The Myth of Dream-Hacking and ‘Inner Space’ in Science Fiction, 1948–2010
Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception was a commercial blockbuster and remains an enduring pop-culture reference point. Consciously or not, though, it enters into a thematic tradition which had already existed for over half a century. This essay traces a history, through literature, cinema and videogames from 1948 to 2010, of the theme of rendering a person’s mind as a physical ‘inner space’ which can be explored and interacted with by others. These creative works reflect contemporary society’s ideas and beliefs about how the mind works, how it may become damaged and how it may be fixed.
Christopher Nolan’s 2010 science fiction action film Inception was a commercial blockbuster, making back over five times its $160 million budget at the box office. It is also an enduring pop-culture reference point, parodied in episodes of South Park and Rick and Morty, and has even been recognised as the source of a neologism, with the suffix ‘-ception’ becoming shorthand for the film’s multi-layered plot. It remains one of the most memorable action films of the century due to the unorthodox setting of its heist plotline in the minds and dreams of its characters rather than in the film’s real world, an aspect which has been more reverently carried by later television series such as Sherlock and Legion. As influential as it has become in contemporary culture, however, Inception is not the originator of this trope. Consciously or not, Nolan’s film enters into a thematic tradition which had existed in Anglophone science fiction for over half a century before 2010. The trope of rendering a person’s mind as a physical ‘inner space’ or landscape which can be explored and interacted with is therefore a kind of modern myth: creative works which adopt this theme reflect contemporary society’s ideas and beliefs about how the mind works, how it may become damaged and how it may be fixed.
Like many other cultural tropes—superheroes, vampires or zombies, for example—‘dream-hacking’ fluctuates in popularity. Although this timeline begins with a short story from 1948, a small canon of inner space fiction first appears in the 1960s, among the writers whose work formed the ‘new wave’ movement in science fiction literature. One such author, J. G. Ballard, popularised the term ‘inner space’ in his critical writings and interviews, defining it as ‘an imaginary realm in which on the one hand the outer world of reality, and on the other the inner world of the mind meet and merge’.1 Typically this ‘realm’ is a virtual manifestation of ‘the inner world of the mind’ which does not ‘meet’ the outer world so much as co-opt properties of it. Aspects of outer-world physical space such as landscape, architecture and atmosphere thereby become metaphors for elements of intangible, ineffable mental experience. Ballard’s concept of inner space is clearly reflected in the works of his contemporaries John Brunner and Roger Zelazny, which I consider alongside Peter Phillips’s 1948 short story ‘Dreams are Sacred’ in the first part of this essay.
The second golden age of inner space fiction, examined in the second part of this essay, occurs in the 1980s. This period is one of diversification for the genre; the texts surveyed here include not only novels by Pat Cadigan and Greg Bear but also the first inner space film, Dreamscape (1984). Although still concerned in each case with exploring psychologically disordered minds, these texts each expand the potentials of inner space exploration beyond the asylum or psychiatrist’s office; Dreamscape, for example, imagines the technology being co-opted by political conspirators, while Mindplayers (1987) imagines ‘pathosfinding’ as merely one service among many in a future world in which mind-altering technology is available recreationally. The final part of this essay examines inner space texts of the twenty-first century, which continue the trend established in the 1980s of moving from the page to the screen. In addition to Inception, I examine The Cell (2000), which covers ground later trodden by Nolan’s blockbuster. I also explore the world(s) of Psychonauts (2006), a platform game directed by Tim Schafer, whose levels are each a virtual-physical representation of a character’s mind. Although Inception is the end-point of the timeline traced here, I conclude with a brief consideration of where the genre may go next, based on trends identified across the three sets of texts.
suppos[e] there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work upon one another, and never anything by which to explain a perception.3
In Freudian accounts of the mind, there are strata of mental activity, with conscious thought elevated (or perhaps perched precariously) above a chaotic underworld of unconscious mental processes. This element of depth, which is common to both the topographical and spatial models, is echoed in many of the texts examined in this essay. The influence of all of these precursors, from Psychomachia to Freud, is evident from the first inner space fiction.
1948–1966: The Emergence of a Genre
like a wedding cake designed by Dali, in red plastic:– ten stories high, each story [sic] a platter half a mile thick, each platter diminishing in size and offset on the one beneath so that the edifice spiralled towards the brassy sky.9
Craswell and the narrator continue on through many other imagined spaces, each reflecting Craswell’s insanity through an environmental metaphor: ‘the Hall of Madness, where strange music assaults the brain’, for example, and ‘a great, high-vaulted chamber [where the] lighting effects […] were unusual and admirable – many colored shafts or radiance from unseen sources’.10
The narrator is immune to all danger while he is aware of the fantasy of his surroundings and, like a lucid dreamer, he can create allies and objects to help him survive. The only instance in which he is endangered is when he stops to consider ‘whether the whole business was quite – decent’, a momentary doubt which ‘negates confidence. With confidence gone, the gateway is open to fear’.11 The danger of the situation is not that any of Craswell’s imagined perils might genuinely cause harm, but that the narrator might mistake the fantasy for reality and ‘let [his] mind go under’, which would result in him ‘wak[ing] up as a candidate for a bed in the next ward’.12 Although untrained in psychiatry, the narrator is evidently aware of Freudian theory and speculates firstly that ‘[Craswell’s] affronted ego had assumed the whole power of his brain’, and secondly that ‘the death-urge [which is typically] buried deep, but potent, in the subconscious […] was not buried deep here’.13 This latter diagnosis suggests a territorial shift in the topography of the mind, with an element of the subconscious rising up to the conscious ego level, thereby taking over ‘the whole power of his brain’. This image is also reflected in the virtual manifestation of the death-urge, ‘[a]n obscene hulking gob of animated, semi-transparent purple flesh’ which looms over Craswell and the narrator once they arrive in ‘the center of an enormous, steep-banked amphitheatre’.14 Analogous to ‘[a]n ant in the bottom of a washbowl with a dog muffling at it’, the spatial relation between the men and ‘the Beast’ also demonstrates the change that has occurred in the structure of Craswell’s mind.15
Once the beast is defeated in psychomachia and Craswell’s mind is returned to health, the story shifts to speculate on the wider significance of this technology, beyond the controlled psychiatric environment in which it is initially contained. The narrator discovers that characters summoned by him and Craswell to the dream world were not entirely artificial but drawn from their memories of the real world, and that real people have experienced strange dreams which reflect their roles in the story. The narrator and Dr. Blakiston conclude that the machine, unknown to them, ‘became a transmitter’.16 Contrary to the narrator’s concern for the ‘decency’ of invading other minds, the story concludes with him ominously telling a young woman who rejects his romantic advances, ‘I can wait. I’ll be seeing you. Happy dreams’.17 Phillipps’s story thereby suggests that while the speculated technology may be valuably applied to treat mental disorder, it is liable to be abused if applied beyond the psychiatric world.
As Phillipps ended his literary career, many themes of ‘Dreams are Sacred’ were taken up in John Brunner’s 1958 story ‘City of the Tiger’, which later formed part of his novel The Telepathist (1964; also published as The Whole Man, outside of the UK). As the UK title suggests, Brunner’s fiction differs from Phillipps’s in that telepathy—that is, communication between minds without technological broadcast—is a fundamental aspect of the plot throughout. Aside from a brief dalliance with organised crime before the protagonist, Gerald Howson, truly understands his abilities, the power of telepathy is primarily associated with psychiatry. The plot of the novel is structured around a series of missions undertaken by Howson, and his colleagues within a professional institution, to fix disordered minds. While following the psychiatric premise of its precursor, then, The Telepathist expands the application of dream-hacking to present several minds which are disordered in different ways. In the first mind which Howson explores, for example, the subject is a deaf-mute girl who is not intellectually disabled—‘the lack was in the nerves connecting ears and brain, and in the form of her vocal cords’—but whose mental structures have nevertheless been uniquely shaped by her physical disabilities.18 Exploring various ‘areas’ of her memories, Howson observes that ‘because she had never developed verbal thinking […] she used kinaesthetic and visual data in huge intermingled blocks, like a sour porridge with stones in it’.19
The spatial description is more explicit in later episodes, when Howson—now trained as a telepath—is tasked with extracting other telepaths from ‘catapathic’ states.20 Echoing the premise of ‘Dreams are Sacred’, this occurs to telepaths who ‘retreat into fugue and make a fantasy world which is more tolerable [than reality]’.21 This is first demonstrated by Phranakis, a Greek general who avoids the consequences of defeat by creating a world, ‘nurtured in his subconscious’, where he is celebrated as a victor.22 In contrast to the deaf-mute’s—and indeed to ‘the chaos of [the] subconscious’ in a neurotypical, able-bodied character later—Phranakis’s inner space is clearly figured as a recognisably human structure: ‘Down the streets of his brain a procession moved […] The city was safe’.23 Ilse, the telepath who precedes Howson into this world, laments that Phranakis’s secure mental city ‘hasn’t left room for intruders’ and is overwhelmed by his mental defences which manifest as military guards.24 Although it is a symptom of her peril rather than its cause, Ilse becomes ‘uncertain where the illusion ended’ as she is overwhelmed by Phranakis’s mind, echoing Phillipps’s story.25 With Howson’s assistance, Ilse escapes and completes her mission; Phranakis experiences extraction from his dreamworld as an image of ‘the sky rolled back, like a slashed tent, and the gods were manifested’.26 The imagery here clearly evokes his Greek heritage, but more subtly the spatial relation between Phranakis and the rupture in his inner space reflects his location in the Freudian subconscious and his imminent upwards travel towards consciousness.
This first period culminates in the first iconic work of inner space fiction, Roger Zelazny’s 1966 novel The Dream Master (a novella-length version, ‘He Who Shapes’, was published in Amazing Stories in 1965). Unlike ‘Dreams are Sacred’ and The Telepathist, which devote significant proportions of their total lengths to establishing the premise of inner space exploration and offering some explanation for its practice in their speculative worlds, Zelazny’s novel begins in media res and only depicts the ‘real’ world after several pages. The novel’s first inner space is a visually symbolic pastiche of Roman/Shakespearean history, as the protagonist Render (‘the Shaper’) partakes in the stabbing of Marcus Antonius while a perplexed Caesar looks on and protests ‘I want to be assassinated too […] It isn’t fair!’.27 This bizarre scene is explained when, in the real world, Render ‘lift[s] off his crown of Medusa-hair leads and microminiature circuitry’ which connects him to the ‘ro-womb’, an ovoid device containing his patient, Representative Erikson.28 Like his precursors, Render is an uncommonly qualified ‘neuroparticipant therapist’, ‘one of the two hundred or so special analysts whose own psychic makeup permitted them to enter into neurotic patterns without carrying away more than an esthetic gratification from the mimesis of aberrance:’; recalling ‘Dreams are Sacred’ particularly, Render’s gift is his resistance to his patients’ neuroses.29
In my reading of the Phranakis episode in The Telepathist, I identified visual symbolism which reflects the specific character and neuroses of the dreamer, and spatial imagery which calls to mind Freudian models of the mind which are theoretically common to every human mind. The opening scene of The Dream Master also displays this variation, as the assassination of Marcus Antonius reflects both the patient’s real-world career as a senior politician and his baseless ‘fears of assassination’, while the ‘darkness […] constrict[ing]’ at the ‘periphery’ of the dream appears to be an environmental manifestation of the sense that the dream is ‘about to end’—that is, it is suggested to be inherent to the dream setting rather than particular to the dreamer.30 Interpreting these metaphors, however, is complicated by the role of Render as the ‘shaper’ of the dream. Erikson protests that Render’s interpretation of this dream is not really valid since his ‘ability to make things happen stacks the deck’, and Render confirms that he ‘supplied the format and modified the forms’.31 Render’s ability to appear from behind ‘a previously unnoticed corner’ as a different character and then disappear ‘around another sudden corner’ is therefore not symbolic of Erikson’s fragile hold on reality or the mental contortions required to maintain his paranoid fantasy, but simply a display of Render’s directorial control over the dream.32 Render clarifies that although he created the dreamspace it is Erikson who ‘filled [it] with emotional significance, promoted [the events] to the status of symbols corresponding to [his] problem’, and Erikson’s concession that the dream had ‘strong meaning’ for him demonstrates that Render’s diagnosis of Erikson is correct and that the visual symbolism is ‘a valid analogue’.33 The form of inner space explored in The Dream Master therefore corresponds to those of ‘Dreams are Sacred’ and The Telepathist, but with the new development that the psychiatrist’s role is to craft a symbolic space which aids in their treatment of the patient, rather than searching for diagnostic clues or attempting to fix ‘aberrance[s]’ in a space which is created entirely by the patient’s mind.34
Unlike The Telepathist, The Dream Master focuses on just one patient after Render concludes his business with Erikson. Dr. Eileen Shallot is another gifted psychiatrist, who seeks Render not for psychiatry but professional development; she is born blind and seeks to overcome this disability by training as a shaper. Render warns that her unfamiliarity with visual stimuli means that she must deal ‘constantly […] with the abnormal’ when treating patients in this way, and that ‘[i]f the therapist loses the upper hand in an intense session he becomes the Shaped rather than the Shaper’.35 This reasserts a didactic point connecting Phillipps’s and Brunner’s works, that immersion into another person’s mind, particularly a disordered mind, entails the risk of annihilation. This common aspect of the inner space trope calls to mind both the classical mytheme of catabasis—the heroic descent into the underworld—and an inversion of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus: rather than flying too high and inevitably falling back down, the dream-hacker risks descending so far down into the mind that they are unable to emerge again. All of Howson’s missions in The Telepathist end in success, and despite its pessimistic twist ending the inaugural inner space trip in ‘Dreams are Sacred’ concludes without harm to the protagonist. The Dream Master, in contrast, breaks new ground for the genre by depicting this disaster instead of merely suggesting its threat.
Ignoring his own counsel, and tempted by the prospect of pioneering work, Render agrees to give Eileen her first experience of sight by training her in neuroparticipation. The worlds which he creates for her are mundane, realistic environments, which is appropriate to Render’s task of accustoming her to sight rather than of addressing a neurosis through symbolic tableaux. In their final session, Render creates from memory a cathedral but discovers that he is losing control and notices ‘the altar [which he] had never seen before, anywhere […] The organ chorded thunder under invisible hands’.36 Panicking, he runs from Eileen and finds it to be ‘like running through a waist-high snowdrift’, and soon thereafter finds himself stood right next to Eileen again.37 This image of motionless running recalls Erikson’s feeling of having ‘moved far from the circle of assassins, but the scene did not diminish in size’, confirming Render’s loss of control and new status as the ‘shaped’ rather than the shaper in Eileen’s dream.38 The scene of this final dream is either the lakeside cathedral conjured from Render’s memory or the black void that remains when Render banishes his images, until he attempts to ‘break the entire illusion’ by refusing Eileen’s amorous feelings.39 Declaring his hatred of her transports him to a new space ‘in the midst of a white plain. It was silent, it was endless. It sloped away towards the edges of the world’.40 This blank, blasted landscape soon changes into a mutable and threatening world, quite unlike the controlled and everyday environments of his previous dreams with Eileen. Render is pursued by a monstrous wolf ‘over crevasses and rifts, through valleys, past stalagmites and pinnacles – under the edges of glaciers, beside frozen riverbeds, and always downwards’.41 This downward motion is emphasised by a change in Render’s physical movements, as he runs ‘through veils of snow which now seemed to be falling upward from off the ground – like strings of bubbles’.42 As these snowflakes do indeed become bubbles, and Render’s running motion is transformed into a headlong dive—‘[l]ike a swimmer he approached’—it seems that this chaotic inner space alters to encourage his immersion in the chaotic Freudian subconscious.43 Even after Render finds himself on solid ground again his downward motion is seemingly irresistible, as a ‘chasm open[s] behind him’ and he willingly topples into ‘Vernichtung’ (‘annihilation’), bringing ‘[e]verything […] to an end’.44
1981–1990: The Second Age of Inner Space
After the initial blossoming of the genre in the 1960s, inner space fiction seems to lose its appeal for SF writers for over a decade. The next author to take up the trope is Pat Cadigan, who in 1981 published the first of several stories featuring a protagonist named Deadpan Allie. These stories were reworked to form parts of her debut novel, Mindplayers. Although Mindplayers is predated by Dreamscape, I examine Cadigan’s work first as many of her novel’s depictions of inner space derive from the earlier stories.
Allie is introduced to the reader experiencing temporary and recreational psychosis using an illegal device called a ‘madcap’ which, like all other inner space directed devices in the novel, functions via electrical connections which go ‘under [her] eyelids and around [her] eyeballs to the optic nerve’.45 This brief introductory scene establishes that Allie is uninitiated and unqualified in psychiatric work, although when the authorities discover her ‘unique brain organization’ they decide to offer her employment, instead of a more punitive sentence, as a means for her to atone.46 While Allie is therefore akin to the other protagonists examined so far, in that she accesses inner space by virtue of exceptional innate ability, Mindplayers presents a more egalitarian vision of the future in which the experience is available outside of the psychiatric institution. In this sense, Mindplayers is most like The Telepathist, and it also shares with it an episodic structure that depicts different minds through the exploration of inner space. Cadigan’s first innovation is to begin this series with an image of Allie’s own, healthy mind. Cadigan also considers the ethical implications of the technology—more thoroughly than ‘Dreams are Sacred’—but Allie is eventually persuaded by her trainer that ‘[i]t’s not going to be anything like rape […] we’ll meet in mind-to-mind contact. But I won’t be in your mind’.47 Having consented to the training, Allie finds herself at ‘the edge of a broad field bounded by a low, flimsy wire fence; a roughly made sign […] read[s] WATCH THIS SPACE’.48 Since her trainer, Segretti, is also present here, it seems that this is the neutral space of ‘the system’ that he promised they would meet in, although Allie describes it as both her ‘point of departure’ and ‘home’.49 Less ambiguous is the cathedral which bears a sign stating ‘YOU ARE HERE. And below, in smaller letters: WHERE DID YOU THINK YOU WERE?’; Allie identifies this simply as ‘whatever area of [her] mind [she] was in’, but the sarcastic sign suggests that this represents her ego.50 Accordingly, Segretti is unable to join her when she ventures inside, in keeping with his promise that he could not enter inner space which is entirely hers. The cathedral, observed from outside, is constantly ‘shifting and changing’, presenting a pulsing mass of different architectural styles including ‘traditionally Gothic’ and ‘log cabin’.51 Inside Allie discovers a room, ‘nothing like the interior of a cathedral’, which contains an assemblage of significant objects and images from her life, ‘things [she]’d owned or wished [she] had, souvenirs of things [she]’d done or seen’.52 This TARDIS-like space suggests that Allie’s sense of self is illusory; her ego is inconstant and diverse, and her understanding of herself as a coherent and constant persona is primarily based upon these memories.
This depiction of Allie’s healthy mind is an ingenious contrast for those which she later explores as a ‘pathosfinder’—one who, like a psychotherapist, searches for the causes of mental disorder. Her first assignment is Marty Oren, a reclusive actor whose mind initially manifests as ‘a bare, sterile room [with] no windows, no doors, nothing, just smooth white walls’.53 The contrast to the more pastoral scene in her own mind is striking, but Allie declares that the ‘Infamous White Room’ is a common phenomenon.54 As she takes ‘a walk through his life’, however, this blank space is shown to be significantly apt.55 This biographical exploration is manifested as ‘a long hall lined with locked doors’, which are discovered to be ‘all empty. There was nothing to see in any of them and no sign of anything ever happening there’.56 In contrast to Allie’s cathedral, which contains vibrant reminders of her fondest memories, this corridor is ‘just a space in [Marty’s] mind. His body was an instrument rather than a live thing, his face a device […] He just couldn’t care’.57 Allie does not definitively diagnose Marty—unlike Render, she does not typically employ a psychiatric discourse—but the contrast between his inner space and hers clearly suggests a lack of sense of self and connection to the world, akin to anhedonia or even psychopathy. Accordingly, when Marty attempts to exert control over the space and form a new landscape ‘all he could manage was a bare earth under a colorless, sunless sky’.58
This dismal, barren space in turn provides an illuminating contrast with another space that Allie explores later, belonging to a schizophrenic poet. Kitta Wren’s inner space is ‘awash in lazy spiral rainbows and harlequin rivers’, a fantastical and hallucinatory landscape. As in Marty’s mind—and like Howson’s exploration of the deaf-mute girl’s memories—Allie experiences units of thought as physical objects, and ‘move[s] in among a jumble of unfinished ideas’ when she ‘beg[ins] to get the feeling [she is]n’t alone’.59 Since Kitta is dead she is not present in her inner space, but Allie’s intuition is verified by a manifestation of Kitta’s psychosis, which strikes ‘like a concentrated, highly localised storm’.60 This functions in much the same way as a real-world storm, and Allie experiences it as ‘the hard beat of the rain’.61 However, it is of course also symbolic; the psychosis which ultimately drove Kitta to violent suicide is also credited with driving her career as a poet, as ‘[t]he seizure [tears] into her ideas and images and they scattered in all directions […] a literal brainstorm […] stirring her thoughts into new and better patterns’.62 The notion of a connection between madness and creativity is a long-held one, but Cadigan innovatively imbues it here with a spatial aspect that depicts how sublimely terrifying the experience of a psychotic episode might be.
While Cadigan was publishing the stories that would eventually form Mindplayers, The Dream Master found a second life when inner space fiction made the leap from the page to the screen. Dreamscape, written by David Loughery and directed by Joseph Ruben, began as an outline written by Zelazny in 1981 based on his novel. The film stars several prestigious actors, including Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer, but unfortunately lacks the impressive visual effects of contemporaneous SF films such as Blade Runner (1982) or Aliens (1986). While the film in general and its first two brief inner space scenes in particular have dated very badly, it deserves to be remembered for more than simply being the first inner space film.63 Its climactic conflict is based around the question only alluded to in ‘Dreams are Sacred’—what happens when this revolutionary technology, designed for psychotherapeutic use in a controlled medical environment, escapes the psychiatric institution? Although Dreamscape also briefly (and gracelessly) considers the potential for technology to be used for sexual manipulation, its core premise is that those killed in a dream die in real life, and so Plummer’s machiavellian character plots to assassinate the US president.64 Before discovering this, the protagonist Alex carries out psychiatric work to aid a child troubled by recurring nightmares. The boy’s inner space is presented as a darkly lit house, which he anticipates will be invaded by a half-man, half-snake monster.65 In an uncharacteristically artistic touch, this besieged domestic space is rendered with sharp and irregular angles, recalling the iconic sets of the German Expressionist classic Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920). When the monster strikes, Alex and the boy flee down a staircase which appears to descend endlessly and float in the middle of a black void.66 Their panicked flight through twisting corridors at the eventual base of these stairs is accompanied by flickering overhead lights and several cuts from the camera filming them from behind to face-on, effectively conveying a sense of disorientation.67 Their downward motion, recalling that of Render in The Dream Master, suggests a descent from a disordered ego/conscious deep into a chaotic and overwhelming id/subconscious. In accordance with much of Freud’s theory regarding this model of the mind, it is in the subconscious that Alex and the boy can effect therapeutic change and kill the monster.
This stand-out set piece is in many ways recreated, with less visual flair, for the film’s climactic psychomachia as Alex attempts to rescue the president from the assassin, Tommy.68 The president’s journey with Alex, pursued by Tommy, follows a familiar itinerary: they begin in an enclosed space (a train car instead of the boy’s house); when a malevolent outsider arrives, they escape by moving downwards (a train station escalator instead of the floating staircase); they arrive at a dead end having descended as far as possible, and, as in the boy’s dream, it is here that the dreamer can arm himself and kill his attacker, despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation. The president’s subconscious space is even more chaotic and hostile than the boy’s, as he and Alex are chased by red-eyed wolves which seem endemic to his mind rather than a manifestation of Tommy’s assassination attempt, and the environment presents hazards in the form of loose electrical cables and rifts in the ground.69 If, as the repeated set-piece elements suggest, this space should be interpreted as a physical manifestation of Freudian subconscious, then psychotherapeutic intervention is both necessary for the alleviation of mental disorder but also a distressing and dangerous experience.
A thoroughly more effective depiction of inner space is provided by Greg Bear’s 1990 novel Queen of Angels, the final entrant in this middle period. The narrative is composed of four parallel plotlines emerging from a brutal mass murder carried out by Emmanuel Goldsmith. In one, a pioneering and ‘O.V.F.&I. – Once Very Famous and Influential’ psychiatrist, Martin Burke, is hired by the wealthy father of one of the murder victims to examine Goldsmith (and his inner space, or ‘Country of the Mind’) to try to discover the reason for the massacre.70 Bear’s speculative future reflects the passage of thirty-plus years since the publication of ‘Dreams are Sacred’; the procedure is facilitated by a ‘vial of nanomachines’ mapping Goldsmith’s brain, and the explorers interact with the world with the help of a ‘toolkit […] a simulated bright red box within which floated a display of circumstances of the probe’, calling to mind the menu window of a video game.71 Bear seemingly draw influence from Brunner, as Burke’s declaration that ‘[i]n most of [his] previous incursions into the Country the central symbol of the mind had been a city’ recalls the Phranakis episode in The Telepathist.72 Of course, this violent murderer’s inner space is unlike Burke’s previous patients’, even though the medical and psychological tests carried out on Goldsmith by Burke’s team prior to the procedure show that ‘[w]ithin certain limits [his] brain and body functions are normal’.73 Burke observes that Goldsmith uses ‘[n]o personal pronouns at all’ when discussing the murders, a tic which he (mis)construes as evasion of responsibility.74
The chapter depicting Burke’s and his colleague Carol Neuman’s journey into Goldsmith’s mind is a narrative tour de force, and perhaps the most sustained depiction of a mental landscape in fiction. Recalling Render’s fateful expedition at the end of The Dream Master, Goldsmith’s inner space becomes chaotic, hostile and surreal, and Neuman is incapacitated; although she regains consciousness by the novel’s coda, she and Goldsmith seemingly bear psychic scars from their traumatic experience. In contrast to the Brunner-esque inner spaces previously encountered by Burke, Goldsmith’s mind initially manifests as ‘torrid blue sky and endless desert’, mysteriously concealing Goldsmith’s ‘deeper psychological processes’ which Burke expects to be laid bare.75 Instead of Freud’s ‘royal road to […] the unconscious’, they follow an ‘excruciating[ly]’ monotonous highway which abruptly ends at ‘a vast canyon’.76 In place of a city, there is ‘a crystal-lined pit, the crystals resolving into buildings’.77 This submerged/inverted city presents an unprecedented degree of ‘contraction and desolation’, which variously suggests ‘[a] pathology like the shrinking of tissue’, ‘major mental dysfunction’, and ‘internal genocide’—and, indeed, an erasure of the ego which Goldsmith’s verbal tic suggested.78
Although Queens of Angels is unique among these texts in that the (living) person whose mind forms the landscape does not appear within it, Goldsmith’s mind is not entirely uninhabited. Burke and Neuman anticipate ‘figures symbolising Goldsmith’s subpersonalities, his major mental organons, [who] would use speech’, an idea which recurs in Inception.79 There should also be ‘a vivid population’ in Goldsmith’s city, comprising his memories of everyone that he has encountered in his life.80 When Burke and Neuman arrive at the city centre, however, they discover a ghostlike population, among which ‘the inhabitants [have] very little real individuality’.81 Descending ‘down several flights of stone steps’ into an analogue of Grand Central Station—or, perhaps, into the anticipated ‘deeper psychological processes’—they find a nightmarish scene of figures jumping to their deaths, the mounting corpses dangling from the cables on which they land.82 As with the scene composed by Render for Erikson at the start of The Dream Master, this symbolic image defies and distorts physical distance, as Burke and Neuman perceive the corpses with ‘nauseating conviction’ and ‘visual acuity […] as if they were only a few meters away’.83 Burke reassures Neuman that ‘space [is] a true fiction’ here, but spectral figures from Goldsmith’s mind soon intercept and overwhelm them, demonstrating the truth of his prediction that ‘being in direct connection with Goldsmith’s mental symbology could conceivably disturb their own interior landscapes’.84
2000–2010: The Breakthrough of a Genre
The success of Inception marks the transition of inner space fiction from a marginal genre (SF literature) to a viable mainstream (Hollywood cinema). I have so far traced the development of the inner space trope throughout the mid-to late twentieth century and demonstrated that precursors to Nolan’s film exist, mostly in literature. However, although it has greater cultural impact than all of these texts, Inception is not even the first inner space fiction of the twenty-first century. This most recent age was inaugurated instead by The Cell, another Hollywood film directed by Tarsem Singh. It begins, like The Dream Master and, later, Inception, in an inner space rather than in the real world, a distinction suggested almost immediately by the surreal transformation of Catherine Deane’s horse into a two-dimensional replica after she dismounts.85 This desert space is where she meets a boy whom she attempts to persuade to go sailing. The boy’s resistance to this is reflected by the ships that he creates (and, arguably, by the desert setting in general); the first is a dilapidated tanker half buried in the sank, the second a small toy boat. After the boy runs away in anger, his and Deane’s bodies are shown suspended by a mysterious machine, revealing that this shared simulation is part of a therapeutic attempt to extract the boy from a coma caused by a rare form of schizophrenia.
Deane’s journeys into this space bookend the film’s main narrative, which follows Queen of Angels’s lead; Carl Rudolph Stargher is a serial killer who is rendered comatose by the same disease, and whose latest victim is trapped in a hidden lair. Although she and her team are wary of exploring such a mind, Deane consents in order to find clues to the location of Stargher’s victim. Singh’s visual flair is most effectively deployed in the scenes of Deane’s first venture, beginning with a sequence that represents her experience of being transported into Stargher’s mind.86 Singh cuts from Deane’s eye to a close-up of the cloth covering her face for the procedure, zooming into and through an opening in the embroidery. The camera then rises out of a pond to reveal the baptism of a child, maintaining focus on the scene as the camera loops over and, now upside-down, submerges again on the other side. The unorthodox camera motion here suggests that incursion into another’s mind requires first a transcendence of one’s own inner space and secondly a disorienting re-submergence. This remarkable shot is followed by a continuing pan as the camera re-emerges in what appears to be a sewer. Maintaining the theme of disorientation—and reflecting, perhaps, the drastic recalibration that one might have to undergo in experiencing a mind like Stargher’s—Deane is revealed lying unconscious on the left hand ‘wall’, the camera finally turning anti-clockwise to match her gravity. This perspectival trick is repeated on Deane’s later excursion, when she awakes in a glass box on top of a stone tower.87 As she pushes on the ceiling of the box it opens and she falls out, upwards, the gravity in Stargher’s mind having suddenly changed as the box opens.
Stargher’s inner space is not simply deceptive but atmospheric and dangerous. Although Dreamscape and Inception feature intertextual visual references, to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and the Penrose steps (popularised by M. C. Escher), respectively, Singh demonstrates a far greater familiarity with visual art. Scenes set in Stargher’s mind recreate visual artworks by H. R. Giger, Damien Hirst, and Odd Nerdrum, all of which are tonally appropriate for the dark atmosphere of Stargher’s mind.88 These are not simply tableaux but spaces which Deane and Special Agent Peter Novak must navigate: this is particularly evident in the scene in which Deane must walk between the glass sheets dividing the sections of a freshly dissected horse. This scene also emphasises the mechanical aspect of Stargher’s mind, echoing Liebniz’s depiction of the mind as a mill which one might enter. After passing through the horse Deane finds a room full of glass screens, where she ill-advisedly pulls a lever and presses a button.89 Singh’s camera jumps from mechanism to mechanism, showing the consequences of Deane’s actions in a Leibnizian inspection that she regrettably neglects.
Deane’s teammate warns that going ‘very deep into [Stargher’s] world’ entails the risk of ‘[coming] to believe that [his] world is real [and] theoretically her mind could convince her body that anything that was done to it there is actually done’.90 Continuous with the premise of Dreamscape, this means that ‘[if] you die in your dream, you die in real life’.91 Deane demonstrates this by being overwhelmed by Stargher’s mind and is rescued by Novak. The Cell breaks from generic tradition, however, in introducing the concept of ‘reversal’, in which the mentally disordered individual is brought into the therapist’s mind instead of vice versa.92 This ploy extracts Stargher’s ‘king’ persona from his ‘very twisted kingdom’ and allows Deane to kill him; although this does indeed kill Stargher in the real world, along with the innocent child persona in his mind, this is presented as a redemptive moment for them both.93 Recalling her enthusiasm to attempt reversal on her first patient at the start of the film, in order to ‘show him a different place’ from his own ‘world which is not healthy’ (i.e. his isolated mind), the film concludes with Deane and the boy in a space which merges aspects of both of their inner spaces (Deane’s cherry trees blossom in the boy’s desert landscape).94 Here, Deane successfully simulates a sailing trip with the toy boat and a billowing blue cloth, suggesting the imminent success of her therapeutic strategy.
Just as inner space fiction first appeared in cinema in the 1980s, another significant jump to a new medium occurs in the twenty-first century. Psychonauts, a computer game developed by designer Tim Schafer and released in 2005, exploits the video game form to provide vibrant new explorations of inner space. The player controls Raz, a young boy attending a psychonauts training camp for children. The psychonauts gain access to minds using a small door (or ‘portal’) that they attach to people’s heads. Although the leaders of the camp are depicted as adventuring spies—an application of inner space technology which anticipates Inception—the context of the game is often psychiatric, particularly in later levels based on the minds of people encountered in an abandoned mental asylum. (This is the only asylum depicted in these texts, and it is tellingly dilapidated and hazardous.) Psychonauts uses a variety of video game genres, but is primarily a platformer, a genre which involves traversing hazardous landscapes. Like many platformers since (and including) Mario Bros (1983), Psychonauts features collectible items. In the case of Mario Bros, these were coins, which could earn the player more lives. In Psychonauts the collectibles—figments of imagination, mental cobwebs, emotional baggage and mental vaults—have more thematic than functional value, although the vaults contain slideshows which reveal hidden information about the character whose mind is explored. These are often off of the path that the player needs to take to complete the level, suggesting that these memories are those that a character would rather forget and as such are kept remote spaces of the mind. One particularly effective instance of this is a whole hidden room which is impossible to access on the first pass through one of the psychonaut trainers’ minds. More powerful abilities gained later provide access a room containing writhing demonic figures trapped behind a fiery barrier; read alongside information from Milla’s mental vaults, one may infer that this hidden space represents the traumatic memory of surviving a fire in which the other children at her orphanage died.95
The use of space in other levels is even more sophisticated, if less dark. Another early level, in the mind of Milla’s fellow trainer, Sasha Nein, is simply a large cube, reflecting Sasha’s reserved nature and ostensible self-control.96 The training exercise undertaken here leads to the explosion of material and adversaries from various faces of the cube; the material’s emergence from below and formation in the shape of a crib or other items from Sasha’s childhood present a visual depiction of Freud’s notion of repression. (The player’s task of sealing these ruptures suggests that Freudian repression is a natural process and not always unhealthy.) Even in the most chaotic moments of this level, the centre of gravity is always at the center of the cube; if Raz walks over the edge of the cube, that edge becomes the floor, so the danger of falling to one’s death which is so common in platformer games is negated here. This is quite unlike the game’s most disordered mind, which Raz encounters later at the asylum. Boyd Cooper is a security guard for the asylum but is overwhelmed by his obsession with conspiracy theories. On first entrance to his mind, this is visually depicted by the interior of Boyd’s home, which features stereotypical newspaper cuttings and scrawls of handwriting on the walls.97 This is the sanest area of Boyd’s mind though—given the presence of Boyd himself there, perhaps this represents the ego—as leaving the house reveals a suburban street which twists and floats in a turquoise void. The polar opposite of Sasha’s well-adjusted mind, this level exaggerates the generic threat of falling; the street not only features gaps that Raz must jump over, but its twists and turns mean that the gravity is not consistent: gravity always pulls Raz towards the pavement, but an adjacent street might be at a 90° angle to another, meaning that Raz must jump at it rather than across to it. As with the sequence introducing Stargher’s mind in The Cell, the disorientingly inconsistent gravity reflects the disruption of a formerly normal, healthy mind, and the difficulty and dangers of exploring it.
Finally, the release of Inception in 2010 brings this latest phase of inner space fiction—and this timeline—to an end. Cobb and Arthur are ‘extractors’, corporate spies employed to steal information from business competitors’ minds. A powerful businessman, Saito, employs them to perform ‘inception’, i.e. implanting an idea in someone’s mind rather than extracting information, in the hope of convincing his rival, Fischer, to dissolve his late father’s business empire. Not only does Inception imagine inner space technology applied to a novel purpose, it also presents the only speculative future in which the technology is truly separate from psychiatric institutions; Arthur states that ‘the military developed dream sharing. It was a training program for soldiers to shoot, stab and strangle each other and then wake up’, and the only passing allusion to psychiatry is Eames’s facetious suggestion that the team should charge both Saito and Fischer for their services, given the catharsis that they induce pertaining to Fischer’s strained relationship with his father.98 In service of the corporate espionage theme and the heist-like plot of the film, Inception follows the example of Psychonauts and frequently includes vaults and safes in dreams, which Cobb says ‘the mind automatically fills […] with information it’s trying to protect’.99 In the same scene Cobb explains that ‘[y]ou can literally talk to my subconscious. That’s one of the ways we extract information from the subject’.100 Although this is a minor element of the plot, this strategy is more success for Cobb’s team than Burke’s and Neuman’s interaction with Goldsmith’s ‘organons’ in Queen of Angels.
Inception’s greatest innovation is its nested narrative structure. When Arthur protests to Saito that inception is impossible Cobb insists ‘you just have to go deep enough’, and this is achieved not by a physical descent (as in the submerged city in Queen of Angels, or the staircases of Dreamscape) but by repeating the process of entering a shared dream state while already within a dream.101 In one of the opening sequences, Cobb and Arthur attempt to steal secrets from Saito, and it is established that—in contrast to Dreamscape and The Cell—dying in a dream merely wakes the sleeper up. However, the mission into Fischer’s mind requires them to descend three levels of dreaming, which necessitates a powerful sedative whose side effect is that anyone who dies will instead go to limbo, which is ‘just raw, infinite subconscious’, i.e. a wasteland filled with the ruins of buildings created by Cobb and his dead wife Mal when they previously ventured there.102 It is from this biographical detail that the film derives its emotional core, and its hidden link to the psychiatric background of inner space fiction. Mal appears in any dream that Cobb inhabits, as his psychic projection of her is so powerful that it manifests and sabotages his mission by killing Fischer, sending him to limbo before he can open the vault in the final dream level. After Ariadne first encounters Mal while training in a dream with Cobb, she warns Arthur that ‘Cobb has some serious problems that he’s tried to bury down there’, in a ‘prison of memories’ which is physically manifested in Cobb’s dream as a lift shaft, with the scene of Mal’s suicide kept on the basement floor: as in Freud’s schema of the mind, repressed content is submerged deep in the subconscious, and like Freudian psychotherapy the speculative dream technology allows access to this.103 By encountering Mal in limbo while rescuing Fischer and rejecting her appeals to stay with her, Cobb perhaps achieves catharsis and relief from his guilt over her death. If, as the film implies, both he and Fischer achieve a therapeutic benefit as a side effect of the heist, then Inception seems to join ‘Dreams are Sacred’ in suggesting that the depths of psychiatric probing required to relieve neurosis entail dangerous risks to all involved.
Conclusions: ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’ (J. G. Ballard, 1962)
I have traced the development of inner space fiction here among various media and across over sixty years, from ‘Dreams are Sacred’ in 1948 to Inception in 2010. Like many cultural tropes, inner space has experienced bursts of popularity—in the 1960s, then the 1980s, and finally, the first decade of the twenty-first century—and comparative absence from popular culture in the years in between. In the interests of covering sixty years in the space of an essay, I have limited the scope of study to anglophone SF texts and selected texts which I deem most germane or significant in the three periods examined. This regrettably entails the omission of non-anglophone texts such as Satoshi Kon’s 2006 animated film Paprika (or the original 1996 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui), texts by more mainstream authors such as Doris Lessing and Will Self, or SF texts which fit less comfortably into Ballard’s definition of inner space, such as Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick. The readings that I have provided here highlight elements of continuity and diversity in these texts’ conceptualisations of psychiatry and mental health through the theme of inner space, but not exhaustively. It is hoped that each of these texts and more may receive further attention through this critical lens, thereby furthering our understanding of the texts themselves, inner space fiction as a whole, and contemporaneous psychiatric thought.
From this sample, however, some clear observations emerge. The repeated appeal of the genre attests to a consistent desire on the audience’s part to see the mind—an ineffable and ethereal realm, in the prevailing philosophy of Cartesian dualism—rendered in physical form. This desire is catered to by a shared symbology of spaces: landscapes, architecture and atmosphere, which attempt to translate the private experience of thought into terms more typically used to describe the physical world which we share. The texts examined here are also evidence of a lasting interest in mental disorder, as the genre typically depicts psychotherapists, or other characters whose minds are implicitly healthy, experiencing an explicitly disordered mind as a space which they must explore and interact with in order to provide therapeutic treatment. I suggest that this trope constitutes a modern myth not simply because it recurs in different media and time periods but because it frequently serves a didactic purpose. Some of the moral questions or lessons which connect many of the texts studied here, across the three time periods, include: the ethical propriety of attaining access to another person’s private thoughts; the potential misuses of such a technology should it be removed from the psychiatric institution, and the notion that exploring another person’s mind—particularly a mentally ill person’s—entails a risk to the health of the explorer’s own mind. The genre is, in this sense, frequently pessimistic; the idea of exploring another person’s mind is consistently appealing, but the texts examined here often punish their protagonists for this transgression against natural order. The trope therefore echoes the classical myths of Prometheus or Icarus, who are each punished for their hubris. Conversely, however, several of these texts offer optimistic images of their protagonists overcoming the adversity of inner space and cultivating healthy minds, particularly those of the twenty-first century such as The Cell.
Scientific understandings of the material brain have advanced significantly since 1948, but unless and until neuroscience can account for all mental phenomena it seems likely that the concept of the mind and the symbology developed across these texts will retain their cultural currency. It has now been almost a decade since Inception was released which, according to the pattern established by this timeline, suggests that another surge of popularity for the genre may be imminent. It is perhaps also due to appear in a new media, given the jump to cinema in the 1980s and the transition to platformer computer games with Psychonauts in 2004. A sequel to Psychonauts is (at time of writing) planned for release this year, and a short single-episode connecting the two games, Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, was released for Playstation VR (a virtual reality video game headset) in 2017. Although it does not feature any inner space exploration, this highlights an intriguing possibility for the genre’s future. If the symbology of the mind developed in SF texts since 1948 is rendered in the format of a virtual reality adventure game, inner space may in a sense become reality, allowing players to experience immersive worlds which, through landscape, architecture, and atmosphere, attempt to communicate the experience of mental disorder. Perhaps, despite a frequently reactionary tone throughout its history, inner space fiction may thereby conceivably come to have a practical therapeutic application.
J. G. Ballard, “Interview with J. G. Ballard,” Munich Round Up (100), 106.
Except for Inception, the texts examined here have received scant critical attention. My primary aim in this essay is to establish an overview of the development of a narrative trope across various media in recent history; I am therefore concerned less with situating these texts in the context of their (generally meagre) critical reception than with the conceptual context from which the idea of inner space derives.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings, trans. Robert Latta (London: Oxford University Press, 1898; reprinted in 1968), 228.
Sigmund Freud, Interpreting Dreams, trans. J. A. Underwood (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 623.
Peter Phillipps, “Dreams are Sacred,” Astounding Science Fiction, September 1948, 53.
Phillipps, “Dreams”, 55.
Ibid., 61, 63.
John Brunner, The Telepathist (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 43.
Ibid., 75, 109.
Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (New York, NY: ibooks, 2001), 10, 12.
Ibid., 22, 31.
Ibid., 9, 16.
Ibid., 15, 19.
Pat Cadigan, Mindplayers (London: Gollancz, 1988; reprinted in 1989), 3–4.
Ibid., 16, 21, 23.
Joseph Ruben, dir. Dreamscape. Twentieth Century Fox, 1984. These scenes occur at 28 minutes and 18 seconds, and 40 minutes and 10 seconds.
Greg Bear, Queen of Angels (London: Gollancz, 1990; reprinted in 2010), 12, 14.
Ibid., 204, 271.
Ibid., 278, 280.
Ibid., 272, 282.
Ibid., 275, 284.
Tarsem Singh, dir. The Cell. New Line Cinema, 2000. 1 minute and 19 seconds.
Ibid., 42:45; 44:12; 1:11:28.
Ibid., 51:42; 1:35:00.
Ibid., 11:03; 1:39:16.
Tim Schafer, dir. Psychonauts. Majesco Entertainment, 2004. This space appears in the ‘Milla’s Dance Party’ level.
Schafer, Pyschonauts, ‘Sasha’s Shooting Gallery’.
Schafer, Pyschonauts, ‘Milkman Conspiracy’.
Christopher Nolan, dir. Inception. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2010. The quotation appears at 27 minutes and 15 seconds; Eames’s remark at 1:21:06.
Ibid., 33:00; 58:10.
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