Labeling a novel as "science fiction" immediately creates certain expectations among readers and critics. These expectations, while useful in preparing readers to expect unexpected settings and situations, can often lead us to focus too much on genre-specific elements and not notice other important elements of the novel.
While Élisabeth Vonarburg's Dreams of the Sea is firmly a "science fiction" novel, it is truly a unique work that strikes new ground within the genre and also reaches heights that few other contemporary novels strive for, let alone achieve.
First off, a bit of background for those not familiar with Vonarburg's work. Élisabeth Vonarburg is a widely known science fiction writer in Canada and is actively involved in the speculative fiction community as a translator, convention organizer, literary editor, and writer. She has also received the Philip K. Dick Special Award in 1993 and the 1998 "Prix du Conseil québécois de la Femme en Littérature," a one-time literary award given by the québécois Council for Women's Affairs on its twentieth anniversary. Dreams of the Sea is the English translation of the first book in her five-book Tyranaël series.
Like few other recent novels (both within and outside the genre), Dreams of the Sea elegantly interweaves the philosophical with the deeply personal. Profound questions of perception, personal identity, and the extent to which our world is knowable are investigated through the moving experiences of the characters—losing a loved one, choosing one's path in life, reconciling childhood experiences with one's adult life. In fact, addressing core problems of philosophy is intrinsic to these characters reconciling their own conflicts, unresolved feelings, and interpersonal relationships.
Dreams of the Sea traces the efforts of a small group of survivors of a party of Earth explorers, who are stranded on the planet Tyranaël. The majority of their party and their technology have been wiped out by the onset of an enigmatic blue Sea that sweeps unexpectedly across whole sections of the planet. The survivors are left to make a life for themselves amongst the ruins of the ancient civilization they had come to study.
But this tale is not told from the perspective of the human colonists. Rather, their experiences are told through the eyes of Tyranaël's native Dreamers, who are viewing the survivors' experiences from a time several millennia earlier.
And so these native Dreamers envision bits and parts of the surviving colonists' experiences, observing how they deal with loss, new love, and the discovery of Tyranaël. At the same time, the Dreamers are living out their own lives, reconciling their own hopes, fears, and conflicts.
What emerges is a carefully written, delightfully complex story. The parallel storylines—those of the humans and the Dreamers—allow the book to explore how both species address similar situations in vastly different cultural contexts.
These dual timeframes allow the book to look closely at the process of understanding. The culture of natives is described first-hand, interleaved with the humans hypothesizing the native culture through the study of relics and decaying temples.
The novel's narrative structure, as well as the title of the novel itself, might imply that the text has a dream-like, perhaps muddled quality. However, the book is actually filled with very concrete details and possesses a clear teleology that one can follow if one reads carefully. Indeed, the novel's climax is depicted with dazzling clarity as the humans and the natives explore the same site on the planet, yet thousands of years apart. Each party arrives there to question the same mystery of the planet's origins.
One of the most compelling elements of the story is that each native Dreamer only views a small part of each human's lifetime. The stranded explorers' experiences are pieced together by Dreamers tapping into the various memory plates onto which their visions have been stored. As Eïlai (the primary Dreamer through which most of the story is told) taps one of these plates, she remarks "I have always liked Arethai's Joris . . . and perhaps her Joris is not actually the same as mine." Joris, one of the colonists from Earth, is perceived differently depending on which Dreamer has Dreamed her. Joris' attempt to find community and love on this new world is particularly meaningful to Eïlai, who herself longs to feel less isolated and also deals with issues of loss.
Later in the novel, Eïlai taps memory plates of the older generations of natives who had precognitive visions of her before she was born. Unable to remember the childhood events depicted, she questions whether these fragments are real scenes from her youth or not. She cannot know. As if to underscore this point, the narrative here de-stabilizes notions of an essential self by seamlessly transitioning from the "I" who is the narrator and the "her" who is "perhaps me."
This trope of questioning the validity of memory and illuminating the different ways in which several people can view a single person is found throughout the novel. When invoked, this theme is reminiscent Roland Barthes' description of photography as "the impossible science of the unique being," referring to the inherent conflict between the fact that each individual is constantly growing and changing, yet is considered the same person as their younger self depicted in photographs.
The novel elegantly poses the problem of perception: how each individual perceives the world differently and what impact this may have on the notion of objective truth. In this way, Dreams of the Sea is much like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, where perspectives shift throughout the story in order to invoke the philosophical question of how perception affects each person's understanding of the external world and the individuals who populate it. Yet, like Woolf, Vonarburg manages to address these questions and simultaneously have a direct emotional impact on the reader. In their acts of making the world strange to us, both authors somehow connect more directly with our deeper emotions and values.
Dreams of the Sea is a novel that merits re-reading, as scenes and conversations play multiple roles within the novel: advancing the plot, revealing characters, expressing positions on philosophical debates. Indeed, fireside conversations begin with "What is truth?" and ponder the nature of language's relationship to "Objects that the eye can label quite readily as 'table,' 'chair,' 'couch'." But these dalliances into profound quandary do not impede the casual reader's enjoyment of the novel; the story itself is highly engaging and expertly paced. These kinds of conversations reveal important character traits and slow the pace of the story at the right time—and for the right amount of time—between major nodes of action. The reader can look for these—or not. They do not disrupt the action of the story, but rather offer a depth into which one can choose to plunge.
It should be said that Dreams of the Sea is not an easy read. The shifting perspectives, multiple plot lines, non-chronological storytelling and measured unraveling of the world's central mysteries require close attention. Further, the sheer beauty of the prose is a bit lulling. It's easy to get caught up in the beauty of the language and the originality of the situations, only to miss important revelations.
Having said all this, one can simply read this book for the beauty of the prose and not concern oneself with its deeper meanings. After all, one can read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose simply as a good detective story or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series as simply an engaging adventure story. And, in fact, sometimes one wants to.