fa2025bbff3a5bad0eb60e40c4e2adf2 w2041xAgents of Dream­land by Caitlin R. Kier­nan is that rare work of fic­tion so grip­ping, com­plex, and dis­turb­ing that it begs to be read a sec­ond time, both to savor the exquis­ite writ­ing and to look for sub­tleties, clues, and ref­er­ences that may have been over­looked the first time.

When the novella begins, the agent known only as the Sig­nal­man, a cyn­i­cal hard-​drinking oper­a­tive on the trail of a cult leader, is arriv­ing in Winslow, Ari­zona. There he meets with the enig­matic Imma­co­lata Sex­ton, a woman whose cryp­tic, hard-​as-​nails exte­rior is later belied by small future acts of com­pas­sion toward the suf­fer­ing denizens of a doomed Los Ange­les. Sex­ton is a time trav­eler; we fol­low her from Ver­mont in 1927, where she exam­ines evi­dence of an alien space­craft, to the Amer­i­can south­west and a des­per­ate, present-​day race to stop a hor­rific plague, then to a future Los Ange­les where alien ships rule the sky and the few human inhab­i­tants eke out a pitiable existence.

All Kiernan’s char­ac­ters are mem­o­rable; for me, the most vivid was a con­fused, lost young woman named Chloe, who’s been goomed by cult leader Drew Stan­dish to become a key mem­ber of the Chil­dren of the Next Level. Chloe’s lurid, drug-​addled past makes her a per­fect, if tragic, foil for indoc­tri­na­tion by mad­man Standish.

To be fair, Agents of Dream­land is not for every­one (but what great fic­tion is?). Some may find it too per­va­sively dark or too graphic in its depic­tion of body hor­ror. Some may wish for a more tra­di­tional, less unset­tling end­ing, espe­cially at a time in his­tory when the idea of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter, alien or oth­er­wise, seems all too likely.

As Kier­nan writes, “The haunted human psy­che craves resolution…humans, inher­ent prob­lem solvers that we are, chafe at prob­lems that can­not be solved, ques­tions that can­not ever, once and for all, sais­fac­to­rily be put to rest.”

With no glim­mer of hope at the end­ing and no promise of a res­o­lu­tion to come, Agents of Dream­land defies con­ven­tional expec­ta­tions and raises the spec­tor of a future we may not want to imagine.

In short, this is great writ­ing that is likely to stick with the reader for a very long time. Def­i­nitely not to be missed.

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