Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Friday, January 18th, 2019

A weirdly enchanting dystopia.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

They sleep like children, mouths open, cheeks flushed. Breathing as rhythmic as swells on a sea. No longer allowed in the rooms, their mothers and fathers watch them through double-paned glass. Isolation—that’s what the doctors call it: the separation of the sick from the well. But isn’t every sleep a kind of isolation? When else are we so alone?

[H]ow much quieter that ending would be, a whole world drowned in sleep, than all the other ways we have to fall.

The remote California college town of Santa Lora (population 12,106) is beset by two calamities one autumn in the not-so-distant future: an unrelenting drought, and a “sleeping sickness.” Sufferers collapse into a deep sleep, from which nothing can wake them. If not cared for with feeding tubes, heart monitors, physical therapy, and the like, the sleepers (as they are colloquially known) are apt to succumb to the disease. However, as the outbreak spreads from the college to the rest of the town, finding volunteers to tend to the sleepers becomes increasingly difficult. Especially as many of the carers drift into sleep as well.

We experience the initial days and long weeks of the epidemic through the eyes of various Santa Lorians: Sara and Libby Peterson, ages twelve and eleven, daughters of a survivalist dad who works as a janitor at the college, and a mother long dead of asthma-related complications. Ben and Annie, new parents and recent Brooklyn transplants who are employed as part-time visiting professors at the college. Nathaniel and Henry, senior professors who have been together since Nathaniel came out in middle age. Mei Liu, a Chinese-American freshman from San Diego who was hoping to turn over a new leaf at college – and “Weird” Matthew Baker, a fellow quarantinee from her floor. And Catharine, a psychiatrist flown in from LA to assess the situation in its earliest days.

The Dreamers isn’t so much a story about a viral outbreak, or the potential end of the world, as it is an exploration of human consciousness and the elusive nature of time. Walker has created a dystopia that’s surprisingly beautiful and enchanting; her prose is, in a word, mesmerizing. Likewise, The Dreamers is one of the more thoughtful and philosophical (would-be) apocalypse stories in recent memory.

Walker plays with time and reality in ways that are both frustrating (don’t believe everything you read!) and delightful. While they sleep the sleep of the dead, Walker’s sleepers dream: of other possible worlds (or all possible worlds), of the future, of days come and gone and yet to be. Scientists monitoring the patients’ brain activity are shocked by what they find: “there is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain—awake or asleep.” Some sleepers dream entire lifetimes into being. When, eventually, some of them begin to wake up, it is a little death of sorts. Who is to say which life is real, and which is the dream?

So yeah, The Dreamers is a bit of a mindfuck, in the best possible way.

Oh, and bonus points for the trolley problem reference. I don’t know if the author is one, but fans of The Good Place are likely to dig this story, I think (Matthew and Mei in particular).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)