What Is Dreampunk?

Cyberpunk, dieselpunk, steampunk… dreampunk? Unlike its better established siblings, this fledgling genre is not rooted in technology or the reimagining of a different era. Quite simply, it is rooted in dreams.

Common elements of the genre include “dream logic” (which may not be entirely logical), simple fairy-tale-like surface plots with deeper levels of hidden significance, complex gadgetry, occult symbolism, mythological references, Jungian psychology, shamanic vision quests, and aspects of transrealism and the new weird. A typical dreampunk story (if such a thing can be said to exist) may well feature dystopian governments, nefarious corporations, mysterious cats, phantom twins, jazz music, robots, ghosts, fairies, and the like, but these elements are all subservient to the central premise that consciousness is king. That is to say, the subjective experience of our characters is what concerns us most, even if that experience has very little to do with objective reality.

The first dreampunk story that comes to mind—perhaps the defining work of the genre—is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. The book was of course published long before the label “dreampunk” was devised, but this retroactive categorization fits better than any other genre I’ve heard. The Alice stories have a good deal in common with steampunk, but there is no focus on technology, and their main action takes place within a dream.

In contrast to Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World (two distinct places, despite what Tim Burton would have you believe), there is no indication in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books that Oz is anything other than a real place, albeit magical and very well hidden. That said, the classic film adaptation did present Oz as a sort of dream, populated as it was with fantastic counterparts to Dorothy’s real-world acquaintances. So Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was not a great example of dreampunk fantasy, but MGM’s film The Wizard of Oz actually was.

This is not to say that every dreampunk story must take place within the framework of a literal dream. A dream could be the waking life of a character who is mentally ill, or perhaps just extremely imaginative. Or it could be the result of a hallucinogenic drug, or divine revelation. For a story to be called “dreampunk,” some form of dreaming should play an important role, perhaps affecting consensus reality or even in some way supplanting it. In my literary experience, the writer that best exemplifies this aesthetic is probably Philip K. Dick.

Although Dick is best known for the action-packed film adaptations of his science fiction work (Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report, to name a few), his stories tend to focus less on technology or alien life per se and more on the nature of consciousness and reality itself (more apparent in the film A Scanner Darkly). They are full of Jungian archetypes, supernatural visions, false realities, and drug consumption—all typical elements of dreampunk.

A range of existential questions are raised in the work of Philip K. Dick. A few of these are revisited in practically every story: What does it mean to be human? What is reality? If our shared consensus reality (the koinos kosmos) can’t be experienced directly, then isn’t the subjective experience of the individual (the idios kosmos) of primary importance? What happens when a particularly strong individual (or group or nation) begins to impose their version of “reality” onto others? How can we be sure that this scenario is not already the normal state of affairs?

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the brothers Tweedledum and Tweedledee show Alice the sleeping Red King, telling her that he’s dreaming the entire world. If he were to wake up, they say, it would all disappear. Alice claims not to believe them, but the idea frightens her all the same. At the end of the story, it becomes clear that her adventure in the Looking-Glass World was indeed a dream. A haunting question is then raised: “Which dreamed it?” Alice or the Red King? And if the latter, then isn’t it possible he’s still dreaming the world into existence even after Alice imagines herself to be awake?

Philip K. Dick described himself as an “acosmic pantheist.” He believed there was no such thing as a true external reality, only the endlessly complex mind of God. What he’s essentially saying is that the Tweedles were right: “Life is but a dream.”

If that’s all a bit much to unpack, don’t worry; it’s meant to be. As I see it, the goal of dreampunk fiction is not to feed people a particular ideology but to make them feel just uncomfortable enough with their own assumptions that they take a fresh look around with honest curiosity. That, and to entertain.

Because honestly, we’re talking about dreams here. There are no rules, no limits, and nothing can be taken for granted. Have fun!

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