The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

The Twilight Zone was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid. In my earliest viewing days, it often scared me and I watched it on our couch with a pillow handy to block my view sometimes. But it also had funny episodes and lots of surprise endings whether the story was more science-fiction or what would be considered horror for that time on broadcast TV.

As a young viewer, I thought that Rod Serling – the creepy smoking man that introduced each episode – wrote all the stories but I learned that a wide variety of writers were used. Some of them were very well known for writing outside of TV, such as Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury,

George R. R. Martin (better known for Game of Thrones) and Richard Matheson (two Jersey boys, Bayonne and Allendale, respectively) wrote for the show and for other series I talk about here. Martin wrote for The Outer Limits and Matheson wrote alter for Serling’s Night Gallery.

Years later, I realized how many episodes were moral tales. I used a number of these half-hour short films in my classroom. They were even distributed at one time as VHS tapes for teachers with packets of teaching materials.

There were several TV series in the Twilight Zone mode that I eagerly watched and had definitely had influences on my reading, writing, and thinking.

one step beyond

Produced a year before Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond ran three seasons. For whatever reason, in the 1950s there was a lot of interest in the paranormal, UFOs, and the occult. This series differed from Twilight Zone because it used stories of supernatural events that appeared in newspapers and were thought to be “true.” Unlike Twilight Zone,  they couldn’t tie up the episodes neatly at the end because most of these mysteries are still unexplained.

outer limits

My previous post on Conrad Aiken’s story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” inspired this essay on some strange TV series from my youth because I recalled a film version of his story.

The Outer Limits appeared in the mid-1960s was another science fiction series that was a hybrid of Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond with original stories many of which were based on known science and some that imagined a future that might be strange or frightening based on where current science might lead us later.

Rod Serling created another series in the 1970s called Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. It was in many ways a modern reboot of the Twilight Zone. I thought about it while writing that Aiken essay because I remembered that his story was dramatized on Night Gallery.

I’m almost certain that I watched the episode on my birthday, October 20, 1971. I was a freshman at Rutgers and I had no TV, so I used to go to the student center at Douglass College to study where there was a TV room. This was not an exciting birthday. I was feeling pretty lost that first semester. College wasn’t what I had hoped for. I had expected to reinvent myself in college but I was the same kid I was the previous spring in high school. I even had a half dozen high school friends who were at Rutgers or our sister school, Douglass.

I tried to find the episode online and learned that it was dramatized and directed by Gene Kearney. It was narrated by Orson Welles, which I remember because I was rather obsessed at the time with Welles’ films.

I found a version online (not great quality).

I also found another version of the story done earlier in black and white by Kearney.

Soylent Green 2022

Soylent Green is a movie, and in that film, it is also a processed food that keeps the 40 million inhabitants of New York City and much of the world alive. It is set in the year 2022.

It was the worst of times. Scarcity. 50% unemployment. People living in cars. Women are completely oppressed. The younger and prettier ones become “furniture girls” – mistresses to rich men.

The film Soylent Green was released in 1973. It is an ecological, sci-fi,  dystopian thriller. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, and stars Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young and Edward G. Robinson in his last film.

The 2022 setting of the film is a world of dying oceans, the greenhouse effect (a term less used today) but the changing climate results in pollution, poverty, overpopulation, and depleted resources. Sound familiar?

Soylent green.jpg
Fair use, Link

It is also partly police procedural about the murder of a wealthy businessman. The wealthy elite citizens live in elegant fortresses with private security, bodyguards and their “furniture. NYPD detective Frank Thorn (Heston) and his aged friend Sol Roth (Robinson) are on the case. Roth, AKA “Book, “is a very intelligent former college professor and police analyst who remembers the world when it had animals and real food.

The murder victim was William R. Simonson, a board member of the Soylent Corporation which makes the food supply for half of the world. Their cookie/wafers include “Soylent Red” and “Soylent Yellow” but their new product is “Soylent Green” which is a more nutritious version and it is in demand and in short supply. It is advertised as being made from ocean plankton. There are supply chain and distribution problems and that causes riots when supplies run out. Rioters are violently removed from the streets by garbage-truck-type vehicles called “Scoops” that shovel up people and haul them away.

Simonson’s “furniture” Shirl begins a relationship with Thorn and helps him. He is told to end his investigation but continues anyway and finds himself being stalked.

It has been a long time since the film was released, so can I give a spoiler about the plot? The dying oceans can’t produce enough plankton to make Soylent Green. The company needs a new source of protein. I won’t say what that source is – though you might guess – and Simonson’s murder was ordered by his own company because he was troubled by the direction of the company.

Roth is disturbed by what they discover that he decides to end his life using one of the assisted suicide government clinics. Euthanasia is an accepted practice in this version of 2022.

The screenplay was based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! which was published in 1966). In the novel, the setting was 1999.

I won’t say it’s a great film but it did win the Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film at the time. Is it a prescient film? Is it accurate in its prediction of 2022? Thankfully, we are not living in the film’s 2022 world, but there are aspects of the film’s future that are true to today.

I was surprised some years ago when I saw that Soylent (meal replacement), became a brand of meal replacement products. I was surprised because what happens in the book and film is a horrible thing.

In the book and 2012  film Cloud Atlas and in another dystopian novel, Tender is the Flesh, food shortages are solved in a similar way to Soylent Green.

Revise and Relive Your Past

Image by chenspec

I just finished reading The Midnight Library, a novel by Matthew Haig. In this story, a woman, Nora, is given the opportunity to revise some of her life choices. The opportunity comes on a night when she attempts suicide and she finds herself in a library managed by her beloved childhood school librarian. This library, where it is always midnight, is between life and death. It has an infinite number of books filled with the stories of her life if she had made decisions differently. By choosing another alternative path from her “Book of Regrets” she can try to find the life in which she’s the most content.

The opportunity sounds great but – no real spoiler – most of her alternate life stories are not ultimately much better than her “real” life.

I also discovered this weekend Reminiscence, an upcoming science-fiction film, via a clever piece of promotion that had me enter a bit of information about myself and upload a photo which was then animated and used to create a short “memory” of mine. A false memory, of course, but then as my memory deteriorates, maybe I would believe it to be real.

One of the trailers for the film

The promotional campaign says that “Nothing is more addictive than the past.  Nick Bannister (Jackman) offers clients the chance to relive any memory they desire. Looking into other people’s memories – especially people who you become romantically involved with – can turn up unexpected results.

This is director Lisa Joy’s first feature film.  She is best known as the co-creator, writer, director, and executive producer of the HBO science-fiction drama series Westworld. She is married to screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, the younger brother of director Christopher Nolan. Sci-fi must be floating in their home as Jonathan is the creator of the CBS science fiction series Person of Interest (2011–2016) and co-creator of Westworld. He collaborated with his brother, on the adaptation of Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori” into the neo-noir thriller film Memento (2000), and they co-wrote the scripts for The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and the science fiction film Interstellar (2014).

The film is written and directed by Lisa Joy and stars Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, and Thandiwe Newton. It is scheduled for release by Warner Bros. Pictures in the United States on August 20, 2021, and will also have a month-long simultaneous release on the HBO Max streaming service.

The film and the novel share a pretty universal idea that if we could go back into our past memories and select a point of departure, we could lead a better life. Change the college you attend, change your major or your career, pick a different spouse or no spouse at all, have children or don’t have children. There are so many possibilities.

You can’t change anything without changing everything. You change your college choice and your major might change and so your career changes and also the people you meet and where you live and so you end up marrying someone else or not getting married in that life. Maybe your life is longer. Or cut short.


Cassandra and the 12 Monkeys

12 monkeys

After a deadly virus released intentionally wipes out almost all of humanity, The survivors are forced to live underground. That’s the premise of a film that that resonates differently in 2021 than it did when the film, 12 Monkeys (or Twelve Monkeys), was released in 1995.

I rewatched the film last week when I saw that December 13 was the anniversary of the disaster that puts the story in motion. I saw it back in 1995 in a theater. I didn’t see it in a theater this year. I have only seen two films in theaters this year. I’m fully vaccinated and still COVID-cautious.

This science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt is set in the future. It concerns a group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys who it is believed released a terrible virus into the world on December 13, 1996.

It was inspired by the 1962 short film La Jetée, which I saw a long time ago in a French cinema course. It is quite an unusual piece of cinema as it is almost entirely constructed from still photos. It is the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel.

Time travel figures into 12 Monkeys too.  The protagonist, James Cole (Willis), lives in 2035 and is a prisoner living in a subterranean compound beneath the ruins of Philadelphia. He is selected to be trained and sent back in time to find the original virus. The plan is not for him to stop the virus from being developed or released – which is what you would expect – but to get the information for the 2035 scientists to develop a cure.

The deranged “eco-activist” who puts the virus release into motion is Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) whose father’s company developed the virus for non-nefarious reasons. Cole begins to blame himself for the plague because when he is put into a 1990s mental institution with Goines he blurts out something about a viral apocalypse, and Goines responds that “Wiping out the human race? It’s a great idea!”

In a kind of Sixth Sense allusion, Cole/Willis knows that the people he sees in the past are unsavable.  “All I see are dead people.”

The story is complex and the film benefits from multiple viewings. It’s not surprising that a TV series was made to expand the story. I have not seen the series, but it moves the story to 2014 when a plague is released. It’s an airborne virus so deadly it causes the death of 93.6 percent of Earth’s human population.

In playing with time travel, the film says that the scientists in that future know that they cannot stop the spread because it has already happened. There is no changing the past. Rather, if they can get a sample of the original, pure virus, they should be able to create a cure/antibody. The goal is to allow the remaining human race to return to the surface of the planet. It’s all about changing the future. Cole confuses the people in the past he is visiting by telling them that they are in the past and he is from the present which, of course, is their future.


One thing that pops up here and in other science-fiction and time travel tales is that a person from the future who knows what will happen in the past is not believed.  This is known as the Cassandra metaphor (or Cassandra “syndrome”, “complex”, “phenomenon”, “predicament”, “dilemma”, “curse”). The term has come to mean any person whose valid warnings or concerns are disbelieved by others. It could apply today to a whistleblower or environmental scientist warning us of something bad that is sure to come.

The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. She was so beautiful that Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy. He expected some romance in return for the gift but Cassandra rejected him. The gods don’t like rejection by mortals. Apollo placed a curse o her ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. So, poor Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.

A number of books and films have seemed relevant or even prescient since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. 12 Monkeys is certainly not an optimistic take on surviving a pandemic or even preventing it.  Rather, it is about what you do after to try to restart life, which is closer to where we are now with COVID-19, Omicron variant, COVID-20, 21, or whatever version we’re dealing with when you read this.

The past can’t be changed. Prevent for the future

Yes, Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

neural brain

Our imperfect brains sometimes link events that have little or no causal connection. Superstitions work that way. Every time I wash the car, it rains. You might think that artificial brains don’t have that little flaw – but they do. Computer folks call it overfitting. That means that these non-human “brains” also sometimes use an irrelevant detail in constructing a model.

All those scary stories about artificial intelligence, smart machines, robots, androids and neural networks tell us that they are much smarter than humans.

The title of this essay comes from Philip K. Dick‘s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the inspiration for the films Blade Runner and the sequel Blade Runner 2049.

Those neural network machines and creatures are definitely very good at learning relevant details and making connections but they also learn irrelevances.

How do humans deal with overfitting? How do we generalize from our many daily experiences to other similar situations? We dream.

That conclusion comes from research by Erik Hoel who says dreaming evolved specifically to deal with this problem. If he is correct, then it might solve a longtime problem in neuroscience of trying to figure out why we dream at all.

Sigmund Freud thought we dream to deal with taboos, but that isn’t accepted as correct these days.  Another theory is that dreams are the way the brain sifts through memories of the recent past selectively discarding unwanted or unneeded ones. But the dreams we recall aren’t very realistic and they don’t really seem to deal with the day’s memories.

Computer science is not my field but from what I’ve read one of the ways of dealing with overfitting in computer networks includes adding “noise” to the learning process so that it’s difficult for the network to focus on irrelevant detail. They call this dropout. It seems counterintuitive. Noise to improve focus?

But perhaps that’s what dreams do – insert “noise.” An example that is given is that we can trigger dreams by playing simple repetitive games such as Tetris for an extended time so that the brain becomes overfitted.

The theory also suggests that there can be dream substitutes. Books, plays, films, and the arts, in general, might perform a similar role to dreams since they are also an injection of false information.

I’ve read in numerous places that you can deprive people of sleep (in experiments and in torture) and they can survive longer than if you deprive them of dreaming. Experiments found that waking people up whenever they began REM sleep but allowing them to go back to sleep didn’t make them tired but it did make them a bit crazy. Studies have connected poor quality of sleep to a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, and even Alzheimer’s Disease, so there is that connection to dreaming. If you don’t sleep, you won’t dream. And though people often say “I never dream,” they do dream – but they don’t remember them when they wake up.

Ironically, most antidepressant medications significantly suppress REM/dreaming. (SSRIs suppress REM sleep by about a third, tricyclics reduce it by half, and older monoamine oxidase inhibitors cut out nearly all REM sleep.) Also, sleep deprivation can lead to more intense dreaming.

Returning to Philip K. Dick’s book, I was curious about the inspiration for his story. It actually began when he was doing research for another book, The Man in the High Castle. (That novel has also been adapted for a continuing TV series on Amazon Prime.) He was reading seized WWII Nazi diaries. It led him to believe that those beings were monsters who pretended to be human.

In one of the journals, a Nazi officer complains about not being able to sleep because he was “kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Instead of empathizing with their suffering, the officer only saw them as a nuisance that disturbed his sleep. That one line had a deep impact on Dick who thought, “It is not human to complain in your diary that starving children are keeping you awake.”

And so it started him thinking about a new book with “androids” who lacked any empathy.  Empathy is the main theme of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The protagonist in that book, Deckard, is human but realizes that some of the machine androids seem capable of empathy while some humans appear to be devoid of it.

It seems that he may be correct. Androids do dream. Whether they dream of electric sheep is questionable. I have never dreamed of any kind of sheep at all.


The Uncertainties of Progress and a History of the Future

H.G. Wells is best known for his pioneering novels of science fiction, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Wells also wrote extensively on politics and social matters and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of his day.

He wrote about the new technologies of his time in both fiction and non-fiction and wondered in both about where that technology would lead in the future.

He was not very optimistic. He believed that technology would expand, but he also believed in human folly. That led him to ponder with some trepidation what “progress” might mean for mankind.

In some ways, he is not unlike those who caution us today about where technology, such as artificial intelligence, might lead or leave us.

In an essay by Peter J. Bowler on, he writes about Wells’ uncertainties about progress and the future of humanity.

Though Wells championed technological developments, he worried about where and how they could be used. Technological innovation would require remodeling society. As good as Wells was about looking at the current leading edge of technology and predicting where it might go, he realized that predicting future inventions and their consequences probably would require a new definition of progress.

In The War in the Air, a science fiction novel, progress leads to more effective, and therefore more deadly, warfare. Written in 1907 and published in 1908, it contains another one of Wells’ prophetic ideas: that the technology of aircraft would be not only used for transportation that could unify the planet, mapping, and research, but also for fighting wars.

Remember that the Wright Brothers’s only had their first successful flight in 1903. Wells has a “war in the air” happening in the novel sometime in the late 1910s. World War I did come in that time period but aviation technology did not progress fast enough to make World War I into “war in the air.” There were German airship raids on London, but airplanes of that decade were not capable of the bombings and destruction Wells predicted. That would come with World War II.

Wells even throws some government conspiracy into the plot. He has the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers around the world “disappearing” from public view because they have been pulled into secret military projects to develop aviation weapons. Not that farfetched of an idea, considering how scientists were hidden away to develop rockets and the atomic bomb and still are today in parts of the world.

Illustration from Wells’ The War in the Air via

Wells earlier novel, The Time Machine, sent a time traveler into the future and what he observed was not good. The future was a Darwinian nightmare.  The leisured upper class had devolved due to a less active, less challenging way of life.  (How many people have since predicted that technology would bring us more leisure time?) The descendants of the industrial workers have become brutal rulers.

In the article, Bowler says that the Marxists saw history as climbing a ladder to a kind of utopia. But the Darwinists saw our life history as better represented by a branching tree. Wells saw science and industry’s evolution in the Darwinian way. Look how those originally insignificant mammals developed during the age of the dinosaurs and ended up becoming the rulers.

But he thought that scientific and technological innovation was leaping ahead of society, culture, and politics. We were not ready for the changes.

Another book he wrote in 1914, The World Set Free, predicted that the latest discoveries of atomic physics would give us a new source of power and also an atomic bomb.

The next step in Wells’ fears of progress is displayed in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come. The war fought in this story reduces us back to savages. His only optimism in the story was that a few technocrats survive who can recreate society but under new and more rational ideologies.

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  –  Albert Einstein

Though I really enjoy Wells’ novels and admire his ability to envision the future, I’m not a fan of the future world he hoped would come to pass. His “World State” had technological innovations helping all but those in charge were an elite group, like those who save and transform the world in The Shape of Things to Come. I hope he was wrong in this prediction of things to come.

Peter J. Bowler is Professor emeritus of the History of Science at Queen’s University, Belfast and the author of A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov.