[‘Dreamfields’ was one of two novels that K. W. Jeter published with Laser Books that year, the other being Seeklight.]
The novel is set in the near future, i.e., the 1990s. Behind bared wire fences, at a US government installation in the California desert, an unusual experiment is underway. Hundreds of juvenile delinquents (!) are kept in a state of suspended animation, their dreaming selves wandering the grounds of the Dreamfield, a cyberspace construct resembling an empty small town in the outlying desert. The stated goal of the experiment: cure the delinquents of their psychological ills and antisocial behaviors by allowing them vicarious release within the virtual reality of the Dreamfield.
Ralph Metric is a nondescript man in his 30s who has taken a job with ‘Operation Dreamwatch’. He is one of a team of staffers who, each night, enter the Dreamfield, there to monitor the actions of the delinquents’ dream avatars. Along with the other members of the Dreamwatch team, Metric has settling into a sort of vague, day-to-day existence among the drab utilitarian offices and apartment complexes of the base, brushing the film of desert dust from his furniture, and blinking in the harsh glare of the desert sunlight whenever he emerges from the air-conditioned, darkened interiors of the base facilities.
As the novel opens, Metric’s co-worker, Michael Stimmitz, reveals that he has violated regulations and trespassed inside the Thronsen building, where the delinquents are housed. What Stimmitz saw there has him questioning the purported rationale for Operation Dreamwatch. But before Metric can learn more about the Thronsen bulding, a gruesome accident on a nightly Dreamfields run leaves him badly shaken.
Ralph Metric decides to take an impromptu vacation to Los Angeles………and to visit, and question, some of the parents of the children enrolled in the Dreamfields program. But Metric soon discovers other people are asking the same sorts of questions…..and they are willing to kill, if it brings them closer to the truth underlying Operation Dreamwatch…….
The first half of ‘The Dreamfields’ is engaging and very readable. Along with its proto-cyberpunk leanings, it also effectively creates the unique atmosphere of paranoia and existential despair that epitomized 70s pop culture, as depicted in movies such as The Parallax View, The Conversation, and Coma. Jeter’s sun-bleached, rundown landscapes and neighborhoods of southern California, Los Angeles, and Orange County are tinged with entropy, their residents gripped by apathy, indifferent to the machinations of the greater powers scheming for control of society.
Where ‘Dreamfields’ falls short is in the final chapters; the inevitable Big Revelation about the program, and the climax of Ralph Metric’s struggle to grasp the nature of the Conspiracy, are unconvincing. These weaknesses in the plot may have been imposed on the author by the editorial constraints of the Laser Books imprint, but their contrived nature leads me to give the book a three-star rating.
Summing up, if you are looking for a proto-cyberpunk work with a unique flavor of 70s Paranoia, then ‘The Dreamfields’ may be worth getting, provided you’re willing to accept a somewhat unsatisfying denouement.