Communion Of Dreams

“All our futures tend to be made up out of bits and pieces of our present.”

A very insightful essay into the role which speculative fiction played in the Victorian era, and how it is still echoed in our fiction today:  Future perfect Social progress, high-speed transport and electricity everywhere – how the Victorians invented the future

Here’s an excerpt, but the whole thing is very much worth reading:

It’s easy to pick and choose when reading this sort of future history from the privileged vantage point of now – to celebrate the predictive hits and snigger at the misses (Wells thought air travel would never catch on, for example); but what’s still striking throughout these books is Wells’s insistence that particular technologies (such as the railways) generated particular sorts of society, and that when those technologies were replaced (as railways would be by what he called the ‘motor truck’ and the ‘motor carriage’), society would need replacing also.

It makes sense to read much contemporary futurism in this way too: as a new efflorescence of this Victorian tradition. Until a few years ago, I would have said that this way of using technology to imagine the future was irrecoverably dead, since it depended on our inheritance of a Victorian optimism, expressed as faith in progress and improvement as realisable individual and collective goals. That optimism was still there in the science fiction of Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, but it fizzled out in the 1960s and ’70s. More recently, we’ve been watching the future in the deadly Terminator franchise, rather than in hopeful film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The coupling of technological progress and social evolution that the Victorians inaugurated and took for granted no longer seemed appealing.


I think this is very much why many people find that Communion of Dreams seems to fit in so well with the style of SF from the 1950s and 60s — in spite of being set in a post-apocalyptic world, there is an … optimism … and a sense of wonder which runs through it (which was very deliberate on my part). As noted in a recent Amazon review*:

James Downey has created a novel that compares favorably with the old masters of science fiction.
Our universe would be a better place were it more like the one he has imagined and written about so eloquently.

Anyway, go read the Aeon essay by Iwan Rhys Morus (who happens to be a professor at Aberystwyth University in Wales — no, I did not make this up).


Jim Downey

*Oh, there’s another new review up I haven’t mentioned.


Who are the Martians, now?

A news item you may have seen:

Fighter jets to be fitted with laser weapons for 2014

Very soon the U.S. Military will be fitting some of their fighter jets with real laser weapons. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) says that the new laser system will be fitted onto jet aircraft in 2014 as a defensive weapon capable of knocking out missiles and other projectiles while in flight.

If you’ve been waiting for the future to finally get here, just go ahead and mark your calendar for 2014.  It was recently announced that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would be retrofitting some U.S. military jets with actual 150KW lasers that will be able to knock missiles out of the sky.

The new laser weapons are part of DARPA’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System and are purportedly being fitted as a defensive measure specifically for knocking projectiles out of the sky such as surface-to-air missiles or any type of larger projectile.  The exact specifics of the system’s capability are still classified.

This may … ring a bell:

Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.

Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run.

I stood staring, not as yet realizing that this was death leaping from man to man in that little distant crowd. All I felt was that it was something very strange. An almost noiseless and blinding flash of light, and a man fell head-long and lay still; and as the unseen shaft of heat passed over them, pine-trees burst into fire, and every dry furze-bush became with one dull thud a mass of flames. And far away towards Knaphill I saw the flashes of trees and hedges and wooden buildings suddenly set alight.

It was sweeping round swiftly and steadily, this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat.

Small wonder that I’ve had this song kicking around in my head, from what is probably a largely-forgotten concept album 35 years old.


Jim Downey

Clever monkeys, part II.

OK, this was kicking around in the back of my head when I wrote the post the other day, because I have had a page from the June 6th Economist sitting on my bench for the last several weeks, waiting for me to get around to writing about it.

About what? Us clever monkeys. Well, more accurately, our genes, but for purposes of discussion here I will say the two are functionally the same over the time span I wish to address. (Which, when you think about it, is a rather profound notion. No, this is not my idea.)

The idea discussed in the article is this: that the development of modern human culture was dependent not on intelligence, but on something more basic – survival. Specifically, on population density:

In their model, Dr Thomas and his colleagues divided a simulated world into regions with different densities of human groups. Individuals in these groups had certain “skills”, each with an associated degree of complexity. Such skills could be passed on, more or less faithfully, thus yielding an average level of skills that could vary over time. The groups could also exchange skills.

The model suggested that once more than about 50 groups were in contact with one another, the complexity of skills that could be maintained did not increase as the number of groups increased. Rather, it was population density that turned out to be the key to cultural sophistication. The more people there were, the more exchange there was between groups and the richer the culture of each group became.

Dr Thomas therefore suggests that the reason there is so little sign of culture until 90,000 years ago is that there were not enough people to support it. It is at this point that a couple of places in Africa—one in the southernmost tip of the continent and one in eastern Congo—yield signs of jewellery, art and modern weapons. But then they go away again. That, Dr Thomas suggests, corresponds with a period when human numbers shrank. Climate data provides evidence this shrinkage did happen.

Now, this is a fairly old trope in Science Fiction: that some cataclysm can result in the complete collapse of society, to the extent that most if not all knowledge and technology is lost. Just look at The Time Machine to see how far back this idea goes – and it has been used countless times since. I play off this trope for Communion of Dreams in a couple of ways, of course, using it as both back story for the novel and for the eventual revelation at the end of the book.

It is interesting to see this intuitive idea borne out by some science (though it sounds to me like there’s still a fair amount of work to be done to establish that the theory is correct). And not just because it addresses some curious discontinuities in the archeological record. Rather, it says that intelligence has considerable staying power, at least in our species. Sure, it may not be a sufficient factor in supporting true civilization, but knowing that at least in our case it can last some 100,000 years gives one hope for it lasting for a while elsewhere, even if those civilizations do not.

Jim Downey

Beats a sculpture of Popeye.
August 10, 2008, 8:13 am
Filed under: Art, H. G. Wells, Humor, Mars, MetaFilter, Science Fiction

Now, this is the way to honor an author:

it’s a fucking tripod from the war of the worlds and can be found in horsell woking, england (h.g. wells’ hometown and the area in which the first martian cylinder landed). imagine walking round the corner and coming face to face with it for the first time, groceries in hand. i’d be close to soiling my pants.

* * *

built in 1998 by michael condron, the 23ft high sculpture was “commissioned to celebrate the centenary of hg wells’ the war of the worlds” and as you can see in the last photo, next to the tripod, seemingly half-buried in the ground, is the cylinder. there are also bacteria represented by designs on surrounding stones – go here to see them. as with the baby tower, congratulations to the local authorities for giving this shiny chunk of brilliance the greenlight. it’s fantastic. if something like this existed outside my local shopping centre then i might actually go near the place.

Cool.  Reminds me of a sculpture we saw while in Wales some years back, in terms of being not the usual sort of boring pigeon perch.  Check it out.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

Laid low.

Wow. It’s been a while since I was this sick, this long. Nothing life-threatening, just the flu that’s going around. Of course, I was completely worn out by the last few weeks of caring for Martha Sr, with no reserves to draw upon to fight this virus, so it comes as very little surprise that I haven’t been able to just shrug off the bug and get better.

It is this sort of experience that drives home the statistics pertaining to how many soldiers over the ages died due to disease rather than battle – I don’t have the numbers right at hand, but generally it has been concluded that at least as many soldiers have died due to illness than from battle related injuries, at least up until the last century. Why? Because soldiers are frequently pushed past the point of physical exhaustion, denied adequate sleep, with poor quality or inadequate food, and under conditions which foster rapid transmission of disease from soldier to soldier.

And that’s one of the things that I always chuckle about when I read about TEOTWAWKI scenarios on this or that forum. Often, particularly when such threads come up on a firearms-related forum, people will get way too preoccupied with guns and ammo, and lose track of the fact that those tools are completely useless if you are too sick or too tired or too hungry to employ them. Get sick, and your superior collection of guns or other tech mean nothing. H.G. Wells knew this, while most of us have forgotten it.

I’ll write more when I am up to it.

Jim Downey

I don’t get it.

There’s a long and wonderful tradition of mixing genres in literature, and science fiction in particular has always had a tendency to appreciate anachronisms, to play the game of “what if spaceflight had been discovered/introduced 100 or 500 years ago”, or to suppose that for some reason some critical tech wasn’t discovered until well after it actually was in history. You can have a lot of fun with this, of pretending that H.G. Wells or Jules Verne (or even Mark Twain, for that matter) were writing not fiction, but suppressed fact, in their stories, and then extending the tech from that point forward. Conversely, someone like Joss Whedon can have a good time giving the crew of Serenity conventional modern firearms rather than futuristic weapons.

I understand that. I can enjoy an anachronism as much as the next guy. In fact, I was very heavily involved in the SCA for about 15 years (to the extent that I was King twice, held all three peerages, and served in numerous offices including Society Marshal). That’s how I met my good lady wife, and many of my closest friends.

But I don’t really get the whole fascination with Steampunk. Oh, sure, there’s been a lot of good fiction done in the sub-genre. But it’s like it has taken on cult qualities. People go nuts over it – BoingBoing sometimes seems to be Steampunk-crazed, and a search turns up almost 200 entries on the site with that theme. It’s not just appreciation of the literature – it’s the whole “build a steampunk this or that artifact” that has people all excited.There are whole publications and websites devoted to home-brew steampunk projects, not to mention clothing & accessories, weapons, et cetera. A good buddy of mine sent me a link to this ‘Steampunk Jar of Articulated Fireflies‘ yesterday, all excited that he had all the materials on hand to build one, except the phosphorous BBs. Um, OK…thanks for that, but, uh, why would you want such a thing? It’s like Star Trek fandom suddenly took over the defining aesthetic for some significant portion of society, and started making it cool to have your own bat’letH and creating a market for cell phones that function like Original Season communicators. I mean, it’s just plain weird that it has penetrated so far into the culture, with no sign of slowing down.

Yes, of course some of my reaction to this is touched with envy. It’d be a rush to have my fiction engender this kind of fan creativity. Well, to a certain extent it would be. I think the first time I came across someone with a subcutaneous bone-conducting mic/speaker based on my description in Communion of Dreams, I think I’d freak out…

Jim Downey