Communion Of Dreams

Time lag
March 31, 2007, 1:21 pm
Filed under: Feedback, General Musings, Promotion, Science Fiction, tech, Writing stuff

Well, Binary Dreams was sure a hit. Based on the number of visitors I got here, on my other website, and in comments due to the BoingBoing coverage, it’s clear that people “get” that particular piece of art.

Which I find both rewarding and extremely curious. The rewarding part is obvious, since any artist or author likes to have their work well received by the public. The ‘curious’ part is that when I made the piece and entered it in an exhibit 14 years ago, almost no one “got” it. Even when I had the work on display in my bindery and then art gallery for years afterward, people would look at it and basically scratch their heads. The temptation, of course, is to say that it took people that long to catch up with me – that I was over a decade ahead of the curve, as it were. Whether or not that is the proper conclusion to draw is another matter.

Ah well. I just hope I don’t have to wait another decade for people to “get” my novel.

Jim Downey

Binary Dreams

Some 14 years ago, a full five or six years before I even thought about writing Communion of Dreams, I made the following “artist’s book”. Full images are hosted on my website. The following essay was bound into the ‘book’, as well as on the floppy disk in the still-functional disk-drive.

Jim Downey

Binary Dreams

Binary Dreams

A bit of whimsy.

I’ve always loved books, as far back as I can remember. Even though the shock of my parent’s death ended my childhood early, and left me with only fragments and dreams of my pre-teen years, I do remember reading, reading, reading. Books were part of my life, too much so for my parents, who were intelligent but uneducated, and who wondered about my fascination with almost anything written. Often I was told to put down the book and go outside to play, or turn out the light and go to sleep. Even the black & white television given to me at Christmas when I was 8 (the year my sister was born…I suspect my parents splurged to offset my disquiet at having a sibling at last) couldn’t take the place of the books I constantly checked out of the library.

I got lost in science fiction as a youth, first as a feast for my imagination, later as an escape from the harsh realities of my world. All through high school, where the demands my teachers made on my time and intellect were modest enough to be met with a few minutes study, and even through college, where I would reward myself with a new book by a favorite author after studying hours and hours of Russian history, economics, or German. Always I would turn to science fiction as a release, maybe even as a guide to how I could bring myself through my own rebirth. It took a very long time.

I even wrote a little, now and then. Starting with a junior high school fiction class, graduating to the novel I wrote while suffering in traction in the hospital in ‘78. After college I thought I would try and be a writer, with my old diesel-powered IBM Model C. But struggle though I did, I knew that I needed help with my writing that I couldn’t get from friends, or from the contradictory text I could find on the subject. A gentle man, an acquaintance I knew through work, was kind enough to read some of my stories and point to the University of Iowa. “The Writer’s Workshop,” he said, “an old friend of mine from grad school is the head of the program.”

I went to Iowa City, took a few courses. I was rejected for the Workshop by the ‘old friend’ because he didn’t like science fiction, but was stubborn enough to get into the English MA program, where I was allowed to take some Workshop classes on the same basis as those admitted to the program. I learned a lot, and the bitter taste of rejection was replaced by the realization that the Workshop thrived on angst, and that I had had enough of that to fill my life previously and didn’t need more.

I gathered together the credit hours needed to complete the degree, though I was in no particular rush to finish. And one day while looking for a signature for a change to my schedule I stumbled into the Windhover Press. Wonderful old presses and bank upon bank of lead type. I spent the next couple of semesters learning how to build a book, letter by letter, page by page, from those little bits of lead. I got a rudimentary course in sewing a book together, in pasting cloth, in terms like “text block” and “square”.

Then I met Bill. He led me through the different structures, and was tolerant of my large, clumsy hands. I spent hours just watching him work, watching how he moved with a grace that I could only dimly understand, as he slipped a needle onto thread, through paper, around cord. Trimming leather to fit a corner or a hinge. Working with the hot brass tools on a design that those magic hands formed seemingly without effort. But I didn’t spend all the time with him that I could, distracted by other things I thought needed doing. I squandered my time with him, not knowing what gifts I was passing up, what opportunity I allowed to slip from my hands.

But in spite of my best efforts to the contrary, he made an impression, and taught me a lot. Without quite realizing it, my hands became less clumsy, my understanding a bit brighter. I learned a few things, and came to appreciate much, much more. Somewhere in there my need for the refuge for science fiction diminished, though it was never completely left behind. Like a man who has long since recovered from an injury, but who still walks with a cane out of habit, science fiction stayed with me, occasionally coming to the fore in my interpretations of the world, in the ways that I moved from what I was to what I became.

Bill left us, in body at least. Part of his spirit I carry with me, and it surprises me sometimes, in a pleasant way. Now I am at home with paper, cloth, leather, and thread. I make and repair books for friends and clients.

The book is a mutable form, reflecting the needs, materials, and technology of the culture that produces it. Broadly speaking, a “book” is any self-contained information delivery system. And any number of ‘book artists’ have taken this broadly-defined term to extremes, some more interesting than others.

For me, the book is a codex, something that you can hold in your hand and read. From the earliest memories of my science fiction saturated youth, I remember books becoming obsolete in the future, replaced by one dream or another of “readers”, “scanners”, or even embedded text files linked directly to the brain. Some say ours is a post-literate culture, with all the books-on-tape, video, and interactive media technology. I think I read somewhere recently that Sony (or Toshiba or Panasonic or someone) had finally come up with a hand-held, book-sized computer screen that can accommodate a large number of books on CD ROM. Maybe the future is here.

Maybe. Lord knows that I would be lost without a computer for all my writing, revisions, and play. The floppy drive that is in this book was taken from my old computer (my first computer) when a friend installed a hard drive. It is, in many ways, part of my history, part of my time at Iowa, and all the changing that I did there.

So, in a bit of whimsy, I’ve decided to add my part to the extremes of “book art”. Consider this a transition artifact, a melding of two technologies, for fun. Black & white, yes and no, on and off. The stuff of dreams.

March 28, 2007, 10:46 am
Filed under: Feedback, General Musings, NASA, Predictions, Press, Science Fiction, Space, tech, Writing stuff

On this morning’s Marketplace, Robert Reich had a good commentary about the problem with near-Earth asteroids and the NASA effort to identify and track these potential threats. Being an economist, he took the position that for the cost of one week’s expeditures in Iraq, we could fund this program completely through 2020, and then start thinking about what technologies we might need to deal with such a problem asteroid.

All well and good. But what does it have to do with Communion?

My previous versions of the book contained another bit of ‘history’ in addition to the “Fire-flu”: that an asteroid of about 300 meters diameter had hit in central China in the mid 2020’s. This I used for an explanation for several things in the world that I create: an offset to the effects of global warming; an explanation for what happened to the rise of China as an economic power in coming decades; and as a motivation for humankind’s rapid development of the necessary technologies to get into space in a big way.

I don’t see the matter as at all unlikely, and if you look at the information provided by the scientists involved in the search to identify these near-Earth asteroids, you quickly come to the conclusion that we’re rolling the dice each year to see whether or not we’re gonna get hit.

But this seemed to be the thing that tripped up most of my early readers. The prospect of both a pandemic flu and a meteor strike was just too much – even though the two things are in no way related, and we’re ‘overdue’ for both. I’m not sure whether this was just asking people to suspend their disbelief a bit too much, or whether it was just a little too frightening a prospect, but it was clear that however well it worked to create the “world” of Communion, it had to go.

So I dropped back, thought through the potential ramifications of a pandemic flu, and figured that I could more or less accomplish the same things with saying that the world collapse which followed the Fire-flu leads to some small-scale nuclear wars. In the great scheme of things, I see this as probably just as likely a scenario, I suppose. But it is somehow less satisfying an explanation for me. Ah well.

Jim Downey

“Extraordinary claims…

…require extraordinary proof” was a favorite line from Carl Sagan, one of my favorite authors. Simply put, while the idea of psychic abilities or faith healing is very appealing, it hasn’t been documented scientifically (as written up wonderfully in this post by Skeptico). Does that mean that it doesn’t exist? No, of course not. It just means that we haven’t found scientific evidence for it. That could mean that it doesn’t exist, or it could mean that our science and technology isn’t up to detecting it as of yet. And in that possibility lies room for plenty of good fiction, if the author is willing to take a little trouble to work around what we do know.

[Spoiler alert.]

I tried to do that with Communion, though the full ramifications of it take a long time to unfold within the context of the story. Having the alien artifact be not just proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, but part of an isolation field that has supressed our natural psychic abilities, is how I do this. But I try to play fair with my reader, and with science, by having the key to unlocking these mysteries all resort back to the physics breakthrough by Stephen Hawking. In other words, I am saying that this new development in one area has allowed for seredipitous discoveries in other areas, as is frequently the case with science and technology. Science may not hold all the answers, or solve all our problems – but it’s the way to bet.

Jim Downey

As John Lennon said…
March 23, 2007, 11:39 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Depression, General Musings, Health, Sleep, Writing stuff

I once had a boss who was one of those self-made millionaires, a real classic ‘alpha’ from circa 1965, complete with the mindset and abuse of employees, even though it was some twenty years later. Once, when something I did was screwed up, I went in to talk with him about it. All in a huff he told me “I don’t want excuses.” I looked him in the eye and said “I’m not here to give an excuse. I’m here to give an explanation, so we know what went wrong and can avoid having it happen again.”

Eventually, I got him trained, and when it came time for me to move on we parted on good terms.

Nothing is screwed up, and I haven’t made any big mistakes that I’m here to explain. However, I have commented several times about how tired I am, and how being a full-time (read “around the clock”) care-provider for someone with Alzheimer’s means that I don’t ever get enough sleep. Basically, either my wife or I are always listening to a baby monitor at night, at most dozing lightly. We take turns doing this. The problem is, that even when you’re not ‘on-call’ it is tough to sleep really soundly when your bedmate is dozing lightly. And while I am willing to make many sacrifices to care for my mother-in-law, giving up sleeping with my wife altogether isn’t one of them.

Most parents know what this will do to you, since caring for an infant means this sort of interruption to your sleep cycle for weeks on end. But for us, this has been going on for about three years – it’s been a full year since we had much of a real vacation from it. It means that I operate at a chronic sleep deficit. I feel like I am perpetually at about the third entry in this blog-post about sleep deprivation, with a chronic low-grade headache, lack of focus, shortened temper, forgetfulness, et cetera.

Anyway, there’s an explanation for the next time I say that “I’m so tired,” echoing Lennon’s song of the same title written after three weeks of interrupted sleep cycle when off to Transcendental Meditation camp. When I say I don’t have the energy to do this or that, or that it is difficult to get my focus for accomplishing something, this is what I mean, not that I just didn’t get a good night’s sleep the night before.

Jim Downey

March 23, 2007, 9:55 am
Filed under: General Musings, Predictions, Science Fiction, tech, Titan, UFO, Writing stuff

So, it seems that France has put all of its UFO investigations online, going back some 50 years.  And while there is no ‘proof’ that there are indeed some kind of visitations going on, there seems to be plenty of information there to keep people scratching their heads and wondering.

A staple of Science Fiction has always been the question of how humanity will deal with the discovery that we are not the only sentients in the universe.  It is, of course, the main theme of Communion as well, and while I am somewhat ambiguous about what exactly is “out there”, I make no bones about the fact that they exist, and have even visited our neighborhood (hence the discovery of the artifact on Titan being central to the book).

Honestly, one of my greatest fears is that before I can get Communion published, we may indeed have such proof, and will get to see just exactly how that plays out in the public sphere.  My own private suspicion is that it will not go well.

Jim Downey

Dimly, I begin to understand…

I watch almost no TV these days. Frankly, I’ve watched very little TV in the last decade. Yes, I know that this is the ‘new golden age’ of TV, with the many diverse and creative outlets, brilliant writers, et cetera. Sorry – it doesn’t fit in with my lifestyle. Now, don’t misunderstand me – I do sit in front of the TV set almost every evening these days. It’s one way we can help to make sure that my mother-in-law has companionship and gets through her dinner OK (she, like many people with Alzheimer’s, has a tendency to ‘sundown’ and lose what little mental acuity she has in the evening. So she needs more help.) But we watch something we have on DVD (or get from NetFlix).

So, it is usually only after a show has gotten established and I hear enough good things about it from friends that I am willing to put it in my queue to watch. And that’s how it has come to pass that I haven’t seen any of Firefly or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Yes, I know that I am an uncultured lout. Sue me.

Anyway, because of the love that a number of my friends have for Joss Whedon’s work, I did get the DVD of Serenity a few weeks back. Watched it, thought “Well, it’s OK.” But didn’t really see what the big deal was – decent SF, but nothing to go crazy over. Maybe it was my mood.

My friends said that I should give it another chance, dig around in some of the bonus material on the DVD. Last night I did that. And I think what made a difference for me was watching the stuff with Whedon himself, talking about what he went through in having the series cancelled and then setting out to make the movie. It all gelled when he said “I am a fan” – meaning that he is a fan of the genre in general, and wanted to produce something that other fans would recognize and appreciate.

I watched the movie again after that. Huh. OK, this time I picked up on a lot of the stuff he did which was an homage to other works which had come before. The nitty-gritty setting of the ship echoing Alien. The rain, soundtrack and violence of Blade Runner. I could go on. Stuff that I at first attributed to just some film-maker lifting without respect from earlier movies.

And dimly, I started to understand why his work is so popular. Every artist steals from others. There are few truly original ideas out there. But to choose your source material wisely, and integrate it to say something new and interesting – that takes talent. To have that talent, to exercise it, and to do so out of a love of the craft and the history of your art is rare.

I think it is time for me to put Firefly in my queue. Then maybe even Buffy.

Jim Downey

Another one bites the dust.
March 21, 2007, 10:53 am
Filed under: Promotion, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

So, got this nice form note from someone’s assistant:

Thank you for your query regarding COMMUNION OF DREAMS and for your patience. However, though Xxxx finds the premise intriguing, ultimately he does not find himself enthusiastic enough to offer representation. Best of luck elsewhere.

Simple, professional, to the point.  My only gripe is that it took twice as long as their website says to get a response.  But that seems to be the going rate, so it’s not a big deal.  Two down, five outstanding, time to select and query another one or two.

Jim Downey

March 20, 2007, 11:40 am
Filed under: Depression, General Musings, Health, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

One of the earlier incarnations of Communion had the main character, Jon, suffering from stress-triggered depression. I had seen it as an artifact of his early life, combined with a genetic disposition towards either depression or bipolar disorder.

I dropped that because it was just a little too autobiographical. The character isn’t ‘me’, not by a fair amount, but of course each of the different characters all contain some aspect of my personality and/or experience, drawn upon for a realistic portrayal. But when I had him suffering from depression, I thought that it would be too easy for anyone who read the book to conclude that I was indeed projecting the main character as myself.

I’m more ‘bipolar’ or ‘manic-depressive’ than suffering straight clinical depression. Been that way all my adult life. Learned to recognize the symptoms of any given phase in late adolescence, and to modify my behaviour to compensate accordingly. Still, the long dark periods of depression are grim, and tend to be exacerbated by stressful situations. Like the one I’m in now (explained in full in this post). Being an around-the-clock caregiver for someone with dementia is exhausting and isolating – two things that tend to feed my depression and curtail even the manic energy I feel when on the upswing (the ramp up into a manic state can be empowering, so long as you can maintain control – it is when things get out of hand that it becomes dangerous).

Anyway, it has been a particularly rough patch with my charge right now, as she has been having some other health problems which have thrown our routines into disarray and placed even more stress on my wife and I. Being the self-reflective sort that I am, I got to thinking about how such psychological strain effects people, which lead me back to thinking about the initial motivations and behaviour of my protagonist, which…well, lead to this.

Jim Downey


There’s a very good piece in today’s New York Times titled Facing Life With a Lethal Gene about one young woman’s decision to be tested to see if she carries the gene for Huntington’s Disease.

It is a very difficult decision to be tested for a genetic disease which you may have, and for which there is no known treatment (let alone a cure). If you test positive, you know exactly the sort of future you face. And, if you test positive, it can have a significant impact on your employment and insurance possibilities, even decades before you might experience any onset of symptoms.

There is a similar disease which runs in my family called Machado-Joseph. In terms of statistics, there is about a 68% chance that I carry the gene for it, though I do not have the other familial characteristics which seem to track with the disease. So I have elected not to be tested. Besides, at nearly 50 years of age, if I did have the onset of the disease, it would be likely that it would progress so slowly that I would die of something else (the younger the age of onset, the more rapidly the disease progresses).

Anyway, I recommend you read the article. Because as the science of genetic testing develops, it is likely that at some point you will have to make a decision about whether or not you are tested for either a genetic disease or a predisposition towards some type of health problem. Better to consider the matter before being confronted with it. Trust me on this.

What does this have to do with Communion? [warning – spoilers ahead]

The book’s history is premised on a flu pandemic about 40 years prior to the story. This pandemic not only killed hundreds of millions outright (and threw the world economy into complete chaos, resulting in hundreds of millions more deaths) , it left most of the survivors sterile – and did the same to most of the resulting children born. This is a recipe for extinction.

I chose this scenario for several reasons, not the least of which is that I think we are due for a world-wide pandemic sometime in the next decade. But also my family history and personal choice came into play – long before there was a genetic test to determine whether or not I carried the MJD gene, I made the decision to be childless. I felt at the time that the risks of passing on the disease were just too great. Not having any progeny leaves one with a sense of loss, even if it was a decision made for the best of reasons. I could only surmise that the effects of imposed childlessness population-wide would be even more profound.

And, [again, spoiler alert!] the psychological impact of the transformation which comes at the end of the book, through the agency of the alien artifact, would be a very literal rebirth for the entire human race. Not only do we give birth to a subsequent species in the form of the AI/Expert Seth (who achieves true sentience, midwifed by the artifact), but the entirety of the effects of the pandemic are cleansed – meaning that humankind has a second chance, and can start afresh. The hope is, of course, that we will do better the second time around.

So, go read the article.

Jim Downey