An unnamed man with no memories and his companion Kad struggle to survive after a disaster neither can recall has decimated their city. They forage for supplies and do their best to avoid The People, a cult created by former construction magnate Miles Dunwoody that turns its followers into zombies. The unnamed narrator encounters other survivors that haven’t been recruited by The People, tries to find clues about his own past, and struggles with his feelings for Kad.
“I’ve concluded that happiness lives in the ephemera. You cannot see it, nor can it be considered tangible. It’s not quite an optical illusion—no, not quite—but if you try to catch it, with the ultimate intention of somehow sustaining it for a prolonged period, then happiness will quickly dissolve to grief and disappointment—inevitably, fatally.”
I Dream of Mirrors fits mostly in the genre of dystopian science fiction. However, to call it that is much like calling Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (a very clear influence here) science fiction. It’s true, but it creates expectations that would be quickly shattered by reading it. For example, the book opens with Kad and the unnamed narrator fighting members of The People in an action sequence. Here, Kelso creates the expectation that we’ll be following the leads as they battle the people and then undercuts this when the narrator is separated from Kad and finds himself impotently wandering around the streets.
Kelso subverts expectations in the form of the book as well as in the narrative. The book contains chapters called “Rules of The People” which describe the rules set by the cult of The People, each one a parody of the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. These chapters, however, stop after the third rule. Likewise, the unnamed narrator makes a couple attempts to keep a journal, but quickly abandons the idea. If I had to “pitch” this novel, I’d describe it as a Ballardian apocalypse as written by Barry N. Malzberg.
A major theme of the book is the need to seek narrative in a fractured and confusing world that stubbornly refuses to provide one. The story makes both explicit and subtle references to the works of other authors such as Herman Melville, Dennis Cooper, and Octavia Butler. Miles Dunwoody, the nominal villain of the book, spends much of his time trying to convince the narrator that he has the answers to his questions about his past. The narrator rejects them as both being unpleasant and too easy, though he often questions his opposition to Dunwoody.
Despite the way the book often throws everything off-kilter, it remains very readable. The characters are all interesting in how they struggle with their situations and questionable memories, the action beats are exciting, and Kelso paints a desolate world in vivid prose.
I Dream of Mirrors is a unique and thoughtful take on the dystopian science fiction genre. Many readers will find the way it undercuts their expectations frustrating, however, the ones who stick with it will find it very rewarding. Highly recommended.