If Captain Jack has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to dream a little dream. He doesn’t have much advice about how to build a magic system around dreams, though. N.K. Jemisin already uses the term ‘narcomancy,’ meaning dream magic, in her Dreamblood series, but after sketching out the magic system for the new story I’m working on, I found my narcomancy resembled William Gibson’s Neuromancer more than Killing Moon.
In a similar way to Case in Neuromancer, the narcomancers in my story operate by immersing themselves in an alternate reality and working from the inside. The reality in this case isn’t a Matrix, but a dreamscape that stretches across the world, with dreams and dreamers showing up as brainwave patterns, tuned to certain frequencies like bands of radio stations, each frequency representing a different stage of sleep—alpha, theta, delta, or REM.
I got the idea of imaging brainwaves as radio bands from Kevin Mitnick’s memoir, Ghost in the Wires, which explains (sometimes tediously) how he and many other hackers started out as ham radio operators. There was one repeater frequency, 147.435, that they called “the animal house,” a channel that was open for anyone to scream into, spread rumors, or meet random people. I liked the idea of tuning a radio into a certain frequency and hearing people’s dreams from all over the world, sort of like John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio. The idea for a worldwide dreamscape also came partly from Serial Experiments Lain, which touched on the Schumann resonance as a means to create a worldwide consciousness using the Earth’s magnetic field, then merge reality and the Wired into one. These ideas are really interesting to me, partly because they straddle the line between real scientific phenomena and fantasy.
The dreamscape, as I’m imagining it, can be visualized as having several different bands, or layers, each one corresponding to a different sleep stage:
Part of the job of the narcomancers in the story is to find “bands” of dreamers in delta sleep and begin trying to trigger them into moving into REM sleep, where they can start manipulating their dreams. REM stage sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep, because it closely resembles the waking state of brain activity. It’s strongly associated with vivid dreaming, and it’s usually in this stage that you have real trouble distinguishing reality from dreaming.
REM stage sleep is also when a sleeper’s eyes begin to move rapidly behind their lids, hence the name: Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Imagining someone’s eyes moving hyper-fast, as if trying to keep up with thousands of flashing images, made me think of the mentats in Dune, who have a similar association with eyes. Their blue-tinted mélange-addicted eyes signaled their superhuman ability to think and process facts like computers, and in a similar way, I imagined a sleeping narcomancer attaining an almost superhuman level of consciousness during REM, allowing them to deal with huge amounts of sensory input and making them able to pull off a performances.
REM stage sleep, like every kind of sleep, comes in cycles, with the brain diving and rising through the different stages several times over the course of one night. As the night goes on, REM stages become more frequent:
This brought me to another idea: sort of like a bank heist, what if narcomancers could only operate during their REM sleep, in 40-50 minute periods? It would almost be like a high that would wear off in time, forcing them to operate quickly, get in, play their music, and get out before their REM abilities wore off.
But there would have to be another hurdle for narcomancers to help distinguish them from regular dreamers: lucid dreaming. When I dream, it usually feels like I’m in a trance, like I’m watching myself doing things from somewhere slightly removed from my body with no real conscious control (Fun fact: sleep paralysis, a possible side effect of being woken up from REM sleep, often causes this same feeling, called bodily dissociation, also known as ‘having an out-of-body experience’). How could narcomancers, and musician narcomancers, hope to operate something akin to a mental DJ set when their mind isn’t working at top capacity? The only way to attain that kind of conscious acuity would have to be through lucid dreaming, where one would be able to recognize that they’re dreaming, then think and act as if they were awake.
To answer the question of how to attain lucid dreaming, I turned to 1980’s drug culture. Since the story was originally inspired by the rave-like EDM concerts of bands like Daft Punk, I turned to one aspect of rave culture: party drugs. So I invented a liquid, opium-derived product with a lot of similarities to morphine, which is apropos since morphine derives its name from Morpheus, the god of dreams. It’s also the kick-ass main character of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but that’s another story entirely. Sezumi, this fictional drug, would have one new feature apart from morphine: it would allow lucid dreaming once it put someone to sleep.
But another aspect of narcomancy, one of the key elements of manipulating dreams, comes from a unique phenomenon that’s also connected to lucid dreaming: binaural tones. Caused by playing two high-frequency notes with slight difference in their frequencies, binaural tones are sine waves that cause the brainwaves of the listeners to begin to synch with the binaural frequencies, meaning that you can ‘tune’ your brainwaves to certain patterns, such as theta or delta rhythms. This would be tremendously useful for a narcomancer who has to move between different stages of sleep, but there’s another use for it that makes it the central skill of narcomancy when paired with lucid dreaming: synching your brain waves with the brain waves of dreamers, then manipulating them.
Consider it a very primitive form of hacking, to use the Neuromancer analogy again. While lucid and on your REM high (with a 40-minute window) you find a frequency band with many dreamers’ brain waves operating on that wavelength, then start using binaural beats to manipulate them into attaining REM stage, then fine-tune your brainwaves to match theirs. Once you’re on the same frequency, you’re the only lucid person around, while everyone else is operating on the subconscious level. From there, you can begin manipulate and shape the dreams into something like reality-bending art, using music as your tool.