Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman

Short review: A collection of short tales involving Dream, Death, and the other Endless. One lesson - making deals with the Death is risky.

Endless Morpheus
Time has no meaning for him
Inverted stories

Full review: Fables and Reflections is the sixth installment in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and is made up of nine stories that are at best loosely connected to one another, but which serve primarily to comment on the nature of what dreams are and what they mean, as well as emphasizing just how alien and inhuman Dream truly is. One exception is the three part story Song of Orpheus that retells the mythic fable of Orpheus and Eurydice, but roots it in the unique reality of the Sandman universe, interjecting Dream, Death, and the other Endless into the narrative, filling in grey areas from the original story. Another exception is the tetrology of "emperor" stories, each telling the tale of a different ruler, and which speak to how dreams both create and limit the power of those who hold power.

The first story in the volume is Fear of Falling, a brief tale about how dreams can limit us or force us to reach greater heights. Although this story is quite short, it serves as a thematic framework for the stories that follow, showing the palpable power of human dreams to shape our lives. In large part, this book serves to answer the question of why one would focus on Dream, rather than some of the more obvious Endless such as Death, Desire, or Destiny. The answer is made clear in these tales: Because the dominion of Dream is what makes humans what they are, and what makes humans aspire to be more than that.

The hidden power of Fables and Reflections lies in the thematically linked stories concerning how dreams and ambition connect to those who would rule over others. The first three of these stories walk backwards through time, from nineteenth century United States to eighteenth century France and then to first century Rome, before reversing their flow and moving ahead to eighth century Baghdad. This jumping about in time, and at times, telling a story backwards, is a means by which it seems that Gaiman emphasizes the timelessness of Dream. As one of the Endless, Dream is immortal, and as a result, time has little meaning to him, a meaninglessness that is reflected in the story structure. But in addition to this overarching structural message, each story contains it own commentary on the nature of political power.

Arranged in two thematically linked diptychs, the first pairing Three Septembers and January with Thermidor, showing opposing scales of power and morality. Three Septembers centers on Joshua Abraham Norton, an actual historical figure who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. Gaiman's story places Norton at the center of a challenge issued by Despair to Dream. Norton had once been wealthy, but lost all of his fortune speculating in Peruvian rice, whereupon the story imagines that he contemplated giving in to despair and committing suicide. Despair needles Dream, suggesting that Dream is powerless to save Norton from her embrace, so Dream gives Norton a crazy and insane dream. Norton obviously has no actual power as the self-proclaimed emperor of the United States, but his version of the world is a better place than the one he actually lives in. He helps Sam Clemens when he has writer's clock. He is kind to Chinese immigrants. He is dignified with tourists, although he does object to the word "Frisco" being used as a designation for his beloved "San Francisco". As an encounter with Pain sent as an emissary from Desire shows, Norton is content with what he has, and as a result, his "proclamations" and actions are inherently unselfish. He wants nothing for himself, because he is satisfied with his own dream, so he uses his "authority" to try to shape the world in a better direction. Dreams, the story says, can save our lives and make us want the world to be a better place, even if they might make us insane as well.

Emperor Norton's story is sharp contrasted by the tale told in Thermidor, set in revolutionary France when the country was under the sway of the Committee of Public Safety and Robespierre's vision of a new society. Dream contracts with Johanna Constantine, asking her to recover an object for him. Soon she is in France, transporting a severed head in a bag. An encounter with a couple of loutish soldiers leads to her capture and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, where it becomes clear just how much Robespierre is willing to sacrifice in the name of the revolution. While questioning Johanna on her way to and in prison, St. Just and Robespierre off-handedly reveal how inherently unfair the system has become, and how it has consumed even its most ardent adherents. Thomas Paine makes a brief appearance to be mocked by St. Just and to condemn how the revolution has twisted and mutilated his words. Presaging the story in The Song of Orpheus, Johanna's quarry is the severed head of Orpheus, an artifact of myth and legend that Robespierre wants to destroy so as to better enable him to usher in a new age based entirely on reason. But reason, in this case, is a world without history and without dreams. In contrast to Norton, who has no power and desires nothing more for himself, Robespierre has almost unlimited power and craves nothing but to acquire more. In Norton's dreams, it seems that power is to be used to serve humanity, while in Robespierre's vision, humans are subordinated to the dictates of power. Norton's empire is built on nothing but dreams, while Robespierre wants to extinguish dreaming altogether.

The second set of political stories consist of August set in imperial Rome during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Ramadan set in Baghdad during the suzerainty of and Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. The two tales illustrate the differences between a love for a time and a city, and a hatred for them. In August, the Imperator hires a dwarf named Lycias to help him impersonate a beggar, as he does once a year. The story is mostly a dialogue between Augustus and Lycias, or rather, an interview, as Lycias peppers the off-duty Imperator with questions and Augustus opines upon the nature of power, the gods, history, and the future of the city. It seems that Augustus had found two sets of prophecies, one heralding perpetual glory for Rome, while the other predicting its decay and destruction. Augustus selected the future he wished to come to pass, and had all references to the other destroyed. The story only features Dream for a brief portion of its length, and then only as a guest in Augustus' mind to tell him how to deal with his nightmares. And so Augustus takes one day a year off to pose as a beggar in order to hide from the gods, including divine Julius who Augustus so despises, and make his plans out of their sight. Augustus loathes Rome even as he builds temples to beautify it, because he loathes its architect. The story shows how dreams of vengeance can consume an entire civilization and bring it to its knees, causing its glory to wither and fade to dust.

On the flip side is the story Ramadan, featuring a ruler who loves his city more than anything else. Caliph Haroun al-Rashid also disguises himself to walk the streets of his city, not to plot its demise, but rather to revel in its glories. Like Augustus did, al-Rashid realizes that no city can last forever. Unlike Augustus, al-Rashid fears this coming to pass, because, unlike Augustus, al-Rashid loves Baghdad. So, in the style of Arabian Nights, al-Rashid takes a special key and walks through magical doors leading to and through vaults filled with sometimes fabulous and sometimes oddly mundane treasures until he finds a chip he hopes he can use to bargain in exchange for everlasting fame for his city. After drawing Dream's attention, al-Rashid first tries to blackmail the Endless into doing what he wants, and after that fails, they go to the city market and haggle. al-Rashid realizes that Baghdad is at its height, and worries that it will fade from memory and become nothing but another forgotten relic. Instead, he wants Dream to take the city, or at least its essence, into his realm so that it will remain the stuff of nighttime fantasies forever.

The centerpiece of Fables and Reflections is the story Song of Orpheus, told in three broad strokes, with a sad little epilogue. In the first section we meet Orpheus on his wedding day as he is about to be married to his love Eurydice. Orpheus makes the mistake of bringing his friend the satyr Aristaeus to the nuptials, but before the tragedy plays out we are introduced to Orpheus' aunts and uncles the Endless: Depair, Delerium, Desire, Destruction, Destiny, and of course Death, although the story uses their Greek names. Orpheus, in Gaiman's telling, is Dream's son by the muse Calliope, a shift from mythology to fit the story into the Sandman series. The first hint that there will be trouble at the celebration is when Death reveals that she is not merely in attendance as a guest, but also because she has work to do there. Aristaeus, overcome by drink, attempts to rape Eurydice, and as she flees she is bitten by a viper and dies. The second portion of the story details Orpheus' famous attempt to recover his wife from Hades. He first begs his father to help him, but when Dream refuses, stating that all things come to an end, Orpheus disowns his heritage and rejects Dream as his father. In a development that perhaps Orpheus should have thought more about, his uncle Destruction offers to help him visit his aunt Death to bargain with her for the return of Eurydice. Death makes a bargain with him to allow him to travel to Hades and return alive: She agrees never to take him to the underworld, a bargain that has dire consequences, as all bargains with Death seem to. Following the classic myth, Orpheus travels to the Underworld, charms Hades into allowing Eurydice to leave, and then allows his doubts to condemn her to death again. In the final chapter, Calliope visits her disconsolate son where we learn that he has tried to kill himself in his despair, but because Death had promised never to come for him, he could not. Orpheus is then set upon by the Bacchante and his flesh consumed, leaving only his still living head for Dream to find in the epilogue. The story closes with a conversation between the two that shows just how much Dream cares, but also how cold and inhuman he truly is. But the reader already knew how Orpheus ended up, having been shown his animated severed head earlier in the book, and yet later in time. And we've also seen Calliope before in the series and later in time as well, wrecked by her relationship with Dream. This is the inside-out storytelling that runs through the series, many times showing the effects prior to showing the cause, demonstrating the timelessness of the Endless via the disjointed nature of the narrative.

The remaining three stories range from pure fantasy to merely the intersection of history and fantasy. The Hunt is framed as a story told by a grandfather from the old country to his granddaughter, raised in the new world of television and music videos. While his granddaughter interrupts and complains, he recounts how a young boy named Vassily, one of "the people", encounters a gypsy woman in the forest and acquires a locket with the picture of the Duke's youngest daughter from her. He falls in love with the image of the Duke's daughter, and after he later finds the gypsy woman dead in the forest, he takes her pack of treasures, that she said included the heart of Koschei the Deathless, the cloak of night, and the Drum Inescapable, as well as a book and sets out to win the girl for himself. His journey takes him on a few adventures, but most importantly he crosses paths with a woman of the people and also with Dream's servant Lucien who wants to acquire the book he carries. Vassily demands the girl as his price for the book, which Dream eventually consents to, but once he finds her, Vassily realizes that a woman being the object of your dreams is insufficient, her dreams must also match your dreams.

Soft Places sees the return of Fiddler's Green, a personified place of dreams that a very young Marco Polo meets while he is lost in the Desert of Lop. Also joining them is Rustichello, the man who far in Polo's future, will help cowrite Polo's autobiography while they are sharing a Genoese cell. This juxtaposition of two people from different times continues with the book's theme that the dream world is not bound by ordinary notions of time and space. In the end, Polo is saved by an act of generosity towards a freshly released Dream, which is yet another subtle indication that the ordinary strictures of time and space don't apply to Dream as it was established in Preludes and Nocturnes that the Sandman was released from his captivity in the twentieth century and yet here he is in the dream of a fourteenth century traveler suggesting that he is weak from imprisonment. As the title suggests whole story occurs within one of the "soft places" of the world, where the realms of dream and reality intersect and where history and fantasy interact.

The remaining story, A Parliament of Rooks, is more of a collection of shorter stories than it is a single story. Daniel Hall, the infant son of the previously introduced Hippolyta Hall, wanders into the dream realm and runs across Matthew the Raven and then Eve before being taken to visit with Abel. While Abel is busy getting everyone tea (and getting Matthew a decomposing rat), Cain shows up and everyone begins to tell stories, or in Cain's case, a mystery. The stories told by Eve and Abel are self-referential - Eve's story is about Adam's three wives and Abel's is about how he and Cain came to live in the dream realm (and features Dream and death as children), while Cain's story concerns a gathering of rooks and seems to explain why it is called a "parliament". The mundane nature of Cain's story contrasts with the mythic grandeur of Eve and Abel's, but because it presents such a tantalizing secret it still resonates, at least until Abel spills the beans, leading to Cain's somewhat predictably murderous response. The tale illustrates the cyclical nature of dreaming, these figures in the dream realm are the stuff of legend, both the source of dreams, and then as the subject of dreams. Myths are created by our dreams, but then they influence our dreams, changing the myths, resulting in a perpetual cycle of feedback.

The whole of Fables and Reflections feels like an interlude between larger stories. Each of the short tales says something, whether it is commentary on the nature of political power or discussions of the intersection between family and legend. Given that this is a collection of Sandman stories it should be entirely unsurprising that they focus on how our dreams shape us, and in turn, how we shape the world as a result. And although this volume is more or less just a link between larger stories, what it says about the connection between our myths, or dreams, and our reality. But Gaiman also shows how dreams don't follow our normal understanding of time, giving us glimpses of myths completed before he actually tells the stories of those myths. By frequently telling the stories out of temporal order, and by ignoring the mundane constraints of distance, Gaiman gives the entire series of stories a jumbled dream-like quality that intensifies the moody and atmospheric effect of the stories themselves and the characters who inhabit them resulting in a volume unified by its commentary on the nature of dreams themselves.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives

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