Where Science Cannot Follow: Dreams as the Site of Speculative Fiction

There is a great deal of speculative fiction that has been made impossible in recent years by the progression of science, technology and time. Stories that once presented a world that was not necessarily real but was still possible based on the understanding of the world that was prevalent at the time the story was being written. That isn’t to say that The War of the Worlds is no longer an enjoyable book to read because Wells didn’t know that there are no advanced aliens on Mars or that the message of 1984 is now irrelevant because Orwell got his timelines wrong. Rather, science has moved beyond the minutia of those stories and shifted the experience of reading those books. As a result, speculative fiction has had to shift if it wants to remain within the realm of possibility. One such place is the world of sleep and dreams which remain an area that science struggles to fully understand and explain. Films like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, or Hank Green’s debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing make dreams the setting of much of their world and build a speculative experience around something that science still cannot fully explain.

The entry into dreams is important, and very different, in the worlds created in Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. Christopher Nolan does not give all people easy access to the world of dreaming, instead it is a process that requires drugs and no small amount of skill, especially if the dreamer wants to have the kind of high stakes adventures that are at the centre of the plot. Additionally, dreams in this form are not the benign experience of the real world but rather are filled with dangers and pitfalls that come with looking behind the curtain – implying that what science might find when it does master the details of sleep may not be as pleasant as some would like to imagine. Hank Green is one of the people who utilize dreams as a site of positive experience that is universal. His novel uses a dream world in order build a shared experience where everyone begins on equal footing across cultures. Nolan and Green’s contrasting interpretation rest on decisions about how they want their readers or viewers to interact with the notion of dreaming.

Inception feels in many ways aspirational – you sit and watch Leonardo DiCaprio run around taking on all kinds of risks and think about how great it would be to become that kind of badass. But rather than requiring a monster workout regime the dreaming of Inception is just out of reach because the world of dreams remains a mystery (also because dream sharing is not actually possible). Alternately, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing presents dreams as something amazing that will happen to you, not something that can be pursed or created by rather a phenomenon that is driven by an external force. These are very particular decisions that have been made in during the world building of the speculative stories in the same way that a fantasy writer must decide who has access to magic.

Both of these stories feature dream sharing as a pivotal mechanic. The creators are not just interested in a setting that is separate from science, they want to explore the collective experience of these places. The collaborative aspects are what are beyond science but the need for sleep and for dreams means that it much easier to accept these constructions that it is the notion that we might one day be invaded by Martians. Technology has enabled us to see Mars in detail and to send probes to collection additional information but the picture that science creates about sleep is much less clear so creators like Nolan or Green are able to fill in these spaces with their own imaginings. Dreams are still a place where we are able to collaboratively imagine a world that is not restricted by science which means they have an immense range of possibilities that Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing take full advantage of.

People do not experience these stories and necessarily believe that they will occur in the real world, but the experience doesn’t require the same level of suspension of disbelief that other texts may depend upon. The speculative worlds that Hank Green and Christopher Nolan create are based in the possibilities that arise when science is unable to provide a clear list of restrictions. Whether the creator chooses to use the world of dreams as an exclusive place that visitors must earn entry into or if dreams are a kind of magic that happens to the dreamer the dream is still a space that is protected by real world mystery. One day Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing will be made even less plausible as science explains the intricacies of sleep but until that happens dreams are a largely unexplained phenomena that make room for speculative imaginings of the future.

Confronting the Terror of the Infinite: The Romantic Poets and Interstellar

In the grand scheme of the universe humans are very small and probably lacking any degree of importance – a fact that humanity has been aware of and sought to minimize through an understanding of the world we exist in. The works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth look back on a concept developed by Immanuel Kant out of even earlier models: the idea of sublime beauty in ideas or places that are terrifying in scope but also ultimately positive to experience. For the Romantic poets this was a notion that was heavily connected to nature and the place of humans as simply an observe in a natural world that they cannot change but much more recently the sublime seems to appear in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar film. These are artistic explorations of the natural world and of philosophical ideal that can be simultaneously frightening and inspiring.

The idea of the sublime is traced back to the Greek philosophical tradition but the concept as it is used today in philosophy originates with Immanuel Kant. He built on the work of earlier philosophers who viewed the sublime as a general kind of terrifying beauty and developed the sublime into something that is tied to the cerebral rather than the physical world. However, throughout these developments the central themes remained the same – the world is frightening but also aesthetically impressive. As with many important and enduring philosophical concepts the sublime seeped into the artistic tradition. The early English Romantic poets explicitly aligned themselves with exploring the concept of the sublime while later poets and artists of other disciplines show strong influences from the philosophical tradition without explicit ties.

Representations of the sublime in art is much more closely relate to the natural world than it is to the largely theoretical sublime that Kant wrote about. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were close friends and collaborated over a shared fascination with the sublime. Wordsworth was captivated by nature, its seeming infinite complexity or beauty while Coleridge stayed closer to Kant’s conception of the sublime with a focus on bleak landscapes like deserts or oceans. It is Coleridge’s approach that is most closely related to Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar which released in 2014, 180 years after Coleridge’s death. Nolan films are always masterfully created which supports the kind of terrible beauty that is showcased in the movie. It is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the science of the universe and both the characters and the audience are both in awe of and frighten by the uncaring universe that is revealed.

There is a continuity in the natural world that is fascinating to the Romantic poets. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner has repeating lines throughout of the sun rising and setting over the drifting ship. While some of Wordsworth later works grapple with his sense that there is a part of the natural world that he is consistently just a few moments too late to see. There is a sense that time, and nature are moving on without the observer and that feeling comes through in Interstellar as well because the characters are constantly trying to manipulate space-time phenomena to their advantage. Much of the plot of Interstellar hinges not just on human created technology but also on the potentially overwhelming inner workings of the universe. Where cryo-sleep and years of space travel can make the protagonists a mere seven minutes late to stage a rescue operation on a distant water world.

Even separated by several centuries the Romantic Poets and Nolan seem to share a fascination with the uncaring world around them. They both seek to represent their view of the world to an audience and they have arguably succeeded. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner in particular is a poem that most English students will encounter and Interstellar is quickly becoming a gateway for young people into the sciences. This may not indicate that wider society is suddenly going to start having intellectual discussions about the nature of beauty and the sublime but it does show that the central principle remains solid: we are fascinated by the awe inspiring power of the universe and all the ways it doesn’t care if we die.

Looking into the overwhelming power of the natural world, or the natural universe, is an exercise in willpower and sometimes fear. In Interstellar, the characters are not scared by what they don’t know, they are confronting the terrors of a universe that is uncaring of human concerns forcing humans to just try and find a way to continue along inside of it. This is the same essential problem that the early romantic poets are exploring, nature exists in its own terms and especially at the time of writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth there was very little humans could do to try and tame it. However, those poets as well as modern creators like Christopher Nolan capture the concept of the sublime, a world that is enormous, terrifying and beyond our control but also ultimately beautiful and worth examining.