Communion Of Dreams

Another step…

So, it seems that we’re taking another step into the development of the types of “experts” (expert systems) that I envision for Communion: today Reuters news service is launching an automated stock-trading algorythm which will scan news articles and make stock purchasing decisions for clients. From Yahoo! Finance:

Reuters Group PLC plans to launch a computer program today aimed at hedge fund and bank trading desk clients that are already Reuters subscribers. The program is unique in that it scans news articles, originally just from Reuters’s own news service but eventually from other news services too, and measures whether companies are getting positive or negative news coverage. The program will then trigger stock trades based on the algorithmic computations it makes. In addition to tracking individual company names, the program can track entire industries or exchanges, ideal for ETF plays.

Is this Seth’s great-great-whatever- grandpappy?

Jim Downey

April 29, 2007, 9:35 am
Filed under: Feedback, General Musings, Predictions, Promotion, Science Fiction, tech, Writing stuff

Sometimes I can be so dense.  Got this note from “Mike” in Arizona (will ID him more completely, or let him claim credit in comments, if he wishes) yesterday:

I have been a fan of the UTI site and its several bloggers for some time. I recently became aware of your SF novel ‘A Communion of Dreams’ online thru UTI. I downloaded the book a coupla weeks ago and just completed it. A good read! I have passed it on to several other SF fans as well who are enjoying it. So your estimate of 2000 downloads of the book may be misleadingly low, if others pass on the PDF file as I did. I wanted to thank you for sharing it free ‘online’, and wish you the best in your future efforts.

I found the book entertaining and interesting on several levels, and especially the technology.  As with so much else in SF writing, it may well prove visionary. I visited the CoD website and read your comments there–I’d just like to add that Kim Stanley Robinson is my favorite SF author.

Thanx again!

And I have to confess that it hadn’t crossed my mind that people might share the files or hand off printed pages, when the whole thing can be downloaded for free on the Communion of Dreams website.  Makes me feel like a complete idiot.

Not that it really matters.  Since I’m not worried about getting payments from people for reading the book this way, I don’t care if they share it with others.  But I may need to keep open the notion that my stats for downloads (now just under 2,400) might not be an accurate reflection of how many people have read the book.

Jim Downey

Truth is stranger with Science Fiction

Wired has a great piece about how the CIA used a faux science fiction film project to smuggle out the six Americans who had hidden at the Canadian embassy during the 1980 hostage crisis in Tehran. Longish, but well worth the read.

I was finishing up my final semester at college when this happened, and remember well the news that the six had been smuggled out. To find out now that it was done using this kind of ruse is fascinating, and has had me reflecting on how real life is often much more absurd than most fiction. Surely, there’s a screenplay waiting be be written about this story.

And I think I’ll have to slip in some reference to either the supposed film (Argo), or the fake Hollywood production company (Studio Six) set up to pull off this rescue into one of my future books. It’d fit nicely with the prequel to Communion…hmm…

(Via BoingBoing.)

Jim Downey

The Day the Universe Changed

In my previous post, I commented that the universe had just changed with the discovery of 581 c. A friend who saw this responded that no, the uninverse didn’t change – our perception of it did.

Well, yes, and that was exactly what I meant. I was referring to the wonderful series The Day the Universe Changed by science historian James Burke. If you are unfamiliar with it, by all means track down the series and enjoy. It is primarily about Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift, leavened with a nice helping of applied philosophy. If you’ve seen any of the Connections series that Burke has done, you’ve probably got an idea how he would approach this issue.

The idea that our perception of the universe fundamentally determines our actions is one that I use explicitly in Communion of Dreams. [Spoiler alert.] In the book, the entirety of the scientific community believes that ours is the only civilization still active in at least our little corner of the universe. That belief is challenged by the discovery of an alien artifact on Titan, the moon of Saturn. From then on the story line spins out exploring the very nature of perception and knowledge in the very midst of a paradigm shift – all tightly controlled (at least at first) within the small community of people involved. At each stage of revelation, the characters have to confront and integrate new knowledge, and how they cope with that radical shift is at the very heart of the story that I tell.

This is why after posting my brief “welcome” last night, I kicked back and had a wee dram of my favorite scotch. Because whether or not most people realize it, this event was a turning point in our history. Yes, we all expected that sooner or later such a planet would be found – but now it has happened, and the universe around us is now viewed differently. Sure, the universe itself hasn’t changed – but how we understand it has undergone a shift. Just a small one, but an important one nonetheless.

And just think what will happen when we discover life elsewhere. Particularly intelligent, technological life. And after you start to understand the impact that will have, sit back and once again consider what it is my characters in Communion are going through.

Jim Downey

Welcome, 581 c.
April 24, 2007, 7:18 pm
Filed under: General Musings, Predictions, Science Fiction, Society, Space, tech, Writing stuff

WASHINGTON – For the first time astronomers have discovered a planet outside our solar system that is potentially habitable, with Earth-like temperatures, a find researchers described Tuesday as a big step in the search for “life in the universe.”

Wow. It may not seem like it, but the universe just changed.

No, this doesn’t mean that there is life elsewhere other than our little rock. Let alone intelligent life. But make no mistake – this is something of a milestone.

Welcome 581 c. Welcome to the history books.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.) 

There are so many ways…

Writing in today’s Guardian, Naomi Wolf has a fascinating and frightening piece about the current arc of fascism in America, in which she outlines the 10 common steps taken by those who wish to move an open/democratic society to a closed/fascist one. Go read it. If you’ve been paying attention to the country over the last decade, it’ll scare the hell out of you.

There are so many ways that a society such as ours can fall prey to totalitarianism, or just fall apart. Another major terrorist attack would probably do it. So would a pandemic, collapse of the oil markets (precipitated by anything from civil unrest in Saudi Arabia to war with Iran), global warming, et cetera et cetera. If you’ve read Communion, you know that I base the “history” of that book on the chaos caused by a flu pandemic. For reasons of my own, I use that particular device because it serves a purpose with the plot. But I could have almost as easily come up with another mechanism by which our society collapses.

Science fiction is all about making reasonable predictions about what may happen, and how people will then react to the situation.

Unfortunately with real life, there are so many unreasonable things that will happen, and we have to live with the results rather than just read about them.

Jim Downey

Hello, Saturn!

NASA has put up a nice little movie showing the rings of Saturn as seen by the Cassini spacecraft as it transitions through the plane of those rings – fascinating stuff. Of course, you can also see a lot of images taken during the Cassini mission at the CICLOPS site, including many different images of Titan – images which conform to my suppositions about the surface of that moon in Communion of Dreams.

That’s hardly just luck, of course. I tried to base my depiction of the moon in keeping with the best known science at the time of writing, and during revisions updating to reflect new data once the Cassini mission arrived at Saturn. As I have mentioned previously, Carl Sagan’s work was of particular value to me in formulating not just the environment of Titan, but in also how weather works there.

Emphasis on keeping everything as accurate and in accord with known science was important to me in writing Communion, so far as I was able. I even made extensive use of a precursor to this JPL site in calculating distance (as reflected in the amount of time it takes radio signals to travel) for the actual dates mentioned in the book. It’s kind of fun – you just plug in your date, select your two points in the solar system, and the site will not only give you distance in km/miles but also show you what you would see from a specified vantage point if you were looking through a telescope. I no longer remember whether the earlier site gave me actual light-minutes distances (which would also be how long radio waves would take to transit), or if I did the calculations myself. Either way, the numbers cited in the book are accurate.

Jim Downey

Jamesburg Earth Station

It’d be fun to include this little gem into any future revision of Communion. From an article in Aviation Week:

Space History Buffs Try to Save Sat Dish

A chance reading of a “for sale” advertisement in a weekly newspaper has launched a group of 30 space history buffs on a mission to save the 30-meter Jamesburg AT&T/Comsat satellite dish about an hour from Monterey, Calif.

The dish was built in 1968 to support the Apollo 11 moon landing a year later. Besides its commercial duties, it also played a role in capturing and distributing images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, says Pat Barthelow, an avionics technician from Sacramento who first noticed the ad in the Carmel (Calif.) Pine Cone and quickly put out the word.The weekend restorers worked over the past four months to get the dish running. The 10-story high dish is housed in a 20,000 square foot building, both of which are in excellent shape, Barthelow said.

[Mild spoiler] This would make for a perfect reference about ‘industrial archeology’ for Arthur Bailey to make at any of several junctures in the book. I love the notion that people are now starting to realize that the NASA era contains valuable historical artifacts that are outside our usual scope of consideration. Sure, someday there will be a dome covering the site of the Apollo 11 landing, where Niel Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked. But places like the Jamesburg Earth Station are just as valuable from the perspective of understanding the tech behind our first ventures into space.

(Via BoingBoing.)

Jim Downey

There are no simple answers.

I’m adapting this from a comment I made during a discussion on UTI, now that I’ve had a chance to digest things a bit. It is a follow up to this post of last Tuesday.


When a tragedy like this (well, any violence directed against innocents is a tragedy, really) occurs, people naturally want to look for ways to curtail the threat in the future. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

In 1994 something like 800,000 Hutus were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, and almost all of that was done with machetes. Almost 200 people were killed yesterday in Iraq, by someone using car bombs. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 with fertilizer and deisel fuel on this day a dozen years ago.

Guns do kill – something like 12,000 homicides and an additional 6,000 accidents/suicides each year here in the US. My father was one of those people in 1969, and my step-brother a little more than a decade ago. You never really get over that kind of personal tragedy, as I mention here.

But cars also kill. About 30,000 Americans a year, if memory serves. And about 18 months after my dad was killed, my mom was one of those people. But because it wasn’t an act of violence, it is somehow easier to accept that. Which is curious, because we do seem to accept that level of death in our country (and others) relatively easily.

People are violent. It is part of who we are. Now in the UK guns are almost completely outlawed – yet gun violence is once again becoming a problem in some areas. In an effort to control the results of violent behaviour, the UK is now increasingly becoming a nanny-state, outlawing the carrying of pointed knives, limiting their sale even for home use, forcing pubs to shift from glass bottles and drinking vessels to plastic ones because the others were being used to bash and cut others in pub brawls…you get the idea.

As I mention in that blog post cited above, I hate the facile arguments on both sides: that getting rid of all guns would solve the problem; and that if only someone with a legal CCW had been there they could have stopped Cho earlier. The best you can say is that it is possible that stricter gun control (even to extending to effective bans) *might* have stopped Cho from being able to murder so many so easily…or that someone legally armed on campus *might* have been able to stop Cho once he started shooting. No, there is a lot of slop there on both sides – no one knows the answer to ‘what if?’

For me it comes down to a couple of different deciding factors. We have over 200 million guns in this country, something like 80 million handguns. So, getting rid of them isn’t a practical answer for at least a generation. And prohibiting them will basically mean that you are telling criminals that they can count on law-abiding citzens being disarmed. Which means you either accept the increased power advantage of criminals, or you move towards an increasingly police-heavy state, with all of the implications that carries.

Further, the 2nd Amendment was put there for a reason: to control the worst instincts of wanna-be tyrants. The founders understood that humans being what we are, you needed to control the worst instincts of those who would rule rather than govern. They built checks & balances into the Constitution between the different branches of government – but knew that the real check and balance had to go further – had to go all the way down to the individual citizen. In preserving the right to keep and bear arms, they made sure that there was a final option available to curb dictatorship. Granted, my pistols and rifles will not stand up in a full-fledged firefight to modern military weapons – but that isn’t the point. You only have to look at Iraq to see the effectiveness of small arms and improvised explosives to see what a population can do in resisting a military force. That alone changes the calculus of anyone – foreign or domestic – who thinks that they would like to impose their will on the American public by arms.

Lastly, having the *option* of carrying a concealed weapon legally means that you have more possible courses of action open to you when things go south. No, I would not claim that I would have been able to draw my weapon and stop Cho before he killed anyone. That’s just macho posturing. But I carry a 9mm pistol – the same calibre weapon he used to kill most of the 32 he murdered. I *might* have had a chance, if everything had gone just right. Maybe only a small chance – but that would have been more of a chance than the poor bastards who didn’t have that option open to them had.

Yeah, there are no easy or simple answers. I am willing to consider possible solutions – but we have to consider the entire issue completely and make a rational decision, not one based on the immediate emotions following such a horror.

Jim Downey


If you’ve read Communion, [spoiler alert] you know that I posit the existence of other intelligences in the galaxy, but that our solar system has been ’embargoed’ from receiving any radio transmission from those civilizations through a huge network of the alien artifacts (one of which is at the center of the entire story line). This is my way of accounting for ‘Fermi’s Paradox‘, which basically states that if there are extra-terrestrial civilizations, we should have seen evidence of them.

A recent discovery makes me wonder whether I need to do a minor revision of the novel to account for this:

Near-Perfect Symmetry Revealed in Red Cosmic Square
By Ker Than
Staff Writer
posted: 12 April 2007
02:00 pm ET

If symmetry is a sign of splendor, then the newly discovered Red Square nebula is one of the most beautiful objects in the universe.

Seen in the infrared, the nebula resembles a giant, glowing red box in the sky, with a bright white inner core. A dying star called MWC 922 is located at the system’s center and spewing its innards from opposite poles into space.

No, I’m not saying that this is evidence of stellar engineering on a massive scale by some extra-terrestrial civilization. But it is a fascinating thought…

Jim Downey