Gaiman builds most of the events of this issue around a central motif of optics. Our opening with the Alderman is predicated on the significance of the Northern Lights happening in the middle of summer when they’re a winter phenomenon, multiple people remark on Dream’s star-field eyes, Dream and Delirium’s chauffeur Ruby meditates on whether Destiny or love is blind, the Corinthian (Dream’s eyeless, eye eating nightmare) appears in flashback, and Destruction explains how study of the science of optics marks a significant shift in human civilization.
What all of these instances mean in concert is a complicated matter. The conversation that Dream and Destruction have during the flashback at the issue’s end seems to offer the best cipher for assessing what’s going on. In the 17th century, Destruction invites Dream to visit a college (maybe Cambridge, since reference is made to Isaac Newton, though it’s not made especially clear) where he explains that humans have begun studying the physics of light and this course of inquiry, which Destruction has observed in countless other civilizations throughout the universe, inevitably leads to an escalation of destructive technology. The implication is that humanity’s started on the path towards nuclear power and all the destructive potential that comes with it. Dream’s nonplussed by the whole thing, being concerned with imagination more than reason, but it’s clear that Destruction is troubled by the pattern he’s observing.
What comes of this sequence is an understanding that the exploration of something seemingly innocuous like how light behaves tends to have long term consequences that end up being highly costly to everyone involved. The Alderman recognizes the Northern Lights aren’t behaving the way they’re supposed to, and he sheds his identity to escape being killed without any clear indication that he might reclaim it later; Ruby obsesses over Dream’s offhand comment that Destiny, who has no eyes, is blind, and by the issue’s end she’s been killed by whatever random forces of chaos seem to be working to prevent Dream and Delirium from finding Destruction; Dream, who begins the issue looking for something that isn’t precisely Destruction (we’ve known from the start that Dream is humoring Delirium because he wants to distract himself from his recent breakup rather than actually find their estranged brother), develops an understanding of the human cost that comes from searching for Destruction.
To put it succinctly, light bends in funny ways, and people end up coming across things they didn’t expect.
Another thing of note in this issue is the point of contrast between Dream’s attitude towards mortals in the past and his current attitude. We see in the flashback that he casually curses a man who pickpocketed him to have recurring nightmares of being hanged for the rest of his life (which will end with hanging, naturally), which Destruction chides as an unnecessary bit of cruelty. In the present, we get to witness Dream’s deep regret that Ruby has burned to death after she fell asleep while smoking a cigarette in the hotel where they were staying. Though Delirium’s reaction to the situation is somewhat indifferent, it’s made clear that Dream feels responsible for Ruby’s fate, and he takes this responsibility as an obligation to finish what he and Delirium have started. It’s a nice instance of showing Dream’s progress as a character, and helps to throw into relief how unlikely it would be for him to ever attempt his current journey back at The Sandman‘s beginning.
The next issue marks the halfway point in Brief Lives and brings Dream and Delirium into contact with their last lead on Destruction, Ishtar the Dancing Woman.