Communion Of Dreams

Fear the Zombie Amoeba

You’ve probably seen it – the media is filled with reports of the brain-eating amoeba which has killed six. Here’s a sample:

PHOENIX – It sounds like science fiction but it’s true: A killer amoeba living in lakes enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until you die.

Even though encounters with the microscopic bug are extraordinarily rare, it’s killed six boys and young men this year. The spike in cases has health officials concerned, and they are predicting more cases in the future.

“This is definitely something we need to track,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better,” Beach said. “In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

Scary, eh? And tying it to climate change makes it even moreso.

But explain to me why this is more frightening than the 8 new cases of Ebola reported in Congo. The Ebola hemorrhagic fever family of viruses have no treatment, no vaccine, a mortality rate up to 90%, and are easily passed from person to person.

Or why six people dying from swimming in lakes is worse than the 65 people who have died already this year from H5N1, according to the FluWiki. This influenza virus (and related variants) is considered to be the most likely cause of the next global pandemic.

Oh, never mind. I know why – because it’s here in the US. And it eats brains. And it is an easy connection to the effects of climate change. And because it is new. Fear sells, as I discussed in comments in this post a couple of weeks back.

But really, either Ebola or H5N1 are a much greater threat, as any public health official or doctor will tell you.  They just don’t have the cool name of “Zombie Amoeba.”

Jim Downey

The Final Cut

Via BoingBoing, an extensive interview in Wired with Ridley Scott about the upcoming release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. From the prologue:

At age 69, Ridley Scott is finally satisfied with his most challenging film. He’s still turning out movies at a furious pace — American Gangster, with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, is due in November — building on an extraordinary oeuvre that includes Alien, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. But he seems ready to accept Blade Runner as his crowning achievement. In his northern English accent, he describes its genesis and lasting influence. And, inevitably, he returns to the darkness that pervades his view of the future — the shadows that shield Deckard from a reality that may be too disturbing to face.

It’s an excellent interview. But then, I’m biased – I consider Blade Runner to be one of the best movies ever made, and certainly one of top SF movies. (In this I am hardly alone, of course – even Diane Rehm of NPR considers it one of her favorite movies.) The 1992 ‘Director’s Cut’ was a huge improvement over the original release, even with the crappy quality of the DVD. I particularly enjoyed this bit from the interview itself:

Wired: Dream kitchens aside, it’s a rather bleak vision of the future.

Scott:I was always aware that this whole Earth is on overload. I’ve been that way for 30 years. People used to think I was — you know, not exactly depressive, but dark. And I’d say, “It’s not dark, mate, it’s a fact. It’s going to come and hit you on the head.”

Exactly. Yesterday I wrote about the tension between visions of the future and the reality of scientific achievement. Clearly, the world of 2019 depicted in Blade Runner is not going to be here, at least not on that schedule. But that’s OK. It is still a very valuable cautionary tale and damned fine alternative future history. And I think that is all that any author or artist or director can ever hope to accomplish.

Jim Downey

The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be.

I should pay more attention to the latest trends in SF.

Via MetaFilter, I came across something which I hadn’t heard about previously: Mundane Science Fiction. It’s a movement which can basically be summed up as “keep it real, kid.” There’s a long talk by Geoff Ryman here, which outlines his thoughts on this sub-genre and why it is superior to the more fantastic or escapist Science Fiction as seen in Star Trek, Star Wars, et cetera. It’s a thought-provoking piece, and there is a long discussion of it at the MeFi link that has a lot of interesting perspective, in and amongst the usual randomness and repetition you’ll find on any open forum.

Now, there’s a long tradition of SF writers who did more or less “hard science,” using the best scientific knowledge available and extrapolating out. Some of them were dark and moody, painting dystopian futures which nonetheless carried moral messages and interesting characters. Philip K. Dick did a lot of this, brilliantly. But even such stalwarts as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke dealt with these limitations and futures upon occasion, though they are perhaps better known for works which might well not be included in a “Mundane” canon.

Recently, there was a review of Communion of Dreams in which I was taken somewhat to task over an unrealistic time-frame for the book. My response:

…but it isn’t what I was doing with CoD. I specify early on that the novel is set in an alternate future for us, which branches off starting in 2000. And I wanted to write about what we could really accomplish if things went . . . differently. Somewhat how I see this is by looking back 50 years, to the hopes and dreams at the very start of the space age, and how things have actually turned out to be both more amazing and yet more pedestrian than the people of that time expected. We’ve got tech that those people never dreamed of . . . and yet we don’t have flying cars, or real space colonies, et cetera.

So, yeah, CoD isn’t realistic in the sense you say – but it was meant to be a glimpse into what might be possible, just maybe, if things were to be tweaked just so.

I’ve mentioned previously that I am a fan of the Paleo-Future blog, because I think that it is insightful to look at how people see the future before them. As with almost any other kind of literature or art, it reflects current expectations and values of the culture which produced it (to a greater or lesser degree – there will always be some variation due to the individual author or artist who created that piece). With Communion, I wanted to capture something of the early optimism of the 1950’s . . . balanced with something of the grim futurism I grew up with in the 70’s (think Soylent Green or Blade Runner).

I will be the first to admit that it is an odd mix. Why? Because I think that eventually, we will triumph over the adversity we face, that we will progress and evolve though that will come at a price. This isn’t just the basis for the setting of the book, it is also the narrative structure.

And to that end, I tried with Communion to keep the science solid, insofar as possible, while sticking with the SF trope of “how does a new invention change or challenge the characters in the story?” [mild spoiler alert] The operative element in Communion isn’t the alien artifact – the operative element is the new understanding of physics attributed to Stephen Hawking, which makes it *possible* for the discovery of the artifact as well as the revelations of what it means. That’s why I named the experimental ship after Hawking – it is a point back to the real prime mover of the whole plot: knowledge. It may not be obvious to the reader at first, but I think that if you consider it, you will see that the whole book revolves around this simple idea: knowledge changes our understanding of who we are.

Curiously, someone might well place Communion within the Mundane SF school, if the definitions were allowed to be a bit expansive. For me, I see it both literally and figuratively as a bridge between that school and the more ‘escapist’ or ‘outlandish’ or ‘unrealistic’ Science Fiction of Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. I start with about as grim and mundane a future as you might imagine, then open up the possibilities once again to include aliens and psychic abilities, starships and ansibles, and leaving the reader (hopefully) hopeful.

Jim Downey

A review!
September 26, 2007, 7:40 pm
Filed under: Feedback

This is quick – I have a touch of a flu bug or something, and have been out of it all day, so have stuff to catch up on this evening.

But I  wanted to pass on note of a nice review that has been posted about Communion of Dreams by Kilgore Trout over at Quintessential Rambling.  It doesn’t pull any punches about what he does and doesn’t like (which is fine) but it is a very enthusiastic and positive review over all.  I posted a comment which also touches on something I’ve been thinking about for this blog for the last few days, so you might get a preview of things to come.

Jim Downey

Oops II: The Smell Lingers
September 25, 2007, 10:39 am
Filed under: Failure, General Musings, Government, Iraq, Nuclear weapons, Predictions, Society, Violence

So, three weeks ago I wrote about the initial reports that the Air Force had managed to lose track of some of its nukes, and accidentally transported them across the country.

Well, the story just keeps getting better. From the Washington Post this past Sunday:

Three weeks after word of the incident leaked to the public, new details obtained by The Washington Post point to security failures at multiple levels in North Dakota and Louisiana, according to interviews with current and former U.S. officials briefed on the initial results of an Air Force investigation of the incident.

The warheads were attached to the plane in Minot without special guard for more than 15 hours, and they remained on the plane in Louisiana for nearly nine hours more before being discovered. In total, the warheads slipped from the Air Force’s nuclear safety net for more than a day without anyone’s knowledge.

“I have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware of any incident more disturbing,” retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, who served as U.S. Strategic Command chief from 1996 to 1998, said in an interview.

Yeah, that’s disturbing, all right. But why bring it back up? We knew already that the incident was a colossal fuck-up. What more is there to be said?

Go read the Washington Post follow-up, and you’ll get a sense of why this is a big deal. Here’s another excerpt:

Military officers, nuclear weapons analysts and lawmakers have expressed concern that it was not just a fluke, but a symptom of deeper problems in the handling of nuclear weapons now that Cold War anxieties have abated.

But could there be something else at work?

The Air Force’s inspector general in 2003 found that half of the “nuclear surety” inspections conducted that year resulted in failing grades — the worst performance since inspections of weapons-handling began. Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing was among the units that failed, and the Louisiana-based 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale garnered an unsatisfactory rating in 2005.

Both units passed subsequent nuclear inspections, and Minot was given high marks in a 2006 inspection. The 2003 report on the 5th Bomb Wing attributed its poor performance to the demands of supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wartime stresses had “resulted in a lack of time to focus and practice nuclear operations,” the report stated.

Ah, there ya go. The stresses of the ongoing debacle in Iraq is now playing havoc with the security of our nuclear forces. That’s not a terribly comforting thought, is it? I mean, letting nukes sit unsecured out on an air force base for more than 24 hours means that any number of really bad things could have happened, up to and including the possible theft of one (or more) of the weapons. Gee, now think . . . who might want to have access to such a weapon? Even if you didn’t have the capability of using it as a nuclear bomb, you could still crack open the thing and get access to the highly toxic and extremely radioactive fissionable material. That’d make a swell terror weapon if used on American soil.

And, unfortunately, I am no longer willing to dismiss entirely the possibility that our own government (or parts thereof) might be willing to see such a thing happen for their own reasons. Yeah, I know, tin-foil beanie stuff. But can you honestly say that you would put the idea 100% out of mind?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Moments of transition.
September 24, 2007, 10:26 am
Filed under: Babylon 5, Ballistics, General Musings, Guns, Science Fiction, tech, Writing stuff

“All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation.”

-G’Kar, Z’ha’dum

Yesterday a buddy of mine and I got out to do some shooting. It may seem odd to someone who isn’t into shooting sports, but this can actually be one of the most relaxing things you can do, at least for me at this time. Why? Because, when I’m shooting, I have to be completely attentive to what I am doing – I can’t be thinking about what is going on at home, whether my MIL is stirring and needs attention, et cetera. As I have mentioned previously, one of the most exhausting aspects of being a care-giver for someone with Alzheimer’s/dementia is that I always, always, have part of my attention diverted to keeping track of what is going on with my MIL. You try doing that with part of your brain while accomplishing anything else, and you’ll quickly understand the problem.

Anyway, it was a good time, doing some informal shooting out on private land. We shot some pistols, a little 9mm carbine of mine which is just a lot of fun, and then my friend got out one of his black powder rifles: a Peabody .43 Spanish made in 1863. My friend is something of an authority on 19th century guns, and has been educating me about them. We shot several rounds, the large 400 grain bullets punching paper at 40 yards, the gun giving a slow but very solid shove back into your shoulder. That’s typical with black-powder: it’s not the sharp crack you get from modern weapons, with their higher pressures from faster-burning powder. After each shot, we’d pull down the trigger guard, rolling the receiver down and ejecting the cartridge, then insert another cartridge by hand and set it before closing the rolling block to prepare the weapon to fire again.

After all the shooting was done, our equipment packed up and put away, we headed back into town and got some lunch. As we talked over lunch, I asked my friend about how long it was before the Peabody we had been shooting evolved into the later repeating rifles which proved so reliable and popular. Because, as I saw it, all the elements were there: a dependable brass cartridge, a mechanism to extract and eject the spent shell, the moving receiver. All that was needed was a way to hold more rounds and feed them.

As we finished up our meal he gave me the brief run-down of the history or the repeating rifle development (which is basically what you’ll find in this Wikipedia article, particularly the sub-headings of ‘predecessors’ and ‘development’), and the conversation moved on to a more general discussion. I started to explain that one of the things I find so interesting, one of the unifying themes in all the things I have done is an interest in . . .

“Transitions,” my friend said.

I stopped. I was going to say “innovations,” but he was right.

“It shows in your novel.” (He’d recently read Communion.)

“Actually, I was thinking more of ‘innovations’ – those instances when people bring together different and diffuse elements to achieve something new, whether it is a mechanism, or a procedure, or just a way of looking at the world.”

We paid the bill, headed out to the car.

“Yeah, but it’s like the way that the people involved in your book – the characters – are all struggling to understand this new thing, this new artifact, this unexpected visitor. And I like the way that they don’t just figure it out instantly – the way each one of them tries to fit it into their own expectations about the world, and what it means. They struggle with it, they have to keep learning and investigating and working at it, before they finally come to an understanding.” He looked at me as we got back in the car. “Transitions.”

Transitions, indeed. Moments of transition, moments of revelation. Because that is all we have, when you come right down to it.

Jim Downey

“Unwavering love.”
September 21, 2007, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Hospice, Press, Sleep, Society

The Columbia Daily Tribune did a feature piece today about Alzheimer’s, tying a presentation by a local researcher to the experience that my wife and I have had in caring for her mom. Nothing really new in it, for anyone who has read my materials here, but I thought you might find it interesting to get another perspective on the matter. I think she did a good job with the piece.

A note: while I wrote a regular column on the arts for the Trib until the first of this year, I did not know the reporter who did this piece prior to meeting her for an interview about this story last Tuesday.

Jim Downey

Quick hits.

Several quick items this morning…

First off, last stats I saw (yesterday morning), over 5,400 people have downloaded the novel.   That’s like 1,200 this month alone.  Yay!

Hits to this blog have also continued to rise – over 5,000 so far.  So have submitted spam ‘comments’, of course, now over 2,000.  Glad that the filtering software catches the vast bulk of that stuff.

A friend sent me the current issue of the American Ceramic Society Bulletin.  Unfortunately, items he wanted to share with me are not available through their site, but with about 10 seconds of searching, I was able to pull up more complete information on the two things I wanted to mention.  Sheesh – when will people figure out that hiding basic information behind a subscription firewall is not only pointless, but aggravating to the average person?  Now, rather than linking to their content (and increasing their traffic/exposure/possibility for advertising), I’ll link to the other sources.

First of these is about the latest developments in transparent transistors.  This is the thin-film tech I stipulate for the best computers in Communion of Dreams which are not based on the superconducting Tholen gel.

Second is how scientists have discovered a way to embed silicon nanowires right into living cells without causing damage to the cells.  This is the basis of the mind-machine interfaces that I use for the computer and communications tech in Communion, though I don’t go into the details of it in the book.

In both cases the tech is further along than I had expected when I first wrote the novel, but it is good to see that my predictions about how things would likely develop were on track.

Lastly, there will be a newspaper feature about my wife and I caring for my MIL in the local paper this evening.  I’ll post about it with a link probably tomorrow.

Jim Downey

Fearing to sleep.
September 20, 2007, 9:57 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Hospice, Sleep

The last couple of days with my MIL have been relatively calm. Given her behaviour on Monday, my wife and I have settled on a TIA as being the likely culprit, though of course that’s a non-medical opinion.

One odd thing we’ve noticed, though, is that particularly in the mornings after breakfast, while my MIL displays a marked tiredness, she’s been reluctant to take a nap. This is new – for the last couple of months a nap in the morning has been fairly routine for her. When we ask her after getting her dressed whether she would like to have a nap, it’s almost like she is fearful of the notion. She says that she’s worried about when she’ll get up, and how to call for help, et cetera. But there seems to be more to it than that.

In talking about it this morning following another such episode (my MIL did finally opt to have a nap), my wife suggested that perhaps she (my MIL) is actually concerned that she’ll go to sleep and not wake up, but that the idea of that hasn’t been formulated solidly in her mind. I have to wonder whether this is an unconscious awareness of her approaching death.

And here we run into one of the biggest problems in helping someone with dementia at the end of life – the difficulty in helping them understand what is happening, of allaying her fears. With someone still in full possession of their mental faculties, you can discuss what is happening either directly or indirectly, suss out their concerns, help them come to terms with it. My MIL doesn’t have the ability to process such things any longer, and to try and penetrate her mental fog with a clear message of an impending death would just be cruel; it would pointlessly and needlessly frighten her, without giving any sort of comfort or peace of understanding. All we can do is provide her such love, safety, and reassurance as we can, as we all stumble along this unknown and unknowable path.

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.)