Serge Brussolo - lucid dreamers called mediums dive into their dreams to retrieve ectoplasms—sticky blobs with curiously soothing properties that are the only form of art in the world. The more elaborate the dream, the better the ectoplasm
Serge Brussolo, The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome, Trans. by Edward Gauvin, Melville House, 2016.
An undisputed French master of the fantastic—as prolific as Stephen King; as original as Philip K. Dick—now in English for the first time
In The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, lucid dreamers called mediums dive into their dreams to retrieve ectoplasms—sticky blobs with curiously soothing properties that are the only form of art in the world. The more elaborate the dream, the better the ectoplasm.
David Sarella is a medium whose dream identity is a professional thief. With his beautiful accomplice Nadia, he breaks into jewelry stores and museums, lifts precious diamonds, and when he wakes, the loot turns into ectoplasms to be sold and displayed.
Only the dives require an extraordinary amount of physical effort, and as David ages, they become more difficult. His dream world—or is it the real world?—grows unstable. Any dive could be his last, forever tearing him away from Nadia and their high-octane, Bond-like adventures.
David decides to go down one final time, in the deepest, most extravagant dive ever attempted. But midway through, he begins to lose control, and the figures in the massive painting he’s trying to steal suddenly come to life . . . and start shooting.
“Brussolo is a singular and essential voice…with a striking imagination, sense of strangeness, and masterful feel for the surreal… he plunges readers into the weird and macabre, leaving only a blazing vision lingering on their retinas . . . a French J.G. Ballard, impeccably distilled stylized nightmares.” —Le Monde
By night, David Sarella is a burglar at the bottom of the sea. He’s a lucid dreamer whose dreams are always threatening to slip from his control. Each time, he dreams a new cityscape that only his concentration maintains in a bubble of breathable air. When his nerves or belief waver, the sky starts to cave in from water pressure. Fish appear among the chimneys, and in the jewelry store he’s just snuck into, objects start to float. The diamonds look like pebbles on the ocean floor. He wipes his palms, pops a focus pill. His lover Nadia is waiting outside in a long black sedan subtly turning sharklike. Insinuations, little irrealities… and the whole scene starts to lose its density, its grip. But David’s got the goods. As they make their getaway, cops hot on their tail, he closes his eyes, feels himself rising through the waters… and wakes up.
An air of noir black as squid ink suffuses Serge Brussolo’s most celebrated novel, The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome. Though it opens with a heist tense and hardboiled as French crime classics of the 50s, it has the sorrowful fatalism of a French New Wave love letter to, say, David Goodis. By day, David is what they call a “medium”: that is, a producer of dream-ectoplasms. Whatever object he steals in his dream he coughs up, on waking, as a shimmering piece of dream-blob (trailing blood and sputum). His assigned nurse Marianne is there to collect and clean it, but also to maintain him with bedpans and IVs while he sleeps. A single bureaucracy employs them both: one that manages the production, curation, and sale of these ectoplasmic objets d’art.
David can go under for days at a time. The deeper the dream, the bigger the prize; the more gripping and convincing the fantasy, the grander and more compelling the ectoplasm produced. And yet it’s also Marianne’s job to maintain David’s sanity: to remind him of the real world waiting for him when he wakes, to remind him that whatever face he puts on the loot (jewels, paintings, sculpture) is supplied by his subconscious.
In the world of Brussolo’s novel, ectoplasms have supplanted all other art forms. They have curiously soothing properties and come in all shapes and sizes. Some sit on sills and mantels, and others on pedestals in museums; one even adorns a public square, a celebrated monument whose aura is so strong it helped stop a war. That one was created by an old friend of David’s, Soler Mahus. Sometimes David visits him in the hospital. Soler is now a shell of a man, but once, in his dreams, he was a big game hunter. Now insane, he lives in his memories of dreams more real to him than life ever was. The lives of mediums are physically taxing and spiritually draining. Most mediums only have a short productive lifespan before they burn out. David himself is torn between an addiction to his dreams—where he’s a suave thief with an exciting life—and the possibility that, as his health fails, every next dream could be his last. And then there’s the pressure to produce. David’s last few ectoplasms have been puny and disappointing. Once mediums cough the ectoplasms up, they’re torn from their creators’ hands: subjected to a battery of clinical tests and auctioned at market or else disposed of with hazmat precautions (just in case). David’s last few have been so far below snuff that they haven’t survived the incubator during testing. Both fears—of death, and of inadequacy—pollute his dreams, sapping his ability and daring there.
This premise summary brutally simplifies a book whose unmatched originality lies in its feverish proliferation of detail. Word by word, phrase by phrase, Brussolo’s world seeps in through your pores, gets under your skin, and starts crawling around. His prose is always panic-attack frantic. The sense of reality’s slippage, as one reads, is utterly enveloping. If a mark of speculative fiction is the reification of what “literary” fiction is traditionally content to leave as metaphor, then Brussolo is speculation mainlined. His imagination, always on overdrive, is far more hit than miss. Serendipities of language fuel his imagery, propel his plots. His compositional method is constant associational riffing—a stray simile becomes reality, a figure of speech a solid object, an image a sudden obstacle. His unstoppable flow of ideas has sent other novels of his spinning out of control, but what could better capture a fever dream than his obsessive style? The tone can veer from grotesque to comic, unsettling to wacky and back in under a paragraph. What could better suit a fundamentally unstable world?
The free rein that Brussolo gives his fancy also complicates, rococos the architecture of his overarching themes, keeps them from being too controlling or pat. For The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome clearly has large themes on its mind: the relationship between artist and society, and more specifically, how pulp publishing wrings writers out and hangs them up to dry. All Brussolo’s mediums are described as somehow childish, incompletely matured, fundamentally unequipped for adult life and clinging to specifically genre fantasies. The worlds of their dreams are a veritable history of escapist literature in France.
But Brussolo also seems to ask: where does the imagination come from? Even when we can trace the source of its images, what is the root of the creative drive? David is plagued not only by whether Nadia and his dreamworld are real, but what happens to them when he’s awake, what will happen to them when he dies. Which world is really real—the one of our fulfillment, or the one of our frustration, and can we truly choose to be in one or the other? If so, at what cost? Brussolo’s puzzle-box construction has all the breakneck pace, mind games, and set pieces of Inception, plus dreams that actually feel like dreams.
In this column so far, I’ve erred mostly on the “literary” side of things, focused on writers anointed by publication from major houses: Gallimard, Grasset, Laffont, Albin Michel. Serge Brussolo is a writer firmly on the “genre” side of the divide, having made his mark in Denoël’s Présence du futur imprint (one of France’s two most influential SF imprints, along with Fleuve noir’s Anticipation). As we now know, market categories are largely artificial.
Brussolo first burst onto the scene with “Funnyway” (a very French dystopia of endless bicycling in polluted trenches) which won the Grand Prix de la science-fiction française at Utopiales in 1979. His early years were devoted to a genre-bending mixture of SF and fantasy, fueled by an intensely personal vision. Since then, he’s dabbled in almost every genre, from thriller to horror, police procedural to historical novel (both medieval and WWII), and most recently, YA. Admittedly, he’s massively overproduced, to the tune of several novels a year, and his reputation has suffered as a result, his work half-baked when not ripping himself off. But he remains a force unto himself in French letters. Few other contemporary French writers can match his rabid imagination and the shocking cruelty of his worldview, or the surging, neurotic prose with which he brings it to life. Since its publication in 1992, The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome has deservedly become a classic. Times have changed: Gallimard’s own Folio SF imprint recently reprinted it with other select titles from Brussolo’s backlist, bowing to a genius at once genre and sui generis. - Edward Gauvin
The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome imagines a world and reality that's veered off slightly from our own -- and, beneath it, another, much stranger not-quite-reality. This is a world where art no longer serves any purpose and the idea of admiring and valuing: "Paint applied to a piece of canvas with a stick topped by animal hair" has been dismissed (as has the great artistic output of all times, as Brussolo amusingly describes the emptying and repurposing of what had been art-museums). Instead, humanity has harnessed -- and built quite an elaborate bureaucracy and infrastructure around -- what amounts to the exploitation of the dreams of a select few.
Well, not exactly dreams, and not really harnessing -- they're transformed, into baubles and objects and grand masses:
It's not a dream, it's an ectoplasmic product a sleeping medium has materialized from an oneiric image haunting his brain. The dream allowed you to create this object by stimulating your imagination -- that's all.
'That's all' -- but, of course, that's a rather fanciful notion, and credit to Brussolo for introducing and presenting it so well in the course of his story.
The novel centers on David Sarella, a medium who is able to 'materialize ectoplasms'. Essentially, he falls asleep and enters into a dream(world), and recovers objects from there which, when he surfaces (wakes) are, in a different form and shape, material objects. Sort of, anyway: oneiric objects, with physical qualities (including a troubling stickiness when they've outlived their usefulness). These have properties that are highly valued, able to affect humans in the vicinity -- hence their replacing art. From just a general good feeling to actual physical well-being -- the strongest objects can ward off even disease -- or just providing the ability to give a good night's sleep, they are understandably much in demand.
Harvesting is strictly licensed and controlled (though there is a black market), and it's a physically demanding procedure, too, with the medium not conscious for days and thus needing to be hydrated and provided nutrition by an outside helper ("it was suicidal to dive without medical assistance"). David works with Marianne, the licensed caretaker who watches over his 'dives' -- his journeys into dream-land. But David's trips are taking a physical toll on him. It's affecting his work, too: the objects he's retrieving lately haven't been up to snuff.
The novel opens with David in the middle of a dive, in an alternate world -- a deep sea, where he's on a jewel heist (the diamonds the things of value he retrieves and bring to the surface, even if there the resulting oneiric object takes on a very different form). Things aren't going smoothly, his imagination -- shaping everything around him, after all -- messing with him. When he surfaces, Marianne makes clear that it's time for him to take a break -- but the lure of the deep, of this alternate reality, is too great for him to resist.
Brussolo immerses us in the alternate-dream-world before he offers any explanation for it, and then neatly fills in the blanks. Surprisingly much of the novel is exposition -- explaining how things work and what they are -- and yet that doesn't bog down the story, as he balances well between showing and telling. Though quite simple in its conception, the idea is also beautifully realized: Brussolo offers a fantasy world where everything is possible, yet grounds it sufficiently in reality, and around David's situation and condition that it functions wholly convincingly. A lot of it is in the details -- and part of it is that even with all the exposition Brussolo doesn't overwhelm with detail, either (as is (too) common in much similar science fiction/fantasy).
The use of (sea-)diving imagery to describe the (dream-)'diving' process is very well done, and Brussolo's rich (verging on over-rich) writing gets the most out of this. Vivid and evocative, Brussolo pulls readers into these worlds with him. In particular, he brings to life David's struggles -- with and against himself, and with the lure of the deep and what he finds there -- with tremendously gripping power.
The stylized writing verges on the overindulgent, yet Brussolo (and his fine translator Gauvin) pitch it just right, and even outside the dream-world it works when he writes, for example:
It was easier for him to confront the outside world in the half-light of dawn, when the ink of night, barely faded, still stained the streets and sky.
In less than 200 pages, The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome also offers a remarkably full story, creating two fascinating worlds -- the real one, right down to its bureaucracy for handling the oneiric objects (and manhandling them, in the case of their disposal, something they haven't entirely come to grips with), as well as the one in the depths of David's imagination -- and following David as he struggles between them. Finally, Brussolo brings all this together in a beautful conclusion -- an obvious resolution, perhaps, but hard to pull off well, and Brussolo easily does.
The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome is a very impressive flight of fantasy. - M.A.Orthofer
"It was hard — terrible, sometimes — but that's life, real life! Know what I'm saying?"
There's something both handy and unfortunate about a classic novel brought into a new market after a major motion picture with the same general concept. "It's like Inception" is the quickest, cleanest way to describe the heist sensibility and ectoplasm dives in The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome without getting into the vaguely hallucinatory specifics. But that description barely scratches the surface of Serge Brussolo's 1992 novel, which makes an art out of its nightmares.
In Brussolo's slightly fractured future, David is a medium — someone whose lucid dreams can produce an amorphous ectoplasm that soothes and even heals its beholders. It's changed the art world: What use is a painting when an ectoplasm can banish your wrinkles and your nightmares? The toniest neighborhoods burst into being near public art installations; museums become mausoleums. It's enough like art that the work of dreaming ruins the dreamers; it's enough pap for the masses that every million-dollar-auction winner has a dime novel inspiration behind it. David is a small-timer whose productions are more suited to middle-class mantles than bold public statements. Those are the work of Soler Mahus, a used-up medium whose mind is reduced to the racist Great White Hunter ramblings of his self-aggrandizing subconscious; a portrait of the artist as a young megalomaniac.
There is, technically, a plot — one last heist in the dream world, the big score that will let David rest — but Brussolo (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin) is happy to linger under a cloud of dread, picking apart the wretched, self-pitying threads of David's restless life in a world in which his littleness is horrifyingly measurable. Syndrome is also a novel of ideas that's much less concerned with the ideas than it is the minute ways things stay with us; unimportant details fester and eat their own tails.
Brussolo seamlessly maintains both that air of dread and a quality of the lugubrious unreal that's only fitting in a novel that's so ambivalent about reality: Dialogue swings from pulp fiction to soliloquy, and dissatisfaction leaves a taste in the mouth until David can't eat. Even awake, he's just as likely to suffer from hallucinations that rise up like bilge water without warning; the lives of those who don't dream have all the blitheness of a dream that's just about to turn into a nightmare.
That sense of omnipresent decomposition — which affects David as much as it does the museums and incinerators and bakeries of the world — can lead to some beats that are no less sour for being intentional. Though it's no surprise that a man as self-obsessed as David objectifies those around him until they could walk out of a painting in two dimensions, the way he flattens the women in his life — his mother, his lover, his caretaker, his muse — until he can find some reason to quietly despise them becomes almost familiar. That doesn't mean it gets easier to swallow.
But Brussolo is careful to keep us from falling so deeply into David that we ever truly sympathize; we understand how he got set so adrift, while we furtively look for the shore to save ourselves. Though questions of art, society, reality, and identity are everywhere, a world as unstable as that in The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome keeps us from reaching for any easy answers; visually rich and deliciously unsettling, it's a science-fiction fever dream that will leave you in no hurry to wake up.
- Genevieve Valentine
SERGE BRUSSOLO is the author of nearly two hundred books in every possible genre—dark fantasy, horror, historical fiction, young adult fiction, thrillers, and literary fiction. His books are consistently bestsellers, have won every major French science-fiction prize, are considered modern classics, and have been made into films.