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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory continues to be amongst the most interesting of the newer writers to emerge in the past decade, and he's rapidly becoming one of the most unpredictable. His early short fiction, which someone (I think David Hartwell) described as "neurological hard SF" was often stunning in how it could seamlessly make SF concepts a function of character, but it wasn't long before stories like "Unpossible" and "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" began revealing a broad engagement with influences ranging from superhero comics to children's books. By his own account, Gregory's first novel Pandemonium was something of a mash-up of his favorite icons from the last half-century of pop culture, from O.J. Simpson to Philip K. Dick, and his second novel The Devil's Alphabet is something of a mash-up as well, but of a completely different sort. To be sure, some of the pop culture allusions remain — the working title of the novel was Oh, You Pretty Things, from the David Bowie song whose vaguely Nietzschean lyrics offer some foreshadowing of one of the novel's themes — but the mash-up here is mostly a matter of form and genre. On the one hand, the novel hovers around the sort of evolutionary hard SF of novels like Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, complete with theories of intron expression and retroviruses, invoked here to explain a sudden outbreak of radical somatic transformations that overtook the residents of a small Tennessee town a decade ago (like Pandemonium, the novel is set in a kind of alternate present, taking place in the summer of this year). On the other, it returns to an earlier kind of evolutionary SF that we'd seen in novels from van Vogt's Slan to Sturgeon's More Than Human, in which the focus is more on the pariah status of the victims than on the biological puzzle, and on the inability of the larger society to cope meaningfully with the implications of the event. But then again, it's also a homecoming tale about a young man (unaffected by "the Changes") who has escaped his rural origins for a life in Chicago, but who is drawn deeply back into his childhood community, and his family, by a tragedy. Finally — and this is what drives the novel's main plot — it's a small-town southern Gothic murder mystery. No one can accuse Gregory of being a one-note author.

The tragedy that draws Paxton Martin back to his hometown of Switchcreek, Tennessee, is the apparent suicide of his closest childhood friend Jo. Like most of the town's residents, Jo had been transformed by the earlier outbreak, which has since been labeled Transcription Divergence Syndrome or TDS, although never adequately explained. A quarter of the town's population died, and the survivors began undergoing a succession of bizarre alterations: argos, whose bones lengthened until they grew to enormous height; betas, whose skin developed a wine-colored, seal-like texture; and charlies, who grew grotesquely obese to the point of near-immobility. Jo had become a beta, and Paxton's father Harlan, a preacher from whom he has long since been estranged, had become a charlie. A few, like Paxton, were unaffected. Initially, Paxton merely plans to attend Jo's funeral, but soon he grows suspicious that the suicide may have in fact been a murder, and he's forced to come to terms with his own past when the local residents, including his friend Deke and the town's shrewd but manipulative mayor Aunt Rhonda, persuade him to pay a visit to his ailing but immense father. Complicating matters further is that his father, like some of the other aging charlies, has begun producing, through rather grotesque boils in their skin, a strange secretion called the vintage, which seems to function as a kind of empathy drug for Paxton — who finds he can't bring himself to abandon his father again — and as a super-pheromone for the younger charlies, some of whom want to harvest it for the drug trade. Furthermore, reports appear that TDS has begun to reappear in other parts of the world, which draws the unwelcome attention of the government back to Switchcreek, largely left alone as an isolated curiosity until now. With a murder to solve, a father turned into a kind of living meth lab, most of his friends transformed into monsters, and the feds closing in, Paxton has his work cut out for him.

And so, to an extent, does the reader. While Gregory does an impressive job of keeping all these plates spinning without losing his narrative's coherence, there is still a sense that a bit much is going on all at once, and that some of those plates are starting to wobble. The SF theme, for example, seems to veer from questions of epidemiology (though it's supposedly non-contagious) to ideas apparently borrowed from George Gaylord Simpson's theory of quantum evolution, but then late in the narrative a suggestion is introduced that evolutionary paths from alternate universes may be involved as well. It's probably a wise decision on Gregory's part to avoid introducing a brilliant scientist who figures all this out, but as soon as our curiosity is piqued about these questions, his plot requires that he draw our attention back to the murder mystery (which does get solved), or to the rather complex and touching relationship between Paxton and his father, or to the dangers of a local drug trade, or even to the small-town politics of the town's self-appointed godmother Aunt Rhonda. The larger question, of what eventually might become of these evolutionary exiles as they move into second and third generations, seems to move us back into Theodore Sturgeon territory, and it's fortunately a territory that Gregory has mastered well. The novel's quiet ending, in a snowbound South Dakota winter, is haunting.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the December issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The Devil's Alphabet

Daryl Gregory
(Del Rey 978-0-345-50117-2, $15.00, 384pp, tp) December 2009. Cover by David Stevenson.



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