Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Dreams of the Sea
Élisabeth Vonarburg
Tesseract Books/Hades Publications, 291 pages

Dreams of the Sea
Élisabeth Vonarburg
Élisabeth Vonarburg was born in France in 1947. She has taught French Literature and Creative Writing on and off at various universities in Quebec since 1973 and does SF translations from English to French. She has been a literary editor for the SF & F Quebecois magazine Solaris from 1979 to 1990 and is now a full-time writer.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dreams of the Sea

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Dreams of the Sea has been sitting in my office for a very long time while I debated how and whether to review it. On the one hand, it's by a talented Canadian writer, some of whose previous work I've liked a very great deal. On the other hand, this is such a complex novel, and so far outside the SF genre "norm" that I actually went out and Googled to see how other reviewers had tackled it, and whether they had left me anything to say. I'm still not sure I can do an adequate job, but I shall plunge in and review it from the standpoint of readers accustomed to the conventions of popular SF and Fantasy.

A large expedition from Earth is in the process of settling Alpha, a planet orbiting Altair, when disaster strikes. As its twin planet eclipses the sun, a mysterious blue "sea" of mist rises, covering all the low lying areas of the continents. None of the colonists submerged by the sea survive, and those on higher land find that a mysterious force is neutralizing all electrical energy, and the technology they depend upon suddenly doesn't work. Without flyers they cannot even evacuate to their ship in orbit.

Now that it's too late, the surviving colonists understand why the ruins of a long dead civilization show that the ancients fled their coastlines and rebuilt on the uplands. But this doesn't explain why they eventually abandoned all their cities -- as if every inhabitant simply got up one day and left. Even as the humans struggle to survive and reshape this planet to their needs, a few colonists search for answers to the mystery of their alien predecessors.

Meanwhile, an alien dreamer, Eilai, dreams of the future and the past. She dreams of her own people and their relationship with the sea, but she also dreams through the eyes of humans who will come and settle her world.

Élisabeth Vonarburg (who writes in French) comes at her fiction with a distinctly European sensibility -- in naming conventions, character backgrounds, and social attitudes. This is refreshing for the English reader, and her alien culture is also well thought out. The atmospheric abandoned cities of Alpha reminded me a little of Ray Bradbury, and Eilai's journey through the ancient lands made me think of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Dreams of the Sea has no straightforward story problem or plot thread; instead it is a complexly braided narrative involving dozens of characters of two different races in timelines that jump back and forth by years, decades and centuries. Frankly, I couldn't keep it all straight and eventually I lost patience with trying. The closest thing to a protagonist is Eilai, the dreamer, but she dreams through so many different eyes that her own story is almost submerged in the mix.

The colonists' initial stranding (which, I notice, is the easiest plot thread to summarize for purposes of reviews or cover blurbs) is not treated in a conventional SF manner, to put it mildly. Vonarburg offers few details of human technology or the alien ecosystem, or indeed, of anything that's generally assumed as an integral part of world building. The author seems to have no interest in science (abstract or applied, human or alien) and uses it only in the vaguest way. Not only don't we hear any details about how the humans survive on this new world, but their impractical behaviour makes it hard to swallow that they would survive at all.

This novel is all about metaphor. That's fine, but as a reader I wanted the surface story to succeed, and it didn't work for me because I was constantly jarred by ridiculous details. For example, nobody who was scrabbling to survive with minimal supplies on an alien planet would have the time and equipment -- never mind the inclination -- to weave bed sheets!

Moreover, most of the characters are intellectuals -- passive, obsessively introspective and emotionally distant (if not downright depressed) -- so I found it hard to care about them and their relationships or to get excited by scene after scene of people pontificating at gatherings reminiscent of tedious faculty parties, or going for long brooding walks.

Which isn't to say that Vonarburg can't write characters. She does a fine job, for example, with Tige, a poor young man from a miners' family who is trying to become an urban success against huge odds. Vonarburg catches his awkward balance of passion, ambition, uncertainty, anger, and fear, and even moves successfully between two versions of the young Tige and his middle-aged self.

Literary readers won't be bothered by the SFnal lapses, the narrative complexity, or the lack of resolution of almost everything. They'll enjoy the imagery and the writing style and probably have great fun probing the hidden depths of Vonarburg's sea dreams.

Genre readers, on the other hand, are likely to find this novel slow, talky, confusing, and desperately lacking in scientific and logistical credibility. It opens with a crisis of great dramatic potential which is then utterly ignored. Heck, we don't even see these stranded colonists trying to survive on a strangely haunting alien world. Instead, most of the action takes place offstage and they talk about it later. Argh!

Copyright © 2005 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide