Communion Of Dreams

Drawing the wrong lesson …

One of the oldest Science Fiction tropes is the development of technology intended to enforce compliance through pain. Two notable examples: the ‘shock collars’ used on members of the Enterprise crew in The Gamesters of Triskelion and the ‘pain givers‘ first depicted in the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams.

In both cases, and typically through most of the SF I can think of, this is meant to be a cautionary tale, to show how even a nominally benign or at least non-lethal technology can be perverted. The lesson is that the intentional infliction of pain is itself a bad thing, whether or not it actually causes real corporeal damage.

So, naturally, we have drawn exactly the wrong lesson:

Judge pleads guilty to ordering defendant to be shocked with 50,000 volts

A Maryland judge who ordered a deputy to remotely shock a defendant with a 50,000-volt charge pleaded guilty (PDF) to a misdemeanor civil rights violation in federal court Monday, and he faces a maximum of one year in prison when sentenced later this year.

* * *

The deputy sheriff walked over to where Victim I was standing and pulled a chair away to clear a place for Victim I to fall to the floor. At this point, Victim I stopped speaking. The deputy sheriff then activated the stun-cuff, which administered an electric shock to Victim I for approximately five seconds. The electric shock caused Victim I to fall to the ground and scream in pain. Nalley recessed the proceedings.

* * *

The authorities are increasingly using stun cuffs, which are about the size of a deck of cards, at detention centers and courthouses. They are made by various companies and cost around $1,900 for a device and transmitter. Some models can shock at 80,000 volts.




Jim Downey

And the sky, full of stars … *

I should have some interesting news to share in a couple of days. But for now, I thought I would share this amazing post from Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy:


Yesterday, I posted an amazing Hubble Space Telescope picture. I don’t think it’s too soon to post another shot from Hubble… and I think you’ll agree when you see it, especially after you get an understanding of what you’re seeing.

First, the eye candy: The magnificent Andromeda Galaxy, as seen by Hubble.


And as Plait notes, that’s the low-resolution image.

Go enjoy the article, and marvel at the images he has/links to. Seriously — it is worth your while, if you’re any kind of a space-geek at all.


Jim Downey

*With apologies to JMS.

Moments of revelation.

“All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation.”

-G’Kar, Z’ha’dum

Sometimes you don’t recognize when things change — the moments of transition — except in hindsight. That could be because the change is incremental enough that you don’t notice it for a while, or it might be that you’re so completely involved in the moment that the realization of what just happened doesn’t sink in immediately.


* * *

This morning there was a news item on NPR which caught my attention: that perhaps the Voyager 1 spacecraft has already left our solar system.

Scientists have known for a while that it was approaching the limits of the heliosphere. The expectation was that there would be a fairly clear change in orientation of the magnetic field when the craft crossed the boundary of the Sun’s influence into true interstellar space.  But perhaps that boundary was less defined than we thought. From the story:

How did we miss that? As it turns out, it wasn’t entirely our fault. Researchers thought the solar system was surrounded by a clearly marked magnetic field bubble.

“There’s one at the Earth, there’s one at Jupiter, Saturn, many planets have them. And so just by analogy we were expecting there to be something like that for the solar system,” Swisdak says.

Scientists were waiting for Voyager to cross over the magnetic edge of our solar system and into the magnetic field of interstellar space. But in in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, Swisdak and his colleagues say the magnetic fields may blend together. And so in July 2012, when Voyager crossed from the solar system into deep space, “Voyager just kept cruising along,” Swisdak says. All they saw was a change in the field’s direction.


* * *

Last Thursday my wife had a follow-up with her surgeon to see how she was doing in recovering from her emergency appendectomy.  She had been released from the hospital the previous Saturday, but there was some concern over the risk of secondary infection within her abdomen.

Well, without getting too much into the details, tests indicated that she might be developing exactly that sort of infection. The surgeon ordered a procedure called a needle aspiration and scheduled it for the following day.

We dutifully reported to the hospital for the procedure. It didn’t go smoothly, and the upshot was that it didn’t help her condition at all. A couple hours later we left the hospital, and she’s been mostly resting since. We’re now waiting to hear from the surgeon about what happens next. And what it means.


* * *

Some six years ago I wrote what could be considered a companion piece to this blog post. In it I quoted a friend, talking about Communion of Dreams:

“Yeah, but it’s like the way that the people involved in your book – the characters – are all struggling to understand this new thing, this new artifact, this unexpected visitor. And I like the way that they don’t just figure it out instantly – the way each one of them tries to fit it into their own expectations about the world, and what it means. They struggle with it, they have to keep learning and investigating and working at it, before they finally come to an understanding.” He looked at me as we got back in the car. “Transitions.”


* * *

Where Communion of Dreams was largely about transitions, in many ways St. Cybi’s Well is about revelations. How we experience them. How we understand them. How we do or don’t recognize them when they happen.

The Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams is free today. And you have less than two weeks to enter into the drawing for a hand-bound, full-leather copy of the book. So far only two people have entered. Don’t miss the moment.


Jim Downey

Reflecting (on) reality.

Any work of literature is, to some extent, part of the society in which it was written, and needs to be understood within that context. Whether you’re talking The Bonfire of the Vanities or On the Beach or Life on the Mississippi  or just about any novel you care to name, it is, to some extent, a reflection on the culture surrounding it.

Writers react to the events around them. Even science fiction authors like yours truly. We really can’t avoid it.

I mentioned events in Boston the other day.  Just a blog post. But it is some measure of what has gotten my attention. So it would be safe to assume that to some degree it will show up in St. Cybi’s Well. And it will. But perhaps not exactly as you might think.

Almost five years ago I wrote this:

This is nothing more or less than the peace of the gun. This is the abrogation of civil liberties as a solution for incompetent governance. Of course people like it – let things get bad enough that they fear for their lives more than they value their liberties, and you can get people to do almost anything.

Now, I don’t think that what happened in Boston was anything like what led to that blog post about HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. in August of 2008. In that instance, it was chronic problems with crime rather than a couple of domestic terrorists which brought about de facto martial law.

And I think that the police agencies involved in determining who was responsible for the attacks, and then seeking the suspects in a major metropolitan area did a very professional job. Just compare it to another recent dragnet and you’ll see what I mean.

But I keep coming back to that earlier blog post. Why? Because seeing a major city shut down, and then para-military operations going house to house searching for a suspect, gives me pause. I certainly can’t fault the police for taking precautions intended to protect their own lives and the lives of citizens. SWAT equipment and tactics have been shown to be very effective.

Yet …

… I feel somewhat like the owner of a couple of highly trained and massive guard dogs, who has just watched those dogs chase off/control a threat. There’s a satisfaction in watching them do the task so well. But there’s also a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, things could be bad if they ever decided that they no longer wanted to obey commands.

Nah – no need to worry. That has never happened before.


Jim Downey




Dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers.*

Almost everyone who has seriously studied a foreign language has experienced this: that at some point when you have gained sufficient fluency, you’ll find yourself actually dreaming in the new language. Particularly if you are somewhat of a lucid dreamer, or just remember your dreams, this can come as a very pleasant surprise, and serves as a real mile-marker in your progress with the language.

Well, last night for the first time I found myself “dreaming” scenes and character discussions from St Cybi’s Well.


Jim Downey


Farewell, Commander.

I didn’t watch it when it was originally broadcast, but I came to really enjoy and respect the science fiction series Babylon 5. It was intelligently written, well produced, and generally well acted. It’s now my ‘default’ evening viewing — we’ll watch an episode or two with dinner whenever we’re not in the middle of watching something else. As a result, I’ve watched the entire series through (as well as all the various movies and the short-lived spin-off ‘Crusade’) probably a score of times. And I still find things to appreciate which I hadn’t caught on previous viewing — there’s a reason it won two Hugo Awards while it ran.

One of those things is an increased appreciation of the performance of Michael O’Hare as Commander Sinclair. He was mostly involved with the series in the first season, but played an important part later as well. And of all of the episodes he was in, this little bit is probably my favorite:

Michael O’Hare passed away last night. He will be missed.

Jim Downey

Back from Z’ha’dum.*

I mentioned the other day that my trip to Italy had kicked loose some writing blocks I had been struggling with, and that it had given me ideas for additional stories and novels. It did. It also made me think hard about some decisions I needed to make. Not just about writing. Also about how I spend my life.

Simply put, I have several things I still want to accomplish before I die. Things which I won’t accomplish if I keep putting them off, putting time and energy into things which really don’t matter. Like arguments. Like writing fluff which other people could write, just in order to earn a little money. My time — my life — is more valuable than that.

I think that it was the experience of seeing so many incredible accomplishments from Classical Antiquity still around some 2,000 years later which made an impact on me.

Now, I have no illusions that anything I do will last that long. Nor am I going to give up ‘living in the moment’ and trying to enjoy my life and those I share it with. But I am going to reshuffle my priorities in some very concrete ways.

One of these will be much less time dinking-around in social media. Oh, I will still participate to some extent, still maintain connections with my friends and fans. But I am going to be less self-indulgent in that regard.

Another change in priority will mean writing fewer reviews and articles. That means a loss of income which has made a difference in recent years, and I have to find a way to replace that. After all, I still have to live. The result of this will be a Kickstarter campaign which will be formulated and announced in coming weeks — plenty of people have said that they are looking forward to seeing what my next novel is, and this is one way for them to help make that a reality sooner rather than later, a chance for them to put their money where their mouth is.

(And speaking of Kickstarter campaigns, some friends of mine just launched one to expand their artistic repertoire which I highly recommend — you can find it here: Ancient Metalsmithing Made Modern, or Perfecting Pressblech )

I recently turned 54. And I have accomplished a number of things of which I am justly proud. I have friends and family I love. I have a wonderful wife. I have written books and articles which have brought joy, knowledge, and solace to others. I have helped to preserve history in the form of books & documents. I have created art, sold art, made my little corner of the world a slightly better place. I’ve even helped expand the pool of ballistics knowledge a bit. Frankly, I’ve lived longer and accomplished more than I ever really expected to.

But I have more yet to do. Time to get on with it.

Jim Downey

*Yes, a Babylon 5 reference. In this case specifically to the episode “Conflicts of Interest” in which Sheridan makes the following statement:

I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking, Zack. There are several hundred unpleasant things I’ve been avoiding doing since I got back from Z’ha’dum. Now with Delenn gone I don’t have any excuses. I have to start taking care of them.”

Appropriately enough, one of the places I got to visit while in Italy was Lake Avernus — which the Romans considered the entrance to Hades. Yeah, I’ve been to Hell and back. It’s given me a new perspective.

Looking back: moments of transition.

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 September 24, 2007.


“All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation.”

-G’Kar, Z’ha’dum

Yesterday a buddy of mine and I got out to do some shooting. It may seem odd to someone who isn’t into shooting sports, but this can actually be one of the most relaxing things you can do, at least for me at this time. Why? Because, when I’m shooting, I have to be completely attentive to what I am doing – I can’t be thinking about what is going on at home, whether my MIL is stirring and needs attention, et cetera. As I have mentioned previously, one of the most exhausting aspects of being a care-giver for someone with Alzheimer’s/dementia is that I always, always, have part of my attention diverted to keeping track of what is going on with my MIL. You try doing that with part of your brain while accomplishing anything else, and you’ll quickly understand the problem.

Anyway, it was a good time, doing some informal shooting out on private land. We shot some pistols, a little 9mm carbine of mine which is just a lot of fun, and then my friend got out one of his black powder rifles: a Peabody .43 Spanish made in 1863. My friend is something of an authority on 19th century guns, and has been educating me about them. We shot several rounds, the large 400 grain bullets punching paper at 40 yards, the gun giving a slow but very solid shove back into your shoulder. That’s typical with black-powder: it’s not the sharp crack you get from modern weapons, with their higher pressures from faster-burning powder. After each shot, we’d pull down the trigger guard, rolling the receiver down and ejecting the cartridge, then insert another cartridge by hand and set it before closing the rolling block to prepare the weapon to fire again.

After all the shooting was done, our equipment packed up and put away, we headed back into town and got some lunch. As we talked over lunch, I asked my friend about how long it was before the Peabody we had been shooting evolved into the later repeating rifles which proved so reliable and popular. Because, as I saw it, all the elements were there: a dependable brass cartridge, a mechanism to extract and eject the spent shell, the moving receiver. All that was needed was a way to hold more rounds and feed them.

As we finished up our meal he gave me the brief run-down of the history or the repeating rifle development (which is basically what you’ll find in this Wikipedia article, particularly the sub-headings of ‘predecessors’ and ‘development’), and the conversation moved on to a more general discussion. I started to explain that one of the things I find so interesting, one of the unifying themes in all the things I have done is an interest in…

“Transitions,” my friend said.

I stopped. I was going to say “innovations,” but he was right.

“It shows in your novel.” (He’d recently read Communion.)

“Actually, I was thinking more of ‘innovations’ – those instances when people bring together different and diffuse elements to achieve something new, whether it is a mechanism, or a procedure, or just a way of looking at the world.”

We paid the bill, headed out to the car.

“Yeah, but it’s like the way that the people involved in your book – the characters – are all struggling to understand this new thing, this new artifact, this unexpected visitor. And I like the way that they don’t just figure it out instantly – the way each one of them tries to fit it into their own expectations about the world, and what it means. They struggle with it, they have to keep learning and investigating and working at it, before they finally come to an understanding.” He looked at me as we got back in the car. “Transitions.”

Transitions, indeed. Moments of transition, moments of revelation. Because that is all we have, when you come right down to it.

Jim Downey

The stars, ourselves.*

Via Phil Plait, this completely wonderful clip from Carl Sagan’s intellectual heir:

It *is* an excellent answer, and one I have discussed previously. Tyson does an excellent job with it, and had I been writing Communion of Dreams now, I certainly would be happy to reference him.

Perhaps for the next book . . .

Jim Downey

*Wherein I display not only my geek cred, but also my intellectual rigor. Ain’t you impressed?

…and not to yield.
June 10, 2010, 12:45 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Babylon 5, Failure, Gardening, J. Michael Straczynski, JMS

“Maybe I’ll always second-guess myself” said the commenter in a thread about care-giving.

* * * * * * *

I looked at the plants. Several were pounded over from storms. A couple looked to have been nibbled to death by a bunny that somehow got inside the deer netting & chicken wire.

Most of the rest looked pretty sad as well. All heirloom tomato plants, from a nursery back East I was used to working with.

“Going to replace them?” asked my wife. We were just coming back from our morning walk around the neighborhood with the dog. I had cut across the back yard to survey the garden, and my wife had joined me. The dog went over and laid down in the shade of one of our big trees.

“Some of them.” I hoped some would still make it, varietals that I still wanted to taste, to look at, to can their many colors and textures. “I’ll get five or six new plants when I run errands this morning.”

* * * * * * *

We watched “P.S. I Love You” last night.

To be honest, I just about gave up on it in the first few minutes. I’m not big on ‘chick-flick’ movies which just go for cheap emotional response with bad acting and dumb situations. And at first, it looked like it was headed that way.

But I stuck it out, enjoyed it. I am a romantic at heart, and I enjoy a movie that is both self-aware and unafraid to be emotional without being manipulative. That’s what it turned out to be, and it was worth the time. Honestly dealing with loss is fine by me – and it is too seldom realistically done in movies. After all, we all face the loss of loved ones, whether we want to admit that to ourselves or not.

* * * * * * *

At the end of one episode of Babylon 5, right as the climax of the story arc regarding the battle between Light and Dark, JMS hearkens back to another heroic figure and has his main character quote the following from “Ulysses”:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It’s a fine moment, though I’m not a big fan of Tennyson, and is perfect for the grand scope of the story that Straczynski is telling.

But I prefer a quieter story sometimes. One which is captured in small motions and simple tasks.

* * * * * * *

I selected which of the six tomato plants I would replace, and set one of the new plants next to each of the towers.

I lifted off the tower. With a tug I pulled the plant out of the ground and laid it aside.

Again using the large gardening knife I love so well, I loosened the rest of the dirt in the hole. The sharp smell of the organic fertilizer, now wet and alive, rose up with the heat of the landscape fabric around me. I reached in with my bare hands and scooped out the dirt.

The new plant, larger, healthier, greener than the ones I planted weeks ago, went into the ground. Dirt loosely packed around it. Tower replaced.

I picked up the dying plant. It wasn’t its fault. Sometimes these things just happen.

I moved on to the next one.

* * * * * * *

“I admire your willingness to write this book. My mom died in ’03 and my dad in ’06; I was a secondary caregiver to my mom and a primary caregiver to my dad. I’m still second-guessing myself on “did I do enough?” “did I do the right things?” Maybe I’ll always second-guess myself.”

I replied: “I think that everyone who does that second-guesses themselves, no matter how much they actually do. Writing this book is part of our process for coming to terms with that – our hope is that it will help make the path a little easier for others to walk.”

* * * * * * *

Jim Downey