Home > Christopher Nolan, Clement's Game > SciFi Round Four: Dreaming About Inception

SciFi Round Four: Dreaming About Inception

In case any of you haven’t seen it yet:  Inception is Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly-filmed scifi heist film.  Dominic Cobb leads a team of thieves who break into the mind of Maurice Fischer to disrupt his business strategy, looking very cool while navigating a mind-twisting plot through carefully constructed dreamspaces.

The main cast of Inception, standing on the street of a folded dream-city.

While Inception is an incredibly well-made film  (the soundtrack and wire fu are particularly impressive), there are a lot of problems with the plot and world-building – to the point that we were having trouble deciding if we should call it scifi or fantasy.  One way to explain away all of the following is to say that the whole movie is Cobb having a lucid dream.  This is left deliberately ambiguous.  But if we assume that the uppermost level of the nested levels of perception in the movie is intended to be real and to correspond nearly to our world, there are serious problems with the technology, the plot, and the society.

Shared Dreaming

The fundamental technology of the film is dream sharing.  Anything between one and twelve people can be plugged into a device providing fast-acting timed sedation and blends of specialty compounds that allow all of them to experience the same dream.  One, the ‘dreamer’ is lucid-dreaming to the extent that they can build anything, including things that can’t exist in Euclidean space: Arthur likes to make Penrose stairs; Ariadne folds up Paris into origami; Cobb has a dream elevator that takes him from one set of memories to another.   The others, the ‘subjects’, populate the dreamscape with ‘projections’ – sub-personas representing sections of their minds; and with their personal secrets stashed in apparently secure parts of the map.

The first problem here is the interface: everybody is simply plugged into the machine by what looks like an IV drip into their wrist.  There is no way for that to connect to somebody’s brain: the drips don’t even connect to a peripheral nerve, to say nothing of the comprehensive read of the central nervous system and high-bandwidth connection that would be necessary to figure out what somebody was seeing in their dreams and convey that information elsewhere.  And then there is the problem of feeding back the information into somebody’s brain.  While rapidly changing strong magnetic fields can induce effects on the brain, and so can dosing somebody with neurotransmitters, neither technique is specific enough.  Making somebody experience something in their dreams that’s the same as what somebody next to them is experiencing without waking them up would mean tricking their entire brain on almost a synapse-by-synapse level – and in a way that would be very different for each subject.  It’s not something that three guys can do with a briefcase of gear in a Green Car compartment on the Shinkansen.

The next problem is time compression and nesting.  Depending on the particular version of the chemicals Cobb and company are using, subjective time within a dream runs between twelve and twenty times faster than the reality outside it.  Then when they set up a dream-within-a-dream, subjective time becomes faster still – by the same factor.  That is impossible.  There is no time compression in real dreams, but some level of compression might make sense for a lucid dream: the dreamer can just skip over the boring bits.  But unless you’re spending all of your dream-time commuting across town, a factor of ten or twenty compression is implausibly high.  And the still-faster nested time doesn’t work: at some point, bandwidth limits come into play.  Neurotransmitters only diffuse across synapses so quickly.  There is no way to run up the clock speed of a human brain without frying things.

So the technology of Inception is impossible.  But if we take it as a given, what problems remain?

Plot Holes

The first problem I have with the plot is a bit subjective: is Cobb a heroic figure?  All heist films rely on the thief-protagonist being a sympathetic figure and on their victim being much less so.  Cobb is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife, which is a good start, but he is at least guilty of assault,  depending on how we count his hacking into her mind to free her from the endless dream of Limbo.  And his means of getting back is to assault people and rip information from their brains, leaving them with vaguely-remembered dreams of being shot or ripped to pieces; and for Fischer with an entirely re-defined sense of self.  Perhaps the ambiguity of Cobb’s morality is part of the point.

Other plot holes are less ambiguous: Saito, one of Fischer’s largest business rivals, funds the job.  His presence on the flight when the job takes place can be explained to Fischer by “He bought the airline, and offers you his condolences on the death of your father.  No charge for this flight.”  But in the first level of the dreaming, when Fischer is convinced that he is being held at gunpoint in a Los Angeles cab, why doesn’t he realize that it is Saito holding the gun, and start asking the relevant questions?

And why don’t the subjects of a dream all remember it?  Saito obviously remembered the dream that Cobb and Arthur forced him to have – as he said, “your deception was obvious”.  Why doesn’t Fischer wake up on the airplane, remember the dream of being kidnapped and having to defend himself against extraction, check his wrist for a needle mark, and recognize the people around him as his attackers?  If that seems a bit much for a man who has just watched his father die, remember: Fischer has had the same training as Saito for preventing people from invading his mind.

As a final plot hole, consider one of the film’s most iconic special effects: changes in gravity.  Suddenly dropping someone wakes them up, either back to the world or up one level in the dream.  The dreamer’s head tilting causes the gravity to shift.  This is most obvious with Arthur: he is dreaming the second-level dream while being driven through a car chase on the first-level.  The van rolling side over side over one second becomes the hotel spinning slowly around.  It flying off of a bridge makes the hotel be in zero gravity.

But these effects are inconsistently applied: the other sleepers in the van may not wake up when it falls off the bridge, since they’re another level down, but why doesn’t Arthur wake up?  He just got dropped the length of the hotel hallway.  And since he is the dreamer for that level, wouldn’t the dream then collapse?  More serious: Arthur is out in the hallway, fighting Fischer’s defenses with impressive wire fu as the gravity spins around.  One of the goons dies from falling down the hall.  But what would be happening in the room where everybody else is dreaming?  We see them peacefully floating in space, motionless.  But why weren’t they bouncing off of the walls, ending up in a tangle with half of them dream-dead from the trauma of repeated dead-weight impacts into hard surfaces?

And even if that wouldn’t have dropped them all into Limbo, why aren’t the gravity shifts on Eames’ head in the hotel in the second-level dream reflected in the mountains in the third-level dream turning end over end and collapsing?  Perhaps we can excuse that by saying that the gravity shifts are slow enough in subjective time for Eames to not notice them, but that doesn’t apply to the whiplash from his hitting the walls of the hotel room.  Nolan has certainly taken poetic license with his premise.

The Society

But the biggest problem with Inception is the similarity between the society in the movie and our own.  Simply put: a world where dream-sharing was available would not look anything like what we’re familiar with.  In the movie, dream-sharing is described as having been developed for infantry combat training.  This makes a certain amount of sense: conditioning for hand-to-hand may take only a few months, but it takes much longer to develop the reflexes to deal with all possible attacks in an effective way and you obviously can’t do unrestricted sparring in training, or there would be a serious shortage of fighters.  Double-level dreaming then becomes the equivalent of the uploading technology of The Matrix.  Spend ten hours asleep and accumulate thousands of hours of sparring practice – “I know kung fu”.  A week of double-level dreams equals five years of fighting for three hours per day.

But if dream-sharing can be used for sparring practice, it will be used for other things.  Have fighter pilots sleep for a night with a dreamer who keeps the physics real and they get the equivalent of a thousand flight hours and you save the cost and time of simulators.  Then the commercial pilots will want in.  And if pilots can do it, why not surgeons and lawyers and every person who wants a driver’s license?  Why not every high school and undergraduate student?

There are side effects to excessive dream sharing, so use would need to be limited, but even one night of double-level dreaming is the equivalent of six months of lived experience and one night of triple-level is 10 years.  And dreaming is cheap.  If a chemist working in a low-rent shop in Mombasa can mix up enough of the compounds to support a dozen people a day (granted, that was for single-level dreaming), the cost is down to perhaps ~300 USD per person per dream – and that’s assuming that the people doing the dreaming were paying about 100x the median Kenyan daily wage.  The lower-limit cost of dreaming is likely far lower, but we should allow a large margin for the salaries of the architects who design the dream.

This makes dreaming a low-operating-cost and extremely profitable industry.  Which would you chose?  A five-thousand-dollar night of dreaming or four years worth of college at ten thousand dollars per year?

Very rapidly, everyone in the world could have the equivalent of a college education by whatever is the youngest age for safe shared dreaming; and accumulate a decade of extra experience every month or year thereafter.  The limit will be having sufficient teachers to dream the classes – but they can spend twenty subjective years training and still be ready by Tuesday.  What would such a culture look like, besides having whole industries based around people getting together and dozing off, and a new social problem in the form of dream addiction?  I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be anything like the world we live in or the world Cobb and company run around in.

As part of an effective education, everyone in that world would have their subconscious trained with mental firewalls, to prevent extraction or inception.  I suspect there would be some changes in public etiquette as well: falling asleep in public would leave you even more potentially vulnerable than it does in real life.  Perhaps people learn to wear armored wristbands?  For the upper-end of security, trusted bodyguards would keep watch while their bosses were asleep.  Cobb would have known something was up when Saito by himself on the train; and Fischer would not have flown alone.  Either way, the plot of the movie wouldn’t work.

What sort of story could Nolan have told, set in a world where dreaming is mainstream?


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