Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan

I loved SWEET DREAMS, Tricia Sullivan’s most recent science fiction novel, published last year. I am not sure I can give as good an account of it as I would like – there is a lot of stuff there to disentangle. The story is about a dreamhacker – Charlie, the protagonist/narrator, has the ability to enter other peoples’ dreams, and alter what happens in them. She tries to make a living at this, but finds herself caught up in dangers and apparent conspiracies that challenge her abilities. It’s really a speculative novel about the coming collision between computer networks and neurobiology. What happens when the Internet enters intimately into our brains, and it becomes possible to hack our minds/thoughts/neural architecture directly? The novel explores the possibilities, which are both dystopian/scary and also possibly hopeful. The narrator gains her dreamhacking powers as the result of a medical trial gone wrong – she is a lucid dreamer who is now able to lucidly enter the dreams of other people as well. But the experiment also leaves her with narcolepsy (the propensity to fall asleep without wanting to, especially at inopportune moments.

The book is both a gripping thriller and a deeply intriguing and thoughtful speculative fiction. The protagonist/narrator is endearing, in the way that she is absolutely out of her depth and making costly errors all the time and letting herself be manipulated by others and suffering from extreme self-doubt; yet at the same time she is empathetic to others, and she has a strong will not just to survive, but to set things right. The novel deconstructs the kickass-heroine trope while at the same time rejecting the misogyny which so often holds women who are the slightest bit femme in contempt. I strongly identified with her, across gender, because she is a new sort of hero/heroine figure for people who feel socially awkward and confused and unfulfilled, etc., and who have to deal with a world that utterly exceeds their ability to comprehend and control it, and who manage to pull through nonetheless (and even perhaps to triumph). The fact is, the world really is that complicated and unfair (rigged to favor the rich) and beyond grasping (cf Jameson on how the complexity of globalized late capitalism exceeds our powers of representation). And this is in fact everybody’s position today — with the possible exception of a small number of overly entitled pricks with a lot of money/power (several of whom Charlie has the misfortune to meet in the course of the novel).

Speculatively, the book is so rich that I haven’t really been able to process it yet. There are questions about how recent neurobiological discoveries, together with the ways that the network is reaching ever more powerfully into our minds and subjectivites, change many of our commonsense assumptions of how the world works, of what it means to be a self, of private vs public experience, and so on. The novel has a traditional setup where the heroine is on the track of a hidden but very powerful antagonist; but the antagonist turns out to involve more twisted and complicated processes than can be encompassed by a traditional villain in a thriller. The book makes for an exciting narrative, but at the same time it twists the very structure of narrative into a new form, because these new discoveries and technologies are changing what it means to be a subject or an agent, what it means to act, how our buried unconscious (not-quite) selves are related to our overt selves, and so on.

The only other book I can think to compare it to is Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, which has more dazzling literary pyrotechnics, but whose treatment of a similar set of issues in our digital near-future is not quite as profound as Sullivan’s.

(Note: the book is only in print in the UK, not in the US. You can buy a UK hardcopy via Amazon, Book Depository, and other retailers. The lack of US publication means that I was not permitted to buy the Kindle version, which is UK-only).

Footnote on Dawkins

An outtake from a work in progress:

DNA-centrism, as formulated in Crick’s “central dogma of molecular biology,” may well be mechanistic and reductive in theory; but in practice it turns into something else. According to Jessica Riskin’s revisionist account of the idea of mechanism in biological thought, the real issue dividing biologists has never been one of mechanism versus vitalism; the struggle has always been between two different accounts of mechanism, each of which is shadowed by its own sort of vitalism. One account sees mechanism as entirely passive and reactive, because its animating force comes from the outside (the human craftsman who makes a clock, or God as the originator of the clockwork of life). The other account sees the mechanisms of life as themselves intrinsically endowed with “various forms of agency: living forces, sensitive capacities, vital fluids, and self-organizing tendencies,” all or any of which “originate within the natural form in question” (The Restless Clock). The first account sees matter as intrinsically lifeless, and entirely passive and reactive, but at the price of positing a external, transcendent principle of order, as in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century “argument from design.” The second account embraces immanence; matter itself is already at least potentially agential or vital. Today, however, biologists find themselves in the paradoxical position of endorsing the first alternative while also seeking to deny any sort of transcenence. As Riskin puts it, contemporary biologists generally agree that

naturalism precludes treating agency as an elemental feature of the natural world, or indeed as anything beyond an irresistibly compelling appearance. To violate this ban has seemed tantamount to lapsing right out of scientific explanation into a religious or mystical one. Yet we have seen this core principle of modern science—banning agency from natural processes—emerge historically from a tradition that denied agency to nature in order to ascribe it instead to a designer God. (The Restless Clock)

This paradox is evident, for instance, in the writings of Richard Dawkins, probably the best-known biological theorist working today. Dawkins convincingly argues that no driving force of life is necessary, because natural selection is only a “blind watchmaker,” making the clockwork mechanisms of life without intending to (The Blind Watchmaker). and animal bodies are little more than “survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (The Selfish Gene). Dawkins’ lurid metaphor is often taken as the ne plus ultra of scientistic reductionism; but it has always struck me as having more in common with the novels of William S. Burroughs and the early films of David Cronenberg than with any sort of scientific naturalism. That is to say, Dawkins’s vision, even against his own intentions, is unavoidably a sort of vitalism — albeit one centered on viral contagions and zombie reanimations, rather than on the supposed generosity of some superabundant life force.

Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker)

MADELINE’S MADELINE is amazing, disturbing, and ultimately both exhilarating and devastating. It is Josephine Decker’s greatest film to date. The film is so experimental/abstract, yet at the same time so visceral/intense, that I don’t really know how to talk about it. I am trying to give my impressions, but everything I say may well be entirely misguided and beside the point.

Decker invents (especially here, though it was already present in her previous films) an entirely new formal language, to express an entirely new sort of subjectivity, here embodied in her teenaged protagonist Madeline (the utterly brilliant an remarkable Helena Howard). Shallow focus, often fuzzy, roving camera, strange angles, strange edits, soundtrack interpolations (including both heavy breathing sounds and the amazing music of Caroline Shaw) – even to the extent that I can describe them, I cannot explain how they add up to something both entirely fresh and greater than the sum of its parts.

The movie is about acting (including its own) and the mystique of improv theater (something I am not very enamoured of in other contexts, or perhaps due to my own ignorance; but it is overwhelming here). At their highest point, intense inner feeling and its completely fictive simulation become indistinguishable, and that is what happens here in the course of a teenage girl’s relation with her two mother figures (one the biological and legal mother, played surprisingly against type by the great Miranda July, the other the mother substitute that the head of the improv troupe becomes, played by Molly Parker).

The film recounts incidents, rather than anything that is shaped like a conventional narrative, but it builds to a completely logical and shattering climax – which then in turn transmutes into something vivid and powerful but also dreamlike and almost ungraspable (theater returning to its roots in Dionysian ritual? I am grasping at straws here).

One could say that MADELINE’S MADELINE is deconstructing oppositions between real life and theater, or between authenticity and performance, or whatever – or even between human and animal, since the film features repeating exercises in which the actors try to channel animals, especially cats – there are pig masks as well, not to mention may closeups of actual cats – and in fact the film begins with a warning, delivered to us in extreme closeup, about the nuances of identification and possession (it is only a metaphor, you are not really the cat, you are IN the cat) –
I could say all that, and it would be sort of true, but it is totally inadequate as a description of the movie, because MADELINE’S MADELINE is not just a deconstruction of identities and oppositions, but a positive expression of some new sort of identity (which is female, and biracial, and other things, but isn’t ONLY all that) that we don’t have words for yet. Which is why I will not be able to shake the memory of this film (and will have to watch it again, a number of times) (all this I felt more obscurely already in the case of BUTTER ON THE LATCH, but here it is magnitudes more powerful and more perplexing).

(originally posted on Facebook, but I think it is important enough to also post here)