Communion Of Dreams

I can sympathize.

Umberto Eco, when asked why he wrote The Name of the Rose, famously replied: “I wanted to poison a monk.”

I can sympathize.

There are times when I’m a little grumpy, or have just had a little too much exposure to my fellow monkeys, when I’d like to kill a few people myself. In fact, catch me when I’m feeling more than a bit honest, and I’ll admit that part of the backstory of Communion of Dreams is because I think that the world really would be better off with about 2/3 of the population gone, as traumatic and painful as that might be. No, I am not advocating it – I can just see the benefit of some pandemic flu or plague, in terms of the carrying capacity of the planet.

And of course I see plenty of ways in which we’re well on the road to having this happen, as I write about here upon occasion. Take your pick: war, terrorism, global warming, disease, or even just eating ourselves to death. I just came from the store, where I needed to get some frozen raspberries for a habanero jelly recipe I want to make. There in my neighborhood supermarket were 120 feet of freezers carrying various ice creams and other dessert treats. One aisle over was 60 feet of frozen pizzas. I looked and looked for frozen fruits, and found one narrow little rack, about half the width of one 10′ wide freezer unit, containing a small selection of fruits. Think there’s something wrong there?


OK, I am a little grumpy. I’m in a cycle of migraines, it seems, having had two in the last week. Still living with the echoes of the one yesterday. But still, sometimes I feel very pessimistic about our future . . . and take a certain perverse pleasure in it.

Well, this is the 200th post. Woo-hoo. I’ll be a little more upbeat later.

Jim Downey

Some good news, some bad news.
October 5, 2007, 10:36 am
Filed under: Architecture, Flu, Health, Pandemic, Plague, Predictions, Science, Society, Space, tech, Writing stuff

Couple of items of interest from the news.

First, researchers have figured out a way to produce what I called “plasteel” in Communion of Dreams, and used as the basis for a lot of the architecture of the future. From

New plastic strong as steel, transparent.

By mimicking a brick-and-mortar molecular structure found in seashells, University of Michigan researchers created a composite plastic that’s as strong as steel but lighter and transparent.

It’s made of layers of clay nanosheets and a water-soluble polymer that shares chemistry with white glue.

Engineering professor Nicholas Kotov almost dubbed it “plastic steel,” but the new material isn’t quite stretchy enough to earn that name. Nevertheless, he says its further development could lead to lighter, stronger armor for soldiers or police and their vehicles. It could also be used in microelectromechanical devices, microfluidics, biomedical sensors and valves and unmanned aircraft.

Ah, I love to see my predictions actually coming true. (Not that I knew exactly how this would be achieved, but it was clear that materials science will reap a huge benefit from nanotech advancements.)

Now for the bad news:

Bird flu virus mutating into human-unfriendly form.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The H5N1 bird flu virus has mutated to infect people more easily, although it still has not transformed into a pandemic strain, researchers said on Thursday.

The changes are worrying, said Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We have identified a specific change that could make bird flu grow in the upper respiratory tract of humans,” said Kawaoka, who led the study. “The viruses that are circulating in Africa and Europe are the ones closest to becoming a human virus,” Kawaoka said.

This is unbelievably bad news. The thing which has kept H5N1 from becoming a real threat is that it is difficult for it to move from one human to another – almost all the deaths attributable to the virus so far have come in animal to human transfers. Part of this is due to the fact that the virus just doesn’t find us all that good a place to set up shop. But once it does, it will only be a matter of time before you start to see human-to-human transfers. And then it’ll be “hello, pandemic!” And depending on how virulent that strain is, it may or may not precipitate the sort of global catastrophe I envision as the basis for Communion.

That’s one prediction I’d really love to have completely wrong.

Jim Downey

“No, really – trust us.”

[This post contains spoiler information about Communion of Dreams.]

Twin news items to make you nervous:

Mishandling of germs on rise at US Labs.

Some cattlemen nervous about new biolab.

Well, it makes me nervous, anyway. First we have a report on how with the increased accreditation of so-called high security labs has seen an increased incident rate for those labs. In the last 4 years, more than 100 incidents involving very dangerous biologic materials have occurred. From the first news article:

The mishaps include workers bitten or scratched by infected animals, skin cuts, needle sticks and more, according to a review by The Associated Press of confidential reports submitted to federal regulators. They describe accidents involving anthrax, bird flu virus, monkeypox and plague-causing bacteria at 44 labs in 24 states. More than two-dozen incidents were still under investigation.

The number of accidents has risen steadily. Through August, the most recent period covered in the reports obtained by the AP, labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments during 2007 — nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.

And the second one involves cattle ranchers who are concerned about the DHS plans for a new animal disease research lab, and how the proximity of such a lab near livestock operations poses a threat. (Disclosure note: my hometown of Columbia was recently removed from a list of potential sites, in part thanks to efforts of friends of mine who opposed such a facility being placed here.) The threat is not theoretical – it is little known in this country, but recent outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain have been tied to a similar research lab in that country. Yet this is what we hear from the government:

“No matter where we put it it’s going to be safe and secure,” said James Johnson, Homeland Security‘s director of national labs and the program manager for the planned lab.

I’m sure it will be, Jim. Just like all those other high-security labs around the country.

See, the problem is that people being people, mistakes happen. Under the best of conditions. And when you’re messing around with really dangerous shit, the potential harm of an error goes way up. And that is only being concerned with mistakes.

[Spoiler alert.]

Because what happens when some one or group decides to exploit the system in place to redirect something really nasty for their own purposes? This is what I use as the source of the original ‘Fire Flu’ for Communion, though that isn’t revealed until late in the book. Impossible? Oh? Remember the 2001 Anthrax attacks which killed five people and shut down the Senate’s postal facility? That whole episode is still unsolved.

I don’t know about you, but when the same people who let New Orleans die tell me that I should trust them to secure biologic agents which have the potential to wipe out our (overly concentrated) livestock, cause widespread crop failure, or even start a pandemic plague of some variety, I shudder.

Jim Downey

It came from outer space…

Fulfilling about 2/3 of all Science Fiction tropes ever created, it seems that there may be a connection with the impact of a meteorite and a mystery illness in a rural Peruvian village:

LIMA (AFP) – Villagers in southern Peru were struck by a mysterious illness after a meteorite made a fiery crash to Earth in their area, regional authorities said Monday.

Around midday Saturday, villagers were startled by an explosion and a fireball that many were convinced was an airplane crashing near their remote village, located in the high Andes department of Puno in the Desaguadero region, near the border with Bolivia.

Residents complained of headaches and vomiting brought on by a “strange odor,” local health department official Jorge Lopez told Peruvian radio RPP.

It wasn’t a little thing, either – it left an impact crater reported to be about 100′ wide and 20′ deep.

Now,  it remains to be seen whether this is anything more than a simple case of mass hysteria.  I mean, if you’re some llama herder and a big damn fireball lands outside your village, it’d be pretty easy to get a case of the vapours over it.

But that don’t mean that it isn’t possible that there’s actually something to this.  Panspermia (or more narrowly, exogenesis) has some fairly solid evidence behind it, enough to suggest that it is possible that there is some form of life capable of surviving coming to Earth on a meteor.  And, if that form of life is similar enough to us, it could become a problem.  A problem our biology might not be able to handle.  One that would make a pandemic flu look like a nice little summer cold.  One that generations of SF writers have speculated about.  Except that in this case, it might actually be true.

Frightened yet?

Jim Downey

(Via BoingBoing.) 

Tomorrow’s Girls

They’re mixing with the population
A virus wearing pumps and pearls
Lord help the lonely guys
Hooked by those hungry eyes
Here come Tomorrow’s Girls
Tomorrow’s Girls

Donald Fagan, “Tomorrow’s Girls” from Kamakiriad

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I can always tell when I’m feeling better, or have gotten a bit of sleep and am able to think (somewhat) again: I get that little rush of energy, mind jumping and drawing connections between ostensibly divergent topics. It is a shadow of the way I feel when my bipolar condition swings to the manic phase, and all things seem clear and possible.

Such is the case this morning.

I read a lot of science blogs. Pharyngula. Cosmic Variance. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. The Angry Toxicologist. But even before he started blogging at The Loom, I was aware of the science reporting of Carl Zimmer. And recently Carl posted a link to his Seed Magazine cover story “The Meaning of Life.” It’s not terribly long, and you should just go read the whole thing.

But among the entire very interesting article is this wonderful idea: that it is a mistake to try and define what life is right now. Philosopher Carol Cleland of NASA’s Institute for Astrobiology is very much in the thick of this, saying that we do not have the necessary perspective. As Zimmer puts it:

Instead of trying to formulate a definition of life, Cleland and Chyba argue, we need to develop a theory of life—an overarching explanation of nature that joins together a myriad of seemingly random phenomena. Biologists have discovered a number of theories–the germ theory of disease and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, for example—yet they have no full-fledged theory of life itself. The underlying uniformity of life is one of the great discoveries of modern biology, but it’s also an obstacle. It represents only a single data point, and blinds us to the possibilities of “weird life.” We have no idea exactly which features of life as we know it are essential to life as we don’t know it.

A theory of life would allow us to understand what matters to life, what possible forms it can take, and why. It would let us see connections that we might otherwise miss, just as chemists can see the hidden unity between a cloud in the sky and a block of ice. Scientists are already trying to build a theory of life. A number of researchers have been developing a theory in which life is a self-organized system that can be described using the same principles physicists use to describe hurricanes or galaxies. As biologists learn more and more about how the millions of molecules in a cell work together, these theorists can put their ideas to more precise tests.

For Cleland, the most promising way to build a theory of life is to look for alien life. In 2013, the European Space Agency plans to put a rover back on Mars. Called Exomars, it will drill into the Martian crust to seek out signs of life. NASA has plans of its own on the drawing board, including one possible mission that would bring Martian soil back to Earth for intense study. Meanwhile, other promising habitats for life, such as some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, beckon. Cleland argues that finding alien life would allow us to start figuring out what is truly universal about life, rather than just generalizing from life as we know it. Only when we have more data, she reasons, will we have a basis for comparison. As it stands now, says Cleland, “we have no grist for the theoretical mill.”

Brilliant. This is not unlike the revolution in perspective which occurred with the transition to a heliocentric model of the solar system. It necessarily moves us from the bias that our version of life is the only possible model. I’ve written about this previously, but it is good to see such a complete treatment of the topic as Zimmer gives it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It looks like scientists have discovered the likely culprit in the collapse of the honey bee populations in the US: a virus.

Virus implicated in bee decline

A virus has emerged as a strong suspect in the hunt for the mystery disease killing off North American honeybees.

Genetic research showed that Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) turned up regularly in hives affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Over the last three years, between 50% and 90% of commercial bee colonies in the US have been affected by CCD.

And from the same source:

Also open is the question of how the virus arrived in the US. One finger of suspicion points to Australia, from where the US began importing honeybees in 2004 – the very year that CCD appeared in US hives.

The researchers found IAPV in Australian bees, and they are now planning to go back through historical US samples to see if the Antipodean imports really were the first carriers.

If they were, the US might consider closing its borders to Australian bees.

The way the researchers determined that a virus was involved is also interesting. Since the honey bee genome has been ‘solved’ (completely mapped), they were able to assay the entire genetic contents of a hive and then remove the known components. What was left included some bacterial agents which are probably in symbiotic harmony with the bees, and various fungi and other items. By comparing a healthy hive’s genetic assay with one suffering from CCD, they were able to identify possible culprits – in this case, the IAPV.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Communion of Dreams is set in a post-pandemic Earth, where a viral agent was responsible for widespread death and sterility some 40 years prior to the time of the novel. One good model of exactly how that could happen is CCD with the honey bees, though that has occurred in the time since I first wrote the book.

Now, how does this all tie together? Well, only because the researchers looking into the honey bee problem had the tools of genetic mapping available to them were they able to understand what was (likely) going on. Something similar happens in Communion on two fronts – resolving the riddle of the orphan girl and understanding the threat of the new virus. But perhaps more importantly, there is the mystery of the alien artifact and its connection the the superconducting gel, which I describe as “more alive than not” – this gets to the very heart of the issue of understanding the true nature of the universe, and discarding our previous biases.

Oh, and lastly, I’m sure we’ll see something from Zimmer about the IAPV discovery. Why? Because one of his specialties is the nightmare-inducing world of parasites, and looking at the evolutionary struggle between hosts and diseases.

Jim Downey

“Titan’s Mistress”

In a post-apocalyptic world a cult of religious cyber-zombies prepare to release a hideous new engineered plague on mankind. On Saturn’s moon Titan, an aging space prospector discovers an ancient alien artifact. It will take the psycho-sexual skills of one lone young woman to unlock the secrets of the device and save mankind – but can she do it, before the aliens return?

Find out with the new Science Fiction special effects extravaganza Titan’s Mistress! Rated PG-13 for violence and language, some nudity.

(Based on the acclaimed novel Communion of Dreams)


OK, so here’s the deal. Someone read Communion this spring and *really* liked it. Said person thought that it was a very visual book, and would be perfectly suited to a film adaptation.

That’s all well and good. I’ve heard that from several people.

But this person has some connections into Hollywood.


Nothing certain, this person says (and I have reason to trust him). But the novel has been passed on to some people who will at least take a look at it. A serious look. And they’re the sorts who can get things accomplished.

What a weird idea, that the novel could first be sold as a movie. Then it wouldn’t be too hard to do the conventional publishing thing as well.

This is all speculative, of course. And I’ve known about this for a while. But after the last couple of posts being about personal stuff unrelated to the book, I thought I’d mention this.

Could be interesting. Granted, once given the Hollywood treatment, Communion would probably wind up looking like I described above, but still.

So, who would you see in what roles? Any suggestions?

Jim Downey

Slow-moving plague.
August 21, 2007, 2:23 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Flu, Health, Pandemic, Plague, Science, Science Fiction, Society

Research has established one component of the world-wide epidemic of obesity: a virus.

A common virus that causes colds can be a factor in obesity, according to a study released Monday offering further evidence that a weight problem may be contagious.

The adenovirus-36 (Ad 36) has already been implicated as the cause of weight gain in animals, but with this study researchers showed for the first time that it can also cause humans to pile on the pounds.

The findings could accelerate the development of a vaccine or an antiviral medication to help fight the battle of the bulge alongside diet and exercise.

It’s a slow-moving, slow-acting plague. This would go a long ways to explaining why obesity has become so wide-spread in the last few decades, and has been hinted at in previous studies. There are other factors, certainly, but establishing a tie to a viral component could be a huge factor in dealing with this problem more effectively.

I’m overweight by about 40 pounds. Partly this is a function of my lifestyle, with the lack of opportunity to be active and the additional stress of being a full-time care provider for someone with Alzheimer’s. I know that with a lot of effort in exercise and watching what I eat, I can shake off the excess pounds – I’ve done it a couple of times. But it is so much harder now than it was before, and my natural weight-point has changed from where it used to be a decade ago to where it is now. And this pattern is seen increasingly around the globe, where other factors at play in my life or in the typical American life can be eliminated.

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.

Jim Downey

Remember, it *always* pays to back-up your data.

Pretty much everyone has had the experience of having your computer crash and take out data you hadn’t backed-up properly. Whether it is some kind of hardware failure, or a virus, or a lighting strike, or even a malicious employee/spouse/whomever, at some point we have all lost stuff on a computer we thought was secure. If you’re *really* lucky, you don’t lose much, and you learn the painful lesson about keeping important information properly backed-up on recoverable media. If you’re not really lucky, you learn the hard way that you can lose years of hard work in just an instant, with no recovery possible.

And that’s the basic idea behind building a secure storage facility for the bulk of human knowledge, and perhaps even humanity itself, off-planet. The people behind the newly formed Alliance to Rescue Civilization want to do just that:

‘Lunar Ark’ Proposed in Case of Deadly Impact on Earth

The founders of the group Alliance to Rescue Civilization (ARC) agreed that extending the Internet from the Earth to the moon could help avert a technological dark age following “nuclear war, acts of terrorism, plague, or asteroid collisions.” (Read: “Killer Asteroids: A Real But Remote Risk?” [June 19, 2003].)

But the group also advocates creating a moon-based repository of Earth’s life, complete with human-staffed facilities to “preserve backups of scientific and cultural achievements and of the species important to our civilization,” saidARC’s Robert Shapiro, a biochemist at New York University.

“In the event of a global catastrophe, the ARC facilities will be prepared to reintroduce lost technology, art, history, crops, livestock, and, if necessary, even human beings to the Earth,” Shapiro said.

This idea is not new. Not at all – it’s been a staple of SF for decades in one form or another, and is even somewhat cliche. The previous version of Communion of Dreams had the impact of a .3 km meteorite in central China about 2026 as being the primary motivating force to pushing humankind to fully develop space-faring capability as a survival strategy. But the feedback I got from a limited group of readers was that such a second global catastrophe was a little hard to swallow, so I tweaked that in the current version to just be a limited nuclear war in that part of the world. I’m still somewhat ambivalent about this change, and would discuss with an editor whether or not to go back to the previous version.

Anyway, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first real effort to take this kind of precaution in even a preliminary form. It is based on the idea that a viable Moon base in the coming decades would allow for this kind of repository to be constructed almost as an afterthought to the other facilities. By tying it into whatever form of Internet develops in the future, it would be possible to keep it continually updated with minimal effort, meaning that the vast majority of knowledge could be archived for future access. Add in a proper seed bank, frozen embryos, and perhaps advanced storage of DNA/RNA samples, and you’d be able to repopulate & rehabilitate the earth even after a major catastrophe.

Let’s hope that we don’t as a species have to learn the lesson the hard way that it pays to back-up our data, even ourselves.

Jim Downey

“If you were a terrorist…”

[Spoiler alert. This post contains plot and thematic spoilers about my novel, Communion of Dreams. You've been warned.]

The authors of Freakonomics have a new post up on their NYT-based blog, titled “If You Were a Terrorist, How Would You Attack?” which I find interesting on several levels. First, is the willingness to broach this subject, and be subject to the criticism which will come their way. Most of that can be seen in the comments, along the lines of “why are you giving terrorists ideas?” But perhaps more importantly is the simple summation of what terrorism is really all about, and why it works. From the post:

One thing that scares people is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack. With that in mind, I’d want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low. Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk.

Bingo. It isn’t evident at first, but this is actually one of the major plot points of Communion. The religious/environmental nutjobs I have in the book I call “Edenists” are behind a terror plot to release an engineered virus designed to spread panic and “cleanse the Earth”, and the timing of this plot is put into motion by the discovery of the alien artifact, which they consider a ‘sign from God’. Now, my crazies have indeed created a virus which will be deadly to all those who do not ‘convert’, but they are using it in such a way as to first spread panic: by attacking the scientists involved in researching the artifact, with the intent of allowing the world to see the horror of the disease as a precursor to it being spread on Earth. Add in that humankind has only just started to recover from the first pandemic flu some 40 years previously, and that the new flu is based on that original virus (but tweaked just enough to get around the defenses we have), and you can see how this strategy would be very effective.

Anyway, the post by Steven Levitt is interesting, as is the discussion in the comments. I think that he is right: it would be easy to spread fear with simultaneous small-scale shootings around the country, and the ensuing backlash would not only help us lose our constituional rights, but would empower those who wish to impose something like martial law. In fact, all it would take would be about a dozen small attacks at shopping malls the first weekend after Thanksgiving, and you would effectively cripple the US economy. And there are countless other scenarios in popular fiction which would accomplish the same thing.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Welcome to our old friend, the Plague, version 2.0

In this post from last week, I talked about the relevant issues confronting us with pandemic threats such as the bubonic plague. Well, as you may have heard over the last day or so, public health authorities have acted to impose quarantine restrictions on a man with a drug-resistant form of TB. He’s now being treated with antibiotics as the authorities try and back-track his recent trip to Europe and see who he may have exposed to this particularly nasty strain of the disease.

In my early thinking about the ‘fire-flu’ which forms the back-story of Communion, I was intending on it being a strain of influenza which had developed resistance to early anti-viral treatments. I thought I’d have a series of serious but not pandemic flu strains weaken the global economy, and then have a really nasty one hit that was drug resistant. But so few people understand about the problems presented by widespread and inappropriate antibiotic use, that I gave on on that mechanism, figuring that it would just take too much explanation. Going with the ‘weaponized’ form of flu gave me some additional plot devices to work with, as becomes clear when you read the book.

But that doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t real. In fact, the reaction of the public health authorities is telling, I think. They know that having a nasty, drug-resistant form of TB widely spread by someone this way is a very serious threat, and could easily present a huge problem, and turn back the public-health clock 100 years.


Jim Downey


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