Communion Of Dreams


The Globe and Mail has a wonderful essay by Col Chris Hadfield as an introduction to a new edition of Ray Bradbury‘s The Martian Chronicles. Here’s an excerpt:

Bradbury’s Mars offered unlimited new opportunity for exploration and discovery, and expansion of human awareness. Yet virtually every step in the Chronicles, as through much of human history, is a misstep. Mutual ignorance and distrust between normally peaceful peoples leads to violence and death. Greed causes unfathomably bad behavior; uncomfortably reminiscent of gold-hungry Conquistadors in the New World, five hundred years previous. Anger and frustration at the constraints of an intensely bureaucratic society somehow permit the craziest of personal behavior. And the ultimate threat of the destruction of it all somehow draws everyone back into the maelstrom, as if there is no escape. As if we all have a necessity to accept the consequences of everyone’s actions, and take our punishment, no matter how deadly.

Bradbury’s inclusion of the repeated patterns of human behavior, right down to inadvertent genocide caused by external pestilence and unfamiliar disease, makes The Martian Chronicles an ageless cautionary tale. It made me pause and ask myself – could it be possible that we are forever unable to go beyond who we were? Will every great opportunity of discovery be tainted, tarred and eventually destroyed by our own clumsy, brutish hand?

Are we so cursed by our own tragic humanity?

Wrestling with that very question … and depicting it … has been at the heart of my struggle to write St Cybi’s Well. And wrestling with my own demons at the same time has led me into some very dark moments, particularly over the last couple of months.

But there is hope. Here is the closing of Hadfield’s essay:

Their spaceship will be improbable, and the voyage will have been long. But as our first emissaries thump down onto Mars, stand up and look around, they will see who the Martians really are. And with that sense of belonging will come the responsibility and appreciation that has allowed us to flourish and grow on Earth for millennia, in spite of ourselves. By the time we land on Mars and first step onto the dusty, red soil, it will be alien no longer. We will know that we are home. And that may be what saves us.

As chance would have it, yesterday I started working on another conservation project which, in its own way, also affirms how exploration may save us. You’ve probably heard of the author, who had his own struggles and failings. Here’s the title page:


Maybe there’s hope for all of ‘we’, after all.

Jim Downey

Thanks to Margo Lynn for sharing the Hadfield essay.

A process of discovery.

Got a couple of new reviews of Communion of Dreams over the weekend. Both are short enough to just post the whole thing. Here’s the first:

4.0 out of 5 starsHard to believe this is a first novel…, January 3, 2015
By Paula Jean

Well plotted with disparate characterizations. Avoids science fiction cliches by and large. An interesting yarn with lots of good new ideas, thought provoking, and moves right along. Makes you want more. Bravo, Mr. Downey.

If you look through many of the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, this is a fairly common comment: people are surprised that this is my first novel. I suppose that makes sense, since that information is right there on the ‘About the author’ section on Amazon and at the end of the book.

But the thing is, I’m not at all new to writing. And I’m not a young man. I’m 56, and have been writing fairly steadily since at least middle school. Essays. Short stories. Criticism. Advertising copy. Opinion pieces. Reviews. Memoir. Travelogues. Meditations. Instruction. Easily more than a million words — hell, I’ve written almost that many for this blog alone. So, probably a couple million words. As André Aciman says in this video (about the 2:00 mark):

I’ve written in all kinds of genres. And I’d like to think that most everything I do is governed by one idea, which is that you are after something that is quite difficult to articulate. And so most of the writing process is sort of prowling around this center, that you don’t see, but that the writing process will unveil and unearth for you.

It’s a way of discovering things. About the world. About people. About yourself.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in longform fiction. Communion helped me uncover a lot. St Cybi’s Well is helping me discover a lot more. I think that is why both books have taken such a long time to write, to work through. That process of unveiling (which is a major metaphor throughout Communion) is difficult, demanding, and never entirely done. You keep digging, keep whittling away, looking for a glimpse of the truth.

Speaking of whittling away, here’s the second review from this weekend:

4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant surprise, January 4, 2015
By Amazon Customer

Excellent story. Well written, well-plotted. The dialogue and scene-setting is sparse, almost minimal, but that allows one to appreciate the plot that much more.

Happy New Year. Time for me to get back to work digging, digging, digging this Well.


Jim Downey

Via MetaFilter.

Don’t think about it too much.

No doubt by now you’ve heard of the discovery of Dreadnoughtus schrani, the massive dinosaur found in the Patagonia region of Argentina (been there!), which in addition to being notable for its size is also notable for how much of it was found:

Lacovara says those other estimates are based on a mere smattering of bones, or on analyses that haven’t yet been subjected to peer review. In contrast, the estimate of Dreadnoughtus’ size and weight was based on measurements of more than 100 separate elements, including most of the tail vertebrae, a yard-long (meter-long) neck vertebra, numerous ribs and nearly all the bones from the forelimbs and hindlimbs.

Researchers unearthed about 45 percent of the skeleton’s full complement of bones, representing 70 percent of the bone types found below the skull (for example, a left rib without the mirror-image right rib).

Very impressive to find so much of it. Too bad they didn’t find the skull, as well.

Wait, no skull?


Yeah, I’m sure that it’s just a coincidence

Jim Downey


All my adult life I’ve suffered from chronic blepharitis — usually mild, with occasional annoying flare-ups.

* * * * * * *

“A lot of would-be professional writers dream of someday getting a book contract that includes an advance: enough money, paid up front, to let them quit their day job and write full time. Of course those advances do come with an expectation that an author will actually write the book. The Penguin Publishing Group recently filed suit against a dozen authors who failed to produce manuscripts after getting advances.”

That’s the intro to an NPR story which ran this morning. It’s worth listening to if you haven’t heard it, for the statements of clueless entitlement from some of the authors involved if nothing else.

I heard about this story when it first made the rounds a couple of weeks ago. I considered writing about it then, but I had just launched my Kickstarter, and I didn’t want to come across as having sour grapes or whining about the large advances  celebrity authors can command from the conventional publishing houses.

But seriously, this stuff is nuts. Who in their right mind would think that you could sign a contract for $325,000 with a $81,250 advance, and then not provide a manuscript for six years? I mean, I know that publishing is ‘broken’ , but that’s ridiculous — from both sides of the equation.

* * * * * * *

And speaking of Jane Austin (see link just above), another interesting story this morning on NPR is worth consideration:

A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen

At a recent academic conference, Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips stole a glance around the room. A speaker was talking but the audience was fidgety. Some people were conferring among themselves, or reading notes. One person had dozed off.

Phillips, who studies 18th- and 19th-century literature, says the distracted audience made something pop in her head. Distractability is a theme that runs through many novels of Jane Austen, whom Phillips admires. It occurred to Phillips that there was a paradox in her own life when it came to distractability.

“I love reading, and I am someone who can actually become so absorbed in a novel that I really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice,” she said. “And I’m simultaneously someone who loses their keys at least three times a day, and I often can’t remember where in the world I parked my car.”

Phillips decided to investigate this, setting up an experiment where she had people read passages from Austin while in a functional MRI scanner. She set it up so that the readers were supposed to either just be ‘browsing’ the text, or to be fully devoting their attention to it.

What did she find?

Well, first, this was just a limited study, and the results are preliminary. And there are problems with trying to use fMRI to pin-point what portions of the brain are involved in cognition.

But what is interesting is that when the readers were fully engaged — devoting their entire attention to the passages in deep reading — their entire brain seemed to be activated.

I think anyone who has ever completely lost themselves in a book will find this hardly surprising. And, as an author who attempts to completely paint a realistic ‘world’ for people to enjoy in my novels, it’s heartening to know that science seems to back up personal experience.

* * * * * * *

All my adult life I’ve suffered from chronic blepharitis — usually mild, with occasional annoying flare-ups.

This next bit is a little gross. My apologies.

Typically, when I have a flare-up of my blepharitis, a few days of warm compresses and some antibiotic ointment take care of it. But this latest round has proven to be a bit more of a hassle.

A couple of weeks ago I felt like I got a bit of something stuck in the orbit of my left eye. Probably a small eyelash or flake of skin — this has happened before. It’ll work its way out eventually. And I think this morning it did, because there was a small gloopy bit of pus which I fished out from under my lower lid.

Like I said, a bit gross. Sorry.

But it’s a natural reaction of the body, and I suspect that now the blepharitis will clear up with the usual treatment.

And as I was taking care of this this morning, I was thinking about the next book. I’m doing this a lot, lately. As it notes on the brief blurb about St. Cybi’s Well, the main character is dealing with an eye disease which threatens his career when the book starts. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but I have very specific reasons for why this is, and what it means for the overall story line (including what plays out in Communion of Dreams). There is a long tradition in literature and mythology about the symbolism of a character who has eye problems, and a lot of that comes into play.

But I couldn’t help but note my own connection in this way, and how sometimes it might be a bit overdoing-it to so completely manifest what is happening in my own mind’s eye.

Jim Downey

T-minus seven days.


Various and sundry.

Bits and pieces this morning.

Phil Plait has Ten things you don’t know about the Earth.  A couple in there I didn’t know, or only knew incompletely.

The LHC goes online tomorrow.  You can play with a cool simulation here.  This is actually a very big deal, something on the order of the Apollo program in terms of size, complexity, and being a threshold event.

Play with your brain: Mighty Optical Illusions.

Be afraid, courtesy of Pharyngula.

Perhaps more later.

Jim Downey