Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Thirty-nine thousand feet above the North Atlantic, Immacolata Sexton surfs the oily waves and troughs of Then, and Now, and What Will Be. The steel thrum of the Gulfstream G280’s turbofan engines are the best lullaby she has ever known, and she’s just about heard them all. Though her eyes may well be open, and though she may respond when the flight attendant speaks to her, her present cognitive state in no way resembles wakefulness. The plane races towards England at Mach 0.80, while the consciousness imprisoned in her living corpse knows no meaningful speed limits and travels in all directions simultaneously. She is the perfect voyager day-tripping an ever-expanding continuum of space and time without ever leaving her seat. She’s a quantum-foam tourist, unanchored, unfettered, and her hajj has neither a beginning nor an end. Numbers are for squares.”
H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer In Darkness’ (1931) is one of his most accomplished tales, effortlessly merging the feel and atmosphere of Horror with ideas and tropes from Science Fiction in the tale of the fungoid alien Mi-go invading the hills of Vermont. Lovecraft merges then-contemporary scientific advances such as the discovery of Pluto into his story, and so achieves an almost perfect iteration of his recurring theme of the insignificance of humanity in the face of our growing understanding of the vast indifference of the cosmos. It also beautifully encapsulates the sense of awe that Horror can sometimes generate, the dark allure of alien knowledge unfathomable to human minds and the ensuing sense of vertigo. The story ends with a trope much imitated in modern SF stories: the government agents sweep in to exterminate the alien invaders and dispose of all the evidence to keep the incident under wraps.
Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novella Agents Of Dreamland (2017) builds on ‘The Whisperer In Darkness’, telling the story of a follow-up Mi-go invasion from the point of view of the government agents tasked with responding to the extraterrestrial threat. Kiernan brings the paranoia of ‘Whisperer…’ kicking and screaming into the 21st century, updating the original with references to Area 51 and doomsday cults. This brings the story an urgency and immediacy, even as it neatly links it up to the original. However by focusing on the government agents themselves, and revealing to the reader how little of the big picture they are able to comprehend and how little control they have over the events they are faced with, Kiernan freshly brings home Lovecraft’s original point about the unknowability of the universe and our human frustration at not being able to understand all the answers.
Agents Of Dreamland follows the Signalman, the US government’s man on the ground who meets to exchange information with Immacolata Sexton, a mysterious women unbound by space and time who is working with the British government. The Signalman is looking for cult leader Drew Standish, having witnessed the grisly aftermath of the transcendence he promises. As the Signalman tries to forget the horrors he has seen, Immacolata travels through time and space to understand what is happening and how it is likened to events in the Vermont hills in 1927, and the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory loses contact with the New Horizons probe as it makes contact with something outside of Pluto’s orbit.
One can only assume that Lovecraft would have approved of Kiernan’s merging of science fact and grotesque horror. Her description of the Mi-go spores name checks Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the ant zombie fungus, even as her descriptions of it approach a poetic body horror surrealism, David Cronenberg by way of Jeff VanderMeer. Her descriptions of the Mi-go’s outpost planet beyond the edge of our solar system and the gaps between the stars owes as much to modern astronomy as to Sword and Sorcery. The novella is fuelled by the same fascination with the scale of the universe, the sheer vastness of the distances and times involved, and the comparative insignificance of humanity, that fuelled Lovecraft’s original writings.
However Kiernan’s prose could not be more different than Lovecraft’s. While Lovecraft’s distinctive voice comes from his faux-archaisms, the adjectival overload that characterises his descriptions and a distanced, documentarian approach to the narrative, Kiernan manages to evoke both the conversational wistfulness of Kurt Vonnegut and the surreal lyricism of the Beat poets. The end result is a style much more attuned to the subjective human experience. Kiernan really digs deep into the psychology of her characters, exploring their emotional journey. The Signalman is forced to confront his own mortality, and the fact that the horrors he has seen have emotionally and psychologically drained him. Sections of the book are told from the point of view of Chloe Stringfellow, one of the waifs and strays picked up by Drew Standish. As a woman, a junkie and a homeless person, she is the kind of person that Lovecraft would have ignored in his stories or spoken of with contempt. However Kiernan portrays her with depth and sympathy, delving into the horror and tragedy she has experienced in her life that have led her down the path of addiction and have made her psychologically vulnerable to be preyed on by Standish. Interestingly, she winds up taking the role that an impressionable scholar would normally take in a Lovecraft tale. She is seduced by the allure of forbidden knowledge and the promise of transcendence, and so winds up unwittingly opening a door that ought to remain shut and putting the entire human race at risk of annihilation. Her sections recapture the sense of awe and wonder that Lovecraft hints at in his stories, the sense of freedom and vertigo of unimaginable vistas opened up for human experience.
The novella’s most striking character is Immacolata Sexton. Appearing as a human woman, she has lived long enough to be there in 1927 when the events recounted in ‘Whisperer…’ took place, and is able to drop in and out of linear time at will. Thus she is able to link Standish’s cult to the original Mi-go invasion, but also to trace it through to the future, in a harrowing scene where she visits a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in 2043, where the mutated remnants of humanity hide in underground burrows and the Mi-go have claimed back the planet. Although her future vision implies that humanity’s fall to the Elder Gods is unavoidable, she still works with the Signalman and the British government to try and stop the invasion, and the future finds her on a habitual supply run bringing tinned food and supplies to the remnants of humanity. She knows that she makes people uneasy, and uses that as a tool when she is bargaining with the Signalman. However in the end she offers solace to the Signalman by showing him that there is someone who understands, at least somewhat, the events he is having such trouble rationalising. Her perspective as someone outside of time looking in on humanity does not dull her compassion, which is what makes her such a compelling character.
Kiernan’s passion for Lovecraft’s work shines through the whole novella, from the attention to detail in the descriptions of the Mi-go and their brain canisters to the fact that Immacolata has read the same Davenport monograph on Vermont folklore that Albert Wilmarth consults in ‘Whisperer…’. However it is the novella’s depiction of humanity’s inevitable fall to the Elder Gods that makes Agents Of Dreamland a truly Lovecraftian tale. Humanity’s doom is inarguable, its time on the planet is limited. However Kiernan shows us that our actions in the face of the inevitable passing of humanity are what give us our humanity, that the inevitability of the end of our world does not negate the importance of compassion and empathy.
This review appeared on Fantasy-Faction on May 11, 2017.