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).