Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Science Fiction and Dreams (2)

One of the most interesting devices used with respect to dreams, or altered realities, is how we know whether we are in a dream or awake. This has been used in a number TV series, notably Star Trek Next Generation and Voyager - in the former, the 'Moriarty' episodes neatly covered this dilemma when a holo-character began tricking the crew into believing they were in reality when in fact they were trapped inside s holo-program. Similarly, a Voyager episode covered a species that attacked people in their sleep, keeping them trapped there. Only one person, Chakotay, could determine if he was in a dream or not, by seeing if Earth's moon was in the sky (given that they were 80,000 light years away, this was a good motif to choose).

In the heady days of the drug-exploring sixties and early seventies, dream exploration was in vogue. In particular books by Carlos Castaneda (e.g. The Teachings of Don Juan and Tales of Power both published by Penguin, interestingly enough in their Psychology/Philosophy division) explored lucid dreaming with the assistance of drugs like peyote, found in the Mexican desert. Dream control (I tried it) entails first paying more attention to your dreams - e.g. by writing them down upon waking, since they are gone within seconds. As the practice continues, it is possible to become aware you are in a dream. The question is whether you can then influence it. I used to wake up. Sometimes i'd go back to sleep and the dream would continue, but I never had any control over it. To have control, according to Castaneda's writings, you just had to hold your hand up in front of your face, and look at your palm. The very few times I got close, back in the seventies, something would happen in the dream that would distract me. After about a year I gave up.

Back to science fiction. Ever since William Gibson's Neuromancer and cyberpunk science fiction, and now more reinforced as we move ever closer to immersive technologies and media, and battle simulations that become more and more real, it becomes possible to envisage total immersion approaches, where it might be possible for someone to be unsure whether they are in the real world or not. This, after all, was the basis of the hugely successful Matrix series of films.

The question I've been exploring in two novels is how aliens might use this with humans (in the first blog on this subject, as an interrogation device). For example, rather than an alien race coming with ships and slogging it out in a big sub-orbital battle, what if they could simply shove us all into a mental simulation, and move in while we lay inert, comatose, at their mercy? How would we know? As in the previous blog, the film Inception offers a glimmer of hope, in that certain details might give the game away (near the start of the film, someone who is in a dream-like reality recognizes that the carpet is wrong). In dreams, our subconscious often 'papers over the cracks' such that we seem to accept bizarre events as if they were completely ordinary, and upon waking, think, good grief, how did I not know I was dreaming? One hopes, therefore, that if we were in some kind of perfect simulation, that the subconscious might rebel (as in my previous blog story excerpt).

Anyhow, here's a dream excerpt from The Eden Paradox, chapter 2, where I borrowed a bit of dream psychology from Castaneda.

Kat heard the footfalls pounding behind her, getting louder, closing. She sprinted towards the Lander, cropped black hair glistening with sweat, muscular arms punching through the gritty breeze. Her slate-grey eyes remained locked onto the desert terrain five metres ahead, like she’d learned in the Falklands. She dared not look back, partly because she might trip, but more because she would freeze if she saw it bearing down on her. Two hundred metres. The open hatch promised sanctuary. Zack – be there!

She ran full throttle, clutching her helmet in her right hand. She’d seen the scalpel-sharp claws: one slash and she was history. She flung the helmet over her right shoulder, and counted. One – Two ... She winced at the crunching noise. As if it was egg-shell, not carbo-titanium, for God’s sake! How far behind? She couldn’t work it out. It didn’t matter; the hatch was barely a hundred and fifty metres away. She raced, ignoring the muscle-lock cramping her lungs, the strain in her thighs begging her to slow down. Go to hell!

Pumping her arms harder, she drew in a breath, and vaulted a table-height rock, grazing her left knee and almost losing footing as she landed hard on the other side, arms flailing to maintain balance. As she got back into her stride, the ground shook as the creature hit the deck behind her without missing a beat. Her legs finally got the message – she increased her speed.


"Now would be good, Pierre," Zack bellowed. He watched Kat’s mouth twitch, her thin lips pull back in fear, eyes darting wildly beneath pale eye-lids. His instinct was to place one of his stocky black hands on Kat’s shoulder to comfort her, or else shake her to bring her out of it, but he stopped short – they’d agreed not to wake her. Pierre strode in as fast as the synth-grav would allow, deftly manoeuvring between the stasis cots in the cramped second compartment, pianist-length fingers meshed in a tangle of short black hair even a crew-cut couldn’t subdue. "About time," Zack said.

Pierre primed a contact syringe, and in one smooth movement flicked it switchblade-style towards the side of Kat’s neck. There was a hiss, like a sharp intake of breath. A wash of deep red crawled across her face then vanished.

"Will it calm her down?" Zack frowned at her normally smooth, fine-featured face, now crumpled like a piece of paper, slick with sweat.

"No, but she’ll realise she’s in a dream. If she remembers, she can control it."

Zack looked down at their youngest crew member. Yeah, if she ain’t too shit- scared. Her chest rose and fell with increasing speed. "Her vitals okay?"

Pierre tapped the holopad next to the cot – several red spikes radiated outward, but none pierced the edge of the surrounding green hexagon. "Tolerable. In the dream she’s running, so her lungs work faster."

Zack chewed his lower lip. The nightmare was coming more regularly the closer they got to Eden, and Kat reckoned it wasn’t a normal dream, always exactly the same. So they’d decided to try a lucid dreaming technique, injecting a stim during the nightmare, so she could maybe control it, and recall what was chasing her.

Pierre gazed into the mid-distance as he discarded the syringe. "Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?" He said it as if reciting, a hint of his Parisian accent lingering.

Zack sighed, wondering for the hundredth time why Pierre wasn’t back in MIT, surrounded by his best friends – equations and a muon-scope. "Spare me the psy-crap, Pierre." He glared at him. They both knew why she was running.

"I have to go. I’m finishing some tests. There’s a strange variance –" 

"Whatever." Zack gave him a sideways look. "I thought you liked Kat?" Pierre hung there for a moment, then spun on his heel, and retreated to the cockpit. Zack re-focused his attention on Kat, planted himself on a mag-stool, and leant back against the graphite-grey inner hull. "Take it from me, kid, sometimes it’s okay to run. You run as fast as you damned well can."


Kat felt a pricking on the side of her neck, like an insect bite. Her cheeks and scalp burned. It was the signal she’d rehearsed, so she knew she was in the nightmare again – the same one she’d had every night for the past week – injected with the stim as planned. But it didn’t help – just because she knew she was in a nightmare didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified. Yet she needed to see the creature, to bring back details that would be flushed away as always, moments after waking. She knew what she had to do to control the dream: hold her hand up in front of her face and see her palm. That was all.

Even as she began to raise her right arm, a bone-shaking roar erupted from the creature. Her ears shrivelled in pain. The wake of the primal howl hit the back of her head. Though she didn’t think it possible, she increased her pace one final time, as if her transition from mortal fear to pure panic allowed one last gear-shift. But it was right behind her. She wasn’t going to make it. She tried to believe it was just a dream, telling herself: Look around! See it before you wake up! But she couldn’t – she imagined its claws raising, ready to strike.

For the first time she noticed that although she was in a desert, the light was a ghostly green, like an old radar screen. Why? No time to figure it out. Zack was at the hatch, beckoning wildly with one hand, levelling the shoulder-mounted cannon with the other. She tried one last time to turn to see the creature, but her neck refused. "Get down!" she heard Zack shout, just as the creature swiped her feet from under her, and she fell, flying through the air like a high diver in slow motion, before sprawling downwards, crashing through the desert floor into blackness.

Kat sat up sharply and hit the rubber pad above her cot with her head. "Shit! Every – bloody – time!" She collapsed back, breathing hard. She drove her fingers through wet, matted hair, and laid her forearm over closed eyes, waiting for the tremors to subside. She was safe, back on the Ulysses. Not that she’d left it in the past three months since they’d departed Zeus Orbital. She breathed out slowly to bring her pulse under control, and tried to recall. What had been chasing her? What had been so important, aside from the obvious – to escape? She couldn’t remember. Vague, receding thoughts uttered muffled cries through a thick fog in her mind – something about colour – something was green. But what? And why did it matter? By the time the mist had dissipated there was nothing but the distant low grumble of Ulysses’ engines, cushioned by the susurration of the aircon, with its attendant hospital-like smell. The nightmare, along with all its secrets, was gone, as usual. Her shoulder and neck muscles unwrapped, and she let out a long sigh. She wanted to sleep more, but not at the risk of nightmaring again. She heard the scrape of a mag-stool and left her forearm in place. "You babysitting me again, Zack?"

Without giving away a 'spoiler', there's a lot more to this dream than meets the eye. 

One word of advice if you are a Scifi writer - if you ever have a dream and think it might make a great story, you have about thirty seconds to find a piece of paper and a pen and write it down before it starts to fade. 

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Waterstones.
Eden's Trial is available from Amazon (free for a limited period if you have Amazon Prime)
Eden's Revenge is due out December 2012.

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