Dreamships, Melissa Scott (1992)
Review by Ian Sales
Judging by the gazeteer extract which precedes the opening of Dreamships, and which gives details of the world of Persephone, this novel is set in the same universe as Scott’s The Kindly Ones (1987), which also features a register entry on the world of its story. That, however, is all the two novels have in common as, while an interstellar civilisation is mentioned, the events of Dreamships take place on only two worlds.
Reverdy Jian is a pilot, contracted by the company she works for to fly a private starship from Persephone to Refuge and back again. The client, Medelia Mitexi, is looking for her brother, a gifted construct (sophisticated computer programs) designer who had a severe breakdown some years previously. Mitexi’s starship, however, is experimental – Jian and her crew only discover how experimental when they board it to begin their journey. The ship’s construct is borderline, if not actual, AI. And this is a problem because there is an ongoing campaign on Persephone by an organisation called Dreampeace to give AIs full rights. This is unpopular with most of the world’s residents as it would mean AIs have more rights than they do. (The obvious answer would, of course, be to campaign for more rights for humans as well as rights for AIs, rather than deny rights for AIs… but this is a US science fiction novel.)
During the journey to Refuge, Jian – and her two crew members Imre and Red – learn more about Manfred, the ship’s construct. Jian is soon convinced it is an AI. Which puts her in a quandary – she’s not a supporter of Dreampeace, on the contrary she opposes its aims, but she has been persuaded that Manfred doesn’t deserve to be treated like a computer program. Matters are only made worse when on the return journey from Refuge, Mitexi’s brother commits suicide in his cabin. This death gets the Persephone authorities involved and that, plus Dreampeace’s activism, requires Jian and her crew to sneak back into the city (Persephone’s only habited city is entirely underground).
Dreamships was Scott’s first novel to be released in hardback – as the ARC backcover blurb has it: “after a rapid string of successes in paperback, Melissa Scott … escalates into hardcover…” So it’s a bit of shame this novel isn’t a strong as the other two by her I’ve read. Much is made of the underground city, and the first few chapters are little more than travelogue, with Jian walking from one place to the other and so introducing the reader to her world. Jian is a strong and well-drawn protagonist, which unfortunately cannot be said of the rest of the cast (and Red, who is presented as mysterious for no good reason, seems to have been parachuted in from a Samuel Delany novel – not in itself a bad thing, of course).
Nor do the politics driving the plot make a great deal of sense. To some extent, this likely a consequence of American science fiction’s predilection for libertarian futures, a complete misrepresentation, if not a total romanticisation, of the pioneering days of the nation’s history. Even in settings where such a political situation would be unsustainable, such as those deeply reliant on life-sustaining technology, US sf novels continue to present neoliberal, libertarian, unegalitarian societies – which promptly forces the plot to jump through a series of increasingly implausible economic and political hoops in order to reach the desired conclusion. Dreamships frequently falls prey to this, trying to display a gritty realistic future which often comes across as more like the worst excesses of the present. This is not helped by the story’s continually shifting focus – is it about Jian? Dreamscape? the Mitexis? Or Manfred?
The Kindly Ones suffered from a lack of narrative cohesion, as if it were several stories poorly welded together, and so to does Dreamships suffer from the same flaw. It benefit in having a likeable protagonist, an interesting world, and some good ideas… but it doesn’t quite hang together with sufficient rigour – and nor does it make a virtue of its lack of rigour. I still like Scott’s novel and I’ll continue to read them, but I’ve yet to find one that really makes good on her evident promise.