Dreams of the future: How sci-fi sees sleep

What is science fiction if not a dream of what tomorrow might hold?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
6 min read
Herbert Dorfman

Technology has proven its ability to transform our everyday lives -- but what about our lives every night? 

There are plenty of sleep-focused gadgets already available, which is just as well when the stress of the coronavirus pandemic keeps you up at night. You can put a white noise machine by your bed to help you drift off and a SAD light to wake you up, not to mention various apps and gadgets to improve the quality of your slumber in between. So it's not much of a stretch to think science fiction movies and stories might suggest ways of getting better rest or making better use of all that time spent in bed.

We all sleep, and that's not likely to change in the future, so let's take a look at science fiction for a glimpse into the bedrooms of tomorrow.

According to many sci-fi stories, in the future we'll probably be sleeping a lot more -- for decades or even centuries, in fact. That's the theory behind cryosleep, which involves freezing people in suspended animation during the lengthy stretches of time required to travel across the vastness of space.

Cryosleep factors into loads of movies, from Alien to Avatar, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Event Horizon. The defrosting scene is a sci-fi staple, as bleary-eyed travelers awake from glass cases and re-examine their surroundings. It's a handy trick for filmmakers, because it offers a plausible space travel method and gives the audience useful exposition when disoriented characters ask "How long have I been out?"

Watch this: 7 ways smart home devices can help you sleep better

Extended periods of shuteye are perfectly plausible -- just look at the many animals that hibernate, slowing their metabolisms in a state known as torpor. Could the same be possible for humans? It's an active area of study. For instance, I spoke to Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, associate professor of neuroscience at Oxford University's Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, who's working with the European Space Agency to investigate the possibility of human hibernation. "In theory, nothing prevents humans from entering cryosleep," he said, "but we do not have practical means (yet) to produce hibernation safely and reliably in humans."

One of the biggest open questions is what long-term torpor would do to the brain. In animals, torpor is actually different from sleep, and it's possible someone spending their cosmic odyssey conked out might counterintuitively suffer the effects of sleep deprivation.

Sadly, being put under isn't always a safe way to travel: In 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien 3, space travellers are murdered in their beds -- or rather, pods. Similarly, Alien: Covenant pulled a massive bait-and-switch by barbecuing a slumbering A-list movie star before he could even rise and shine.

A scene from the movie Alien, in which the spaceship crew awakens from sleep pods.

The crew of the Nostromo awaken from stasis in the 1979 film Alien. They'll soon wish they'd stayed in bed.

Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection / Getty Images

Sleep no more

Today, people play recordings of new languages or weight loss encouragement to benevolently brainwash themselves while asleep. A sci-fi extension of that is found in Aldous Huxley's scathing novel Brave New World, recently adapted for TV, in which a technique called Hypnopaedia is used to teach dozing youngsters. This being a dystopian sci-fi nightmare, it's used to condition children to the sinister system. Meanwhile, cynical sci-fi visions of adverts inserted into dreams are seen in animated TV show Futurama and the comic Transmetropolitan.

Luckily for us, these grim visions are unlikely to come true, as recordings played during sleep don't actually sink in. "Our brain is remarkably responsive to everything that happens in the environment while we sleep," explained Vyazovskiy. "However, this seems to get forgotten immediately."

Purely from a time management perspective, you'd think that sci-fi would offer high-tech ways to avoid spending half our lives lazing around in bed. In the comic Judge Dredd, dehumanized future law enforcement officers use special machines to instantly rest and refresh themselves so they can get back back to cracking heads on the streets. And in the 2015 Doctor Who episode Sleep No More, named after an oft-quoted line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, sleep-shortening Morpheus pods compress the benefits of a good night's kip into a few moments. Of course, this being Doctor Who, the devices are linked to monstrous creatures made of the gritty rheum you get in the corner of your eye when you snooze.

A much smarter option for dodging the duvet is employed by space pirate captain Kraiklyn in Ian M Banks' novel Consider Phlebas. He could put each side of his brain to sleep individually so he could stay constantly awake and no one could sneak up on him in bed. The downside was that his personality changed depending on whether his left or right brain was in charge.

Generally, though, catnap-compressing contraptions are surprisingly rare in speculative fiction -- it seems sleep is just too fundamental a human requirement for even sci-fi writers to mess with. Still, that doesn't stop us trying out all manner of apps and sleep trackers to improve the quality of our kip.

Nap to the future

Before sci-fi writers came up with the concept of time machines that could be steered backwards and forwards through the centuries, the earliest form of time travel in fiction involved falling asleep for ages and waking up in a very different world. Chronic oversleeping drives classic stories like the Japanese folk tale of Urashima Taro, who visited an underwater Dragon Palace and returned home to find years had passed, or the Greek legend of Epimenides, who awoke with the gift of prophecy after 57 years passed out in a cave.

Sylvester Stallone In 'Demolition Man'
Enlarge Image
Sylvester Stallone In 'Demolition Man'

Sylvester Stallone took a cryogenic catnap in 1993's Demolition Man.

Archive Photos / Getty Images

Washington Irving's famous 1819 short story Rip Van Winkle came to define the oversleeping trope, which is odd as his 40 winks lasted a paltry 20 years. That's a mere catnap compared to the sleepy protagonists of Demolition Man (36 years), Sleeper (200 years), Buck Rogers (500 years) or Futurama (1,000 years). Perhaps unluckiest of all is the character in The Day of the Triffids who sleeps through the end of the world due to a hangover.

In the classic 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and its chilling 1978 remake), the apocalypse actually comes about because of sleep. When people succumb to slumber they're replaced by perfect alien replicas known as pod people. Director Don Siegel even wanted to name the film Sleep No More.

Perchance to dream

Insomnia is a plot point in too many stories to mention here. But if we want to find a story that tackles quality of sleep, let's boldly go (to bed). Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Night Terrors saw the Enterprise crew deprived of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the deep state of repose that benefits learning and memory. Things went downhill from there as they lost focus, suffered hallucinations and came close to insanity.

A major part of REM sleep is the ability to dream. Various other Star Trek stories deal with dreams -- in fact, dreams are such a sci-fi and fantasy staple they could fill a whole other article. Who can forget the bizarre red room in Twin Peaks, for example, or the journey inside multilayered dream states in Inception? And Blade Runner fans have for decades debated the significance of a dream about a unicorn which suggests protagonist Rick Deckard may be an android.

In real life, dreams can actually be the source of our stories. Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson were inspired to write Dracula, Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after terrifying dreams. The Terminator was inspired by James Cameron dreaming of a skeleton walking through flames, while Neil Gaiman, H.P. Lovecraft and Twilight author Stephenie Meyer are all said to have been inspired by their dreams.

However, it's best to keep some barrier between our waking and dreaming lives. "It could be disastrous if we remembered all of our dreams the same way we remember our waking experiences," said Vyazovskiy. "We would not be able to tell what really happened to us in the past and what was simply imagined."

Many of the imaginings of science fiction have come true. Yet sleep is so central to the human experience, it's remained largely resistant to the technological advances taking over every aspect of our lives.

"There is a long and winding road to these developments becoming reality," said Vyazovskiy of sci-fi's stasis pods, sleep machines and bed-based ads. "There is still a lot we do not understand about the brain, about sleep and about memory, and there are no shortcuts here."

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