"She said, 'What is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?'
Yes, he decided, he had guessed correctly.
He replied without hesitation: 'The sinking of Atlantis.'
'I was serious.'
'So was I.'"
Poor Charles Render. Witty, intelligent, good with the ladies, nigh-on all powerful and somewhat smug, he's your typical Zelazny protagonist. But while Sam from 'Lord Of Light' or Prince Corwin from 'The Chronicles Of Amber' face their fair share of sticky situations, they unflappably come out on top. However, Render is stuck in 'The Dream Master', in which Zelazny deconstructs his go-to lead character. Suffice to say it ends particularly badly for him.
Render is a neuroparticipant therapist who, thanks to the technological innovation of the Omnichannel Neural T & R Unit, treats patients by directly entering and manipulating their dreams.
|It goes over your head like so.|
In the course of his work, Render agrees to treat an ambitious young blind woman, Eileen Shallot. Shallot herself is a psychiatrist who longs to go into neuroparticipant therapy like Render, but is not allowed to do so for fears that, when she experiences sight through her patient's nervous system, she will not be able to achieve the necessary emotional distance required to retain control of the dream. Against the advice of his colleagues and his family, he agrees to help her. Unfortunately for him, Shallot is also completely insane, and eventually wrests control away from Render and traps him within her own dreamworld.
Despite its short length, 'The Dream Master' does a number of things incredibly well. Firstly, the world building is very impressive, and is done largely through dialogue and context-setting scenes rather than by clunky exposition. Zelazny's style is always clear, engaging and slangy, but it's really quite impressive how much detail he is able to impart about the world in this story just through the characters' conversations and actions. As with 'Lord Of Light', the narrative is coloured heavily by allusions to myths and legends. This is something that naturally makes sense here, as the characters are frequently exploring the human psyche. Mythological archetypes stand for various aspects of the human character, which is where much of their resonance comes from, and having the plot involve dreams provides a very natural way for Zelazny to incorporate some of his favourite themes.
But what makes all of this truly compelling is Render's fall from grace. Zelazny's protagonists always had a tendency towards the self-satisfied, so it's both fitting and necessary that he explore what happens when this goes too far. Render's hubris is his downfall, but when your job involves creating and destroying imaginary worlds, pride is a natural pitfall. Throughout the book, Render likens himself to a god numerous times, usually in a faintly ironic way but it's clear to see underneath it all he kind of believes in his own hype. He genuinely believes that there is nothing that he will not be able to handle, and initially it looks like everything is firmly under his control. Dr Shallot is introduced as someone who is ambitious, intelligent and engaging. She's admirable, and her plight is sympathetic. The initial scenes of Render helping her to experience a sense she's never experienced before, and the sense of wonder as her perception of the world changes, is a playing out of the conceptual breakthrough central to so much of SF. It is only as we witness more of her sessions with Render that the full extent of her insanity is gradually revealed. At the same time, the more we get to know Render himself the more we are able to see his own flaws, the ones that he is too self-satisfied to see, let alone acknowledge. This all comes together incredibly elegantly in the end. Render winds up trapped inside Shallot's dream, with pieces of him gradually being violently destroyed. Having shown us the glorious, flowering vistas of the imagination, the novel finishes on a note of nightmarish horror.