Captain James Wedderburn, once a military man, now a pimp of sorts (he doesn't like the term, you understand), wakes one morning to find that his room has more or less the same dimensions and décor that it had the night before—though even he probably wasn't expecting to find a pair of salamanders at the foot of the bed. One of those salamanders has bitten Wedderburn, and a competitor is waiting for the Captain to wake, ready to blackmail him for the antidote—but Wedderburn is cannier than that, and swiftly outsmarts his rival. It is the last time in a long while that he will have real control over his life.
Wedderburn lives in Dream London, the city that stands where London once did: a zone of remixed reality, where the laws of physics are no longer strictly in force, and which continues to change every day. This setting is a large part of what makes Dream London, Tony Ballantyne's sixth novel, tick, and it mostly pays its way as an imaginative spectacle. Ballantyne creates suitably arresting concepts and images out of Dream London's malleable reality, such as the Spiral, a vortex of concrete that used to be Piccadilly Circus and now leads down to an entirely different (and unknown) city; or Mr Monagan, a large orange frog who has now become human. It's not all about playfulness, though; there is also a sense of Dream London as something insidious and encroaching:
I gazed at the picture. It showed a typical London street in the Square Mile as it used to be. . . . The buildings themselves were a collection of styles, modern glass and steel, old fashioned red brick. The Davies-Innocent building was clad in yellow stone, a restrained façade of tall, arched windows.
"What am I supposed to see?" I asked.
"Look at the windows."
Now I saw it. The windows in the middle of the building were taller than those at the sides. They were stretching themselves, beginning to grow. Now I knew what I was looking for, I noticed that the centre of the building seemed to bulge a little. (pp. 54-5)
The city is not just changing: it's doing so with an apparent, though inscrutable, purpose. In the novel's opening chapters, Wedderburn is, in short order, approached by a group called "the Cartel" to investigate the truth behind Dream London; and leaned on by a local crime boss, Daddio Clarke, to stay away from the Cartel and work for him instead. Wedderburn ends up uneasily trying to work for both, and is given a job at Angel Tower, which the Cartel believe holds the key to Dream London. Angel Tower, with its strange bureaucracy, is another intriguing piece of fantastication; but, though Dream London may deliver the goods in terms of its setting, it falls short in other areas.
Superficiality is one of Dream London's key characteristics as a place: "in Dream London, the surface is all that there is!" says one character (p. 150). And the surface is dazzling: people get so wrapped up in what they can do and be that they forget about the wider world around them. As another character puts it:
Dream London wants every man to do nothing. To be weak-willed and selfish. But if it can't break them, it wants them to be heroes, to lead the last desperate charge, to die alone in a glorious last stand. What it doesn't want is people who stick to the daily grind, people who become part of the quiet majority, people who do what's right despite getting paid no notice. (p. 289)
This is perhaps the main subtext of the novel: Dream London as metaphor for a perceived rise of individualism and associated erosion of a sense of community. It's an interesting approach, but doesn't quite pay off in the execution.
One issue lies with the characterization. Of course, to say that Dream London's characters are thin is only to observe the city's superficiality in action. As Wedderburn himself reflects:
All I had was charm and a uniform. Take away the uniform and what were you left with? I was the perfect hero for this city. All gloss and effects, and underneath, there was nothing that was worth having, just sparkle and a heady scent. (p. 336)
But it's a fine line between using thin characterization to make a point, and just leaving a text unsatisfactory; Dream London doesn't always stay on the right side of that line. Wedderburn's self-awareness is not quite enough to cancel out the impact of his superficiality; the other characters, seen through Wedderburn's eyes, don't gain even his level of roundedness. The trouble is that we lose the deep sense of how life in Dream London feels for Ballantyne's characters. There's also an issue with the novel's portrayal of its female characters: Wedderburn's eyes tend to wander, so the female characters are often introduced in the context of whether Wedderburn finds them attractive—and the depth of characterization isn't there to help the novel recover from that.
It's not only the characterization, though: I also find that Ballantyne's central metaphor doesn't have all the force it might. Mainly this is because Dream London itself is all-encompassing within the novel; we never really see the city from outside (bar the odd mention that the world beyond Dream London is mostly unaffected by the strangeness), or gain a sense of what it was like to experience the city's development. As a result, there's little, in a dramatic sense, to compare the reality of Dream London to—and this dilutes the impact of the societal change that Ballantyne describes. The sense of loss that the novel attempts to convey is not earned on the page.
Dream London blurs the boundary between Wedderburn as driver of the plot and as one being driven: near the start of the novel, he is given a scroll that tells his fortune, and he can't seem to keep from fulfilling it; he manipulates others, and is manipulated himself. Again, though, this reduces the reader's sense of being grounded in the reality of the book; too often, it feels as though the plot is just drifting by. After everything, we are left with a novel of striking imaginative vistas that aims for more, but doesn't quite hit the mark.
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. Along the way, he has read a lot of books, and has plenty more to go. He blogs at Follow the Thread.