How A Dream Machine Works, Exactly

The Dream Nexus ported an experimental brainwave receiver, developed by a quasi-national U.S. security thinktank, to current 3D printing technology. Soon I was sleeping with the apparatus attached to my temples.

Jan 5 2015, 4:00pm

​Art: ​Patrick Savile.

​My father presented me with the Dream Nexus many moons ago, at least a year before the Fall. He bought it from a small London art gallery for seven thousand pounds. It was a minor purchase, for what—in those days—was considered a major collection. I never met the work's creator; my father managed to forget his or her name. Soon after he bought it, the gallery and its records were destroyed when a bomb blew up the post office next door.

The DN, as I received it back in New Los Angeles, ported an experimental brainwave receiver, developed by a quasi-national U.S. security thinktank, to current 3D printing technology. It produced a image record of its user's dreams in black and white, one vision after the other, in a small, spiral-bound xerox packet.

Some dreams, if you flipped through the pages with your thumb, would move: a sketchy figure running down an endless staircase, collapsing into a pile of dust. A vision of yourself, swinging on a board tied to a tree, round and round, free but forever fixed in its center, giving way to a grandfather (known only from photographs) flickering in black and white. You spun away from the tree and into the sky—stomach hollow, arms outstretched—aloft. You soared up and over the water-sawed canyons of the high desert, until finally the wash of abstractions and the darkness gave way to the pitch black of waking.

I was fourteen and bored, expelled on dubious charges from an Irish boarding school. My father, a wealthy American, celebrated the end of my academic career by rocketing me to New Los Angeles. He left me there, with his decrepit mother, and continued to shuttle his way across the globe, purchasing, hoarding, selling.

I loved anomalous NLA, where old traditions had survived the degradations of the 21st century partially intact. Structures recalling the shape of life before the Decline, when people still had a rosy view of the future, housed relatively healthy people, free thinkers who'd survived the mechanical and theoretical sludge mucking up the East. And there was Doreen Niedeckeen, also an Irish immigrant, a lass of fourteen years.

Doreen Niedeckeen, freckle-faced, fierce and free. A mathematical prodigy. I found her first in the garden down the hill from my grandmother's porch. I'd snuck behind a honeysuckle bush to relieve myself, and I surprised her there already squatting, skirts up around her knees. For a few shared minutes in the garden, the streams of our consciousness joined into something larger and potentially more profound than God. We would share this secret for many years.

As I grew older, fatter, more dissipated, Doreen grew more radiant, more virtuous and victorious. I saw her here and there, always in the distance, usually the reluctant centerpiece of a group of casual youths. When it chanced we met face to face, on the street, in a museum, university or electronics shop, her eyes would turn away from mine. As if she didn't know me at all.

It didn't hurt. I was happy at home, learning to manipulate my machine. I wasn't interested in others.

The artist of the Dream Nexus apparently intended the thick xerox packet it produced as a throwback to another time. It first appeared as a retro, pseudo-revolutionary gesture, but it accomplished more. One glimpsed the imprint of a reality radicalized by dream.

I set to work introducing the implications of the DN to the rapidly-changing technology of neuroscience. I called the resulting apparatus "Oneiron." It printed nothing at all. At first, I confined my experimentation to a theoretical space, where my accomplishments needn't interfere with the reality others were weaving and unweaving all around me. I filled volumes with projected, uncertain calculations. But as the prize drew nearer—the ability to manipulate the material of mutually hallucinated reality—I began to taste power. I soon came to regard all human achievement preceding Oneiron as a static drudgery performed for the benefit of a corrupt and deluded elite. Soon I was sleeping with the apparatus attached to my temples.

My first real breakthrough with Oneiron occurred soon after, emerging from a particularly pleasurable dream. Doreen and I were children. We chased one another through hedges and fields and I brought her to the ground. I kissed her left ear. The ear flowered as I kissed it, blooming into a lily. I can't say what possessed me then. I whispered a word into the drooping stamen.


All went black and filled with sound.

The next morning, while ambling to the CALTECH library, who should I see but Doreen Niedeckeen in a gaggle of protestors outside of the president's office. To my surprise, as I passed, she stepped out of line and greeted me. I let it appear that I had been lost in speculation when the touch of her hand awoke me to the world.

"Hello you," she said, looking into my eyes.

"Doreen Niedeckeen," said I, and recoiled.

A dark pearl of blood fell from her ear, forking down along her snowy neck. Intellectually, I wasn't flabbergasted that my dream-work had infected Doreen Niedeckeen in this way. The Oneiron had allowed my unconscious mind to interfere with common reality. Yet I was disturbed by the scene. I fled. The power of the lucid dreaming mind was revealed, but it had been monstrously modified by its entrance into the Mutually Supported Hallucination Complex. My whisper had been mocked: condensed into the expression of a meaningless, godlike violence upon animal meat.

As my work continued, I was never able to dream a perfection into existence. My conscious intentions were always edited, even satirized, by reality. I saw now the waking world was actively organized against my will. Was being G-d to be victim of the cruelest joke of all? To be gigantically, necessarily, misinterpreted?

I suited up daily, and tried to keep the dreams coming. The necessary sleep proved elusive. Animal excitement kept me pinned against the real, and I was forced to rely on drugs to sever the connection. These had side effects, but I was unconcerned with my health.

My most difficult dream challenge was with what I called THE GIVEN: dreams are reconfigurations of given images observed in reality, and so one had to select interesting and productive outside inspirations. But this left me liable to chaotic interference from my own experiences. I needed a new world from where to source an entirely new perceptual point of view. So I decided to establish a colony on the Moon.

I would build it in a dream. A precisely controlled place, equipped with an imaginative reality sustained by a small population of autonomous, Emersonian selves connected to Earth. Only in such a place, I reasoned, could one be free to construct new dreamworks out of a controlled real. Focused on this great objective, I spent my days wandering through planetariums and libraries, my nights in fruitless dreamscapes, until I finally gave up the project altogether.

Exhausted, I dreamt of Ireland's troubled history. Dead cattle lay strewn over barren fields, purplish masses of putridity. Doreen and I were walking hand in hand among a crowd of the dispossessed. They loved us, counted us as their own. We loved them too, and though we suffered, we sang as we marched. And a pale Moon hung white in the dusky sky.

Lucid-dreaming now, I took the lead of the band. From an old barn I oversaw construction of a funny-looking old rocket ship. It was done in no time, painted cherry red. Everyone helped carry it out to the barren fields. Waving farewell to Doreen far below me, I felt the engines cut off. I was slipping away to the Moon.

You can imagine how I trembled the next morning as I read the latest report of the English colonization of Luna. The satire continued. Fish & Chips shops in the Parsons Crater. Tea-crops. A 1/3rd gravity cricket pitch. Engineered livestock dotting the artificial green up to the edges of the Dome.

I had a strong desire to communicate my experiences with another human being. My grandmother's age and education made intelligent communication impossible. I ponged Doreen Niedeckeen.

She answered from the University, about to teach a seminar to what appeared on the screen to be a veritable harem of young intellectual men. I was surprised to discover that she was already a professor. Doreen Niedeckeen, like me, was a natural 25. In those days a graduate degree took decades.

She smiled up into the eyemouth.

"Hello you," she said.

I beat down the emotion these words raised in me.

"The Moon," I said. "I'm going there. I am emigrating to the Lunar Colonies."

"I want to see you first," she said. "We must talk."

"The Lunar Colonies," I said, attempting to discover a trace of uncertainty in her knowledge of their existence.

"I want to see you," she repeated.

I ponged off, suddenly afraid.

Why, of all people, would Doreen Niedeckeen want to see me? It wasn't only the drugs. The rich food that gave character and color to the dream had taken its toll. I had gained weight and lost my looks, not good to begin with.

She was a psychobiologist. Did she know what I was doing with Oneiron? In the weeks following, as I unsuccessfully attempted to dream myself to the moon colonies I myself had created, the question haunted me.

One evening, I slipped out of my grandmother's house into the cool summer air and went to a little local park, generally forgotten, lush and barren as only South Dublin can be, by the harbor. There was a round pond of water, on which children liked to operate various holographic images of futuristic vehicles. I stopped and watched. Traveling was everywhere suggested; boats, rockets, robots and war-craft entangled over the mirror surface, while nannies watched and idly chatted from benches by the shore.

I stayed until the sun was low, until only a small girl remained by the pool, directing her antique sailboat with an old radio device. The hard little sails ruffled in the evening breeze. Ruddy curls fell down around her neck. She was too close to the wind. Doreen Niedeckeen aged 10 or 11.

I shuddered. Had I unknowingly created this monster with my dreaming mind? Did it now walk the Earth? It turned suddenly upon me, black-eyed and whispering as if from a dream. It ran, climbing the old wall. Then was gone.

The sailboat tipped in the sudden change of wind.

A voice behind me said:

"Hello you."

I turned and looked up to see Doreen Niedeckeen.

"What a coincidence," she said, reaching out to touch me.

Had it been a waking dream? That night, as the long glory faded, I supped on ostrich leg and caviar soup. I ate four entire jellies for dessert. I lounged, gluttonous, after the sumptuous meal, smelling bottles of scents.

After the nausea receded, I fixed the Oneiron apparatus to my head and opened a Walter Scott novel. In no time I was comfortably asleep, drifting out into my workshop of dreams.

I found myself onboard a sailboat of the sort collected by decadent capitalists of the Decline. Great white sails bowed out upon a grey sea. The ship strove against the wind, her windward lines taut, her gear lashed to the cockpit. In sight aft were the haggard hills of the California Coast, the bare and mystic outermost reaches of America. The heart thrilled.

A worm crawling along the mizzen boom became a long and rolling sea-serpent. A friendly bearded fellow off the port bow, whose intricate jaw seemed to smile as I waved. And there was my Moon! Large, luminous, glowing white in the afternoon sky.

I attempted to convert my boat to a rocketship, the sort I'd dreamed of once before. But the Creature pulled me slipping into the sea, and the boat left without me. Not to be outdone, I straddled the sea-monster's long elastic neck. Its hoary head turned back in annoyance, and through the tuft of green flowing beard, I recognized my father's face.

I awoke the next morning on the Moon.

I awoke laying out of doors, in my gardens, watching the cool, artificial breeze as it rippled through the branches and leaves. My hermitage was down a grey sandy road near Dome's Edge. Terran palms were basking bottom-heavy in the warm light cast up from ground reflectors. The white-studded black above them brought peace to my troubled mind.

Earth was low, fat, lovely to behold. She would always be there. I would never feel so far away as I did when I lived upon her face. I rose to wash myself in the round pool in my garden, edged with stone. I even remembered it. The untamed bio-engineered plants greeted me with their strange songs. I gazed into the mirrored water. I took pleasure in the sight of my own form, no longer hideous and heavy, but fat and light as man was meant to be.

But what was this?

In the pool writhed a miniature monster, a serpent, about the size of a shoelace. It had a tiny bearded head.

I caught the little freak. I stamped its brains out on the Lunar stones. The plants sang a chorus around the murder.

Inside, my mail ponged. The holographic image of Doreen Niedeckeen arose plainly before me. The false light of broadcast gleamed in her dark eyes.

"Stop using your machine," she said.

I could think of nothing to say.

"It only makes mine stronger," she said. "Look how proficient I am. Your whole world, even your body is my achievement. And I, I put you on the moon."

I began to collect my wits. "But I gave you yours."

It was hard for her to speak, she was laughing so. "All yours can ever do, you know, is make mine stronger."

She may have had reason, but I resented her tone. "If mine makes yours stronger," I asked. "Why then don't you want me to continue using it?"

Her face darkened. "It's complicated," she answered. I realized that she loved me, in her odd way.

As requested, I stopped using my machine. I purchased a small printing business for next to nothing. I learned to love the Moon and its vistas. The hermits and plants became my friends. The bond of our common situation, the break from Terra, made disagreement futile. We worked on our own obsessions, sharing observations and chemicals. We maintained, together, a quiet world. So, I hoped, it would seem to her.

There are times in my solitude when a coldness falls, as if from somewhere outside of me, and I worry. For she is there too, from time to time. Changing the world in some primal way I cannot quite perceive, leaving traces. There was the day I woke up to find a new friend on top of my hill. A bright Hawthorne tree that had no idea where it came from. I don't watch the news, and presume all such metamorphoses have passed unnoticed.

In the long afternoons, at my outdoor table under Africa, when I think of such things, I'm free to pull out my new machine. A machine more primitive than Oneiron, but which also imprints the mind into the world. I've registered it with the English authorities. It's called a typewriter. It makes the dream of you reading me real.