The roots of Inception

ImagePhoto: The Guardian

I finished The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch today and I wondered if Christopher Nolan had read it before he wrote Inception.

The plots bear no resemblance but one of the big themes, and the way its unreality is structured, is the same.

First, the plot. The story is set in a future where the sun is so hot no one can go outside at midday. Apartment blocks in America are numbered according to how far they are away from downtown Manhattan. Antarctica is full of resorts for the super rich. People pay for goods in truffle skins. The rich take evolution therapy (“E therapy”) in an exclusive clinic in Munich.

The UN sends people to colonise the moon, Mars, and other planets. They live in “hovels”. Up there, the settlers live on some “howling, gale-swept moon, huddled at the bottom of a hovel against frozen methane crystals”. They feel like they simply “twist and cringe like worms in a paper bag” and they survive by taking a drug which “translates” them into an imaginary world, a fantasy world like the earth they once knew. The drug has to be used in conjunction with a kind of Barbie and Ken play set – miniatures of the things you find back on earth. Women become the female figurine, Perky Pat, and men become “Walt”. Walt owns a Jaguar XXB sports ship. “His shirts came from Italy and his shoes were made in England.” Pat wears a swim suit that “hardly exists; actually you have to kind of have faith to believe in it.” They walk imaginary beaches with picnic baskets.

So far, no similarities to Inception. But…

The colonists debate whether the experience actually takes them to earth or whether it only seems to. Is the experience authentic? Or is it just a hallucination?

When a new drug comes on the market, the question is whether it can create a more intense experience that lasts far longer and the plot works towards a possible showdown between the men who make the old drug and the men who make the new. The new drug (“Chew Z”) contains multiple layers of reality. When you’re inside a hallucination you can spend days, weeks, a lifetime – while your actual body lies in a sleep state back in the real world and nothing more than a few minutes pass. This is the Inception territory. Perhaps the only difference is Philip K Dick’s layers of reality are more complicated that the five level structure Christopher Nolan created. There’s even a faint character similarity. The leading man, Barney Mayerson, wants – like Inception’s Cobb – to return to the illusory Chew-Z world so that he can return to a happier time with the woman he loves, his ex-wife whom he has wronged.

Both Dick and Nolan invite us to wonder about what is reality, what is authentic, what is illusory. Inception asks its question in a straightforward way, is a kind of riff on the old Keats line, “Do I wake or sleep?” In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch pushes more questions – Dick wants to know how far a self-destructive drive will push us; how much a person might be willing to do to atone for something he regrets; and what the effects of a powerful realisation might be (“He felt differently about himself, now, and no longer saw himself in the same ultra-sympathetic light”).

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