Dream London by Tony Ballantyne
Antihero (n): Protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, such as nobility of mind or spirit.
Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London opens with a stunner of a first chapter. Captain Jim Wedderburn awakens in his room to find two fiery salamanders munching on a green beetle the size of a dinner plate. It only gets stranger from there, as he confronts a business rival (Wedderburn is a pimp); bumps into his old girlfriend who hands him a scroll with his fortune on it; and meets a stranger who offers him a job. The first line on the fortune scroll reads, “You will meet a stranger…”
Captain Jim, who also goes by “James,” lives in Dream London. Original, mundane London has changed. Different dimensions now intrude into the city’s reality. Buildings disappear, train tracks and rivers shift, entire neighborhoods change. Whatever is causing the strangeness affects humans, too, and it is getting worse.
Unfortunately, after a compelling opening, Dream London becomes derivative. If you’ve read Neil Gaiman, Simon R. Green, China Miéville or even Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch, everything in Dream London will seem familiar. Some sections are intriguing, like the Egg Market, but overall, when Ballantyne tries to come up with the weird, it seems like he’s just trying too hard. The Daddio, a criminal kingpin, is apparently a sentient swamp, but we never see it, just its grotesque agents. When James accepts an assignment from the elusive Cartel to infiltrate Angel Tower, which seems to control much of the dimensional invasion, Ballantyne gives us the strangest and most chilling scene in the book, on the Floor of Numbers, where James systematically “creates” a numerical system with no primes.
“I didn’t want to look at the page again. I didn’t want to see the numbers, to feel more of my head being rewritten in the language of Dream London, but I couldn’t help it. My eyes were drawn back to the sheet.
“3 was red times two. I knew it. I had always known it…”
The idea that some entity from another dimension is actually changing laws of mathematics and physics is scary, but it isn’t used again in the book. This chilling idea, that the very underpinning of our universe is being changed, actually works against the ending, because the ending involves music, and music is mathematical. This is a wasted opportunity, and not the only one.
Ballantyne is trying to create a rousing action adventure novel in the style of the New Weird, with a classical antihero, while sharing cutting social commentary. For me this created a book riddled with problems.
I had trouble with the first person narrator, because I couldn’t understand him. I did, dimly, grasp that he is both “James” and Captain Jim Wedderburn, who is something of a persona encouraged by Dream London. The architects of the dimensional intrusion want humans to be selfish and individualistic so that they will not band together and fight this invasion. This means that Captain Jim can be a man who cares only for himself, who profits by the appetites of others; or he can be a Hero, which is still a self-centered man who does not work with others. A lone Hero, we are told, will fail any attempt to hold back the dimensional incursion. James/Captain Jim tries to blame his behavior on Dream London.
“Well done, Captain. You make a great bully! Mr Hellebore was quite terrified.”
“I’m not a bully,” I said. “I was just playing the part Dream London gave me.”
Even the other characters in the book don’t accept this excuse. A woman in the story takes James, chapter and verse, through his sins and rationalizations about being a pimp. James gives his women a drug called “candy” that induces a weird kind of empathy. Thus, when the man who had paid to have sex with them is enjoying himself, they feel his pleasure and it becomes theirs. If he loathes women, they absorb his loathing and turn it into self-loathing. James sees that this is wrong, but still rationalizes it away, saying that this is life in Dream London.
The other problem is that Captain Jim really isn’t a very competent badass. For example, in the first chapter he gets the scroll that tells his fortune. He is in a world that works on magical rules and he has solid evidence that the scroll does foretell the future. Does he read the scroll? Not until close to the end of the book. Why? Oh, because he keeps getting distracted, or something… or perhaps he’s just not very smart. Later in the book, Captain Jim leaves a train and gets on another train, even though he knows he shouldn’t, because it’s required by the plot.
The sexual politics of the book disturbed me. We learn that Captain Jim is a pimp on the first page of the book. In “the executive dining room,” of Angel Tower, we see women of all skin colors and sizes wearing bustiers and garter belts, and James describes this as “obscene.” The waitresses behave like nannies in Victoria’s Secret get-up (“No pudding for you if you don’t eat your veg!”), and Alan, James’s contact in the Cartel, who is gay, begins to act like a groping, ham-handed heterosexual oaf. Presumably, again, this is all the impact of Dream London. Are the women objectified? Are they in control? Objectified and in control? I certainly can’t tell. I’m also not sure what a man who makes his living selling women considers “obscene.” The women’s clothes are (barely) within the bounds of decency; is it the costumes? Is it the different body types and skin color? Clearly this scene is meant to lampoon a particular, conflicting male fantasy; a woman who is a racy sex-object and a nursemaid at the same time. But what has that got to do with Dream London, or anything else?
This leads to Ballantyne’s worst writing choice, a sort of sexually-sadistic Schrödinger’s Cat scene. Captain Jim has run afoul of the Daddio and it has sent one of its minions after Jim. The minion is Honey Peppers. Honey is six-and-a-half, a golden-haired moppet with a flair for sexual vulgarity that is quite inventive. The notion of this cute little girl spewing scatological and sexual insults is funny at first. When she captures Jim, to punish him for consorting with the Cartel, Honey arranges to have him sexually assaulted by mandrills, in a cage, in front of an audience. This sounds horrifying. James admits to us that it is the humiliation he fears more than the physical violation. The chapter ends with Honey saying, “Throw him in the cage.” The next chapter begins with, “Don’t believe the lies you might have heard about me ending up in that cage.”
Some might worry that my discussion of this sequence is a spoiler. I don’t see how it can be; I don’t know what happened (although there are clues). James says he managed to talk his way out of it, but, “I’ll skip how I did it though. You’ll want to get on with the action.”
Because there are strong women in this book, who control their own destinies and often drive the plot, I am left baffled by the whole prostitution thing and the main character’s rape/non-rape by aggressive primates. I think Ballantyne sees himself as a feminist, using the book to expose society’s encouragement of women’s self-hatred (the candy drug is cheerily red-and-white striped, and it is called “candy”); and confronting his main character at each turn for his bad-ness in running a stable of prostitutes.
Similarly, Ballantyne may be trying to address rape culture with the mandrills. Captain Jim’s ordeal, whatever it really was, is a kind of comeuppance, or, again, it would be, if that ever played out through the rest of the book. It does not. Captain Jim escapes a terrifying kind of torture, or he doesn’t, and we don’t know. If, rather than escaping it, he survives it, it makes no difference in his life. If it makes no difference, why have the scene?
Ballantyne remains true to the philosophical premise of the book, that James can’t be a hero, by benching him close to the end. That worked for me because it had been adequately foreshadowed. James gets something in the nature of a happy ending. Still, my main emotion at the end of the book was disappointment. If James has much character growth, I missed it. The world of Dream London wasn’t weird enough, and sex is used only as a weapon.
Ballantyne can write. Several of the characters, especially Mr. Monaghan, were well drawn and captivating. I simply wish this book had lived up the promise of Chapter One.
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