We might soon find ourselves so overworked that sleep itself becomes the most sought-after drug on the market. As part of You'll Sleep When You're Dead, the inimitable Warren Ellis brings us tomorrow's world of killer sleep machines and distant lucid dreams. -the Eds
“I have lived long enough for junkies to become boring.”
“Junkies were always boring.”
“Some of them used to make records and write books. Idiot. What kind of self-respecting junkie takes showers, gets a job, pays for utilities and saves up money to buy gene therapy and consumer electronics? It’s not right. Nut up, rob some old people, and buy some shit that’s been mixed in a rusty bathtub from a guy who smells like a leper’s coffin and has a tattoo of a dog eating a baby on his neck.”
Somebody sneezed on the other side of the café, and everybody flinched and covered their faces with the crooks of their arms, because it was that time of year and flu shots were bullshit. Everybody except the guy in the back corner with the post-ironic fedora, blissfully asleep, arms tucked across his chest over a laptop folded in four with an LCD strip on the crease, gently pulsing with activity. Looking closer, soft router lights could be made out, flickering under the hat.
“There’s one. Jesus. Doing his shit in broad daylight after drinking a green juice. I want Keith Richards to descend from on high and murder him with needles.”
“I don’t think he descends from on high. He just likes that rotor jetpack thing from New Zealand and people take a lot of videos of him zooming around on the nod.”
“I wonder where he buys his arteries from. Five years on statins completely fucked mine. Stop distracting me. I’m doing actual cultural commentary here. Look. You can see his rig under the hat.”
The guy in the back corner slept, eyes shifting under their lids, tracking dreams. A finger shivered, tapping the neoprene of the foldable laptop. If you’d known what to look for, you would have seen the signs of dependency. Most people bought new coats with specially-designed inside pockets to accommodate a foldable, just as in previous times people adapted to mobile phones bought clothes with phone pockets. The coat was half a generation old, cared for just enough to make for viable employment wear, the details on it fading and fraying.
The inducer’s indicator lights skittered with life like matches being struck. The inducer band under the hat was applying weak alternating current to the temporal and frontal regions of his scalp, trickling electricity into his brain. He’d sold half of his life to pay for the gene therapy: a box of chemical security guards inserted into an adeno-associated virus and injected into his neck at a pop-up clinic in the mall. The therapy dose hidden inside the headcold closed off the doors to the gene for light sleeping. Anybody who could find the scratch for the injection could, within two weeks, get twenty minutes of REM sleep at will and wake up feeling like they’d had eight hours in bed. Or, at least, would think like they’d had a night’s sleep.
The lights on the inducer rig seemed to be chasing each other, as the sleeper’s fingers twitched. The sort of twitching that, in cats, makes you think they’re dreaming about hunting mice. The current crackled away at 40Hz, drizzling the sleeping man’s brain. With the gene therapy, he could drop into REM sleep immediately. With the induction kit that cost the other half of his life, he could dream lucidly.
He believed the addition of the hat was terribly clever, and that nobody would ever know that he was getting his lucid dreaming fix in public. Just another tired worker grabbing a nap in a café.
The blissful look had faded from his face. His jaw rippled and clenched.
The technique that instantly dumped the brain into REM sleep was developed with an eye to military application. Soldiers who never sleep had been a longtime fantasy of, essentially, crazy people who would have filled their armies with robots if robots weren’t so hard to satisfyingly sexually assault. Soldiers who only needed brief sleep periods a couple of times a day were the next best thing. But, like most military materials, up to and often including shaped explosives and guns that can turn bears into pancetta, the gene therapy became a consumer product.
There was a dream, an old one, yellowing at the edges and losing its detail, that he was running after.
It saved the nascent lucid-dreaming device business, then suffering slews of returns and one-star reviews from people who spent real money on headbands that they had to wear all night in the hope of reaching REM sleep. A class spread across generations that didn’t get enough sleep anyway, whose brains were blitzed by blue light and believed eight uninterrupted hours in bed was either a historical artifact or the first sign of a brain tumour.
Combining the two elements proved to be a perfect societal storm, for people and industry.
The sleeping man was working four staggered zero-hour contracts. This wasn’t unusual, and some people would actually have called it a light load. Headcolds and headbands became the minimum viable support system for the Western precariat. Like some sixty percent of his generation, he was still living with his parents, both of whom wanted him out or dead. For his part, he took some pride in being able to give them a little money and staying out of the way as much as possible. Hunched up in the corner of his childhood bedroom, practicing his sleep induction breathing techniques with YouTube videos. He could drop out in about a minute now. It helped that he was almost always tired.
His hands quivered. His legs tensed and shifted. He was in the dream and hunting. Most of us have remembered dreams and recurring dreams. Being lucid inside a dream, for many, was the unspoken promise of being able to guide any dream back to favourite fields. The “junkie” takes and thinkpieces got started when it was generally discovered that a significant fraction of users were grabbing a powered nap at any opportunity in order to lucid-dream.
There was a dream, an old one, yellowing at the edges and losing its detail, that he was running after. He first had it during an especially cold and harrowing Christmas. Eleven years old and all cried out, as deeply and desperately asleep as he’d ever been, he had a dream that healed him whole by morning. There was a field he’d visited once, in the summer, with the early sun bringing mist off the grass.
The enclosure hedge looked to be so far away that his entire world could have fitted within the field. It was like he could almost detect the curvature of the Earth. Everything smelled clean and new, and the air had that fresh crispness that somehow always promised a warm day. The fine grain of it had gone, but the elements that mattered were still out there in the wilds of his deep memory. Upon gaining lucidity in his dreams, he would look for that one. He would try to find the field. Sometimes his brain would cheat him by showing it on a laptop screen. Sometimes it would tease him by letting him glimpse it through a dewy window, sending him rattling through the hallways of his head for the door to the outside. In his worst sleep, that terrible dream thing would happen, where the dreamer somehow cannot move quickly enough.
But if he made it to the field while it was still morning, then he could guide the dream into its dimly remembered shape. And, if that happened, he’d soon be in the back of a car, with chocolate bars and soft drinks that weren’t made any more. Everything was big and strange and bright. Reality was boundless and full of opportunity. After that, he would be in a house he didn’t recognize but somehow was still full of the things from youth that he treasured. This part of the dream always seemed to last forever.
He knew, in his bones, that he was looked after. He was and would always be taken care of. There was time for everything. Even just to play or think. There was still the possibility that he could do all the things he could imagine.
He rarely reached that place. He looked for it every time he put the band on. He wasn’t an addict. Nobody who put on the band to look for the recurring dream that made the world feel right was an addict. They were functional members of society.
The headband told the laptop he was about to wake up, and the laptop updated his work-availability Slack channel. He woke up heartbroken, but that was nothing new. So did most of the people he knew. So did everybody.