“How a Dream Machine Works, Exactly” by Mark von Schlegell
Reviewed by Joshua Berlow
Previous to reading this story, I had heard of William S. Burroughs’ experiments with the Dream Machine. Although William S. Burroughs isn’t mentioned in this story by Mark von Schlegell, it’s a good bet that he also had heard of Burroughs’ investigations with the Dream Machine. A Burroughs/Gysin Dream Machine consists of a turntable with a cardboard cylinder on it. The cardboard cylinder has a lightbulb inside, and the cardboard has slits in it. The rotating cardboard cylinder creates a flickering light. Prolonged gazing into a flickering Dream Machine is supposed to influence the brain’s alpha waves, inducing a trance-like hallucinatory state of mind. Brion Gysin, a collaborator with Burroughs, patented the Dream Machine. They had high hopes for it: Burroughs thought it could be used to “storm the citadels of enlightenment” and that it could be more popular than television.
Another interesting aspect of William S. Burroughs’ fiction concerns Burroughs’ belief that his fiction writing had some mysterious influence on reality. This aspect of fiction is addressed in “How a Dream Machine Works, Exactly.”
Initially, the protagonist (who is never named) is given a Dream Machine by his father. This Dream Machine, called a “Dream Nexus,” operates differently from the Burroughs/Gysin Dream machine in that it prints out a bound book containing black and white images of the user’s dream. A physical book is too retro for the protagonist, who decides to build his own updated version of a Dream Machine, which he calls “Oneiron.” This updated version of the Dream Machine brings Burroughs’ quest to fruition—it has the power to influence reality.
The story eventually mimics the hallucinatory and non-linear aspects of a dream, involving an unconsummated romantic interest and a lunar colony. Does it matter if readers are unaware of the Burroughs connection? No, because “How a Dream Machine Works, Exactly” works well enough to stand on its own. That said, knowing about the Burroughsian overtones will certainly increase a reader’s appreciation of this fine story.
Joshua Berlow is the founder of the International Psychogeography Institute.