Communion Of Dreams

Two visions.

This wonderful vision of the human future has been making the rounds recently, and I had to share it:

Wanderers is a vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.

A somewhat more … cautionary … vision of what the future could hold can be found in this:

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant melted down in 1986, creating a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone that has been almost completely devoid of human interference for decades. Now you can take a tour, courtesy of a camera-carrying drone.


Mutually exclusive? Apocalypse versus brave new worlds?

I think not. In fact, the Communion of Dreams/St Cybi’s Well ‘universe’ contains both. If I ever decide to write them, I have books set in the 2020s, about 15 years following the fire-flu pandemic, and in the 2030s in the Israeli colonies on the Moon. In the first the world will feel much like what’s seen in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And in the second I’ve envisioned how the 1/6th Earth-normal gravity would allow for playing something very much like Quiddich on small personal flyers in large domed stadiums.

It’s important to remember that the future isn’t either/or. It’s even more important to remember that we will have a role in creating that future, for good or ill.


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

Odds and ends.
October 6, 2010, 10:34 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Failure, Health, Humor, J. K. Rowling, Publishing, Science Fiction

The last couple of days have been a bit busy, a bit rough (some residual annoying pain from the pneumonia getting in the way), so apologies for the light posting.

I did just put up a post about the infinity symbol video at Sixty Symbols. But I am rethinking whether I want to continue the project of writing about each of their videos – we’ll see.

No news to share on the book fronts. Neither word from the publisher about when they’re going to print Communion of Dreams, nor any positive responses from agents about Her Final Year. Feel like I am in something of a holding pattern, and it’s frustrating.

As I have listened to the news of the different Nobel Prize announcements, I did have an odd thought: what if someday they do indeed award the Prize for Literature to J.K. Rowling? If so, I bet in the web searches that news reporters would do, my spectacular (but fun) failure to campaign for that would probably pop up. That’d be amusing. Good thing I can laugh at myself.

And so it goes. I think I’ll give the dog a bath.

Jim Downey

. . . and I don’t think I’ll see this movie.
July 23, 2009, 6:20 pm
Filed under: Failure, Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, movies, Steampunk

Went to see the new Harry Potter movie last night (which I enjoyed), and of course had to sit through about six days worth of “Previews of Coming Attractions” (which I didn’t). In amongst the usual eminently forgettable fare they were threatening us with was one particular movie that sent a chill up my spine.

No, it wasn’t a horror flick, though it certainly looks to be pretty horrible. It was Sherlock Holmes.

Good lord, they’ve tried to turn him into an “action hero”.

Now, granted, Holmes was able to take care of himself in a fight. Sir Arthur specified this in the books & stories. He was capable with sword, walking stick, and his fists. And most of those play their part in his lore.

But this preview wanted to portray him as some steampunk version of Batman. All that was lacking was a mask and cape.

Methinks the writers (there are four of them – never an encouraging sign for a movie) heard that Robert Downey Jr was to be in the role and thought that they had to somehow connect the story to Iron Man. And no, according to the ImDB, the screenplay is not based on any of the actual works of Conan Doyle. This is what can happen when fictional characters pass into the realm of the “public domain”.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Jim Downey

Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

(This is one of my newspaper columns from Columbia Daily Tribune, updated with links. Thought it might be of interest while I am away for a few days.  – JD)

Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

One of my favorite String Theory blogs (yeah, I have rather eclectic interests) recently got into a discussion of the new Harry Potter movie. Even hard-core physicists like to discuss movies in addition to the latest research into 11-dimension supergravity and the advantages of D-branes over M-theory. Which is good, because when these people start throwing around the advanced math wizardry needed to really understand these concepts I’m just a Muggle. But if they talk movies or art, I can chime in with the best of them.

Anyway, the discussion of Goblet of Fire turned into a debate of whether or not the Potter books themselves should really be considered literature. And, frankly, it was rather funny to watch a bunch of really smart people try and wrestle with something so completely outside of their field of training. Sure, most of them had taken some lit classes while undergrads, but they were working with tools not really suited to the problem. It’d be like me, with a little bit of math from college 25 years ago, trying to engage one of them on the validity of the Superstring Revolution. I might have a general understanding of the issues involved, but I’m completely unequipped to contribute anything meaningful to the debate in the language of science.

What was really interesting about this, though, was that none of them saw it that way. They were all certain that their opinions of literature, as an intellectual exercise, were completely valid. They had fallen into the trap of thinking that their likes or dislikes in literature was all that was necessary to have an informed debate.

This is a common problem with all the arts. Non-artists usually think that their personal preferences are all that matters. If someone doesn’t like a Pollock drip painting, then it isn’t “art.” If they think that opera is boring, then that’s sufficient to consider it outmoded and useless. And conceptual art . . . well, it’s beyond the conceptual boundary horizon for most folks and so doesn’t even exist. Might as well be magic.

Furthermore, if you challenge these opinions people will get really indignant and defensive. They don’t want to hear that an understanding of the issues involved is necessary to appreciate some art. The old line “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” will pop up in one form or another very quickly.

And on one level, that’s OK. I wouldn’t think of telling someone that they couldn’t form an opinion about what they like or dislike in art any more than I would consider telling them what they liked to eat for breakfast. But if you’ve never even heard of eggs, how can you have an opinion on the proper preparation of a nice quiche? It’d be like having strong feelings about word choice in the translation of Rilke’s Der Schwan when you don’t speak German. Sure, you can have an opinion, but it’s not something I’m going to take particularly seriously.

This isn’t to say that only an ‘expert’ can have a valid opinion about art. Hardly. By its very nature art is designed to elicit a response even in the uninformed. It’s perfectly OK to say “I like that painting.” Or, “I don’t care for opera.” But when someone starts to try and talk about the validity of a particular work of art (or music, literature, et cetera), they need to know what they’re talking about. Otherwise, people will treat you like the guy sitting in the sports bar who keeps yelling “pass the ball” at the TV during the baseball game. Or, perhaps more appropriately, like the guy at the Quidditch match who keeps calling for a relief pitcher.

Jim Downey

Here come “The Beedles”
December 4, 2008, 8:06 am
Filed under: Amazon, Book Conservation, Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, Marketing, Music, NYT, Promotion, Publishing

Here comes the latest round of this generation’s British Invasion:

‘Beedle the Bard,’ on View at the Library

Harry PotterIllustrations by J. K. Rowling accompany one of seven handmade copies of “The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” the latest book by the best-selling children’s author. The copy is on view at the New York Public Library. The skull above accompanies one of the stories, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” (Photo: Scholastic)

The wizard book is now available for muggle eyes. A hand-written and hand-illustrated copy of J. K. Rowling’s newest book, “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” was unveiled on Wednesday at the New York Public Library, an event to garner publicity for the commercial release of the book Thursday.

I’ve written about these custom bindings before, as well as the collector’s edition.  But still, it is rather exciting that this book is available.  And as I am currently listening to Deathly Hallows as I work in the bindery, I’ve been thinking about the (still?) unknown bookbinder who did the custom volumes, and understand the desire of fans of the series to have their own copy of Beedle.  But as I said before, if anyone spends the money for a “collector’s edition” for me as a gift, I will kick them.  Get a trade edition and donate the balance of what you would have spent to a charity, instead.

Jim Downey


Some little servings this morning.

Excellent large collection of images from the Large Hadron Collider at the Boston Globe’s site, via MeFi.

Via just about everywhere: the ‘Collector’s Edition‘ of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling.  I suppose if you sell as many books as Rowling does, an edition of 100,000 can be considered ‘limited for collectors’.   If anyone spends $100.00 on this book for me I will kick them.  Oh, I’ve written about Beedle before.

Got an Alice fixation?

Perhaps I should consider this idea – selling ‘shares’ of my future royalties for Communion of Dreams.  Think I can get a buck each for a couple dozen?  Also via MeFi.

All for now.  More later.

Jim Downey