(John Berkley’s cover for the 1974 edition)
4.75/5 (Very Good)
“The thought of the vast, utterly silent ship stretching away on all sides of his cubicle, guarded and guided by silent computers, was paralyzing his own ability to make sounds […]” (3)
The crew of a seed ship sent to find a new habitable planet dream the same dreams, dreams of unnatural clarity plagued by pain and death. As a young woman lies dying in her cold cubicle, her final meal at her lips and unaware of her predicament, she whispers to our reluctant hero (Devlin), “All I seem to dream about is being a lady dinosaur” (32). Devlin’s dreams follow some pseudo-evolutionary schema, first he dreams he’s a trilobite in some Silurian sea crushed by the tentacles of a cephalopod, “he went on feeding while the hot, constant flame of hunger was punctuated by explosions of pain as his appendages were twisted and crushed and torn away […]” (10). Then he dreams he’s a brontosaurus, and then an early primate…
Periodically, the automated machines that tend the colonists in cold storage awake their charges, “BASIC INSTRUCTIONS. SPEAK. EXERCISE. REMEMBER” (2). The plotting is perfect, crystalline. Although the exact ramifications of longterm cold sleep are unknown, scientists suspect that periodic wakings will diminish the mind’s ability to retain memories, hence the computer’s injunction, “REMEMBER.” Devlin awakes, remembers his dreams, moves his limbs, occasionally takes bodily sustenance, reminisces about his origins, checks a mechanical system or planet, and slips back into his pod, “COOLDOWN IN FIVE MINUTES” (90) the machine proclaims, the cycles renews…
There are other cycles of course—although their communal dreams move along a timeline from the pre-historic to the “medieval,” from trilobite to man—“hunger and blind instinct were still driving people to acts of violence” (11). This link between the present and the past forms the thematic core of the novel. The occupants of the seed ship do not fit into this pattern, this world of continued base violence. But what is the world they are escaping? In some dystopic vision of Heinlein’s gun-toting futures gone haywire, those who become citizens are armed “before they have reached maturity” (77). Maxers take every perceived slight as an excuse for a duel, and security cannot “keep pace without waging total war on all and sundry” (77). The choice to wholesale arm the populace was perceived as the only way to stopgap the descent into violence. Unsurprisingly, if base desires created the world before, an armed world exacerbates the problem.
Over the course of the novel, the reason for Devlin and his friend and eventual lover, Patricia Morley’s selection is slowly revealed. After extensive psychological probing, they are found suitable, “the major factors in reaching this decision are that both of you are intensely dissatisfied with your present life-styles [sic] and would like to escape from them, and neither of your personalities is basically violent. More simply, you would like to change things but are unwilling to hurt people to do it” (86). Devlin refuses to become a belted citizen, and pursues a non-belted profession as a doctor. Patricia mutilates her face in order to prevent young citizens from “offering unwanted protection” and thus “killing her male friends” (75). Pacifist heroes…
As with All Judgement Fled (1968), dissociative themes of psychological manipulation permeate Devlin and Patricia’s waking moments. Are their experiences on this ship a mere continuation of their psychological tests to weed out candidates? (90). Or, are their communal dreams the result of memory implementation to keep the mind sane over the course of the voyage? (109). The baffling mystery, “was everyone on the ship having the same dreams?” (59) generates warranted paranoia.
As the planets pass by either occupied by alien life or uninhabitable, desperation sets in—Devlin discovers a man frozen to the wall of his cubicle in an apparent act of suicide. As the voyage continues, the probabilities of survival diminish, and the probabilities of technological failure increase.
The Dream Millennium is the best James White novel I have read. While All Judgement Fled (1968) maintained greater psychological despair and the parallel (alien and human) stories and underwater society created in The Watch Below (1966) were conceptually more audacious, The Dream Millennium feels distilled and refined. Paranoia permeates the pages, the slow unraveling of the narrative showcases White’s storytelling prowess, and the conceptual linkage between the dreams of a “past” and the realities of the present, demonstrates how aware he is of how all the pieces fit together and meaning created by their mosaic whole…. And Devlin and Patricia, both pacifists and highly intelligent, are appealing individuals.
Recommended for all fans of 70s SF.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Uncredited cover for the 1976 edition)
(Rick Sternbach’s cover for the 1982 edition)