Communion Of Dreams


“In the before time.”

Some variation of the phrase “in the before time(s)” has been a staple of post-apocalypse Science Fiction for so long that it’s a well-deserved cliche, mocked even by South Park. Usually invoked by some grungy child reciting a barely-understood mythos, or an aged ‘elder’ thinking back to their youth, it served as a mechanism to explain what happened to civilization.

Of course, in our post-modern, self-aware world “in the before time” came to be widely used in a joking manner, to refer to some not-so-serious turning point in recent history. Before YouTube. Before Google. Before the internet. Before Fonzie jumped the shark. Whatever. It was funny, see?

Except in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started hearing it used to refer to the pre-Covid pandemic times. And not in a humorous way. People are using it completely seriously. Here are just two examples, the first from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday program on 6/12:

New York Eater’s Chief Critic Isn’t Ready To Eat Out. Here’s Why

* * *

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about the future of the restaurant industry? I mean, do you think it will look anything like what it resembled before the pandemic?

SUTTON: I don’t think anyone knows what the restaurant industry is going to look like in the coming months, never mind the coming year or so. We can only agree – is dining out in the future won’t look anything like it did in the before times. We’re going to continue to see a lot more takeout, and we’re going to continue to see, I think, a lot of people continue to eat at home rather than treating restaurants like extensions of their dining rooms. It’s not going to be a nightly fare anymore. And that’s going to cost a lot of jobs, and that’s going to close a lot of restaurants. And that’s just a terrible thing for everyone.

And the second from a FaceBook post a friend shared, about whether schools would/could open in the fall:

A high school teacher in this state has a maximum class size of 32-35 students, which gives the teacher around 200 students across 4-6 classes in beforetimes schooling. To mitigate coronavirus would then require 3 kindergarten teacher now to do the job of one kindergarten teacher a year ago. High school would require 24 high teachers to do one beforetimes high school teacher’s work and that is if we overlook the very awkward point that having half the class meet half the time might limit the children’s risk but only extends the hours of exposure to the virus that is faced by the teacher.

In doing a bit of quick research for this post, I also find that lexicographer Ben Zimmer (brother of excellent science writer Carl Zimmer) has noticed this change as well:

‘The Before Time’: A Sci-Fi Idea That Has Made Its Way to Real Life

(I haven’t actually read that, since I don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription. But it’s obvious that he’s noted the same shift in usage.)

Just an interesting observation about how our language changes, and another example of how science fiction has had an effect on the ‘real’ world.

Jim Downey



“Did we actually go there, or … ?”

One of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well added this note under “TRIVIA”:

Most of the chapters start with information that looks like it came from Internet websites. I typed in some of the URLs, and they are exactly what they seem to be, lending credence to the book.

And several people have commented both on Amazon and on Facebook that the book could function as something of a travelog.

That’s very much by design. The chapter header URLs & info I used in the book are straight from real sites online, though I intentionally used versions which date back to ~ 2012 (the date in the novel) whenever possible. And likewise, each location specified in the book is real. As well as every bit of Welsh history or myth I used.

I did this to lend the book verisimilitude. I really want readers to wonder just how possible the story is, to feel that ‘thinness’ I describe between one reality and another in the book.  I want them to visit the sites mentioned, to feel what I have felt there.

I didn’t start writing the book with this in mind. I figured that I would simply use my own experience in traveling in Wales to ground the book in reality, and use what little I knew of Welsh history & mythology to help add color. But as I wrote, I found myself digging deeper and deeper, spending more time visiting sites virtually, until they became very well known to me.

After a while, I started to lose track of whether I had actually visited some of the sites in person, or had only visited them online. This led to the very surreal experience during a trip we took in 2017 where in going to Craig Rhosyfelin I was absolutely certain that we had visited the site previously … but also absolutely certain that we never had (the latter which was confirmed by my wife). I had spent so much time exploring the site virtually, working through the descriptions and history of it, writing the interaction of characters there, that it really did feel like I had my own personal memories of the place. Bizarre.

The same is true of several other locations in the book, to the point where my wife and I now joke about it. “Did we actually go there, or … ?” has become a standard in our travels.

And of course now, with the limitations imposed by our own real pandemic, such virtual travel is all we have at present. So if you need a vacation, maybe spend a little time in my novel. The links included on the website will help.

Jim Downey

 



Easy to predict.

In Communion of Dreams, I have “experts” who are A.I. assistants. As I describe them in that book when I introduce one as the character ‘Seth’:

His expert was one of the best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

In the world of 2052, when Communion is set, these “experts” are ubiquitous and extremely helpful. Seth is an “S-series”, the latest tech, and all S-series models have names which start with S. I figured that naming convention would be a nice way to track the development of such expert-systems technology, and in the course of the book you see earlier models which have appropriate names.

So when the time came to write St Cybi’s Well, I figured that I would introduce the first such model, named Andi. Here’s the first bit of dialog with Andi:

“Hi, I’m Andi, your assistant application. How can I help you?”

“Andi, check local restaurant reviews for Conwy and find the best ranked Fish & Chips place.”

“You’re not in Conwy. You’re in Holywell. Would you rather that I check restaurants where you are?”

“No, I’m not hungry yet. But I will be when I get to Conwy.”

“Very good. Shall I read off the names?”

“Not now. It can wait until I am closer.”

“Very good. Shall I track your movement and alert you?”

“No.”

“Very good. May I help you with something else?”

“Not right now.” Darnell shut off the app, then the phone, and dropped it back into his pocket. The walk back to his car was uneventful.

Now, I wrote this bit almost eight years ago, long before “Siri” or “Alexa” were announced. But it was predictable that such technology would soon be introduced, and I was amused as all get-out when Amazon decided to name their first assistant as “Alexa”.

Anyway, I also figured that since the technology would be new, and unsophisticated, that Andi would be slightly annoying to use. Because it would default to repetitions of scripts, be easy to confuse, et cetera, similar to encountering a ‘bot on a phone call. And you can judge for yourself, but I think I succeeded in the book — the readers of early chapters thought so, and commented on it.

So this article in the morning Washington Post made me chuckle:

Alexa, just shut up: We’ve been isolated for months, and now we hate our home assistants

“I’m not a bad person,” Angela Hatem said. “I’m so nice to people.” But Alexa, the voice of Amazon’s home devices, isn’t a person, despite how hard “she” tries to emulate one. And coronavirus/self-quarantine/2020 has Hatem feeling a bit stressed out.

“I say things to Alexa that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy, if I had one. And I don’t know why. She makes me crazy. … I curse at her. I call her names. I’m very, very mean to her,” said Hatem, who lives in Indianapolis with her 1-year-old son. “There’s really few things I can vent at or vent to, and I’m making Alexa my virtual punching bag.”

 

Heh. Nailed another prediction.

* * *

It’s the first of the month. That means that both novels and our care-giving memoir are available for free download, as they are the first of each month. If you haven’t already, please help yourself and tell your friends.

Jim Downey

 

 



Phase two.

Excerpt from Chapter 8 of St Cybi’s Well, titled “Pentre Ifan”, which I wrote 18 months ago:

Darnell nodded. “Sure. Now let’s take a look at that satellite map.”

He pulled out his phone again, tapped it a couple of times. Soon they were looking down at their current location centered on the map, with the resolution such that Pentre Ifan was off on the very left edge of the screen. St. John pointed at a slightly lopsided ring due north of Craig Rhosyfelin about the same distance from Pentre Ifan. “There. See?”

Darnell zoomed in on the image. The ring expanded until it was about half the size of the screen. It was actually a double ring of trees, bisected by a chevron of a single line of trees. “Yeah, OK. Not a perfect circle. Looks like it has a bit of a pinch on the east side, almost as if pointing that way.”

“Exactly!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow you.”

St. John pointed at the screen. “Points due east. That’s because before it was made into a hill fort, there’s evidence to suggest that it was a henge.”

“Huh.” Darnell looked at the image again. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“And I think that it wasn’t just any henge. I think that it was the precursor to Stonehenge.” St. John looked at Darnell, and there was a slightly mad gleam in his eye. “In fact, I think that the henge which was there was disassembled and then transported to Wiltshire and rebuilt as the iconic structure we all know today.”

Go ahead, take a look for yourself.

Then take a look at this item from yesterday. Here’s a good excerpt:

“We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC,” he said. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.”

The dating evidence suggests that Stonehenge could be older than previously thought, Parker Pearson said. “But we think it’s more likely that they were building their own monument [in Wales], that somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we’re seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument.”

I scare myself sometimes.

 

Jim Downey



Llangelynnin

The title of the next chapter is “Llangelynnin” (which refers to the church/churchyard, rather than just the holy well at this site — this is a change from what I had originally planned), and in doing a little research I found this nice bit of video:

 

The holy well isn’t shown in this video, but is basically directly below the drone at about the 0:13 mark. It can be seen at the very southern point of the wall enclosure here, and in an image in this entry. Some of my source material is drawn from this travelogue from 2006 (towards the bottom of that post). And I think the video gives a very nice feel for the remoteness of the site, and why I have wanted to include it in the story I am telling.

Oh, I haven’t said in a while, but I now have approximately 85,000 words written (that’s actual novel, not including notes or reference material), with about 25,000 – 30,000 to go before I’m finished (and a fair amount of that is partially done already in notes and reference material). So I’m not in the closing stretch, but am getting there. It’s progress, anyway.

 

Jim Downey



Let your fingers do the dancing.

From the beginning of Chapter 6:

There was just one other person in the room, standing at the side of the holo platform, hands dancing over a control board only he could see.

* * *

Jon looked to the dance Ng’s hands played in the air. “About ready?”

Ng said nothing, but just his fingers tapped a command in the air. Instantly, there appeared an image above the holo projector. It was the artifact, pretty much exactly as Jon remembered it from the first meeting a week ago.

There are many such passages in Communion of Dreams, just part of the augmented reality technology which exists at the time of the book. The basic explanation is that the user is wearing contact lenses which allow one to see a virtual reality overlay on the real world, and then within that overlay you can manipulate virtual objects/controls thanks to hand-tracking. When I wrote the book I figured that such technology would be available eventually …

… and here it is, even sooner than I expected:

Google’s new finger control technology is straight out of a science fiction movie

* * *

The company’s lab for advanced projects showed off new technology on Friday that lets users move their fingers in the air to control objects in the virtual world.

It’s called Project Soli, and it uses radar waves to detect precise finger movements or finger “micromotions.”

The result is something that looks like it’s from a science-fiction movie such as Minority Report or Her, in which characters manipulated virtual objects by gracefully moving their hands or fingers in the air.

Bingo.

 

Jim Downey



A change in perspective.

Excerpt, set here:

She reached a hand out to help, steadying herself with her other hand on the tiller, and Darnell stepped down onto the small deck area. There was a low rail around the deck, about knee-height, but there was nothing else between him and the low rail of the bridge trough. And on the other side of the trough rail was a drop of almost 40 meters to the valley floor.

“Very nice,” said Darnell, one hand on the roof rail, as he leaned out and looked over the edge. He turned back, extended his hand to the woman. “Thanks. Name’s Darnell.”

“I’m Sharon. And welcome to the Tedford’s Folly, if only for a short hop to the other end of the aqueduct.” She patted the tiller in her hand, then gestured off the open side of the boat. “Pretty remarkable, isn’t it? You know the history of the Pontcysyllte?”

“The basics, anyway,” said Darnell. “And yeah, it is remarkable what people can achieve when they put their minds to it. Both for good and ill.”

She smiled, and there was an intensity to her bluish-grey eyes. “I love all the canals, but especially this one. There’s always something new to be found when you cross over from one side to the other. A new perspective, depending on the time of year, the time of day, and where your head is at. But not everyone understands that.”

 

Jim Downey



When self confidence fails.

At Stonehenge:

As he crossed the earthen ditch which surrounded the stones some 20 meters out, following the usual paved walking path, he noticed that the shaping of the sound somehow changed. Perhaps it was the mass of bodies crowding in around the stones. But it seemed less to be coming from one particular place, and more like it was just coming up from the ground all around him. Then he stepped off the path, and onto the grass, and he could feel the sound more than hear it. It strummed through his heels, up his legs, vibrations caressing his entire body. It was the springiness, the resonance, which he had felt at St David’s, but infinitely stronger.

Stronger, and shared. Shared, he knew, by every person who walked this ground. By every person who had ever walked this ground. It was as though the earth itself were a drum, and this the taut, shimmering skin which they skittered across.

Slowly he made his way into the circle, almost in a daze. Others moved past and around him, making contact, sharing a smile, a laugh, tears. He had never before been this close to the stones, had never come on those rare occasions when the site was open this way. They seemed impossibly tall, impossibly old. He stepped past the first great upright before him, then paused, and gingerly reached out to touch it. Cold stone, rough weathered, aged lichens. A woman standing next to him had her eyes closed, the palms of her hands also on the stone, and for a moment he felt her mind there, the contact of lovers sharing a glimpse of the eternal. It caught his breath, he stepped back, turned in slight embarrassment and stepped further into the circle. Further into the crowd.

Now the press of people was greater. There were people everywhere, holding hands, praying, chanting, caressing. They were on the fallen stones, pressed up against the standing sarsens, moving. He felt himself drawn further in, pulled in by the sound vibrations filling the space, which became deeper and stronger with every step. He passed the inner sarsen, stood there in the inner circle, the sanctum sanctorum, the Garbha griha, the sacred center of everything.

I’m at that point in the novel where I have lost track of how it is going. Whether any of this is any good. Whether it will just confuse and disappoint my readers. Whether it is worth continuing.

This happens. I know it. I have been in this place before. And when self-confidence fails, only my self-discipline gets me past the lurking paralysis. Chapter 12 is almost finished. Momentum continues.

Jim Downey



It’s a Mil-Tech SF future; we’re just living in it.

Yeah, it’s cool and all, but I can’t be the only one who looked at the news about Google X’s Drone Program

A zipping comes across the sky.

A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap.

… and thinks “generation 1.0 Hunter-seeker“, right? I mean, this basically jumps from needing a large military drone to having a backpack assassination tool. Why worry about collateral damage with a missile when you can just drop a cigarette-pack lump of high explosive in someone’s lap, using a cell phone and facial-recognition software to make sure of your specific target?

Or how I look at the self-driving car and think “hmm, add a Ma Deuce and/or 30mm cannon, and you’ve a small autonomous tank”.

Yeah, OK, perhaps I’m just too cynical. But human nature being what it is, you’ve gotta think that there was a reason why DARPA has been behind the development of these technologies …

 

Jim Downey

 



Coming soon, to a reality near you.

There are over 70 reviews of Communion of Dreams on Amazon, and if you poke around online you’ll find a bunch more. In addition, I’ve heard from countless friends and fans about the book in private messages and chats. And one of the most common things people will note is just how much they like the character of Seth, the Expert/AI executive assistant for the main character, Jon. The book opens with Seth contacting Jon about something which has come up, and you can get a sense of how useful such a virtual assistant could be:

“Sorry to bother you, Jon, but you’ll need to come back immediately. Business. I’ve made the arrangements. Transport waiting for you in town, take you to Denver. Then commercial flight home.” Audio only. That meant a lot. Tighter beam, easier to encode and keep private. Security protocol.

He wondered if something had gone wrong with the Hawking, the experimental long-range ship undergoing trials, based out at Titan. That was about the only thing he could think of that would require his cutting short his first vacation in four years. No use in asking. “All right. Give me a few minutes to pack my things, and I’ll get started.”

“Understood.”

“And contact my family, let them know I’m on my way back. ”

“Will do. Anything else?”

“Not at present. See you when I get there.”

Of course, CoD is set in 2052, and there have been huge advances in technology which allow for a very natural interaction between a human and a computer.

What’s been fun for me in writing St Cybi’s Well, set in our own time (well, actually, in October 2012), is that I get to plant the seeds for the technology which then shows up in Communion of Dreams. And one of those seeds is an Android app which is a ‘virtual assistant’ named Andi. It’s er, not quite up to Seth’s standards:

Darnell sat there, scanned the blog post. As he read, the assistant repeated “The page you requested is displayed on your screen. Do you need something else?”

“Um, yeah. How about a map to St. Seiriol’s Well?”

“A map is now displayed on your screen. You are presently at the location of St. Seiriol’s Well. Do you need something else?”

“I’m not at the Well. I’m in the parking lot. Where is the Well itself?”

“I’m sorry, available maps indicate you are presently at the Well. Do you need something else?”

“Go back to the Well Hopper site.”

“Very good. The page you requested is displayed on your screen. Do you need something else?”

 

A bit annoying, eh? Well, the people who have been reading the early chapters of the book have certainly thought so. Which was exactly what I was going for. Because technology doesn’t arrive fully developed. It shows up in an early, buggy form, and then gets improved over time. Think back to when we all had dial-up modems: they were annoying, klunky, and expensive … but they also were very, very cool because they allowed us to “get online”.

Anyway, I had to chuckle over a story on NPR yesterday afternoon which reminded me of this. Here’s the intro:

We’re already giving voice instructions to virtual personal assistants, like Apple’s Siri. But artificial intelligence is getting even smarter. The next wave of behavior-changing computing is a technology called anticipatory computing — systems that learn to predict what you need, even before you ask.

Google Now, which is available on tablets and mobile devices, is an early form of this. You can ask it a question like, “Where is the White House?” and get a spoken-word answer. Then, Google Now recognizes any follow-up questions, like “How far is it from here?” as a human would — the system realizes you’re still asking about the White House, even without you mentioning the search term again. It’s an example of how anticipatory computing is moving the way we interact with devices from tapping or typing to predictive voice control.

It wasn’t a prediction on my part to see this development, rather just paying attention to the current technology and tweaking it a bit to fit into the alternate timeline of CoD/SCW. But still, kinda fun to see things going just the way I envision.

 

Jim Downey