Book Review: The Dream Millennium, James White (serialized 1973, novel 1974)

THDRMMLLNN1974

(John Berkley’s cover for the 1974 edition)

4.75/5 (Very Good)

“The thought of the vast, utterly silent ship stretching away on all sides of his cubicle, guarded and guided by silent computers, was paralyzing his own ability to make sounds […]” (3)

The crew of a seed ship sent to find a new habitable planet dream the same dreams, dreams of unnatural clarity plagued by pain and death.  As a young woman lies dying in her cold cubicle, her final meal at her lips and unaware of her predicament, she whispers to our reluctant hero (Devlin), “All I seem to dream about is being a lady dinosaur” (32).  Devlin’s dreams follow some pseudo-evolutionary schema, first he dreams he’s a trilobite in some Silurian sea crushed by the tentacles of a cephalopod, “he went on feeding while the hot, constant flame of hunger was punctuated by explosions of pain as his appendages were twisted and crushed and torn away […]” (10).  Then he dreams he’s a brontosaurus, and then an early primate…

Periodically, the automated machines that tend the colonists in cold storage awake their charges, “BASIC INSTRUCTIONS. SPEAK. EXERCISE. REMEMBER” (2).  The plotting is perfect, crystalline.  Although the exact ramifications of longterm cold sleep are unknown, scientists suspect that periodic wakings will diminish the mind’s ability to retain memories, hence the computer’s injunction, “REMEMBER.”  Devlin awakes, remembers his dreams, moves his limbs, occasionally takes bodily sustenance, reminisces about his origins, checks a mechanical system or planet, and slips back into his pod, “COOLDOWN IN FIVE MINUTES” (90) the machine proclaims, the cycles renews…

There are other cycles of course—although their communal dreams move along a timeline from the pre-historic to the “medieval,” from trilobite to man—“hunger and blind instinct were still driving people to acts of violence” (11).  This link between the present and the past forms the thematic core of the novel.  The occupants of the seed ship do not fit into this pattern, this world of continued base violence.  But what is the world they are escaping?  In some dystopic vision of Heinlein’s gun-toting futures gone haywire, those who become citizens are armed “before they have reached maturity” (77).  Maxers take every perceived slight as an excuse for a duel, and security cannot “keep pace without waging total war on all and sundry” (77). The choice to wholesale arm the populace was perceived as the only way to stopgap the descent into violence.  Unsurprisingly, if base desires created the world before, an armed world exacerbates the problem.

Over the course of the novel, the reason for Devlin and his friend and eventual lover, Patricia Morley’s selection is slowly revealed.  After extensive psychological probing, they are found suitable, “the major factors in reaching this decision are that both of you are intensely dissatisfied with your present life-styles [sic] and would like to escape from them, and neither of your personalities  is basically violent.  More simply, you would like to change things but are unwilling to hurt people to do it” (86).  Devlin refuses to become a belted citizen, and pursues a non-belted profession as a doctor.  Patricia mutilates her face in order to prevent young citizens from “offering unwanted protection” and thus “killing her male friends” (75).  Pacifist heroes…

As with All Judgement Fled (1968), dissociative themes of psychological manipulation permeate Devlin and Patricia’s waking moments.  Are their experiences on this ship a mere continuation of their psychological tests to weed out candidates? (90).  Or, are their communal dreams the result of memory implementation to keep the mind sane over the course of the voyage? (109).  The baffling mystery, “was everyone on the ship having the same dreams?” (59) generates warranted paranoia.

As the planets pass by either occupied by alien life or uninhabitable, desperation sets in—Devlin discovers a man frozen to the wall of his cubicle in an apparent act of suicide.  As the voyage continues, the probabilities of survival diminish, and the probabilities of technological failure increase.

Final thoughts

The Dream Millennium is the best James White novel I have read.  While All Judgement Fled (1968) maintained greater psychological despair and the parallel (alien and human) stories and underwater society created in The Watch Below (1966) were conceptually more audacious, The Dream Millennium feels distilled and refined.  Paranoia permeates the pages, the slow unraveling of the narrative showcases White’s storytelling prowess, and the conceptual linkage between the dreams of a “past” and the realities of the present, demonstrates how aware he is of how all the pieces fit together and meaning created by their mosaic whole….  And Devlin and Patricia, both pacifists and highly intelligent, are appealing individuals.

Recommended for all fans of 70s SF.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

THDRMMLLNM1976

(Uncredited cover for the 1976 edition)

THDRMMLLNB1982

(Rick Sternbach’s cover for the 1982 edition)

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31 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dream Millennium, James White (serialized 1973, novel 1974)”

  1. “Unsurprisingly, if base desires created the world before, [an] armed world exacerbates the problem.”
    – Joachim Boaz

    I’m going to quote you on this, because it seems so obvious, yet so many people just don’t get it. Also, is that a small spelling mistake?
    => and/an

    1. It is hard not to read elements of the story as a critique of Heinlein and his every man with a gun would result in some form of anarchist utopia….

      (yes, I fixed it, they are bound to pop up every now and then).

    2. To me this seems obviously wrong; in an unarmed world the weak are at the mercy of the strong. Weapons serve to inhibit the strong from abusing the weak.

      1. I would prefer not to argue about this here. But it definitely is White’s position. He does say that the mass arming does initially work before hell breaks out (cultural shifts?).

  2. You’ve really piqued my interest in James White. Why had I never come across him before your reviews? I happened to find a copy of All Judgement Fled recently. It’s been added to the TR pile…

      1. Ok. I have heard of the Sector General stories but probably dismissed them as straightforward hard sf (hard medical sf!?). Maybe that’s why the name never stuck.

      2. They are also of the ultra positivist 50s vein. They are still fun! White is still not willing to give up his ultimately positive view of the world in All Judgement Fled and The Dream Millennium, but, it is a much more compelling fun, which flawed characters and some serious rumination…

      3. Exactly! I think All Judgement Fled is ultimately a darker assessment of mankind than this one… But, the combination of compelling plot, that probably unfolds too slowly for some, with successful discussion and characters, created a delightful reading experience.

  3. Great review by the way. Another author I’ve glanced at without pausing, mostly because of covers and uninteresting titles. Though I do like the Berkley cover.

    1. Thank you. The Berkley cover is the best of the bunch. Why The Dream Millennium hasn’t been republished since 1982—while every half-conceived Heinlein story conjured from his armpit (my dislike is real! haha) is reprinted every few years—absolutely bewilders…

      1. Sadly the Heinlein’s are a safe bet from a publishing bottom line. Nonetheless I agree absolutely with your negative assessment of Heinlein. If it wasn’t for the vague nostalgic gloss of childhood memories I would just call them for the turgid, didactic nonsense that they are.

      2. I read them as a kid too. But after 25 + of his novels and many many many short stories I proclaim, with no nostalgic tinges of regret, keep them away from me!

        P.S. few topics annoy me more than,”but have you read this Heinlein, it is AMAZING!” Well yes, I did, and no, it wasn’t — but, there are thousands of people who will reinforce your love for him so go talk to them…. hah

      3. No thanks, I think I am over debating the merits or lack thereof of RJH. Even the book I probably liked most as a boy was just ok on a recent reread. Damn, I’m discussing Heinlein!

      4. Yeah, it’s the same with Philip K. Dick having some of his bottom end stuff that he was churning out for money still getting reprinted. But I guess that’s just author popularity. Definitely going to look into reading some of these recommended James White books though. Thanks!

      5. There is a reason I choose not to review (other than perhaps their least known works) some authors. Everyone talks about them already. And, they are always on the shelves…

  4. Very interesting review of one of the first SF novels I ever bought. I’ve read it a couple of times over the year and it is the kind of book I hoped the big name SF writers would write, but mostly didn’t. I’ve been pretty disappointed over the years in most of my reading of Asimov, Clarke, you-know-who and others that folks told me I HAD to read, whose books were CLASSICS I’d just LOVE. This is the only James White book I’ve read and I’ve (as above) reread it, and I think the reason it doesn’t get the acclaim while the others do is because it isn’t really a bumper sticker-theme novel. Like LIMBO, THE YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN and some other SF books I like it doesn’t have that self-righteousness of so many SF ‘classics”–“Earth is good, but people are stupid,” “Oh if only other people thought the way WE do, eh, reader?” stuff. (Of course, the REH haters will think I’m talking about his Earth-chauvanistic point of view, and the REH likers will think I mean the Asimovian progressive American p.o.v., and they’re both right.) Sorry to bring up REH again, but as he was mentioned in your comments about the book’s attitude (I didn’t catch that), there ya go.

    1. I’m not so sure — one would think that a waking up on a seed ship and slowly discovering the world around you would be appealing! There was a recent SF show called Dark Matter which had a bunch of people wake up from cryogenic sleeping trying to figure out what they were doing—the problem with the show was simple, they discovered in the first episode—which was profoundly lame…In this book, it is only slowly revealed.

  5. I like the Berkey cover, but the idea of the other one is cool, with the ship small in the frame as it passes by another unsuitable planet. Also I think this would appeal to PKD readers. It’s better-shaped than some of his sloppy books, but the idea is sort of related to “Frozen Journey,” one of PKD’s great short stories.

    1. For me this is the strangest complaint one can have about SF. They are books written in the past about a future which obviously is not going to happen — take it as such!

      I mean, the technology to make a seed ship is NOT known in the present. What is the difference if a book in the past postulates about it? It’s just as outrageous technologically as if we write a book now about the same premise!

      It’s a great book, regardless if there’s internet or not… The context in part makes the book interesting. The idea that this is the technology projected by the author at that particular point in time. These are things that make it fun to read! Anyway, technological postulating is perhaps the furthest thing from White’s mind — he is much more interested in the psychological ramifications of the voyage and why the voyage must happen etc.

      1. Yeah, a lot of 60s/70s SF focuses on the pscyhological — one of the reasons I review so much of it.

        I’ve read VanderMeer’s Cities of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Veniss Underground. However, I have not read Annihilation as I’ve stayed away from new SF/F (or really SF not written between the 50s-70s other than a few here and there) for a variety of reasons for around 5 years…

      2. It would be great to hear your reasoning for giving up more recent sf. I made a similar decision some years back. Originally I put 1975 as my upper limit but have since pushed it back to 1985. I have had a few slips since then – mostly due to assuaging well-meaning friends 😉 Some of my reasons are “theoretical” and caught up with ideas about the progress or lack there of in the arts through the 19th and 20th centuries. A related problem is the rapid increase in the sheer volume of materials produced under the impact of industrialisation and the globalisation of capitalism. There is just too much culture produced today to ever meaningfully engage with more than a very small slice of it. And then of course there is the wonder of discovery sadly neglected artifacts of the past – particularly the curious nature of sf and it’s singular focus on the possibilities of (past) tomorrows.

      3. Ah, I don’t think my reasoning is more complex than liking a particular historical moment, the drastic changes in fiction, social changes, etc in the post-war period — particularly the 60s-70s. And, of course, I enjoy the conceit of the New Wave moment — and despise the backlash against it later on… Perhaps I can chart the various inclines and declines with some detail of a territory worth exploring. As someone who has widely read the genre before my narrowing of focus I do not think that I am in anyway speaking about the period which produced my favorite SF from most from an absence of knowledge of other eras….

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