Jamil Nasir,
Tower of Dreams
(Bantam Spectra, 1999)

Blaine Ramsey, the protagonist of Jamil Nasir's novel Tower of Dreams, is a Senior Field Neurosocial Prospector. This entails sleeping while under the influence of various psychoactive herbs, and then dreaming. In this dream state he prospects or "digs" for Images in the psychic territory known as the "collective unconscious." The art and science of Image digging, based on the psychological theories of Carl Jung, is an intriguing and, as far as I'm aware, original science fictional concept and is the foundation upon which the book's plot is built.

Blaine is living and digging in the Middle East, working for an American corporation which sells his finds to the advertising industry. The time is late in the present century, a period of ecological degradation and great wealth disparity between the First and Third Worlds with ensuing violent political repression and lawlessness. One night Blaine, an American of Arab extraction, dreams of meeting and conversing with a strikingly beautiful Arab girl, something he recognises as an authentic Image experience. However, his delight at finally having struck pay-dirt turns to horror as his dream turns sour, to end finally in nightmare.

He awakes and attempts over the next few days to render the beautiful aspects of the Image into computer-animated form suitable for uploading. But the dream reoccurs. Awake, he becomes caught in events having the tenuous interconnectedness and rapidity of nightmare or insanity. And indeed Blaine recognises this, knowing that insanity is an occupational hazard of digging. Thus when he suddenly hallucinates the girl from his dream he struggles for a rational explanation -- the narcotic herbs, or perhaps overwork.

His interest in this girl and his search for her embodied reality quickly turn to obsession -- part sexual, part mystical, part rational curiosity. This quest takes him to Cairo and the author succeeds in making tangible the nightmare quality that any destitute, vastly overcrowded and ungovernable metropolis must possess. But captured also, and to an equal extent, are glimpses of the indomitable human spirit which ordinary people can bring to their lives even in (or even especially in) such conditions.

A thread running the story, and dominating the later stages, is the attempt by the author to unify religion (Islam in this case), psychology, advertising and geophysics into a single whole, and to show this new amalgam to be active in the lives of the various characters and in their world. This is a tall order. Eventually Blaine must abandon all attempts at rationalising events, and as a consequence the plot founders. Even the invoking of the popular Gaia Hypothesis (that is that the planet Earth possesses a form of consciousness) in an attempt to show how physics (in this case geophysics) might not be morally neutral, fails to save the novel's concluding chapters from descend into woolly mysticism.

The plot started with the mystery of Blaine's interaction with the collective unconscious, and ends, not by any resolution, but by simply replacing one mystery with a bigger one. Not very satisfying, and also frustrating to see the sharp and potent SF premise of Image digging blunted, diluted -- its capacity to induce a sense of wonder in the reader is poorly exploited.

However, while not without its shortcomings, Tower of Dreams entertains to the end. For people who like categories, it could be placed in one labeled Mysterious Universe. If Hamlet's words, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy," give you goosebumps, then this book is for you.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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