The Dreaming Earth by John Brunner
(Pyramid Books, 1963)
Reviewed by Robert W. Bly, founder, ScienceFictionPrediction.com
Despite being an SF reader for over four decades, there are a number of major SF writers whose works I have never read.
John Brunner is one of them. He wrote some books recognized as classics in the field, including Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider, but I somehow missed them.
My local Barnes & Noble has an annex section that is a treasure trove. It is packed with old books including a small but well stocked section with hardcover and trade paperback vintage SF.
My new favorite activity is to visit there and pick up SF I always meant to read but never did. On my last trip, I found a first edition mass market paperback (in terrible but readable condition) of a John Brunner novel I had never heard of: The Dreaming Earth.
The description on the front cover reads: "The planet was overcrowded - until people started vanishing into thin air!" The novel is set in a future world with too many people competing for too few resources (water, food, etc.). So there are dire shortages in both goods and services, adversely affecting the quality of life.
The protagonist, Nick Greville, is an agent for the drug enforcement division of the United Nations, which is the main governing body of the world. His task is to end trade in the drug Happy Dreams.
Happy Dreams is the most widely used illegal drug. For some reasons, the dealer, whom it seems can never be found and caught, keep the price low. So everyone can afford Happy Dreams.
The drug is addictive. Initially, it causes users to hallucinate and see visions of another world. Those who continue taking Happy Dreams lose interest in the world, drop out, and disappear.
It is the disappearances that baffle Nick and the UN drug agency. The addicts seem to have literally dropped off the face of the Earth. Once they are gone, they cannot be found.
The SF premise of the novel is as follows: the body accepts the chemical constituents of Happy Dreams as ready-made cell material. Original material in the cells is deposited out and replaced with these new synthetic chemicals.
Therefore, taking Happy Dreams permanently alters the chemical composition of the brain. Once the brain chemistry is permanently altered, the way in which the person perceives the external world is similarly altered.
So far, we are on firm ground. But SF requires the "willing suspension of disbelief," as long as that willing suspension is limited to one facet or aspect of the story.
In The Dreaming Earth, the idea requiring willing suspension of disbelief is that by altering our perception of the world, the drug literally alters the affect of the external world on us. As one character explains to Nick:
"The subject no longer perceives the world which we accept as the real one, no longer affects it, and to our senses disappears."
The Happy Dreams addicts are, literally, disappearing. But is it that our senses can no longer detect them? Or have their bodies literally disappeared? And if so, to where?
Is Happy Dreams in fact a government plot to solve the over-population problem by getting rid of excess population? These are the questions Nick and the reader ask, and this short novel, as it progresses, answers.
These answers are gradually revealed in a story that combines mystery (is Happy Dreams a government conspiracy), a big social issue (over-population), and science fiction (can a drug teleport people to other worlds and dimensions?) to great effect.
I really enjoyed The Dreaming Earth, which was one of Brunner's earlier novels. I'd recommend it to you. The Dreaming Earth was entertaining but also makes you think - about over-population, big government, and the notion of perception vs. reality. And it makes me want to read more Brunner, too.