Communion Of Dreams

You can’t tell a book …

So, a week or so ago I linked to a new review of Communion of Dreams which was very positive overall. But the reviewer made a comment which echoes things some other people have said:

Another item that would likely help get this book moving is a different cover. I understand the imagery now that I’ve read the book, but definitely think it will keep hard-core sci-fi fans from buying a copy (and people do judge books by their covers).

Like I said, every so often a comment to this effect will pop up in a review. And I don’t spend much time thinking about it (and I’m not going to change the cover image at this point), but now and then I wonder just what kind of a cover would appeal to ‘hard-core sci-fi fans’ and still make any kind of sense in relation to the story. Maybe some nice images of Saturn or Titan from the Cassini mission? A depiction of some of the spacecraft (which aren’t described in much detail in the book), or perhaps the Titan Prime space station? Go with a charming post-apocalyptic montage of ruined cities and microphotographs of viruses? To me, none of these would fairly represent the story, and to a certain extent would unnecessarily limit the appeal to only ‘hard-core sci-fi fans’.

But I’m curious what others think. So feel free to post a comment here or over on FB. Over even on Amazon, as a comment on an extant review or in  new review of your own. In a week or so I’ll go through all the various comments I can find, and pick someone to get a jar of my latest hot sauce (or something else if they don’t want that).

Jim Downey

PS: there’s another new short review up on Amazon you might want to take a look at as well.

New perspective.

Via Phil Plait, had to share this:


Saturn, obviously. But from a new perspective, as Plait explains:

But dominating this jaw-dropping scene are Saturn’s magnificent rings, seen here far more circular than usual. Cassini’s mission has been to observe Saturn and its moons, which means it tends to stay near the planet’s equator. But now scientists are playing with the orbit more, to do more interesting science. The spacecraft is swinging well out of the equatorial plane, so here we see the rings at a much steeper angle, and they are less affected by perspective.

And here’s the link to the full-size image, which is definitely worth a look.


Jim Downey

Spinning wheels.*


The Rose

The spinning vortex of Saturn’s north polar storm resembles a deep red rose of giant proportions surrounded by green foliage in this false-color image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second).

A fascinating short video and full explanation can be found on NASA’s site:

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has provided scientists the first close-up, visible-light views of a behemoth hurricane swirling around Saturn’s north pole.

In high-resolution pictures and video, scientists see the hurricane’s eye is about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide, 20 times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth. Thin, bright clouds at the outer edge of the hurricane are traveling 330 mph(150 meters per second). The hurricane swirls inside a large, mysterious, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon.

Very cool. If I ever have reason to revise Communion of Dreams, I would certainly include reference to The Rose since most everything happens on and around Titan.


Jim Downey

*Of course. Via MeFi.


Got them low-down, no-good, post-ballistics-tests blues.

Man, I still feel like someone beat me with a bag of nickels.

I wonder if this is just an effect of having subjected myself to a lot of blast shock over a four day period? Shooting a lot of the ‘real world’ guns (we test something on the order of 40 with all the different ammos available from the previous tests) wasn’t such a big deal. But some of them – particularly the Bond derringers in the larger calibers – were just brutal to shoot 20 – 30 times in a row. And the blast from the short barrels of the chop tests could knock your teeth loose.

Anyway, I ache everywhere. And I’ve been fighting a mild depression for the last couple of days. At first it was just masked by being tired (the tests were hard, and I got too little sleep). Also, I figured that the emotional energy it took to be in close proximity to several other people constantly over five days time was a component – don’t get me wrong, I like everyone involved in the testing a lot, but I am just not used to being with people that much. But I have now had some time to recover, and I should be past the worst of that.

So, a little post-project blues. Or maybe the blast shock, repeated several thousand times, has something to do with it. I dunno. I’ll write more tomorrow, in the meantime take a few minutes to enjoy these great images of the Saturn system from the Cassini spacecraft, courtesy of the Boston Globe’s Big Picture series.

Jim Downey

(Via Phil Plait.)

Oh! Lookit the purty pictures!

Do you like APOD? Dig great shots of space? Love to poke around the various and sundry sites where NASA has images?

Then boy, are you in luck:


WASHINGTON — NASA and Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library based in San Francisco, made available the most comprehensive compilation ever of NASA’s vast collection of photographs, historic film and video Thursday. Located at, the Internet site combines for the first time 21 major NASA imagery collections into a single, searchable online resource. A link to the Web site will appear on the home page.

The Web site launch is the first step in a five-year partnership that will add millions of images and thousands of hours of video and audio content, with enhanced search and viewing capabilities, and new user features on a continuing basis. Over time, integration of with will become more seamless and comprehensive.

“This partnership with Internet Archive enables NASA to provide the American public with access to its vast collection of imagery from one searchable source, unlocking a new treasure trove of discoveries for students, historians, enthusiasts and researchers,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale. “This new resource also will enable the agency to digitize and preserve historical content now not available on the Internet for future generations.”

How many images are we talking about? Over 100,000 at present. Completely searchable. The homepage is broken down into several categories (Universe, Solar System, Earth, Astronauts) and contains an interactive timeline of the space program going back 50 years. Each search generates a page of thumbnail images – Titan calls up almost 1,500 – leading to photos, animations, audio files, and artist’s renderings.

Wow. Just wow.

Damn, and I have work I need to get done this afternoon . . .

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Annoying, yet exciting.

Gah. I am either having a relapse of the very stubborn flu that had me laid low last month, or am fighting some new bug with similar (yet still considerably less severe) symptoms. This is highly annoying.

So, I’m about to go take a nap. But first a couple of quick notes, and then a bit from Phil Plait’s blog about a recent discovery that is very exciting.

Note one: downloads of the .pdf of Communion of Dreams have crossed 8,200 and downloads of the audio version continue to climb as well. That’s exciting.

Note two: heard nothing yet from the agent I mentioned contacting the other day. No surprise – I expect that it will take a month or so to hear from them. But I needed something else to note.

Now, about the news from space . . .

I have written previously about the Cassini probe’s 10 year mission to Saturn, and how there have been a lot of great images and information coming back to scientists about that planet and its moons. Information that helps to confirm what we knew when I was first writing Communion (since most of the action of the book takes place on and around Titan.) But there is news which would potentially require me to revise the novel slightly – not about Titan, but about its sibling Enceladus. You may have heard something about this, but I’ll go to the Bad Astro Boy himself for the news:

Life’s cauldron may be bubbling underneath Enceladus

A few days ago I wrote about how the Cassini Saturn probe dove through water ice plumes erupting from the surface of the icy moon Enceladus. The pictures were incredible, but it may very well be that the other detectors got the big payoff.

They detected organic compounds in the plumes.

Now remember, organic molecules don’t necessarily mean life. What Cassini detected were heavy carbon-based molecules, including many that are the building blocks for making things like amino acids and other compounds necessary for life as we know it.

Edited to add: Carolyn Porco, imaging team leader for Cassini, says:

[…] it is now unambiguous that the jets emerging from the south polar fractures contain organic materials heavier than simple methane — acetylene, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, propane, etc. — making the sub-surface sources of Enceladus’ dramatic geological activity beyond doubt rich in astrobiologically interesting materials.

Whoa. I mean, *whoa* . Seriously. It ain’t life, nor even proof of life – but it is *damned exciting*.

Now, a nap.  All this excitement makes me tired.

Jim Downey

Thanks, Carl.*

*This post previously ran at UTI last year. And while some of the personal details mentioned in it have changed – I did indeed keep that promise to tweak my manuscript, obviously, and things have continued to progress with my MIL – the sentiment is the same.

Jim D.


This has been a hell of a day. Not as bad as some, perhaps, but as far as routine days go, not the sort you want to pop up often in the queue. It started with my mother-in-law being ill. Now, most adults know how a young child (either their own or one they’ve babysat) can be when sick. Think intestinal bug. Think explosive diarrhea, of the toxic/caustic variety. Poor kid doesn’t understand what’s going on, or how to best cope with their misbehaving body (if they are capable of that on their own yet). Then picture that not in a toddler, but in a 95-pound woman well into dementia before the effects of dehydration and fever kick in. Took my wife and I two full hours to get her and the bedroom cleaned up.

And then I was on deadline to write my final column for my newspaper. Yeah, my *final* column. My decision, and if I want to go back the paper will be glad to have me. But because of the demands of care-giving, I could not adequately keep up with the art scene in my community (what I wrote about – weird to see that in the past tense). And I was feeling a little burned out with it as well. But still, closing off that particular chapter of my life was somewhat poignant.

So it’s been a day. Which is all just prelude to explaining that one of the refuges I seek after such a day is one of my “regulars”. Typically, it’s Twain, likely his Roughing It, which I have long considered some of his best and funniest work. But tonight, I turn to another old friend I never met: Carl Sagan, particularly his book Pale Blue Dot.

I’ve said before that I’m not a scientist. Which is perhaps why I don’t have some of the same quibbles that many scientists have with Sagan. But I really respect someone who can take scientific research and knowledge and present it in a form an intelligent layperson can understand. Stephen Jay Gould could do that for me. PZ Myers does it for me. So does Carl Zimmer. I could name others, but these are people I respect. In that same way, I really respected Carl Sagan, who I knew more as an author than as the host of of the PBS series, most of which I missed in its initial broadcast. Sagan helped introduce me to whole areas of science I had never considered before, and his considerable human decency in his atheism helped me understand that my own misgivings about religion were not an indication that I was lacking in morals or ethics.

So it was that when I started to write my first novel, Communion of Dreams (unpublished – yeah, yeah, I know I need to finish tweaking the mss and send it out again), I set most of the action on Saturn’s moon Titan, as a tribute to Sagan. Sagan had formulated a theory as to the nature of Titan’s atmosphere (that it contained a complex hydrocarbon he called “tholin”) which accounted for the rusty-orange coloration of the moon. His theories were pretty well borne out by the Huygens probe, by the way, though he didn’t live long enough to know this.

So tonight, on the tenth anniversary of his death, on a day when I’ve been through my own trials, I will nonetheless raise a glass, and drink a wee dram of good scotch to the memory of Carl Sagan. And I’ll promise myself, and his memory, that I’ll get that manuscript tweaked and published, if for no other reason than to honor him.

Here’s to Carl: Sorry you had to leave so soon.

Jim Downey

New Cassini Images.

Via Phil Plait, news that in observation of the 10th anniversary of the Cassini launch, NASA has just released a bunch of very cool images and vids from the probe. Given that I set the bulk of Communion of Dreams there in the neighborhood of Saturn, I always find it stunning to see actual images which reflect what I envisioned. In particular, the scene in the book when the first research team is approaching Titan is perfectly caught in this image. Wow.

And here’s a passage from Plait’s post which precisely echoes my own sentiments, and would be prophetic if Communion was real rather than fiction:

We don’t go to these exotic locations in the solar system because we know everything that’s going on, or because we know what we’ll expect to see. We go because we don’t know. But we also go because we need to have our positions rattled, our notions shaken, our ideas tested. When we see Saturn from above, or co-orbit with a moon, or see a rainbow reflected in particles of ice a billion kilometers away, the only thing we can be sure of is that we’ll see new things, unexpected things.

Unexpected things, indeed.

Jim Downey

October 13, 2007, 8:18 pm
Filed under: Astronomy, Cassini, NASA, Saturn, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Titan, Writing stuff

My good lady wife sent me today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day of ice geysers erupting on Enceladus, one of the inner moons of Saturn. While I don’t mention any of the other moons in Communion, I would imagine that should Titan’s Mistress ever actually be filmed, then such images would be a natural.

Anyway, it’s a cool image, and I thought I’d share.

Jim Downey

Hello, Saturn!

NASA has put up a nice little movie showing the rings of Saturn as seen by the Cassini spacecraft as it transitions through the plane of those rings – fascinating stuff. Of course, you can also see a lot of images taken during the Cassini mission at the CICLOPS site, including many different images of Titan – images which conform to my suppositions about the surface of that moon in Communion of Dreams.

That’s hardly just luck, of course. I tried to base my depiction of the moon in keeping with the best known science at the time of writing, and during revisions updating to reflect new data once the Cassini mission arrived at Saturn. As I have mentioned previously, Carl Sagan’s work was of particular value to me in formulating not just the environment of Titan, but in also how weather works there.

Emphasis on keeping everything as accurate and in accord with known science was important to me in writing Communion, so far as I was able. I even made extensive use of a precursor to this JPL site in calculating distance (as reflected in the amount of time it takes radio signals to travel) for the actual dates mentioned in the book. It’s kind of fun – you just plug in your date, select your two points in the solar system, and the site will not only give you distance in km/miles but also show you what you would see from a specified vantage point if you were looking through a telescope. I no longer remember whether the earlier site gave me actual light-minutes distances (which would also be how long radio waves would take to transit), or if I did the calculations myself. Either way, the numbers cited in the book are accurate.

Jim Downey