Book Review: Hyacinths, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1983)

Al Nagy’s cover for the 1st edition

4.25/5 (Very Good)

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hyacinths (1983) is an unsettling dystopian tale of a future where even the unregulated creative world of Dreams is harnessed and controlled. On another level, Hyacinths lays bare the dangers of unregulated industry and the ingrained sexism within western capitalism. There’s a deep sadness within these pages, a sadness at the lack of progress for equal rights in the workplace, a sadness at our collective inability to help those who need it most.

Recommended for fans of ruminative speculations on oppression and future media.

Plot Summary/Analysis

The World

The technology to record and commodify Dreams, initially developed to understand insanity by deciphering “the symbol system used by individual psychotics” (62), is the new entertainment media behemoth. The recorded Dreams of the gifted make millions in profit and adoring legions of fans. Commercial Dreaming, despite its dangers of burnout, remains one of a few paths from extreme poverty. But when the psychological damage of the profession destroys the mind, the black market buys twisted visions of violence and perversity as well.

As the physical landscape of the world (poverty and crime) writhes in increasingly violent chaos, humanity escapes by experiencing the Dreams of the psychologically-damaged Dreamers.  Nurses, desperate to supplement their income to feed their families, and media executives, caught in compromising positions, are forced to perpetuate the cycle by smuggling out illicit tapes. The violent world generates itself.

As the novel progresses, new trends emerge. 1) The government attempts to compel the media companies to integrate propaganda subliminals. 2) The regulations about Dream technology loosen. In this commercial media landscape Hyacinths’ characters struggle to chart their own paths.

The Primary Cast

Jehanne Bliss: A brilliant Dream producer and talent scout, Jeanne Bliss is laser-focused on her career. The male-dominated media executives scrutinize, dismiss, and fight her every move. Caught in career limbo, unable to rise the ladder like her less qualified male colleagues, Bliss takes increasingly drastic actions. She comes up with a plan to prevent slow-down Dreamer burnout and satisfy government regulation.

Anthony McKenzie (Tony): One of the original developers of the Dream technology, Tony now works at the network “taking care of those Dreamers who had reached the point where their minds had permanently fled the rigors of their work, and the world itself as well” (8). He tries to warn the potential Dreamers about their catatonic fates, the psychological trauma, their manipulative Muses employed to trigger more and more Dreams…. As the suicides and catatonic Dreamers stack up, Tony becomes more transparent with his patients—to no avail—of the dangers at play and effects of the drive for profit. There’s a deep sadness in all of Tony’s exchanges with his charges. Sigurd Bernwald’s description of his slow loss of creativity as the Dreams “catch up” with him (16) is the perfect example:

“I walked through the old part of the city last week. I like those old houses. I used to be that walking there, I got ideas, all kinds of ideas about all kids of things. […] This time, it didn’t do anything for me. Nothing changed. There were just a bunch of old houses that needed paint and would probably get torn down in a little while. I walked through the old part of the city last week. I like those old houses. I used to be that walking there, I got ideas, all kinds of ideas about all kids of things. […] This time, it didn’t do anything for me. Nothing changed. There were just a bunch of old houses that needed paint and would probably get torn down in a little while” (14).

Tony can only nod and promise to help: “I helped found Dreaming. I want to make it work if I can” (18).  His concern for the Dreamers leads to clashes with his boss (and ex-wife) Jehanne Bliss, preoccupied by her own battles and desires. Tony is a sympathetic figure, unable to meaningfully counsel and support his patients.

Hyacinth follows the lives of multiple new and more experienced Dreamers and their inevitable physical and psychological destruction. Honor Gordon, desperate to feed her family and escape her “dreary, dangerous life” in an industrial greenhouse in a crime-ridden city, possesses remarkable talent to Dream (49). Honor, like so many, convinces herself that she will be the one to succeed and reap the benefits of her opportunity.

Final Thoughts

Yarbro evokes a relentless sadness as all the parts remain trapped in the machine–even one’s Dreams. Yarbro immerses you in her future by presenting the technology as a given reality rather than a gadget to be ogled at. Thus, the focus rests on the characters and their interactions. And the nightmares feel like nightmares…. Sig’s burnout dreams are hellscapes of body horror and perversity. And Honor Gordon’s unstable visions manifest the lesions of psychological violence perpetuated by her Muse and the system he represents:  “The beautiful young woman whose arms and legs ended in tapering reptilian tails writhed as the black lash stung her. From the marks of her flesh, it was clear that this was not the first time she had been used” (108). And even nightmares are for sale.

At moments Hyacinths reads as a slice-of-life novel uncovering workplace sexism and the dishonest exploitation of the most vulnerable. I’ll give a bit of context: Hyacinths was written during the demise of the Equal Rights Amendment due to conservative backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly. In 1972 the ERA was put before the states with a seven-year deadline to ratify. In 1978 President Carter signed a resolution to extend the deadline of the amendment to 1982. As an insufficient number of states ratified the amendment within that span, it flounders in a state of limbo to this day. It’s hard not to read Yarbro’s novel as a reaction to the rise of Reaganism and the 70s and 80s backlash to women’s rights.

Bliss spends the majority of the novel confronting the resistance and sexism she experiences. The novel builds up to her confrontation with the Directorial Board: “You pretend that it means nothing that I’m a woman, but when you come right down to it, that’s what’s wrong with me, isn’t it?” (140).  Forced to constantly justify her choices and behavior to men, she loses sight of the suffering of the Dreamers. Like a continuously replicating and layering spider web catching all within, she is exploited, the Dreamers are exploited, and those who deeply care can do nothing to dispel the inevitable end.

Considering the depressing territory and focus on character-based rather than action-focused narrative, I found it unsurprising that few know this novel or review it online (30 votes and 6 reviews on Goodreads). The sadness and lack of easy answers scares off potential readers. It’s a shame. I’m nearing the end of Yarbro’s science fiction—she moved into genres where her dark gifts were more appreciated and marketable (mystery, occult fantasy, horror, etc.).

I found Hyacinths (1983) superior to False Dawn (1978). Find a copy!


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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Hyacinths, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1983)”

    1. Tony was a very sympathetic character. He made the story click for me. It is one of the few times where a psychiatrist was positively presented in SF — at least that I’ve encountered… although he wasn’t successful at preventing Dreamers from burning out he at least tried to assist and counsel them. He’s flawed of course. He sticks to his job far too long although he doesn’t have much choice. If he leaves the network has the power to poison whatever future employment he might find.

      I’ll take a peek.

  1. Commodified dreams is a great fictional idea—though it would be horrible if it became reality. I first stumbled across the idea as a 12 year old reading Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation of Alien. In the novel, iirc, it is revealed that Ripley almost became a commercial dreamer. The commercialisation of dreams is a powerful metaphor for the excesses of capitalism simply because they are so deeply personal and at odds with the workaday “outer” world. It would be good to track this theme through SF, and see what is has to say about our dreams for utopia and nightmares of dystopia.

    1. It is a fantastic idea. The dreams, like all media, are edited and manipulated as well. And, depending on the content of the dreams, the Dreamer might be expected to take on a new name or craft a new persona.

      I seem to remember Philip K. Dick writing more than one short story (maybe it’s in a novel as well) where advertisements appear in your dreams…. but I don’t think he wrote one where the dreams themselves become salable media.

      1. I seem to have the same vague memory about PKD! Do you know if Zelazny’s The Dream Master would fall into this category? I’ve read a few dream related shorts from the late 40s/50s but i don’t recall any exploration of commercialisation.

          1. From my review of The Dream Master it seems more like the dream hermeneutician enters the neuroparticipant’s mind as an act of therapy (like the original concept behind the tech developed and taken over by media companies in Yarbro’s novel) rather than anything commercial. But there’s a chance I missed things in my review as it was 6 years ago.

            1. Having not read the novel, only your review, i feel that the technology that enables the activity of the “neuroparticipant” would be liable to commercialisation—even if its only for the specialised practice of the therapist. One could then further speculate on possible illegal uses, the black market, etc. But hold on, i appear to be taking this whole
              fictional world thing too seriously!

            2. If I remember correctly, it’s cool technology — used to not only enter dreams but also create diagnostic dreamscapes to “assess” an individual. I think Zelazny has a lot of fun in his satire of Freud…. I’ve often thought that if I were to go back to grad school for the History of Science Fiction (which will never happen post-PhD in another historical topic), I’d want to study the use of Freud in SF. Like Zelazny, I think a lot of it is laughable in practice….

            3. About a year or two into my PhD i took a year off and contemplated how to turn my philosophy degree into an sf history project. I gave up and returned to philosophy. Though around this time or a little after i discovered your blog, which, among my love of old skool sf, helped me through. So thanks! Not to mention, my current blog: it’s me finally getting around to the more obviously sf project i dreamed of with a fair slab of philosophical rambling.

            4. Thanks for the kind words!

              I definitely started this as a way to keep sane during grad school (I’m the obsessive sort. And need a non-job/career outlet as well) — but it has served, through its meandering and unfocused manner, to identify areas I’m particularly fascinated by.

              I’m not sure what to do next as I no longer am in academia (in a research capacity). I want the site to become a bigger portion of what I do — I have been thinking about ways I could use Patreon, etc. But I don’t want to scare people off or keep any of what I write from the public.

              I’ve enjoyed your regular site posts. I’m not sure I have the philosophical or theoretical background to engage with all of it. While I know the basic historical trends of philosophy/theory I’m not a big user of them myself (in my academic work I focused on mostly network and collective memory theory but not much else). I was definitely a scholar who preferred the nuts and bolts of manuscript research i.e. finding sources people hadn’t written a ton about, deciphering handwriting, translating bad Latin, identify who and what people were saying, comparing to early sources, identifying how things we were rewritten. I suspect that influences, to some degree, what I do here as well.

  2. I have some of her novels, but I’ve only read some of her short stories, but those were way back in the seventies and eighties. Another author I need to revisit.

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