Communion Of Dreams

“Your lot got the right idea, I say.”

I wrote the following for Chapter 12 of St Cybi’s Well some months back. It’s set near the visitor’s center at Stonehenge, and occurs just as the pandemic influenza* is getting started in the UK, when people aren’t quite sure yet what is happening. The main character, Darnell Sidwell, sees a group of protesting people, and finds out that they’re members of the ‘British Defense League’, my fictional version of this group.

Before he got to the front of the protest, he looked over the fence, saw something of a party going on. People drinking, dancing to music from a portable sound system, standing around smoking. A couple of young men were standing beside the fence, watching the crowd flow by, passing a bottle back and forth.

One of the men saw him looking at them. “Wotcha lookin’ at?”

Darnell walked over to them. He stopped a couple of paces before the fence. “Nothing, really. You?”

“Oh, a Yank, are ya?” The man seemed to relax a bit. His friend, who had been looking down the road, turned to look at Darnell as well. “Jus’ watchin’ this lot go by. Havin’ a bit of a laugh. You got any cigs?”

“No, sorry, I don’t smoke. Yeah, I’m a Yank.”

The friend spoke. “Your lot got the right idea, I say.”


“‘Bout the illegals.” He turned to his mate. “We should do that.”

“Yeah, kick ‘em all out,” agreed the friend. “All the Pakis and Blackies. They the ones what got this flu goin’. ‘Cause they’s dirty.”

“Uncivilized,” added his friend, taking a long pull on the bottle, then handing it over to the other.

“Flu?” asked Darnell, feigning ignorance.

“Yeah, the flu. What’s got ever’one comin’ here.” He gestured towards Stonehenge. “All the nutters lookin’ like Druids or Harry Potter. Ain’ you heard of it?”

“Um, no, I was just coming over to visit Stonehenge. Isn’t it always like this?”

“Nah. There’s a flu goin’ ‘round. Bad one,” said the man.

“People dyin’,” said the other. “Gov’s tryin’ to hide it, but word’s out.”

“Me aunt’s a nurse o’er London. She tol’ me mum.” He gestured behind him, towards the party going on. “Others heard ‘bout it too. Then some heard th’ nutters were coimin’ here, thought that we’d have a chance to make th’ telly.”


The first man tilted up the bottle, drained it. “Say, got anythin’ t’ drink in your bag, there?”

“Just water.” Darnell smiled. “It’s a bit early for me.”

“Yeah, well,” said the second man, “ain’ for me. Drink’ll keep the sickness out. Alcohol kills it. Ever’one knows that.”

“Sounds like good advice,” said Darnell, turning to walk away.

“Hey, Yank,” called one of the men.

“Yeah?” asked Darnell, pausing.

The two men exchanged glances. The first one said “You seem OK. Word to th’ wise: don’t stick around too long.”




From the news yesterday:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”


Following that news item, Bend the Arc Jewish Action issued the following statement:

“Registering everyone of a certain religion to a list? We’ve seen that. It doesn’t end well.

“There is no way American Jews will ever find it acceptable for anyone – anyone – to be registered, singled out, profiled, discriminated against, or in any way mistreated by the government on the basis of their religion in this country. Mr. Trump’s suggestion is as terrifying as it is abhorrent.

“This runs counter to everything we believe in as Americans and Jews and we will not stand idly by as fear and bigotry are used to dominate our politics.”


St Cybi’s Well is set in an alternate time-line to our own, where the United States has become a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ in part as a response to the 9-11 attacks. It’s fiction.

At least, I intended for it to be fiction …

Jim Downey

*What is referred to as the ‘fire-flu’ in Communion of Dreams, set 40 years later.

Fame is fleeting.

I went to check something for the “This I Believe” people, and found that they’re considering dropping me from the Chocolate Frogs card. The horror!

Or perhaps I just won’t be allowed in the Headless Hunt anymore …

Ah well.  Fame is fleeting. Such is life.

Oh, I recorded the essay this morning. It seemed to go well. I’ll post a link when it is ready.


Jim Downey

How about a little game?

OK, that last post kinda churned around in my head a bit, reminded me of something else having to do with robotics.

I didn’t post anything about this a week ago when it made the rounds, but check it out:

The ability to toss a pole back and forth like that, while flying, is pretty cool. And I bet if they can do that, then tossing a ball back and forth would also be possible — if not now, then in the very near future.

So, what I want to know is:  when is someone going to come up with an honest-to-God game of “Quadrocopter Quidditch”? Should be eminently doable.


Jim Downey

Ride a painted pony*

“Could you take care of this for me?” I said. “I find myself surprisingly … attached.”

* * * * * * *

Just a couple pages into Communion of Dreams, there’s this passage:

He picked up a meal at the airport and ate in the car on the way over to his office, relaxing and watching the city roll by around him.

Early in the second chapter there’s this one:

The car he was in threaded through the old suburban streets, past still vacant houses and the occasional empty lot. Following the great death of the fire-flu, many homes had simply been abandoned.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 3:

‘What was it?’ he wondered as the car wound through the streets, stopping before the USSA building. He got out, standing there in the plaza, looking up at the golden plasteel supports and the draping glass fabric.

As a writer, particularly of science fiction, you have to know what to explain and what to just assume. By this I mean you have to explain certain things to the reader, enough to give them a grasp on important story elements, but that you can assume they will fill in the background with other less important elements on their own.

Nowhere in Communion of Dreams do I state that cars are largely self-driving. There’s really no need to. Most readers are used enough to the tropes of science fiction that they can read the above passages, and fill in that detail on their own. It’s a little trick which helps anchor the reality of the book in the mind of the reader quickly.

* * * * * * *

And, honestly, the notion of a self-driving car is only barely science fiction at this point. I mean, one of the primary issues right now is having our legal system play catch-up with the technological changes in this field. From a discussion on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday:

GJELTEN: So the — I guess what — driverless cars have been in development for many years. But the big news this week is this law that passed in California allowing some driving of self-driving cars. Tell us what’s in this law exactly.

LEVANDOWSKI: Well, this law is called SB 1298, and it sets forth the framework for the DMV to set up the guidelines that vehicles will need to adhere to in order to, in the future, be able to drive themselves with or without people inside them. It outlines the type of technical standards, the types of insurance requirements. Everything that you would expect a person to go through when they get their driver’s license, you would expect a vehicle that doesn’t have a driver in it to be able to have.

* * * * * * *

“I do feel that I’m a very lucky, lucky person, in all sorts of ways. And one of the ways in which I’m fortunate is Harry Potter set me free to write whatever I want to write. I don’t — you know, we’re not living hand-to-mouth — I, clearly I can afford to pay all of my bills and now my writing life is a great experience. I can really do whatever I want to do. So I’m a fortunate person — I’m a fortunate writer.”

From JK Rowling’s interview on “Morning Edition” today.

* * * * * * *

“Could you take care of this for me?” I said. “I find myself surprisingly … attached.”

“Sure,” said my wife.


Yeah, to my car.

Which is a surprise. Because I don’t usually become attached to things. Oh, I keep some things for sentimental value, because they are somehow connected to an important person or event in my life.  But otherwise I tend to be very pragmatic about material things.

I got the car new 20 years ago. A Subaru wagon, which served me well. The last five or six years when it needed work I would weigh the pros and cons of getting the work done — was it worth it? Could I afford it? Could I afford not to?

See, I don’t *really* need a car. I work at home. For a while now when I needed to drive any distance, I took my wife’s car anyway, since it is a few years newer and in substantially better shape.

This past spring it developed some exhaust problems. The work it needed was more than the car was worth. I decided the time had come to just sell it and be done. Consolidating down to one car for the household would be a minor annoyance, but made the most sense.

Well, I made the intellectual decision. The emotional one, I found, wasn’t quite as easy.


I owned, and drove, that car for more than half the time I’ve had a driver’s license. There was simple ‘time in harness’ associated with it.

But there was more. Specifically, status.

I don’t worry a lot about status. As in, conventional measures of “success” in our society. When you don’t make a lot of money, you learn to not put so much store in such things, or it’ll drive you completely nuts. And as I noted earlier this year, I don’t make a lot of money.

But confronting the hard truth that I can not afford to buy a new car was a bit more than I really wanted to face. And selling my car meant exactly that. Because in our society, if you sell your car, you’re supposed to get another one. Preferably a new one. At the very least, a newer one. To not do so means you’re not successful.

And you should never, ever, under no circumstances, admit that you’re not successful.

So, yeah, the emotional truth was harder to come to terms with. Which would mean that I would be piss-poor at selling my car — at advertising it, at negotiating a sale, all that stuff.

But I’ve come to realize that there are other approaches to defining success, other strategies which can change how you accomplish things. My Kickstarter project is one such, stepping in to crowd-fund what a conventional publishing contract would previously do.

So I asked my wife to take care of it. She didn’t have the same emotional baggage to contend with. And she took care of it in her usual competent & efficient manner: last night the car drove away from our driveway for the last time.

Who knows? Maybe next year, after St. Cybi’s Well is done and available, it’ll be enough of a hit that I’ll be able to afford a new car. One which can partially drive itself. Stranger things have happened. Just ask JK Rowling.


Jim Downey

*Well, it seemed appropriate.

Looking back: Rejecting Jane Austin.

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 July 20, 2007.


How would you like to have been the guy at a publishing house who sent back J. K. Rowling’s query for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as the book was first titled in Britain)? Purportedly, over a dozen people have this bit of professional shame lurking in their past. There are plenty of other such stories out there of writers who had trouble selling their first book, who then went on to hugely successful writing careers. But given Rowling’s phenomenal success (which I think is fully deserved), this is the tale I find most amusing as I struggle in obscurity with my own writing.

Getting published these days is largely a matter of luck. Oh, if you are already a celebrity, then getting a book published is a simple matter. But as we live in an age of celebrity, I don’t find that in the least bit surprising. But for a first-time novelist, breaking through is really a matter of luck as much as anything.

Don’t believe me? Figure that quality will eventually attract a publisher, the way that J.K. Rowling did after a dozen rejections?

Tell that to David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Lassman, a frustrated novelist himself, decided to see what would happen if he sent around sample chapters and plot outlines for some of Jane Austen‘s work to British publishers. From The Guardian:

After making only minor changes, he sent off opening chapters and plot synopses to 18 of the UK’s biggest publishers and agents. He was amazed when they all sent the manuscripts back with polite but firm “no-thank-you’s” and almost all failed to spot that he was ripping off one of the world’s most famous literary figures.

Mr Lassman said: “I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen’s work.”

Lassman barely tweaked some of the names and titles, but left the text largely alone. And so, one of the most celebrated authors in the English language couldn’t get past the first-line readers employed by most publishers and agents to filter out unsolicited submissions.

As I try and psyche myself up for making another round of passes at agents, trying to convince them that having over 3500 people download my novel based almost entirely on word of mouth is an indication that there is indeed some demand there, I will remember this. I do not delude myself into thinking that I am a writer on the same level as Austen or Rowling. Hardly. But not all published work is in anything like that league. Further, the decision as to what gets published, what gets past the poorly paid staff stuck with opening envelops, is largely a matter of just dumb luck rather than the reflection of any sort of quality judgment at all.

Jim Downey


This is old magic.
March 6, 2012, 10:10 am
Filed under: Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, movies, tech

I’ll be damned – they actually used a miniature. I expected that it’d all be CGI in this day and age.

Full article, and a bunch more images of the model, here: Harry Potter and the film-makers’ magic.

Jim Downey

“If you build it . . . “

“Vir, do you believe in fate?”

“Well, actually, I believe there are currents in the universe, eddies and tides that pull us one away or the other. Some we have to fight, and some we have to embrace. Unfortunately, the currents we have to fight look exactly like the currents we have to embrace.”

Recently, I came up with an audacious idea. This is something which happens to me now and again. Most of the time, I chuckle over it, consider the possibilities, then let it slide back into the creative froth. But every now and again I get an idea I take somewhat seriously, and consider practically – not so much on whether I think it will work, but on whether I think I can convince enough other people that it will work.

Through the last couple of decades I’ve done better at this than you might think, batting about .500. Here’s a list of the big ones, along with a synopsis:

  • Opening an art gallery. This *almost* worked, but remains my most expensive failure to date. It’s very sobering to lose money that belongs to family and friends who trust your judgment, not to mention all the work of yourself, your partner, spouses and employees.
  • Writing a novel, and getting it published. Looks like this one will actually work.
  • Paint the Moon. My biggest artistic success to date.
  • Glass Canopy. This caught the imagination of a number of people, and generated a lot of discussion locally. Now such structures are used elsewhere for exactly this purpose. A failure, but not a total one.
  • Nobel Prize for JK Rowling. A debacle, in that so many people hated the idea. But perhaps I was just premature.
  • Ballistics By The Inch.  A huge success. This was in no way just my idea, and I only did part of the work, but I think the vision I had for how the project would be received was largely mine.
  • Co-authoring a care-giving memoir. Still early in the evaluation period on this, so can’t say whether it is a success or not.

And looking over that list, thinking about it, one of the clear things I see which helps make something a success is the amount of work I (and others) put into it. When presented with a zany idea, most people will be amused, say why they think it is crazy, and then more or less forget about it. But if confronted with the fact of an idea made manifest, a lot of that skepticism disappears (or never occurs to people in the first place.)

This isn’t very profound, of course, and certainly isn’t at all new. But I am still somewhat surprised to see how much it actually operates in the real world. It’s like imagination is so difficult for people that they just can’t get past their initial dismissal. I asked for comments on my latest idea, and so far have only heard from one person, who pointed out potential problems with it (this was actually a very helpful response). I can only guess that most other people consider it too nutty an idea to even bother with – but in my gut I’m pretty certain that if this resource existed it would be hugely popular and widely used.

But who knows? Was the voice a ghost or just hallucination? Do you embrace the current or fight it? Failure is real – both due to risk as well as inaction.

Jim Downey


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