Communion Of Dreams


“… and I feel fine.”*

I ‘put to bed’ Chapter Nine of St Cybi’s Well yesterday. Meaning that it is completed well enough that I can move on to the next chapter, with the expectation that there will likely be some slight-to-moderate revisions later as the rest of the book is written.

That’s the halfway point in the actual writing of the novel, though since I have a lot of the rest of the infrastructure of the book done, it means that I’m probably more like 70% done. Exciting.

And also a little … sobering. I’ve mentioned it before, but given the events of this book (which is the historical backdrop of Communion of Dreams), this book has an understandable darkness to it. Here’s a bit from the last page of Chapter Nine to show what I mean:

The Jeconiah protocols covered a range of possible emergency conditions. Some would just require all available crews to report to base. Some would accelerate planned shipments. Some would mean preselected VIPs would be transferred to the Moon under increased security.

But Program One meant immediate isolation of the shuttle launch facility under the strictest security possible. Soon the Israelis would be launching all available shuttles with emergency supplies, using only crew who were already in normal pre-flight quarantine. This was in an effort to isolate and protect the New Ma’abarot colonies from whatever was happening here. As far as the Lunar colonies were concerned, Earth was now quarantined. It was a failsafe protocol – probably an over-reaction, but one they were willing to chance. If things turned out to be not too bad here on Earth, the quarantine could be relaxed later.

 

Or, you know, not.

So yeah, dark. Especially when I read something like this, in  a very good article about human extinction:

Humans have a long history of using biology’s deadlier innovations for ill ends; we have proved especially adept at the weaponisation of microbes. In antiquity, we sent plagues into cities by catapulting corpses over fortified walls. Now we have more cunning Trojan horses. We have even stashed smallpox in blankets, disguising disease as a gift of good will. Still, these are crude techniques, primitive attempts to loose lethal organisms on our fellow man. In 1993, the death cult that gassed Tokyo’s subways flew to the African rainforest in order to acquire the Ebola virus, a tool it hoped to use to usher in Armageddon. In the future, even small, unsophisticated groups will be able to enhance pathogens, or invent them wholesale.

 

Sarin. Ebola. Gee, where have I heard those names recently? Oh, yeah.

Damn, sometimes I hate to be so right about things …

 

Jim Downey

*Yup.

 

 



Several things …

First, thanks again to one and all for helping to make my recent promotion a success! We did finish the weekend with just under 500 total downloads worldwide. Yay!

In addition, there’s a new review up over on Amazon. Here’s how it starts:

4.0 out of 5 stars A good story, and an excellent first novel.

This kept me interested until it was finally done.
For a first novel it was very good.
There were a couple of awkward sentences I had to re-read, but most books have that.
The plot was good, and different.

I am a bit amused that some people focus in on the “first novel” thing, and sometimes it seems that they feel like they can’t give a 5-star rating just on that basis. But perhaps they’re just trying to be nice in comments. If you have a chance, and haven’t yet done so, please consider posting your own review on Amazon (or elsewhere). Thanks!

There have been a couple of fairly scary pandemic stories in the news lately. One which has gotten a lot of attention is the Ebola outbreak, and how it has spread more than previous outbreaks. One which is even more frightening (to me) is word of an accidental anthrax exposure which went undetected for upwards of a week at a major supposedly secure research lab, the CDC bioterrorism facility in Atlanta. From one article:

Unfortunately, such scenarios are very real threats to not just lab workers but to the general population should a deadly contagion escape undetected the same way the CDC anthrax exposure remained undetected for possibly an entire week. That much time lapse for a deadly viral infection could prove devastating to the world population.

 

As it turns out, I am right at the point in St Cybi’s Well when first reports of the fireflu outbreak has hit the news. At first it is thought to be a Sarin gas attack at Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. From the book:

“Jay, I’m here at the Georgia International Convention Center, just west of the airport. Authorities have turned this into something of a command center for the developing crisis, since they have put the entire airport terminal on lock-down.” She was reporting from a large, open room. In the background there was a stage and podium, where a small knot of government officials were standing and taking turns addressing the crowd of reporters and film crews down on the floor in front of them. “As you can imagine, the situation here is very confused at present, with conflicting reports coming from the airport itself about how many people have been injured in the attack, when it likely happened, how it was detected, and what steps are being taken to protect the public. What is certain is that while this airport – one of the busiest in the world – always has a number of arriving and departing flights, that the attack came sometime late at night has meant that the number of victims is much smaller than it could have been. We’re due to receive an update on the situation at 3:00 AM local time, which is in about an hour and fifteen minutes. Back to you.”

 

Serendipity. Scary, scary serendipity.

Edited to add this tasty tidbit of news which broke just in the last hour:

Smallpox Virus Found in Unsecured NIH Lab

Scientists cleaning out an old laboratory on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., last week came across a startling discovery: Vials labeled “variola” – in other words, smallpox.

* * *

In a statement Tuesday, the agency said scientists did indeed find smallpox DNA in the vials. Scientists are now testing the sample to see whether any of the is still capable of causing disease. That testing will take two weeks.

The laboratory on the NIH campus had been transferred to the Food and Drug Administration in 1972. It was being cleaned out as the FDA was preparing to move that lab to its main campus.

 

Yeah baby!

 

Jim Downey



Yup. We’re all gonna die. Again.

News item of note:

A new report by WHO–its first to look at antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance, globally–reveals that this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Antibiotic resistance–when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections–is now a major threat to public health.

“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” says Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security. “Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine. Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”

 

I thought I had mentioned it here previously, but a quick search didn’t turn up anything: I had originally considered the world-wide pandemic which sets the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams as being entirely due to an antibiotic-resistant bug (probably the plague). But as I was going through and doing work on the early draft of the book, I decided to change that, since an informal survey among people indicated that it was too “far fetched.”  I didn’t think so — as far back as 15 – 20 years ago there were already indications that this was a real threat. But you can’t get too far out ahead of what people think is possible, even when writing Science Fiction, so I went with an influenza virus instead.

And speaking of which, time to get back to writing St Cybi’s Well

 

Jim Downey



You can’t tell a book …

So, a week or so ago I linked to a new review of Communion of Dreams which was very positive overall. But the reviewer made a comment which echoes things some other people have said:

Another item that would likely help get this book moving is a different cover. I understand the imagery now that I’ve read the book, but definitely think it will keep hard-core sci-fi fans from buying a copy (and people do judge books by their covers).

Like I said, every so often a comment to this effect will pop up in a review. And I don’t spend much time thinking about it (and I’m not going to change the cover image at this point), but now and then I wonder just what kind of a cover would appeal to ‘hard-core sci-fi fans’ and still make any kind of sense in relation to the story. Maybe some nice images of Saturn or Titan from the Cassini mission? A depiction of some of the spacecraft (which aren’t described in much detail in the book), or perhaps the Titan Prime space station? Go with a charming post-apocalyptic montage of ruined cities and microphotographs of viruses? To me, none of these would fairly represent the story, and to a certain extent would unnecessarily limit the appeal to only ‘hard-core sci-fi fans’.

But I’m curious what others think. So feel free to post a comment here or over on FB. Over even on Amazon, as a comment on an extant review or in  new review of your own. In a week or so I’ll go through all the various comments I can find, and pick someone to get a jar of my latest hot sauce (or something else if they don’t want that).

Jim Downey

PS: there’s another new short review up on Amazon you might want to take a look at as well.



Not the lathe, but the scythe, of heaven.*

Nice timing. Not only is this essay an appropriate “looking forward” article for New Year’s Day, but it is a perfect expression of one aspect of the argument at the heart of both Communion of Dreams and St. Cybi’s Well: what do we make of our world, and how do we define our place in it?

Seriously, this sums up one of the major characters of SCW (who was only alluded to in CoD), and illustrates both the danger and the dilemma that character represents:

“Wilderness can be saved permanently,” claims Ted Kaczynski, “only by eliminating the technoindustrial system.” I am beginning to think that the neo-environmentalists may leave a deliciously ironic legacy: proving the Unabomber right.

Another excerpt:

I’m not sure I know the answer. But I know there is no going back to anything. And I know that we are not headed, now, toward convivial tools. We are not headed toward human-scale development. This culture is about superstores, not little shops; synthetic biology, not intentional community; brushcutters, not scythes. This is a culture that develops new life forms first and asks questions later; a species that is in the process of, in the words of the poet Robinson Jeffers, “break[ing] its legs on its own cleverness.”

What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green “solutions” being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history. Some kind of fall back down to a lower level of civilizational complexity. Something like the storm that is now visibly brewing all around us.

Yeah, there’s a reason why the essay is titled “Dark Ecology.”

And in truth, it is a darkness which sometimes seeps into my own soul. As I said yesterday: “Poor Darnell.”

 

Jim Downey

*Reference, of course. Via MeFi.



It’s the End of the Year as we know it…

So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here.

* * * * * * *

As I mentioned a while ago, earlier this month I had fallen prey to the nasty bit of cold virus going around.  Turned out that the damn thing was even more stubborn for my wife, who is still struggling with a hacking cough and various other annoying symptoms.  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it, watching for signs of secondary pneumonia, which would call for antibiotic intervention, but I think she’ll get past this on her own.

Which is good, because there really isn’t much we can do to fight a virus. In this sense, medical science is at about the same place in viral treatments as we were in dealing with bacterial infection 70 years ago:

In 1941, a rose killed a policeman.

Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old policeman in Oxford, England, was pruning his roses one fall day when a thorn scratched him at the corner of his mouth. The slight crevice it opened allowed harmless skin bacteria to slip into his body. At first, the scratch grew pink and tender. Over the course of several weeks, it slowly swelled. The bacteria turned from harmless to vicious, proliferating through his flesh. Alexander eventually had to be admitted to Radcliffe Hospital, the bacteria spreading across his face and into his lungs.

Alexander’s doctors tried treating him with sulfa drugs, the only treatment available at the time. The medicine failed, and as the infection worsened, they had to cut out one of his eyes. The bacteria started to infiltrate his bones. Death seemed inevitable.

* * * * * * *

You may not have heard much about it here, but the norovirus is causing all kinds of grief in the UK. Cases are up 83% over last year, and are estimated to have hit over a million people already. In the UK the norovirus is commonly called the “winter vomiting bug” whereas here we tend to call it “stomach flu”.  As miserable as it makes people feel, it’s usually not a life-threatening disease for otherwise healthy people, and the best thing to do is just ride it out.

Of course, public health authorities have taken steps to try and limit the spread of the disease into populations where the virus could be life-threatening, and a lot of hospitals have curtailed or eliminated visiting hours. Furthermore, appeals have been made to the public to not to go see their doctors or go to emergency rooms for routine cases of the norovirus, since there is little that can be done to treat the virus and this just contributes to the spread of the disease.

Still, people get scared when they get sick, even when they know that it is a fairly common bug that’s going around — and one that most people have had before and gotten over just fine. So they tend to swamp available medical services, overwhelming the health care system.

Just think about what would happen if it was a disease which wasn’t known. And one which was killing people so quickly that they’d drop over in the street on the way home from work.

* * * * * * *

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, since it is an integral plot point to St. Cybi’s Well.  This isn’t a spoiler, since the advent of the fire-flu is part of the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams.

But it is something which has had me in a bit of a quandary this fall, as I’ve been working on writing St. Cybi’s Well.

Howso? Well, because I kept going back and forth on making one final decision: where to end the book.

See, I know how the *story* plays out — I’ve had that all sorted since I first worked up the background for Communion of Dreams. But in going to write St. Cybi’s Well, I needed to decide exactly where in the story that book would end. Which is to say, I needed to decide how much, if any, of the onset of the fire-flu would be included. Because I could set everything up and have the book actually finish at the onset of the fire-flu — after all, the reader would know what was about to happen. Why drag the reader through that horror?

* * * * * * *

A week or so ago I made my decision, and I’ve been chewing it over since then as I’ve been busy with other things, making sure that I was comfortable with what I have decided, and why. I’m not going to give you the details, but you can safely assume from what I’ve said in this post that at least some of the pandemic will be portrayed.

I decided this not because I have a desire to write about the horror (in spite of what I may have said previously) but rather because it is critical for character development of the main character.

Poor Darnell.

* * * * * * *

So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here. 293 posts (this makes 294), which is a faster pace than in some years. Of course, I’ve had a lot of promotional stuff do to with the launch of Communion of Dreams last January and everything to support that through the year, not to mention the Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well.

And while I’ve cautioned that I won’t be writing quite as much here on the blog as I’m working on St. Cybi’s Well, well, it does make for a nice change of pace.

So thanks for being along for the ride this year. Together we can see how things go in 2013.

 

Jim Downey

 

 



The other 90% of you.

Your body has something on the order of 10 trillion individual cells. But surprisingly, it has nine or ten times that number of microorganisms which it hosts in some capacity or another, many of which we have co-evolved with and which seem to be critical to our long health. While these microorganisms are typically much smaller than human body cells, in one very real sense, “you” is actually only about 10% “you.”

These microorganisms have a substantial impact on how your body digests food. On whether you can resist various kinds of infection or develop any of a range of auto-immune diseases. Perhaps even on your mood and risk assessment.

Would it therefore be any kind of a surprise at all if doing something to change the “mix” of these microorganisms had an impact on you?

Hell, it’d be a surprise if it didn’t.

Almost all of us know what happens when you have to take a broad-spectrum antibiotic: usually some degree of diarrhea and intestinal discomfort. And in the last decade or two it has become commonplace for people to seek out some variety of probiotics, frequently in the form of live yogurt, as a way to replenish gut flora following antibiotic treatment. I do it myself.

So, extending that idea a bit, researchers are now investigating whether part of the slow-moving plague of obesity can be due to the changes created in the human-hosted microorganisms:

Early use of antibiotics linked to obesity, research finds

The use of antibiotics in young children might lead to a higher risk of obesity, and two new studies, one on mice and one on humans, conclude that changes of the intestinal bacteria caused by antibiotics could be responsible.

Taken together, the New York University researchers conclude that it might be necessary to broaden our concept of the causes of obesity and urge more caution in using antibiotics. Both studies focus on the early age, because that is when obesity begins, the scientists say.

As I’ve noted previously:

In Communion I have a post-pandemic society, one which is recovering from a massive disruption caused by a flu virus which caused rapid death in a large percentage of the population. But the reality of what we’re dealing with might be even more insidious.

More insidious in this case because we have done it to ourselves.

And perhaps not even with direct antibiotic treatment to deal with some kind of life-threatening infection. Consider that it is still a widespread practice to boost livestock weight gain through the use of antibiotics, and that leaves a residue of antibiotics in the meat. If it boosts weight gain in feed animals, why wouldn’t it do the same to us?

I’ve said before that there has been some kind of change to the way our bodies absorb nutrients in the last 40 or 50 years, and that that is behind the global rise in obesity. Previously there were indications that it might be due to some kind of virus. Or an immune response to the germaphobia of the 20th century. But maybe it is more directly our own damned fault, and we’ve traded the ability to defeat infections for a different kind of health risk.

Jim Downey



Extinction in the news.

Yeah, I know I said I’d try and get a nice cheery travelogue up next.  Oh well. This has more relevance to Communion of Dreams, which is ostensibly the focus for this blog, anyway, right?

Right.  So, here: seems that researchers have for the first time clearly determined the extinction of a mammal to have been caused by disease.

In 1899, an English ship stopped at Christmas Island, near Australia. Within nine years, the island’s entire native rat population had gone extinct, and scientists have wondered ever since what exactly happened.Now, researchers led by an Old Dominion University scientist think they have unraveled the mystery – and, they say, the lessons of Christmas Island apply today to issues such as disease, invasive species and the law of unintended consequenceTurns out, says ODU biology professor Alex Greenwood, that a British black rat had stowed away on the ship in a bale of hay. Upon reaching the island, the rat – or several rats – escaped on land and spread a “hyperdisease” among the native population.

“Anyone who has ever tried to kill a rat – let alone a whole population – knows how hard that can be,” Greenwood said in an interview Monday. “That’s what made Christmas Island so fascinating for so long. Imagine, a whole species – especially one as tough as a rat – gone within 10 years of exposure!”

OK, for those of us who are non-biologists, this may be something of a surprise: why wouldn’t extinction occur due to disease?  But the prevailing theory has long been that it was virtually impossible that a disease would wipe out all members of a species – and that any survivors would pass on their immunity to their descendants, thus continuing the Darwinian arms race.  To determine that this has happened – and to a robust and fast-reproducing species such as a rat – is real news.

Which touches on an older item I came across recently:

Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction
Jason G. Matheny

Abstract: In this century a number of events could extinguish humanity. The probability of these events may be very low, but the expected value of preventing them could be high, as it represents the value of all future human lives. We review the challenges to studying human extinction risks and, by way of example, estimate the cost effectiveness of preventing extinction-level asteroid impacts.

* * *

3. Estimating the Near-Term Probability of Extinction

It is possible for humanity (or its descendents) to survive a million years or more, but we could succumb to extinction as soon as this century. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. President Kennedy estimated the probability of a nuclear holocaust as “somewhere between one out of three and even” (Kennedy, 1969, p. 110). John von Neumann, as Chairman of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee, predicted that it was “absolutely certain (1) that there would be a nuclear war; and (2) that everyone would die in it” (Leslie, 1996, p. 26).

More recent predictions of human extinction are little more optimistic. In their catalogs of extinction risks, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees (2003), gives humanity 50-50 odds on surviving the 21st century; philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that it would be “misguided” to assume that the probability of extinction is less than 25%; and philosopher John Leslie (1996) assigns a 30% probability to extinction during the next five centuries. The “Stern Review” for the U.K. Treasury (2006) assumes that the probability of human extinction during the next century is 10%. And some explanations of the “Fermi Paradox” imply a high probability (close to100%)of extinction among technological civilizations (Pisani, 2006).4

I haven’t spent the time to look up the entire paper and read it, though I have followed this topic in the (popular) scientific news for most of my adult life. It is, in fact, one of the reasons why I decided to write Communion of Dreams – to explore the idea of humanity on the brink of extinction (as well as to examine Fermi’s Paradox, as I have written about previously).  Just as most people seem to prefer ignoring their own mortality, we as a species seem to prefer ignoring the possibility of our own extinction.  Even the vast majority of Science Fiction (including my own) written with humankind facing the possibility of extinction is resolved with some kind of salvation – it’d just be too bleak for most readers, otherwise.

And that doesn’t sell.

Jim Downey



Heinlein was right.

Via BoingBoing, an interesting discussion over on Tor.com: The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein’s Juveniles. An excerpt:

It’s funny how it’s overpopulation and political unpleasantness that cause the problems, never ecological disaster. Maybe that wasn’t on the horizon at all in the fifties and early sixties? I suppose every age has its own disaster story. It’s nice how little they worry about nuclear war too, except in Space Cadet which is all nuclear threat, Venusians and pancakes. They don’t make them like that any more. Come to think it’s probably just as well.

* * *
No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?

Yeah, he meant it. And further, he was right.

No, I’m not really calling into question the premise of the piece – that Heinlein had something of a bias about population and governmental control. And I’m not saying that he was entirely correct in either his politics or his vision of the future.

But consider the biggest threat facing us: No, not Paris Hilton’s involvement in the presidential election, though a legitimate case can be made that this is indeed an indication of the end of the world. Rather, I mean global warming.

And why do we have global warming? Because of the environmental impact of human civilization. And why is this impact significant? Because of the size of the human population on this planet.

And what is the likely response to the coming changes? Increased governmental control.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

For Communion of Dreams I killed off a significant portion of the human race as part of the ‘back story’. Why? Well, it served my purposes for the story. But also because I think that one way or another, we need to understand and accept that the size of our population is a major factor in all the other problems we face. Whether it is limitations caused by peak oil or some other resource running out, or the impact of ‘carbon footprints’, or urban sprawl, or food shortages, all of these problems have one common element: population pressure. We have too many people consuming too many resources and generating too much pollution. In fact, when I once again turn my writing the prequel to Communion, I may very well make this connection more explicit, and have the motivation of the people responsible for the fireflu based on this understanding.

So yeah, Heinlein was right. He may not have spelled out the end result (ecological disaster) per se, but he understood the dynamic at work, and what it would lead to. Just because things haven’t gotten as bad as they can get doesn’t mean that we’re not headed that direction. Our technology can only compensate for so long – already we see things breaking down at the margins, and the long term problems are very real. You can call it ‘dystopic’, but I’ll just call it our future.

Jim Downey



All you need to know . . .

. . . about human nature is summed up very nicely in one little comment I came across on MeFi, in a discussion about news of some potential life-extending medical breakthroughs.  Here it is:

people dying isn’t a bad thing

(boggle)

Yes. Yes it is. If you don’t think so, you’re welcome to accept it with equanimity. I, on the other hand, would club little old ladies to be first in line for some biotech that would prolong a healthy lifespan.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

Part of the crucial history of Communion of Dreams revolves around what people would do when they think they have been denied life-saving treatment during a pandemic.  When I was thinking this through, I had to stop and wonder just how cynical I was going to be – there are, after all, plenty of instances of people making sacrifices to save others during a crisis.  But I decided that given the timing of the pandemic (in our near future), and given how I was going to ‘set up’ that history, the likely response would be much uglier.

Sometimes I hate being right.

Jim Downey




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