Imaginary Places #2
There is an island in the Atlantic named Quantos with an interesting history; it was home to a civilization known as the Dream Harvesters. They were known for their particularly fantastic beliefs, which formed the basis of their society. For one, they believed that all the events in human history could be traced back to a single, initial event, an idea that foreshadowed The Big Bang. However their most well known belief was that the dream world and the waking world were mirror images of one another. They believed that events in dreams would lead to the opposite occurring in the real world, and that people would encounter the opposite of whatever happened during the day in their dreams. This belief eventually gave rise to an industry that gave them their name, and also destroyed them.
The early period of their history is filled with tales of Oracles interpreting dreams to foretell what would occur during the day. Oracles were required because although at times the relationship between dreams and the world was quite literal (a death in a dream predicting a birth during the day) it was more often interpreted symbolically. So, for example, dreaming of death might symbolize an end that would then predict a new beginning in the world (1).
Dream interpretation was complicated by the fact that every facet of a dream had to be inverted before being applied to the real world (2). For instance, spatial relations–dreaming about a death in one’s house meant someone would be born overseas. On the other hand dreaming of a birth in a distant land gave people cause to worry. Oracles had to quantify and invert every element of a dream–its emotional tone, its abstractness, its time period–and thus it was a difficult task that required years of study (3).
The island went through what could be called an existential crisis when an idea known as the Infinite Mirror Theory came to light. It made the observation that, according to their beliefs, an event occurring in a dream would cause an event the next day, however this event during the day would then also cause an event the following night, leading to an event the next day and so on. This idea was terrifying to the people of Quantos–a notion of determinism resting on their foundational belief. The entire culture at the time centered on using dreams to foretell, and then possibly alter, the future. The idea that this was impossible was devastating.
The Infinite Mirror Theory lost some of its power when an individual pointed out what has come to be known as the Multiple Threads Rebuttal. The people of the island believed that each day/night contained a multitude of events that then caused a multitude of events the next night/day. However, they also believed that the universe began from a single event. Thus, the question went, if the multiple events in every dream were caused the multiple events of the day before, and those events were caused by the multiple events in the dream before that, how could these threads of events be traced back to a single event? Either the Infinite Mirror Theory was wrong or the universe did not begin with a single event (4). Notice that this did not necessarily disprove the Infinite Mirror Theory, but finding any reason to doubt it was comforting to the people of the island, and it was soon forgotten. Discussions of infinite loops were relegated to philosophers, and the general public went on with their lives ignoring what was the natural extension of their belief about dreams.
There were two precursors that lead to the practice of dream harvesting. The first was a general disdain for determinism, stemming from the crisis of faith that the island had just undergone. The second was a discovery that events in the environment of a dreamer could influence the content of their dreams–someone smelling food while asleep would dream about food, for instance (5). The king of Quantos wondered if it was possible to use this to alter dreams as a way of altering what occurred during the day.
And so elaborate dream houses were built, containing rows and rows of beds; volunteer dreamers were continually fed opiates to keep them in prolonged states of sleep. While sleeping, people known as Dream Harvesters used sounds, smells and movements to try and induce dreams of war, famine and death in the dreamers, to then create the opposite in the real world.
The descriptions of the dream houses are fantastic. Enormous halls lined with beds, with Harvesters running in all directions carrying all manner of equipment, from incense to bells to animals. Massive shelves contained every object imaginable, like the storeroom of a giant museum. There are stories of large-scale reenactments of war, of harvesters concocting mixtures to create the smell of death and decay, of dreamers being soaked to create dreams of floods; dreaming had become a controlled industry.
Oracles no longer used their knowledge to interpret dreams but to script them. They developed carefully crafted dreams that would lead to the desired outcomes in the real world. We hear of them poring over intricately detailed mirror diagrams and figures, charting out every aspect of the dreams that the Harvesters would then create.
At first the island enjoyed a period of prosperity. There were no wars and crops grew at incredible rates; the king was lauded for creating the dream houses. Then, however, things took a turn for the worse. Droughts were followed by a horrible plague on the island. The king, and the citizens in general, believed that more resources needed to be poured into the dream houses–more dreamers, Harvesters and equipment. At one point we are told that a quarter of the population was kept in a dream state, while most of the waking population worked towards maintaining the elaborate performances put on by the Harvesters. Not surprisingly with this many people devoted to the industry of dreams, the island’s agriculture and infrastructure collapsed.
Eventually the island became a mess of starving, sick and dying people, supporting a workforce of incapacitated dreamers. Within five years of beginning the dream houses, most of the population was dead. Some managed to escape to neighboring islands; others tried to rebuild their once thriving cities, but it was too late. Quantos had become the nightmare it was supposed to have dreamt of.
During this downfall, many theories arose to explain why the dream houses were not working and how to fix them (6). One was that dreams had to take place on the opposite side of the world to impact Quantos; others proposed that the geography of the island needed to be reversed in dreams. There were other more dizzying ideas, for instance that the definition of ‘reverse’ also had to be reversed when charting relationship between dreams and the real world. Unfortunately the validity of the basic idea that the dream houses rested on–that events in dreams engendered their opposite during the day–was never questioned. The people were stuck inside of that idea and performed endless mental acrobatics to try and make it work. In reality what they needed was to do away with the paradigm altogether, but they were too far into their maze of mirrors to realize it. A quote from the very end of the island’s civilization demonstrates that even then they did not question it: “oh what splendid dreams the rows of dreamers must be having, of an island filled with pleasures and fruits and gems, while in reality Quantos burns.”
1 – The writings from who could be called the theologians of Quantos are quite interesting, debating the exact relationship between an event and its opposite. For instance, they questioned whether any event could truly have an objective opposite. They also asked vertiginous questions such as whether instead of an event being situated at the opposite end of its spectrum, when going from the dream to the waking world, it would instead be situated at the opposite end of the opposite spectrum.
2 – Interestingly, their language had dozens of subtly different words for the concept of reflection.
3 – Thus dream interpretation became a process of dividing the dream into its smallest components, quantifying those components in terms of multiple dimensions of meaning, and then inverting them. Further complicating matters was the fact that the manner in which these various components interacted with one another was also inverted. For instance, if the relationship between the opposite of two events implied one thing, it now implied the opposite.
Some argued that this approach lead to futility–infinitely dividing a dream into smaller and smaller elements was a process that would never truly end. Thus there were those who proposed simply interpreting the overall gestalt of a dream. These people were branded as heretics by the Oracles and exiled from Quantos. Many historians believe that the Oracles wished to keep dream interpretation an arcane science so that only they were able to do it. Oracles were well respected and held a great deal of power in society, and perhaps this was a way of ensuring it stayed that way.
4 – There were those who believed that both could be true. They believed that while the day contained nearly an infinite number of events, because dreams were the opposite of waking life, they contained a single event–a single event at night that then created a multitude of opposite events during the day. Thus the single event creating the universe occurred within a dream, allowing the events of the world to be traced back continually from dream to day to dream.
5 – The question of why smelling food wouldn’t cause someone to dream of the opposite of food didn’t emerge until much later. It is emblematic of the history of Quantos that simple questions such as these were ignored in favour of obsessively poring over minute details. Perhaps this allowed them to ignore fundamental challenges to their idea of the relationship between dreams and the waking world.
6 – One of note was that the dream houses were in fact operating in reverse, and that they should have been enacting plays of peacemaking and road building, and that these would have engendered dreams of war and destruction. Ironically, taken to a large scale, this may have saved Quantos by leading to the sorts of actions that a society requires, albeit for the purpose of engendering inverse dreams.