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Jo Lindsay Walton

Sometimes as I lie in bed, more-than-half asleep, I take a step that seems to be toward wakefulness—but I go astray. This feeling reminds me of circling a tree with one big stride. Just for a moment, I guess the dark woods disguise me from myself. When I find myself, I find myself restored: it wouldn’t be surprising if these absences were signs of some specific activity of neurochemical maintenance and repair. I feel sifted, like the leafy canopy sifts the sun into spangles.[1]

Yet such moments are also glitches. They are slippages to do with memory and duration. I am pretty sure this “lostness” has lasted just a second, but … it may have been more like two.[2] The very same Thing that can enchant eight hours, so that they pass like no time at all, has brushed against me: but only to confuse the difference between one second and two.

Such slips are typical of dreams. The dream-world leads measurement on a merry chase. Clock time cannot tick here, and dream journals are seldom timesheets. Rulers will not neatly mark out the centimetres, but rather flow like rivers. The dreaming mind likewise meanders. Or, if it deigns to follow a straight line, it hops up on the low wall between two categories to teeter along it for fun. You may meet people and objects who are themselves and something else. A thing can be both true and false: through this loophole, irreverent deities pop by for a visit, despite the irreality of their godhead.

The dream-world defies measurement, and for its elusiveness we venerate the dream-world. Yet this brings dangers. A thing that is not measured is at risk of being not valued. More broadly, anything that is difficult to quantify may be difficult to put into decision-making. Experts on utopia often treat precise blueprints for bold ideas—ideas like the end of money or work, or even just of police and prisons—as though they were sinister Trojan horses. Yet the same experts will revere the same ideas for their supposed revelatory power, when they are only clothed in the vagueness of dreams.

I propose that dreams are real, at least in the sense that the dreamer’s joys and sorrows are real (perhaps in other ways too). This means that dreams are not, as it were, ontologically illegitimate as tools and objects of evaluation, policy, and governance. In other words, there may be good reasons to advocate oneiric laissez-faire, but whether or not we should think about dreams like we think about employment or inflation, it’s not impossible that we might. Dreams might even give rise to their own kinds of precision, measurement, audit, and operationalization.[3]

But how to begin? We might try setting a dream to catch a dream. Speculative fiction, that is, has sometimes been designated a dream. In The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited (1994), the critic and theorist Lyman Tower Sargeant suggests that “at its base utopianism is social dreaming” (p. 3), a social dreaming that we sometimes reason around, and act upon. Tower and base: coarse and portentous wordplay, worthy of a dream. In Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming (2013), the design theorists Fiona Dunne and Anthony Raby lament “the downgrading of dreams to hopes” and suggest that speculative design, speculative fiction, and speculative everything may nurture “one million tiny utopias each dreamt up by a single person” (p. 8).

Speculative fiction as dreaming is just a metaphor. Yet I want to take this metaphor seriously. What realities might we discover, by using one kind of dream to interpret the other? And what might our dreams—of either kind, or of both at once—be really worth?

Set a Dream to Catch a Dream

When speculative fiction does think about quantifying dreams, these dreams are often—as though in a dream—both dream and not-dream. For example, dreams and drugs entwine in the Wonderland of Roger Zelazny’s Sign of Chaos (1987),[4] the feathers of Jeff Noon’s Vurt (1993), and the Sky of R.A. Lafferty’s ‘Sky’ (1971):

“Are you sure that we are not using up any time?” Welkin asked them with some apprehension.

“Oh, time still uses itself up, but we are safely out of the reach of it all,” Joseph explained. (‘Sky’)

Duration is likewise deranged in Greg Egan’s ‘Transition Dreams’ (1993), which minutely examines the implications of whole-brain emulation. When you copy a data file from one location to another, Egan reminds us, the new file forms gradually, as the slow progress of the progress bar indicates. If the same were done with a mind, would the interim states possess consciousness? In Egan’s story they do; the twist is that even standard organic consciousness implies a brain copied from moment to moment to moment, and the myriad transition dreams this entails:

The physical world has as much trouble shuffling data as any computer. Do you know how much effort it goes to, just to keep one atom persisting in the very same spot? Do you think there could ever be one coherent, conscious self, enduring through time—without a billion fragmentary minds forming and dying all around it?

Egan’s premise plays havoc with economic rationality: how would you estimate the utility of, say, selling a Pepsi to “a billion fragmentary minds forming and dying?"

Egan's Transition Dreams is part of the Luminous Anthology

Other speculative fiction aims to reify (‘thingify’) dreams in a more literal sense, perhaps to ensnare dreams in systems of equivalence and exchange. In Roald Dahl’s The Big Friendly Giant (1982), dreams are living entities which are captured, stored, remixed, and redistributed:

Inside the jar Sophie could see the faint scarlet outline of something that looked like a mixture between a blob of gas and a bubble of jelly. It was moving violently, thrashing against the sides of the jar and forever changing shape.

In Michael Marshall Smith’s One of Us (1998), anxious or dull dreams can be detected by means of a neural interface. Although such dreams (or at least their psychic costs) cannot be prevented or erased per se, they can be transferred. Of course a new service profession arises, dreaming the dreams the wealthy would rather not dream themselves:

We pay according to dream duration, with additional payments if they’re especially complex or tedious. [...] And we pay cash. Dream disposal is still in an unstable state with regard to legality, and we find it more convenient to obfuscate the nature of our business to some of the authorities.

Magic in speculative fiction is often a kind of allegory or estrangement of finance. N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon (2012) and The Shadowed Sun (2012) build a magic system around dreams, as this snippet of appendix indicates:

Dreambile: One of the four dream-humors that form the basis of Gujaareen magic. Culled from nightmares, it is useful for discouraging harmful growth and destroying unnecessary tissue in the body.

Dreamblood: One of the four dream-humors that form the basis of Gujaareen magic. Culled from the final dream that occurs at the moment of death, it is useful for bringing peace.

Dream-humors: The magical energies culled from dreams.

Dreamichor: One of the four dream-humors that form the basis of Gujaareen magic. Culled from ordinary “nonsense” dreams, it is useful for repairing damage in the body.

Or take the fey-themed roleplaying game Changeling: The Lost, which also gives quite substantial categorizations and rules around dreams and oneiromancy (dreamworking). For example: “In addition, with a Wits + Occult + Wyrd roll, with a bonus equal to the Intensity of the dream, the oneiropomp can determine if the dream is prophetic or not” (p. 194).[5]

In Blindboy Boatclub’s ‘Boulevard Wren’ (2019) it is possible to sell ad spots in dreams. Christopher Nolan’s oneiropomp blockbuster Inception (2010) explores the idea that we sometimes make decisions in our dreams—that maybe dreams get put into practice more often than we realise.[6] Inception’s dreams may also be infiltrated. The reverse heist crew steals into the fitful slumbers of the heir to a corporate fortune, to leave behind a suggestion. And of course …

EAMES

So what happens if one of us dies?

COBB

That person doesn't wake up. Their mind drops into Limbo.

ARIADNE

Limbo?

ARTHUR

Unconstructed dream space.

ARIADNE

What's down there?

ARTHUR

Raw, infinite subconscious.

Marketing agencies, ever avant-garde, adore the idea of inception. One time I dreamed that I kept my Coors Lights cold in the ghost of a little girl. I mean, I assume that the dream was mine. Coors have been conducting research into Targeted Dream Incubation. Who knows what their black ops are brewing up? Dreams could be prime marketing real estate, enabling exciting new forms of influencer product placement: what influencer do you trust more than you?  Last year Coors worried some sleep researchers enough that they penned an open letter:

[...] we are deeply concerned about marketing plans aimed at generating profits at the cost of interfering with our natural nocturnal memory processing. Brain science helped design several addictive technologies, from cell phones to social media, that now shape much of our waking lives; we do not want to see the same happen to our sleep.

But for a story set inside a psyche, Inception still uses a relatively binary view of desire: either it is my real desire, or it was planted there at the behest of my father’s chief business rival. Mercedes Lackey’s The Fairy Godmother (2004) offers a more nuanced description of inception:

 She moaned a little, and her lips parted insensibly beneath his kiss [...] She came awake all at once, and in a fury. The benighted Tradition couldn’t manipulate her when she was awake, so now it was trying to do so in her sleep!

Elena says “No!” to the darkness. Soon:

Could it possibly be that what she had just dreamed had come, not out of what The Tradition wanted, but out of what she wanted? Or what her body wanted, anyway.

She lay there afire with wanting and not knowing, well, not really, not truly, what it was she wanted.

Technologically-enhanced lucid dreaming is explored in Peter Watts’s Starfish (1999) and his Firefall duology (2006, 2014). The latter novels are especially alert to the function of dreams, as part of their somewhat chilling wider concern with the evolutionary function of consciousness.

To recognise my dreams as a space where not every voice is my own, and where I speak in my own contradictory polyphony, is not superstition. It is a sensible step toward building interpretive and analytic frameworks, and to enrich decision-making within and around dreams. Zelazny’s novella The Dream Master (1966) imagines a futuristic form of psychoanalysis in which subject and analyst collaborate, with the help of “neuroparticipation” technology, to construct dreams. Render, the analyst, wields his professional clout to reassure a client:

It is true that I supplied the format and modified the forms. You, however, filled them with an emotional significance, promoted them to the status of symbols corresponding to your problem. If the dream was not a valid analogue it would not have provoked the reactions it did. It would have been devoid of the anxiety-patterns which were registered on the tapes.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Social Dreaming of the Frin’ (2002), moving through each other’s dreams is quite normal. The Frin’s dreams are not quite like ours, since they are shared among physically proximate sleepers.[7] ‘The Social Dreaming of the Frin’ becomes a story in part about modernity and urbanization, insofar as dreaming is an entirely different experience in the city compared with a village:

In Frinthian cities, where one may be within dream range of hundreds of people every night, the layering and overlap of insubstantial imagery is, I’m told, so continual and so confusing that the dreams cancel out, like brushfuls of colors slapped one over the other without design; even one’s own dream blurs at once into the meaningless commotion, as if projected on a screen where a hundred films are already being shown, their soundtracks all running together. Only occasionally does a gesture, a voice, ring clear for a moment, or a particularly vivid wet dream or ghastly nightmare cause all the sleepers in a neighborhood to sigh, ejaculate, shudder, or wake up with a gasp.

Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels frequently explore layered and imbricated realities, and in Matter (2008), Djan Seriy Anaplian also arrives into shared dream-space via the technological expedience of “special pillows”:

She played with her own dreams, and took part in shared dreams that were vast games, using nothing more exotic-seeming than special pillows or nightcaps to access these strange sub-realities. [...] She took part in other semi-hallucinatory experiences that seemed like games but which she knew were also lessons and evaluations [...]

How plausible is such collective dreaming technology? Shared dreams that are vast games? Certainly events in the sleeper’s environment can influence dreams, and dreams can manifest in sleeptalking and otherwise, so there is at least a little bandwidth to play with. Last year dream researchers conducted two-way communication with lucid dreamers during polysomnographically verified REM sleep. They had them solving sums. Eight minus six. Two plus two.

Taika Waititi’s Microsoft-sponsored short film Lucid Odyssey (2020) is based on the real dreams of Twitch streamer MoonLiteWolf, and also based, it seems, on the scientific procedure used to guide MoonLiteWolf to dream and to recollect content appropriate to the XBox Series X marketing push. MoonLiteWolf wears a Hypnodyne headband in the short film. The Hypnodyne website does now hasten to manage expectations:

Please do not be misled by Microsoft XBox’s beautiful commercial. Hypnodyne ZMax does not record your dreams in visual format nor can anything else. It only records your body movement, heart rate, eye movements and brain waves. These cannot be used to reconstruct visuals. Fortunately it doesn't matter, for lucid dreaming. All you need is REM detection and stimulation!

These experiments are not without interest. Yet any science fictional fixation on playable networked dreams, the next big thing in eXtended Reality, also risks feeding a sort of solutionist, tech-bro angle on the technicalities of oneiric engineering. It’s an angle which knocks aside serious philosophical and political exploration of the technological transfiguration of dreams, in favor of a haphazard splurge of hype cycles, vaporware, snake-oil, dubious life hacks and gimmicks. All the more reason to develop an alternative discourse.

Dreamocracy

To waken from beautiful dreams can be unendurably brutal. No, I don’t have them any more. It does not exist. They don’t love me. There is no such place. She is still dead, after all. When we wake from dreams in this way, it doesn’t only cancel their reality, but also confirms their reality. The fine and infinite hesitation threaded through the beautiful dreams as they happen—the sense that they are too-good-to-be-true—that thread is whipped out upon waking. Waking can be the finishing touch of a dream’s actuality. Oh, that is how it is possible! Such a thing can be in the universe after all!

Dreams are real. But what are dreams worth? Perhaps the most difficult question, compared with the merely technological or magical problem of storing dreams, is the question of their value. One plausible rule of thumb is that my dream is worth more to me than it is to you. If dreams do fulfil some as-yet-unconfirmed diagnostic or reparative function, what havoc might a dream wreak when transplanted to a different psyche? And when transferred more circumspectly, through verbal recollection, other people’s dreams are seldom interesting. Even though people do seem to have an interest in telling them.[8]

So are dreams without exchange value? One option would be to treat dreams less like treasure, more like pollution. Perhaps a dream-backed currency could work by classifying dreams as liabilities. Under such a system, dreams must be offset by being told, and it is the listener who accrues exchange power over non-dream goods and services. In the same way that carbon coin is issued in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020) to mop up rampant carbon, dreamcoin might be issued to absorb storytelling rooted in dreams.

I think this has the makings of an eminently sensible economic system. The trick would be to capitalize on dreams’ distinctive status as self-expressions that do not generate rigid relationships of liability. Put more simply, we don’t usually see the contents of your dreams as your fault. Yet each dream may still tell something about you—and that something may be a meaningful datum in the wellbeing of the collective, of the living, dreaming demos.

Perhaps this is why we often feel the need to recall and to relate our dreams. Perhaps we already recognise that dream-telling—along with deliberation, agon, scientific enquiry, rhetoric, affective labor, the emergent wisdom of crowds—is a key ingredient of the kind of democracy we must make.

Indeed, some societies have already treated dream-telling in roughly this way. The rigid separation of dreams from policy and governance is a recent and a narrow phenomenon. Nor that separation clearly defensible on grounds of scientific rationality. Anthropologist and political theorist James C. Scott writes, in the context of contemporaneous Hmong society, of the unfortunate tendency of Western scholars to exoticize prophetic dreams and other prophetic activity. Such an attitude, Scott points out

misses the degree to which prophetic activity is continuous with traditional healing practices and with village decisions about moving or splitting up. Prophetic activity can, I believe, fruitfully be seen as a strong and more collective version of these more quotidian activities—different in degree but not necessarily in kind.

Another anthropologist, Anthony Wallace, writing about seventeenth century Iroquoian societies, emphasizes how it is a kind of collective reasoning—via interpretation and experiment—which generates socially acceptable outcomes for dream-wishes:

Dreams are not to brood over, to analyze, and to prompt lonely and independent action; they are to be told, or at least hinted at, and it is for other people to be active. The community rallies round the dreamer with gifts and ritual.

In this way, dream-telling and dream-guessing express economic demand and influence the allocation of scarce resources. The system may have its drawbacks; but then, so too does equating economic demand with the willingness and ability to pay. Here’s just one more anthropologist, Edward Kohn, describing nights in the Runa village Ávila, in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon:

Sleep—surrounded by lots of people in open thatch houses with no electricity and largely exposed to the outdoors—is continuously interspersed with wakefulness. One awakens in the middle of the night to sit by the fire and ward off the chill, or to receive a gourd bowl full of steaming huayusa tea, or on hearing the common potoo call during a full moon, or sometimes even the distant hum of a jaguar. And one awakens also to the extemporaneous comments people make throughout the night about those voices they hear. Thanks to these continuous disruptions, dreams spill into wakefulness and wakefulness into dreams in a way that entangles both. Dreams—my own, those of my housemates, the strange ones we shared, and even those of their dogs—came to occupy a great deal of my ethnographic attention, especially because they so often involved the creatures and spirits that people the forest. Dreams too are part of the empirical, and they are a kind of real.

You may say, ‘That is all very well, but where I live we have electricity, and we don’t need to use our dreams to govern our economies.[9] We already have something better. We have wages and salaries, loans and stocks and bonds, and so on. We have money.’

So you do, but do you have your fair share? Does everybody? For large complex economies, perhaps this is the question we should be asking: Why are we not paid to dream? I mean, why else would I dream? The exposure?

Wages for Dreamwork

Oneiric capital may seem like sacrilege. But dreams are at least a compelling test case in what can and cannot, what should and should not, be financialized. The NFT parade of brutal artistic experiments—minting NFTs based on colours and so forth—is winding through the world. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before it hustles up dreams into its train too. How should we feel about that?

Let’s consider some objections. Aren’t dreams sacred, shouldn’t they go uncontaminated by finance? Well, maybe so. Though it is also worth noting that ever since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol we have traded fragments of the sky itself, in the form of carbon emission permissions. The all-encompassing heavenly firmament, the ineffable wilderness-maker, city-destroyer, source of plagues or of rainfalls and rich harvests—some traditions might suspect we have established a market in God, albeit still a rather fragmented and immature market.

But isn’t dreamwork simply too difficult to monitor, evaluate, and price? Well, probably. Though a lot of the world’s work goes unwatched, and is not worse off for it. And there are plenty of markets characterized by information asymmetry—the used car market, with ‘peaches’ and ‘lemons’ parked indistinguishably side-by-side, is one famous example. Presumably dream compensation might be regularly evaluated and revised via macro-level analysis, to converge gradually on a reasonable and just schedule of payments.[10] No one said it would be easy.

But aren’t dreams a different kind of sacred, aren’t they the essence of idleness, uncontaminated by instrumental value? Well, probably not. Certainly sleep in general, and perhaps specifically dreaming, contributes in some way to the wider cognitive and affective functioning of society, including all our most hard-nosed and sharp-elbowed enterprises. For example, sleep researchers have associated dreams with the consolidation of memory, with play and problem-solving, with recovery from trauma, with learning and refining sensory-motor skills, or the ascription of subjectivities and motives to others. The Overfitted Brain Hypothesis proposes dreams are a kind of hallucinogenic and fabulist “noise,” injected into the training data of daily experience, as a talisman against overfitting. If you are okay with thinking of the human mind as a deep neural network, the kind of thing Amazon and Google use for speech recognition or image classification, then OBS is elegant and compelling. One older theory, Costly Signaling Theory, would even have us believe we carry the shadows of last night’s dreams with us like a peacock’s tail or a deer’s ponderous antlers, as hard-to-fake signals of mating fitness; such an ingenious and bizarre theory is of course itself the hard-to-fake signal it wants to see in the world. It is challenging to disentangle ‘a lack of sleep’ from ‘a lack of dreams,’ but probably this is because the two things are entangled. One way or another, for many people, too little (or too much) REM sleep affects mood, perception, and cognition.

But then wouldn’t wages spoil dreaming? Wouldn’t dreams themselves lose their essence, if dreamers dreamed for financial gain, instead of dreaming from the heart? Well, maybe they would. Though it’s worth noting that parallel arguments have been used in the past to devalue the labor of nurses, teachers, and other ‘traditionally feminine’ professions, disempowering those (of all genders) who fill such roles, while in practice squeezing these workers for every last drop of value.[11] Similarly, are dreams simply too personal, too intimate, too felt in flesh and spirit, to be turned to financial gain? Perhaps, but again, parallel arguments have been used to deny sex workers safety and autonomy.

And of course, in the most mundane sense, sometimes you may dream you are at work. Surely someone owes you a paycheck for that. Could we be paid to dream? Yes. Should we be paid to dream? A fair night’s wage for a fair night’s work? Perhaps it should be dreamers, not those purporting to speak on behalf of all dreamers, who should say whether we want to be paid.

Spent in Dream

“Tread softly,” writes the poet Samantha Walton, mutating the latent verse of William Butler Yeats, “for you tread on my treadmill.”[12]

The roleplaying game Changeling contains rules about dreams, but perhaps it is the dreams that have the last laugh: the Storyteller is urged, extradiegetically, “If you are fortunate enough to have particularly vivid dreams that stay with you after you wake up, you might consider starting a dream journal and using it as inspiration for scenes set in Goblin Markets” (p. 283). Does the game impose its rules on dreams? Or do dreams impose their rules on the game?

If dreams do, or ought to, lie beyond the realm of quantification and compensation, it is worth understanding why. The reasons that many of us reach for—that dreams are somehow too private, too particular, too hermetic, too illusory, too authentic, too merely playful—prove insubstantial. Some dreams at least are productive, or are work, or are enmeshed in networks of responsibility, or are instantiations of delight and distress.

Measurements and metrics are human inventions, technologies of objectivity. As climate change accelerates, and degrowth and green growth vie to capture how we imagine the future, traditional metrics such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) have fallen into disfavor. Alternative metrics now commend themselves to policymakers, metrics like including GDW and GDH: Gross Domestic Wellbeing, and Gross Domestic Happiness. Dreams, I think, may belong in such debates.

In this vein, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek draws a parallel between the dream and the commodity, as theorized respectively by Freud and Marx. In each case, Žižek argues, we are tempted to hunt some hidden truth. What is the real value of a commodity, undistorted by capitalism and various associated powers? What does the dream really mean? But we could hunt forever for these secrets—because they don’t really exist, at least not formatted to fit our hearts’ yearnings for them. Better to seek the secrets of the forms themselves, and then transform these forms.[13] You could even say: philosophers have hitherto only interpreted dreams; the point is to change them.[14]

Should we be paid to dream? For now, I’ll answer yes and no—not meaning ‘arguments on both sides,’ but rather an oneiric interobject, yes and no fused into one contradictory word. But dreams are real, and they are half the world. If monetary compensation for dreamwork continues to prove elusive, we should turn our attention either to how to abolish money, or how to abolish dreams.

Dreams are real. Set a dream to catch a dream. In Le Guin’s ‘The Social Dreaming of the Frin,’ there is no word for unreal: the closest word is bodiless. We might learn from that. And from this:

For them, dream is a communion of all the sentient creatures in the world. It puts the notion of self deeply into question. I can imagine only that for them to fall asleep is to abandon the self utterly, to enter or reenter the limitless community of being, almost as death is for us.


[1] Elements of this essay are loosely inspired by the international feminist Wages for Housework movement that began in the 1970s and continues to shape feminist theory and activism today. Silvia Federici writes in Wages Against Housework (1975), “not only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character” (p. 2). Selma James writes in The Global Kitchen (1985), “Women’s unwaged work is more pervasive and varied than any one person or study has ever calculated or computed. [...] Caring for others is accomplished by a dazzling array of skills in an endless variety of circumstances. As well as cooking, shopping, cleaning and laundering, planting, tending and harvesting for others, women comfort and guide, nurse and teach, arrange and advise, discipline and encourage, fight for and pacify. This skilled work, which requires judgment and above all self-discipline and selflessness, is most often performed within the family. Taxing and exhausting under any circumstances, this service work, this emotional housework, has an additional emotional cost when it is done for and on behalf of those whom the woman is emotionally involved with. But all this is expected of women by everyone: friends and neighbors, workmates, employers (why else is the secretary called the ‘office wife’?), as well as family; this emotional work is done both outside and inside the home. For example, unknown men have been confident enough to ask a woman in a public place for a smile to cheer them on their way.” For a history of the emergence of the movement, see Louise Toupin’s Wages for Housework: A History of an International Feminist Movement. UN Women is among the organisations seeking to monitor and report on the status of unpaid gendered labor.

[2] Or, as Britney sings in ‘3’ (2009): “Or three, or four, on the floor.”

[3] Dream researcher Mark J. Blechner gives this example of the kind of ‘interobjects’ that can be found in dreams: “They were crossing the channel and for some reason needed another boat. They were frightened, but then a seal swam up to them. They thought it was just a seal, but then they looked and under the water it was a whole boat, it was huge, so they climbed onto the seal/boat, and it brought them to the shore of the mainland” (The Dream Frontier, p. 68). Dreams have agency in the waking world, after all; they do things; the seal/boat lands on the shore of the day, and conveys its cargo onward to daylit destinations. What is the worth of its cargo?

[4] In Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber (1970-1991), dreaming is sometimes associated with shifts from one world to another. Only two places are held to be really real, Amber and Chaos, while all other worlds Shadows strung out between them, a sort of Plato’s Tunnel, or dreamocracy. Dara, speaking in The Guns of Avalon (1972), describes one journey: “I set out, still half dreaming, it seemed. I rode the entire distance without stopping once, and this time I paid no special heed to my surroundings, but kept thinking of Avalon—and as I rode, things kept getting more and more familiar until I was here again. Only then did it seem as if I were fully awake.” Reality, in Zelazny’s Chronicles, is figured as lands: sacred, scarce, solid, with a soil rich enough to root infinite epiphenomena. Yet these novels also invite us to question whether resistance and rivalry really are the telltale traces of the real. We don’t have to share the squabbling aristocrats’ disdain for Shadow, for its soft, malleable abundance, hardly worth murdering or imprisoning anyone over. What would a macroeconomics of Shadow look like?

[5] Dreams can also easily become items of trade in the game’s Goblin Markets; admittedly the storytelling prompts satirize, rather than enact, quantitative systematization: “there seems to be no logic to what the Goblin Markets will accept as payment. [...] Sometimes the price isn’t even an actual object, but some metaphysical requirement” (p. 283).

[6] Discussing “the instrumental effect that dreams can have on practical activities” among Aguaruna hunters, anthropologist Michael F. Brown describes a far more intensive and rationalized institution of dream incubation: “It bears pointing out that the dream, rather than being the spontaneous event implied by the term ‘omen,’ represents the culmination of an extended process that begins with a period of fasting and sexual abstinence, continues through the consumption of disagreeably bitter hallucinogens, and concludes with an unusual sensory experience: the sight, sound, and smell of numerous game species parading before thedreamer. The experience is thus the endpoint of a cultural recipe, an established set of procedures that are informed by an instrumental purpose” (Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, ed. Barbara Tedlock, p. 163).

[7] Although see Kohn’s account of his nights in Ávila, later in this essay.

[8] There is plenty of variation. I personally like hearing dreams. And of course, the examples given in the text of dream-telling in Hmong, Iroquoian and Runa cultures, among many others.

[9] Even in neoliberal modernity, are dreams entirely sealed away from practices of governance? Think about individual self-governance. Wearables and sleep apps aim to reclaim sleep as data fit for daylight. Dawn by dawn they redraw us the revels of our diverse fairy courts, reduced to graphs of spikes and troughs. They analyze our biometrics. They incite insomniacs to devise ever more baroque systems of sleep hygiene. Some apps even promise to gently stir us from our slumbers at just the optimal moment, so we’ll leap fresh-faced out of bed. Here they surely over-promise: whatever work or play we awaken to must factor in more heavily than the timing of the digital nudge. Such apps show us how casting a web woven of numbers over the dream-world need not be anathema ... at least, not while the dream-world mostly slips through its gaps. But might we catch a little more than we do?

[10] As a starting point, you might assume that nightmares should generate zero revenue, since they are a social ill which ought to be disincentivized. Then again, after a spell under this system, it might transpire that the zero compensation rule does not have the intended inhibitory effect, or that even certain nightmares are connected in some sly with the flourishing of the world. As with any economics, risks of perverse incentives and unintended side effects abound.

[11] See first endnote.

[12] Yeats’s line is “tread on my dreams.”

[13] In other words: why is so much of what we do done as ‘work’ to create ‘commodities’ that have ‘values’ and ‘prices’? Couldn’t all this doing-stuff be done as something else? And what makes us dream all these latent meanings as what are called dreams? Couldn’t whatever algorithms intervene between our preconscious thoughts, and what we actually permit ourselves to dream—whatever intricate and morally-freighted mechanisms of veils and mutagens, waving wishing-wands and weird, iron-clad interdictions—couldn’t all that stuff be entirely different?

[14] “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (written 1845).



Jo Lindsay Walton co-edits the journal Vector for the British Science Fiction Association, and has stories in Big Echo, Fireside Fiction, Phase Change: New SF Energies, and Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow's Architecture. He has one novel, Invocation. Twitter: @jolwalton.
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