It starts with a college student who comes home exhausted from a party and falls asleep, only to never wake up. She doesn’t die; she just does not wake up. This unidentified sleeping sickness spreads through the quarantined student residence in Santa Lora, a small college town in California, before it spreads further out from the students on campus and reaches others in town. There is no sudden catalyst for this sickness, or at least, none that can be found or understood. People simply go to sleep deeply and stay that way. If this is the apocalypse, it’s a quiet, subversive sort.
Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers follows her bestselling debut novel The Age of Miracles, which was about a young girl growing up in the face of the changes and challenges brought about by a change in the earth’s rotation and its effects on everything — from gravity to human behaviour, moods, tides and cosmic rhythms. The Dreamers features a larger cast of characters, though with equal introspection into their emotional lives. There are the college students who somehow don’t fall sick even though they spend much time in direct contact with the infected sleepers; the young parents who are terrified they will fall asleep and leave their newborn baby entirely alone; the daughters of a survivalist father who has prepped them for all sorts of disasters except this unimaginable one; the doctor attempting to understand the sleeping sickness who is quarantined in Santa Lora, away from her young son; and the shy, reticent roommate of the first girl who fell asleep. Walker delves into the hearts and minds of each character, exploring their hopes and dreams and fears when faced with this strange crisis. It’s not your standard post-apocalyptic scenario, nor is it a disaster story or a medical thriller. It’s a quiet, intimate and deeply introspective narrative. It’s romantic, in many ways, and sentimental and sweet — like most of its characters.
Walker’s cast really is just full of nice people. All the ones we spend time with are essentially good folk. If there is adversity, it comes in the form of the sickness, not other people. Which leads to the question: where are the hideous, terrible people who would take advantage of the sleepers, the dreamers, or of the homes they leave behind? Where is the anarchy, the violent chaos, the stealing, lying, cheating, murderous instincts that aren’t paranoias, but essentially human? There’s a little bit of the negative present, of course, but much of it is merely hinted at. Even the hungry lost dogs wandering the streets without their owners are approachable and toddle off easily with a pair of tween girls with absolutely no aggression.
A strange sickness spreads through the land in a languorous, well-crafted novel about love and loss, fear and endurance, but also about our ability to remain true and kind to each other
In an interview with the website Jezebel, Walker said that the degree of bad behaviour that takes place in post-apocalyptic stories is unbelievable to her, because in her experience of humanity, most people do not really want to do the wrong thing and that passive aggressiveness or pettiness would be the more commonly found faults, rather than straight up cruelty or violence. That’s a lovely sentiment and experience, but it doesn’t make for very good dramatic or arresting reading when everyone is just ‘nice’ and there isn’t much conflict. Meanwhile, “the afflicted go on sleeping a deep and steady sleep, their bodies now fed by plastic tubes taped into their noses, their skin kept clean by the gloved hands of strangers.”
As we follow Walker’s nice characters about their survival, we explore what this sickness may be and if it has been seen before, because “there are some who will tell you that this sickness is not entirely new, that its cousins sometimes visited ours. In certain letters from earlier centuries, you may find the occasional reference — decades apart — to a strange kind of slumber, a mysterious, persistent sleep.” But what has caused it? And why, of all places, in this small town that isn’t special in any way?
At first, they blame the air. It’s an old idea, a poison in the ether, a danger carried in by the wind. A strange haze is seen drifting through town on that first night, the night the trouble begins. It arrives like weather, or like smoke, some say later, but no one can locate any fire. Some blame the drought, which has been bleeding away the lake for years, and browning the air with dust. Whatever this is, it comes over them quietly: a sudden drowsiness, a closing of the eyes. Most of the victims are found in their beds. — Excerpt from the book
“The idea still sometimes surfaces in certain superstitious minds. Whenever a teenager drowns in the lake or a hiker goes missing the woods, some in Santa Lora wonder if this is a land designed for catastrophe. What if misfortune can be drawn to a place, like lightening to a rod?” There are no answers; only more questions that arise and the doctors who remain awake investigate the strangely active brains of the sleeping population. It seems that all those who fall asleep are found to be dreaming, and heavily: “there is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain — awake or asleep.” What are their brains doing? What are their dreams telling them? “The eyelids flutter. The breathing is irregular. The muscle tone is visibly slack. With each new patient,” the doctor notes, there are “signs that sleepers might be dreaming. What weird cases.”
Weird indeed, but not weird enough to damage the prettiness of Walker’s language. The Dreamers is written in languid, hypnotic prose to match its subject matter all the better. Walker turns a pretty phrase often, describing people staying away from those in need, acting in an “unkindness of fear.” She explains how the sleeping sickness moves from one person to another, “how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.” It makes for a languorous, aesthetic read, a story about love and loss, fear and endurance, but also about our ability to remain true and kind to each other even when we are unable to control what the future holds, even when the future may break us: “the only way to tell some stories is with the oldest, most familiar words: this here, this is the breaking of a heart.”
The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com
By Karen Thompson Walker
Random House, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 25th, 2019