Tricia Sullivan,
Dreaming in Smoke
(Bantam Books, 1998)

Here's a suggestion: go to the bookstore and read the opening paragraph of Dreaming in Smoke. Just that, nothing more. Why? Because if you're a reader of science fiction this is all the convincing you'll need to get the book and read it. On the other hand if you are not familiar with the genre you'll likely will find encapsulated in this one paragraph much of what SF offers -- strange, never-before-encountered objects, concepts and situations. For everyone the experience of this paragraph should be both exhilarating and challenging, epitomizing as it does the "cognitive estrangement" aspect of SF so beloved by the critics.

And the rest of the book? Well, the promise of that opening is fully realized. Central to the story are a young woman, Kalypso Deed, and an artificial intelligence (AI) called Ganesh. Ganesh is heavily relied upon by Earth colonizers of a distant planet who must live isolated from the environment ("the Wild") of their adopted home. The colonists' plight resulted from reports sent back by a survey ship indicating a planet ripe for terraforming and settlement. However, in the comparatively short interval between this report and the arrival of the ship filled with a cargo of people in suspended animation and frozen embryos, the ecosystem had altered utterly -- and for the worst. There was no going back.

The planet T'nane is powered, not by solar radiation but by geothermal energy, which keeps its viscous surface in constant motion. A principal constituent of this system is "luma," a substance whose sequestering and release of chemicals make it the controller of the planetary environment. Unsurprisingly, gaining an understanding of this luma is high on the list of the colonists' priorities. An early breakthrough occurred when Ganesh discovered that applying a charge across luma particles allowed their use for structural purposes and also for data storage. On the strength of this discovery the colony expanded beyond the hull of the original ship and confidence rose sufficiently for implantation of frozen embryos. Kalypso was among those so born.

Underpinning and essential to Kalypso and Ganesh's pivotal role in the unfolding story of the colony is the method the author has invented for them to interact. Placed in a "dreamtank" (a sensory deprivation chamber) Kalypso can access the computer but the interaction is at the level of her subconscious. What this means is that, when queried for instance about concepts surrounding the original computer archive that accompanied the colonists from Earth, Ganesh translates the data into an image of an old, battered suitcase which Kalypso, while Dreaming, may examine and handle. Equally, an insidious piece of computer code is imaged as a rapidly growing invasive vine. The ability to Dream in this way is used by the colonists to form strong interpersonal bonds within groups (each having access to the others' subconscious), and also in problem solving (gaining intuitive insights). Obviously in this Dream world much use is made of poetic imagery, and in turn these metaphors thus generated are employed within the novel to convey events which could not be easily conveyed by other means, in particular the interaction between people whose every essence is of Earth, and something that is totally alien.

Kalypso becomes caught up in the maelstrom of events as the seemingly impossible happens: the AI's Core (the seed programming from Earth) is breached and corrupted. As the colonists mobilize, bicker and act without coordination in a bid to save the Core, Kalypso finds herself traversing the Wild, held prisoner by a Dreamer who appears to have lost touch with reality. During all this her youthful eyes are opened to the true nature of her society, and she emerges grown up but not complete. Without overstepping the mark that all reviewers must respect let me say here that one of the themes of this novel is pantropy -- the process whereby, instead of changing a planet to suit human physiology (terraforming), humans are fashioned to accommodate the planet.

Dreaming in Smoke is very much in the tradition of genre science fiction. Central to the story is a planet which humans desperately attempt to understand, whose patterns of surface color and shade are mysterious both in themselves and as manifestation of deeper mystery. This scenario is reminiscent of the eponymous planet in Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris, a work whose author, I think it fair to say, would be considered to be outside the common genre herd. In his novel, humans are haunted by dreams and hallucinations, derived from their own minds, but emanating from the planet about which they orbit in a space station. The planet, it becomes evident, is unknowable, the implication being that there are limits to the grasp the human mind can ever have on the universe and its phenomena. Dreaming in Smoke is the antithesis of Solaris. The people on T'nane are similarly sorely tried by their inscrutable planet but, in contrast, and continuing the human adventure that brought them there in the first place, they face their subconscious fears (by Dreaming), and bravely, persistently, stubbornly interact with the planet until insight is obtained. Lem's anguished pessimism finds no place in Sullivan's novel, which is a tour de force. Bravo!

[ by Conor O'Connor ]



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