Dream London, Tony Ballantyne's 2013 novel, was something of a misfire. The basic premise of the story was reasonable enough: thanks to a series of dubious real-estate deals, the city of London was magically isolated from the rest of the world and converted into "Dream London," a caricatured fantasy-steampunk version of its former self. Thus transformed, the city worked a spell over its inhabitants, transforming them into passive, narrow-minded cartoon archetypes, ready clay for the hidden masters of the new city. At its heart, the novel was a metaphor for the disagreeable nature of life in the West today, of how modern capitalism uses commodified individualism to make slaves of us all. Unfortunately, Dream London was one of those regrettable novels that are constructed entirely around their central metaphor; the setting was too pasteboard-thin to serve as a proper venue for immersive fantasy, and the novel's protagonist was a passive observer with little in the way of interiority or insight. While some books can succeed solely on the strength of their metaphors, Dream London belabored its points, ultimately reading more like a lecture than a novel.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ballantyne's 2015 follow-up, Dream Paris, stumbles into the same problems. The new novel begins several months after London's return to Earth, with the arduous work of reconstruction and asset reacquisition well underway. Anna Sinfield, formerly a pivotal figure in the fall of Dream London, is introduced squatting in the abandoned home of her parents, trying to avoid child services for the next few months before her eighteenth birthday and university roll around. Her plans are stymied, naturally enough, by an agent of the British government bearing an scavenged fortune intended for Anna. In Dream London, fortunes were ambiguously-worded prophetic poems that acted as snares, locking their recipients into inescapable narratives. For Anna, her snare is baited with news about her mother, one of the thousands of Londoners who were press-ganged into the workhouses of Dream London and whisked away to parts unknown in the Dream World shortly before the fall of the city. In short order, Anna finds herself shanghaied by the British government, partnered with army grunt Francis Cuppello, and sent on a mission to return to the Dream World, make contact with her mother in Dream Paris, discover the fate of the missing Londoners, and fulfill her fortune.
The great highlight of the book is the first leg of Anna and Francis's journey through the ruins of Dream London. Not much time is spent in the ruined city, but the episode has a spark that the rest of the novel lacks. Freed of its need to serve as a metaphor, Dream London is allowed for a few chapters to exist simply as a landscape of desolation. The whimsical buildings of the previous book are collapsed and flooded, with the few remaining displaced Londoners huddling in the shadows, trying to avoid bands of sadistic monkeys and stranger things. Worse still are the Pierrots, a band of scavenger clowns who enslave anyone who calls on their aid and seem to be extending their control over the ravaged city. It's a wonderfully evocative little sequence that doesn't overstay its welcome.
However, the needs of the novel must prevail, and Anna and Francis soon make their way through the truncated Dream versions of Kent and Normandy to finally arrive at Dream Paris. Initially, Dream Paris promises something new. Whereas Dream London was the result of a direct attempt by the Dream World to colonize our own, Dream Paris is the result of a failed incursion into Paris during the French Revolution. As a result, Dream Paris is a more garrulous place, divided between the occasionally revolutionary Committee for Public Safety and the mendacious Banca di Primavera, both of whom watch the skies warily for the yellow zeppelins of the imperially-minded Dream Prussians. From here, Anna is plunged into the deep end of Parisian politics, trying to make sense of a world where everyone has an agenda and everyone is lying to some end or another.
When reading Dream Paris, it is hard not to be reminded of Michael Swanwick's 1994 classic The Iron Dragon's Daughter. In broad outline, the stories share a great deal, both being tales of young women trying to parse and escape the illogical half-worlds in which they find themselves entwined. And yet, it is hard not to feel as though Dream Paris is little more than a smudged reiteration of Swanwick's work. While Swanwick commits wholeheartedly to his mashed-up world, there is always a sense of something being restrained in Ballantyne's books. In the middle of Dream London, one character flat-out admits that the world of the new city is a scam, an illogical place assembled by stunted imaginations to trap and divide its inhabitants. Dream Paris doesn't repeat the sentiment, but there's a sense of artificiality to the world all the same. There's lots of evocative details to be sure - the porcelain mannequin agents of the Banca, the underground dinner-dueling clubs, and the Dream Parisian skyline dominated by multiple Eiffel Towers swaddled in cloth - but all of it seems like little more than authorial conceit. Unlike Dream London, Dream Paris is supposed to be a functioning community, but all life vanishes once a new scene begins. There are set-pieces, but no hidden corners or tossed-off conversations, no little details to build a sense of place.
In terms of protagonists, Dream Paris also comes up short. Swanwick's Jane was naive, and in the course of the story she became monstrous, but she had drive. She spent her story trying to grasp the secrets of her world and escape, and even when she failed, she still kept trying. By contrast, Anna spends most of her story passive and self-absorbed, preferring to remain disconnected and contemptuous of the world around her, constantly being used and abused by others, only occasionally realizing she has been screwed over. While passive protagonists who serve more as observers than as actors are a hallmark of British science fiction, Dream Paris repeats Dream London's folly of telling the story through the eyes of someone without much interest in the world.
Ultimately, though, it is the constant use and abuse of the characters, the constant scheming and plotting and conspiracy by those with power, that kills both Dream London and Dream Paris. The purpose of the Dream World is to allow humans to economically exploit one another, a fact that both novels repeat ad nauseum. There are no people who have ideals, good or bad. The motto written on the heart of every inhabitant of the Dream World is "expand or die," and at the end of the day, the only motivating factor in any human interaction is crude Darwinian struggle. Presumably this is meant to be taken satirically, but in Dream Paris the vision is so totalizing and so oppressive that Ballantyne's few attempts to suggest something outside the rubric seem like half-hearted, vague gestures that will only end in yet another round of exploitation by some group or another. Indeed, the finale of the novel briefly presents a possible alternative for the Dream World, but it is described so sketchily that it is no surprise when it is brutally snuffed out in the climax. The vision is so stifling and oppressive that the world of the novel becomes cold and distant, its inhabitants seeming more like cartoon animals than people. Rather than filling the reader with compassion and empathy for their fellow man, Dream Paris leaves one wondering whether the extinction of the human race might have its upside.
In the end, there's not much to recommend Dream Paris. As a work of fantasy it has too little faith in itself to succeed. As a metaphor it is blunt, heavy-handed, and undermines itself through its own cynicism. Generally speaking, it is unwise to tell people life is just about power. There is always a danger that they might believe it.