Monday, July 28, 2014

A Trace of Dreams by Gordon Eklund

False advertising!
One of the criticisms of the free market you'll hear sometimes from the lefties is that it provides too many choices.  When you go to the supermarket and you find a dozen kinds of peanut butter, maybe instead of being happy that you have the opportunity to select a type of peanut butter that suits your own personal budgetary, taste, health and ideological requirements, you get all confused and even depressed because you can't figure out which one to buy.  And when you are back home you can't enjoy your peanut butter and jelly sandwich because you are haunted by the suspicion that one of the other peanut butters would have been better than the one you are eating.

(UPDATE MAY 27 2015: I got some pushback in the comments regarding the idea that "lefties" are hostile to consumers having lots of choices.  So I felt vindicated this week when socialist Bernie Sanders sounded off, claiming there is something wrong with our society because there are over a dozen kinds of deodorant and sneakers on the market.)

This seems like a pretty lame argument for putting the means of production in the hands of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but I am sometimes reminded of it when I'm in my study, looking at my bookshelves and the pile of library books on the floor.  What should I read next?  Like in that Portishead song, I'm always so unsure.  So, I am likely to grasp at any outside influence that might provide me direction, and last week when Joachim Boaz reminded us via twitter of Gordon Eklund's birthday, I seized upon A Trace of Dreams, Ace 82070, which I purchased earlier this year for 75 cents.

A Trace of Dreams, published in 1972, has an interesting cover painting depicting a commando raid in a city of skyscrapers, and a charming frontispiece by Jack Gaughan.  (These illustrations have nothing whatsoever to do with the story.)  The novel is 256 pages long, and should win some kind of award because the very first word of the text includes a typographical error.  I wondered if this was a black omen, like when Ovid's maid stubbed her toe on the doorstep; were the Parcae warning me this book was going to be terrible?  I wasn't exactly crazy about Eklund's story in Quark/3, so my hopes were not high.

Publication page and page 5 of my copy
A Trace of Dreams is mostly a first person narrative, the reminiscences of Mathew, a man who was an officer in a sort of guerilla band on the planet Meridian.  There is a framing device; we are in fact hearing Mathew's grandson telling us the story as it was related to him in parts over a period of years.  These layers between the actual story and the reader encourage skepticism of the reliability of the story, as do Mathew's admissions that he has left some things out and admonishments to his audience that we should figure the story's mysteries out on our own.

Meridian was one of the earliest planets colonized by humans, and is home to the Greens, three-eyed natives who at first appear to be quite unsophisticated.  (They live in huts and are believed to have IQs of around 30.)  Many Greens work for the humans as laborers and mercenary soldiers.  The government of Meridian, known as the Republic, was overthrown, and a ruthless group called The Triad took over.  Opponents of the Triad took to the hills and forests to form bands of freedom fighters.  One such band was lead by James Black, a man known as "The Dark Star."  (Here I will warn prospective readers that, despite what it says on the book's cover, Black does not in fact lead his followers to Earth, and Earth is in fact not in ruins.)  In a few years the Triad collapsed and the Republic returned, but Black and his little band decided to stay in the woods and continue their guerrilla war against the government.  When the band is five years old Mathew, a teenage immigrant from Earth, joins them, becoming an officer after a few years.

Eklund doesn't portray Black's band (which is known as the Apostles of the Dark Star and numbers fewer than one hundred people) in a very flattering manner; the book feels like a debunking of violent revolutionary movements.  The band murders people in cold blood and piles up their bones into a weird sort of monument.  They conduct raids on farms and towns nearby in order to steal food and kidnap women, but don't do much to depose the Republic.  Eklund doesn't portray the Republic as being particularly oppressive, nor the guerrillas as being particularly ideological, so the Apostles come off as just a bunch of bandits.  As the ad copy on the back of the book points out, the guerrilla war is little more than a game.  Not only is it normal for television crews to come to the guerrilla camp to film celebrations and accompany the freedom fighters on raids, but we are repeatedly reminded that the Republic could easily wipe out the Apostles, but choose not to do so.

Mathew and James Black seem to enjoy living in the woods in tents year after year, living off the food grown and processed by the people they pretend they are trying to liberate, but then a woman, Quentin, comes to the camp and shakes everything up.  She seduces Black, and, on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Apostles, Black announces that they are launching a major offensive.  With the apparent collusion of the government, the Apostles take over a farm and factory complex, and start running it, selling the food and making a tidy profit.  Mathew runs a work gang, while Black wears fancy clothes and sits in a fancy office.

Quentin isn't the only female in the novel who manipulates men and stirs things up.  Mathew's girlfriend, Loyola, believes Quentin has "destroyed" the Apostles by getting them out of the woods, and she urges Mathew to murder Quentin.  When their assassination plot fails, Loyola and Mathew flee in an aircar, but because Mathew is an inexperienced pilot they crash right in the middle of the woods of the Greens.

The Greens are revealed to be a superior race.  They heal Mathew and Loyola's wounds in a mysterious way, are found to have the ability to shape shift, and employ teleportation machines.  Mathew and Loyola also observe their strange sex practices and longevity treatments.  In the final pages of the book it is revealed that the Greens were created by an ancient master race, as was Quentin.  Quentin is a kind of organic robot which the Greens can shut off and on, and use to investigate, or create mischief for, the humans.  Mathew becomes determined to search the galaxy for further evidence of this ancient super race, which may still live out there somewhere, and may have also created humankind.  The Republic orders all humans to leave Meridian; Mathew isn't sure why, but suspects the Greens have revealed their power to the government and issued an ultimatum.

A Trace of Dreams is long and dull.  The plot moves slowly, and usually I had no idea why people were doing what they were doing, and usually I didn't care what happened.  None of the characters or political or racial groups are interesting or compelling; most of them are ciphers whose motivations are difficult to understand.  (It is possible that the Greens are manipulating everybody with their hinted at psychic powers.)  Because we know the war is a joke, and Eklund doesn't present much reason why we should hope one side or the other wins, the war generates no tension or interest.  The relationships between the Greens and Quentin, and between the Greens and humans, which have the potential to be exciting, are barely sketched out.  Similarly, Mathew's relationships with James Black and Loyola, and with some other characters I haven't mentioned (a college professor who is the Apostles' intellectual leader, and an alien from another planet with odd powers, including the power to get drunk without drinking), could have generated interest, but instead they just kind of sit there.

Eklund's project in A Trace of Dreams seems to be to suggest that the universe is inexplicable and things happen because we are being manipulated by powers that are evil or simply indifferent, and perhaps to argue that war and politics are a scam.  Such themes could have an emotional impact on the reader, but Eklund fails to inspire any feeling.  

There are a few surprising and memorable scenes.  Like Marcel in Swann's Way, Mathew looks through a window and witnesses a disturbing sex act which demonstrates that humans and Greens can interbreed.  Halfway through the novel we learn that people born on Earth are raised by computers, and never know their biological parents; they spend six years in vats, taught to speak and walk through wires connected to their brains.  Because of overpopulation on Earth, the computers condition their charges to find sex and children repellent.  Also memorable is the scene in which, as part of his initiation into the Apostles, Mathew has to execute his "brother," a boy from the same vat, with a pistol; his bones are added to the macabre monument.  These good scenes make me suspect that A Trace of Dreams could have been a good book if it was 156 instead of 256 pages, it had fewer characters, and it devoted more time to Mathew's relationships with characters like James Black and Quentin.  

I can't blame Eklund for them, but, as the omen on page 5 warned me, the book does have lots of typographical errors, as well as one of those printing errors in which a few lines are accidentally repeated.  Also, Eklund's editor should have told him that "revolver" isn't a synonym for "pistol," especially if the pistol has a "clip," a "safety" and ejects spent cartridges while firing.

A Trace of Dreams isn't a total disaster, but it has way too many problems for me to recommend it.  Marginal thumbs down.


  1. I've never heard a lefty argue that having too many choices was a bad thing.

    1. Check out Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice and The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life.

      An article by Benjamin Scheibehenne, Rainer Greifeneder, and Peter M. Todd in Journal of Consumer Research (Volume 37, Number 3) includes citations of people who argue too many choices causes people problems.

      When I say"lefties" I refer to people I have met in the flesh; I don't doubt that there are also Christians and conservatives who believe the "choice overload hypothesis."

  2. For $14, I'll take your word for it. I didn't see anything on the sample page that specified the subjects' political bents though.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I've updated the post to include a link to Bernie Sanders, U.S. socialist politician, suggesting that American consumers have too many choices in the pharmacy aisle and at the shoe store:

      I deleted my comment above because of an embarrassing typo.

  3. I've gone sadly missing from your blog for a time, but came back just in time for a typically hilarious intro and segue. (I am a proud leftie who happens to enjoy choice, tho my wife invariably yells at me when I spend too long in front of the CD shelf, trying to pick what to listen to next, but I still laughed at your description.)
    Also, excited to hear that nobody follows Dark Star to any sort of (non)ruined Earth. Ad copy at its finest.

    1. Welcome back!

      The ad copy on SF books is often misleading, but I thought this one particularly egregious. Imagine what Eklund himself thought when he first saw the cover.