Communion Of Dreams

The Storytellers.

You should read this: Born to Be Conned. Seriously, it’s a very good examination of the human tendency to construct narratives to explain the world around us, and how that trait can easily be manipulated and used against us. Here’s a good passage, explaining why we’re susceptible to grifters of every sort:

Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.

And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.

The piece also reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, because of this insight:

Before humans learned how to make tools, how to farm or how to write, they were telling stories with a deeper purpose. The man who caught the beast wasn’t just strong. The spirit of the hunt was smiling. The rivers were plentiful because the river king was benevolent. In society after society, religious belief, in one form or another, has arisen spontaneously. Anything that cannot immediately be explained must be explained all the same, and the explanation often lies in something bigger than oneself.

I don’t mean to pick on religion here, just to point out that this is a very human trait. In fact, I have often wondered whether it is a defining human characteristic, something which could easily set us apart from other intelligent species. It’s fairly easy to imagine how intelligent, sophisticated, technologically-advanced civilizations could be constructed by species which don’t have this human gift for storytelling. You can, after all, have curiosity and scientific inquiry, art and poetry, even narrative and historiography, without having something like literary fiction.* I think that it might be interesting to write a science fiction story/series based on the premise that humans become the storytellers of the galaxy, because of our unique ability to create explanation narratives unrelated to reality.

How very meta.


Jim Downey
*Of course.

“We are on a marble, floating in the middle of … nothing.”

Via BoingBoing, this completely delightful short video about the scale of our solar system:

That does a better job of getting the real sense of scale than just about anything else I’ve seen. Wonderful.


Jim Downey


Two visions.

This wonderful vision of the human future has been making the rounds recently, and I had to share it:

Wanderers is a vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.

A somewhat more … cautionary … vision of what the future could hold can be found in this:

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant melted down in 1986, creating a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone that has been almost completely devoid of human interference for decades. Now you can take a tour, courtesy of a camera-carrying drone.


Mutually exclusive? Apocalypse versus brave new worlds?

I think not. In fact, the Communion of Dreams/St Cybi’s Well ‘universe’ contains both. If I ever decide to write them, I have books set in the 2020s, about 15 years following the fire-flu pandemic, and in the 2030s in the Israeli colonies on the Moon. In the first the world will feel much like what’s seen in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And in the second I’ve envisioned how the 1/6th Earth-normal gravity would allow for playing something very much like Quiddich on small personal flyers in large domed stadiums.

It’s important to remember that the future isn’t either/or. It’s even more important to remember that we will have a role in creating that future, for good or ill.


Jim Downey

Looking back: “…an awful waste of space.”

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on June 26, 2007.


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

The fox which wasn’t there.

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox.

* * * * * * *

A friend reacted to something I had posted elsewhere, which involved one of the instances cited in this recent blog post:

I have worked with the TSA screeners in [town]. I have worked with the management team that leads them. I know them personally, and I can tell you this is patently false, disjointed, prejudiced, half-assed reporting of the situation.

* * * * * * *

There was a fascinating long-form segment on NPR’s All Things Considered last night, looking into the “Psychology of Fraud.” The entire thing is worth reading/listening to when you get a chance, but basically it was the case study of how one otherwise ethical man wound up engaging in a series of financial frauds – and how he drew in multiple different people to help him do so.

Like I said, the whole thing is worth your time, but the thing which got me thinking was this bit:

Chapter 5: We Lie Because We Care

Typically when we hear about large frauds, we assume the perpetrators were driven by financial incentives. But psychologists and economists say financial incentives don’t fully explain it. They’re interested in another possible explanation: Human beings commit fraud because human beings like each other.

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.

Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points to the case of emissions testers. Emissions testers are supposed to test whether or not your car is too polluting to stay on the road. If it is, they’re supposed to fail you. But in many cases, emissions testers lie.

And what’s critical in this case is that we help those we identify with. Those emissions testers? They’re much more prone to help someone who is driving an older, inexpensive model car. Because those emissions testers don’t make a whole lot of money themselves, and have cars like that. Someone comes in with a high-end car, they’re less likely to identify with the owner and cut them some slack with the emissions tests.

* * * * * * *

A (different) friend asked me this morning whether I still spend much time reading up on game theory. It was something new to him when he saw it in Communion of Dreams, and my recent posts about it had again piqued his interest.

I replied that I don’t really follow the current scholarship on the topic specifically, but that I saw it in terms of a larger psychological dynamic. I then recommended that he should read Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Why? Because it would provide an insight into how humans are very similar to other primates in how we exist in hierarchical groups, and how we act because of our identity to a group – how that we look to our authority figures for cues on how to behave. He’s currently serving in Afghanistan, and I told him that it would forever change how he would see the military as well as those local tribes he’s dealing with.

* * * * * * *

A passage from Wikipedia:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[4]

* * * * * * *

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox. It cut across the back of our large yard, disappeared into some heavy brush in the adjacent empty lot.

“Alwyn,” I said, and pointed towards the back of the lot. My dog dutifully jumped up, trotted around the raised bed, and started sniffing the ground. Quickly he caught the scent of the fox, and rushed off to the edge of the yard where it had disappeared.

But he stopped there. He’s well trained, well behaved.

I petted the cat, then headed back towards the house.

My dog followed.

Jim Downey

A wisp, glowing green.

From Chapter 3:

Wright Station was one of the older stations, and its age showed in its design. The basic large wheel structure, necessary when centrifugal force simulated gravity, was still evident, though significantly altered. The station hung there as they approached, motionless. The aero slowly coasted toward a large box well outside the sweep of the wheel, connected to the wheel by an extension of one of the major spokes. This was the dock, and it was outside the AG field.

Sound familiar?

Though I do think that were someone to film Communion of Dreams, this scene would more closely reflect this reality, taken from the ISS:

Still, it is fascinating that we have already so deeply connected music with space imagery. And that what is seen as a pale blue dot in the distance is, up close, a living world with a thin sheath of atmosphere – a wisp, glowing green.

Tomorrow is a promotional day: the Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams will be free for any and all to download. Share the news.

Jim Downey

The stars, ourselves.*

Via Phil Plait, this completely wonderful clip from Carl Sagan’s intellectual heir:

It *is* an excellent answer, and one I have discussed previously. Tyson does an excellent job with it, and had I been writing Communion of Dreams now, I certainly would be happy to reference him.

Perhaps for the next book . . .

Jim Downey

*Wherein I display not only my geek cred, but also my intellectual rigor. Ain’t you impressed?

What it was like.

My wife and I decided to revisit the Cosmos series recently. It holds up surprisingly well for a pop-science program from 30 years ago.

Tonight’s episode was the finale. And I was struck by what it was like back then, to contemplate the possibility of nuclear war. I think a lot of people today who weren’t aware during that time have difficulty in understanding just how palpable that threat was. Here’s a good bit from the episode that explains it better than I could:

Is it any wonder that a post-apocalyptic world was the setting for so much science fiction generated during that time? Any wonder at all?

We may or may not have threaded the needle and survived the time of peak technological vulnerability. Not only are there other threats out there to our long term survival, but even the threat of nuclear war is not passed – not hardly. I still fully expect that there will be another war in which nuclear weapons will be a factor, and such use could easily spin out of control and engulf the entire planet.

But the hair trigger we lived with for some 30 years is no more. Things certainly are not perfect now, but they *are* better. We did indeed decide to survive, at least through that time. And that was an important step.

Jim Downey

A blue valentine.
February 14, 2010, 2:10 pm
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Carl Sagan, NASA, NPR, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Titan

I’m not big on Valentine’s Day. No, I’m not some kind of cold, unloving bastard. Quite the contrary – I resent the cynical manipulation by the greeting card and floral industries creating the expectation that men can only show their love on one special day each year. I love my wife and try to show it to her in many honest ways throughout the year.

But February 14th is memorable for me for another reason.

20 years ago on this day we received a picture – a perspective, if you will – which we had never seen before. That of Earth from the vantage of the Voyager 1 spacecraft – an image which has come to be known as the Pale Blue Dot. The book of the same name helped inspire and inform my writing of Communion of Dreams – a fact which can be seen in several passages, but which most readily comes to mind for me as this dream sequence:

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, a clean blue light almost like a gas flame. The petals spread, until the flower was completely open.

Turning, he started to walk toward the rise in the center of the bridge. After a few dozen paces, he was almost halfway across the bridge, but he couldn’t see the other side. The fog seemed to rise up from the surface of the river, the bridge stretched off into a muzziness of grey. Then he noticed that the roses in a nearby vase were smaller, the light somehow more distant.

Another couple dozen paces and the end of the bridge where he had begun was almost out of sight. The roses had continued to shrink in size, and the light of each receded. It had grown darker, too, the sun had begun to shrink in size, as though retreating from him. He walked on. There was still no end in sight, just the bridge continuing into a growing dimness. The sun was smaller still, and had lost enough intensity that he could look straight at it without discomfort. The roses here were so small as to be hard to make out, the blue dot of light in each flower becoming pale. And he noticed that the walkway beneath his feet now felt spongy, like it was becoming insubstantial.

Tentatively taking a few more steps, at last he felt his foot sink into the bridge, and he started falling forward.

That’s from the end of Chapter Five, as the protagonist and his team of scientists are en route to Titan and are metaphorically crossing from the known to the unknown. Just as Voyager continues to do.

Happy Pale Blue Dot Day.

Jim Downey

All Things Considered had a nice piece about this photograph and what led to it last Friday, which includes this nice bit from Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Say what?

‘Babelfish’ to translate alien tongues could be built If we ever make contact with intelligent aliens, we should be able to build a universal translator to communicate with them, according to a linguist and anthropologist in the US.

Such a “babelfish”, which gets its name from the translating fish in Douglas Adams‘s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, would require a much more advanced understanding of language than we currently have. But a first step would be recognising that all languages must have a universal structure, according to Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, US.

Color me dubious. Deacon’s notion, as presented at AbSciCon 2008, is basically that any language will be tied to descriptions of the physical universe in some way. As reported in the NewScientist article above, this would allow for some distant computer/software to do a machine translation.

Well, sure – keep it open-ended enough, and just about anything is possible if you go far enough in the future. Clarke’s maxim about technology and magic comes to mind.

But we have a lot of ground to cover, first. Are there technologically advanced civilizations beyond Earth? If so, where are they? Do they even perceive the universe the same way we do? If so, do they have something resembling language, whether it be spoken, written, farted, or spit? Or do they communicate by telepathy, electrical discharge, or some other means outside of our normal sensory perception? Do they experience time the same way we do?

We can’t even build a good algorithm for doing human language translations, with languages well understood and cultures which are compatible, among members of our own species. Anyone who has tried to use one will know what I am talking about. Let’s use the current real-world version of Babel Fish to translate that last sentence, into German, and then back into English. We start with:

Anyone who has tried to use one will know what I am talking about.

Which becomes:

Jedermann, das versucht hat, ein zu verwenden, weiß, über was ich spreche.

Which is pretty good, to my rusty memory of idiomatic German. Now, back into English:

Everyone, which tried to use knows, about which I speak.

You see the problem? And that’s using a standard translation software – which has undoubtedly been tweaked and adjusted time and time again. A commercial software program may give you a better result, but the fact remains that any business will not rely on said software – they’ll go to a human who is fluent in each language for a good translation. And that is with all the commercial forces at work to create a dependable, value-added translation software program. How the hell are we supposed to come up with something which will work with an alien ‘language’ with which we have no prior experience?

Sagan and all the other SF authors who have tackled this had it right: we’ll have to start with mathematics.

Jim Downey