All that we see or seem,

Is but a dream within a dream.

Edgar Allan Poe[1]

[Fred again. Today we’re going to talk about dreams, what’s real and what isn’t, what they mean, and so forth. Sigmund Freud had a lot to say on the subject.[2] In his day there were two views about dreams, both dating from antiquity. One was that dreams come from the world of the supernatural, possibly are sent by the gods, could be prophetic, and need to be interpreted.[3]The other held that dreams are no such thing; instead they are a psychological phenomenon, related to sleep, and are subject to the “laws of the human spirit.”[4]

Freud definitely ruled out the supernatural explanations. He said that the material for dreams derives from experience, not supernatural forces[5]. Dreams are a reaction to things that happen to us when we’re awake, but we process the events when we sleep. The result, when we wake up again, can be opaque and confusing.

Nevertheless, Freud argued that dreams are organized and assembled in understandable ways. The analyst’s job is to find the patterns or, in his words, the “dream thoughts” that underlie the dream experience. “In the dream thoughts we found evidence of a highly complicated intellectual activity, operating with almost all of the resources of the psychic apparatus; yet it cannot be denied that these dream thoughts have originated during the day, and it is indispensable to assume that there is a sleeping state of the psychic life.”[6]

I bring all this up simply because Phil called the other day with yet another sci-fi story from the early 1950’s and this one is about dreams. Freud was very popular back then, so obviously he has to be relevant to Phil’s story, whatever it is.]

So you say. Let me tell you about the story, and then we can discuss Freud, or Poe, or whomever you want. The story is The Waker Dreams[7], by Richard Matheson[8]. It was published in Galaxy Science Fiction at the end of 1950.

Matheson is an interesting guy. He made his initial impact in sci-fi, but moved on to terror and fantasy fiction early in his career. He wrote some notable early books, including I Am Legend, a story about the last man alive in a world of vampires, and The Shrinking Man, a story about a man who, well, shrank down to nothing after being exposed to nuclear radiation. But today probably most people remember him for his work in movies and TV. The two early novels were picked up for theatrical release, and later he worked with Roger Corman, the director, and wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and many other series. He’s also scripted a number of independent and made-for-TV movies. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the dominant theme of his work is paranoia.[9]

[Let’s see: He came up in the 1950’s and he was paranoid. What a surprise!]

Anyway, I don’t think of him as a major figure, but he was pretty successful for a number of years. Our story, The Waker Dreams, opens sometime in the far distant future. The hero, a military officer, lives in a city that looks deserted; all work, maintenance, transportation, etc. is performed by machines, and humans don’t seem to be involved. But in this case appearances are deceptive. The humans are asleep in rooms designed for them, and tended by the faithful machines. But then the telephone rings.[10]

“Captain Rackley,” the caller says, “the Rustons are attacking. Report immediately to your company headquarters!” The Captain responds. He’s blond and quite a physical specimen, in a classical kind of way. He races to the closet, puts on his skin tight pants and tunic, dons black military boots, and “scurries” from his room. He leaps a balustrade, locates his faithful autocar, and speeds off to a central tower in the city. He doesn’t see any people on the way, but eventually other cars begin to appear, all headed in the same direction. Those must be other officers, also called to duty.

Who are these Rustons who are attacking? Well, nobody seems to know, but they have 12 legs, and exude a “foul reptilian slime.”[11] Why do they pour from their unknown pits? Nobody knows that, either, but their objective is simple: to destroy the machines that run and care for the city. The Rustons will use the “acid canker of their ooze” to eat through metal, and “make the teeth fall off [machine] gears like petals off a dying flower…”[12] The Captain’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Rackley and the others, all invariably young, handsome and muscular, arrive at the central tower and get their briefing. They are to check out their ray guns from the arsenal, find their assigned nurses (who will help protect them from Ruston poisoning), and take positions in key areas of the city. Their job is to defend the machines that run the city. “Shoot to kill. The rays [from their ray guns] are not harmful, repeat, not harmful to the machinery.”[13]

[Phil, this sounds like a parody of an old-fashioned space opera[14], you know, where the hero races about the planet, or the galaxy or whatever, to slay bug-eyed monsters and save the rest of us, especially the pretty heroines.]

Quite so. It also has some interesting Freudian overtones, don’t you think? All those handsome young guys gathered together in a tower, each with a female nurse auxiliary. That’s pretty advanced for 1950’s popular fiction, or at least for the sci-fi of that time.

But let’s get on with the story. The battle is a close thing; the good Captain is poisoned by a Ruston, but eventually wins, and injects himself with the Ruston antidote. He then wakes up in his room, and thanks his doctor for the stimulating experience. “Oh,” he says, “it was utterly, utterly fantastic. Imagine me! … Me, a hero!”[15] You see, that’s the first joke in the piece. The whole experience was a dream, made possible by pharmacology. The doctor gave Rackley an injection, and Rackley was entertained by an illusion.

The second joke is even more interesting. While Rackley thought he was safe in bed when he had his dream, in point of fact he was up and about doing useful things to maintain the city. The city originally was built to totally care for its human population, and a central computer was installed to make sure that happened. Unfortunately the residents liked that so much they became overly dependent. So, sometime in the past of this future world, human leadership destroyed the central computer. The idea was to force the population back to work, to restore its dignity and initiative. It was effective, but only partially. Humans could do physical labor if they were drugged and fooled into it. Without that, they couldn’t act at all.

[You’re right, that’s a pretty weird story. And it does echo a trope we hear today in some popular fiction. How do we distinguish between dreams and reality? Is it real when we wake up from a dream? Or is it just another dream, a dream within a dream? Total Recall,[16] for all its blood and thunder, was a movie about that.]

Yes, and what will society do with the unemployed, especially if that group rises and rises because our economy doesn’t create jobs they can do? If we automate most jobs will the majority of people be unnecessary? If so, what will we do then? Just give the excess population free injections so they can live in happy, happy land until they die? That would keep them quiet, I guess.

[I think Freud wouldn’t have had a problem distinguishing between when he was awake and when he was asleep. But he lived before modern pharmacology. Who knows what our scientists are developing even today? Someday it may not be possible to tell the difference between reality and a modern, enhanced dream state.

Richard Matheson really hit on something with this story, and he published it 64 years ago! Today the underlying concept is something you might find in Dilbert. People don’t want to do a particular job? Then program their dreams so they sleep walk and do it anyway. Qualitatively that’s no different than developing eyeglasses to destroy your enemies with a ray if they threaten you. It’s an engineer’s solution to a problem. Priests or ministers might object, on the grounds of morality, but they’re not engineers.]

Or economists, for that matter.


[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) (henceforth, ODQ at __) at Edgar Allan Poe, p. 599, n. 3. Who was Poe? Well, for those of you educated in the 21st Century, he’s a famous American writer who lived from 1809 to 1849. He specialized in the macabre and depressing, and is generally thought to have originated the ____ genre.

[2] See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (Franklin Library, 1982) at Vol. II, The Interpretation of Dreams. Henceforth Vol. II will be cited as Interpretation of Dreams, at __.

[3] See Interpretation of Dreams, at p. 15. This is my summary of Freud’s summary of Gruppe’s views of the subject. For those of you who want to do further research, Freud doesn’t give Gruppe’s full name, but does cite his book: Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte.

[4] See Interpretation of Dreams, at p. 14. Freud attributes this view to Aristotle.

[5] See Interpretation of Dreams, at p. 22: “That all of the material composing the content of a dream is somehow derived from experience, that it is reproduced or remembered in the dream – this at least may be accepted as an incontestable fact.”

[6]  See Interpretation of Dreams, at p. 494.

[7] That is, in the November, 1950 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction at p. 93-105. We have that issue on file here at the Zoo, so it’s our source for the story. (We’ll cite it as 11/1950 Galaxy at __).

[8] See Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1993) (hereafter cited as SF Encyclopedia at __) at Matheson, Richard (Burton), p. 786-787.

[9] See the entry at note 8. Matheson passed away on June 23, 2013. Wikipedia has a reasonably good biography of him at .

[10] Actually, the story doesn’t specify a telephone. It’s an unspecified device that has a receiver that one can also speak through. There’s no smart phone. See 11/1950 Galaxy at p. 94.

[11] See 11/1950 Galaxy at p. 95

[12] Id.

[13] See 11/1950 Galaxy at p. 96.

[14] If you want to know more about this, see SF Encyclopedia at space opera, p. 1138 – 1140. When done badly, it could be quite bad.

[15] See 11/1950 Galaxy at p.102.

[16] I’m talking about the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie vehicle roughly patterned after a story by Phillip K. Dick. There’s a Wikipedia entry on the movie at