Claustrophobic and austere but still intriguing

Dreaming in Smoke — Tricia Sullivan


1998’s Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke in 1999, beating out John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass, Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands, Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division, Christopher Priest’s The Extremes, and Alison Sinclair’s Cavalcade. That seemed like a good enough reason to select Dreaming in Smoke for review.

The life-bearing world T’nane is close enough to the Solar System that any group who can scrape together the necessary fortune can reach it in just a couple of generations. So far, the Mothers and their male Grunts are the only group to have bothered. They arrive at a world they expected to be able to shape to their needs in fairly short order. They were kidding themselves.

T’nane is not that much like Earth and the problem of reshaping a world where ecosystems are powered by thermal differences and not photosynthesis turned out to be a lot more intractable than they predicted. Instead of a thriving colony rich enough to attract renewed contact with Earth, the settlement is stuck at a level where it can sustain itself indefinitely but not grow past its current limits.

Kalypso Deed was born on T’nane. Her creators had high expectations for her, expectations Deed has failed to live up to. The settlement has written her off. Everyone knows that Deed is a slacker fuck-up. They believe that she is wasting her potential listening to music and playing “shotgun” — guardian companion — to the scientists who use a computer-moderated dreamscape to catalyse intuitive insights. When one of those Dreams goes horribly wrong, the community is more than willing to believe it was Deed at fault; it could not have been Azamat Marcsson, the scientist.

Azamat Marcsson’s Dream has left the statistician apparently insane. Ganesh, the AI on which the colony depends for life-support and other vital services, is dying. Even if the colony can salvage enough of Ganesh’s functions to keep most of the humans alive, most of the personality that is the current Ganesh will be lost (well, tossed aside is more like it). That may be the best-case scenario; it is not at all clear that anything of Ganesh can be saved.

To complicate an already fast-evolving crisis, this is the moment a rival cabal to the Mothers elects to reveal itself. This is a cabal composed of outsiders whose very existence the Mothers have concealed, as a shameful secret. Effective defense against this group proves nearly impossible, because the Mothers have hidden the necessary information. The first hint of trouble most of the colonists get is an overwhelming attack as the new power group moves to commandeer the colony’s resources for its own ends.

Deeds ends up a captive of a dubiously lucid Azamat Marcsson, whose grandiose plans did not end when he crippled Ganesh. As the community as a whole struggles against the cabal, Deeds is subjected to Marcsson’s grotesque experiments. Whether Deeds or her home will survive seems an open question.

Bad stuff first: the Clarke often leans somewhat more literary than other spec fic awards. I wonder if what swayed the jury was the fact that most of the characters in this aren’t really very likable. I was kind of hoping for a much higher body count among the Mothers than I actually got, particularly once the revelations about their sub-rosa activities came to light.

I would like to be able to say that I found the Mothers’ poor planning unbelievable. However, a surprising number of early colonies on earth fell into either the Darien or the Poyais trap or some combination of the two. Either the settlers were so ignorant of the conditions of their intended new homeland that they were doomed or the whole affair was a con from word one. It is perfectly reasonable to imagine that some future group of interstellar settlers will launch their enterprise on the basis of unreasonably optimistic expectations or outright lies.

Similarly, I would like to be able to say that that it is unbelievable that anyone, ever, could blithely use dubious methods with unpredictable outcomes to upgrade computers on which a whole colony’s existence depends. I used to subscribe to the RISKS digest and so am all too aware that well-intended computer upgrades have wrecked rockets and turned medical equipment into death-rays.

There is one plot element that is just flat-out unbelievable: the Mothers reject with horror the idea of off-site backups for critical files (Ganesh’s nature is such it cannot be easily backed-up1). Surely in a future time when people routinely build starships, the risks of running without backups will be too well known for even the most security-minded people to eschew backups.

There is one other element in the Mothers’ plan that baffled me, which is that they seem to be trying to recapitulate Earth’s Great Oxygen Crisis on T’nane. It is reasonable that they would want their new homeworld to have an atmosphere that they can breathe; however, they are simultaneously hoping that some product of the local ecosystem will prove valuable enough to make trade with Earth economically feasible. The Great Oxygen Crisis wiped out most of the existing life on Earth and I don’t see why an analogous event would not do the same on T’nane. The Mothers’ two goals are obviously incompatible.

I’ve often compared generation ships to small towns whose inhabitants can never, ever move away. As Sullivan makes clear, young colonies have many of the same features. Deed is trapped by the fact that everyone around her has known her since she was a baby. What she is allowed to do, and how what she does is interpreted, is shaped by community expectations that have hardened into stone. To give an idea how claustrophobic life on T’nane is, when Deed first enters the story, she has never met a stranger.

I note that the author herself says about this book

Dreaming in Smoke is not my best work. I’m honoured that it won the Clarke, all the same.

I am tempted to ask her what she thinks her best work is, because I was commissioned to review two of her books and just as “the book that won the Clarke” was an obvious first choice, “the book the author believes is her best to date” would be an interesting second choice.

Personally, I found this a difficult novel to get through but even the infelicities gave me something to think about — even if it was just “Really? Centuries in the future, people still believe that thing about Inuit and words for snow?” While the enjoyment I got from reading this was often austere, I don’t regret the effort required to finish the work. I am curious to see how the author changed between this and whatever my next selection from her work is.

British readers may purchase Sullivan’s books here. If there is an authorized source for North American readers, I am currently overlooking it. 

1: In some ways, the way Ganesh functioned reminded me of a story that must now be beyond obscure, 1976’s “Sun Up” by A. A. Jackson, IV and Howard Waldrop. I would be astounded if that story played any role whatsoever in the genesis of this novel.

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