Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan

Bantam Spectra, 1998, 401 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57703-4

As most semanticians point out, words are not “just” words. They are linked to specific emotional content in our memories. “fresh red apple” has a different feel than “structured organizational content” or somesuch. Some words possess deeper associations than others; “Beauty”, “Songs”, “Love” all play on another register than “Fear”, “Honour”, “Orders”. (These last three words are taken straight from three successive Tom Clancy novels. The former are from fantasy novels.)

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Point of Impact is a substantially different book than -say- Bimboes of the Death Sun. Marketing directors have obviously realized this long ago, and so it’s not a conceptual breakthrough to go from there to a more general theory of book selection: If the title sounds good, buy it.

Dreaming in Smoke might be Tricia Sullivan’s third novel, but it was my first exposure to this new SF author. It wasn’t the title that grabbed me, but the intriguing cover illustration, which depicts a very SF-looking metallic structure above a frail sail-driven boat floating over a golden sea, surrounded by clouds of green-tinged vapour.

This is human colony T’nane. By some quirk of history, this inhospitable planet has been selected as a suitable place to send colonists. Temperatures are high, the air isn’t breathable… Worse: the planet (or, at least the parts we visit) seems to be a vast ocean almost always on the verge of ebullition.

Placed nearby a volcanic area lies the first planetary base, controlled by an AI named Ganesh. There is no human life on T’nane without Ganesh: the survival of the colonists depend on precise environmental controls, and that’s where the AI comes in.

Meanwhile, research is ongoing to find ways to cope with the harsh environment. Scientific research occasionally takes a different form, as scientists use a dream-like state to sort between intuitive hypotheses. (Maybe Tricia Sullivan has read once too many the account of the discovery of benzene) That’s where Kalypso Deed comes in: she’s a “shotgun”, a more detached observer who directs the creative energies of a dreaming scientist toward more productive ends.

Kalypso is also something of an underachiever. Despite her genetic potential, she has consistently failed to attaint the expectations of her elders. She doesn’t understand the maths that her scientists are using; that will be her salvation. Because bad things happen, and they do early on; fifty pages in the novel, Kalypso’s routine “shotgun” shift goes wrong and the AI crashes, carrying most of the station’s life support with it. As the elders try to blame someone, Kalypso is quickly dragged in over her capacities… or is she?

Dreaming in Smoke could have either been (based on the title) an incredibly boring novel in the “Beauty, songs, love” tradition or (based on the synopsis) a pretty spiffy novel of adventure against a background of a crazy AI and a hostile environment. Unfortunately, title and blurb clash and the novel has too much hard scientific content and attitude to be dismissed easily, but drags on far too often to be considered enjoyable. Over a hundred pages could have been slashed, easily. The Dream motif doesn’t help, as many metaphoric scenes just end up being senseless and confusing. It would have been helpful to tighten the action around the Kalypso/Azamat (hAZArdous MATerial?) axis and clean up the prose.

As it stands, Dreaming in Smoke is a thoroughly average SF novel that doesn’t really deserve either condemnation or commendation. Sadly, there is so much better stuff out there than the only reason to pick up this novel would be to discover Tricia Sullivan. Which isn’t a bad reason, mind you: for one thing, she’s able to overcome push-button titles.

4 thoughts on “Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan”

  1. I loved this novel, it questioned the nature of being human against an alien background… The possibility of being deconstructed… the loss of any sense of self… of what is known…
    Tricia Sullivan managed to explore meaning at the boundary of human consciousness, using AI as the vehicle…not an easy task. I loved the notion of conscious intelligence being embodied in the algae and bacteria of T’Nane, within the basic building blocks of organic life. This book earned its award ten times over with a capacity to take the reader outside the box of their conditioned thought processes.

    1. Given that the review was written sixteen years ago, I’m sure that I’d like the book a lot more today than I did back then.

  2. Hmmm… time and the net… Brings a whole new level of meaning to Reader Response Theory 😉

    1. Given that this site is now celebrating its twentieth anniversary, I’ve been thinking a bit too much about the perils and profits of having dumped my opinions on-line for two decades. The dirty secret of biblio-blogging is that it’s more often about the blogger than the books, and none of us thinks exactly the same thing twenty (or ten, or five) years later. I have started re-reading once-favorite novels that I’m now finding quite a bit less favorite, while I’m finding some worth in other works that once seemed so insipid. So it goes. Reader Response Criticism is real!

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