The Stealers of Dreams

The suspension of disbelief, gentle reader, is a tricky thing. One moment you can be there, in the world of the author, riding alongside the Doctor, or Harry Potter, or Lyra Belacqua, or Louis Knight, or whoever, part of the action and in the thick of things - the next you're crashing back to earth with a bump, and realising that sadly instead of being in the world of your heroes you are instead sitting on a bus staring at a printed page. It doesn't take much - sometimes just a single line. In the case of The Stealers of Dreams it was this one:

"Micro-organisms," announced the Doctor, "smaller than a single proton..."

I have to wonder what such an organism, far below the size of the particles that make up normal matter (and indeed far below the scale at which it might be called nano-, much less micro-) might be made of, and exactly how anything that small would want or need to, or indeed even could, feed off human "neuroelectrochemical signals". It's not so much scientifically ludicrous, more a total mismatching of scales - as if someone popped out for a spot of lunch and ate France.

Anyway, gentle reader, that is enough about this reviewer's pet peeve about this book. The question I'm sure you're all asking is "to hell with your overly anal nitpickery, is the rest of the book actually any good?", to which I have to answer - yes, actually, it's not that bad at all. As with the rest of the NDAs it's not especially brilliant in an earth-shattering Alien Bodies or Lungbarrow-esque way, but neither does it plumb the depths of Winner Takes All or The Last Resort.

The plot is fairly straightforward - the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack arrive on a human colony world in the future to discover that all creativity is suppressed and that fiction of any kind - including lying and dreams - is outlawed for people's own good. With unsurprising rapidity our plucky trio soon find themselves drawn into a plot to reintroduce fiction into society and overthrow the pervasive police state that dominates the colony. They each do this in their own unique way - the Doctor goes off and bluffs his way into first accompanying a police officer enforcing the "no fiction" regime and then in to the local asylum where people who have gone "fantasy crazy" are being held; Jack decides to actively find a dissident leader, the mysterious Hal Gryden, who is using a pirate TV station to try and reintroduce fiction into people's lives; and Rose stumbles into hanging out with a teenage dissident sympathiser who draws illegal comic strips. The three threads are interwoven with a lightness of touch that prevents the book from descending into a black-and-white "we must overthrow the current regime because it is BAD!" Star Trek-style morality tale, which is welcome; however, they don't really seem to go anywhere for the first half of the book, which is less so.

It turns out that the atmosphere of the colony planet is home to the aforementioned micro-organisms, which over-stimulate the parts of the human brain that are responsible for interpreting fantasy and creativity; the result of this is that people hallucinate and can't tell what's real from what isn't, ending up as "fantasy crazy" and having full-on psychotic episodes before having to be locked up for the good of everyone. Lyons paints a surprisingly rich picture of such a stagnant society; they haven't tried to solve the issue because that would involve speculation and that would involve imagination, for example, so they are dealing with the problem in a rather totalitarian and heavy-handed way instead. Normality is forced upon everyone to give them something to focus on, hence 24-hour-a-day news coverage detailing such exciting events as someone finding a convenient parking space, or someone else being late for work because their car has broken down. The real fleshing out of the colony is provided by the throwaway lines and references, like there being no politicians any more because lying is outlawed, or a woman divorcing her husband because he lied when she asked if a certain dress made her bum look big!

The book has a relatively small complement of major supporting characters. Domnic, the teenage comic strip artist, is not unlike Robert from Winner Takes All, only done properly. He's in over his head, socially awkward and useless in a fight, but he wants to do the right thing. Cal Tyko, head nurse at the Big White House - the colony's mental asylum - is all smooth patronisation and close-mindedness, unwilling to consider for a second that anything he does might be wrong or unnecessary. Weller, the major police officer protagonist, is someone who uses the necessity of her duties and her desire to protect people to overcome her private doubts. There is a palpable sense of fear and quiet desperation in even the most minor of characters. The Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack are all well-characterised too. The Doctor here is portrayed with the sort of minimalist characterisation used by Justin Richards in The Deviant Strain, and as in that book it works a treat for conveying Eccleston's interpretation of the role, letting the reader's familiarity with his TV stories fill in the gaps and preventing it from slipping into parody. Rose is spot-on, and the part where she succumbs to being "fantasy-crazy", and we discover that her fantasy is to run around doing what she's doing already, helping the Doctor save people from monsters, is superbly done and entirely believable. The scene where the Doctor releases her from a cell in the Big White House and explains everything to her is one of the best scenes in the entire NDA range; touching and tender without ever crossing the line to become nauseating or mawkishly sentimental. Jack is slightly less the flirtatious wisecracker of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Only Human, slightly more the take-charge action hero of Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, but since this book takes place between Boom Town and Bad Wolf - a placement that is itself potentially problematic from a continuity point-of-view - it doesn't jar too much with his character arc, and he is certainly handled much better here than in The Deviant Strain, even though his role in each book is broadly similar.

The book has a few twists that Lyons paves the way for from the very beginning; it's possible to guess what the revelations surrounding Waller and Hal Gryden are, for example, but the evidence is so well-woven into the rest of the plot that instead of feeling cheated of the moment I actually found myself thinking a triumphant "aha! I knew it!" when the big moment came towards the end - Justin Richards, please take note! Speaking of the end, we have here the NDA with the best ending out of the lot of them - no damp squibs, no big-explosions-and-suddenly-the-story-stops, but a proper ending that flows naturally from the climactic events orchestrated by the Doctor. The major problem with this book, aside from the scientific gaffes - which are still far less intrusive than those of Only Human - is that The Stealers of Dreams is quite slow to get going, and relatively little happens apart from the TARDIS crew wandering around and talking to people and looking thoughtful for the first half of the book. In the second half, once they go to the Big White House and Rose is arrested for going "fantasy-crazy", things pick up wonderfully and start moving at a cracking pace, but the book takes a while to get there, and suffers from an extraordinarily bland opening scene with the Doctor, Rose and Jack in a café that nearly put me off completely. As a result this is a story that I actually enjoy more in retrospect now I've read it when I can visualise it in total than I did at the time I was reading it, where for a long time I did have to wonder where exactly the book was going and why it was taking so long to get there. Obviously this is not a perfect novel by any means, but along with The Monsters Inside it is the best of the NDAs and it does leave me with a tinge of regret that finally, in the last novel to feature the 9th Doctor as the incumbent protagonist, we had signs that The Monsters Inside wasn't a one-off and that he could have made a decent print Doctor after all.


Review by Valedictorian


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