No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, November 11, 2010

2010/80: The Dream Master -- Roger Zelazny

... no neuroparticipant will ever undertake to treat a full-blown psychotic. The few pioneers in that area are all themselves in therapy today. It would be like driving into a maelstrom. If the therapist loses the upper hand in an intense session he becomes the Shaper rather than the Shaped. (p.33)

Reread after seeing Inception: I can't remember exactly when I first read this, or whether I read the original novella (He Who Shapes) before I read the expanded version. I've certainly been familiar with the story since my mid-teens.

And yet there is a great deal that I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten that it's set in the 1990s -- a future with exploration of the solar system, fully-automated cars, oddly dated computers: a future that's passed. I'd forgotten the casual misogyny ("Diagnosis: Bitch. Prescription: drug therapy and a tight gag"). I'd forgotten just how flawed Render, the protagonist, is.

The science in this science fiction novel is psychiatry: Render enters, controls and guides the dreams of his patients, using mythic archetypes and brute force as therapeutic devices. His latest patient is also a mental health worker -- a blind psychiatrist who wants to learn what it is to see the world. Eileen Shallott happens to be gorgeous, needy and powerful in her own right. Render, predictably, falls in love. But there are several obstacles: his ongoing relationship with Jill, his over-protectiveness of his son, and the antagonism of Eileen's seeing-eye dog Sigmund, who has been genetically altered to permit him limited speech and considerable intelligence.

It cannot end well.

The Dream Master dates from early in Zelazny's career, before the Amber books and the science-fictional reworkings of Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Native American mythology. There are already signs of some classic Zelazny themes: the solipsism of the man who creates the world around him (albeit only in dreams), the arrogance of somebody who's at the top of their game, the use of myth to illustrate and reinforce the primary thread of story. There's some glorious (if occasionally florid) prose, as usual: there's black humour and fine dining and visual spectacle.

Because it's nearly half a century since this was published, it's difficult to be sure just how groundbreaking Zelazny's vision of the future of psychiatry read when it was new.
Physical welfare is now every man's right, in excess. The reaction to this has occurred in the area of mental health. Thanks to technology, the reasons for many of the old social problems have passed, and along with them went many of the reasons for psychic distress. But between the black of yesterday and the white of tomorrow is the great gray of today, filled with nostalgia and fear of the future ... (p. 41)

The Dream Master is a short novel (182 pages) and a deceptively simple one, in comparison to the complex epics that now seem to be the norm for SF and fantasy. It does feel dated, but the story -- hubris, myth, a doomed love affair and the temptation to meddle and play Pygmalion -- still works.

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