Losing Control of the Plot: Andre Norton’s Perilous Dreams

Perilous Dreams is a collection of stories set in (and around and through) the dreamers’ Hive on the alien world of Ty-Kry. The stories are interconnected. The first two, “Toys of Tamisan” and “The Ship of Mist,” constitute a single long narrative. The much shorter “Get Out of My Dream” is a standalone of sorts, as is “Nightmare.” They do however hang together, and reading them all in sequence provides a fairly complete insight into their world.

I read the collection years ago, and remembered the titles, but not much else except that I had enjoyed them. I enjoyed them in 2021, too. They’re not perfect stories, but they are well paced, with fast action and reasonably engaging characters. They’re page-turners, in short. Good reading for a hot summer weekend.

The plot and concept is pretty much the same through all the stories. A rich male oligarch pays a substantial fee for the ultimate entertainment: a dream tailored to his personality and tastes, and controlled by a trained dreamer. Dreamers are young women—girls, in the parlance of 1976 when the collection was published. They are quite literally slaves, both to their dreams and to their Hive. They can be bought and sold, or leased out like gaming equipment.

What they do is a lot like gaming. They come in two flavors, Action and Erotica, and dreamers specialize in one or the other. Our four stories are all Action stories, because erotica is pretty emphatically not Norton’s thing. There is an actual heterosexual couple in “The Ship of Mist” who have actual (delicately offstage) sex and wear sexy costumes and radiate Seventies pheromones, and their marriage is happy, which is a rarity in Norton. That’s as close as she’ll ever come to full sex positivity.

Because this is Norton however, all is not perfect. The couple are possessed by the personalities of the Lord and his dreamer, and they don’t ever actually get their original minds back. Norton could be ruthless about body-swapping and mind control.

In all four stories, the dreamer loses control of the dream. There is an antagonist who plots to seize the Lord’s wealth, and the dreamer can’t break the dream once it starts. The client and the dreamer have to fight their way through and try to find their way back to the real world.

For the most part they fail. They’re trapped in the dream—or in an actual parallel world. Or possibly in the past, though that one manages to come through to the present.

The point each time is that the dreams are real, though the nature of the reality changes from one story to the next. Maybe it’s a parallel world, maybe it’s time travel. Maybe it’s an interstellar conspiracy to kill rich men and steal their assets.

For me it seemed like a particularly vivid and self-conscious metaphor for being a writer. Norton was a strong plotter. Her works were plot-driven. Characters existed to be moved around by the plot.

One way she signals this is that every character, early and often, does things “somehow” or “without knowing how.” They just do things, compelled by outside forces, whether actual divine or mechanical beings, or a more nebulous force that corresponds to the author turning the wheels of the plot.

In these stories, the dreamer, like a writer, does extensive research before she sets up a dream. She’s relentlessly solitary; she has no life outside the windowless room she’s assigned in the Hive. Everything is about the dreams, and some dreamers are so completely wrapped up in them that they have no waking life at all.

That’s a writer. It’s extreme, but it’s not terribly so, for a writer. Writers live in their heads. Everything they do and see and think and feel feeds into their work.

For a plot-driven writer, losing control of the plot is a nightmare. These stories illustrate that feeling. It can be terrifying to have a character take over and start making the story happen in ways the writer hasn’t planned. When that character isn’t one of the ones in the outline, it gets even worse. There’s no telling where it will go.

For these stories, that’s the work of evil. It’s disruptive; it’s dangerous. It kills. The author, or the characters who represent her, have to fight against this compulsion, and do what they can to make the story go in the way it was originally intended to go.

It isn’t always a totally negative thing. In the two linked stories, the Lord is disabled in the real world. He welcomes the chance to be fully abled, with a bonus happy marriage to a beautiful and talented woman. (Yes, in 2021 we recognize that as ableist, but in 1976 it was considered to be a good outcome.)

The stories never completely revert to their original and intended form, but the author manages to claw back a measure of control. Sometimes a little too much so, as in “Get Out of My Dream,” which throws in a completely random character clinch in the last paragraph. I call that a Norton Clinch: there’s been zero sexual tension, no actual relationship developing between the guy and the girl, but suddenly, boom. Insta-romance. Gottawrapitupgetemkissinnowornever. It comes as a bit of a shock in the collection after the surprisingly mature marriage in the previous story.

All in all, this is a nice, fairly coherent sequence set in an interesting world. It has great fun juggling swords and starships—literally, in “Toys of Tamisan.” The dream conceit allows science fiction and fantasy to coexist, and it pulls in parallel worlds and time travel, with a nod to secret agents and interstellar intrigue. It reads as if Norton was enjoying herself. I certainly enjoyed the adventure.

Next, as I work through my pile of online used-bookstore treasures, I’ll try something just a little bit different: a children’s book titled Outside. It’s next to impossible to find, but I tracked down a copy in a shop in the UK. Score!

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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