Cyberpunk, dieselpunk, steampunk... dreampunk? Unlike its better established siblings, this fledgling genre is not rooted in technology or a 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. 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. This book was of course published long before the label "dreampunk" was devised, but its retroactive categorization as a dreampunk story 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. In short, Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was probably not a work of dreampunk fantasy, but MGM's film The Wizard of Oz most definitely 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 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: If two people share the same dream, does that make it in some sense real (as in Radio Free Albemuth)? What if several people ingest a drug that consistently allows them to participate in a shared hallucination (as in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch)? What if a particularly strong-minded individual were able to impose their subjective experience of the universe onto the minds of others (as in Eye in the Sky or Ubik)? If everyone on earth were affected, could reality be said to have changed (as in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said)? It would certainly seem that way to everyone on earth. How can we be sure 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 an 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."
Okay, so dreampunk is about dreams, illusions, consciousness... If that sounds bit vague, it's because the genre is still in its early formative years. It is up to us, the weavers of dreams, to decide what dreampunk will become.
Does "dreampunk" mean something different to you? Let me know in the comments.
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Dreampunk is a sci-fi/fantasy subgenre that asks the question "Is this real?" and then follows up with "What does that even mean anyway?" Alice in Wonderland would be the prototypical example, but any anti-authoritarian investigation into the nature...