Dreamfall is the third in Vinge’s series about the telepath, Cat. It’s the last one written so far, though it’s not intended to be a trilogy (as far as I know); rather, Vinge has been unable to write until recently due to a car accident several years ago, as explained in her Wikipedia entry.
Dreamfall feels like a counterpoint to the second novel, Catspaw, in many ways: Catspaw explores the tension between Cat’s place among the lower class and the upper class, while Dreamfall explores the tension between his human heritage and his Hydran (alien) heritage. Also, Catspaw shows Cat trying to make use of his damaged telepathic abilities, while Dreamfall shows him struggling with trying to be a professional scholar/scientist in a difficult scenario. And, Catspaw takes place on Earth while Dreamfall takes place on an alien world.
Cat is part of a team which has been summoned to the planet Refuge, where his friend Kissindre Perrymeade’s family – Tau – heads a congomerate which is exploiting the resources of the planet. The team is there to study the cloud-whales, large gaseous beings which drift across the planet and whose thoughts crystallize and form large reefs in the oceans which exhibit strange properties. However, Refuge is also one of the worlds formerly controlled by the Hydrans, and the Hydran population has been marginalized and mostly restricted to a ghetto near the main human city. As this is Cat’s first opportunity to voluntarily contact Hydrans, one evening he heads into the Hydran town, where he immediately gets wrapped up in an ongoing Hydran resistance to the human occupation of the planet, placing him at odds with the Tau security chief of the planet, Borosage, as well as outing him as a human/Hydran hybrid.
The Hydran resistance has kidnapped a young human child and may be using him as leverage against the humans, escalating tensions and forcing Cat into becoming a negotiator between the two sides. Of course, there are more than two sides: Some humans are more hard-line than others, while the official Hydran government are not affiliated with the resistance. Many humans are of course frightened by the Hydrans, who have powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation, among others, but the humans also have far superior technology. Moreover, Cat is torn both between his feelings for Kissindre, and similar feelings for a Hydran woman whom he meets.
With all of these conflicting and contrasting elements, you’d think Dreamfall would be a cracking book full of adventure and emotion, but I found it to be quite slow and not very exciting. In another contrast with the previous book, Catspaw shows Cat reasoning and acting and having a profound effect on the people around him, while in Dreamfall he seems so at odds with himself that he’s far more reactive than active, struggling with his own emotions and unable to make decisions unless he’s forced into them.
For example, he gets linked to the resistance accidentally when he runs into the woman kidnapping the human child. As a result of this, Borosage’s superior forces Cat to be a negotiator with the Hydrans. Although the Hydrans are initially repulsed by this telepath whose abilities are turned off, he wins the trust of one of them, Miya, and finds himself conflicted between his feelings for her and for Kissindre. But he doesn’t really choose (or even fail to choose) between them; rather it seems like he gets railroaded by circumstance into picking one instead of the other, along with some pseudo-mystical argument about how Hydrans can tell when they’ve met the person they’re meant to be with. Through it all Cat seems bewildered and passive, which makes him a boring main character.
The first half of the book is all about building the tensions between the humans and the Hydrans, and it all comes to a head in the second half, which is more lively but only a little more satisfying. Dreamfall seems more focused on trying to craft a setting and evoke a mood (of lost causes and dying cultures). As in Catspaw the book climaxes with Cat ending up in an extremely dangerous situation, but rather than taking a big risk for a good reason, it seems like he made a few choices without really examining what he was doing which led him to a bad place. Vinge tries her utmost to convey the weight of the choices that Cat does make (he does eventually have to make the ultimate choice between being part of human society or Hydran society), but I was never convinced that he was making these decisions for good reasons, or that he was even particular aware of what he was choosing or why. The story is one of some fairly subtle shifts in Cat’s outlook and behavior, and I don’t think it managed to thread the needle of believability. The book does have a reasonable conclusion to its main conflicts (complete with a satisfying fate for one of the main heavies), but it doesn’t feel as meaningful as the ending of Catspaw.
Overall I don’t think Dreamfall either works well on its own, or deepens or broadens our understanding of Cat beyond what we saw in Catspaw. It seems to be trying to evoke more of a sense of wonder than Catspaw did, but the most wondrous elements – the cloud-whales – are mostly relegated to the background. Even the psionic elements are less interesting here than in the previous books, since Cat’s own telepathy is rarely active.
I found the book to be hard going, and not very rewarding for the effort. It’s a big step down from Catspaw, which is easily the best of the series to date.