Communion Of Dreams

Are you afraid?

In a few days I’ll turn 49. Statistically, I’ve got a couple more decades to go. Realistically, I could drop dead tomorrow from an undiagnosed heart condition, develop cancer or some other terminal disease, or just get hit by a truck. You tend to take this sort of philosophical attitude when your own parents both died before they hit 40.

But that does not define my life – I do not constantly worry or live in fear. I don’t panic when I hear that they’ve found a couple of car bombs in the heart of London, any more than I lose my head over reports of a new strain of bird flu discovered in Indonesia, or that there are weather conditions that favor the development of tornadoes in my area.

I take reasonable precautions, try and keep track of my health, wear my seat belt, indulge in particularly dangerous sports rarely, and try and keep aware of my surroundings. I do carry a concealed weapon (legally – all licensed and everything), but no more expect that I will have to use it than I expect I’ll have to use any of the several fire extinguishers around the house and in the car. I don’t go poking around bad neighborhoods or bars late at night, don’t seek to draw attention to myself when I don’t know what the tactical situation is.

And I guess that’s where I come down on the question of whether or not we should be broadcasting “contact” signals out into the cosmos, in the hope of connecting with some other intelligent life.

Just about every major science fiction author has dealt with the question of alien contact at some point or another. Sometimes it is handled with an assumption of happy-happy E.T. helping us out, being part of the big brotherhood of intelligent species. Sometimes it is having us be lunch. Sometimes we’re the bad guys, enslaving other races or having them for lunch.

I tend to agree with Carl Sagan’s position that we’re unlikely to be at anything resembling technological parity with another race (and this is the premise of Communion of Dreams). And I tend to agree with those who advocate a certain caution in making our presence known in the universe. Via MeFi, there’s a very good article on this very topic in The Independent by Dr. David Whitehouse, formerly the BBC Science Editor and a respected astronomer, that I heartily recommend. An excerpt:

The fact is, and this should have been obvious to all, that we do not know what any extraterrestrials might be like – and hoping that they might be friendly, evolved enough to be wise and beyond violence, is an assumption upon which we could be betting our entire existence. When I was a young scientist 20 years ago at Jodrell Bank, the observatory in Cheshire, I asked Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank and pioneering radio astronomer, about it. He had thought about it often, he said, and replied: “It’s an assumption that they will be friendly – a dangerous assumption.”

And Lovell’s opinion is still echoed today by the leading scientists in the field. Physicist Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has been for decades one of the deepest thinkers on such issues. He insists that we should not assume anything about aliens. “It is unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity, just as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses,” he says. ” We must be prepared for either possibility.”

The Nobel Prize-winning American biologist George Wald takes the same view: he could think of no nightmare so terrifying as establishing communication with a superior technology in outer space. The late Carl Sagan, the American astronomer who died a decade ago, also worried about so-called “First Contact”. He recommended that we, the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos, should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes. He said there is no chance that two galactic civilisations will interact at the same level. In any confrontation, one will always dominate the other.

Do I want to see us in some community of space-faring nations, such as the reality envisioned by J. Michael Straczynski in Babylon 5, or Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek? Yeah, that’d be cool. Do I expect it to happen that way? Um, not at this point. The only thing we know is based on our experience here on Earth, where whenever a technologically superior culture encountered a less sophisticated culture, the latter always came out the loser to a greater or lesser degree. Until we have some solid information to the contrary, I don’t think that it would be wise at all to draw attention to ourselves. After all, we have no idea what the neighborhood is like.

Jim Downey

Cross posted to UTI.

June 27, 2007, 6:58 am
Filed under: Feedback, Promotion, Publishing, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

Happy 100!

This is my 100th post here, and there are a couple of other mildly interesting milestones to report: sometime in the next few days the 3,000th download of Communion of Dreams will happen, keeping the average up to about 600 downloads a month. We’ll also likely cross 2,000 visits to this blog in the same time-frame (plus those folks who receive feeds).

Not huge numbers, but better than I might have hoped for in each case – thanks to those who visit here, thanks particularly to those who help to spread the word about the novel to friends. My goal is still very much to land a conventional book publishing deal, but I am encouraged that people are still at least downloading the book.

I’d like to invite any and all to just say hello in comments, and of course I’m always happy to have feedback on the book or blog.


Jim Downey

“…an awful waste of space.”

A friend passed along this entry from today’s Quote of the Day:

If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.
George Carlin

Communion of Dreams is, essentially, about what happens when we are unexpectedly confronted with the reality of the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. In this I am echoing countless other science fiction stories/novels/films, some more consciously than others. Most directly, I am paying homage to two authors:Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan. For anyone interested in doing so, references can be found in my novel to both men, directly and indirectly.

And whenever you tackle this problem (whether or not there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe), you are also basically dealing with issues similar to religious faith. At least for the time being, we have no evidence, no scientific proof, of either E.T. or God. Friends who know me as a strong atheist have commented how surprised they were with how I deal with the issue of religion in Communion. Yet this is in keeping with how science fiction writers, and Carl Sagan specifically in his novel Contact, tend to approach this issue: leaving open the possibility and understanding the revolution in thought which it will demand when there is proof of E.T. (or God, for that matter). I don’t recall it being in the book, but there’s a line in the movie version of Contact which has always made sense to me, when the protagonist’s father says regarding the possibility of life on other planets: “I don’t know, Sparks. But I guess I’d say if it is just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”

Which brings me to another favorite quote, one I’ve appended to my emails for the last several years:

“Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not.
In either case, the thought is staggering.”
R. Buckminster Fuller

And I think that sums it all up for me, on both the question of God and whether there is other intelligence out there. For Communion, I come down on the side of proving the existence of one, and figure that is enough for one book to tackle.

Jim Downey

I don’t get it.

There’s a long and wonderful tradition of mixing genres in literature, and science fiction in particular has always had a tendency to appreciate anachronisms, to play the game of “what if spaceflight had been discovered/introduced 100 or 500 years ago”, or to suppose that for some reason some critical tech wasn’t discovered until well after it actually was in history. You can have a lot of fun with this, of pretending that H.G. Wells or Jules Verne (or even Mark Twain, for that matter) were writing not fiction, but suppressed fact, in their stories, and then extending the tech from that point forward. Conversely, someone like Joss Whedon can have a good time giving the crew of Serenity conventional modern firearms rather than futuristic weapons.

I understand that. I can enjoy an anachronism as much as the next guy. In fact, I was very heavily involved in the SCA for about 15 years (to the extent that I was King twice, held all three peerages, and served in numerous offices including Society Marshal). That’s how I met my good lady wife, and many of my closest friends.

But I don’t really get the whole fascination with Steampunk. Oh, sure, there’s been a lot of good fiction done in the sub-genre. But it’s like it has taken on cult qualities. People go nuts over it – BoingBoing sometimes seems to be Steampunk-crazed, and a search turns up almost 200 entries on the site with that theme. It’s not just appreciation of the literature – it’s the whole “build a steampunk this or that artifact” that has people all excited.There are whole publications and websites devoted to home-brew steampunk projects, not to mention clothing & accessories, weapons, et cetera. A good buddy of mine sent me a link to this ‘Steampunk Jar of Articulated Fireflies‘ yesterday, all excited that he had all the materials on hand to build one, except the phosphorous BBs. Um, OK…thanks for that, but, uh, why would you want such a thing? It’s like Star Trek fandom suddenly took over the defining aesthetic for some significant portion of society, and started making it cool to have your own bat’letH and creating a market for cell phones that function like Original Season communicators. I mean, it’s just plain weird that it has penetrated so far into the culture, with no sign of slowing down.

Yes, of course some of my reaction to this is touched with envy. It’d be a rush to have my fiction engender this kind of fan creativity. Well, to a certain extent it would be. I think the first time I came across someone with a subcutaneous bone-conducting mic/speaker based on my description in Communion of Dreams, I think I’d freak out…

Jim Downey

I get mail…
June 21, 2007, 11:26 am
Filed under: Feedback, Gene Roddenberry, Science Fiction, Society, Space, Star Trek, Writing stuff

A friend sent me this in response to yesterday’s post:

I’d missed the list of Honoured Guests. Have to make sure my autograph-mad friend doesn’t find out, I’m sure he’d ask me to round out his collection. Me, I just plan to be completely starry-eyed, at least about the space travel people. The writers – eh. No offense, but anybody can make stuff up; it’s really cool people who make it happen.

My reply:

None of it is necessarily mutually exclusive, and there are roles for both. I don’t expect you or anyone else to attend the event for the same reasons I do, and that’s OK. But you’ll note that it is being held in honor of the writer, not some engineer.

But Wil Wheaton’s response is a whole lot better:

“We are some of those people, and we are gathered tonight in one of those places. When we were here a few weeks ago to shoot footage for our documentary, I discovered that this museum is more than just a collection of cool artifacts from the final frontier and beyond. It is an affirmation of why I, and so many other people around the world, love science fiction, and why science fiction endures – whether created by Jules Verne in 1864, or Gene Roddenberry in 1964, or some hot new stereovision writer in 2064 – with a relevance that transcends generations.

“There are countless examples here of the real power that science fiction has to address current events in a way that’s safe and acceptable for most audiences, while speaking very seriously about them to those who look beyond the spaceships and rayguns to the ideas behind the stories. Whether it was written one hundred years ago or just published last month, science fiction can give us warnings about the future, hope for the future, or just blissful escape into the future, visiting fantastic worlds that are light-years away – and as close as our bookshelves and televisions.”

That’s just an excerpt from his post about being the one to induct Gene Roddenberry into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in Seattle. Go read the whole thing.

Jim Downey

(Via BadAstro Blog.)

Listen up, people.
June 21, 2007, 10:13 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Depression, Health, Science, SETI, Space, tech, Writing stuff

OK, I feel miserable.  Summer cold, with all the joys that brings.  But I thought I would take a moment to point out this article on the new SETI Allen Telescope Array in northern California, about to come on-line.

Not that we’ll actually hear anything.  It’s clear that we’ve been embargoed, cut off from the rest of the universe until we mature some as a species.

I need a nap.

Jim Downey

(Via BoingBoing.)

Heinlein Centennial

I don’t get out much – being a full time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s is very demanding, and my wife and I are both careful not to leave all the responsibilities in the other’s lap for any real length of time (like over a weekend). If this was just a short-time thing, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. But we’ve been caregivers in this capacity for four years now, and we could easily have several more years ahead of us. You have to think long-term. This is the reason why I ignore the advice given to all unpublished authors to attend conventions – getting away is almost impossible for me at this time.

But as it happens, she has a concert scheduled with the North American Welsh Choir the weekend of July 7th in Kansas City, and made arrangements some months back to have her sister in from California to take care of my mother-in-law, in order that I could also attend the concert if I wanted. Otherwise, she would be here to help make sure that I didn’t carry an undue burden for the several days my wife would be away.

Then I heard about the Robert A. Heinlein Centennial celebration occuring at the same time – also in Kansas City!

Heinlein hasn’t really been a direct influence on my writing; I haven’t tried to emulate any of his style, or pay homage to his ideas. But few can deny that he was a huge influence in Science Fiction last century. And I certainly read a lot of his stuff when I was young – it helped shape and inform my world view, to some extent. Even to this day, I consider him to have been visionary on a number of points, and going back and rereading some of his classics is a good exercise for any writer – his stuff holds up surprisingly well, even 40 – 50 years after it was published.

Besides, this will be about more than just Heinlein’s legacy. A number of luminaries from the history of space exploration will be there, not to mention lots of science fiction writers and people involved in the publishing industry (check out the list of attendees!). It will be interesting, and a phenomenal opportunity to do some serious networking.

So, I’m going. Given that the big Gala Dinner is being held at the same time as my wife’s concert, I’ll be missing the concert altogether. I’m lucky to have such an understanding spouse.

See you there?

Jim Downey

Can’t Stop The Serenity
June 19, 2007, 10:19 am
Filed under: Firefly, Joss Whedon, movies, Science Fiction, Serenity, Society

51 cities.  9 countries.  To raise $100,000 for a good cause.

It’s Can’t Stop The Serenity.  From the press release:

Fans Organize ‘Global Sci-Fi Charity Event Of The Year’

Fans of the science fiction movie ‘Serenity’ will be holding screenings in 51 cities in nine countries to raise money and awareness for Equality Now, an international women’s rights advocacy group. In its second year, Can’t Stop The Serenity looks to raise over $100,000 in donations for the charity.

Dallas, TX (PRWEB) May 7, 2007 — For the second year, screenings of the science fiction film ‘Serenity’ will be held around the world in late June to raise money and awareness for an international women’s rights advocacy group. The unprecedented effort marks the culmination of a year’s work by fans to bring a writer’s vision of equality to a mass audience.

Can’t Stop The Serenity [CSTS] was conceived as a tribute to writer-director Joss Whedon on his birthday, June 23, by holding screenings of his 2005 film ‘Serenity’ wherever supporters were able to organize events. Proceeds from the events are donated to Equality Now, a charitable organization that Whedon’s mother, Lee Stearns, helped launch. In 2006, there were events in 47 cities worldwide, raising over $65,000 for Equality Now.


“By their very nature, science fiction fans want to improve their world,” said Devin Pike, global organizer of the 2007 CSTS events. “Whether it’s Roddenberry’s utopian view of eliminating poverty and prejudice in the next two centuries, or Whedon’s saga of rebels rising up against tyranny, sci-fi fans are naturally compelled to try and make the world around them a better place. The Can’t Stop The Serenity events allow that passion and drive to work towards bringing the issue of gender equality to the foreground.”

Check out the site.  Go to an event.  Help make a difference.

Jim Downey

You can’t get there from here.

Charlie Stross is a smart guy. And a fine writer, with significant Science Fiction cred. So when I saw an item posted by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing yesterday titled “Futility of Space Colonization” with a link to Charlie’s full post on his blog, I was curious. From the post:

That’s the first point I want to get across: that if the distances involved in interplanetary travel are enormous, and the travel times fit to rival the first Australian settlers, then the distances and times involved in interstellar travel are mind-numbing.

This is not to say that interstellar travel is impossible; quite the contrary. But to do so effectively you need either (a) outrageous amounts of cheap energy, or (b) highly efficient robot probes, or (c) a magic wand. And in the absence of (c) you’re not going to get any news back from the other end in less than decades. Even if (a) is achievable, or by means of (b) we can send self-replicating factories and have them turn distant solar systems into hives of industry, and more speculatively find some way to transmit human beings there, they are going to have zero net economic impact on our circumstances (except insofar as sending them out costs us money).

And then this, about the question of colonization in our solar system:

But even so, when you get down to it, there’s not really any economically viable activity on the horizon for people to engage in that would require them to settle on a planet or asteroid and live there for the rest of their lives. In general, when we need to extract resources from a hostile environment we tend to build infrastructure to exploit them (such as oil platforms) but we don’t exactly scurry to move our families there. Rather, crews go out to work a long shift, then return home to take their leave. After all, there’s no there there — just a howling wilderness of north Atlantic gales and frigid water that will kill you within five minutes of exposure. And that, I submit, is the closest metaphor we’ll find for interplanetary colonization. Most of the heavy lifting more than a million kilometres from Earth will be done by robots, overseen by human supervisors who will be itching to get home and spend their hardship pay. And closer to home, the commercialization of space will be incremental and slow, driven by our increasing dependence on near-earth space for communications, positioning, weather forecasting, and (still in its embryonic stages) tourism. But the domed city on Mars is going to have to wait for a magic wand or two to do something about the climate, or reinvent a kind of human being who can thrive in an airless, inhospitable environment.

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

OK, like I said, Charlie is a smart guy. Go read the entire thing – I think that he has nailed the economics of the matter of space colonization pretty solidly. He’s right with all the physics, energy requirements, et cetera, from everything that I see and know on the subject.

And he’s dead wrong.

Oh, I think that he’s right – right now, it is hard to come up with a pragmatic, practical argument for the possibility of space colonization. But his argument reminds me considerably of this item posted on Paleo-Future last week:

Aerial Navigation Will Never Be Popular (1906)

The August 14, 1906 Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana) ran an article by Sir Hiram Maxim titled, “Aerial Navigation Will Never Be Popular.” An excerpt, as well as the original article in its entirety, appears below.

But I do not think the flying machine will ever be used for ordinary traffic and for what may be called “popular” purposes. People who write about the conditions under which the business and pleasure of the world will be carried on in another hundred years generally make flying machines take the place of railways and steamers, but that such will ever be the case I very much doubt.

That item goes on to talk about how flying machines will undoubtably be adopted as weapons of war, but that they will forever remain too expensive and risky for any other venture.

The thing is, it is difficult in the extreme to make solid predictions more than a couple of decades out. In my own lifetime I have seen surprise wonders come on the scene, and expectations thwarted. Technology develops in ways that don’t always make sense, except perhaps in hindsight. 100 years ago, many people thought that commercial flight would never become a reality. 40 years ago, people thought that we’d have permanent bases on the Moon by now. You get my drift.

Everything that Charlie Stross says in his post makes sense. You can’t get to that future from here. But “here” is going to change in ways which are unpredictable, and then the future becomes more in flux than what we expect at present. For Communion of Dreams, I set forth a possible future history which leads to permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and Europa, with functional space stations at several other locations outside of Earth orbit. Will it happen? I dunno. I doubt that exactly my scenario would come about. But it is plausible.

And with experience in dealing with exploration and colonization in our neighborhood will come the necessary technologies to go further. Even without a dramatic technological leap, it would be possible to slowly expand outward through the Kuiper Belt and into the Oort Cloud, playing hopscotch from one asteroid or cometary body to the next over generations, out past the edge of our ill-defined solar system and into a neighboring one. I’ve seen calculations pertaining to Fermi’s Paradox indicating that a race with little more than our technology could basically spread across the entire galaxy this way in a matter of less than a million years. Add in that any race doing so would undoubtably maintain at least some minimal rate of technological improvement, and you’ll experience a logarithmic growth which would include some truly stunning (to us) tech.

I am surprised that a writer of Stross’ calibre isn’t able to come up with scenarios which allow for him to imagine this happening, for it to make economic, practical, pragmatic sense. Besides, there is more to human motivation than simple economics – there are plenty of instances in our own real history where people have done things for reasons which do not make sense in economic terms, and accomplished goals which would otherwise never have been attempted.

So, yeah, you can’t get there from here. At least now you can’t. But give us a few decades…

Jim Downey

Flight status.
June 15, 2007, 10:42 am
Filed under: Ad Astra, DARPA, NASA, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Space, tech, Writing stuff

Two items of note in the science news in recent days:

Ad Astra Rocket Company reports that they have successfully tested a plasma engine for a time period of over 4 hours, demonstrating that the technology is stable for sustained use.  This will likely prove to be the first major improvement over conventional chemical reaction rockets put into widespread use for spaceflight, and is a staple of Science Fiction (including being referenced in Communion as part of the ‘history’ of spaceflight in the early 21st century).

Second, a new scramjet engine has just be successfully tested at over Mach 10.  While this tech is being pushed for military applications (DARPA is behind this test engine), once it is established it will likely find applications outside just pure military missions.  I predict in Communion that it will be the basis for low-orbit shuttles, ferrying people up to transit stations.

Once again, it is exciting to see my predictions coming online in about the time-frame which I expected.

Jim Downey