The Next Chapter

Michael Helm explores what could go wrong with a creativity drug

In Michael Helm's latest novel, After James, a neurologist squares off with a pharmaceutical company in a dystopian future.
Michael Helm weaves together the stories of three intriguing protagonists in his book After James. (Left: Alexandra Rockingham)

Michael Helm's latest novel, After James, captures a dystopian future in which drugs rewire brains and bodies. In this world plagued by an erratic climate, a neurologist squares off with a pharmaceutical company when its creativity drug goes wrong.

In this future, digital innovation has made everyone connected... and in turn, has connected no one at all.

On technology and the tensions of today

When writing After James, I was thinking about the new kinds of uncertainty and doubt that seem to be building around us in this part of the century. We keep adding these transformative technologies like virtual genetic technology, pharmaceuticals and so on. We really have no choice but to accept them as part of our reality even when they distance us from the old realities that we might feel more comfortable with.

On top of that there's also global political instabilities of the moment, which aren't helping. And climate change has landed us in an age when we're forced to imagine our own extinction. I'm not arguing anything in the novel that isn't a self-evident argument but I am just trying to register in fiction what it feels like to be living in this moment — in this kind of disquiet. 

On his three main characters

If you can get to a certain age and you look back on your life, you start seeing a cause and effect pattern working through it. But life doesn't hold to the degree of order that we might expect from novels or from art. What I'm trying to do with these characters is have it both ways: to have characters that we recognize as people, whose stories we want to follow the way we want to follow stories in fiction, but who also are working through questions in the way that real people do.

I always think of fictional characters not as characters, but as people, and I test them against those contradictions that make up our lives. On the one hand, when we first meet each of the three main characters, we might think of them as characters in a genre novel. But I hope that by the time we finish each of the three parts and they feel like people, we might know.

Michael Helm's comments have been edited and condensed.