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Dreaming in Smoke
Tricia Sullivan
Orion Millennium, 290 pages

Dreaming in Smoke
Tricia Sullivan
Tricia Sullivan is also the author of Lethe and Someone to Watch Over Me. She lives in London.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dreaming in Smoke
SF Site Review: Someone to Watch Over Me
Review: Lethe
Review: Lethe

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Dreaming in Smoke is Tricia Sullivan's third SF novel. In something of an upset, it won the 1999 Arthur C. Clarke Award, for Best SF novel published in the UK in 1998. I found it interesting but frustrating. The writing is often brilliant. The ideas are often fascinating. But I felt as if I were, so to speak, "reading in smoke". The story was difficult to follow, and the characters difficult to care about. There's much to respect about this novel, but not as much, I thought, to like. I have to confess I'd have given the Clarke Award to Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division or Christopher Priest's The Extremes (given the choices on the short list), but I can see some of what I presume the jurors saw in the winner.

One can't fault Sullivan's ambition, at any rate. Dreaming in Smoke aggressively amalgamates cyberpunkish tropes with some very neat speculation about an alien ecosystem. At one level it's an almost conventional story of humans attempting to colonize a new planet. The planet has a different type of life than Earth: so much so that the colonists almost fail to recognize it as life. The eventual solution, not an unfamiliar one these days, is for the colonists and the alien ecosystem to change each other: to sort of meet in the middle. This is a nice subject for a novel, but not especially new.

However, Sullivan's colonial setup is quite different: a group of "Mothers", along with subservient male "Grunts" have been sent to the planet T'Nane, expecting to terraform it and then bear children from fertilized ova which have also been sent. Once there, the terraforming problem turns out to be much more difficult than anticipated, and the Earthborn set up a society within an expanded part of their starship, and raise their "children" inside, almost never venturing into the "Wild". This entire system is controlled by the artificial intelligence which had controlled the starship, which they call Ganesh, and which has been greatly expanded using the electrical properties of the local quasi-lifeforms. The sum total is a quite original novel, with sound scientific backing, and good writing. So I wished I could like it more than I did.

As the action opens, the society seems stagnant. The POV character, Kalypso Deed, is one of the T'Nane-born "children", apparently about 20 years old. She is a disappointment to her elders, and spends much of her time interfaced with the AI, Ganesh, listening to Earth music illegally while she is supposed to be guiding other people as they "Dream". This "Dreaming" is a way of using Ganesh to help the subconscious process scientific data: this is a neat idea, and some of Sullivan's most bravura writing is displayed in trying to represent this process. Then one of the more stolid "Grunts", Azamat Marcsson goes berserk while Kalypso is monitoring his dream.

From this point the action moves quickly, but rather confusedly. Ganesh seems to be in danger of collapse, and the life support systems of the colony begin to fail. Marcsson escapes to the wild, and Kalypso ends up following him. Marcsson captures her and uses her body to experiment with, apparently, integration of Earth life with the T'Nane life. They encounter some exiled colonists who have already adapted to life in the Wild. Once again, many of the ideas displayed here are fascinating, but the action seems almost arbitrary. The eventual resolution is honest and reasonable, but I found getting to that point only intermittently interesting. There were many longeurs on the way. Most importantly, I found Kalypso uninteresting, and many of the other characters downright unpleasant.

Though I was frustrated with much of this book, I should emphasize that the good parts are pretty good. For stretches Sullivan's prose really excites. And many of the science-fictional notions are very well done. The T'Nane ecosystem is interesting, and convincingly alien. The interactions with Ganesh, though hard to follow, also represent a nice science-fictional notion. And the basic theme of the book (as I read it: that we will have to adapt to alien ecologies as well as trying to adapt them to us) is honest and logical. I would rate this an interesting but not quite successful book, and reviewer's honesty compels me to admit that much of the fault may be mine. Other readers may be better able to follow some of the action, or may be more sympathetic with the main character.

Copyright © 1999 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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