Title: Agents of Dreamland
Author: Caitlin R. Kiernan
The gift from the stars will remake us
A government special agent known only as the Signalman gets off a train on a stunningly hot morning in Winslow, Arizona. Later that day he meets a woman in a diner to exchange information about an event that happened a week earlier for which neither has an explanation, but which haunts the Signalman.
In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible — the Children of the Next Level — and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in.
A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA’s interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact.
And a woman floating outside of time looks to the future and the past for answers to what can save humanity.
This novella is going to be a tough one to review. Most of my notes for this for the longest time were predominantly made up of questions marks and diagrams. This is intentional for the joy is unpacking it and discovering new sides and pieces of the story that you were not aware of before. Even characters you will meet early in the narrative you’ll not discover the names of until the end. Just as an instance of explanation, here is what an approximate chronological chapter reading would be:
7, 4, 7 (again), 2, 6, 10, 7 (again, maybe), 8, 1, 3, 5, 9, 11, 7 (again)
But then, even within them large sections are made of flashbacks, diversions, and memories of past conversations. It’s not even a patchwork quilt or a collage or a constellation style of fiction. It’s a messy explosion where you have to pick up the pieces and try to fit them together. But in doing so it becomes a masterful work of fiction.
It would be easy to get lost and throw away this story before the truth (although I will come back to that point in a moment) finally comes together but I found myself drawn in by Kiernan’s mastery of language. The tone and style are so elegant, even when you do not have a clue of anything that is going on (which was 90% of the time for me) you can just feel it flow over you and let yourself absorb it.
For me, two of the most important lines to understanding the piece are:
“The best foreshadowing never seems like foreshadowing”
“Make of this what you will or make of it nothing at all.”
The story is made up of conspiracy theorists, popular culture references, doomsday cults and the occult. The whole thing could be well explained as a horrific case of apophenia and delusions or it could be the beginning of the end of the world. Much like the pieces of the story that Kiernan lays out for us, it is up to us to try to decide what is important and what isn’t.
Take for example the tarot:
“The Maiden. The Mad Scientist. The Champion.
Three crisply drawn archetypes.
Think of them as tarot cards.
Think of the film as a reading.”
Throughout the story the tarot is used and connections are drawn between the various characters involved (both direct and indirect). Does this mean they are tied to this destiny? Or are these connections being drawn because people wish to see them?
The characters themselves are also archetypes as much as the tarot and I think that is part of the point. They each represent something we come to expect from these stories and their role seems almost preordained. However, this should not be taken to mean they are flat. Even when text would not indicate if a specific character was the same between two scenes I could always tell as the voice and mannerisms Kiernan created were so strong, I could easily draw the connection back.
A fair warning- this is not a light fun book. It is dark. Depressing and dripping with eldritch horror. The only real let up from the grimness are the moments of horrid levity that actually simply act to heighten the bleakness of the story.
One note (of minor spoilerific nature), there is a connection to Lovecraft in here and could be said to fall into the huge boom this year of reflexive Lovecraftian fiction. For me, however, this was the least interesting element. Having read so much of it this year, it felt like a very obvious point to go back to among all the other interesting elements Kiernan chooses to draw together. However, that is a very small complaint to make and I am still there for all of these different takes currently being pumped out.
Agents of Dreamland is a brilliant but headache inducing novella which continues to demonstrate the strength of this move from Tor. It brings together conspiracy theorists, popular culture references, doomsday cults and the occult in a bizarre explosion which creates something marvellous. In spite of being grim and, at times, confusing it is a testament to Keirnan’s skill how easy it is to read through and understand by the end.
Reviewer: Kris Vyas-Myall