Communion Of Dreams


A little history.
April 17, 2007, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Depression, General Musings, Guns, Violence, Writing stuff

My dad was a cop, killed on the job.  You can look it up: 12/12/69.  I was 11.
And so, whenever I hear of gun violence, I have a personal connection.  A little history, as you might say.  Given the number of times guns are used in this country to kill, you might guess that this happens a lot.

As I told a friend (who is a professor on a college campus not unlike Virginia Tech) this morning:

Horrid, isn’t it?  Having experienced gun violence in my own family, this sort of thing raises ghosts and pre-occupies me entirely too much when it happens.  And gives me a hard & cynical eye when examining the facile solutions suggested by both the gun nuts and the gun-control nuts.  I’m sick of hearing on the one hand how easy it would be for someone to stop such a horror just by having their own gun – and equally sick of being told that anyone who does indeed own guns is obviously some kind of mental case who doesn’t really understand the dangers involved.

I have opinions about this.  Strong opinions.

But for now, I just grieve.  Again.

Jim Downey



“The Right Stuff”, indeed.
April 13, 2007, 11:29 am
Filed under: Buzz Aldrin, General Musings, movies, NASA, Predictions, Science Fiction, Space, tech

I recently came across this old (going on 5 years now) vid of Buzz Aldrin popping Bart Sibrel (a proponent of theory that the lunar landings were a hoax) in the mouth when the guy confronts him:

I grew up with the “Space Race”, and it helped to shape a lot of my attitudes and thoughts about not just science fiction, but about life. The men (unfortunately, the mindset of the time meant that astronauts were all men) who were in that program accepted that it was a very risky thing to want to go into space, but thought that the risks were worth it. Sure, NASA was working to limit the dangers, but it was just a given that the dangers would always be there.

That was a different era. From my perspective now, it was not unlike adolescence, when you *think* you can understand the risks you’re taking in doing stupid and dangerous things, but you don’t really – your brain hasn’t matured sufficiently, and you don’t have enough experience to know just how crazy you’re being. But when you have a couple of close calls – or lose some friends and loved ones – your perspective changes, and you want to take a safer path. We call it maturity in an individual, and prudence in the space program.

But I fear that it has become just timidness, and is the reason why we haven’t continued to build on our early successes (and failures) in our efforts to explore our solar system.

There is a natural, and understandable, reaction to facing death and injury (of every sort, from physical to emotional to financial): you seek safety. You try and arrange your life to be less dangerous, to be more predictable. Or at least that’s how most people react. And really, it is not a bad thing, for a person or for a society, to take that course.

But sometimes it works out that an individual, or a society, will have an incentive to continue the risk-taking. In the ‘history’ of Communion, I have the real exploitation of space being spurred by disaster – initially, it is by the Israeli effort to establish a viable sanctuary on the Moon using conventional heavy-lift rockets after a devastating nuclear exchange. This is undertaken even in the face of huge risks (the tech is only where we’re at now – meaning that rockets, with crew and passengers, are lost perhaps 5-10% of the time), because it is felt that these risks outweigh those of staying on Earth.

Humans are complex. We don’t always respond to stimuli in ways which are predictable by a simple formula. Sometimes, the calculation of risk goes all wonky. Sometimes we factor in so many variables that we ourselves don’t even understand our decisions. And sometimes, we just plain make mistakes. As a fiction author, I love that – it gives plenty of latitude in plotting and character.

Buzz Aldrin would probably say in retrospect that the risks he took to go to the Moon were well worth it, that he and the other astronauts knew well the dangers they faced, and that they didn’t change when confronted with death and loss. Rather, they did what they could to correct the problems that they encountered, adjusted and went on…knowing that there were many other risks still facing them.

That he didn’t allow those adjustments to make him timid is clear in his reaction to Sibrel. Sure, there are other ways of dealing with an idiot who is harrassing you, particularly when you’re a 72 year-old man. Some of them are arguably better ways. But it gives me a certain smile every time I think about that incident to know that “The Right Stuff” hasn’t completely disappeared.

Jim Downey



“So it goes.”

Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday, age 84.

There have been many authors who had a great influence on me. Among these was Vonnegut. I can no longer say which of his books I read first, but there’s a fair chance that it was The Sirens of Titan, which had a sufficient impact on me that it was one of the reasons I choose that moon for the setting of Communion of Dreams.

What can you say about him? The man was brilliant in so many ways – with a biting wit and a perspective borne of really living, unlike so many writers who think they have something to say because they were once turned down for a date or didn’t get the promotion they thought they deserved. With his background at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he was taken seriously even outside of the genre of science fiction. If you haven’t read his work, do. None of the movie adaptations of his books comes close to capturing the power and black humor of his writing.

Fittingly, he was also a huge fan of Mark Twain’s, and if there is any justice in the world, he will now be considered in death to be in the same league as Twain (I cannot offer higher praise to an author), though of course he would never have thought this possible himself. His use of humor and wry observations on the human condition echoed Twain, his writing style emulated Twains, and he even held a certain resemblence to him. He thought so much of Twain that he named his son after him.

I do not believe in heaven. I do not believe in the afterlife. But I hold a small, quiet hope that the Tralfamadorians have granted Kurt the grace to be caught in the happiest moment of his life, whatever that may be.

Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday, age 84.

So it goes.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



Water, water, everywhere…

News yesterday of interest:

Travis Barman, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, said water vapor has been found in the atmosphere of a large, Jupiter-like gaseous planet located 150 light years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. The planet is known as HD 209458b.

OK, this is mostly significant because someone has gone on record announcing a discovery that pretty much everyone expected would happen before too long.  With over 200 extra-solar planets now on the books, it was really just a matter of time before one was determined to have water vapor in its atmosphere.  Scientists just needed the right combination of observeable data.

Important?  Yeah, in the sense that it’s happened.  Surprising?  Not really.   This is more the sort of thing that the press can get excited about than a real breakthrough – almost no space scientist would be surprised that water exists outside our solar system.

It is interesting for me, though, since I posit for Communion that there is an array of scientific instruments in orbit around Titan which has been created just for the purpose of seeking out likely extra-solar planets for colonization.  (And I place it there due to the “bubble” of shielding created by the web of Tholen gel on Titan’s surface – which, of course, is foreshadowing of the larger discovery to be made about the gel in the course of the novel.)  I fully expect that at some point we will identify planets in other stellar systems suitable for supporting human life – likely long before our tech advances to the point of allowing us to travel such distances.  It’s just so much easier to look at the data coming our way in the form of electromagnetic radiation than to actually send a ship out to investigate.

Jim Downey



Crisis Management
April 8, 2007, 9:17 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Depression, General Musings, Health, Marketing, Promotion, Writing stuff

I was chatting online with a friend who is a bookseller, and asked whether there was a “Caring for an Alzheimer’s patient from a male perspective” book out there, since most men aren’t care-givers in the way I am.  The response I got back:

On an average day, we carry 6-8 titles on understanding Alzheimer’s and caring for people who have it. They are geared towards children dealing with parents. None of them are from a male point of view. However, watching the titles that come out and do well, my suggestion would be to write a memoir. That’s what sells. People love crisis memoir…

To which I replied:

Let’s see…think I have the material to pull one off?  Orphaned at 13…adolescence of acting out, violence, drug abuse… but pulled it together enough to get into one of the premier small colleges…car accident during my sophomore year which left me partially paralyzed, but I got involved in a martial art, recovered almost full function and went on to be a world class athlete in an obscure but increasingly popular sport…rejected by the Writer’s Workshop, but found a career in grad school…opened a business, grew that business into the largest gallery in the state, but that failed in spite of working 70-80 hours per week, leaving me in huge debt and struggling with depression…in spite of that managed to write a work of fiction and become a seminal ‘internet performance artist’ (Wikipedia says so!)…became a beloved newspaper columnist while caring for my Alzheimer’s-suffering mother-in-law, fighting the recurrence of depression and flirting with alcoholism…all the while a victim of migraines, having ‘lost my relationship with the God of my childhood’…

Yeah, with the right kind of spin, Oprah would love it.  😉

Actually, all of that is true, and there’s a lot more besides.  Maybe I ought to consider this if I can’t get someone to pick up Communion of Dreams…hmmm…

Jim Downey



Paleo-Future

I’m a big fan of the blog Paleo-Future. The appeal is probably obvious, because it focuses on “A future that never was.” As I say on the Communion of Dreams site:

Welcome to Communion of Dreams, set about 50 years from now in an “alternative future history.” The world I have envisioned in this book is recognizable, in the same way that the 1950’s are recognizable, but with a comparable amount of unpredictable change as between that era and the present. Most authors will avoid writing about the near-term future, because it is easy for a work to become dated. I’m not that smart. Or perhaps I’m just more willing to jump in and explore what could be just over the horizon, if things work out a certain way. Nah, scratch that – let’s just go with ‘I’m not that smart.’

I’m sure that my predictions about artificial intelligence, psychic abilities, tech development, our future in space, et cetera, will all someday be profiled on some future version of Paleo-Future. You just can’t get all this stuff right.

Which is OK. The job of the science fiction author isn’t to predict the future, let alone create it. It is to posit a possible future, and within that context explore some aspects of humankind – or at least tell a good story. I like to think that I accomplish those things…and that I might even hit the jackpot and make a few predictions which will come true.

Jim Downey



Still waiting.
April 6, 2007, 2:00 pm
Filed under: Writing stuff

When the entry in the Guide to Literary Agents tells you that an agent will act on a query, and get a response to you in a week, don’t even think of believing it.  If it says two weeks, just laugh, and know that they’re teasing.  Three weeks or a month might sound like a realistic time-frame, but it’s really more of a guess on their part.

It’s now been six weeks, and still five of the seven agents I queried haven’t replied.  Part of me thinks that I should consider this good news, because it means that they haven’t rejected representing me outright.  The more realistic part of me wishes they’d act, since the chances are that I’ll get rejections from them, and need to move on to new possibilities.

Ah well, I don’t have the time or energy right now to be doing more queries, anyway.  Might as well just keep waiting and hoping…

Jim Downey



Why an expert?

Via BoingBoing, an interesting (though dated – written in 2003)  paper by Michael Schmitz titled Human Computer Interaction in Science Fiction Movies.  This paper deals just with movies, but naturally all authors want to see their books translated into that medium, so…

The paper is an interesting survey of how human-computer interactions have been depicted.  Perhaps the most interesting section deals with the movie Minority Report
from 2002 (which I just saw last year), and talks about how in the time period of the movie (2048 – about the same time period as I set for Communion) retina-recognition will allow for ubiquitous ID of individuals, and how this will not only be used by the government, but also by advertisers and marketing departments.

[Mild spoiler warning.]

This was actually part of the reason that I designed the ‘evolution’ of the tech I posit for the expert systems in my book – as part of a new manifestation of the battle between privacy and business.  Because I too think that companies will employ increasingly intrusive technologies to identify and track consumer spending habits – we can see this already in on-line shopping at places like Amazon.com, or in ‘Rewards’ systems at grocery stores and other retailers where you get a discount for allowing them to track your purchasing habits.  I think that sooner or later our basic ‘ad/spam blocker’ type of software will become more sophisticated in thwarting the attempts to invade our privacy, and that eventually primative artificial intelligence expert systems such as we have now will be used in this manner.  In the classic battle between armour and firepower, the whole thing will tend to escalate, until we reach the point where we have the technology behind Seth (the S-series gel-based computing systems).  Of course, along the way many other functions will be bundled into such an expert system, the aggregation leading to something akin to true artificial intelligence.

Jim Downey



“The hardest job you’ll ever have.”
April 3, 2007, 5:45 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Depression, General Musings, Health, Sleep, Writing stuff

That’s what the doctor said yesterday.

We took my mother-in-law in for a check-up – first time she’s seen the doctor in almost a year.  Oh, he’s been involved in her care all along, and will usually just prescribemeds or treatment without seeing her, based on our phone calls and stopping by his office, explaining what is going on, what we think she needs.  That may seem unusual, but the truth is that it is easier and safer to do this – means that we don’t have to get her up and off to his office when she is fighting the flu or has been hurt.  My medical skills are very good, and generally we can cope with anything here at home so long as we get the support from him.

Anyway, it was time for him to actually see her, and since she was doing OK presently, we got her off to his office.  Thorough examination, discussion of her condition, confirmation of what we had suspected: that she had a minor stroke three weeks ago which had led to more little complications to our lives, less comfort for her.

And he asked us how we were doing, as he usually does.  Whether we were getting a break now and again, et cetera.  He, perhaps of all people, understands what care-giving at this level demands.  He confirmed that we’re providing about the best care possible, based on what he can see, and make the comment at the head of this post.  We came home.

And since then, we’ve been dealing with the ‘fallout’ of that visit.  People who are living with many forms of dementia, and particularly with Alzheimer’s-type dementia, are disrupted by any changes in their routine.  We’re lucky in that my mother-in-law usually stays pleasant during such changes (visits from people, going out to someplace strange) – many Alzheimer’s patients get very angry or combative during such occasions.  But we always experience more problems in the 24 to 48 hours following.  Last evening she was argumentative and hostile, and overnight she slept very poorly – changing position in her bed about every half hour after about midnight.  And as a result, since I was ‘on-call’ and listening to the monitor to make sure she didn’t need help, I basically didn’t sleep during that whole time.

So this morning I’m exhausted, suffering a very nasty headache.  And wondering just how the rest of the day is going to go wrong.

Jim Downey



Paying dues.
April 2, 2007, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Art, Feedback, General Musings, Promotion, Writing stuff

Well, sometime over the weekend, we finally passed 2,000 downloads of the novel.  Things had slowed down some in the last couple of weeks, but that’s still a thousand downloads last month.  But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about.

I wanted to talk about something else which happened over the weekend, which has happened to me many times.  I was contacted by a young artist, who needed some help with the basics of marketing and professional behaviour.

When I was writing my columns for the newspaper on the art scene locally (some collected here), I would regularly be asked for this kind of help.  I always try and respond, though sometimes this just consists of pointing someone at another resource they need to tackle first before I can help them, because I felt that it was a matter of ‘paying my dues’ to the art world.  It was likewise my attitude about speaking at college classes and whatnot.  And sometimes I even got a good column out of it, such as this one.

How does this relate to Communion?   Doesn’t directly.  I just feel like how I imagine most agents and publishers feel (the working ones, who still actually work with authors to promote their work, not the ones at the top of the food chain who mostly manage large firms) in terms of helping ‘young’ authors – you want to help, you wish that there were better resources out there for people, you wish that people would available themselves of the resources which are available,  and you sometimes feel like you’re the only one paddling.  But you do it nonetheless, even when the people who ask you for help (directly or indirectly) don’t seem to value your advice.  Because it is either help them or become prematurely cynical and hard-hearted.

Oh, and I wish I was able to transfer the ‘dues paid’ in the art world to the writing world.  But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

Jim Downey