Review: Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera

Note: Dealing In Dreams is due out from Simon & Schuster in March 2019.

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Rivera, Lilliam (2019). Dealing In Dreams. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

ISBN: 9781534411395
325 pages.
Nalah, also known as Chief Rocka, runs the hottest crew in Mega City, and she knows she’s close to the top. After almost a decade of Spartan training, she is just one throwdown away from earning her place in the Towers alongside the city’s benevolent ruler, and saying goodbye forever to the grueling work and constant danger that has always defined her life. Of course, she’s not going alone: she’s taking her girls with her. Decades after the Big Shake, Mega City is run by crews of teenage girls, who police the streets, defend the public, tag their logo on their patrol areas, and menace evildoers or outsiders. A semi-official police force, part gang and part government, the girl crews have status far above menial woman toilers, papi chulos (male dancers), or men. They are paid in sueños, or tabs which assist sleep and induce lucid dreaming. Of all the crews, Las Mal Criadas are the closest to the top. While it’s a dangerous world, even within the city, Nalah trusts her teammates–especially her second-in-command, Truck–with her life. They’re all she has, especially after her mother died and her father and sister left for Cemi Territory, never to be seen again.
But then the unimaginable happens, and Deesse, the ruler of Mega City, asks Nalah to intentionally lose to the Deadly Venoms in the upcoming big throwdown. Instead of welcoming Las Mal Criadas into the luxurious Towers, Deesse tasks Nalah with performing a dangerous recon mission in Cemi Territory to gather information about a menacing new movement–the Ashe Ryders–which threaten to bring down the tenuous structure that Mega City has relied on in the wake of the apocalypse. Nalah consents, but as she leads her team outside the protective city boundaries into a trash-strewn wilderness, she knows she’s stepping into new dangers she might not ever be able to defend against.
Nalah’s characterization as a traumatized, tough, strategy-minded fighter is crystal clear and totally consistent throughout the story, and her empathetic connections and undying loyalty to her crew drives the action of the story. Meanwhile, side characters have sharp, well-defined characterization of their own; as the action progresses, Truck and the others begin to doubt Nalah, while revolutionaries with alternate worldview attempt to empathize and connect with the position of Las Mal Criadas and persuade them to abandon violence in order to participate in a new, solarpunk eco-socialist society beyond the borders of urban space.
Rivera crafts a hot, action-packed new dystopian science fiction world which draws on a range of influences but which punches enormous new holes in traditional scripts in order to cut deep and talk about pressing questions in an age which often feels like the end of the world. The devastation that has rocked Mega City is implied to be environmental in nature, potentially related to climate change but also to economic collapse. In the wake of the devastation (we learn through different unreliable sources), a single family initiated a reconstruction of key infrastructures. Deesse has also offered work to refugees –manufacturing the drugs that allow the populace to cope with continual malnourishment and trauma. Mega City’s matriarchal authoritarian state initially appears to be a gritty, feminist reimagining of a brutal survivalist trope, but as the story goes on, Rivera deftly explores how a rigidly defined gender-based hierarchy continually marginalizes those who don’t fit within it and encourages violence and lack of self-examination in the ruling class. Rivera imagines a world where regulating government structures and corporations have fallen away, and the survivors of the apocalypse rebuild society under different organizational structures.
 Essentially, Rivera presents two possible futures. In one (Mega City), a hierarchical, violent order ensures the masses live in servitude or addiction and a dictatorial, narcissistic leader plays underlings off against each other in order to maintain power. The other possible future, meanwhile, hovers around the margins of the main characters’ awareness but hangs in luminous possibility over the reader’s head. It involves egalitarian community, discourse and discussion, cultural heritage and faith, self-defense and sustainable agriculture, and an embrace of both traditional family structures and LGBT inclusion.
Rivera steps loudly into the territory of recent major authors of hard, fast-paced, action-driven science fiction full of ideas (China Mieville, Cory Doctorow, Philip Reeves, Cameron Hurley, C.A Higgins) while also inheriting part of the legacy of genre giants Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler by working with similar themes of social speculative fiction. Her vision of a sustainable post-crisis future, in particular, echoes Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Intense physical action sequences, meanwhile, evoke Brian Vaughan’s Paper Girls, Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl, or Diane Dimassa’s Hothead Paisan. Super fresh, super visionary, smart, satisfying, and immersive. A necessary purchase for any and every teen and adult collection.
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