A surprise. Not a pleasant one, I might add. The first underwhelming, even disappointing Zelazny book I have ever read. Sure, Creatures of Light and Darkness were very… particular, a difficult mix of poetry and prose that read as if the writer was high all the time, but even that book had its moments of greatness and pure reading pleasure. The Dream Master has none. And really awful covers, each and every one of them :P.
The main idea is pretty cool and had served as a basis for the movie Dreamscape which Zelazny wrote an outline for. I would also venture a guess that it thoroughly inspired Nolan’s Inception, even though I found no mention of it in any interview. But the similarities are many, and striking. In not so distant future the humanity grew so far from their origins that mental problems became a new norm. Suicides have become one of the most common cause of death. But with new problems arose new solutions. And thus a guild of Shapers was born – a fraction of a percent of humanity, who remain ultra-stable and psychically strong enough to be able to access others’ dreams and alter their subconscious without grave consequences for themselves.
The Dream Master’s main protagonist, Charles Render, is a Shaper. He is also an overbearing, overconfident, rigid prick. The first of Zelazny’s protagonists whom I didn’t care about one whit. In all honesty, there wasn’t even one character in the whole novel who I have cared about. They all were alternatively boring, pompous, unrealistic or downright irritating. Cue – enter Sigmund, the talking dog, equally pompous, unrealistic and even more irritating than the rest. This character was the final straw, I think. Blaah! The sole exception to this rule was Jill, who was only mildly bland and seemed rather lost in the plot, to the point where I began to feel somewhat sorry for her. Oh, and Bartelmetz, the old, obese professor who appeared for one scene only, a real shame.
But to the point. Our Shaper is one of the best in the world. He can enter almost anyone’s mind, barring cases of full psychosis, and remain unscathed. But now he stands before the greatest challenge of his career: he agrees to cure a blind-from-birth person from sight-trauma, preparing her to become a Shaper in her own capacity. Render becomes fascinated with both the girl and the case, with his potential of creating whole worlds from blackness, destroying them at a whim, altering them with a single thought leading his finger to the right button. But Render has his own problems, hidden deep in the past. Problems he refuses to acknowledge, and his case may prove more dangerous than he ever expected. This novel echoes the myth of Merlin and Nimue on many, many levels – and while the fascination with Arthurian themes is something I usually happily embrace, the above-mentioned less-than-stellar elements of the novel detracted from the pleasure of reading The Dream Master more than I expected them to.
The Dream Master was originally a short story, titled He Who Shapes. It could have been a really good novella, and I’m sure it had been at least a decent one; it even won Nebula Award in 1965 (not the novel; the novella). Zelazny purportedly preferred the short story to the final novel. He rewrote the novella to full length at the urging of Damon Knight, because one of the publishers was interested in doing a hardcover from it. As the author said in a Phlogiston 44 interview, “So to get it into a novel form frankly, I padded some of the scenes. Aesthetically I don’t like that, but at the time there was a lot of money involved which I needed. So I did some scenes I’d thought of which I wished I’d done initially, and there were a few others I wasn’t overjoyed with.”
Well. Zelazny is one of my favorite authors, in any genre you’d like to name. He is a literary master, period. I love his books. Almost every one of them is a world of wonder, described with breathtaking, poetic skill and beauty. But The Dream Master is not one of them. It’s still written with utmost proficiency, the words flowing freely, creating intriguing images and situations. It’s also very psychological, full of psychiatric jargon and allusions to Jung. Alas, not every book can incorporate Jung’s ideas as well as A Wizard of Earthsea, even if it uses words like enantiodromia and a variety of Celtic and Nordic myths ;).
I liked the ending though. It was fitting and very Zelazny, the subtle implication that there is no, and cannot be, an absolutely sane person in the world. Who defines the norm? Can’t we be happier in our own, small worlds? Another thing Nolan might, or might not have, borrowed ;).