Communion Of Dreams

Man Conquers Space.

It is said that it was a single photograph taken by one of Columbia’s crew during Christmas 1961 that changed the course of history. Showing the Earth from the perspective of the Moon changed the mind of the commander of Eagle One from claiming the Moon in the name of the United States (as required by his military commanders) to claiming the Moon for all mankind. After Eagle One’s touchdown in July 1963, followed closely by Eagles Two and Three, the Moon becomes a new and vigorous outpost of humanity. Successive missions range far and wide over Earth’s satellite, discovering sites that in the decades to come would become bases, sources for mining resources, and even a large colony.

Celebrating the early history of space exploration and eventual exploitation, leading up to the recent landings of three manned missions on Mars is a fantastic new documentary: Man Conquers Space.

Wait a second . . . say what?

Via Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy comes news of the Paleo-Future project, an excellent alternative-history of the middle and end of the 20th century. From the website for the project:

This film is based on an alternative timeline to the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo era of reality – it is based on the premise that all that had been proposed in the early 1950’s in Collier’s actually came to pass – and sooner than they expected.

Through the expert use of special visual effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI), the world of wonder and imagination expressed though Collier’s has become real. The film Man Conquers Space looks like a documentary made today, and is peppered with archival footage from the dawn of the space age during WWII, through to today, narrated by the people who were there – the engineers, the astronauts, the scientists, the visionaries, the politicians.

Wow. This sort of alternative history is what I have done as the background for Communion of Dreams, leading to a more robust space-faring tech by our own time, and setting the stage for the colonization of other planets in our system by the time of the novel 50 years hence. Fascinating.

I’m very much looking forward to the release of this movie. But in the meantime, poke around their site and check out some of the clips they have posted online.

Jim Downey

“My name is Lisa.”
December 18, 2007, 7:46 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Hospice, movies, Society, YouTube

Yesterday was dreadful.

I don’t know what happened to trigger it, but it was one of the worst days that my MIL has had in a while. At least since this day. And this time it manifested itself as a constant need for reassurance. As I told a friend in an email:

Ugh. Not with the ongoing problems with MMIL. It can take me 20 minutes to get her to settle down, only to have her get wound back up about something ten minutes later. Needless to say, I’ve accomplished almost nothing today.

I literally spent at least half the day just sitting and talking with her, doing my best to help her remain calm and not obsess over contacting her parents or going “back to school”. Even with all my experience and what I’ve learned about distracting her and redirecting her attention, it was an almost constant battle.

And in the middle of it, I got an email from another friend with a link to this video:

That’s basically the last six years of my life compressed into six minutes. You want to have some idea what it is like to be a care-provider for someone with Alzheimer’s or other age-related dementia? Watch it.

Jim Downey

Flu? What flu?

It’s been a little while since I’ve written about our old friend H5N1 – the “Avian Flu” virus. Partly this is because I like to keep my posts varied according to topic (which is a nice way of saying my attention wanders a lot these days). Partly, though, is because the mainstream media pays little attention to the threat of this flu virus as a general rule. Which is curious, given the potential threat it presents and the amount of governmental effort going into tracking and preparation for a possible epidemic/pandemic. Even if you take the cynical view that our news is event/entertainment-driven, you’d think with the release of I am Legend, the latest adaptation of Richard Matheson‘s SF novel of the same name, would be a natural tie-in to news about the flu.

Because yes, there is indeed news about the flu:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – International health experts have been dispatched to Pakistan to help investigate the cause of South Asia’s first outbreak of bird flu in people and determine if the virus could have been transmitted through human contact, officials said Sunday.

Four brothers — two of whom died — and two cousins from Abbotabad, a small city about 30 miles north of Islamabad, were suspected of being infected by the H5N1 virus, said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl in Geneva. A man and his niece from the same area who had slaughtered chickens were also suspected of having the virus.

Another person in a separate case who slaughtered poultry in nearby Mansehra, 15 miles away, also tested positive for the disease, he said.

And if you saw either this diary on the front page of Daily Kos yesterday or check out the Flu Wiki, then you’d know that the situation is even potentially more troubling. From the Daily Kos diary:

See Flu Wiki’s Sunday wrap-up for the week’s documented human and bird cases, courtesy of the wiki volunteers who track cases around the world – helpful to CDC and WHO and other public health officials as they do their work (more than a few have written me that they stop there to get the morning news – this is netroots activism applied to public health!). Not only are there new human cases scattered throughout Asia (including Pakistan, Burma, China and Indonesia, all of whom are less than than transparent about internal news), there are also new bird cases of H5N1 in Germany, Poland, Russia, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia (and the hadj is soon, 1.5 million pilgrims expected).

Now, I’m not claiming that it’s the end of the world. Or even the end of what passes for civilization. But I do find it somewhat curious that this reality gets so little press attention, even when there is an obvious entertainment tie-in that can be made to the latest big-budget post-apocalyptic movie. Odd.

Well, when I do get back around to trying to find an agent or publisher for Communion of Dreams, at least I’ll be able to point to the ongoing threat of a pandemic flu that exists. Provided, of course, that the pandemic isn’t already underway.

Jim Downey

December 16, 2007, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Hospice, NPR, Sleep, Violence

“Well, I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I really should go.”

I sat on the couch next to her chair. The slight hiss of the oxygen cannula under her nose could still be heard over the sound of the concentrator in the other room. Her hands picked absently at the shawl we had over her lap and legs. “Well, we’ll be having supper in about an hour.”

“We will?”

My wife entered the room, sat on the floor by her mother’s feet. “What’s up, Mom?”

“Well, I was just saying that I thought I should be getting home, but he tells me that we’re going to have dinner soon. I don’t have any money for dinner.”

“It’s OK, you don’t need any money,” said my wife.

“Oh.” Pause. Look at me. “But I should still tell my mother. She’s been on a long journey, and just got back. She’ll want to know where I am.”

This has become routine. I answer, “She knows. Everyone in the family knows where you are. They know that you live here and we take care of you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, here,” my wife grabs a nearby phone book, turns to the page we’ve marked during this exact same conversation previously. “See, right here is your name, and the address, and the phone number. Anyone who wants to find you can, right here in the phone book.”

“Oh.” Still dubious. “But does my mother know?”

“MIL,” I say, “she asked us to look after you, until she comes for you.”


“Yup. And you can stay for as long as you want, until she comes. And then you can go with her.” I’m impressed by the certainty and reassurance in my wife’s voice.

“Oh, thank you dear, that would be lovely. This is a very nice place you have.”

Indeed it is. It’s been her home for 53 years, and is just the way she wanted it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

She seems to be stable again. Following the events mentioned in this post, we weren’t sure which way things were going to go. But after talking with the hospice people, tweaking her meds some, a few days of increased sleep, and with long talks with her to help settle things when she got anxious, she settled back more-or-less into the most recent patterns we’ve seen. There’s little doubt that she suffered one or more TIAs, or a small scale hemorrhagic stroke.

But she has once again proven to be surprisingly resilient. I’m fairly confident that she’ll make it at least to Christmas, probably to the new year. But as in all things, nothing is certain.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I wrote this a couple of years ago, as a submission to NPR’s This, I Believe series.

The Power to Forget

I believe in the power to forget. On December twelfth, 1969, my world changed forever. My father was murdered. I was eleven years old.

In the middle of the night I woke to flashing lights from a police car. A knock at the door, and I heard my mom answer it. Then I heard a man say: “Marlene, Wil’s been shot.”

See, my dad was a cop. And as happens all too often, he was killed during a routine procedure, in this case a burglary investigation. They caught the man who killed my father that same night. He was tried and convicted, sentenced to die. That sentence was commuted in 1973 by the Supreme Court, and to this day he is in prison.

I think he is, anyway. I don’t know for sure, because I have tried my very best to forget him. It was that, or succumb to the hatred that threatened to define my life.

For a while I tried forgiveness, since that is supposed to be liberating. When I say for a while, I mean for years. But I failed. There are some things that cannot be forgiven, at least for me.

Instead, I have slowly, and carefully, excised his name from my memory. Now and then something will happen; I’ll come across a story in the paper about him being up for parole, or a family friend will ask “whatever happened to so-and-so,” and I’ll have to start again to forget.

It’s not easy. Much of our culture, much of our popular literature, is based around the theme of a son avenging the death of his father. The whole “find the bastard who shot my pa…” thing. You may not notice it, but I do. And every time I hear about another officer down, every time Father’s Day rolls around on the calendar, I think about my dad. And I think about his death. And I deny the existence of the man who killed him.

Even now, as I write this, his name tries to emerge, tries to struggle free from where I have buried it. But forgetting means that I don’t have live with a constant, aching anger. It means that I don’t have to be trapped in that moment of history. It means that I can continue with my life, never forgetting the love I have for my father, or what it meant for him to die, but not being possessed by a need for vengeance.

I believe in the power to forget. How many old grudges still fuel the fires of revenge in this world? How often have more people had to die because of a fixation on a memory? How much better would things be if we could just clean the slate, forget the offenses we’ve suffered and the ones we’ve inflicted, and move on?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now I am not so sure. Watching my MIL, caring for her as she slowly forgets even the names of her children, that she was ever married, I wonder whether the burden of forgetting is worth the peace. Certainly, she is at peace (most of the time), so long as we do not disrupt the carefully constructed cocoon around her.

I would not want that fate, even if I would be mercifully unaware of it, as she is.

Perhaps, as in most things, it is the matter of intent that makes the difference.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to dKos.)

Binding “Beedle”
December 14, 2007, 11:33 am
Filed under: Amazon, Art, Book Conservation, Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, Jeff Bezos, Promotion, Publishing, Society

Multiple friends sent me notes about the auction of J.K. Rowling‘s Tales of Beedle the Bard, which sold at auction yesterday for almost $4 million, proceeds of which are going to charity. This was undoubtedly because the book touches on a number of my interests and profession – if you haven’t seen the thing yet, it is worth looking at. Rowling created seven copies of the book, writing and illustrating the text herself.

Unfortunately, but not terribly surprisingly, I have yet to find any mention of who did the binding work, or created the silver bosses and clasp used. The artisans who executed this work did a fine job, based on what I’ve been able to tell from the images available, and it would be nice to see at least some acknowledgment of them.

There is already some discussion of the “value” of the book, as an artifact, due to the price it sold for. And that is understandable, since $4 million is a chunk of change, and most authors, artists and artisans will never see their work command such a price. I have been involved in many projects of this nature, creating custom bindings of personal texts, or very limited editions, or a commemorative binding. And never has my work commanded more than a few hundred dollars. I’d be willing to bet the same was the case with the remuneration paid to the artisans who did the binding for these seven copies of Beedle. And certainly J.K. Rowling doesn’t command millions for her calligraphy or illustration work, as nice as it is.

So, why the price? Reports indicate that it was expected that the book would auction for something on the order of $100,000. What caused the book to sell for 40 times that amount?

Well, it is likely that it was a unique combination of events. Most of all, J.K. Rowling’s reputation meant that the sale would attract attention. No doubt (and Jeff Bezos) felt that the purchase would be well worth it, just in terms of the free publicity and good will that it would generate for the company. And the money was going to charity, so that doesn’t hurt. Chances are, if someone who owns one of the other six copies of this book were to put it up for sale privately, it would not attract that kind of money – not at this time, anyway. In another generation or two, it is likely that whenever one of these books is sold it’ll fetch quite a high price.

Because that is how these things work. Initially, there is surprise – but over the long term the thing which will be remembered is that the first book sold for millions. With only seven original copies, each one will be seen as precious – purely because one already sold at auction for millions. Whether she meant to do so or not, J. K. Rowling has just made the other owners of these books (or at least their heirs) wealthy. I hope they each get a decent insurance policy and a fireproof safe.

Jim Downey

The “Page 69” test.
December 13, 2007, 2:27 pm
Filed under: John Scalzi, MetaFilter, Science Fiction, Titan, Writing stuff

An interesting idea, via MeFi:

The Page 69 Test –inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s suggestion to readers for choosing a novel, a new blog, inviting authors to describe what’s on page 69. One says: Not the best, but not the worst. If my pages were presidents, I’d put page 69 somewhere in the James K. Polk range.

Most people tend to agree. Some others disagree, such as John Scalzi, who said:

I’m not a big fan of the page 69 test. My page 69s are perfectly good, so I’m not worried about someone opening randomly to those pages, but I think it’s a far better thing to read how the author treats you on page one. How the author draws you into the story (or doesn’t) gives you some idea of how she’s planning to treat you the rest of the way through the book.

Page 69s are random; page ones are intentional. Page 69 could be about anything, and may or may not be essential to plot, or character or even understanding what’s going on. Page one is the about the reader, and the story, and the author putting the two together.

If an author has a not great page 69 (or page 48, or page 207) it doesn’t mean much to me because I know as an author that sometimes you have a page where you’re just pushing through to something else. If an author has a bad page one, I don’t buy the book.

Good point, but I think that there is still something to be gained by glancing randomly into a book and seeing how it reads. I’ve always done this, when I was just browsing (whether in a bookstore, at a library, or through a friend’s bookshelves). Just for giggles I decided to pull up page 69 of Communion of Dreams and see how it read. Here it is (spoilers and all):

“Which implies intelligence, curiosity, and the ability to manipulate matter,” said Bailey.

“But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves again. Start with the simple, move to the complex.” Jon smiled. “Right. So, what else does this message tell us?”

“Something about size? The artifact is about a meter tall, does that give us some idea of relative size?” Klee looked around. “I mean, it’s not microscopic, and it’s not the size of Titan Prime. Doesn’t that tell us something?”

Bailey bit his lip. “Maybe. Maybe not. I think that it would be hard to draw any conclusions just based on size. I wish we had a better image of it to work from.”

For the first time Ng spoke. “I can help with that.”

“How?” asked Jon. “The reports indicate that they couldn’t get an image of the artifact, either photographic or holographic.”

Ng gave a slight smile. “We have the first mock-up to start with. And there are the initial reports, with their descriptions and what measurements they contain. I’ll talk to the people who did the original holo sketch, get impressions from some of the others who have seen the artifact. Give me a day.”

Bailey nodded. “Could be helpful.”

“I concur,” said Jon. “So, we’ll pick this up tomorrow. I’ll talk with the captain about reserving the recreation room for a couple of hours. There’s a fair-sized holo projector in there.”

“I’ve checked it out. It’s not great, but it’ll do,” said Ng.

“Sounds good,” said Jon. “So, before we break for the day, I want to remind you that tonight is the roll-over for deceleration. You might want to stow away loose items.”

* * *

He was standing at the top of a stone staircase, outdoors. Though the sun was bright, it had none of the harshness from Judith’s description of the desert scene. The stairs led down to a quiet riverside glen, filled with fruit trees in the solid green of June. A path led from the foot of the stairs to a nearby structure. It was the church from one of his other dreams, stonework with high glass windows all along the side, the blue rose in the window at the end. The church gleamed in the sun, beckoning. But he knew that he wasn’t to go to the church. Turning to see what was behind him, he saw that he stood at the start of a pedestrian bridge over a small river that was running quietly beneath him. There were no other people in sight, though some ducks swam lazily in the river along the near shore. The far shore was shrouded in a low-lying fog that seemed to hang close to the other side.

The bridge was perhaps three meters wide, and arched slowly up in front of him, so that he couldn’t see the other end. It had walls of stone about a meter high, and periodically along those walls he could see small sculpted stone vases in which grew roses. Blue roses. He went over and peered into one of the buds, could see it slowly opening, a clean blue light almost like a gas flame being revealed as the petals spread, until the flower was completely open, the heart of it glinting like blue diamond in the sun.


Not bad. That’s almost to the end of chapter five, by the way, while the research team is en route to Titan and trying to come to grips with what little they know about the alien artifact which has been found there. The section after * * * is part of a dream sequence which the main character has fallen into – these interludes occur at various junctures in the book.


Jim Downey

Wish him a happy 90th!
December 11, 2007, 11:06 am
Filed under: Arthur C. Clarke

Something cool: Thilina Heenatigala of the Sri Lanka Astronomical Association has set up a blog to wish Arthur C. Clarke a happy 90th birthday.  Be sure to leave your comment!

Jim Downey

(Perhaps more later.)

“Why don’t we love science fiction?”

A good friend sent me a link to a Sunday Times commentary by Bryan Appleyard titled “Why don’t we love science fiction?”. Here’s the opening paragraph:

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Painfully true. Of course, had this happened, Rushdie may have been able to avoid that whole fatwa business which had him in hiding for a while. Sadly, SF writers aren’t taken seriously enough to even warrant killing for their sacrilege.

Then why read science fiction, let alone write the stuff? Appleyard has a good handle on this:

“The truth is,” Aldiss has written, “that we are at last living in an SF scenario.” A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers – it’s all coming true at last. Aldiss thinks this makes SF redundant. I disagree. In such a climate, it is the conventionally literary that is threatened, and SF comes into its own as the most hardcore realism.

He explores more of this in his column, which I heartily recommend reading. Not that this will change things for most people, of course – there is a deep-seated prejudice against SF, even within significant portions of the SF community. Why? Well, as Appleyard says, good SF – the stuff that lasts and has an impact – is about examining our own dark nature and fears about where our science will lead us. And that is just a little too stark for many people, who want escapism more than they want to confront the prospect of what we are doing to ourselves and our environment. I think that this is why such fantastic yet formulaic SF as Star Wars or even Star Trek tends to be much more popular than the more nitty-gritty stuff.

Now, I enjoy a good, upbeat ending as much as the next person. Communion of Dreams has such an ending, though there is pain and loss. But look at where Communion starts – in a world made worse by our foolish actions and fears, a grim view of both our future and ourselves. Getting past that is difficult for many people.

Well, I do love science fiction – for all the reasons Appleyard has cited, and all that I have written about on this blog. I guess for me it comes down to being willing to take a long, cold look at reality – because only when you really understand exactly what problems you have can you make an effective change. SF allows us to do that, if it is well written and honest. But I long ago learned that most people prefer a pretty lie to honest truth.

Jim Downey

December 9, 2007, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Science, Sleep, Weather

We’re currently under an Ice Storm Warning through noon tomorrow – the weather is bad enough that it’s even made the national news, and our Governor has declared a state of emergency. The last local report I saw indicated that we’d received over two inches of sleet and freezing rain. But by luck, there’s not a lot of accumulation on tree limbs and whatnot, so we’ve escaped the power outages which usually go with a big ice storm – so far. With more forecast through Wednesday morning, who knows what will happen.

Not that I’m terribly concerned for the short term – we’re set up to ride out these kinds of storms with minimal worries, thanks to a little advance planning and a working fireplace. Only if we had some kind of medical emergency would it be necessary to leave.

But I wanted to share something which happened overnight, while I was on-call: thundersleet. Not the fairly rare thundersnow – which I have experienced before. No, this was more like a regular thunderstorm – the sound of the thunder wasn’t suppressed the way that snow will do, and in fact I wonder whether it was augmented by the hard surface of the sleet on the ground, reflecting back more of the sound energy. And it was brighter than a usual thunderstorm, thanks to the white blanket of sleet on the ground. And it wasn’t just a few boomers – this went on for several hours (and meant I got even less sleep than I would have, being on call). Impressive!

Jim Downey

December 8, 2007, 10:21 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Hospice, Predictions, Sleep

I wanted to follow-up to this post of yesterday, for anyone interested.

It seems likely that my MIL has had one or more T.I.A.s or possibly even a small full-blown stroke. This would explain her marked shift in sleep habits, increased confusion and much greater aphasia – and is really about the best explanation we can come up with, since there haven’t been any other changes in her diet or condition which would account for the rapid deterioration.

It is frightening, for both us and her. Clearly, she is confused and unable to explain herself and her worries to us, and frustrated by trying. She is completely lost in time and location, not aware of being at home, constantly fixated on “going home” and seeing her parents. But we know she still loves – every chance she gets when my wife is close to her, helping her stand or dress, she will kiss her, holding on tightly for a moment, letting that touch express her feelings.

I never did hear back from our hospice nurse, which is both disconcerting and disappointing, but since there didn’t seem to be a medical emergency to deal with, I didn’t want to keep calling her. This morning we will contact the hospice agency and see if they can help us out with some additional anti-anxiety meds for my MIL, since that seems to be the best thing for her at this time. Otherwise, we will do what we can to continue to make sure she feels comfortable, and safe.

Jim Downey