Communion Of Dreams


Easy to predict.

In Communion of Dreams, I have “experts” who are A.I. assistants. As I describe them in that book when I introduce one as the character ‘Seth’:

His expert was one of the best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

In the world of 2052, when Communion is set, these “experts” are ubiquitous and extremely helpful. Seth is an “S-series”, the latest tech, and all S-series models have names which start with S. I figured that naming convention would be a nice way to track the development of such expert-systems technology, and in the course of the book you see earlier models which have appropriate names.

So when the time came to write St Cybi’s Well, I figured that I would introduce the first such model, named Andi. Here’s the first bit of dialog with Andi:

“Hi, I’m Andi, your assistant application. How can I help you?”

“Andi, check local restaurant reviews for Conwy and find the best ranked Fish & Chips place.”

“You’re not in Conwy. You’re in Holywell. Would you rather that I check restaurants where you are?”

“No, I’m not hungry yet. But I will be when I get to Conwy.”

“Very good. Shall I read off the names?”

“Not now. It can wait until I am closer.”

“Very good. Shall I track your movement and alert you?”

“No.”

“Very good. May I help you with something else?”

“Not right now.” Darnell shut off the app, then the phone, and dropped it back into his pocket. The walk back to his car was uneventful.

Now, I wrote this bit almost eight years ago, long before “Siri” or “Alexa” were announced. But it was predictable that such technology would soon be introduced, and I was amused as all get-out when Amazon decided to name their first assistant as “Alexa”.

Anyway, I also figured that since the technology would be new, and unsophisticated, that Andi would be slightly annoying to use. Because it would default to repetitions of scripts, be easy to confuse, et cetera, similar to encountering a ‘bot on a phone call. And you can judge for yourself, but I think I succeeded in the book — the readers of early chapters thought so, and commented on it.

So this article in the morning Washington Post made me chuckle:

Alexa, just shut up: We’ve been isolated for months, and now we hate our home assistants

“I’m not a bad person,” Angela Hatem said. “I’m so nice to people.” But Alexa, the voice of Amazon’s home devices, isn’t a person, despite how hard “she” tries to emulate one. And coronavirus/self-quarantine/2020 has Hatem feeling a bit stressed out.

“I say things to Alexa that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy, if I had one. And I don’t know why. She makes me crazy. … I curse at her. I call her names. I’m very, very mean to her,” said Hatem, who lives in Indianapolis with her 1-year-old son. “There’s really few things I can vent at or vent to, and I’m making Alexa my virtual punching bag.”

 

Heh. Nailed another prediction.

* * *

It’s the first of the month. That means that both novels and our care-giving memoir are available for free download, as they are the first of each month. If you haven’t already, please help yourself and tell your friends.

Jim Downey

 

 



An excerpt from Chapter 14

I mentioned the other day that many of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well talk about how eerily prescient the book seems now.

Well, judge for yourself. This is an excerpt from the book (Chapter 14: Llangelynnin) when news of the pandemic is just really getting started. The main characters are discussing it, and their plans to collect medical supplies since the St Melangell Centre is a designated rural care center. I first wrote this portion of the book about two years ago, did major revisions last fall.

“The government here is asking people to just stay home if they have any indications of illness. They’ve implemented a week-long ‘bank holiday’, so people don’t go in to work or school, and declared that only essential government employees and emergency workers are to report in. All the bus and train lines have been shut down. They’re even talking about closing all the restaurants and pubs. We’ll probably hear more about that later today. And there have been more anti-immigrant riots in London and some other places. And not just the so-called ‘Tommys’.”

“People are frightened.”

“Yeah, no surprise.” Darnell nodded at the stereo again. “There was also some science reporting about VCS itself. Looks like it is caused by a flu strain which is similar to the 1918 virus, the Spanish Flu, but one which is even more virulent.”

Megan paused, her hands lowered. The towel hung limply by her side. “Didn’t that kill millions, world-wide?”

“Yeah, something like fifty million.”

“And this looks to be worse?”

“Yeah,” Darnell repeated. “This seems to spread just as easily, but kills faster. Well, kills healthy adults faster – that cytokine storm thing, which is basically the immune system going crazy, creating high fever and complete exhaustion, leading to the inability to get enough oxygen and general system collapse. Victims often develop cyanosis – a blueish tint to the skin, particularly on the face and hands. Anyone who is very young, or old, or otherwise has a compromised immune system, can still get the flu, but don’t generally have the VCS reaction. But there’s a good chance that they’ll develop pneumonia which can kill them in a week or so without proper treatment.”

“But there are treatments for pneumonia.”

“There are. And even some things that can be done for someone with Cytokine Syndrome, if you get to them soon enough. Or anti-virals, like Theraflu.” He sighed. “But there’s not nearly enough of those stockpiled. And how well do you think the health system here or anywhere will be able to handle such a fast-moving epidemic, particularly if health workers are among the most vulnerable group because of massive exposure? Do you remember how devastating hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola have been in isolated areas, because health workers are often among the first victims of the disease? And those require direct contact with bodily fluids . . . this flu is airborne.”

There was a wild look in her eyes, and for a moment Darnell thought he even saw fear. Then Megan closed her eyes, clasped the small crucifix necklace she wore, and muttered what he assumed to be a prayer. When she opened her eyes again, the wildness was gone, replaced with a cold determination. “We already have basic personal protection gear – surgical masks, gloves, even disposable gowns – and it sounds like we should wear them when we go to Llandudno. I’ll get them and meet you downstairs when you’re done with your shower.”

 

Jim Downey



With apologies to Ursula K. Le Guin

So, since I haven’t been blogging here much in the last couple of years, I haven’t said anything about just how surreal it was working to finish my novel about a global pandemic … while an actual global pandemic was unfolding around us.

Yeah. Seriously. Real Lathe of Heaven stuff, making me wonder about just how much my envisioning a given reality was bleeding into this reality.

To a certain extent this had been an ongoing problem with writing St Cybi’s Well, as I had mentioned previously. I had to keep going back and making the ‘dystopia’ of SCW worse as our own world took a turn for the worse with the election of Trump, elements of Christian fascism seemed to be in ascendancy, et cetera.

But this year, after I had gotten a solid re-start on finishing St Cybi’s Well, watching the Covid-19 virus start to spread, was just … bizarre. And as you’ll see when you read the book, how the virus spread and the efforts that various governments tried to curtail it was pretty much exactly as what happened in real life. Fortunately, of course, C-19 hasn’t proven to be nearly as deadly as the Fire-Flu.

Well, at least not yet.

< shiver >

Jim Downey



“… telling you a tale that just *might* be real.”

So, almost two months ago I ‘officially’ launched the publication of St Cybi’s Well.

No, I didn’t forget to mention it here. Since I have allowed this blog to go quiet, I didn’t see it as an important venue to announce it, and figured that it would make a little more sense to just let the book exist in the wild for a little while, then write about the reactions to it.

Currently, there are 14 reviews on Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.9 stars. Some are from friends. Some are from acquaintances. Some are from complete strangers. Among the reviews I have my favorites, and not necessarily ones which say good things. At this point, after struggling with the book for so long, I have very mixed feelings about it.

But my strongest emotion about the book, and something that keeps coming up in the reviews of it, is just how surreal it is to have finished the book during the middle of a real pandemic, and having our reality seeming to follow the path I had laid out in the book. Here are some excerpts as examples of what I mean.

The first review, by someone who backed my Kickstarter and had an advance copy of St Cybi’s:

With some recent political developments and COVID-19, I found this unsettlingly realistic.

And from other readers:

That he wrote this well before our current pandemic was even a thing is a testament to his spooky prescience

And:

The images are vivid and remain. No one took epidemic plagues too seriously anymore, Polio was long ago. But since Covid and Ebola, there is a realization that the 4 Horsemen of the Apocolypse are alive and kicking.

And:

What I found most compelling is the almost prescient storyline of the Fire Flu and its attendant effects on society. I can’t imagine a more difficult proposition than trying to finish your novel about an apocalyptic disease while having to do so with one currently taking over the news. There are some eerie moments in the book where it feels as though it’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story.

And:

Set in 2012, the overlap with current events in 2020 is uncanny.

And:

the story is kind of terrifying considering its striking similarity to current events

Of course, I’m not prescient. I had no real idea that the coronavirus pandemic was coming, though I had long known that we were about due for another pandemic and were likely unprepared for it. And what I put into the book about how the FireFlu virus spread, and how people reacted to it, was just based on history. What we’re seeing now … all the good and bad of it … was entirely predictable, because it is the sort of reaction that human societies have always had to pandemics.

Which, of course, doesn’t give me any comfort. As is said in one of the reviews:

I ended up feeling that the story is part of what science fiction does best – telling you a tale that just *might* be real.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Download my book, or order a paper copy. If money is a little tight, wait until the first of the month, and download it for free. And please, if you do read it, leave a review.

Thanks.

Jim Downey



Forward, into the past.

I sewed up a book yesterday.

* * *

It’s been a rough year.

Oh, a good one, in many ways. The delightful trip to Wales was certainly wonderful. And I was pleased to finally wrap up our two-year work on the brick walkway; I recently used it, and it was nice to see how it has settled solidly after a couple of months weather. There have been other highlights, time spent with those I love, sharing & caring.

But it’s been a rough year. Mostly, because back in early spring I started my slow bipolar descent, and then got stuck stumbling along the bottom of my personal trough for the last six weeks or so. And, while I haven’t talked about it (or anything else) much here, the political situation has been extraordinarily depressing. It’s been a weird combination of things I have long dreaded and things I was writing to warn people about in St Cybi’s Well, and after significant effort to re-write the draft of that book to reflect the new political reality I found myself without the energy or inclination to continue. I felt paralyzed.

* * *

But, as these things go if you are lucky, the wheel continued to turn.

Even if the progress is steady, and consistent with my previous personal experience, it’ll be some 4 – 6 months before I completely climb out of the depressive part of my bipolar cycle.

But I sewed up a book yesterday. This one, for the first time in at least a year and a half:

Yeah, it’s one of the premium leather bindings of Communion of Dreams.

Finally.

For whatever reason, completing those books got mixed up emotionally with completing the writing of St Cybi’s Well. I think I understand it, but I don’t think that I can explain it. Well, I understand it now. At least part of it.

That’s how you solve art, sometimes. And how you walk out of depression: one part at a time, one step at a time.

The writing wants to start again.

In the meantime, I sew books.

Happy New Year.

 

Jim Downey

 



The St John’s Bible

In 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. We invite you to explore this work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

The Saint John’s Bible homepage.

This was no small project. The finished bible, produced on animal skin vellum, was in seven volumes. Each volume was two feet tall, and three feet wide when opened.

Recently Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri — Columbia asked me to archivally mount special dedication pages to six of the seven volumes in their Heritage Edition set of the book. Since this very limited edition (just 299 copies) is the full-size, fine art version which very few people will ever have a chance to see in person, I thought I’d take some pics and share them here, along with some notes and observations.

Each volume comes in its own conservation clamshell box:

As you can see, these things are huge. They’re so big, I couldn’t store them in my large safe — so I picked up a pair of the books at a time, did the mounting (which takes two days to do properly), then returned them to Special Collections.

And that style of clamshell box is a work of art itself. I occasionally do (smaller) ones for clients, and they can take three or four hours of labor for me. Doing one that size would take special equipment and workspace I just don’t have.

Here’s the first volume in the set, in gorgeous hand-bound red calfskin:

Click, then follow the link at the bottom, if you want to take a close look at the calligraphy.

 

Likewise.

And here’s the dedication page, along with the facing colophon:

The calligraphy for the dedication page was done by Diane M. von Arx, who was part of the team which worked on the St John’s Bible. If you look closely, you can see some of how I mounted the dedication pages: in the gutter there’s a slight discoloration from the Japanese Kozo tissue paper. The process of mounting the pages was easy: first mount the Kozo strip along the back of the dedication page, then allow to dry under restraint overnight; the next day, position the page and then paste out the Kozo ‘tab’, and secure it to the facing page and again allow to dry under restraint. This kind of mounting allows for a very natural movement of the page, as though it was part of the original binding, with minimal chance of the additional bulk of a page causing long-term problems. I also had to trim each dedication page to the specific dimensions of each respective book (they vary by a couple of millimeters — no surprise, given the size of the things and the fact that they were bound by hand).

And here are some additional images from the books, again available in full scale:

A fun project.

 

Jim Downey

If you are interested in supporting conservation work at Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri, here is their “Adopt a Book” page. And if you might be interested in sponsoring the last of the seven volumes of the St John’s Bible, you can contact MU Libraries Director of Development, Matt Gaunt.



A chronicle of the repair of The Book of Chronicles

I’ve had the pleasure to work on a number of very significant items from public and private collections. Here’s the most recent one:

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That’s the Liber chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the most significant books in the history of printing. There’s a good basic description of why the book is important in the Wikipedia article, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first really successful integrations of both illustrations and type, and so a big step in printing technology. Here’s a good idea of what the illustrations look like:

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This copy of the Liber chronicarum belongs to the University of Missouri system, and needed a little help, as you can see in these images:

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Basically, the current binding, as nice as it is, was breaking along the hinge of the front cover. The rear cover was also showing signs of similar aging. This is a very common problem, particularly in large & heavy books. And my estimate is that the binding was probably 100+ years old, so showing a bit of age is understandable.

Typically, there are two basic repair options for dealing with such a problem. The first is to reinforce the hinge inside and out with Kozo dyed to match the leather. This is minimally invasive to the original binding. It’s a good repair for smaller books, but it doesn’t have a great deal of strength, and if a book is very heavy or is going to get a lot of use, doesn’t hold up as well as you would like. And to do it properly on this binding, it would have covered over a significant amount of the nice gold tooling.

The second common repair strategy is to “reback” the book in new leather. This includes removing the original spine, completely rebuilding the liners & hinges, putting new leather on the spine and then remounting the original spine onto the new structure. It’s a strong repair and  works well, but tends to be much more time consuming and apparent than the Kozo repair, changing the visual character of the book more.

After discussing the matter with the folks at MU Special Collections, we decided that I would attempt to do a Kozo repair, but one which had elements of the how the leather rebacking is normally done. This was something of an experiment, as is often the case in doing conservation work; you almost always have to blend techniques to meet the specific problems and needs of the item being treated.

I selected a very heavy Kozo paper and dyed it to match the leather. Then I carefully lifted up the leather along the spine, just enough to insert about a half inch of Kozo. Here’s how that looked:

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Note that the pieces of Kozo are only between the heavy bands — those bands are part of the sewing structure, and I didn’t want to impinge on how it worked mechanically.

Then I lifted up the leather along the edge of the front cover, pasted out the length of the exposed interior, and brought the two together, inserting the Kozo tabs under the leather. Once that was all positioned, I wrapped it in wide elastic bands and added weight all along the joint:

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Then I left it alone overnight to allow the adhesive to set properly. Leaving it alone is always the hardest part of this process, but you have to trust that you did it right, because if you try and look before the adhesive sets, it’s probable that you’ll cause the joint to be out of position.

Here’s what I found the next day:

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That’s a nearly perfect joint. I was very pleased.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Now that the cover was properly aligned and partially attached, I needed to strengthen the joint from the inside of the cover.

I opened the book and removed the detached marbled endpaper:

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Previously I had carefully used lifting knives to get under the cloth joint cover and lift up the marbled paste-down:

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Now I peeled further back the marbled paste-down on the front cover, and applied a wide band of heavy undyed Kozo to function as an internal hinge:

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Then I put fresh adhesive on the exposed paste-down marbled paper and put it back into position, thereby securing the joint:

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Then I remounted the marbled endpaper with a narrow strip of Kozo on the back:

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Lastly, I put down a narrow strip of dyed Kozo on the outside of the cover to mask the broken joint and protect it. This was largely cosmetic, but helped to give the book a finished appearance. After an application of leather preservative and a bit of buffing, the book was finished:

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It’s a good repair. Eventually, the book will need to be rebacked in leather properly, but for now we’ve been able to stabilize the book and again make it available for classes and researchers at the University of Missouri.

What a fun project. I really do love doing what I do for a living, and I realize just how lucky I am to be able to say that.

Jim Downey



No escape from reality.*

For fun, and to make someone’s year a little better, I recently rebound a friend’s SF novel, converting the paperback edition into a hardcover binding.

With my bookbinding skills it’s a fairly simple and straightforward process, but not a cost-effective one (so don’t ask me to rebind your favorite paperbacks). The result is usually very satisfactory and striking, and makes for a nice little present when I am in the mood to do something different from my usual conservation work.

Anyway, I made this book and mailed it to my friend where she works. She opened it and shared it with her co-workers, who thought it was “pretty darn cool.”

Which, you know, is cool and all. But consider: making that book, that physical object, took me maybe an hour and a half actual labor time. But I’m sure that it took my friend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of labor to write that book. To conceptualize it. To make notes. To research. To stare at the blank computer screen in abject terror. To write the first draft. To edit.  To stare at the words there in horror and disgust at how horrible her writing was (I assume this happened anyway, since almost every serious writer I’ve known goes through this multiple times with any book). To write the second draft. And then the third, after getting feedback from friends and editors. Et cetera, et cetera.

But what her co-workers thought was “pretty darn cool” was a simple physical object.

Now, I’m sure that if you asked them, her co-workers would say that her book — the written words — was also pretty darn cool. And maybe some of them have even read it.** Still, the fact remains that for most people written work is mostly an abstraction, one which takes real effort and time to understand and enjoy. Whereas a tangible artifact like an artisanal hardcover book can be handled and appreciated as reality.

People are funny, aren’t we?

 

Jim Downey

*Naturally.

**A confession: I haven’t yet myself, since I am still in the middle of doing battle with St Cybi’s Well, and I just can’t read long fiction when I am trying to write it, since it just messes up my own writing. But you can bet I will when I finally finish this book.



And then one day you find ten years have got behind you …*

Happy anniversary!

Yeah, ten years. More than 1850 posts here (though not many in the last year). Big changes in both the history of the novel and in my life. Mostly good changes, though it has been a rough road at times.

Thanks for being part of the journey.

 

Jim Downey

*Of course.

 



Making an impression.

My, how time flies …

I’m a little startled to discover that it’s been three years since I last posted about doing the leather bindings for the custom edition of Communion of Dreams. No, I know it’s been a while — but I have been giving this binding a lot of thought, so it seems like it was still a recent ‘pending’ project. I liked the idea of using the sewing structure to incorporate classic raised leather cords on the spine of the book, but I just didn’t like the sparseness of the rest of the cover design. The initial tests were OK, but the more I thought about them, the less satisfied I was with what the final product would be. The problem was that while the cords under leather gave a nice tactile effect, there wasn’t enough detail possible.

So I kept trying to figure out how to keep the relief I liked but to get more definition. I won’t go through all the different iterations of ideas I considered, but there were a lot, mostly along the lines of trying different ways of mounting different weights of cord/string or molding/engraving the board under the leather. But each approach failed to give me the definition I wanted. Worse, each one felt further and further removed from the image of the “Williamson Oak” by Peter Haigh I had used for the paperback/printed hardcover/website.

Then recently another bookbinding project got me to thinking about using something like a woodcut as a way to make an impression on a leather cover, and I realized that I had gotten so set on the idea of using the raised cords of the sewing structure as the basis for the rest of the cover texture I hadn’t considered the possibility of impressing the leather rather than trying to raise it. What would be required would be to make a plate which would press down most of the leather, leaving the design I wanted alone so that it would stand up (and out).

So that what I tried today. Here’s how I did a quick test:

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That’s my high-tech, fancy “polymer plate” … also known as a plastic cutting board. I did a quick sketch on it with a marker, then carved into it using a couple of different cutting heads on a Dremel tool.

Then I mounted a piece of goatskin and a piece of calfskin onto some bookboard, got it good and damp, and then pressed it quickly in one of my book presses. Here are the results:

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This was just a trial to see if my press would generate sufficient pressure, and if the plate would hold up to it. I am very happy with how well they turned out, and I learned what I need to change for the final version (such as smoothing out the surface of the plate, adding more detail and title, and — oh, yeah — reversing the image).

So, progress! Hey, it only took three years for me to get past my perceptual bias … 😉

 

Jim Downey