Life Is But A Dream

Row, Row, Row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, Merrily, Merily, Merily
Life Is But A Dream

There can be cases where someone is (or could be) within a dream, a synthetic reality, or virtual reality. (For simplicity, I'll refer to all of these as "a dream") Now, there are several scenarios: 1. They are made to believe that the world of the dream is actual reality. 2. They discover the world is not actual reality and are trying to convince people of it. 3. They were convinced they were in the dream world, but either never were or are not now out of it and don't know this. 4. They wanted to be in a dream.

In all of these, the person can be manipulated by others, or they can take advantage of the environment to manipulate it. If they're in a dream world on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, they can essentially be turned into a slave for whomever is running the place. If they're put into a dream world, someone can monitor them and find their real world secrets or anything or value they would have access to. If they're made to think they're in a dream world when they are not, they may do things that have catastrophic, disastrous or fatal consequences. If they go into a dream and are there when they try things, they can do things that do have catastrophic, disastrous or fatal consequences in the real world without having to suffer those consequences.

Let's look at all of these.

1. Placed into a dream. The person is in some sort of environment which is not reality, they're asleep and dreaming, they're a brain or body in a tank, they're jacked in to a virtual reality system, or they're Inside a Computer System and don't really have a body. So, they take the world around them as if it was real. 2. Trying to convince others they're in a dream. Someone either was involved in the dream, or discovered it, and they're trying to convince someone else that the reality around them isn't real. 3. Believes that the real world is actually a dream when either it never was or was but isn't now. They were in a dream world, or someone synthesized some events to make them think the world is in is not the real world. Then, either they're brought out of the dream without knowing they've been brought out, or they never were in a dream world to begin with. 4. Wanted to be in a dream. They bought or were given some sort of privilege of experiencing a dream world, and are actually in it. Can also apply to someone who discovers that they were put into or are in a dream (scenario 1 above), and like the way things are over the real world.

Now, one of the things that get played with in the trope are, how do you get out of the dream (if you can), and what happens if you die. If you're really in a dream, you might not be able to get out (such as if you don't have a body and you're Inside a Computer System). Or it might require huge resources to do so, or require someone outside of the dream to pull you out. And if you die, you might die for real in the real world, or you simply wake up. That, of course, brings up a whole new issue: if you are informed that you're in a dream and do want out, and you find out you have to kill yourself to get out, then you have to wonder: is it really a dream and they're allowing you to escape, or are they simply pulling a Mind Screw to get you to commit suicide?

There can also be scenarios where someone is trying to invert the situation, like prevent someone from finding out they are in a dream world, stop them from informing others, or informing them for the purpose of manipulating them either within the dream world or in the real world.


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  • Dream Scape: Someone wants to be able to invade the dreams of other people, including the President of the United States.
  • Inception: Put someone into a dream, and then follow them into it, and steal things out of their head. Or, if you're good enough, put ideas into it.
  • The Matrix: First Neo (and others) discover he's not in the real world, then gets pulled into the real world. And one of the others doesn't like it and wants to go back. While others continue to try to free people from the simulated world. Then you have the Agents of the Matrix who are trying to stop people from telling others about the situation.
  • Total Recall (1990): Quade thinks he bought an escape package of memories. Only maybe it isn't a dream. Or maybe it is. Or is it?
  • Vanilla Sky: He's in the real world, then he's in a dream world, doesn't like it, and wants to escape back to the real world. But maybe this is the real world, or maybe it's not, and the means to escape is not exactly a great idea if

  • G. A. Effinger's When Gravity Fails involves people being able to jack in to a virtual reality system. Then one guy discovers a way, when eight people jack in, he fixes it so only seven come back.
  • Neil Stevenson's Snow Crash has someone figure a way that, when people connect to a virtual reality system, it's possible to put the equivalent of a computer virus into their actual brain.

    Live TV 
  • Awake is all about this concept. He is awake with his wife and his son his dead. Then he goes to sleep and wakes up, but now his wife is dead and he is with his son. Which life is reality and which life is but a dream?
  • Star Trek in the incarnations of The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager, have the Holodeck, where people can try just about anything. Even to the point of turning the safety protocols off, in which case, if you get hurt or killed in there, you're just as dead or injured as in reality. Presuming it isn't because the safety failed in the first place.
  • The Twilight Zone plays with this a number of times. Here are a few examples.
    • Dennis Weaver is on death row, and trying to convince everyone, before he's executed, that they're all elements of his dream; he won't die, but they will
    • An man has arrived in a deserted town, and can't remember how he got there; is this real or is it something else.