ICU Delusions

When I was in the hospital for several weeks following my second heart attack, in April and May 2021, I retained no memories of the first week because I was on sedation while the doctors figured out what to do with me. I remember on April 20th after Y called 911 the paramedics taking me down the stairs in my house, in a compact wheelchair, to the ambulance at the curb. On April 28th I was transferred to a different hospital, one that could perform heart transplants. My memories of my hospital stays begin with that transfer, but these memories are more accurately delusions, or enhanced dreams, inspired by what was going on in the outer world but amplified in bizarre ways.

These dreams remain in my memory months later, more crisply than ordinary dreams that fade away by morning. Also, a number of these delusions—fantasms?—illusions?—had distinctly science-fiction themes.

There were a remarkable number of individual episodes, considering they all occurred during the first three weeks or so of my hospital stay. I’ll group them by theme…

First, the transfer between hospitals. In my dream, the two hospitals are long, spaceship-like constructions, one on the San Francisco shore, one over the Bay Bridge, almost but not quite connected. The SF hospital is suspended over Market Street, a long crystalline structure of golden glass. The Oakland hospital is also long, a series of whirling blue glass pods spinning around a central axis, the entire thing suspended over the end of the Bay Bridge. (I wonder to myself, “How is it I never noticed this structure before, the many times I’ve driven across the bridge into the city? I’ll have to pay attention next time.”) It resembles one of those spaceships in, what, The Martian? Interstellar?, with the pods obviously designed to provide artificial gravity. [This makes no sense on the surface of the Earth of course, but I’m just reporting what I dreamt, never mind trying to rationalize it.]

There is a scene in which Y and I are transferring from one hospital to the other by taking a tram a short way down the street. When it comes time to disembark, they call people alphabetically by last name. I am weak and cannot bring myself to speak when my name is called out, let alone stand up. The line is moving very slowly. But I have to wait until Y’s name (last name beginning with W) is called before I can join him and we can get off the tram.

Outside is extremely foggy, with a weird kind of fog that’s yellow, like the SF hospital itself. Big clumps of mist drifting by. We enter the ground entry corridor of the second hospital, which has a skylight letting light through from a central, open axis, filled by this yellow fog. Crystalline shapes emerge from the fog and seem to penetrate the skylight, floating in the air above us. I look to see if anyone else notices these, but no one seems to.

There is a brief scene in which Y and I are standing on a sunlit platform before entering the central core of the second hospital, speaking with two doctors in white coats.

Then we are inside the second hospital. The inside of a pod, quite large, has rows of patient rooms along opposite sides. It’s very dark. The central, weightless axis lies above us, with kitchen and conference room facilities in what must be a zero G area. We are installed in the first room along one side. Throughout the night, pairs of nurses, male and female and all Asian, attend to each room, floating deftly from the central core to climb down into the patient rooms. These nurses don’t seem to have a lot to do at night, and I see them casually gathering to chat, or whatever, in the cafeteria room. And occasionally I see one of the male nurses, and one of the female, abscond for a time into a private room in the central core. Not the date that brought ‘em. What is this about, I wonder. Some aspect of hospital culture I am unaware of? Some aspect of the local libertine culture? A holdover from the ‘60s perhaps.

At some point I am taken to a small, white, weightless chamber in the core, where I am attended to by a young, ambiguously gendered nurse, who floats back and forth and occasionally seems to disappear, only to reappear from under a bench at the far end of the room. After a day this nurse expresses his(?) fealty to me, how he(?) wants to take care of me forever. I have to explain that I already have a partner who is devoted to me, and will take care of me forever. The next day when he(?) sees me he doesn’t remember any of this; he suggests I was confusing him(?) with my partner.

Each day I am moved one room further down the pod. There are five rooms on each side. Each of the following few dreams seemed to take place one a day, as I move from room to room, then across the pod and back up the rooms on the other side.


Second: A revised history of science fiction

I have a recollection that, just before I went into the hospital, there was news about some huge just-released book from a fannish concern that claimed to have discovered a new pulp era of early SF. It was a large hardcover sans dust jacket, like some of those old bibliographical reference works that I have on my shelves. It was such news that Locus took note of it in a brief news story, but after a couple days retracted the story and disavowed it, due to some (right-wing) political connection, or misrepresentation. However Gary K. Wolfe had gotten a copy and given it a cursory review, just in time for the print issue, saying it was a fascinating work whose premises may or may not play out, needing further examination.

And I had gotten an email from some UK paper asking for my take on this book. (Why contact me? As the former editor of Locus Online? Everyone else turned them down? Not sure.) I had gotten an advance copy of the book too, but missed the issue deadline (to submit an actual review), but intended to follow up. My initial impression of the book was that it was an anthology of early pulp stories that weren’t exactly SF, but which perhaps anticipated SF: stories about rich entrepreneurs in the 1930s who drove enormous cars, with blonde bimbos on their arms, and who casually build great dams and bored huge tunnels and built enormous skyscrapers, because they could. And this fannish movement was called 1Q2Q.

My take was that it was simplistic, and had the flavor of trying to tie the entire genre of science fiction to the American entrepreneurial spirit, even to the founding of the country. The book tried to address many great questions about every issue they could imagine, and provide simple answers for each, as derived from pulp stories.

I was in ICU, in this spinning pod, when the book was formally released, and for some reason I was recruited into monitoring, from a facility room in the center, the several thousand, numbered, statements from the book as they were broadcast to the world, like a revelation. I had to make sure none were missed. It went late into the night.

The subsequent two nights I am again obliged to monitor feedback, then to participate in writing a script dramatizing the project. The latter effort is run by some young woman zealot and project manager, sitting up in the core of the pod insisting that I (and others) keep working, until eventually I say, no, I quit, I’m not doing this anymore.

These people turn up in later dreams.


Third: A small SF conference next door

In a hotel next to my hospital pod a small SF conference is being held, just a couple dozen people, including a couple Locus contributors, just sitting on sofas in a lobby, and somehow I am aware of this without actually being present. One of the other participants is an ambiguously gendered young man whom I recognize as that nurse in my pod. Isn’t that odd. This person has an unusual name—the first and last rhyme, or something like that—so I Google it and discover he is the author of a book and member of some small literary coterie; his book is about writers famous for only a single work (as apparently is he). Back in the pod, he occupies the private room in the center, advertising for companionship over some phone app that all the nurses use. I’m tempted, but can’t even stand up, let alone get to that room.


Fourth: Only the ICU Room is real

Eventually (have rounded both sides of the pod) I’m aware of being in an ordinary ICU room, with windows to my right and a door to my left letting into a corridor and a nursing station. On the wall almost in front of me are two digital clocks, with big red numbers; one is a timer, counting down the hours and minutes and seconds, but occasionally resetting itself to some number of hours. These clocks are formatted oddly, with separators in the wrong positions, so that every time I look I have to parse the digits to tell what times they show.

And then, for many nights (and perhaps naps) in a row, I have dreams/fantasies the involve the world outside the ICU room, or perhaps how it merely appears. These probably occurred over two weeks or so after the transfer to the SF hospital.

The birth of America and of science fiction

  • In perhaps the most significant such dream, I have the experience of waking up , early before dawn, listening to rain on the roof above, and watching those clocks, as if they have to completely count down before anything will happen (like a nurse coming in). My bed is familiar but the room is the front room of some conventional house; somehow I understand that I am in some small New England town, right along a bay. I realize the effort of the anthology authors is to claim American history as the ultimate source for everything science fictional. There is a side dream about residents of this town, back when the US was being founded, and how after some local rivalry they had settled on this one street (which I am looking out on) as the place of the beginning. As dawn breaks, through the windows I see other multi-story structures around the bend of the bay—other wings of the hospital, actually, but in the dream it is as if I am seeing the future, from this colonial past.
  • Then this all happens again—hours of waking early, watching the clocks, the timer counting down but occasionally resetting itself, and I realize I have to wait for the timer to reach zero before… what? Before a nurse comes in and tends to the usual early morning ministrations (taking vitals, a blood sample). I am stuck in my bed, unable to move. Directly in front of my bed is a heavy door that, I can tell through an adjacent window, opens out onto the street. When the counter reaches zero, and while the nurse is attending me, the door is opened for staff to enter, revealing a rainy cobbled street outside.

A bohemian bookstore

  • In the first of a series of scenes, my ICU room is contingent with the upstairs room of a casual off-campus bookshop. This large room has bookcases and overstuffed chairs where various young people, hangers-on with nowhere else to go or students taking breaks, hang out. The bookstore owner is a matter-of-fact woman who wanders through to make sure everything is OK, tending her charges. Physical therapists arrive, to move me from my bed onto a platform in one corner, then pivot me up for a series of basic exercises. One of the therapists is a young man who engages in relentless sexual inuendo, both towards me and to his female assistants; nothing personal here.
  • My partner Y comes for his daily visit, and I ask him to bring me a book from home the next day. Next day, he brings it, but it quickly goes missing. Did he bring it or not? But then I detect visions of pages in the air, and I realize I am accessing some new technology, perhaps via Google: all I have to do is think of a book, and Google accesses it and projects pages of it into the air above me. By glancing back and forth I cause it to move pages forward and back. No physical book is necessary.
  • Still, this is frustrating, and I say I want another book, any book as long as it’s nonfiction. One of the nurses volunteers to walk down to the pharmacy down the street, which has a rack of books. But she returns and says she couldn’t find anything suitable.
  • It is here that I watch the TV mounted on the wall, especially a cable channel showing documentary-like footage of various natural landscapes [these are based on actual videos that I saw on the hospital’s ‘relaxation’ channel] but here seen as excerpts from three movies I didn’t realize existed—the third, fourth, and fifth sequels to 2001. They’re all European films, very slow-paced, all three in one way or another showing alien visitors to Earth, but landing in the wrong eras or epochs, finding only barren landscapes or primitive villages of people whom they could not begin to make understand.
  • And in another scene, in this upstairs room full of over-stuffed chairs, I wake from a nap on a big bean bag chair and find myself surrounded by three sylph-like young men, are curled up around me, asleep. And woman owner gives a look, raising her eyebrows, and says, admiringly, I knew you had it in you. And a wink.

Only the ICU room is real

  • In another daytime scene I am in the ICU proper, the nursing station and lunch area visible outside, and my partner Y comes to visit me for lunch, but is waylaid by the nurses outside and sits with them eating lunch at a table, ignoring me. Outside it is as if I am in Oakland, looking out on Broadway near downtown, and I imagine walking out of the building, hailing a taxi, and going home. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
  • I hear a TV a news story about unscrupulous groups of swindlers who take over houses that are empty during the day—their occupants at work—and stage phony business centers for a few hours at a time, in order to fleece whatever customers they get that day. (Rather like the ‘60s episodes of Mission: Impossible in which the agents would stage phony set-ups to fool the bad guys, and then quickly clear out.) Could this be happening to my house..? I manage to escape the hospital and return home in a taxi, and indeed, strange people are there. They lock me into an upstairs bedroom which – like the original ICU room in the spaceship-like pod—looks out into public rooms, now a kitchen area where the conspirators wander and forth. They say they will release me when they are done, but hours pass and deep into the night they are still there. They look speculatively out at my neighbors’ houses, wondering if they can stage a scam there.
  • Now my room is on a small riverboat cruise ship where GKW is trying to recreate a scenario from those stories that won the Stoker several years back. [[ The real GKW has never written thrillers, let alone won Stoker Awards for them. ]] It involves two waiflike siblings who are having an incestuous affair that leads to murder, and GKW has created an entire bedroom set on this riverboat and is trying to stage the key scene with actors. I am to enter and recite a few lines. As the scene gets underway (GKW covertly trying to not attract attention), Y arrives and doesn’t understand what’s going on; magnificently I improvise some lines to ward him away so GKW can finish the scene. Which ends in a real murder—the stories themselves were a warm-up, or script, for his actual intentions.
  • Later on this riverboat, GKW and Y and others are leaving for dinner on the shore, but I am not allowed to leave my room, because only my room is real, they remind me; outside is just an illusion.
  • I attend some reception in a high-rise hotel, with Lz and others. I immediately see, across the street, a man apparently hanging out the window of a building across the street. I ask Lz, do you see that?? She says, no, ignore that, it’s not real.
  • Then I am in a room of the same hotel—a room now merging with my ICU room—where outside is the rest of a vacant apartment or condo. In the kitchen is a group of Locus folk, and they want something from me I can’t provide. They insist I know what they want to know, but I don’t. Will they ever leave? There’s another door from this room (with two red digital clocks to one side), and I wonder if I can escape, get outside. There’s a police station next door; can I get there, claim I’ve been kidnapped, and have them take me home?
  • In another scene I am out in public but need to hide for the night so they will not find me. I take refuge in the upper, office floor of a pharmacy. While there the TV is showing some kind of contest. A key question involves a particular movie and its soundtrack. The numbering of tracks is wrong; in what way? I suspect the answer, and all I have to do is find the soundtrack (perhaps on YouTube), but Y refuses to help. I realize I’ve heard this puzzle before, and the solution involves…the fact that one track on the CD was left out of the movie, so the numbering is somehow wrong. But that doesn’t give me the exact solution. And then everyone leaves except for a familiar nurse, who wants to make sure I am comfortable for the night.


Fifth: Merging with hospital reality

  • As the weeks have passed in the hospital, the preliminary decision has been made to do a heart transplant. In my dreams, I witness several preliminary scenes. In one Y and I are interviewed by a panel of doctors and other experts who asks us questions about our lifestyle, our resources; they are evaluating us. (Is this ethically problematic, I wonder even now? To prioritize transplants to those with, what, the best lifestyle that affords necessary care after the procedure?) I answer honestly and in some detail, and the panel thanks me for my feedback. But later I see a written report of the session, and while scrawled at the top in handwriting is “excellent candidate!” the bottom of the form has comments from dissenters: “a series of Facebook platitudes” or the like.
  • Later I am in a holding room, as if ready for the transplant, while a final vote of the panel is held in another room. I can see them on a video monitor. The initial vote comes in at 70% agreed, less than the necessary threshold. Then one of the nurses, a harsh woman named Olga or somesuch, comes to my defense, and reframes the key questions to force another vote. As the panel reconsiders, Olga comes in to visit me, assuring me that everything will go well. But I realize I’ve met Olga before, and didn’t like her, and don’t know why she would be supporting me, and realize she has some ulterior motive. But I can imagine what it might be. The new vote comes in, and I am at 92%, sufficient to proceed.
  • A final preparatory procedure is a prostate biopsy, and I am taken from the ICU room downstairs for this, after the usual delays. It is not what I expect. I am taken into a large round room where the walls have been decorated with artifacts and photos in a kind of “story of my life.” What does this all mean? I realize it is some kind of show with hidden motivations…
  • I hear troublesome conversations among the doctors and nurses, talk about how a single 11-day is worth more than a dozen 10-days (in terms of spiritual goodness), about how their advice to me is peppered with offhand religious phrases, like the tiny print in a contract they hope you won’t notice, and I begin to worry I’m in some religious hospital using me for their own ends. Is it a private for-profit hospital keeping me here indefinitely? I even confide to Y [I think this actually happened] that I was concerned about why they were keeping me here so long.


Sixth: Excursions, Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein

  • I am taken on a trip to an officers’ club that is part of the hospital chain; it’s across the Golden Gate Bridge, just off the interstate. I am on a gurney, and there is much difficulty getting my gurney into the building and onto an elevator big enough to reach the dining room. Once on the main floor, I am taken to a bar, where a row of chairs is arranged facing a large screen showing a documentary about Robert A. Heinlein, featuring the many witty, profound things he said comparing him to Mark Twain. I am propped up in a chair, and brought a sequence of drinks. The barmaids are the same as the nurses in the hospital, and the one who serves me whispers ‘but don’t drink them!’ So I just sit and wait until I need to use the restroom and plead to be released and taken back to my room…
  • But instead I am taken into an empty theater, where the lower floors are occupied by members of this 1Q2Q group. They give me a quiz, questions about Heinlein or various famous phrases, and I ace most of them, mentioning occasionally that such and such a phrase was not original to Heinlein. Then they take me into another room, with sun shining through the windows, and strap me into a machine for another quiz. In the background I hear someone say, I think we have answer to question #2, something we can use. They are looking for simple answers for a wide range of philosophical issues, seemingly uncaring about whether they are true or useful. Now they ask me, how did so and so become inspired in a dream for the solution of…? How did you solve such and such a problem? They seem to be looking some kind common key. Frustrated, I fire back—there is no common key! You can’t program inspiration! Every one of these is a unique case! They give up and let me go.

Seventh: Kidnappings and Restraints

  • Two scenes that are similar, but seemingly unrelated to the hospital or the transplant. In the first, I am attending some kind of fannish event, late at night in a remote house outside the city. I’ve heard about these events before, but this is the first time I’ve attended, and I’m not doing very well. Participants are strapped down into couches, and watch screens in which text posts appear from outsiders, and from, supposedly us. When others on the call disapprove of these texts, points are tallied against us, and it won’t be until the points count down to zero that we will be released from our restraints. I realize that someone, claiming to be “locus on Crestmont,” is fibbing sarcastic and mean-spirited and racist comments from me. I get frustrated and plead for release. They say, if your points don’t count don’t we’ll release you at 6am. As the night goes on, various non-participant onlookers drift away, leaving only three of us strapped in chairs.
  • There is one person who never leaves, perhaps never moves—another sylph-like young man, whom I recognize as some fan artist of note, dressed in white, who gazes unwaveringly at me.
  • Later, in my ICU room, I recognize this figure in the inflatable drip bag of an IV stand. An unmoving figure—except that when you glance away, the figure abruptly changes position, like a performance artist on the street striking another pose, so quickly you’re not sure if that’s an actual person or some kind of statue. This illusion is so convincing I believe I am seeing something truly supernatural. And at the same time, aware of my gullibility, how in different circumstances I would claim some kind of supernatural visitation with as much confidence as any number of others throughout history have claimed visions of Mary, or blazing crosses in the sky… I strive to be cautious in my confidence. And of course, after a time (in the ICU room), the illusion goes away.
  • In the second related scene, I have driven from LA to the San Diego area, visiting a bookstore there and having bought several mystery/thriller titles just to try out a different genre. On the way home somehow I’ve been captured and restrained inside a private residence, where a controller in a booth offers to release me in exchange for certain rare editions I supposedly have in the trunk of my car. I agree when I can, but to some requests I have to answer that I’m not sure I have that book, so I can’t promise anything. This controller starts asking for cash, $200 $500? Again I have to say I don’t think I have that kind of cash on me. But at some point I give in and plead, you can have everything in my trunk and my wallet, just let me go!
  • Police arrive but rush to help the residents, in some other part of the house, rather than us captives. Eventually the residents come to help us, and offer to let me stay for the night instead of driving home.
  • Other people arrive at the house, including a local priest, to visit the residents. I talk with the household’s daughter about her religious doubts. Somehow this morphs into a church service inside this house, in which I am charge, and asking various leading questions about the incoherence of religion. I am told the service will resume across the street, and I am not to move, or look out the windows. Eventually everyone returns and the service resumes where I am. But everyone stands stone-face and does not respond. Unable to move, I ask someone to help me, to stand up and go back to bed. No one does.
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