But why would writers invest so much imaginative energy in persuading us of something that no one would seriously dispute: namely, that sleep is a natural, inescapable and indeed pleasurable part of what it is to be human? We can consider two different ways of answering this question. The first is that literature can revitalize our imaginative relationship with a region of human experience that is all too easy to take for granted. Though we may acknowledge sleep’s importance in a general way, we struggle to appreciate sleep in the ways that we can appreciate, say, food or sex. It is in the nature of healthy sleep that we don’t -- indeed can’t -- notice it as it happens. And if we have slept well, then we don’t tend to devote much time to thinking about sleep when we are awake; it is a natural commodity available to all, at no cost, in inexhaustible quantities. For these reasons, we tend to be oblivious to the oblivion of somnolence. How can literature re-sensitize us to the value of sleep? Viktor Shklovsky theorizes that the goal of literary language is to refresh our jaded perceptions of everyday life, to make us look as if for the very first time at everything we take for granted in our lifeworlds; it is the job of art, as he famously puts it, ‘to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’. We might add, in a Shklovskian spirit, that the goal of sleepless world narratives is to make sleep sleepy, to rescue it from obscurity and restore it to us as a tangible and central element of human experience. They do so not by pushing sleep into the open but rather by subtracting it from everyday life in order that we may inspect the gap that it leaves, a sleep-shaped gap that we are more than likely to fill with a renewed appreciation of the hours we spend in the oblivion of slumber.
Another way of answering this question would be to refer sleepless world texts to the historical contexts in which they have emerged. This sub-genre is readable not as a set of prophecies about some nightmarish alternative world of the future but rather as a series of extrapolations from what is already happening in contemporary western society. Sleepless world texts are the fictional equivalents of Jonathan Crary’s polemical book, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which mounts a fierce critique of the sleep-eroding effects of a global capitalist system that resents every minute we spend asleep, scandalously delinquent in our economic passivity, neither producing nor consuming. One minor but telling symptom of the modern hostility to sleep that Crary notices is the design of ‘serrated’ public furniture in, say, bus shelters or parks, on which it possible to perch but impossible to sleep. The eviction of the sleeper from public space is an entirely characteristic move from a system that seems willing to abolish sleep’s very conditions of possibility in a bid to capture our round-the-clock attention and participation. From the perspective of a writer like Crary, sleepless world SF is not a paranoid vision of the future but a lightly disguised portrait of a dystopian present in which the ‘unsleep’ has already happened.
Crary’s case is polemically one-sided -- and it has good reasons for being so. It is difficult to see how an attack on, say, the use of sleep deprivation as torture could be too angry or too forthright in its denunciation of what governments can do to people at their most vulnerable. But it seems fair to note in response to Crary’s book that for many commentators rumours of sleep’s demise in the twenty-first century have been greatly exaggerated. Matthew Wolf-Meyer argues in The Slumbering Masses that we live not in a 24/7 society of continuous wakefulness but rather in one where sleep has been ever more systematically integrated into our lifeworlds as a responsibility we need to discharge in a regular and timely fashion -- according to timetables laid down by the education system, employers, government etc -- in order that we may perform at our best as alert, productive, well-slept citizens. Sleep does have a future, it seems, so long as it continues to function as the obedient servant of productive wakefulness. In this sense, Wolf-Meyer’s study offers what turns out to be an altogether gloomier prognosis than the SF works that celebrate sleep’s natural irrepressibility in the teeth of institutional resistance and pharmacological control. How might the regimes of wakefulness analysed in The Slumbering Masses be challenged? What would it take for sleepers’ rights to be asserted? Maybe the next wave of sleepless world narratives will help us to answer these questions.