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Dreampunk Profile: Steve Aylett
From an online interview on January 4 through 17, 2020
First off, tell us a little about yourself. How do you see yourself as a writer?
I do weird SF satire. It’s been categorized as slipstream, new weird, bizarro, cyberpunk, but it’s basically satire. I tend to avoid writing things that have already been written by other people, sort of starting where the rest leave off—I’m a bit obsessed with originality. Some people love the richness of that, but others find it exhausting and irritating, all this new stuff coming at them in every line.
I also like compression to pay off as many original ideas as possible in the shortest time. Lint was a good vehicle for that as I could get rid of dozens of ideas in every paragraph. All this goes to stuff that’s poetic, epigram-like or funny, or if I’m lucky all of that at once. Like if Voltaire had a very specific fever dream of whispering hens. It’s not for everyone, that’s for damn sure. Imagine a surreally funny orgy of common sense.
Slaughtermatic has a bunch of VR stuff—VR was already old hat and the characters sense they’re in VR by how bored they feel. Bigot Hall has a lot of dream-within-dream things, with people assessing their wakefulness by how much pain they feel, and Rebel at the End of Time is set in a mutable world.
I have a lot of lucid dreams but I tend not to fly around or anything, I just call everyone out and tell them to drop the act. I sometimes do the same thing in real life, which makes me super unpopular at parties. In Heart of the Original I talk about the dreams I have where I go into bookshops, aware that it’s a dream and that therefore all the books in there are my copyright. All I have to do is pick one up, read it and transcribe it when I wake up. But I can only ever bring back a couple of sentences at most.
I’m interested in how some people use the “everything’s a dream” thing to treat people badly, because it’ll mean people aren’t real. It’s one of the classic excuses, though not often used overtly by government—at a national level it has to be more like, “Those people are animals, less than human.”
Anyway there is an external phenomenon which is the universe and it can be interpreted in a number of ways. To the human brain, when interpretations get into the thousands, it tends to sort of give up and go, “Oh, it’s infinite.” Those interpretations go into the billions actually, but we interpret that as infinite, and from “infinite interpretations” it’s a short step to “Oh, it’s all a big dream.” I think maintaining a practical baseline of what’s real is a good strategy for not getting screwed over and not screwing other people over.
There you go with that common sense. It’s easy to see parallels between dreams and simulations, though of course they’re fundamentally different. As VR tech continues to advance along with our understanding of (and ability to manipulate) the brain, do you expect the lines to blur between waking life, dreams, and video games?
I think for a lot of people the distinction won’t signify. The idea of something being factually true—it won’t be possible to articulate that notion to them, you’ll get blank stares. We’re already a long way into that. What’s valued is distraction. The ideal product has enough recombinant to appear new and different over time, with content cheap to repeat. Cheap for the supplier I mean.
The model is competitive events. The aim is to allow no pause where you can feel what you actually feel or think up your own stuff. If your own stuff can’t be made illegal, an environment can be set up that’s not conducive to it. If the distraction device is physically embedded it’s game over.
In the context of “dreampunk,” what would you say constitutes a “dream”? Would a mystic vision count? A psychedelic trip? An immersive VR system? What if that system is partly controlled by your subconscious mind?
We observe external stuff and build a model of it in our minds, but humans are also able to reorganize it, recombine it, tell stories, lie, fantasize. That presents the question: if we change the model, does the external world obediently change to accord with that? As far as I can tell the answer is no, not without direct physical meddling.
I like all that recombining but what interests me is coming up with new stuff which isn’t just a recombination of given elements. Even mystical visions are a bit samey. I think in colorful geometric shapes that roll around. I don’t think in words and I’m not fully convinced anyone does. A strip of old-fashioned ticker tape that you recite from—is that thinking? How do you come up with your own stuff? To me all words and ideas have a multidimensional shape, visually.
I suspect a lot of people think that way but aren’t so conscious of it. They can take the front of one idea, the back of another, stick them together, turn that inside out and get something a bit different. But what’s more interesting to me, looking at ideas spatially, is new stuff which can be located by triangulating away from the ideas that already exist. We could call it “ideaspace”—and at the very least look at the gaps between existing ideas to see what hasn’t been expressed yet. Way better than that, though, is to simply take a bunch of known ideas—let’s say all of them, which makes a shape a bit like an elongated cat’s-cradle with needly bits sticking out—then look at what’s next to that shape, or above it, behind it, away from it up in the corner of the room, turn completely around and look in the other direction, or see what’s several miles away from it.
The odd thing is that there are ideas in those locations. If you have a certain kind of head it’s very easy to do and not at all clever. The problem is that any souvenirs brought back, even if they make good sense, feel deeply alien and give everyone the heebie-jeebies. I absolutely cannot monetize this stuff. I’m totally fucked really. Unless I diluted it right down, but that would defeat the object. An approximation is McKenna’s description of DMT machine elves, except that I don’t do drugs or exploit elves.
We actually put a lot of energy into ignoring the great beyond, understandably to keep things localized and manageable. But unexplored ideaspace is accessible from anywhere if you think spatially, it’s not a stretch at all. It’s low-hanging fruit actually and there’s so much of it out there, basic ideas that haven’t been found yet. Not infinite, just trillions, more than we’ll need as a species. But people aren’t interested. They love their superheroes.
So no drugs then. And no elves. Do you ever pull ideas from dreams? Any particulars come to mind?
I like when strange things are remembered again, like a weird door and passageway I forgot from a previous dream. In the Accomplice books the creepchannel is like that. People forget where the channel entrances are, despite or maybe because of them being creepy subspace vortexes, then on coming across one again it’s “Oh yeah, I remember this—how weird that I forgot.”
A lot of childhood nightmare stuff ended up in Bigot Hall. I think these days I’m always at least partly lucid during dreams. I often have very complicated science fiction dreams with time travel and everything. Such as, a passenger flight which is known to have landed safely, so an airline repeatedly takes people back in time to take that safe flight, after which they bring them forward in time again.
The stuff that finds its way into my writing is usually phrases I read in dreams or little sayings that dream people come out with. “Don’t prophesy in the corner,” is a good one. And I used to have people reciting land addresses, which usually turned out to be in India.
I’ve definitely noticed my dreams getting stranger since I started paying closer attention. Just this morning I was frantically looking up a phrase to see if it really meant something in Tibetan. How do you account for that feeling of accessing new information in dreams? The collective unconscious?
I don’t know.
That is a tough one. How about this: Where did we go wrong? I mean, seriously, what’s up with the world these days? Is it really as bad as it looks?
I had to admit a few years ago I don’t understand how the world works—I mean the human world en masse, crowds. I can understand self-harm at a personal level, it serves a purpose, but national or planetary self-harm doesn’t make sense to me. The damage may be non-survivable. Maybe it’s about temporary power, plus evasion and fear, not wanting to think or feel certain things clearly, but that’s a guess. And since I don’t know how the world works, I obviously don’t know how to fix it.
Well, at least at the personal level we can make small improvements. What helps you to stay sane? Books? Music? Transcendental meditation?
I don’t read so much fiction now, still listen to a lot of music, which as a synesthete is a vivid visual jamboree, and I’ve done various types of meditation at different times.
Currently I favor fridge meditation, which is when you open the fridge and forget what you were going to get. It lands you in a drifty in-between space, and the mind will want to grab onto some explanation quickly, but it’s interesting to just stay in that in-between state when it happens and extend it. Same thing with walking into a room and forgetting why. If you have a fierce ridiculous brain, those moments are a holiday.
I suppose that brings us to the end of our chat. Any final words of words of wisdom, blessings, curses, pleasantries, or gibes?
Don’t let the times waste your time. Gossip and fashion, including political fashion, can waste decades of your life. Detach from the temporal floor—there’s loads of other stuff out there. Just be aware that any conclusions you find will be ignored in local time. It won’t mesh with anything for years, so you have to disengage from outcome or reward. That frees you up in amazing ways.