Book: "The Dream God" by Brendan M.P. Heard
Review by Jim Bonner
On Neptune, nine characters deliberate around a large table; their entourages standing near and behind them. A figure rises: adorned in green robes, bald, and wearing a black breathing-mask. He produces a golden skull that contains the brain of a dolphin which has had the consciousness of a scientist grafted into it. That consciousness speaks, telling everyone how it has come into contact with a green smoke of spores, granting it access to premonitions and perhaps even contact with a deity – the Godstream. Shortly after, an explosion erupts in the room and chaos ensues as people are cut down or dissipate into the air.
This is how The Dream God by Brendan M. P. Heard culminates and capitalizes on the torquing tension of its first half. In the same way that Philip K. Dick asserted that ‘THE EMPIRE NEVER ENDED’, Heard asks quite literally “what if the Roman Empire never ended” and projects a truly ‘eternal’ Rome into the realm of space-opera pulp: full of diabolical villains, brow-furrowed heroes, and fights between them in imaginative set-pieces. The book is a brisk 238 pages of incredibly unique story-telling, which is ultimately divided into four distinct ‘quarters.’
The first quarter begins with a cultic ceremony involving the priest Pseudo-Zethes, whose presence throughout the book is of an ethereally mysterious but palpable impetus for every character’s evolution. In the ceremony, Pseudo-Zethes is struck by a powerful vision while levitating in the green smoke of the Godstream. Then, at the zenith of his vision, he disappears. A council is called from all corners of the Solar System to deliberate on the matter. Many different interests and personalities are brought together to Neptune, and we learn that Rome is the Solar System’s supreme authority, allowing smaller powers (such as Maiores Germania on Mars, Egyptians on Neptune, and the slinking Ashur antagonists) to operate their own limited sovereignty – parallel to the Rome of history.
As a representative of the Roman Empire, Tribunus Oedimon is requested to attend the council, and with him: Auric – his body-guard, cousin, and the story’s protagonist. As the two Roman delegates arrive, they are greeted by the Prince of Neptune, Euergetes, a clone of his father, Ptolemeus Rex. In the seventh chapter, Ptolemeus shows the two Romans a hidden chamber containing the Godstream. Though I was ambivalent to the story up to this point on my first read-through, I found the philosophizing of the characters about the mysterious green smoke of psychotropic spores that had originated from deep space very stimulating. One passage in particular stood out regarding personal adaptation to the Godstream:
“You do not get to summon powers at will. It is more like your mind adapts to the hidden plane that exists atop our tangible one. Upon this hidden plane the gods themselves move. [. . .] They cause currents in meta-reality. When the spores grant you the gift of sight, you can guess and predict and even reach into the streams of power they create [. . .]”
With the different envoys congregating into a council, political intrigue and questions of operational security slowly creep from the periphery of Auric’s awareness into his direct and concentrated focus.
The second quarter of The Dream God is difficult to describe in stimulating terms. In a straight-forward sense, it involves nine ‘speakers’ all giving their views on the Godstream and the disappearance of Pseudo-Zethes – what happened, why it happened, what can be done. But in a deeper sense, this quarter of the book capitalizes on the characters and the situation that the first quarter had developed, using the presuppositions of a council (mundane deliberation around a table) as the stage of an intense political threat to everyone involved.
This section of the narrative reminded me of the ‘gathering sequence’ in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, where a group of people who control the world are introduced and brought to meet together before setting-out to steal the secret to immortality. Here, however, the gathering merges with the tone of the White Council of Elrond from The Lord of the Rings, where many different interests deliberate on a proper response to the core question.
Each of the nine speakers is given a full chapter to state their case. Those from Ashur and those they have paid-off condemn the Godstream as a dangerous sacrilege. Others, like Thoth-Azoth, describe it as a possible source of singularity that could propel humanity beyond the Solar System. As Oedimon states on the matter: “paradox is built into reality;” he sees the Godstream as a means to the end of exploration and advancement of human excellence. The second quarter ends with the end of their deliberations and great uncertainty.
Though the first chapter of the ‘third quarter’ (chapter nineteen) very concisely and elegantly showcases the nuance of Prince Euergetes’ self-appointed ascension to kinghood and the political intrigue of the figures in his court, I found each subsequent chapter from that point to be more-and-more disconnected from the original conflict of the narrative: the Godstream. The story becomes more concerned with bouncing an ever-increasing cast of characters between locations while transporting Thoth-Azoth to the Bibliotheca. This disoriented me on my first read because the centrality of the Godstream mystery goes from all-consuming in the first half to something hardly considered. The pulp action-adventure side overshadows what had been the core of the narrative.
On top of that, I did not fully understand why or how Thoth-Azoth was so vital to the Bibliotheca mission – it seems something taken-for-granted as important rather than explained to any significant degree. Likewise, I was also mildly confused that characters in the Bibliotheca who were introduced in the third chapter had been killed ‘off-screen’ before the main characters arrive, making the consequence of their early introduction practically moot.
Those grievances aside, there were two sections in particular I greatly enjoyed from the second half. The first involved cutting-away to Deimos the gladiator’s exploits as Auric attempts to escape a colosseum. The second was the heavily psychedelic and surreal dream-life of Oedimon as recounted by his ghost(?) while Auric and one of Uzul-Tymon’s servant girls float nude in their space-ship’s transparent bubble-pod. Both were highly enjoyable scenes that highlighted the scope of the narrative.
One unwarranted complaint I can see readers raise involves the fact that Rome and other ancient civilizations have been transplanted directly from the past into the future without any explanation. I can hear many saying that this is ‘lazy world building’, but in practice it is actually very refreshing to take a pure flight-of-fancy without any thoroughly-explained rationale. Justification is simply not needed to enjoy the story, and it would likely detract and distract from it.
Another unwarranted potential complaint is that, similarly to how many readers unacquainted with sci-fi can take the unique terminology as indulgent, I think many will likewise take the constant use of ancient names and references to be superfluous and more for the author than the reader. However, I disagree with these superficial and hypothetical complaints. By naming characters similarly to their ancient equivalents (Oedimon is Roman, Ptolemeus is Egyptian, Nenwef is Assyrian, etc.) the author not only has access to a cultural and aesthetic shorthand for who or what is being discussed, but also – to a certain extent – allows us to better visualize the many conflicting and complementary aspects of ancient personalities, creeds, and loyalties. So all at once, we are given: worldbuilding, character alignment, and a picture into the past.
Lastly, I want to touch-upon the singularity concept that The Dream God presents. The book has many similarities to Dune by Frank Herbert, but one underpinned thematic similarity is the insignificance of technology to human potential. Though the information-dissemination processes of the Bibliotheca is a major element to the plot, this is a story that could hypothetically happen in any time or setting. So it comes naturally in this thematic context that the idea of a singularity would not originate from technology but biology.
I believe talk of the singularity – that is: of a rapid and irreversible evolution in human civilization – does not occur often enough in our circles. This is because at the current trajectory of civilization, we will reach a singularity-event in our lifetime. For the author to unite this concept with the constantly-invoked image of Rome’s grandeur shows a keen understanding of our priorities and distractions. Put simply: the world is changing, and the vast majority of people on this planet are not equipped for the changes that a true singularity-event would usher into being. All human history up to that point becomes a preface and the strategies of prior cycles ripple into obsolescence. A new kind of person would emerge from these selection pressures: an ‘updated’ biology, like the kind that Thoth-Azoth and his ‘keeper’, Auric, represent. Brendan M. P. Heard presents a singularity that is distinctly different than our current technocrats imagine – what if the singularity was benevolent? . . . Something to seriously consider.
The Dream God does not have shocking twists-and-turns. It does not have an unexpected ending. What it offers instead is a very unique and often thought-provoking world – a vision of creativity. It offers much of what the Godstream itself does: a window into a dream. A glance at a world where the empire never ended.