The Devil's Alphabet
by Daryl Gregory
Paxton “Pax” Martin is going home for a funeral. Like so many others born in small rural towns, he migrated to the big city, only to find himself trapped in a cycle of menial jobs and pointless drudgery. But unlike so many who make that journey, Pax was running away from his nightmares, not running towards his dreams. During his fourteenth summer, the a mysterious disease swept through his hometown of Switchcreek, killing a quarter of the population and drastically transforming almost all the rest. First-wave victims were transformed into “Argos,” massive, primordial beings that look like a cross between an ent and a frost giant. The second wave turned its casualties into “Betas”: smooth, hairless, vaguely feminine whose asexual reproduction cannot be halted or postponed. The third wave created the obese, powerful “Charlies” who are controlled by the “vintage” secreted by older males. But a few “skips”, like Pax, were left unchanged, at least externally. Scientists swarmed over the town, but no one could explain-- much less cure-- the strange epidemic. The scientists christened it Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS), took some samples, did some analysis, and eventually lifted the quarantine and disappeared to disguise their bafflement. And now Pax is back in town for the funeral of his old beta flame. But while TDS may have skipped him, his past hasn’t loosened its fetters.
The Devil’s Alphabet was my third or fourth Gregory book. From my previous experiences with the author, I was prepared to be enchanted. Maybe my expectations were just too high. The coming-home story and mystery surrounding Jo Lynn's death were promising, but both petered out without ever really driving the story. Part of my discontent had to do with the protagonist. I don’t do well with addicts, especially when author characterizes the addiction so accurately. Pax always puts himself and his addiction first, but tries to disguise his motivation with bizarre and ostensibly noble excuses. His thin veneer of conscience fools no one, except perhaps Pax himself. I kept waiting for him to get his act together, to start caring about those around him, to start trying to proactively solve the mystery of his friend’s death. I waited in vain. Above all, though, the book just isn’t funny. I’ve come to expect Gregory’s trademark wordplay and whimsy, but Pax has no sense of humour, and this absence is reflected by the narration. There are a few gentle quips; for example:
The women enforced a no-fly zone of southern politeness: Every unpleasant thing was known, or if not known then assumed, and therefore beneath comment.
But the book lacks the amusing commentary of Gregory’s other protagonists.
I also kept waiting for the mechanism or motivation behind TDS to be revealed, but I eventually realized that the book isn’t really about TDS, and it’s not even about the mystery. It’s an exploration of how our pasts and our physical selves shape our personalities and souls. Pax thinks he can leave his town, that
Erasing the past was easy, like walking in a snowstorm. The footprints filled in by themselves.
But in truth, he carries TDS with him as surely as an argo or beta or charlie. Much of the book revolves around the impact TDS’s physical changes had on the community and on what it means to be human. The argos are sterile, forced to be the first and presumably the last of their kind. The betas, even though all are effectively female, must cope with an exploding population. At the age of 13 or 14, all beta girls become spontaneously and immaculately pregnant. Since their every dream and aspiration revolves around babies, are they being “raped by their own biology,” or simply living the lives they want? Would slowing or stopping early conception be giving them agency or taking it away?
The Devil’s Alphabet scrutinizes the ways in which our physical forms shape our intangible selves:
Maybe there was nothing essential to a person that could be separated from the muscle and blood and chemicals that motored him around; maybe everything depended on the body, was dictated by it.
It’s about living as an outsider in a world of outsiders. As a “skip,” Pax seems to have won the devil’s arithmetic, but he is left feeling “an alien in his own skin, an outsider, an imposter,” and without the easy diagnosis of TDS to explain his isolation.
Above all, though, I think that the book is about acceptance, about the struggle over whether to become the arbiter over others’ lives to stop them from making the choices we find abhorrent. But if the book is about withholding judgement, then what does my failure to accept and forgive the protagonist say about me?
If this is what it’s like to be human... no wonder the world is so fucked up.