In an Absent Dream: A Parable of Wanting to Keep Your Pie and Eat it Too

I’m still making my way through the list of 2021 Hugo contenders (I’ve reviewed these Hugo contenders already), but this week I’m reviewing a novella which isn’t on that list, but is part of the same series as an entry for Best Novella, so I guess I’m kinda making progress towards getting a another title crossed off the list (which is soooo long).

Unfortunately, I read the previous three Wayward Children books long before I decided to start blogging again, so at this point there are no reviews for them, but if I ever do a reread, I’ll make sure to drop the links here.

Anywho, In an Absent Dream (IAAD) is the fourth book in the aforementioned Wayward Children series, which in general terms, seeks to answer the question: “What happens to (portal fantasy) children, when they come back from their quest?”

As we have seen in each of the previous installments, there is still plenty of story left to tell.

For the main character of IAAD, Kathrine Lundy (though she decidedly prefers just Lundy) that even means (many) returns through the series’ pivotal “doors”. If I’m remembering correctly, we actually spend a lot more time in the portal world, called The Goblin Market, than we have in other Wayward Children books which is interesting, but of course, as with each book in this series, it is still time spent after whatever quest a more stereotypical fantasy would have been written about. In this case, the usurping of an evil wasp queen, and a tragic run-in with some baddies called The Bone Wraiths.

I understand that these details are absolutely NOT what these books are about, but I can’t help but still sometimes wish that I could read about these events somewhere, even if it is just a “boring ol fantasy story”. I like those too.

Anyway, if you have read the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway, you’ll recognize Lundy (or recognize that you should recognize Lundy) and so while this title is a standalone, it ties in with the other books, and gives more backstory to their history which is always fun. I’ll admit that I hope we’ll get to see an adventure from Lundy’s father as it’s mentioned many times that he also did a tour in the Goblin Market.

In terms of prose and language, IAAD is extremely well crafted, as are most books I’ve read by Seanan McGuire. She always manages to turn at least one well-worn phrase subtly on its head so that it evokes some new meaning to suit the story.

OK. Ok. Skip to the part about the pies . . .

Yes! The pies! Specifically, wanting to both keep and eat them simultaneously. This is essentially the main theme of the story (at least for me). Some things you just can’t have both ways. What I found interesting about this novella was the way McGuire uses the setting to express this theme, and what she uses it to say, or at the very least question.

Now, in IAAD, The Goblin Market is really quite an awe-inspiring place, filled with magic, adventure (sadly offscreen), fun and glory, but each of these thrills has a cost which cannot be deferred or delayed. It is expected of the Market’s denizens to each pay “fair value” for any goods or services they require, but things like friendship or love, also seem to have their costs as well.

It’s a strange place which seems to be both better and worse than the real world we live in. In the Market people can work hard and avoid debt, but nobody can really “get ahead”. What’s strangest about the whole thing, is that people can’t really offer charity either for doing so just puts another person in debt to the would-be philanthropist.

In the course of trying to understand “what debt is”, Lundy discusses all kinds of things like prices which are based off the proportion one makes (although perhaps difficult to figure out in the Market’s bartering society), and how a system like this could still provide for the sick and elderly. The implications of such a system seem to be infinite.

So what’s the pie we can’t both eat and keep?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. For Lundy, it is living in two worlds, wanting to both be a part of her life with her family, and also with her friends in The Goblin Market. For us, it seems to be something to do with late-stage capitalism.

We know from experience IRL that what we have now doesn’t seem to be working to everyone’s benefit, and so The Market presented in IAAD calls to us as an ideal of something we could strive for. With enough rules and moderation in place, perhaps we could build something which would be fair to everyone.

Although, as Ruthanna Emrys notes for Tor.com, The Market has:

. . . gone so far into capitalism that it’s come out the other side into “to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability.”

https://www.tor.com/2019/01/10/fairness-and-feathers-reading-seanan-mcguires-in-an-absent-dream/

Essentially The Market has become communism (I had to look up Emrys’ quote). And as we see in the novella, fair isn’t fair either. So perhaps — and this is rather a downer — the novella shows us that we can’t have a form of capitalism that is moderated enough to actually benefit everyone without it being the communism we all loathe and fear.

We can’t have capitalism without all the stuff we don’t like about it, because then there’s nothing left. The good things we like about it are also the bad things we hate about it and so to get rid of those things means it wouldn’t be capitalism anymore?

If we get rid of the pie (yummm) then we no longer have pie . . .

Let me know your thoughts in the comments! For only like 180 pages, I think this story still gave a LOT to chew on.

See you next time!

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