Friday, December 14, 2012

The Dream Police

You know how EL Doctorow says that when the writing’s going well, it’s like taking dictation? Well, when the reading’s going great, it’s kind of the same. It’s like you’re not even reading at all. The best fiction, it transports you body and soul, and leaves you different than you were. N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood books do this as well as anything I’ve read this year. After absolutely inhaling The Killing Moon, too, I’ll be honest: I didn’t see how The Shadowed Sun could even pretend to be as strong, as gripping, as well thought-through. But then it was, it is. Jemisin’s got what it takes not just to make it on the fantasy scene, but in any arena where books are what matter. In any contest where you’re judged on your ability to create characters who are people, worlds that are completely real, situations that are both unexpected and inevitable.

What’s really impressive with this Dreamblood series is that, where you can tell a lot of fantasy writers are constantly aware just whose Middle Earth they’re trying so hard not to write within, Jemisin just steps cleanly aside and does her own thing. I mean, the premise of The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun isn’t that different than most other fantasy stories: look back with me to when magic existed, and watch these plucky characters try to save their world from what amounts to human nature. But at the same time, you can reduce most novels, fantasy or otherwise, to going out to face the dragon, and coming back changed. Jemisin’s not trying to break that mold, but neither is she just shifting variables around within the same old formula. She’s quite aware that an orc by any other name, it smells the same. So she just walks away from that model altogether.

Into dreams.

If there’s any more dangerous territory for fiction, then I don’t know about it, anyway. And, mix it with fantasy? Seriously? Of all the genres? That’s like giving David Lynch license to make a movie about making a movie: the content and the form mobius-strip together into a Videodrome tar baby the audience is never going to completely untangle itself from. Which is maybe why a lot of fantasy sticks to dragons and elves, yes, and why we leave the dreaming to Alice and Dorothy, to Neo, to Delmore Schwartz.

And, dreams: is there anything the reader reviles more? Dreams on the page tend to be syrupy messes of wedged-in exposition, which the writer seems to think is a great space for showing how smart and symbolic they can be, how Lewis Carroll they can get. Before Dreamblood, I mean, and taking into account that Gaiman’s Sandman is a whole different can of nightcrawlers, I’d read exactly three dreams in fiction that I found tolerable. One’s in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, one’s in James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, and the last is a big long sentence fragment from Richard Grossman’s The Book of Lazarus. And what makes them strong is that they’re wholly unrelated to the waking world of the novel. Yet they keep to Poe’s dictum, they contribute, and in a way that’s hard to articulate but difficult not to feel.

I suspect Jemisin has this same intolerance for dreams. But, instead of avoiding them altogether, she elected to accept the challenge of recuperating them. Granted, dreams have been used for narrative scaffolding before, from Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but never in a story this—it’s the only word, really—fantastic.

In the world of Dreamblood the clergy are able to enter dreams and siphon off dreamblood, dreambile, dream ichor, (there’s an old Theodore Sturgeon story with a half-similar conceit), and then use it to do good in the world. This isn’t a society with an economy actually based on that—the economy hinges on the usual things, the Settlers of Catan things—but it is a world where these dream-priests’ power and influence is respected.

But whatever’s good, it can of course be twisted for evil.

In The Killing Moon, this dream magic has been twisted to produce a monster that threatens the very fabric of society, the very peace these priests are sworn to protect. And the story’s big enough that it needs two protagonists, finally: Ehiru and Nijiri, one a Gatherer, one a Gatherer-apprentice. You know how we used to always hear that binary systems like Tattoine’s were just wishful thinking? It goes for fiction, too—think Economy of Character: why have two protagonists when you can just fold them both into one? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, there’s no good answer for this. But then you run into a Kirk/Spock situation. Or a Tracks situation (the Erdrich one). And you see that, for the story to balance itself, to have all the reversals and sacrifices and back and forth that are going to be necessary, it needs a character sitting on each side of that narrative see-saw.

I would say that Jemisin realized this in the writing of The Killing Moon, except most of her developments are so long-range, so well-seeded, that I can’t imagine she doesn’t have some massive Excel spreadsheet in her mind, the cells just populating into the horizon with story developments. Each last possibility mapped out and answered in advance.

Her stories feel that whole, I mean. That organic.

The Shadowed Sun is no different. Really, as tight as The Killing Moon was, The Shadowed Sun, clocking in at a higher page-count, it might even be drawn tighter, with more emotional resonance.

Whereas in the first, the abomination stalking the sleep of the city—Freddy Krueger, reading Machiavelli—was finally the responsibility of the Gatherers, this time we have as protagonist the first female ‘priest’ allowed into the order. And, whereas the Gatherers were these wicked cool über-ninjas (think Daredevil’s Stick, then make him badder), instead of this new heroin getting to be Elektra, which would be a proper escalation, she’s just a lowly Healer. And an apprentice at that.

Seriously, when I got to this point, I had to look around the room, take stock. I mean, make your world-saver the lowliest dishwasher, if you want, but at least give that dishwasher hardened hands to fight with. Because everybody knows that, in fantasy, it usually comes down to who draws first, who hits hardest.

Not so in The Shadowed Sun. Granted, there’s some serious Dothraki fun going on—Jemisin’s Banbarra warriors are Klingons without the forehead ridges, pretty much—but the real battles, they’re battles of wits. They’re steeped in political intrigue and they’re waged in your sleep. Meanwhile, there’s so much fun being had with gender roles, with this Healer-apprentice Hanani trying to find where she fits in society, and how, and why, that you forget you were ever interested in ninjas. Which is precisely when they drop down from the ceiling again, of course. In the best possible way.

And, what’s really the single most surprising thing about The Shadowed Sun? It’s a legitimate romance. Typically in world-saving kind of novels, be they spy or war or horror or science fiction or crime or whatever, the love-interest stuff feels tacked on, like some committee along the way did some market research, decided if there was some boyfriend-girlfriend tension in there somewhere, then that couldn’t hurt, could it?

The love story in The Shadowed Sun is anything but tacked on. And, what ups the stakes on it so much is that you just came out of The Killing Moon, so you know that Jemisin’s just as brutal as Martin when it comes to killing off characters you’ve invested in. In terms of a love story, that kind of dramatic violence tends to leave one side of that un-couple writing entries in their journal about the bitter scent of almonds.

And, as for what this Healer-apprentice is saving her world from, well. In The Killing Moon, I thought I’d seen the worst that could be done, dreamwise. But then Jemisin trucks in Stephen King’s Zelda from Pet Sematary, pretty much, and it becomes apparent that, like Scream 2 said once upon a time: the sequel’s always bloodier.

Will Hanani live or die? Will she find love? Will her beloved city-state of Gujaarah make it through and be able to recognize itself afterwards? Is this a collapse or a rebirth?

It’s all in the air. The whole time.

Which is exactly how you write a novel. It’s exactly how you craft strong fiction. You get us to engage with a character, really identify with her, root for her, even, and then you stack the obstacles to the sky.

And I know there’s a lot of readers out there with a prejudice against genre, and fantasy in particular. I mean, those kind of readers will sometimes accept horror as just an intensification of everyday, visceral fears. And science fiction is a just an extension of what we have now. And crime fiction is the safe way to break the law, be the bad-ass you always knew you were. I won’t pretend to completely understand that kind of comprehensive dismissal, but if it brings more readers to the shelves, then so be it.

But fantasy—readers without a taste for it, they usually accuse the whole genre of being just ‘escapist,’ as if that’s not what every single piece of fiction is. As if that’s not the operative dynamic by which we ‘pretend.’ If the story can’t get us to ‘escape’ to it, then how are we ever supposed to feel with it, right? It seems obvious, but still: fantasy, maybe because it’s got the fundamental mechanism of storytelling built into its name, it never comes out ahead. Never mind sales. Never mind longevity. Never mind the fan base that doesn’t really care if you like them or not; they’ve got a good book, and don’t need you to tell them if it’s good or not. They know what they want to read, and are hardly looking for permission, or approval.

However. Those readers who discriminate against fantasy. Give them these two Dreamblood books. They’re as layered and nuanced as anything from the ‘canon.’ They’re just making the perhaps unpardonable sin of also being entertaining. Of traipsing an exciting white whale through the story. And, perhaps by selling through print run after print run, they’re also guilty of ‘selling out,’ as of course the public would never flock to something if it was actually good.

I would like to be around in a couple hundred years, though, to see what makes it through Days of Our Lives’ sands through the hourglass. To see what gets stuffed under the console so some driver can dock with a port on the backside of Jupiter. My hope is that what survives are the rare books like these. I’d love to see a dog-eared The Shadowed Sun getting passed from ship to ship. We need more books with big eyes, with hungry mouths, with thick skin. N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood has all of these, and more.

Stephen Graham Jones
Boulder, Colorado, 2 December 2012