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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Caitlin R. Kiernan: "Agents of Dreamland"

Author:  Caitlin R. Kiernan
Series:  "Agents of Dreamland"
Plot Type:  Lovecraftian Horror Novella 
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality1; Humor—1  
Publisher and Titles:  Tor

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                    
     A government special agent known only as the Signalman gets off a train on a stunningly hot morning in Winslow, Arizona. Later that day he meets a woman in a diner to exchange information about an event that happened a week earlier for which neither has an explanation, but which haunts the Signalman.

     In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible―the Children of the Next Level―and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in.

     A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA's interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact.

     And a woman floating outside of time looks to the future and the past for answers to what can save humanity.
                    MY REVIEW                      
    I came to this haunting novella with no history with the writings of either Kiernan or H.P. Lovecraft, but even so, I have to say that I fell right into this compelling story. Obviously, if I had more of a background in Lovecraftian fiction, I would have felt a deeper connection. As it stands, I fear that I cannot write a review that truly does justice to this terrific book. 

     Therefore, I am going to do something that I have never done before: I am going to send you off to two other reviewers, both of whom have a better grasp on the writings of both Kiernan and Lovecraft. HERE to read Barry Lee Dejasu's masterful review in the New York Journal of Books. Click HERE to read N.K. Jemisin's succinct review, which appeared in the New York Times Book Review in an article entitled "The Best of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy." (It is the third review, midway down the page.)

     I do want to point out a few elements of narrative structure, which may take you a moment or two of adjustment as you read the novella. Dejasu compares the story to a jigsaw puzzle, and that's an apt metaphor becausechapter by chapterKiernan hands us pieces of the current action, brief references to essential historical information, and glimpses of the personal quirks of the three main characters. At first the story has an uneasy impressionistic feel, but as we begin to put together Kiernan's puzzle pieces, the horrific "big picture" emerges from the dark and haunting details. 

     The novella is closely tied to the real-life New Horizons space probe and to Lovecraft's short story, "The Whisperer in Darkness." Click HERE to read more about NASA's New Horizons flight to Pluto. Click HERE for the full text of Lovecraft's story.

     Speaking of Pluto, I agree completely with Dejasu's final analysis: "Agents of Dreamland" is an exquisitely haunting read, full of mesmerizing prose, unsettling images, and profoundly disturbing implications. And after reading this novella, one may never view that dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system the same way again."

     Even with my lack of depth with Kiernan and Lovecraft, I truly enjoyed this novella. Kiernan's ability to create a complete mythology and three fully developed characters in just 123 pages is proof of her mastery of her craft. As I read along, with a gradually dawning realization of the terror that will soon be faced by the people in this world, I couldn't help but think of The X-Files' Mulder and Skully, who also learned the hard way about the dangers of poking around in the mysteries of our solar system. In the end, Dejasu puts it best when he says that Kiernan's "scenes hint at the carnivorous cosmic doom that is slowly encroaching upon our world, and make for some of the darkest and most disturbing imagery this side of a post-apocalyptic tale." 

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