The world of sleep is both fantastical and fleeting, but can be the source of some of our greatest creative ideas. In this blog post, Michael Cassutt discusses the dream that inspired his story “Aurora.” Read it in our [March/April issue, on sale now!]
by Michael Cassutt
I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, easily fifty years, and have had story concepts find me in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s through a song lyric, at other times it’s a passing phrase. Frequently it’s an image in a magazine or on-line.
I’ve also gotten ideas from other fiction, seeing some SF notion and deciding, in my infinite wisdom, that it was wrong or incomplete, and that I could do better. (I’m actually writing one of those now.)
Almost all of these inspirations are gifts. I’ve never been in the position where I’ve had to brute force an idea for an SF story because I need to write one and get paid.
(That torture is more common in the world of series television, but the less said about that the better.)
Making the transition from concept to complete story can be a gift, too.
One year my parents gave me a picture book titled Stillwater: Minnesota’s Birthplace, which had an image and a few paragraphs on a man named John Jeremy, who was famed as a corpse fisher. (Apparently Stillwater, a logging town on the St. Croix River, suffered a lot of drownings.)
While getting ready to leave home for work that morning (I was then employed by CBS TV) a complete story about John Jeremy appeared in my mind along with the opening line.
That night, part-time writer that I was, working 2-3 evenings a week, I sat down at my IBM Selectric III and in ninety minutes wrote the entire 3,800-word text of “Stillwater, 1896″), far more than I usually wrote in any single session.
It sold on its second submission—the first rejection came from The New Yorker, the only time I was brave or ambitious enough to attempt that market – to a horror anthology series called Shadows, edited by Charles L. Grant. And over the years it was picked up for six different anthologies. I still make a few dollars on it every other year.
But this swift, productive origin never occurred again. Like most writers, possibly all, I find notions or images in dreams, too, but usually some barely-remembered fragment. It isn’t a common source of stories, unless you happen to be A. E. van Vogt, the no-longer famous author of Slan and World of Null-A from the 1940s.
Van Vogt developed a method of shaping dreams in order to generate fantastic concepts. On selected nights, having mercifully located himself in the second bedroom in his residence so his wife would not be disturbed—
“I set the alarm to ring in one and one-half hours. When it awakened me, I reset the alarm for another one and one-half hours, thought about the problems in the story I was working on—and fell asleep. I did that altogether four times during the night. And in the morning, there was the unusual solution, the strange plot twist.”
As anyone who’s ever read a van Vogt story can tell you, frequently some really strange plot twists.
This is the kind of insane stratagem you invent when you are supporting yourself as a pulp SF writer in the 1940s.
Which is, now that I think about it, a lot like supporting yourself as a writer for TV series in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, where you often have to come up with an episode concept today, not tomorrow.
However, “Aurora,” my new story in the March/April 2022 Asimov’s came to me in a fabulously detailed and complete dream.
Like most writers, possibly all, I find notions or images in dreams, too, but usually some barely-remembered fragment.
I was somewhere in a northern climate, an empty steppe, at a research facility. I knew that I was involved in astronomy because I was looking at images from space, specifically at an object in the solar system that was shaped like a table-top, not a sphere or a shard of rock.
Also that it was icy.
And on a collision course with Earth.
I remember being alarmed, an unpleasant dream state—which makes me wonder if this was actually a nightmare.
But then, with one of those dream-like leaps that defy logic, my team and I were beaming a laser at the Object, and its surface was boiling, changing its trajectory.
(Certain other details followed, but I withhold them because they are part of the reading experience.)
When I awoke I not only remembered all this detail, something I rarely do.
I also knew it was a story, and I even had a title: “Reciprocal.”
Much like my experience with “Stillwater 1896,” it was a simple matter to simply sit down and write it, which, less than a week later, I did.
Identifying the setting was easy . . . in my mind, the landscape was always northern Russia at a remote scientific installation. I’ve been fascinated with Russian/Soviet science and technology, especially space-related, since I was in my teens. Not only have I read a lot on the subject, twenty-some years ago I had the good fortune to travel to Russia and visit several high-tech facilities.
I’ve also interviewed or had conversations with perhaps two or three dozen workers in those facilities, too, so possessed some idea of that life might be like—the residences, the isolation, the lack of shopping or entertainment (as we would expect it in the U.S.), the crumbling infrastructure and, well, the rampant alcoholism. (I had heard credible reports of former cosmonauts, those who trained for decades and never got into space, stumbling the streets drunkenly at all hours. One was struck by a car and killed. Another died after consuming wood alcohol.)
Which gave me a possible character in Vera Kuznetsova, a retired physicist and facility director. In order to connect her to the story’s core problem, I bestowed her with institutional memory that her successors in the 21st Century would lack . . . especially those who had evolved in a world where people were routinely “enhanced,” that is, possessing neuro connections to a global data network.
Looking at “Aurora” and its dream origins with a year’s perspective makes me wonder why I had such a detailed vision. I suspect it was drug-related. During most of 2019 and all of 2020 I was dealing with a medical condition that defied easy diagnosis or even description, though my doctors and I have agreed on “allergy-asthma.”
What I was doing was ingesting a lot of medications. And they often affected my sleep and surely my dreams.
I’m in better shape now and, like every writer I know, always eager to repeat a proven method for generating stories, especially when swift and painless.
No, no, going back on those drugs is a bad idea, right?
But there is the van Vogt method—