Reality? It's neither here nor there

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Does anyone know about the Lucid Dream Machine? You strap it on, or plug it in, or something. Then you go to sleep and it senses when you begin to dream. Then it shines a red light on your eyelids; the red light is incorporated into the dream, and there's a little thing you press - are you with me? - and you say to yourself, "Aha! I am dreaming! I can do anything I like." And then you do it. Anything. Whatever. That's what the Lucid Dream Machine does. I read about it.

I think I read about it.

I may have dreamt about it. It's the sort of machine you dream about. The survival instinct of dreams. "Get a Lucid Dream Machine, and stay here," they murmur, "where it's all alright. Look at those big women! Here's a steam locomotive of your very own! Hear those fishes sing!" And then they scare the hell out of you. Monsters and desolation. But I can handle that. I get it every day. What I do need to check is this: which is the dream? Perhaps I need a soothing injection, but the truth is that I have a double life.

And one of them is a dream. It must be. Sleep marks the transition between the two worlds, but other than that there is no perceptible difference. It's not like the bad yellow-eyed woman, who sometimes tells me her dreams. "I had a bad dream," she says. "What about?" I say, ready to be sympathetic. "I don't know! I can't tell! Why are you asking me?" she cries. "Give me tea! Cigarettes! Chocolate! A hug!" she pleads, then falls back asleep with a tumbling gravitational thud. Or there's the other sort. "I had the most appalling dream," she mumbles; "Dreadful. I went to Safeways and ... and ... " "Yes?" I murmur soothingly. "And... the pears were rock-hard. I don't know how they dare sell them like that."

My dreams are not like that. They are every bit as pedestrian, but they are invariably set in the same place, in a district of a capital city where I am well known. Sometimes I do not go there for a while, and they want to know where I have been. I have been dreaming there for 20 years now, and people are growing older. Some have died, some have terrible troubles, a few are horribly fulfilled, most spend their time avoiding the little pockets of desperation which litter their lives like bunkers or potholes.

The architecture is largely undistinguished, but there is an intricate underground railway system, built with an almost American - or Victorian - exuberance in its own technological triumphalism, without regard to the feelings of the passengers. Sometimes you have to climb down endless ladders to change trains; sometimes the walkways, badly lit, run along the edge of great tunnels, like subterranean mountain passes.

Most of the time, in this dream, I potter. I am aware that my life is passing, and that I really ought to be better-organised, more ambitious, harder-working; I really ought to find myself a wife. But I just potter. I go for drives in the countryside with my friends. The other day - the other night - I got hopelessly lost trying to find the right turn-off on the motorway.

Do you see how frightening this all is? It is just another life; nothing special, arid in many ways, the sort of life which, on your deathbed, you'd think was a bit of a waste. Yet I keep going back.

Which is why I want a Lucid Dream Machine. If the flashing red light appeared somewhere in the scene - on the alarm clock, say, or a traffic light, or in what should be a normal ceiling-light - then I would know it was a dream, and could distinguish it from my "real" life once and for all.

There are a number of problems, though. First is the Lucid Dream Machine itself. The thing has a strange, hallucinatory feel to it, particularly the little button you carry into the dream. Is it real? Or did I dream it; and if so, where? Here? Or there?

The second problem is the notion that once you know you are dreaming, everything will be fine. Phooey. I was once in a rail crash in a dream, and I realised at the last minute that it was a dream. "No need to save myself," I thought; "Let's ride the crash; it'll be all right." So the train crashed and I lost a leg, which hurt like hell. I spent seven boring weeks in hospital and then I had to go to work when I woke up.

The third problem is the worst, though. Suppose the red light comes on and I press the button and think "Oho! Liberty Hall, man!"... well, what then? So I put on my velvet brocade suit and go out to a nightclub and if there's someone I fancy, I simply have her, do you see? Just... have her, there and then. Or I go to a concert and think to myself: this soloist is rubbish, I could do better than that. So I climb on stage and take over. Or I'm driving along the motorway and think "Let's have a pile-up," or, down the underground system, I think "I don't like the look of the bugger in front of me," and push him under a train.

It simply won't do. I could get badly injured, and anyway I have to live there as well as here. How could I look anyone in the eye if I just did exactly as I wished?

Perhaps the truth is that there's no way of telling which is real. I've tried the standard tests to detect a dream- world. Does it seem insubstantial? Are the rules of behaviour suspended or altered at will? Is there a sense of a brooding presence, of being under the control of peculiar and malevolent illuminati? Do things which should worry one - bills, taxes, illness, old age, financial insecurity, domestic problems and deadlines - seem of no importance? Do you just float along, scenes blurring and merging, with a sense of depersonalisation, an absurd optimism that somehow things will turn out fine again?

Well... yes to all those, but what worries me is that they apply here much more than there, where things make sense and I am widely respected. I really do need to find out which is which, so if there is a Lucid Dream Machine, I want to try it. Otherwise I guess I'll just have to pick a life at random and settle down. Not go there any more. Or go there and not come back. !