Mac’s back – and he’s been having some dark dreams. Are science fictional dystopias an inevitable side-effect of our current species-wide existential issues?
Sometime within the last few months I realized that I’d been dreaming the same dream almost every night. The details change, but the underlying structure is immutable: I’m negotiating a miasmic world of airports, hotels and museums, all seemingly on the verge of decay and dissolution. Cities have become anarchic sprawls that recall the future of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or maybe the feral communities of Mad Max.
While I’m “there,” all of this seems perfectly familiar, sometimes even oddly welcoming, as if I’ve found a paradoxical refuge from the banality of everyday life. But the locations in my dreams are far from what I’d expect of wish-fulfillment fantasies. As familiar as they’ve become, there’s nothing overtly pleasant about them. Rather, they seem more than slightly ominous: jaundiced psychic postcards from the near-future landscapes of Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. My very identity is relegated to that of a confused tourist; my itinerary, if there is one, seems limited to so much queasy sight-seeing. I can’t plot a meaningful course of action, so I merely watch — and awake with my mind’s eye awash in fragments.
My best guess is that I’ve established a cryptic rapport with my subconscious. If so, it’s a testament to the mythological potency of science fiction that so many of the images involved appear culled from dystopian literature. More than a few of the vistas I’ve glimpsed remind me of William Burroughs’ carnivalesque Interzone: a lively street-level future that predates cyberpunk. Others are more in keeping with Ballard’s terminal vision of a future defined by expanses of concrete: not exactly where one might choose to vacation — but it’s become clear that I have little choice in the matter.
I can’t help but consider the possibility that these strange pilgrimages constitute some form of challenge, using visual conceits bound to attract my attention. Like a person trapped in an unwelcome virtual reality, I feel compelled to escape — but the world of my dreams is steadfastly governed by its own internal logic; no matter where I go, the rules are the same.
In dreams, as in life, I’d like nothing more than to leave the desolation behind, perhaps opting for the greener pastures of contemporary space opera. Even the hoary phantasmagoria of “steampunk” seems positively utopian in comparison.
So where do I go from here? How to beat the machine and graduate to a better genre? Every devout science fiction fan deserves the opportunity to revel in dystopian squalor once in a while, but a constant diet all-but-promises atrophy. As a writer who hasn’t yet abandoned ambitions of writing viable SF, I’m genuinely bothered that my subconscious has elected to show me the same thing ad nauseum. It doesn’t bode well for my own assumed creative prowess; it threatens me with the literally nightmarish prospect of stagnation — what Burroughs would have called “stasis horror.”
And maybe that’s the point.
Mac Tonnies is an author/essayist whose futuristic fiction and speculative essays have appeared in many print and online publications. He’s the author of Illumined Black, a collection of science fiction short-stories, and After the Martian Apocalypse (Paraview Pocket Books, 2004). Mac maintains Posthuman Blues, a widely read blog devoted to emerging technologies and paranormal phenomena, and is a member of the Society for Planetary SETI Research. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he writes, reads and surfs the Net. He is currently at work on a new book.
[Loving the Alien column header image credited to RedMonkeyVirus]