the not-to-distant future of Afterparty, Gregory’s latest novel, “any high school student with a chemjet and an internet connection can download recipes and print drugs.” The societal problems such a scenario would present are inherent. We know how this could go, but imagine if there were a recipe for a drug that facilitated a permanent union between the user and the godhead.
The aforementioned Lyda Rose, with the help of her colleagues, developed just such a drug. Lyda herself suffers from schizophrenia brought on by an overdose NME 110, dubbed Numinous, although her attending angel might disagree with the clinical diagnosis. Crazy or sane, Lyda and her colleagues suppressed the drug for fear of what effects it might have on the population at large. So when evidence Numinous has resurfaced becomes apparent, Lyda knows she has to find out which of her old partners has leaked the recipe. Through the chase to find the source of the Numinous, the author is able to tackle big questions about issues of faith, truth, and love without any hint of pedantry.
In his second novel the Devil’s Alphabet, Gregory uses a genetic disease that mutates victims into one of three distinct biological types—hairless, seal-like betas; enormous, gray-skinned argos; and the grotesquely obese charlies—to frame a story in which an unaffected survivor of the outbreak is drawn home by the apparent suicide of his childhood friend. It’s also a bit of a gothic murder mystery.
While combining all these elements might be disastrous for a less talented writer, Gregory handles them masterfully. In his short story collection, Unpossible and Other Stories, Gregory takes readers through stories about religion, neuroscience, and superheroes.
However you classify Mr. Gregory’s work, the author’s greatest strength lies in his ability to mirror our culture’s current discourses; faith versus rationality; truth versus delusion; madness versus civilization; intoxication, the greatest of the Dionysian excesses, versus the disciplined sobriety of Apollo. It’s all present in these narratives populated with inexplicably true, three-dimensional characters.
Daryl Gregory is not just an author you should know; he’s an author you should read. He’ll make you like science fiction . . . or maybe fantasy. I’m not sure which.