A touch in the night

Occasionally I have dreams that seem to be trying to assemble into the plot of an SF novel – weird and fractured as dreams are, but with something like a long-form narrative struggling to develop.

Occasionally I have nightmares. I don’t know how it goes for anybody else – and one reason I’m posting this is to collect anecdotal data in the comments – but if I wake up from a nightmare and then fall asleep shortly afterwards, it may grab hold of me again.

Yesterday morning I woke up about 5AM remembering one I’d just had. This is how it went, and how it ended…

It’s the near future. Driverless cars and AI-driven robots are ubiquitous. They’re not androids, though, they tend to have wheeled boxy chassis with manipulator arms like a carnival claw machine.

I’m a troubleshooter who’s been called into a scientific research campus to try to work out the reason for some odd anomalies in experimental data. My backstory is clear – I’m a hotshot with a reputation for cracking intractable problems. I’m not me, not a programmer, but something more like a forensic physicist. There’s a lot of money behind whatever research was going on, government or military money, maybe black budget, and the people who have sent me in want answers.

The research team is being surprisingly open and un-defensive, considering that from their point of view I could be a hatchet-man sent to kick butt and take names. I’m not. I’m really a problem-solver. They seem to get this, for which I am thankful.

But I can’t get any clarity about exactly what the data anomalies were. The team scientists and I can understand each other perfectly well most of the time, everybody is speaking English, but when they try to explain their problem they speak words I hear but can’t parse – meaningless blobs of sound. It’s not like a vocabulary failure, but like either they or I have developed some weirdly topic-specific aphasia. Their high-frequency speech formants are missing – all I hear is wa-wa-wa, the way adults talk in Peanuts cartoons.

The research has something to do with war robots. There’s a vivid scene where scaled-down models of weapon-equipped bots are fighting each other. One, looking rather like a skinny tall dalek, fires a blue-green laser. It shouldn’t be visible, there isn’t enough dust or water vapor in the air, but it is. It leaves a small scorch-mark on a wall.

The war robots aren’t behaving quite right. Actually, that’s happening all over the labs. Utility robots are malfing – going catatonic, or falling into logic loops that cause perseveration at useless behaviors. I discover a trick to snap them out of whatever cybernetic funk they’re in, but it only works temporarily. They fall back into fugue at random times.

Whatever derangement affects the robots is spreading. I’m getting very uneasy; this is beginning to feel like enemy action and I still can’t get any sense out of the scientists about the problem I came here to solve.

In the dead of a very dark night, a small group of us go out to examine some glitching sensor equipment near the campus perimeter. Large groups of crickets are chirping…and behind that sound there’s something else. A soft mechanical clattering that stops dead whenever the crickets go silent.

Something is hiding out there in the night. Waiting to touch us.

That’s when I woke up. Remembered the dream. Realized it had been building up to some kind of really dark SF/horror scenario. Hostile aliens? Malevolent AI? I don’t know.

What I do know is that if I fall asleep again too soon I’m likely to find out. This happens sometimes when I wake up from any kind of dream – I can feel it waiting below the edge of consciousness waiting to pull me back in. If the dream was pleasant I may welcome dropping back into it, but not this time. I don’t like horror movies and want no part of this one.

I contemplate going to my office and working for a bit. A bit of hacking and an early breakfast will, I am sure, change my state enough that I can sleep again without falling into the same dream. I’ve applied this fix before.

That’s when I find out my wife Cathy is awake, behind my back as I’m lying there on my left side, because she puts her hand on my side and caresses it gently. And oh what a difference that makes. The nightmare blows away like tatters of fog.

Sometimes a touch in the night is a wonderful thing. I am left wondering, not for the first time…did that dream want to be a novel?


  1. Yes, this happens a lot. If you fall back asleep soon enough in the hypnopompic state that your dream’s continuation is still saved, it may resume right where it left off or partially replay itself. I used to be able to exert directorial control over what happened in my dreams on the second and subsequent go-arounds, which really took the edge off some of my nightmares.

    As for the “domain-specific aphasia”, you probably don’t have the expertise to create convincing verbiage in that domain in real life, and you noticed this in your dream. Our brains tend to paper over whatever they have trouble accurately rendering with nonsense, and they have trouble accurately rendering a lot of things. For some reason, our brains’ GPUs struggle with writing. A common reality check among lucid dreamers is to look at written material; if the writing is fuzzy, nonsensical, or changing the probability you are in a dream is high.

    Another is to check the number of fingers on your hand. Five-fingered hands are also supposedly difficult for our subconscious to get right, which may explain why so many cartoon characters only have four fingers on each hand.

    1. I once had a peculiar dream where I was in some class (physics, likely) and the idea of the Pauli Exclusion Principle came up… and I while I knew the idea of it, I couldn’t recall the *name*… and no other students in the class (and the teacher/prof also did not use the name) knew it either, even if they could express the idea. Since I, the dreamer, didn’t know it, none of the dreamt characters did either. Upon awakening, almost the first thing I though of was, “How did I forget that name?”

    2. >As for the “domain-specific aphasia”, you probably don’t have the expertise to create convincing verbiage in that domain in real life, and you noticed this in your dream.

      I do not believe there is any potentially relevant science in which this would be true.

      1. An unlikely explanation is that you were dreaming about some actual event in the future and that the meaningless blobs of sound were actual English words that don’t exist yet. The relevant science for which you lack the vocabulary is one that doesn’t have any vocabulary yet. Of course, you make it sound like not only was your own mind not picking it up, but the person you were dreaming you were wasn’t picking it up either and was reacting with confusion.

        But imagine someone from the 40’s dreaming he was you reading this thread, and seeing me saying: “Grep. EMACS. ASCII. EBCDIC. BSOD. Linux. Vaxen. BogoMIPS. PEBKAC. Microsoft. Terabyte. Multics. w00t. IRET. segfault. #GPF. Xor. gedit.”

        1. >Of course, you make it sound like not only was your own mind not picking it up, but the person you were dreaming you were wasn’t picking it up either and was reacting with confusion.

          That’s right – dream-me was hearing meaningless blobs. I remember dream-me actually concentrating on the speech dream-I was hearing and bouncing off it. The high-frequency component of the speech formants was just missing – you know, the wa-wa-wa way adults talk in Charlie Brown cartoons?

          What made it creepy is that everybody involved could clearly generate and hear speech normally at other times; the effect only kicked in when conversation got near what they were trying to tell dream-me about The Problem.

          1. I’ve added the detail “you know, the wa-wa-wa way adults talk in Charlie Brown cartoons?” to the OP, since my unintended ambiguity about the level of speech derangement seemed to be confusing.

            1. The problem is that, in dreams the “problems” aren’t well defined enough and hence even trying to solve them generates way too much confusion. Probably not being “well defined” is the issue here, and hence something always eludes the dream-you/me. I sometimes wake up at night thinking about some “problem” that doesn’t even exist and I am wondering why I was breaking my head over it. Physical discomfort (e.g. arm stiffness when lying on one side) in sleep seems to trigger this more often.

  2. According to you, sci-fi can fall down if the writers focus too much on characterization.

    According to me, horror falls down if the writers focus too little (or too unskillfully) on characterization. If you don’t care about–or don’t believe in–the people in the scary situation, then you won’t be scared on their behalf.

    I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to use your scarce time; but it would be quite an achievement to strike a balance and get both effects.

  3. It’s remarkable to be able to recollect so many details from a dream. Did you write down the dream immediately or did you recollect from memory?

    I ask because often my dreams just fade away when I fully conscious for more than half an hour or so. However, on immediate waking I recollect a lot of details.

    For me, I have occasionally had dream within dreams. i.e. dreams with false awakening. It is a bizarre experience and quite disorienting for a short while when I really wake up.

    And yes, I’ve had dreams where I’ve felt a wonderful (very clever and cogent) story developing and got frustrated when I forgot the details on waking.

    1. >I ask because often my dreams just fade away when I fully conscious for more than half an hour or so. However, on immediate waking I recollect a lot of details.

      That is true of me as well. I have to make an effort to fix the immediate, transient recall in memory so I don’t lose it. Which I did in this case.

      1. Dreams often work to help “digest” something you are working on in waking life. For instance, people facing some sort of test often dream of being naked in a crowd.

        I suspect your subconscious is working on something that is worrying you – but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t make a good SF novel

        1. >For instance, people facing some sort of test often dream of being naked in a crowd.

          Yeah, I have those dreams. They used to bother me in exactly the ZOMG-I’M-NAKED!!! same way they bother other people. But 5 or 6 years ago something changed; now when one of those starts, (a) I’m not bothered – being dream-naked is a neutral fact, not cringe-inducing, and (b) I know I’m in a dream and can hit the eject button.

          It’s been a long time since I was intrinsically bothered by being naked in public in waking life, so really this is my unconscious catching up. The interesting part is the lucidity – now I have the eject button.

          (No, social conservatives, preceding ‘graph doesn’t mean I’m ever likely to stroll around Malvern in my birthday suit. It just means I cheerfully adapted to summer pagan festivals and other naturist/nudist events decades ago.)

  4. I rarely recall dreaming. Not “I don’t remember my dreams,” but “I don’t remember dreaming.” Even immediately after I wake up – the period between drifting off an waking up is blank at most wakeups. When I do remember dreaming, it is itself a remarkable event.

    I’ve had exactly ONE vivid dream that I recalled all of.

    This may or may not be related to my difficulty in literal visualization – my ability to visualize stuff I’m not looking at is not very good.

    1. Have you found that changes with age? I ask because in my younger days I remembered lots of dreams…at least for a while…including a hefty share of nightmares; and once or twice (only once or twice) I was able to shift from dreaming to waking and back again with full knowledge I was doing it. The only semi-vivid images from dreams I can summon back now are from my first 10 years or so.

      Somewhere in my thirties I got to a point similar to yours, and rarely if ever remember having dreamed at all, let alone what was in the dream. (I don’t have the problems you report with visualizing things, or at least I think I don’t.) And I remain that way to this day.

      Mind you, there’s precedent for losing the key at thirty…

      1. Your experience echos mine. I recall having lots of vivid dreams as a child, good and bad. But as I grew into adulthood, being able recall having dreamed became less and less common until dreaming was the exception, not the norm.

        In all cases, xkcd 430 has applied. I of course recall all the details of the dream upon waking, having just lived those events in my mind. But as time passes, recollection of the details tends to fade, whether quickly or slowly, and unless I write it down or something, eventually all I’m left with is a vague recall of the general course of events. I had more dreams than I can count as a child, but only a couple come to mind right now: the one where I was transported to the world of one of my Saturday-morning cartoons and joined the heroes to fight evil, or the nightmare shortly before one Halloween, where some monster was rampaging through town. And that’s about all I could readily tell you about either without spending some mental effort on recalling more details.

      2. As far back as I can reliably remember I have never remembered dreams.
        I might have “remembered” some dreams in my childhood, but nothing once I was a legal adult.

        The times I do recall dreaming recently, I’ve been aware I’m dreaming, and thus haven’t felt the need to do anything about what’s happening in them.

  5. I’ve always been able to lucid dream–to purposefully change a dream if I don’t like where it’s going. So those fighting dreams where you’re getting your ass handed to you because your blows are somehow ineffectual? I slow the dream and correct every minute aspect of that blow so that the form, stance, and delivery are right and then keep going in the opponent effect. Or if there’s a mystery thing in dark pursuit, I’ll turn on a light and select something innocuous as the reveal.

    For many years, the one thing I couldn’t control was dreams involving the ocean tides. I’d be stuck in the surf and the tide would be coming in and I’d be unable to swim ashore fast enough to keep up (wicked fast tides in my dreams). I eventually cracked that one, though, by switching to a Civilization-style god mode and giving myself enough size to stride cities.

    So in cases where I wake from a dream and I’m convinced there’s pending horror, I’m able to put the solution I desire firmly in mind as I drift back off. I’ve found that trying to shift the dream wholly is doomed to failure, so I stick with changing a single aspect. Like, in your example above, I’d come up with a solution that would prove interesting. Maybe the glitch *is* enemy action. Maybe it’s a new form of nanobot that saves and reverts state to produce that fugue situation you describe. And maybe those crickets are reacting to the enemy approaching to either deliver a new batch or to sweep the old one away, their experiment complete. Then I can drop back into the dream and, knowing the problem, let the story unfold along its new path.

    1. I have only ever had one lucid dream, where I was fully aware of my dream state and was enjoying playing around with ‘reality’.

      Certain mischievous parts of my brain must have been offline, because I was having innocent childlike fun with my new magical abilities, and ended up eating cake with Julia Roberts.

      I wish I knew how to induce that kind of state again. It was fun.

      1. I have to admit it would never have occurred to me to end up eating cake with Julia Roberts… :)

        Thinking about it, my dreams only really become lucid when they hit a certain degree of scary. I suppose my dreaming mind doesn’t see the point if things are going well. So it’s more a mitigating than an enhancing dream feature, I suppose. Frankly, it’s probably indicative of *something* that it never occurred to me until just now that lucid dreaming even *could* enhance dreams on the positive scale.

        1. I suspect that my experimentation with DHEA supplements made my dreams more lucid, but I never managed to attain total consciousness with it…only vivid dreams.

          Julia was giggling like a schoolgirl with me as we devoured a black forest gateau.

          It was a truly delightfully innocent experience.

  6. I don’t think I have ever fallen back into the same dream.

    What I have that’s recurrent is a sequence of imagery that comes into my mind while I’m composing myself to go to sleep: I’m in a high place, and the surface I’m standing on is rising steadily higher, and I’m afraid of falling off. There is an adjacent place that I can descend to, but as soon as I do, it starts rising also. There is no way for me to get down except to fall. This is frightening enough to keep sleep away, and it tends to persist, though I have tricks for dispelling it.

    I can trace this to a cartoon I saw when I was in elementary school, or maybe junior high. But it feels as if it’s more frequent than it used to be. Of course, it’s an obvious metaphor, given that I’m now 68.

    I don’t often remember dreams. But I had one a few months ago that was singular and memorable: I was walking around on a street, where there were stores with somewhat old-fashioned wooden doors and glass windows. I realized—I don’t say “thought”; it felt completely certain—that I was dreaming, and wanted to wake up. Classic lucid dream, right? But then I turned to the building adjacent to me, and struck at its door, and totally destroyed it with one blow, as if I were superhumanly strong (and struck from above, as if I had become a giant)—and then there I was, looking down at the building I had smashed, and thinking, “How am I going to explain to people that I did this because I thought I was dreaming?” And I felt a moment of real anxiety—and then I woke up, not having expected to.

  7. > Occasionally I have dreams that seem to be trying to assemble into the plot of an SF novel

    I am utterly convinced that the movie Six String Samurai is someone’s dream written down scene for scene. Or at least as close as one could render it on film.

  8. As a horror/sci-fi novel I imagine you have a thread in this dream of yours but if the reader is going to stay with it you will likely need to figure out what was missing; in that you did not want to return to the dream… All the really good horror takes the reader where they don’t want to go… their conscience mind screaming “don’t go down there!!” their sub-conscience, all the while, looking for the flashlight.

    If the result of the dream has you contemplating writing a novel I would focus there… The plot line delivered via dreamland likely includes a whole lot of “yadda-yadda” and a fair amount of deep-seated angst. A good dream analysis would probably take the images presented in that hazy montage and turn them back on your desire to write something in a very big way.

    1. Maybe the physicists have “jargon” rather than real physics words, and the jargon actually doesn’t make sense. This is symptomatic of $PlotPoint.

      1. >Maybe the physicists have “jargon” rather than real physics words, and the jargon actually doesn’t make sense. This is symptomatic of $PlotPoint.

        Unlikely. I’ve been training myself for Heinleinian polymathy for fifty years, and a major result of this is that it’s pretty near impossible in real life to generate scientific jargon I can’t make any sense of, unless it’s a deliberate generation of nonsense like the Sokal hoax. Given his backstory, my dream self ought to be even harder to faze that way,

        No, I’m pretty sure it was going to turn out the aphasia was done to us and was part of the same effect that was making the robots wonky.

        1. No, I’m pretty sure it was going to turn out the aphasia was done to us

          That’s what I meant. The jargon is symptomatic of something being done to everyone’s head by the opposition.

  9. I, too, have suffered from trying to get back to sleep too soon, and ended up going back to the same dream. So if it was a nice dream that I woke up from, I deliberately take advantage of that feature to try to recapture it, with a fair amount of success. A nightmare triggers full wakeup, some deliberate action (walking, getting water, etc.) to purge the save state in REM RAM and then back to sleep.

    The weirdly topic-specific aphasia would be an interesting plot point, a way to track the spread of influence either through people (as more and more get infected), or progression in a single person (more and more topics get blotted out). And is it in the hearer or the speaker? Or both? And how could someone tell if they or someone else were the sufferer?

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to take action to avoid going back to a nightmare. Nightmares jolt me far enough awake that it takes some time to get back to sleep, and ever if I get back to sleep quickly, I’m clear-headed enough after a nightmare that the contents of REM RAM have been annihilated.

    2. topic-specific aphasia would be an interesting plot point…

      “For the world is hollow, and I have touched the sky.” [much pain]

      …from an original Star Trek show – can’t recall the name offhand.

  10. Dang it you made me want to know how the story ends.

    What was the mechanical clattering sound?

    What if it was cars with the valves going bad?

          1. Not car valves.

            Something very bad, stalking you. That only moves when you’re looking the other way and there is other sound to disguise the noise it makes.

            1. >Something very bad, stalking you. That only moves when you’re looking the other way and there is other sound to disguise the noise it makes.

              My dream-self got that part, all right. That was the scene that made me afraid enough to wake up.

  11. I never fall back into the same dream. And more often than not I’m aware I’m dreaming.

    To a certain extent my dreams are like a clip show. I have a collection of backdrops that my dreams are often set in, like different movie sets. Different pieces often get mixed and matched. I’ll be dreaming and think ‘oh I know this one, but that part there is from a different one’.

    I don’t have nightmares exactly, but sometimes they’re like one of the more somber, funereal-tone type short stories, like some of Poul Anderson’s downers. Oddly, those tend to happen more often when there is music playing (in rl) that gets incorporated into my dream.

    And yes, my dreams have plot, and back story. It’s funny in a dream when I realize I know things – I just instantly know them. I actually enjoy that, but then in fiction I like good exposition.

  12. As for slipping back into a dream, especially a nightmare, if I attempt to go back to sleep right away, yes, that happens to me too. I recall that being the case as a young child, and it’s still true as an adult. If I wake from a nightmare, I can feel it waiting for me, as though with a conscious malice, daring to close my eyes again. Even when I know it’s fading and unlikely to return, I still find myself reluctant to go to sleep again.

    Frustratingly, the pleasant dreams tend to be much more fleeting. If one of those gets interrupted, I tend to feel it fading immediately. Even if I manage to get back to sleep quickly so dreaming can continue, the interrupted dream tends not to return, and I tend to get something wholly unrelated. So instead of finding out how I saved the world from the robot invasion, I instead end up sharing beers with the raccoon who asked for my help opening the bottle he stole from the cooler at my campsite.

  13. > did that dream want to be a novel?


    Writers don’t dream inspiration, they daydream it. As with problem-solving for programming, it’s an itch.

    I see it interested you enough to write about it, and surely that must be a half-step in the direction of writing it, but it will have to be a stronger and more persistent feeling before you need to make a decision as to whether or not to succumb to that muse.

    1. Not true of HP Lovecraft. THE STATEMENT OF RANDOLPH CARTER began as a dream; he wrote up the dream in a letter and the story is the same. (In some ways the letter is better-written, because it wasn’t smothered under his sometimes-awkward prose-style.) DAGON and SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH also began as dreams, and IIRC (it’s been almost four decades), the start of both stories is almost exactly the same as in the letters in which he wrote the dreams. Parts of DRACULA were based closely on dreams that Bram Stoker remembered from years before he wrote the novel and Hugh Walpole’s VOLPONE started as a dream; he wrote in a letter that he began writing immeadiately after he woke up.

  14. Yes, waking out of a nightmare that waits to suck me back in happens to me fairly often. Those tended to be work-related, until I retired. Getting me out of them is the one thing I like about the mandatory middle of the night bathroom breaks. Since the suckage can repeat over & over I’ve learned to go ahead & find a comfort read book, or go read emails, or edit something for at least half an hour. Eating some small snack, like a piece of bread & butter, can also work. Spousal snuggles are good, but I try Really Hard to not wake him, since he still has to go to work in the morning.

    The story of that dream makes more than usual sense. I’d be interested in finding out how it ended. I think pursuing it a bit would not be a waste of your time.

  15. Could you read what they wrote about the problem domain, or did something scramble that too? You would need to think that through if you turn this into a new published story.

    1. >Could you read what they wrote about the problem domain, or did something scramble that too? You would need to think that through if you turn this into a new published story.

      I didn’t read anything in the dream.

      But I think I know what would have happened if I had. Certain key paragraphs would have been blurred…

  16. Re: garbled words — I occasionally have very “cinematic” dreams, where there’s a meta layer going on where I can appreciate the choices of color, camera angles, and so forth*. But when I was much younger I would get very frustrated *in-dream* because my brain couldn’t spontaneously generate “content” — a book I had to read would be blank, a map would be just a blur. Over decades I’ve gotten better at it, where at first pages were nonsense text, and then slowly they’ve resolved into readable words. Generally, the content only makes dream-sense, but at least it’s there now.

    This only applies to written or drawn content though. I don’t think I’ve ever had the wa-wa-wa effect with voices. Once, in my teens, a character in a dream made a pun that I didn’t “get” until the next morning in the shower.

    * (“Conan vs. the Aliens” was “filmed” in gritty black and white; “The Horn at Helm’s Deep Is Actually My Alarm Clock” used establishing shots, etc.)

  17. I’m seldom entertained by nightmares but when I am, I often awake at point just before the zombies/aliens/wolves-whatever destroy/probe/eat me etc., for a few minutes, fall back asleep and continue the dream, usually with an alternative outcome wherein I break free at least, if not conquer.

    We often talk about sleeping on a problem & letting the subconscious help solve it. I wonder if waking for a bit helps solve subconscious dilemmas expressed as nightmares.

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