Some rash person had to ask: did Christopher Nolan steal the idea for Inception? Shiny "new" SF concepts always turn out to have been done before, and bloggers quickly found the smoking ray-gun: a 2002 Scrooge McDuck comic titled "The Dream of a Lifetime!" In this highly science-fictional drama, Scrooge's arch-foes the Beagle Boys break into his bedroom and use a special mind-link device to enter, manipulate and steal information from his dreams – all suspiciously like the film.
Now there's no copyright in mere ideas, and anyway Nolan says he's been mulling over this one since he was sixteen. That would be 1986. Obviously the McDuck scriptwriter invaded Nolan's dreams on a post-1986 mission of pilferage. So presumably did Greg Bear, whose Queen of Angels (1990) has disturbing sequences in which researchers use a special nanotechnological hook-up to enter and explore a psychopath's internal "Country of the Mind". This blasted landscape, stinking of burnt sanity, isn't easy to escape from ...
Or perhaps Bear swiped the idea from Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers (1988), or Kim Newman's The Night Mayor (1989) with its professional Dreamers. Aided by a special machine, two Dreamers must walk the mean streets of a crime lord's noir-movie dreams and halt his naughty activities.
As a media expert, Newman knows every episode of TV's legendary The Prisoner by heart, including "A, B and C" (1967). Here the sinister Village authorities, trying as always to find what makes Patrick McGoohan tick, bring in a special gizmo to interrogate him through his dreams. A giant videoscreen displays the dream action as our hero tangles with dubious characters (codenamed A, B and C) fed from datatapes into his sleeping mind. Eventually he manages to seize control of dreamland and leave his tormentors with egg all over their faces.
Now the writer of that Prisoner story might well have lifted the notion of dream invasion from Roger Zelazny's 1966 SF novel The Dream Master – based on his Nebula-winning novella "He Who Shapes" (1965). The Master or Shaper is a future psychiatrist using a special widget, linked via "a crown of Medusa-hair leads and microminiature circuitry", to enter and rearrange his patients' dreams with a view to sorting out their neuroses. Big trouble comes when he takes on someone with a stronger mind than his own.
Zelazny was savvy enough to know that a closely similar problem features in John Brunner's 1958 "City of the Tiger", which became the novel Telepathist (US title The Whole Man). Although for once there's no special contraption – it's all done by then-fashionable mental powers – this is a classic treatment of the theme. The undersized, physically crippled hero is a high-powered "curative telepathist" who projects himself into psychotics' obsessive dream-fantasies and breaks them down, hauling the unwilling patient back to sanity like a kid torn brutally away from Xbox addiction.
Naturally Brunner had pinched the idea; or rather, openly admitted his homage to the pioneering "Dreams are Sacred" by another British writer, Peter Phillips. This 1948 Astounding magazine story was adapted for BBC's Out of the Unknown sf anthology series as "Get Off My Cloud" (1969). A fantasy author has gone into a coma-like fugue state, acting out a gaudy dream version of his own sagas. Scientists use a special souped-up encephalograph link to insert the hard-boiled hero into the dream, where he attacks wish-fulfilment with douches of cold common sense.
I'm told Peter Phillips is still with us, aged 90. Think of the royalties he could collect from all the above, if only authors were allowed to copyright their ideas ...
David Langford is applying for a special trademark on the word "dream".
Footnote: Several further film antecedents like Paprika were omitted because (a) the magazine doesn't allow me all that much space, and (b) I'm far more interested in the books, which invariably got there first.