The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Published by Random House
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction
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The Dreamers opens with one of the greatest sources of angst for college girls—dorm life. Mei’s roommate, Kara, is wildly popular after only a month at school, while Mei cannot find her way into any social group. She’s left on the sidelines until it is Kara who slips away, by falling asleep one night…and not waking up. It’s nothing so nefarious as death, it’s just sleep. Soon enough, more girls in the dorm fall asleep and don’t wake, leaving school officials perplexed. From this vaguely concerning beginning, author Karen Thompson Walker lulls the reader into a scenario that is as troubling for its mystery as it is for its implications.
What is first a highly isolated incident in one dorm at one college soon starts enveloping a small California town. Doctors and scientists descend and with no known cause, theories abound. Paranoia soon follows and the government intervenes, quarantining the entire city. A city now filled with conscious people who can’t leave and unconscious people with increasing medical needs. Walker follows both, picking characters with lives as disparate as two little girls whose doomsday-prepping father succumbs to the virus to a botany professor to an heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. And what is known about the sleepers? Little, except that they are dreaming. Intensely dreaming.
It’s at this point, I’m reminded of two Stephen King novels: The Dome and, more recently, Sleeping Beauties. In the first, a town is suddenly cut off from the world by an invisible dome and, in the second, women start falling asleep around the world. The difference is that King is the master of taking bad situations to their worst possible conclusion while Walker opts for more subtlety. The Dreamers is not a horror story. There are no mutants or gore. There is only the increasing unease as everyday life becomes precarious, uncertain. The countless things we don’t have to think about, until we do, because they go very wrong. In this space, Walker resembles King as she lasers in on human nature when normal life disappears.
Walker uses the title of The Dreamers to great effect. The novel itself feels dreamy, with a slower pace and otherworldly quality. And, just like a dream, when it ended I was wasn’t quite sure what it was about. Which isn’t necessarily bad, because it means food for thought and takes the novel beyond straight up science fiction. At best, my sense is that Walker is toying with the idea of consciousness and if, in fact, the world we’re each in now is a dream. Are we actually sleeping and upon awaking will believe that our dreams were real? What then?