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This is a novel with a very provocative core idea. Unfortunately, like a first date, there are a lot of mixed messages and fumbling fingers. The first-person narrator talks incessantly about himself, which never makes for a successful initial impression. The plot structure seems like a long drive to a special make-out spot always just around the next bend. On one hand, I'm surprised Caryl Chessman* in the guise of a rejection slip didn't abort this seduction.
But, on the other hand, the “what if” is a real brain blower: there's a race of non-humans living in our dreams. They time travel into our sleeping skulls because their world is so evolved that it's infinitely safe, completely knowledgeable, and so interminably boring that they need a psychic vacation to stay sane. Being telepathic, the Holock are in each other's heads 24 hours a day. There's no hiding, no withholding, no imagination. To us, our dreams seem strange, with “odd logic, the impossible geography, leaps of time, [and] the associations that only make sense within the dream” (Tor, ISBN 0312858728, c.1995, p.98). The Holock are “Dream Eaters . . . That's why we can't remember most of our dreams” (Ibid, p.165). When they're not plugged in to human dreamers, they record Memory Films to be viewed over and over, like endless soap operas of humans' past remembrances. “Bland vanilla thoughts” make up the rest of the Holock's existence, with “no juice, no joy, nothing to live or hope for” (Ibid, p.321).
But author O'Leary comes close to putting a bullet in the brain pan of this marvelously original idea when he tries, I suspect, to terminate is own personal demons and pet perplexities. Imagine Sara Conner as a man who has unwittingly impregnated the Terminatrix disguised as a bombshell. Returning to the future, the Holock's Mercury Mom now has their survival assured, since we'll probably create something like Skynet and wipe ourselves out via WWIII. They'll breed the newborn with the Bad Mommy, thus creating a Matrix-like race for dream feeding ad-infinitum. The solution? Time Blips, of course. Unfortunately, this shotguns the narrative flow into scraps of nonsense, and the intended target just blows away with anti-climatic futility.
Character identification is another bother. The protagonist, John Donelly, is a psychiatrist who is so mentally bruised by his mother that he can't “see her without feeling a reflexive urge to duck” (Ibid, p.44). The growing certainty that solves his very serious personal issues is paralleled in his love-kill relationship with Laura, which represents the Holock story line. Other than Laura euthanizing his Mom in her deathbed, there is really no over-spill between the two plot threads. One is handled very seriously. The other is enjoyably imaginative and filled with moments of whimsy and foolishness. An example would be finding Saul's REM machine at the bottom of Esther William's swimming pool on MGM's back lot while spoofing the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. What's missing is the bittersweet pathos that polarizes real pain and fear from the absurdist posturings designed to veil or sidetrack that deep hurt or distress. Without irony, the latter just become silly episodes. Characters feel leveled to stage presences, moved around by the plot and deprived of their curtain call when no longer useful. Who is Jack, or Wanda, or Susie? But, worst of all, I can't see through the pancake to Laura. As the only enemy in this story with a face, she needs nothing short of genius to costume her journey from needy and loving to sinister and formidable. Unfortunately, our hero is too busy lathering himself up with self-analysis to give us much insight into her inner workings.
Instead of description or action, this is a novel that reveals its important points through dialogue, soliloquy, or unexpected but entertaining diatribes. This plays havoc with any sustained mystery or atmospheric penetrability, but sometimes it's nice to see the gems up close rather than through thick display glass. Saul, the Father figure, has some good ones like, “what happens when we lose the object of our fears? How does a species deal with an extinct predator? . . . [Because] no earth system, whether it's economic, political, religious, or recreational, is free of this Enemy idea” (Ibid, p.168). Laura, when defending her modus operandi, attacks ours beautifully: “You have never failed to tyrannize the weak and stupid. Your history is written by madmen who raped and wore gold. You are a planet of criminals who claim to be innocent. And you believe in Love” (Ibid, p.331). And John Donelly, while talking about another's perceptions, sums up with unaware clarity his own profession of “psychology as a newborn science . . . too theoretical and too reductive: childhood trauma [becomes] the excuse for everyone's suffering” (Ibid, p.284).
In conclusion, I think the ending statement, “I live in the future. I remember the present. I anticipate the past” (Ibid, p.382), is indicative of the incongruous mischief, both frustrating and brilliant, that is bestowed by the author upon this work.
*Caryl Chessman was Los Angeles ' notorious “Red Light Bandit” during the late 1940's. He would approach cars parked in Lover's Lane with a flashing red light to simulate police vehicles, then rob the guys and rape the girls. He wrote a book called “Cell 2455, Death Row” proclaiming his innocence, but was finally gassed to death for the crimes of robbery, rape, and kidnapping. His famous last words were, “I don't mind dying. I just don't like being told when”. He never murdered anyone.