The Big Idea: Daryl Gregory

Your brain: Is it your friend? Or is it something else entirely — something maybe a little less chummy with you than you thought? Ask Daryl Gregory, because he’s given it some thought (with his brain!!!!) for his newest novel, Afterparty.


Your brain is lying to you. Not just about the small stuff, like when it makes you fall for an optical illusion, messes with your sense of time, or creates a gorilla-size gap in your perception when it’s busy concentrating on something else.

Your brain is also lying about the big stuff, the most fundamental aspects of being human. It starts with the illusion that there’s a “you” behind your eyes, and independent “self” that has something called free will. Folks like Daniel Dennett argue that free will is just a feeling of control. And Dan Ariely, the guy who wrote Predictably Irrational, can supply plenty of examples of how our “rational” decision-making can be shaped by things as simple as changing the design of a form at the DMV.

But evolution has also shaped our brains to affect the way we make moral decisions. Consider the well-known thought experiment, the Trolley Problem. A runaway trolley is coming down the track toward five people. You can pull a lever to divert the trolley onto another track, where a single person is standing. Do you kill one person to save five?

The answers people give can vary simply by the story you tell about the singleton who would die. Is he a fat man you’d have to push onto the track yourself,  a villain who “deserves it,” or an unsuspecting guy sleeping in his hammock? Because we evolved as social apes, some actions just feel more wrong, even if the moral calculus is the same.

Your brain, basically, is Mr. Liar McLiarpants. And that’s the big idea behind Afterparty.

The story takes place in the very near future. (If you want to write about the present in a way that won’t feel quaint in ten minutes, write near-future SF. It’s just mainstream fiction with the sell-by date scraped off.)  To show what life is like a few years into the designer-drug revolution, I made up a few technologies that are pretty much doable now, chief among them the ChemJet.

Here’s how you build one. Take something like a 3D printer. Replace the input material with packets of pre-cursor chemicals (phenethylamine’s a good building block) that you buy semi-legally online. Next download recipes for smart drugs from a vibrant community of bio-hackers. Or make your own, and beta test the results on you and your friends.

Obviously there are going to be some interesting consequences of desktop drug design, some of them horrible.

Lyda Rose, the main character in the book, is a good example of both sides of that bio-hacking coin. She’s a former neuroscientist who discovers that the drug she helped create ten years ago, and thought she buried, is back on the streets, being printed by underground churches.

The drug goes by the name Numinous, and for good reason. Take a little, and you get that mystical feeling that William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and that’s been experienced by humans throughout history. (Some people with temporal lobe epilepsy have it every day.) It has many qualities, but the main one is that you feel like you’re in contact with something wholly outside your self—a divine other.

That’s what happens if you take a little Numinous. Overdose on the drug, however, and you might wake up with a deity permanently installed in your brain—your own personal Jesus.

Ten years before the story starts, Lyda and the co-creators were all given a massive dose of Numinous against their will. (Who did that to them, and why, is one of the mysteries in the book.) Each of the survivors now has their own “divine” presence living with them, and Lyda’s is Dr. Gloria, an angel in a white lab coat. Lyda, as a scientist, knows that Dr. Gloria’s a hallucination. But the other side of the coin is that the good doctor is also good for her; Lyda’s a better person when Gloria is advising her and soothing her.

That’s the main question the book asks: if someone invented a drug that made you technically insane, but helped you to be kinder and more connected to your fellow humans, would you take it? And what happens when other people decide they should convert you for your own good?

If you don’t want to wait for the future to get your dose of chemical evangelism, you can always take the long road. Every day, millions of people meditate, pray, sing whirl, and chant, chasing that feeling of the numinous. Whether it’s God (or some other higher power) communicating with them, or whether it’s just the brain fooling them with its own recipe of chemicals, that’s a question that each person—and his or her brain—has to work out for themselves.

As for me, I trust my brain about as far as I can throw it. (Which isn’t far, because skull.) But I think of it as living with a charming sociopath. Some of the stories it tells become more interesting when you know they’re lies.


Afterparty: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBoundPowell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Daryl Gregory”

  1. Thanks, Daryl. I’ve heard very good things in the reviews I’ve read of the book. This feels like a more strictly biochemical parallel to the work of Ramez Naam.

  2. As a neuroscientist who has worked in drug development, and who spent some of my earlier years in the punk and then dance scene, this looks like great fun.

  3. That sounds like a great story – I’ve always thought of my brain as an unreliable narrator, but I love the charming sociopath analogy. And… now it’s on my Nook :-). I should really try to figure out how many Big Idea pieces have led to immediate purchases – it’s at least one out of four, I think (but my brain could be lying to me about that…)

  4. Gregory’s an instabuy in our house. Pandemonium and The Devil’s Alphabet are two of the more brilliant books of the last few years. Needless to say, I’m incredibly excited about this one.

  5. Brilliant premise – I’m definitely not the only person who’s wondered who or what my brain is really working for :)

    More precisely, after realizing my entire body is a collection of colonies, and that I could not function at all without those semi-autonomous entities, I kind of wondered about the brain. Our great and only cognitive center, the main definer of “Me,” and our interpreter-liaison with the world. Yet it’s also a chemical and hormone morass, subject to peculiar whims and fears, and quite capable of turning on us in a crisis. Those of us who’ve used psychotropic chemicals, either recreationally or by prescription, have close personal experience with the brain as not only an unreliable narrator but even an unreliable regulator of our sense of identity.

    I will definitely get this book.

    BTW, if you haven’t already read “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman, I highly recommend it. It’s about a nun who writes poetry about her vivid, wonderful visions of God… and then is diagnosed with a brain tumor.

  6. Your brain is also lying about the big stuff, the most fundamental aspects of being human. It starts with the illusion that there’s a “you” behind your eyes, and independent “self” that has something called free will.

    Okaaay. But this is hardly a settled issue in either philosophy or neuroscience. There’s a reason that Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained is jokingly referred to as Consciousness Explained Away. See David Chalmers for details…

    Sorry. I don’t want to turn this thread into another endless dispute on consciousness.

  7. Your brain: Is it your friend?

    Well, your brain is lying to you. But one of the lies includes several drives that add up to a will to live, without which, you wouldn’t bother getting out of bed in the morning. So, yeah, I’d say that’s a friend.

    Existentialism was one of the first to pull back the mind’s lies. Camus referred to life’s absence of meaning as “absurd”. We have to create the meaning by which we choose to live. And the mind seems to automatically do much of that for us without conscious effort.

    if someone invented a drug that made you technically insane,

    I think once you start dabbling in the realm of a universe without meaning, the notion of “insane” is really just a subset of the “absurd”.

    what happens when other people decide they should convert you for your own good?

    What indeed.

  8. if someone invented a drug that made you technically insane, but helped you to be kinder and more connected to your fellow humans, would you take it?

    If memory serves, that’s pretty much exactly what many folks said about LSD back when it was being studied semi-seriously. It made you temporarily insane but you came out of it a nicer and better person than you were before the drug. That is perhaps part of why it became popular in addiction treatment back when such studies were permitted in the USA.

  9. Disclosure: I read an early draft of Afterparty, and Daryl’s a good friend. Also, he owes me a beer. I think. The drugs make it difficult to remember.

    I am so very, very excited to read the final version of this book. It’s such a head-kicker. Even better than the drugs.

    …what were we talking about?

  10. Gregory’s an instabuy in our house.

    +1. I’ve loved everything he’s published, including the short stories.

  11. The writer almost lost me immediately with ‘Mr…pants’ which is a kind of expression I loathe but even before the last, quite glorious paragraph I was hooked.
    Another book to order & read as soon as possible. I now have a truly embarrassing amount of those books crying Lebensraum on my shelves…

  12. @Adam Lipkin: Gregory is an instabuy at our house as well. Really looking forward to this one. (I think I’m getting it for my birthday next week!)