Communion Of Dreams

I am a bad man.*

‘Cause I damned near laughed my butt off at this:


Jim Downey


February 24, 2012, 11:09 am
Filed under: Firefly, Joss Whedon, movies, Press, Promotion, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

The title seemed an appropriate reference for how science fiction can have an impact on culture, if only a minor/temporary linguistic one. Which is the topic of today’s entry in the ongoing series of interview questions:

4. In 2012, we can easily look back at previous science fiction works and poke fun at how we’ve yet to receive our flying car or develop certain technologies we were “promised.” When crafting a world that hasn’t come into being, and may never, how have you viewed the balance between letting your imagination run wild and still trying to create a future that rings true in some form or fashion?

Yeah, that’s one of the big dangers in writing about what the world will be like in just 40 years. I mean, I’m 53 – I *remember* what the world was like in 1972. So I tried to turn that around, and think back to how small changes and unexpected events have shaped the world in the last 40 years, and then tried to use those insights in looking forward. I’ve tried to anchor the world of 2052 firmly in what our world today is really like, but extending trends we have seen operate in the last 40 years. Toss in a few wildcard events, some unexpected discoveries, and then cross your fingers.

And to a certain extent, this is why I don’t really think of Communion of Dreams as a typical ‘science fiction’ book – it is solidly grounded in known science and built from the reality around us. The people in it are all real people, not unlike folks you know or would find in any mainstream novel. In this sense, it is just another work of fiction, though one which is a bit more speculative.

That said, while we can all grumble about not having jet-packs or flying cars, a lot of science fiction did help inspire and influence technological development. Arthur C. Clarke is arguably the first person to have suggested geostationary satellite communications. Our tablet computers and smartphones can be traced back to countless “electronic readers” and “communicators” described in science fiction back as far as the 1930s. And just a year ago the X-Prize Foundation announced a $10 million competition to build a Star Trek ‘tricorder’. I can’t say that there’s anything in Communion of Dreams which will have that kind of impact, but who knows?

Part of my ambivalence there at the end is just due to the unpredictability of these things, and how they can pop up long after you think whatever impact has long-since faded. I mean, look at the appeal of the Air Mags. Who would have predicted that those sneakers from a movie made in the 80s would suddenly be popular again? And with Hollywood seeming to be stuck in an endless cycle of remakes of classic science fiction movies/shows, it is entirely possible that I will live to see Joss Whedon (or someone else) get another crack at the Firefly universe, perhaps reviving interest in some small bit of his future tech/lingo. Stranger things have happened.

Jim Downey

*From here, of course.

Nasty nasty!

How is it, being born in 1958 and growing up in the era of MAD (and with a teenage fascination with nuclear weapons), that I never heard of this insane/brilliant project before?

Project Pluto

On January 1, 1957, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission selected the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory‘s (LLNL) predecessor, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, to study the feasibility of applying heat from nuclear reactors to ramjet engines. This research became known as “Project Pluto“. The work was directed by Dr. Ted Merkle, leader of the laboratory’s R-Division.

Originally carried out at Livermore, California, the work was moved to new facilities constructed for $1.2 million on eight square miles (21 km²) of Jackass Flats at the NTS, known as Site 401. The complex consisted of six miles (10 km) of roads, critical assembly building, control building, assembly and shop buildings, and utilities. Also required for the construction was 25 miles (40 km) of oil well casing which was necessary to store the million pounds (450 t) of pressurized air used to simulate ramjet flight conditions for Pluto.

The principle behind the nuclear ramjet was relatively simple: motion of the vehicle pushed air in through the front of the vehicle (ram effect), a nuclear reactor heated the air, and then the hot air expanded at high speed out through a nozzle at the back, providing thrust.

The notion of using a nuclear reactor to heat the air was fundamentally new. Unlike commercial reactors, which are surrounded by concrete, the Pluto reactor had to be small and compact enough to fly, but durable enough to survive a 7,000 mile (11,000 km) trip to a potential target. The nuclear engine could, in principle, operate for months, so a Pluto cruise missile could be left airborne for a prolonged time before being directed to carry out its attack.

That’s just the intro from the Wikipedia article. To get a better sense of just how demented this project was, check out this article from 1990: The Flying Crowbar. A couple of bits from that that gives you an idea:

Pluto’s namesake was Roman mythology’s ruler of the underworld — seemingly an apt inspiration for a locomotive-size missile that would travel at near-treetop level at three times the speed of sound, tossing out hydrogen bombs as it roared overhead. Pluto’s designers calculated that its shock wave alone might kill people on the ground. Then there was the problem of fallout. In addition to gamma and neutron radiation from the unshielded reactor, Pluto’s nuclear ramjet would spew fission fragments out in its exhaust as it flew by. (One enterprising weaponeer had a plan to turn an obvious peace-time liability into a wartime asset: he suggested flying the radioactive rocket back and forth over the Soviet Union after it had dropped its bombs.)

* * *

Because of its combination of high speed and low altitude, Pluto promised to get through to targets that manned bombers and even ballistic missiles might not be able to reach. What weaponeers call “robustness” was another important advantage. “Pluto was about as durable as a bucket of rocks,” says one who worked on the project. It was because of the missile’s low complexity and high durability that physicist Ted Merkle, the project’s director, called it “the flying crowbar.”

* * *

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Pluto’s sponsors were having second thoughts about the project. Since the missile would be launched from U.S. territory and had to fly low over America’s allies in order to avoid detection on its way to the Soviet Union, some military planners began to wonder if it might not be almost as much a threat to the allies. Even before it began dropping bombs on our enemies Pluto would have deafened, flattened, and irradiated our friends. (The noise level on the ground as Pluto went by overhead was expected to be about 150 decibels; by comparison, the Saturn V rocket, which sent astronauts to the moon, produced 200 decibels at full thrust.) Ruptured eardrums, of course, would have been the least of your problems if you were unlucky enough to be underneath the unshielded reactor when it went by, literally roasting chickens in the barnyard. Pluto had begun to look like something only Goofy could love.

Nasty nasty! Now I know the inspiration for The Doomsday Machine. And possibly Reaver tech.

But consider also the brilliance behind Project Pluto. It required fundamental advancements in technology on the order of what was required for the Apollo missions. Again, from the Air & Space Magazine article:

The success of Project Pluto depended upon a whole series of technological advances in metallurgy and materials science. Pneumatic motors necessary to control the reactor in flight had to operate while red-hot and in the presence of intense radioactivity. The need to maintain supersonic speed at low altitude and in all kinds of weather meant that Pluto’s reactor had to survive conditions that would melt or disintegrate the metals used in most jet and rocket engines. Engineers calculated that the aerodynamic pressures upon the missile might be five times those the hypersonic X-15 had to endure. Pluto was “pretty close to the limits in all respects,” says Ethan Platt, an engineer who worked on the project. “We were tickling the dragon’s tail all the way,” says Blake Myers, head of Livermore’s propulsion engineering division.

I can see the appeal – but I’m glad they didn’t decide to wake that particular dragon.

Jim Downey

(Via a comment at MeFi.)

I’d pay money…
January 26, 2009, 7:07 am
Filed under: Art, Humor, Joss Whedon, MetaFilter, Science Fiction, Survival

…to see this:

I showed a snippet back in October, but here is the full web pilot I shot during the strike. If you click through to Vimeo, you can see it in full-screen HD.1

For the past few months, the pilot has been shopped around to advertisers and other possible sponsors, but given the economy and my schedule, it’s looking unlikely that a confluence of money and time will lead us to shoot more. So I wanted to let people see it, particularly because it features some actors who should be on more lists. Including Ze Frank, who is now an Angeleno.

The web series business model has proved tough for everyone to figure out. Yes, Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible was fantastic, but even that couldn’t get the ad sponsors it should have. Selling through iTunes is an option for someone with Whedon’s name brand, but I don’t see it working for The Remnants, even given the recognizability of some of the cast members.

Interesting: a post-apocalyptic comedy. Wrap your head around that.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

“Was that the primary buffer panel?”*
June 13, 2008, 12:56 pm
Filed under: Firefly, Joss Whedon, movies, NASA, Science Fiction, Serenity, Space, tech

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery spotted an unidentified object floating behind the craft as well as a bump on the shuttle rudder on Friday but neither was cause for concern, NASA said.

After carrying out routine testing the day before Discovery is due to land back on Earth on Saturday, “the crew indicated they had seen a 1-1.5-foot (30-45 centimeter) long rectangular object floating away from the shuttle from behind the rear portion of the right wing,” the US space agency said.

“Shortly afterwards, the crew described what they called a ‘bump’ on the left side trailing edge of Discovery’s rudder,” it said in a statement.

NASA experts back on Earth studied images and video of both the object and the bump but concluded that they posed no risk and Discovery was “ship-shape” for Saturday’s landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I don’t know about you, but offhand I would tend to think that seeing parts of my spaceship floating away unexpectedly would give me more than a little pause, particularly given the history of the Shuttle program.

Hope they get home safely.

Jim Downey

*go to the eighth section.

I knew these days would come.

Last night we settled down with some dinner to watch a bit of Firefly, settling on Serenity (the episode, not the movie). At one point fairly early on, when plans have gone south at several junctures, the captain of the ship (Mal) is considering options, trying to make the best of a not-great situation. There’s this little bit of dialog:

MAL: We don’t get paid for this, we won’t have enough money to fuel the ship,
let alone keep her in repair. She’ll be dead in the water anyhow.
(Mal turns to the others)
We just gotta keep our heads down and do the job. Pray there ain’t no more surprises.

I looked at my wife, and we just nodded to one another.

* * * * * * *

We did a hard thing. And we did it well.

Caring for my MIL for years somewhat warped my perspective. First and foremost in our consideration was always what her needs were and how best to meet them. I’ve often talked about what that meant in terms of rewards and sacrifices, and I don’t intend to rehash that now.

But a couple of things have changed with her passing. First off, is the odd sense of disorientation. I’ve compared it in discussion with friends with almost having a sense of agoraphobia – a nervousness when out in the world I’ve never felt before. It’s really just a conditioned reflex, and will fade as I adjust to the lack of need to always being worried about Martha Sr.

Another thing which has changed is the need to return to something resembling a ‘normal’ life, with the usual requirements of work. I don’t mind work, never have. My life has never been easy (though it certainly could have been harder), and I’ve never expected it to be otherwise.

But sometimes you wonder if maybe it couldn’t be just a little bit easier.

Caring for Martha Sr those last weeks was more demanding, and lasted longer than anyone expected. Getting hit with the flu so hard following seemed a bit gratuitous, in the sense of the universe having fun at our expense. Both my wife and I are behind on our work, and while our clients understand, that doesn’t help the cash flow situation. I knew these days would come, and things would be a little rough for a while until we got settled again. But we’ll manage.

* * * * * * *

We did a hard thing, and we did it well.

What has come of a bit of surprise has been how some people have responded to that. There’s been some discord in the family about the disposition of Martha Sr’s possessions, borne mostly out of a misguided sense of guilt, from what I can tell. It’s really unfortunate, but everyone has their own way of reacting to death. If we’re lucky, with time the matter will sort itself out with a minimal amount of damage.

I’ve also seen others in different forums who have almost felt like they had to defend their own decisions regarding a loved one who has Alzheimer’s or some other debilitating illness leading to hospice care. I’ve witnessed those who almost seem resentful that we did what we did, because it somehow implies that they did less – that they cared less.

No. We were able to make this work out. Barely. Everyone has a different situation, and each family, each person, must come to their own conclusions, their own solutions. None is better or worse than another. Because my wife and I don’t have kids, we didn’t have to juggle that aspect of life at the same time. Because we live here in the same town as Martha Sr, and have professions which allow a considerable flexibility in terms of work hours, we were better able to adapt to providing care at home than most. Our solution worked for our situation – barely. Those final months were very demanding, and I will admit that I was pushed further than I would have thought was possible, and failed and succeeded in ways I never expected.

I will not judge another – this experience has taught me humility.

Jim Downey


So, a few weeks back, I mentioned that I was going to order in the whole series of Firefly, the brilliant but (therefore?) short-lived Science Fiction series created by Joss Whedon. Well, I did, and off and on since I’ve been thinking about writing something about the series, never getting around to it. Hey, a lot of other stuff has been on my mind, and besides, it’s not like there isn’t a ton of blogging and fandom out there about the series.

Suffice it to say that I watched it all the way through three or four times, then turned it over to a shooting buddy who has good taste in SF (well, obviously, since he really liked Communion). I knew that with his appreciation of good guns and fine Science Fiction, it would be a perfect match. The fact that the series actually ‘gets’ guns, does a good job with ballistics and physics, wouldn’t hurt matters.

Anyway, this morning an item over at Bad Astronomy caught my eye:

Another Firefly movie??


There may may may be another Firefly movie.


Ain’t It Cool is throwing some harshness on this. Still. Still.

BTW: Alan Tudyk: on my ManCrush list.

Phil Plait is just so cute sometimes. Not that I disagree with him about the prospect of another movie. Not at all.


Jim Downey


It only took 20 minutes.
August 23, 2007, 9:10 pm
Filed under: Failure, Firefly, Guns, Joss Whedon, movies, Science Fiction, Serenity, Space, tech

I can only assume that it is a healthy respect for my martial arts abilities and proficiency with firearms that stopped my friends from kidnapping me and forcing me to watch the first episode of Firefly.  That is the only possible excuse I will allow.

Yeah, I finally started watching the series.  The first disc eventually found its way to the top of my Netflix queue and arrived yesterday.  But as we had something else on tap, we didn’t get to it until tonight.  So, we watched what Joss Whedon intended to be the pilot, the 90-minute piece titled (somewhat confusingly, since there’s also the feature film of the same name) Serenity.

It took only 20 minutes. No, it didn’t take 20 minutes to ‘get into’ it.  That happened at about 20 seconds.  It only took twenty minutes for me to start mentally kicking myself for not having gotten around to seeing the damned show before.  And that was just because it took that long until I managed to disengage my complete focus on the show long enough to consider the matter.  At 26 minutes I turned to my wife and said “OK, I’ll order our copy of the series tonight.”

I won’t belabor the point. There are countless blog posts and websites praising the series.  I’ll just say two things: one, this is what science fiction television should be; two, “I’m sorry” to all my friends for being such a stubborn bastard and waiting so long to heed your advice – rest assured that I have now seen the error of my ways, and I only hope that I don’t get hit by a truck or something before I’m able to finish seeing the whole thing at least once.

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

Can’t Stop The Serenity
June 19, 2007, 10:19 am
Filed under: Firefly, Joss Whedon, movies, Science Fiction, Serenity, Society

51 cities.  9 countries.  To raise $100,000 for a good cause.

It’s Can’t Stop The Serenity.  From the press release:

Fans Organize ‘Global Sci-Fi Charity Event Of The Year’

Fans of the science fiction movie ‘Serenity’ will be holding screenings in 51 cities in nine countries to raise money and awareness for Equality Now, an international women’s rights advocacy group. In its second year, Can’t Stop The Serenity looks to raise over $100,000 in donations for the charity.

Dallas, TX (PRWEB) May 7, 2007 — For the second year, screenings of the science fiction film ‘Serenity’ will be held around the world in late June to raise money and awareness for an international women’s rights advocacy group. The unprecedented effort marks the culmination of a year’s work by fans to bring a writer’s vision of equality to a mass audience.

Can’t Stop The Serenity [CSTS] was conceived as a tribute to writer-director Joss Whedon on his birthday, June 23, by holding screenings of his 2005 film ‘Serenity’ wherever supporters were able to organize events. Proceeds from the events are donated to Equality Now, a charitable organization that Whedon’s mother, Lee Stearns, helped launch. In 2006, there were events in 47 cities worldwide, raising over $65,000 for Equality Now.


“By their very nature, science fiction fans want to improve their world,” said Devin Pike, global organizer of the 2007 CSTS events. “Whether it’s Roddenberry’s utopian view of eliminating poverty and prejudice in the next two centuries, or Whedon’s saga of rebels rising up against tyranny, sci-fi fans are naturally compelled to try and make the world around them a better place. The Can’t Stop The Serenity events allow that passion and drive to work towards bringing the issue of gender equality to the foreground.”

Check out the site.  Go to an event.  Help make a difference.

Jim Downey