JFA 18.1 (2007)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: What Are Dreams For?”
Brian Attebery

A recent article in Psychology Today poses an age-old questions: what are dreams for? The answer, according to researcher Antti Revonsuo, is that dreams are a virtual training ground, “a sort of nighttime theater in which our brains screen realistic scenarios” (Dixit 2) to prepare for threats of various sorts. By dreaming of danger, we practice dealing with that danger, and, of course, the most efficient way of dealing with danger is to run from it. Hence all those dreams where we’re running through molasses or mud, chased by figures that vaguely resemble a boss or that horrible sixth-grade teacher. We learn by dreaming “not to solve a particular problem but to actually practice efficient escape behavior” (3).

Revonsuo’s explanation fits my experience in many ways, but it goes astray when it posits dreams as “realistic scenarios.” Granted, if I were to keep track of every dream in a scientific manner, I would probably match the normal pattern of mostly mundane, realistic dreaming that another researcher David Foulkes calls “credible world analogs” (qtd. in Dixit 2). But those aren’t the dreams I remember, the ones I care about, the ones I inflict on my loved ones the next morning. The memorable dreams are the ones in which I can suddenly remember—ah, at last; how could I have forgotten!—how to fly. The dreams about waking up as a monster unable to let anyone know who I am, able only to shamble about dripping swampwater and bits of my half-vegetable self. The dreams of strange cities and secret tunnels, which almost but never quite lead me to some wonderful revelation. Credible world analogs, my eye! These are fantasies.

I suspect that people dream what they have been trained to dream. My best dreams tend to come when I have been reading a lot of fantastic literature. I don’t dream exactly the same things I have been reading about, but immersing myself in fantastic narratives tends to get me out of the mundane, “Gotta get that report done” sort of dream and into the good stuff.

So far as I’ve been able to determine, no psychologist has yet answered the question, “Why are dreams fantastic?” If they could do so, they might indirectly answer the question, “What is fantasy for?” The connection between dreaming and myth, dreaming and magic, dreaming and symbol has been made for millennia, long before Freud or his dream-watching successors. We write fantasies, I suspect, because we dream them, which is only a way of deferring the question.

I like the idea that dreams are rehearsals; it’s just that the scenarios I want to rehearse are stranger ones than missed classes or car crashes (Dixit 2). I want to practice for alien encounters, metamorphoses, encounters with the gods. I want to practice those situations, because I think those are the ones we are going to encounter in some way or another. No, I’m not an alien abduction conspiracy theorist or an Odin Revivalist. I’m a Le Guinian, a MacDonaldite, a Tolkienista. I believe, as Ursula K. Le Guin said in her 1972 National Book Award acceptance speech, “at this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence” (58).

In this issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, we examine a number of dreams, none of them involving merely realistic scenarios or credible world analogs. First, Sherryl Vint takes up an instance of a kind of dream with clear relevance to the waking world. Normally the relationship between utopian fiction and the historical world is that the former is a cleaned-up, simplified, mildly fantastic version of the latter. In this case, though, Vint argues that the fantasy of a perfected society resides here, in the world of experience, in the idea that a democratic state with a capitalistic economy tends toward maximal happiness for all citizens. The novels of Iain M. Banks can be read as projecting this utopian ideal onto the starry backdrop of space opera and thereby subjecting it to testing through a variety of fictional scenarios, all with analogs in history. Which, in this case, is the dream; which waking reality?

Sylvia Kelso focuses on a venue in which dreams and reality are often invited to mix: religion. She offers a survey of fictional representations of religious institutions within recent fantasy novels. Many of the works she discusses involve not only imagined churches, cloisters, and temples but also a sort of mise-en-abyme version of the fantasy genre itself, in the form of an institutionalized practice of magic. The two are frequently pitted against one another—religion against magic—just as they have been set up in opposition by fundamentalists of various stripes in the world I live in. However, Kelso finds that recent fantasy goes beyond simple contraries to imagine more complex and more harmonious relationships between traditional religion and magical thinking. (We are still waiting for a similar rapprochement from the other side.)

In Grace Dillon’s study of the novels of Nalo Hopkinson, she finds ways of thinking that to Western eyes may look like dreaming—a world of ceremonial obligations, mutuality, and ensouled natural objects and creatures. This outlook, however, can be seen as an alternative basis for science, with the capacity for making discoveries not as easily accessible from a materialist standpoint. Dillon offers a new perspective on Hopkinson as a writer working within indigenous Caribbean traditions as well as African ones (and others). Her take on novels such as Midnight Robber is partially supported by Hopkinson’s own statement in this issue that “I, while phenotypically and culturally black, also have Scottish, Jewish, South Asian, and possibly Arawak ancestry in my background. When you’re a diasporic African, this is what black looks like.”

I’m pleased to publish a talk given by Nalo Hopkinson as part of a celebration of the move of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts to Idaho State University. The Journal has long included talks and essays by, and interviews with, writers in our field. I believe that the Journal, like the conference that generated it, should function as a meeting place for readers, writers, and scholars with a common interest in the fantastic, especially since many of the acutest comments on fantasy and science fiction have come from practitioners of the genres in question: Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, John Clute, and so on. Hopkinson comes at the genre indirectly, using her own deconstructive craft projects as a way of questioning the dream (or nightmare) versions of race, gender and sexuality imposed by popular culture.

Ann Howey also looks at the way popular cultural forms of dreaming can be redirected to feminist ends, analyzing, in this case, Patricia McKillip’s novel The Changeling Sea. Neither the fairy tale form adapted by McKillip nor the legend motif of the fairy changeling is necessarily aimed at challenging gender assumptions, although there are many revisionist tales around, starting perhaps with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess (1864). McKillip herself is not an obvious subverter of gender norms (compared to, say, Emma Donoghue in her Kissing the Witch, 1997) although feminist readings of her work include essays by Christine Mains and Sharon Emmerich, the latter previously published in this journal. Howey adds to those discussions an examination of McKillip’s treatment of adolescent metamorphosis and budding sexuality, both embodied in the image of the changeling.

Finally, Darin Bradley’s “The Self-Weird World” looks at small-press speculative fiction (aka Slipstream, the New Weird, or what have you) as a realistic depiction of the way consciousness constructs the world. No matter how wild the fancy or how bizarre the fictional frame, such stories reflect the processes by which we construct a universe out of scattered sense impressions. From a phenomenological point of view, all we have direct access to is a sort of dream-version of the outside world. This constructed reality may be more accurately represented in stories by China Miéville, George Saunders, and Karen Joy Fowler cited by Bradley than by the realism of George Eliot or Raymond Carver.

Running through all these selections is the sense that dreaming matters. By transmuting the waking world, dreams declare our independence from things-as-they-are, giving us at least the opportunity to work toward things-as-they-might-be. Our nightly rehearsals can be re-scripted and re-cast with changelings, post-operative centaur-ponies, or galaxy-spanning artificial intelligences, all of which represent possible versions of ourselves. What the psychologists call “escape behavior,” I call imaginative liberation. I plan to keep on training my dreaming self by reading writers of the fantastic–along with the scholars who study those writers. This issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts is a good place to start.

Works Cited

Dixit, Jay. “Dreams: Night School.” Psychology Today Nov/Dec. 2007. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20071029-000003.html. 1–5. Accessed February 5, 2008.

Emmerichs, Sharon. “Straddling Genres: McKillip and the Landscape of the Female Hero-Identity.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 16.3 (2005): 206–218.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “National Book Award Acceptance Speech.” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Putnam’s, 1979. 57–58.

Mains, Christine. “Having It All: The Female Hero’s Quest for Love and Power in Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master Trilogy.” Extrapolation 46.1 (Spring 2005): 23–35.


“The Self-Weird World: Problems of Being as the Fantastic Invasion in Small-press Speculative Fiction”
Darin Bradley

“Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Nalo Hopkinson’s Ceremonial Worlds”
Grace L. Dillon

“Changeling Self, Changing Other: Patricia McKillip’s The Changeling Sea as Feminist Fairy Tale”
Ann F. Howey

“The God in the Pentagram: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Fantasy”
Sylvia Kelso

“Cultural Imperialism and the Ends of Empire: Iain M. Banks’s Look to Windward
Sherryl Vint

“Maybe They’re Phasing Us In: Re-mapping Fantasy Tropes in the Face of Gender, Race, and Sexuality”
Nalo Hopkinson


Matthew Gibson’s Dracula and the Eastern Question: British and French Vampire Narratives of the Nineteenth-Century Near East
Rev. by Margaret L. Carter

Honoré de Balzac’s The Centenarian, or The Two Beringhelds
Rev. by Françoise Frégnac-Clave

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race
Rev. by Sarah Canfield Fuller

Stan Beeler and Lisa Dickson’s Reading Stargate SG-1
Rev. by Susan A. George

Sherryl Vint’s Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction
Rev. by Karen Hellekson

Brian Stableford’s Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature and Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia
Rev. by Rob Latham

Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community
Rev. by Amie Rose Rotruck

Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans’s Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien
Rev. by W. A. Senior

Wong Kin Yuen, Gary Westfahl, and Amy Kit-sze Chan’s World Weavers: Globalization, Science Fiction, and the Cybernetic Revolution
Rev. by Jason P. Vest

Alan Lloyd-Smith’s American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction
Rev. by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock