Communion Of Dreams

Seeing is believing.
May 31, 2012, 12:24 pm
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OK, this is just plain cool:

Had to share.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

“Welcome to Life.”

Communion of Dreams is set in 2052, and I have a pretty specific vision of what the world will be like as a premise for the book.

For an alternative, hilarious and horrifying look at what is waiting for us in 2052, I direct you to Tom Scott:

A science fiction story about what you see when you die. Or: the Singularity, ruined by lawyers.


Jim Downey

538 and counting.

No, not that 538. Though this does have to do with statistics of a sort: that’s the number of total sales & loans of Communion of Dreams so far this month. (Loans are included, since under the Amazon Prime system I get paid almost as much royalty for a loan as I do for an outright sale of the book).

Everything was plugging along just grand until the end of last week, when sales decided to slow down considerably. Went from about 25 a day to under 10, and the ranking slipped from about 2,000 overall to the current 12,427.

These kinds of fluctuations happen, and I’m not worried about the overall trend — but it would still be nice if we could break 600 total sales for the entire month. So I’m asking for a little help: if you know someone who might enjoy Communion of Dreams, but isn’t usually a science-fiction reader, give the book a plug. Reviews have consistently shown that it has appeal beyond just the genre, and in fact the formal review I linked to earlier this month summed up his recommendation this way: “A solid read that may have greater appeal to individuals who are not fans of the genre than by aficionados.”

Now, if someone’s in a bit of a cash bind, don’t bug them about buying the book. I’ll be running another “free promotion day” for the Kindle edition here in June, and they can get it then. But otherwise, please help spread the word.


Jim Downey


A small confession: I’ve never been ‘into’ Zombies. Not with the first wave of movies back when I was a kid. Not with the small revival when I was in college and then grad school. And certainly not with the whole Zombie craze of the last few years. Yes, I understand what it is all about, and the important things it says about our society, the human condition, and the stories it can tell. But it’s just not my cuppa.

This, however, is brilliant and very effectively done:

{applause} Now, *that’s* how to have a whole new twist on the genre. {/applause}

Jim Downey

Wrapping up.

This is the third and final part of a series. The first installment can be found here, the second here.


Last Sunday, I used a quote from Kay:

“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

I did so to make a point. But it was a little unfair of me to do so, because I cut out the first part of his whole statement:

Catch that? Here’s the first part of his reply: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

I laughed heartily when I first heard that. I still get a good chuckle when I re-watch it. It’s a good bit of writing, delivered perfectly by Tommy Lee Jones.

But I no longer think that it’s right.

No, I’m not talking about “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Not exactly, anyway. Surowiecki makes a good case for his notion that truth (or more accurately, optimization) can be an emergent quality of a large enough group of people. After all, this is the basis for democracy. But this can still lead to gross errors of judgment, in particular mass hysteria of one form or another.

Rather, what I’m talking about is that a *system* of knowledge is critical to avoiding the trap of thinking that you know more than you actually do. This can mean using the ‘wisdom of crowds’ intelligently, ranging from just making sure that you have a large enough group, which has good information on the topic, and that the wisdom is presented in a useable way — think modern polling, with good statistical models and rigorous attention to the elimination of bias.

Another application is brilliantly set forth in the Constitution of the United States, where the competing checks & balances between interest groups and governmental entities helps mitigate the worst aspects of human nature.

And more generally, the development of the scientific method as a tool to understand knowledge – as well as ignorance – has been a great boon for us. Through it we have been able to accomplish much, and to begin to avoid the dangers inherent in thinking that we know more than we actually do.

The elimination of bias, the development of the scientific method, the application of something like logic to philosophy — these are all very characteristic of the Enlightenment, and in as far as we deviate from these things, we slip back into the darkness a little.

Perhaps this will ring a bell:

“That which emerges from darkness gives definition to the light.”

* * * * * * *

I’ve said many times that Communion of Dreams was intended to ‘work’ on multiple levels. At the risk of sounding too much like a graduate writing instructor, or perhaps simply coming across that I think I’m smart, this is one good example of that: the whole book can be understood as an extended metaphor on the subject of a system of knowledge, of progress.

Human knowledge, that is.

[Mild spoiler alert.]

From the very end of Communion of Dreams, this exchange between the main protagonist and his daughter sums it up:

“What did you learn from seeing it?”

Her brow furrowed a moment. “You mean from just looking at the [Rosetta] stone? Nothing.”

“Then why is it important?”

“Because it gave us a clue to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.”

“Right. But that clue was only worthwhile to people who knew what the other languages said, right?”

She gave him a bit of a dirty look. “You didn’t know anything about the artifact, or healing, or any of those things before you touched it.”

“True,” he agreed. “But think how much more people will be able to understand, be able to do, when they have learned those things.”


Jim Downey

More words.

Following up from Sunday

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

* * * * * * *

There was a very interesting discussion on the Diane Rehm show the other day with Stuart Firestein, who is the chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University as well as a professor of neuroscience. The whole thing is worth a listen, but in particular there were a couple of particular bits I wanted to share. Here’s the first:

So in your brain cells, one of the ways your brain cells communicate with each other is using a kind of electricity, bioelectricity or voltages. And we’re very good at recording electrical signals. I mean, your brain is also a chemical. Like the rest of your body it’s a kind of chemical plant. But part of the chemistry produces electrical responses.

And because our technology is very good at recording electrical responses we’ve spent the last 70 or 80 years looking at the electrical side of the brain and we’ve learned a lot but it steered us in very distinct directions, much — and we wound up ignoring much of the biochemical side of the brain as a result of it. And as it now turns out, seems to be a huge mistake in some of our ideas about learning and memory and how it works.

* * * * * * *

I stared at the body, blinking in disbelief. We were in the shadow of the First Step, so the light was dull. The body lay about 10 metres from where I stood and was angled away from me. It jerked – a horrible movement, like a puppet being pulled savagely by its strings.

We had been on a well-organised and, so far, successful trail towards the summit of Everest, worrying only about ourselves. Now a stranger lay across our path, moaning. Lhakpa shouted down at me and waved me to move on, to follow him up onto the Step. I looked back at the raggedly jerking figure.

From here.

* * * * * * *

From about halfway through Chapter 6 in Communion of Dreams:

“But smart how?”

Jon looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and I’m not just talking about the reasoning/emotional/spatial/mechanical sorts of distinctions that we sometimes make. More fundamentally, how are they smart? Are they super-geniuses, able to easily figure out problems that stump us? Or maybe they’re very slow, but have been at this a very long time. Perhaps some sort of collective or racial intelligence, while each individual member of their species can barely put two and two together. There are a lot of different ways they can be intelligent.”

* * * * * * *

(Warning – the page from which the following comes contains gruesome images and text.)

Above a certain altitude, no human can ever acclimatize. Known as the Death Zone, only on 14 mountains worldwide can one step beyond the 8000 meter mark and know that no amount of training or conditioning will ever allow you to spend more than 48 hours there. The oxygen level in the Death Zone is only one third of the sea level value, which in simple terms means the body will use up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it.

In such conditions, odd things happen to human physical and mental states. A National Geographic climber originally on Everest to document Brian Blessed’s (ultimately botched) attempt at summiting, described the unsettling hallucinogenic effects of running out of oxygen in the Death Zone. The insides of his tent seemed to rise above him, taking on cathedral-like dimensions, robbing him of all strength, clouding his judgement. Any stay in the Death Zone without supplementary oxygen is like being slowly choked, all the while having to perform one of the hardest physical feats imaginable.

It makes you stupid.

* * * * * * *

Again, Stuart Firestein:

And in neuroscience, I can give you an example in the mid-1800s, phrenology. This idea that the bumps on your head, everybody has slightly different bumps on their head due to the shape of their skull. And you could tell something about a person’s personality by the bumps on their head. Now, we joke about it now. You can buy these phrenology busts in stores that show you where love is and where compassion is and where violence is and all that. It’s absolutely silly, but for 50 years it existed as a real science. And there are papers from learned scientists on it in the literature.

* * * * * * *

Update at 12:10 p.m. ET. Dragon Has Docked:

Dragon has finished docking with the International Space Station. That makes SpaceX the first private company to dock a cargo spacecraft to the space station.

That happened at exactly 12:02 p.m. ET, according to NASA.

* * * * * * *

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Last weekend four more people died attempting to summit Everest. Partly, this seems to have been due to the traffic on the mountain. Yeah, so many people are now attempting to climb the mountain that there are bottlenecks which occur, which can throw off calculations about how long a climb will take, how much supplemental oxygen is necessary, and whether weather will move in before climbers can reach safety.

In theory, everyone who attempts such a climb should know the odds. One in ten people who attempted the summit have died.

But we live in an age of accepted wonders. We think we’re smart enough to beat the odds.

Jim Downey

(PS: I hope to wrap up the third & final part of this set, get it posted this weekend.)

Only nine left.

As something of a follow-up to yesterday’s post, first a quote:

The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space — each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.

That’s the “roll over” text of this xkcd cartoon:

Can you name the nine who are left?*

And related to that, here is an excellent hour-long item you really should check out when you get a chance:

An Audience with Neil Armstrong

It’s in four parts, so you can watch them in chunks. And it really is very good. Armstrong has given very few interviews over the years, and has always been remarkably self-effacing. This is an informal discussion with the man, and it provides some wonderful insight into the whole NASA program in addition to the mindset which led to the Apollo 11 mission.

Jim Downey

Whither SF?

I’ve mentioned Charlie Stross several times here. As I’ve said previously: smart guy, good writer. I disagree with his belief in mundane science fiction, because I think that it is too limited in imagination. Which leads almost inevitably to this formulation on his blog today (and yes, you should go read the whole thing):

We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins (hey, weren’t airships big in the 1910s-1930s? Why, then, are they such a powerful signifier for Victorian-era alternate fictions?), of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant. Opening the pages of a modern near-future SF novel now invites a neck-chillingly cold draft of wind from the world we’re trying to escape, rather than a warm narcotic vision of a better place and time.

And so I conclude: we will not inspire anyone with grand visions of a viable future through the medium of escapism. If we want to write inspirational literature with grand visions we need to dive into to the literary mainstream (which is finally rediscovering fabulism) and, adding a light admixture of Enlightenment ideology along the way, start writing the equivalent of those earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress through cotton-planting on the shores of the Aral sea.

But do you really want us to do that? I don’t think so. In fact, the traditional response of traditional-minded SF readers to the rigorous exercise of extrapolative vision tends to be denial, disorientation, and distaste. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

Well, I dunno about Charlie, but I plan on writing a couple of prequels to Communion of Dreams, which I understand have touched something of a nerve in people precisely *because* it is hopeful in the face of a harsh reality.

Jim Downey

(PS: sometime today we should break through the level of 500 total sales/loans of CoD so far this month. Which is almost twice the previous month’s tally. Thanks for affirming my vision, folks!)

Voila! The ZF-1.

Some of my readers here may not know it, but there’s another aspect of my writing life: I’m a regular contributor to And because of that I tend to keep an eye on what pops up on the site.

That scrutiny paid off with this delightful little item:

The Adam Savage Amazing ZF-1 Replica from “The Fifth Element” (VIDEO)

Adam Savage of Mythbusters is working on a perfect replica of the gun from the science fiction movie “The Fifth Element,” which stars Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman and little known actor by the name of Luke Perry.

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, the Zorg ZF-1 is the end-all, beat-all king of weapons. It’s an assault rifle complete with homing bullets, a rocket launcher, arrow shooters (with explosive and poisonous tips), a net launcher, a flame thrower and the “ice cube system” (freeze gas). To top it all off, it’s ambidextrous. Who wouldn’t want a toy like that?

There’s more, but the real treat is this video:

Have I mentioned recently that I love The Fifth Element? Serious geekin’ here.

Working on a second part to Sunday’s post. Probably have that tomorrow.

Jim Downey

Nine words.

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

* * * * * * *

I have a secret I’d like to share. It’s something that almost everyone thinks they know. But it is something which we all think doesn’t apply to us.

The secret? Just nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

* * * * * * *

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you think you know that ain’t so.” -Will Rogers

* * * * * * *

I don’t care who you are. We’re all prone to making this mistake. To ignoring this thing we know – which has been common wisdom for millenia, and across almost all human cultures as far as I can tell.

Why do we do this?

* * * * * * *

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” *

* * * * * * *

I think that we do it because we have to. Trusting our knowledge, our experience, is the only thing that allows us to make sense of the world.

It starts with the most basic things. Breath. Life. Light.

Then it grows upon those, builds with knowledge accumulated and shared.

* * * * * * *

“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” Kay

* * * * * * *

“That which emerges from darkness gives definition to the light.”

It’s the central mystery at the heart of Communion of Dreams.

What does it mean?

* * * * * * *

From Communion of Dreams, Chapter 16:

Jon shook his head. “I still don’t see where it really makes that much difference to us.”

“Perhaps not to us. We’re inside the bubble. But to the crew of the Hawking, it made a very big difference. They got on the other side of the bubble.”

There was a moment, a heartbeat, as the implications of this sank in. And then the universe changed. “Sweet Jesus . . . ”

* * * * * * *

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

Actually, it’s just attributed to Twain, thanks to a Reader’s Digest entry from 1939. It sounds like the sort of thing he would have said, but Twain scholars haven’t been able to document it as actually having been his.

Nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

Neither am I. None of us are.

More later.

Jim Downey