Sandra Miesel’s 1982 Dreamrider is a standalone science fiction novel.
Ria Legarde lives in a world shaped by a great disaster in 1985 and the anti-tech backlash that followed. After years of chaos, Earth was unified under the Federation, an oppressive nanny state that subjects its citizens to peace, happiness, and art by people who aren’t white. Worst of all, the mental health authority PSI has sweeping powers to detect, detain, and treat the unhappy, perplexed, and nonconformist.
Ria is all three, thanks to her bizarre dreams.
Surrounded by co-workers who could at any moment betray her to PSI, Ria tries to avoid attracting the wrong sort of attention. Already on PSI’s radar thanks to a traumatic childhood kidnapping, Ria has no friend with whom she dares discuss her dreams. Perplexing dreams of worlds where history turned out very differently.
Nobody on the Federation’s Earth, that is.
What should have been a lethal workplace mishap sends Ria’s body to the hospital and her mind across the timelines. She wakes in a man’s body, in the company of an old woman named Kara and a talking otter named Lute. The pair are shamans. They believe Ria has the potential be one as well. Provided she succeeds at the tasks they set.
Nothing says “completely sane” like being chosen for special powers by a talking otter from another world. Yeah, but try to tell that to the PSI.
Ria’s growing abilities invite attention, particularly from her co-workers — who are a sad collection of dispirited victims and nicey-nice wimps, leavened with craven bootlickers. They’ll report her out of spite.
PSI is energetic and relentless. Rita may end up in a padded cell if she cannot come up with an explanation for her behavior that PSI will accept.
“Magic and shamanism sound more like fantasy than SF to me,” you might say. Well, this book seems to be playing in Randall Garrett territory. Magic is redefined as psionics, which is scientific if you accept the handwaving. The book also has a toe in alternate history. Rita visits worlds in which Lee fought for the north, or Gandhi was not killed, or Queen Victoria prevented WWI by abdicating in favour of her son.
However, the main thing is that this novel was marketed as SF and has the letters SF on the spine.
Before I first read Dreamrider, I had read a few of Miesel’s essays, effusive pieces on Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson. So, she had some genre cred. What prompted me to buy the book (as near as I can recall) were the facts that:
the book was published by Ace (at the time, one of my go-to publishers);
it had an eye-catching cover by Stephen Hickman;
the cover boasted Introduction by Gordon R. Dickson (an author whose work I read a lot more than my Because My Tears Are Delicious To Reviews may lead you to believe).
Dickson’s introduction does Miesel no favours. He praises at exuberant length a workmanlike but unremarkable first novel. The contrast between the book that is promised in the introduction and the book in hand is striking; it is not in Dreamrider’s favour. But then, I don’t know if any book could live up to the expectations raised by the introduction.
If I recall correctly, Jim Baen had moved from Ace to Tor by the time Dreamrider was published. Despite that, Dreamrider reads like the sort of novel Baen-of-1982 might have purchased (and given publishing lead times, maybe he did). The novel is filled with hat tips to the authors with whom Miesel and Baen were affiliated. The firm assertion that WWI doomed Western Civilization could have been lifted directly from Poul Anderson. The disaster that led to the collapse of the old world and the rise of the Federation is a fine example: a LNG tanker mishap obliterates a region 30 kilometers across. I suspect this was inspired by a section in 1976’s The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear, which Baen-led Ace published. As well, the novel is rich in tropes of which Baen would have approved: art-world bureaucrats promoting works simply because their creators are not white1, an intrusive world nanny-state.
As oppressive nanny-states go, the Federation isn’t so bad. Ria’s paranoia doesn’t appear to be justified by what we actually see her co-workers and PSI do. True, her co-workers are a passive-aggressive bunch of wankers. PSI does implant a bug in a former mental patient, possibly hoping to catch his nonconformist cronies or his future descent into madness. On the other hand, being passive-aggressive is not a major offence. PSI can be lobbed off if Ria can come up with a tolerable lie. The nanny state provides licensed sex-workers and safe soft drugs. If despotism is a boot stamping on a human face forever, this state wears ballet slippers. A cynic might wonder if Ria isn’t overreacting just a tad.
So, not much drama in this book. The closest it comes to drama are the adventures in Kara and Lute’s world. Still, the book is not actively bad like, say, some of Lionel Fanthorpe’s creations. (To quote the linked web page, “Do not read too much Lionel Fanthorpe at one go, your brains will turn to guacamole and drip out of your ears.”) Dreamrider is a perfectly readable, mildly right-wing, science fantasy. Unfortunately, Dickson promised a life-changing novel and this ain’t that.
Aside from Dreamrider and the 1989 expanded version, Shaman2, Miesel published no further SF novels of which I am aware. This is, of course, one more book than the vast majority of people will ever publish.
Dreamrider (and Shaman) are out of print.
1: It undermines the Political Correctness Gone Mad subplot that the specific works name-checked as benefiting from this egregious inclusiveness are admitted to be actually pretty good.
2: I am fairly sure I bought Shaman. I cannot speak to the differences between the two versions of the book. According to the Internet Archive, its version of Shaman has lyrics by Mercedes Lackey3. I see no credits to that effect in Dreamrider.
3: “Lyrics” implies songs, not poems. Although not a common practice, sometimes authors do include songs in text-based narratives. See, for example, “Mary O’Meara” from the novel World Without Stars or “The Green Hills of Earth” in the story of the same name. If this seems odd to you, try not to dwell on the practice of Mad Magazine, which used to (and may still, for all I know) feature comic-book musical parodies of popular movies.