Tim Pratt's 2021 novel Doors of Sleep is based on an intriguingly creative premise. Focusing on a character named “Zaxony Dyad Euphony Delatree” (or simply Zax), Doors of Sleep follows its protagonist’s numerous adventures as he travels between universes, having been afflicted with a mysterious condition that causes him to jump realities every time he falls asleep. Zax is incapable of controlling the worlds he travels to, and only able to take with him whomever he is clutching hold of in the moment when he loses consciousness. The novel details how both Zax and the few people who choose to travel with him work to remain true to the ideals of pacifist humanitarianism, even as they live lives of constant uncertainty and danger.
In short, Doors of Sleep is an earnest and well-structured novel, with a small cast of very clearly defined characters who are refreshingly honest in how they confront the numerous ethical dilemmas that they encounter on a daily basis. As Zax and his fellow companions move from universe to universe, they find themselves in everything from apocalyptic wastelands to dystopian realms ruled by authoritarian dictatorships, and even sometimes unambiguous utopias whose residents live in simple and unconditional happiness. The only constant in these characters’ lives is the bleak fact that no matter what worlds they visit, they can only remain there for as long as Zax can bear to stay awake.
And yet despite this imaginative setup, the plot around which Doors of Sleep revolves—a story in which Zax discovers that he is being pursued across the multiverse by an evil scientist who hopes to capture and vivisect him so as to create an inter-dimensional empire—is perhaps one of the novel's less compelling elements. What’s more interesting is how Doors of Sleep’s core premise initially echoes a set of problematic gender stereotypes, and how Pratt attempts throughout the book to subvert these tropes—sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.
Because Zax is the only character in Doors of Sleep who can travel between worlds, there is a tendency for the secondary characters in the novel to be defined exclusively by their relationships to him. That most, though not all, of these secondary characters are also women whom Zax has usually rescued from certain death or dangerous circumstances—and who subsequently choose to travel with him out of gratitude—only makes the power imbalance woven into this dynamic all the harder to ignore. This is a problem familiar to genre readers from early science fiction onwards: from square-jawed Gernsbackian heroes to Doctor Who, SF has been deeply influenced by the story-type of a singularly important (and usually male) character who possesses unilateral power to move a plot—and therefore save a world.
Were this dynamic to have gone unexplored, then Doors of Sleep would have been a well-meaning but also flawed work, a story whose author blundered into a fraught series of gender stereotypes. Instead, over the course of the novel, Pratt makes numerous attempts to counteract the one-sided nature of his book’s core character dynamic. He does this initially by establishing Zax as a genuinely kind and altruistic figure who wants only to do what he can to help others, and then by affording those people with whom Zax travels an increased level of agency in the plot. Still later, in the novel’s final act, Pratt even introduces a broader cast of characters, in effect furthering the sense that all actors in this story are working more as a collaborative group as they navigate the book's conflict.
That most of these attempts don't truly succeed until the novel’s final chapters only makes Pratt’s efforts here all the more intriguing to follow. They highlight the politics woven into not so much the actual story and themes, but instead their narrative structure. Even as the author gives his secondary characters a role of increased importance in the story, the core concept of the narrative requires that it remain focused on Zax, simply because Zax is the only figure whose actions can determine whether or not another character continues to exist from one chapter to the next. In the end it's only when Pratt fundamentally reworks his novel’s core character dynamic in the final chapters that he’s able to allow all of his characters to exist in the story on their own terms, and in this way he manages to turn that story into a much more radical work than it first appeared.
Doors of Sleep opens by introducing Zax as he struggles to remain awake in a post-scarcity utopian world whose residents live in constant luxury. Having long been traveling between universes with a woman named Laini (whom evidently he rescued from a dystopian realm in which she and all of humanity had been enslaved by insectoid aliens), Zax in this scene struggles to stay conscious long enough to find his companion so that they can avoid becoming permanently separated when he falls asleep. When Zax eventually tracks Laini down, however, she reveals that she's grown tired of the constant dangers that she must face while traveling the multiverse at his side, and wishes to remain behind in this world. Disillusioned at the loss of Laini’s friendship but also accepting of her choice, Zax says farewell to her, and after falling asleep, jumps through a quick succession of worlds experiencing a variety of cataclysmic disasters before arriving in what appears to be an orchard of some kind. There, Zax is very nearly killed by a piece of automated farm equipment that mistakes him for a crop that needs to be harvested, only to be rescued by an indentured farm worker named Minna. Eager to escape her captivity on the farm, Minna agrees to join Zax in his travels, and together the two begin their journeys through the multiverse.
Much of the first half of the novel is occupied with Zax and Minna's experiences as they travel between worlds, either savoring the luxuries offered by the more pleasant universes they awake in, or doing their best to offer what help they can to the people they meet who face more obvious dangers in other realms. In one chapter, Zax and Minna find themselves in an idealized post-scarcity utopia filled with luxurious hotels and numerous tourist attractions, while in another chapter, they awaken in a strange sort of giant terrarium filled with fairy tale chimeras who are struggling to survive a famine. In still another chapter, the two become trapped in a maze-like tomb haunted by a murderous shape-shifting mushroom creature that takes the form of whatever entity it consumes, and, when they are briefly separated, must both decide whether or not the other is who they truly claim to be.
It would have been very easy for this episodic structure to become tedious, since for the most part the events that Zax and Minna experience in one world only very rarely impact events in another. However, Pratt is able to tie together each of the smaller stories that comprise his narrative into a larger and more holistic plot. Slowly, it becomes apparent that the worlds to which Zax travels are not in fact random, but seem at least partially to be selected by Zax’s own subconscious hopes and fears. As a result, the sequence of worlds Zax visits slowly strings itself together into a broader storyline, with the reader eventually realizing that a figure whom Zax repeatedly encounters in his journeys—an evil scientist named the Lector who has partially learned to replicate Zax’s abilities to travel between worlds—keeps reappearing in part because he represents the embodiment of those things that Zax fears most.
The problem is that throughout this first half of the book, Pratt's singular—and perhaps inevitable—focus on Zax creates an imbalance in his narrative that shifts attention away from characters like Minna. This becomes all the more problematic when Minna’s own tragic backstory is taken into account. Pratt very directly indicates when he introduces Minna that she had lived in a form of slavery before meeting Zax. Later on, Pratt even describes how Minna had multiple children who were all forcibly taken from her to be sent to a rival farm. Yet despite this tragic history, Minna’s role in the first half of the novel is primarily as a figure who exists to ask Zax convenient questions about how he travels between worlds, and to demonstrate important plot points to the reader. While this perspective allows the book to quickly introduce us to the basic details of the novel’s premise, Minna’s identity as a woman who has clearly endured tremendous violence in her life never has the opportunity to be fully examined. That Minna does indeed choose to travel with Zax of her own volition is undeniable, as is the fact that as the story unfolds she clearly develops quite a lot of respect for Zax and he in turn for her; the issue is simply that Minna’s backstory is really far heavier than Doors of Sleep is able to take into account. Regardless of the kindness and respect Zax shows Minna, there is a power imbalance in their friendship which is difficult to ignore, and this becomes all the more problematic when you consider Minna’s own history as someone who has only just recently escaped from slavery.
Nevertheless, from early on Pratt builds into the story the moments necessary to rectify this structural shortcoming. Almost from the instant she is introduced, Minna is depicted as a character who interacts meaningfully with the novel's plot, and on multiple occasions she rescues Zax from certain death. Moreover, midway through the book Pratt even introduces a third character into his main cast in the form of "Victory Three" (or "Vicki"), a gender-neutral AI whom Zax and Minna encounter on an uninhabited island, and who provides a third perspective which furthers the sense that all characters are working as a collaborative group. However, more is still needed to permit Doors of Sleep to escape from the limitations of its story-type.
This eventually comes in the form of a plot twist as Doors of Sleep moves into its final act. As Zax, Minna, and Vicki continue to travel through the multiverse, they are eventually captured by the Lector. When the Lector steals Zax’s blood and sedates him (thereby sending Zax and Vicki to a new universe), Minna comes to be left behind—an event that in turn sends Zax into a spiral of depression when he assumes that Minna will surely be captured by the Lector and killed in one of his experiments. Here, the book shifts focus from Zax’s perspective to Minna’s. Using both knowledge she possessed from her past as an indentured farm worker, and also skills she’d developed as a result of her travels with Zax, Minna convinces the Lector to allow her to help him in his studies of Zax’s blood, and secretly she begins plotting to sabotage the Lector’s efforts to create an inter-dimensional empire. As the Lector works feverishly to learn how to travel between worlds, Minna becomes something of his unexpected rival, and ultimately she manages to accomplish in secret everything the Lector has spent years pursuing with his research. As a result, when the Lector finally succeeds in replicating Zax’s abilities (abandoning Minna on an uninhabited space station in the process), she promptly sets off in pursuit of him, chasing the novel’s villain from universe to universe as she works to overthrow the totalitarian empire he begins building.
The effect of this detour in the novel’s plot is profound. Even when Minna’s efforts to halt the Lector's assault on the multiverse fail (forcing her to rejoin Zax and Vicki), the way in which Pratt has finally managed to shift power and focus away from his original protagonist allows the book to become a much more radical and dynamic story. Once Minna is capable of remaining in the narrative fully independent of Zax’s actions, the book is able to more completely embody its themes regarding the value of the humanitarian philosophy that Zax, Minna, and Vicki have adopted. And once Zax is not the only character in Doors of Sleep who is able to travel between worlds, he quickly finds himself surrounded by a small family of people who appear in the story on their own terms, and who work with him to confront the Lector and protect the multiverse from his influence.
On the whole, Doors of Sleep is a fun, well-paced, and imaginative science fiction novel that takes a somewhat quirky concept and then ties it together with a very tightly written narrative. While the novel struggles to manage its core power dynamics early on, ultimately Pratt takes a very small cast of clearly defined characters and confronts them with a procession of thoughtfully imagined worlds and dilemmas. By its end, much like its main character, Doors of Sleep is not merely a book that seeks to have fun with its own ideas, but also a novel that strives to respond to the responsibilities those ideas demand of it. As a result, even when Doors of Sleep struggles, it does so honestly while working to rectify its own shortcomings—a fact that only makes its successes that much more enjoyable to witness.