Dreams: 4/6/12

I have seen dreams used a lot in the webcomics I have been reading lately, as prophecy and insight into past events in LeyLines, as the setting for Xander, as a vision of another world in Shadowbinders, and as a vision of the past in The Bean. All those dream references made me want to write a bit about dreams myself, since it is one of my favorite subjects. (4/8/12 Edit: I forgot to mention Power Nap, another great dream-oriented webcomic!)

I am fascinated by the dreaming world and the use of dreams in stories (can’t wait for my copy of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath graphic novel to arrive!), and I have spent a lot of time recording my dreams and trying to explore them more fully. For one, they are a great source of story ideas. And for another, I cannot help the nagging suspicion that, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest or in Xander, the land of dreams is a place, like the waking world, that persists over time.

That may sound fantastical and it is not something I would necessarily go to the mat for, but it is a fun idea. At the minimum, I think that perhaps our own personal dreamscapes persist over time, because of the number of locations I have visited in my dreams that I return to again and again. Nor are these locations frozen sets that are unaffected by the passage of time. Frequently when I visit them, there is a sense or outright confirmation that time has passed.

For instance, I mentioned on Wednesday that this house on a green hill in the webcomic Xander reminded me of a setting from my dreams. It is one I have not visited since childhood, but at the time it was a bakery or sweets shop of some sort. The last time I visited it in a dream, however, it was boarded up, disused, dusty. (I know, how’s that for some heavy, end-of-childhood symbolism.)

Another location I have visited numerous times is a mashup of an amusement park and a bazaar. I have been here so many times and from various entrances that I have literally drawn a map of the place. The parking structure, front entrance, business office, carnival games, bazaar, and rides remain in the same place, although the contents of the bazaar and the nature of the rides can change. The rides themselves are often gargantuan roller-coasters and water rides, while the bazaar has an inordinate amount of used book stores. (Actually, browsing imaginary books and comics in used book stores is a common, and favorite, dream for me.) So, is this all wish fulfillment for a kid who has never really grown up? Does the amusement park exist in my mind in some permanent way or am I making it up each time from my memories of previous dreams? Or is it truly a shared realm that other dreamers can visit?

Well, I suppose if anyone reads this and has been there, you show me your map and I’ll show you mine and we’ll go from there.

Leaving the question aside of whether or not dreams are a gateway to another actual place, my other fascination with dreams is how it is possible to “wake up” inside a dream. This is known as lucid dreaming and is the premise of the aforementioned Xander and the movie Inception (and now that I think of it, even an episode of Fraggle Rock, although I doubt they called it lucid dreaming). As I mentioned earlier this week, I once spent an inordinate amount of time exploring the practice of lucid dreaming. If you are interested in trying it or just reading about it, I recommend the books Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge and Creative Dreaming by Patricia Garfield.

The quick description of lucid dreaming is that you regain consciousness and control of your actions while you are still asleep and in a dream world rather than the waking world. It seems impossible at first and I remember thinking people were just making this up, but I eventually mastered the art of lucid dreaming, for a time, and I can say there is not quite any other experience like it and probably won’t be until we have some sort of virtual reality.

Like Xander, I had some fantastic “powers” I could wield when lucid, because I realized that “it was all a dream” and so I could effect changes on my environment. I could fly, I could walk through walls, and I could shake the dream up like an Etch-a-Sketch and remake it if it wasn’t going the way I liked it, like if it was getting too nightmarish.

I would try to program dreams by focusing on certain subjects before going to sleep, and I was able to have some very therapeutic encounters this way. It may seem trite or cliché, but in one dream I had gone to sleep with the intention to meet my younger self in the dream. I did, and he was being bullied, and I chased the bullies away and had a nice chat with myself about hanging in there. It felt very real and was quite cathartic.

Well, I could go on and on about my dreams, but I know that listening to other people’s dreams can be a tedious experience because it is so difficult to truly convey the emotions and knowledge that the dreamer feels while dreaming. Needless to say, I recommend trying to learn lucid dreaming if you have the time and the patience. (I haven’t had truly lucid dreams in a while. It is something that takes work and practice, and at this point in my life I don’t have the time to put into it.)

In the end, I remain fascinated by dreams and if you ever want to discuss them, feel free to comment here or you can find me on G+ or Facebook (you can find my links in the About section of this blog).

Identity and Posthumanity

I just finished Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow and I wanted to riff on some of the ideas in there. Since the book has been out for a while, I hardly need to give it a full review, but let me at least say I enjoyed it in that way I enjoy a lot of posthuman novels. Which is to say, it was fun but thinking on it makes my head ache a bit. So let me think on it some more; I haven’t had met my headache quota yet today. Warning: if semi-philosophical rambles make you want to roll your eyes and walk away, you might want to do that now.

To briefly summarize the premise of the book first, it has been about 100 years since the death of scarcity for the human race, and the end of death itself, if you buy that. No one need starve or be homeless, everyone can lead the life they want to, and if you die, you can reload your latest backup into a clone of yourself and keep going. If all this is too much for you or you just get bored, you can “deadhead” until some point in the future, meaning you go to sleep and wake up in a new clone body 10, 100, 10,000 or x years in the future. The only currency is your reputation, or Whuffie score; have a low score and you are kind of a social pariah—you get food and maybe minimal lodging—while a high score means you can go and do whatever you want. This new world order is called the Bitchun Society.

The Magic Kingdom part of the title refers to Disney World, where groups of fans have taken over and are running the park, out-Disneying Disney itself. I enjoyed this part of the book, but it is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about my difficulty with wrapping my head around posthuman fiction, stories where humans readily deal with switching bodies, backing themselves up, running parallel versions of themselves, etc. Stories where humans aren’t really human anymore in the sense we experience it every day, because they don’t have the same worries as us (generally… these stories frequently deal with a posthuman facing the “death” of their current version, and they find themselves more attached to that version than they should be).

I have forgotten much of what I studied on the way to my undergrad degree in philosophy, but the areas that still interest me in philosophy are questions of identity and reality (for this reason, I enjoy most of Philip K. Dick’s novels). Posthuman books force me to focus on what identity means to me. Down and Out explicitly spells out what some books gloss over: to revert to a backed up copy of yourself, the current version has to die. This might happen by accident, but some people choose to wipe out their current version: in one example, it is done to erase memories of a bad relationship. I don’t know about you, but I viscerally balk at this idea. Let’s say I got into a car crash right after I backed up my mind or soul or whatever you want to call it. I lose all my limbs. The doctor tells me he can give me a little injection to “end” my current, damaged body and wake up in my nice new one. Of course, this is a lethal injection. Even in that scenario, I cannot imagine saying, “Yes, kill this me so another me can go on.”

What I can’t seem to wrap my mind around is: how can you so casually let go of yourself like that? If you die and a version of you is reborn, or if you can excise certain memories at will, or completely change the body you are in, is it still you coming out the other end? Most of the characters in these books take it for granted that this is so. Doctorow even points out that the people who refused to join the Bitchun society are dead anyways because they didn’t use the technology to back themselves up before they died. But do all these posthuman means of staying alive really keep you from dying or do they just allow you the polite fiction that the you that dies is the same as the next you to be loaded up? Maybe that polite fiction is the most we can hope for.

In the end, I think Doctorow makes the best point for why I should just stop worrying and learn to love the posthumanity: I can go along with it and risk that I’ll still be dead anyway (with some other version of me going on), or refuse it and know for certain that I’ll be dead. I guess if offered the choice, I’d go Bitchun all the way.