London has changed. Salamanders scavenge in its alleyways and golden snakes live under floorboards. Most of the city has been bought up by a mysterious group operating from a skyscraper called Angel Tower. Men have become grey worker drones or, worse, criminals and pimps. Women are now housewives, skivvies and prostitutes. The sun always shines and every night it grows a little stranger. This is the ‘Dream London’ of Tony Ballantyne’s novel, a heavy-handed satire on capitalism and neocon liberalism.
Some disclosure: I work in the City of London. I travel in everyday and see the city in all of its growth. In reality, London does grow every day. The new skyscrapers are a little taller every morning. I’m more than familiar with the changing landscape. It also means that I work for and with organisations that I’m sure Ballantyne finds distasteful. This doesn’t mean that I am unsympathetic to the politics presented in ‘Dream London’, far from it, but certain aspects of the novel did make me question Ballantyne’s view of the world.
Our anti-hero in ‘Dream London’ is Captain Jim Wedderburn, a rogue and pimp. An ex-army officer, he is well-placed to observe the changes in London as he ‘looks after’ his ‘girls’. Wedderburn is recruited by ‘the Cartel’, a group who want to understand why London has changed so much and pushed by a female CIA agent provocateur named Bill, they want Jim to investigate Angel Tower, the source of the strangeness gripping the city. Not everyone is keen on Jim’s involvement, though. An East End crime boss called Daddio Clarke wants Jim to stop interfering and even the city itself prevents Jim from escaping.
As he is thrust into his mission, Jim encounters a variety of weird and wonderful characters with equally weird and wonderful names. Blame Dickens or Hogarth, but the London grotesque or eccentric character feels like a trope done to death. From Moorcock’s ‘Mother London’ to Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ to novels by China Mieville or Ben Aaronovitch, we’re treated to a parade of strange individuals. Indeed, the first half of ‘Dream London’ feels like one introduction after another and it’s a little wearying.
As the book progresses, we locate the centre of Ballantyne’s ire. Effectively, the bad guys in the novel have taken control of all of London’s property and economy, eagerly raising the rents on anyone who disagrees with them and creating workhouses for the poor. There is no attempt at resistance because the enemy has created a society where we are all ‘individuals’. Sound familiar?
The second half of the book deals with Jim’s attempt to raise an army to fight the enemy in Angel Tower and the apathy and indifference that he encounters. Ballantyne’s point is that we would happily let something like the banking crisis happen again or sit back as poverty grips our country because there is no collective resistance.
In this regard, the novel successfully, if bluntly, satirises and derides the values of both the Tories and New Labour and their handling of the UK economy from London. Where I experienced more issues was Ballantyne’s portrayal of women in the book. In ‘Dream London’, women are condemned to a life of servitude. The only woman we see in a position of power within Angel Tower has used her influence to get herself cosmetically enhanced. This did not sit comfortably with me. For one, it assumes that whoever controlled ‘Dream London’ did so from the point-of-view that women were in some way socially inferior to start with and, secondly, it totally undermines those women who have succeeded in the, admittedly male-dominated world of the city. I don’t deny there are glass ceilings, but right now in my job, for example, my three bosses are all women. It just didn’t feel right to me that, if the controlling force of the book was a ruthless capitalist organisation, that the whole place should be so male-dominated and the women all treated as sex-objects or home-makers.
I can only read and write from my own experience and am sure many feminists would say that is exactly how the world or the city of London views women. I do not. I did however find Ballantyne’s approach a little surprising and perhaps that is a good thing. Two of the best characters in the book are girls, one truly heroic and the other a villain and a neat joke. As for our anti-hero, Jim, he at least sees the error of his ways and is humiliated into a new point-of-view, eager for redemption, but ultimately still reminded that he is guilty for his own life and treatment of women as much as ‘Dream London’ is.
‘Dream London’ is a strange, often amusing novel that fantasises about rebellion against the City. While I enjoyed much of it, I found myself feeling rather empty once it had finished. I loved that it started in the weirdness of ‘Dream London’, rather than tediously showing us glimpses of a hidden city beneath the surface reality. The progression of Jim Wedderburn works up to a point but, by the end, he’s been told how inconsequential he is so many times you wonder what the point of it all might have been. An angry novel then and, for good reason, but not necessarily satisfying.
(pub: Solaris/Rebellion Publishing/HarperCollins. 347 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78108-173-0)
check out website: www.solarisbooks.com