A mysterious plague strikes the tiny community of Switchcreek Tennessee, killing a third of its inhabitants and transforming most of the rest into one of three mutations: giant grey-skinned Argos, wine-colored seal-like Betas, and obese Charlies. For the handful of individuals unaffected by the bizarre outbreak, their apparent good luck proves both a blessing and a curse as they suddenly become a minority in a town changed overnight. Nicknamed Skips, some choose to stay and continue their lives alongside altered friends and family while others choose to abandon Switchcreek in favor a more normal existence elsewhere.
Paxton Abel Martin is one such Skip. Only fourteen when the disease known as Transcription Divergence Sydrome (TDS) wreaked havoc on his hometown, he elected to flee, leaving behind his widowed father and best friends. Now, fifteen years later, Paxton returns to the community he turned his back on to attend the funeral of one of those best friends, Jo Lynn Whitehall. It’s a homecoming unlike anything Paxton expected as he re-connects with people from his past, learns more about the still-unexplained phenomena that struck the town, and uncovers a conspiracy that may well have cost his old friend her life.
This book surprised me – in a very good way. The title and cover art suggest supernatural horror, something along the lines of the varied “a town possessed” sub-genre, and while The Devil’s Alphabet does possess Southern Gothic elements, its inventive premise actually crosses several genres. There are certainly aspects of the novel that could be classified as horror, some even fantasy, but the overriding feel of The Devil’s Alphabet is overwhelmingly science fiction. Everything from the mutations to the various theories floated for the TDS outbreak (including one wild parallel universe-hopping virus hypothesis) firmly roots the novel in the world of scifi, and its climactic military quarantine echoes the very best of rural alien invasion tales. And, like all great science fiction, The Devil’s Alphabet offers up a scenario that challenges not only our imaginations, but some of our preconceived notions as well, particularly as they apply to our ethical standards of family and communal obligation.
As readers, we’re asked to set aside our ingrained biases and consider certain moral issues from the standpoint of the citizens of Switchcreek. One of the most controversial is the subject of birth control and its polarizing effects on a community in which spontaneous asexual reproduction in young beta girls has become the norm. And what’s fascinating is not so much the debate between the adults, but the reaction of those second-generation betas for whom our socially-accepted ideals of “a normal childhood” is as alien to them as their peculiar physical presence would be to us. The book also tackles the moral implications of drug use and distribution, its consequences not as cut and dried as those afterschool specials would have you believe, especially not in a town full of pariahs whose sole commodity is a powerful psychotropic known as “vintage” secreted from the bodies of Charlies.
Daryl Gregory creates a nuanced and ambiguous world with no easy answers and characters as inherently sympathetic as they are outwardly grotesque. Although the residents of Switchcreek have been physically changed, they remain, at heart, the same people they were before the plague, which is what makes Paxton’s journey so incredibly poignant. His best friend Deke is still Deke, only an Argo now living every moment hyper-aware of his new body’s ability to inflict inadvertent damage and death. His father remains the same contentious fire and brimstone preacher he’s always been, except that now he struggles as a victim of the hallucinogenic chemical he excretes. And yet given the heavy toll paid, both in terms of self-imposed isolation and loved ones lost, some have found atypical ways of adjusting to the change – individuals like Tommy Shields, a former egocentric ne’er do well who has seemingly turned his life around, or former church lady Aunt Rhonda, who, as town mayor and leader of the Charlie clade, has transformed herself into Switchcreek’s most powerful player.
There’s great depth here and even though I was initially frustrated by the lack of drive in our protagonist’s search for answers surrounding the suspicious death of Jo Lynn, eventually that mystery became less important to me than the characters, their stories, and the community of Switchcreek as a whole. Still, the reveal of the circumstances surrounding Jo Lynn’s death, when it eventually comes, proves both satisfying and horrifying precisely because of the weight and import of those aforementioned elements.
The only other issue I had with the novel was the fact that the Transcription Divergence Syndrome, while a catalyst for the story and discussed at length throughout, is ultimately never revealed. Was it a quantum virus? The wrath of God? Or was it something else? The author doesn’t provide the answer. In retrospect, however, in a novel filled with thought-provoking ambiguities and a conspicuous lack of simple black and white solutions, it’s strangely appropriate.
Okay, those were my preliminary thoughts. What did you all think? Start posting your comments on The Devil’s Alphabet along with any questions you may have for author Daryl Gregory.
A little something that crossed my desk today.
Zoomeister writes: “I came across an interesting link recently. I know you’ve answered something similar last month in regards to the upcoming season 2, but this was written at the end of 2009 and was written before the first season was finished. What’s your take each of the points raised here and which of them do you feel has been addressed since then?
Answer: Same author seven months later –
Zoomeister also writes: “That got me wondering… which season of Stargate (SG-1, SGA and SGU included) currently holds the record for the number of missions undertaken through the Stargate?”
Answer: I don’t know. I’d suggest going through the episode guide on Gateworld and doing the count.
Escyos writes: “Would there possibly be an alternate reality episode where we meet the ancients who came aboard destiny in said reality?”
Answer: Sure, it’s possible.
Escyos also writes: “Were there any uber-awesome ideas for SGA that never saw the light of day?”
Escyos also writes: “What peice of technology from Stargate would you like to own?”
Answer: Working time jumping puddle jumper.
Trevor writes: “So seasons nine and ten are mostly an addendum to the rest of SG1. It is what it is. There’s no reason to so virulently defend them.”
Answer: Yep, I’ve been downright insufferable with all of my virulent defending SG-1’s ninth and tenth seasons. You must be downright overwhelmed. Also, regarding your opinion that “Exodus, Decent, Moebuis and even Lockdown are all vastly superior to the “fun” episodes on your list”, I think you may have misread the title of my blog entry. It was “MY Top 10 Favorite Stargate Episodes” no “Trevor’s Top 10 Favorite Stargate Episodes”. It’s an easy mistake to make. P.S. Kudos on working “fecklessly” into your rant.
steph writes: “On a completely different topic: after much slow poking I have finally managed to finish an entire children’s story. It’s fantasy inasmuch as I’ve included one fantastical character and aimed at early elementary age. My search for how to get it published, or even looked at, has left me overwhelmed . Do you have any advice?”
Answer: Alas, my experience in prose fiction is extremely limited. I’d suggest picking up a list of literary agencies, finding those willing to read unsolicited submissions, then sending them a query letter to gauge their interest.
Gabriele writes: “Will we see an episode set for the most on Earth in season 2 of “Stargate Universe”?”
Answer: Yes…in a weird way.
Randomness writes: “Personally I see Lost City as one of the top Stargate episodes of all time.”
Answer: Okay, but my list was made up of only those episodes I scripted.
DARSFoF writes: “But I am disappointed by the fact that Heroes (pt1 and pt2) didn’t make the list.”
Answer: Didn’t write it. It did make my list of Top 10 Favorite Robert Cooper episodes.
Fargate One writes: “Anything to say about Bill Dow as an actor and the fun? to write for his character Dr Lee?”
Answer: Yes, absolutely. Bill Dow is a terrific actor and a great guy, a real pleasure to work with.
Shiny writes: “I am still making my way through Masked; I am about half through, Thug was so good I could not sleep, kept having dreams about that big lug battling his evil nemesis; it had a nice Sin City vibe. […] Question; any chance you and the other writers will bring these characters to life on screen? […] Or to take them into graphic novel form?”
Answer: Don’t know.
for the love of Beckett writes: “Is one of your decisions a joint-decision with Paul?”
Major D. Davis writes: “1. Is Will Waring directing Visitation?
2. Is Peter DeLuise directing Alliances?
3. Is Andy Mikita directing Seizure?”
Answers: Yes, yes, and no.