Communion Of Dreams


“If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales …”

I’m just going to post this entire review:

Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2020

From the very first page, St Cybi’s Well steeps you in the rich culture and landscape of Wales. It has a feel of ancient otherworldliness—until the scientific and political realities hit you full-on.

This book sounds uncanny echoes of our present predicament: Pandemic. Police. Politics. Racism. Rioting. Revolt. You can hear the ripping of the social fabric as fear overcomes reason.

And yet, there is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for a better future. Hope for us all.

With protagonist Dernell Sidwell’s quest for hope/healing/redemption set in the mystical, ancient sites of Wales, the reader feels deeply drawn to the power of the past—all while checking over their shoulder for what new nightmare the present has to offer.

You’d think the author was a time traveler, considering how closely Sidwell’s journey parallels the challenges we now face. You will appreciate Sidwell’s determination, his acute survival skills, and his willingness to consider, confront, and accept some things that stretch his perceptions of what is possible.

If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales, take the trip now. This is an urgent adventure that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the last page. I’ll see you at St Cybi’s Well.

St Cybi’s Well, and my other books, will be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month. Please download & share! And as I’ve said before: “And please, if you do read it, leave a review.”
Jim Downey


Cautionary insight.

I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a medical professional of any sort.

And yet, I spent a lot of time studying the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, because I used that as the model for what the Fire-flu would be like in St Cybi’s Well. And it largely paid off, as I’ve noted previously, since so many people have seen the eerie similarities in how the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded to what I depict in the novel.

That’s because a lot of these things happen consistently in all pandemics, as you can see time and again if you look at the history.

And, having studied that history, even though I’m not an epidemiologist, I feel honor-bound to say: be worried about where things are headed here in the US. Currently, the C19 virus is largely uncontrolled in most states, and I’m afraid that it is going to get MUCH worse in the coming months. Place the blame for that where you will, the fact of the matter is that each individual needs to take whatever precautions you can to limit your chances of catching this disease. Follow the advice of the real epidemiologists out there. Don’t listen to the politicians. Or the conspiracy theorists. Or your buddy from high school who barely passed biology class.

St Cybi’s Well actually contains a lot of solid practical advice for how to prepare for a pandemic, if you step back and think about it. I added all that stuff because I wanted the book to ‘feel’ real, and to show what an intelligent, well-educated person might do when faced with the prospect of a pandemic. That it now might add some insight into what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones going forward is just serendipity.

If you think so too, maybe share the book with your friends and family. It’ll be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month.

Jim Downey



Rocket to Venus.

This is a delightful article: Space Oddity

I knew that there were various ‘societies’ (basically, clubs) focused on rocketry early last century, but I hadn’t heard of Robert Condit, who in the 1920s gained national attention for his idea of rocketing into space.

Was he serious? A grifter? Someone who took a little popular science knowledge and had some fun with it? (Gee, I can’t imagine that someone might do something like that.)

Who knows? But Condit knew more about getting to space than you might think. Two excerpts from the article indicate he wasn’t just a dreamer or con artist. Here’s the first:

Condit dreamed the rocket, and the Uhler brothers helped build it. They used angle iron ribs, perhaps supplied by the same mill that contributed to the Capitol. They wrapped the rocket in sailcloth from another mill and shellacked it in varnish to create a hard shell. An air compressor was installed to spray liquid fuel into eight steel pipes that they had outfitted with a spark plug and a battery to ignite the gas. There was room inside for one man, with access through the removable nose of the rocket. They lined the interior with 1½-inch pipes meant to supply water for the journey and to help insulate Condit from the black chill of space. There were two glass portholes to see out. Condit had everything he believed he needed: flashlight, first aid kit, and a bow and arrows, which would come in handy for “procuring small game for food,” he wrote in notes uncovered by the filmmakers.

And:

Condit did get a few matters right, though. He understood the need for a liquid fuel. He understood the Coriolis effect — that launching from Miami Beach, closer to the equator than Baltimore, would take advantage of Earth’s spin to help get him into space. This was 35 years before NASA established its launch operations at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Something else about the era and Condit’s project resonates for us now: the desire to quit the current reality, even if only in our fantasies for a little while. Again, from the article:

They also found letters from scientists and space enthusiasts, from children and adults, men and women alike, and from as far away as Czechoslovakia, all wanting to know more about his pending trip. Some had experienced the horrors of the First World War, and the idea of escaping to Venus sounded pretty great.

“They had lost a leg or had been injured and they were like: I’m willing to donate my life to go along and accompany you on this mission because I’m no longer any good to society in this way, but I could serve the furtherment of humanity and science by doing this,” Carey told me. “There were a lot of those types of letters.” (Goddard got letters like this, too, after he wrote about a rocket to the moon.) The letters contained the same basic message: Please take me with you.

Yeah, I think just about now a lot of us can empathize.

Jim Downey

PS: Next Saturday, as on the first of every month, anyone can get free downloads of my books. If you’re read any of them — particularly St Cybi’s Well*please* do me a favor and go review/rate it. It really does help with the search algorithms and browser response. Thanks.



Comet NEOWISE over Carreg Cennen

I Love this image:

Image may contain: night, sky, outdoor and nature

That’s from a Facebook post by Alyn Wallace Photography.  It’s an image of Comet NEOWISE over Carreg Cennen Castle in Wales.

Carreg Cennen has long been one of my favorite castles, and plays a role in “Chapter 10 — Y Garn Goch” of St Cybi’s Well. The view of the castle seen above is from the south.

Jim Downey



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



“… 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



Hawking’s Conundrum

From Chapter 3 (page 50 of the paperback edition) of Communion of Dreams:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-Flu, with all the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated.

In the news today:

Stephen Hawking’s ‘breathtaking’ final multiverse theory completed two weeks before he died

A final theory explaining how mankind might detect parallel universes was completed by Stephen Hawking shortly before he died, it has emerged.

Colleagues have revealed the renowned theoretical physicist’s final academic work was to set out the groundbreaking mathematics needed for a spacecraft to find traces of multiple big bangs.

Currently being reviewed by a leading scientific journal, the paper, named A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation, may turn out to be Hawking’s most important scientific legacy.

I frighten myself sometimes.

 

Farewell, Professor Hawking. Challenged in body, you challenged us with your mind.

 

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 11: end days.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10.

The next day we were in a neolithic kinda frame of mind. This was by design, actually, since one of the sites we wanted to see is only open on weekends, if you want to see the inside of it. That’s the Barclodiad y Gawres burial chamber on Anglesey, and I love this aerial image of it from CADW’s site:

I actually mentioned this site in a blog post three years ago about St Cybi’s Well, and I’ve been wanting to see it since I did the research about the site. And this was another case where I had a false memory of having previously visited it, thanks to that research. But this time I knew full well that I hadn’t been there … even as the false memory played out as having been there when we went looking for it. A very strange feeling.

Anyway. We stopped at the little shop in the nearby town, as instructed on the CADW site, and collected the key for the chamber. The site was only about a mile away, and we parked there in the lot for a small beach, and walked out to the mound.

The mound was excavated in the 1950s, and when that research was done they capped it with a concrete dome and turf to protect it and to return it to something like what it may have looked like when constructed 4,000 – 5,000 years ago. The entryway you can see in the image above allows anyone to partially enter the mound:

Where you see this:

The original entry path of the cruciform passage grave.*

The gate is locked, and the key allows you entrance. We wanted to get inside because I wanted to personally see the neolithic art:

There are better images (and more of other carved stones at the site) at the site linked above and elsewhere online.

After exploring inside the chamber we locked it back up, then explored the exterior. There on the headlands the wind was brisk, but it was a wonderful location with excellent views:

We returned the key to the shop, and went off in quest of other neolithic sites there on Ynys Môn. First was Caer Lêb, a Bronze Age settlement which is little more than mounds now.

Then we stopped at another passage grave: the Bodowyr Burial Chamber.

From there we headed back to the mainland, stopping for some lunch before visiting friends of Martha’s for a couple of hours. When we headed back to our beachside hotel it was still a bit early, so we decided to to explore the substantial Iron Age hillfort overlooking our portion of the beach:

From the hotel parking lot.

That’s Dinas Dinlle, and there’s not a lot of information available about it, though the Megalithic Portal has a number of images of the site. Here are some more of mine:

At the top. I’d guesstimate the hill to be about 100 meters high.

 

Along one of the defensive earthen walls.

 

Path across the village ‘floor’ to the other defensive wall. To the right the sea has claimed approximately a third of the original hillfort.

 

During WWII there was a military airport just up the coast, so at the base of the hillfort it wasn’t surprising to see a small defensive pillbox of that era:

I thought that it was an interesting juxtaposition.

The next day was our final one in Wales. After a nice breakfast we packed up and headed east. We were driving back to Manchester (where we would fly out the next day), but we thought to hit several castles along the way. The first of these was Rhuddlan Castle. We had visited Rhuddlan some years previously, but at that time it was undergoing some restoration work.  CADW has a nice overview of the castle … in the form of an aerial fly-by:

It was nice to have a chance to really walk around the place and enjoy it.


 

From Rhuddlan we went to the first castle King Edward built to subdue Wales: Flint. Both Wikipedia and Castle Wales have good entries on Flint Castle, but I prefer my own images:

There were a number of these shadow-sculptures, which I really thought were striking. the images were drawn from history/Shakespeare.

Entry into the unusual large circular detached tower, called a donjon keep, which overlooks the main castle entrance.

 

The donjon had your typical central rooms, but it also had wide (7-8′) corridors in the walls, with defensive windows and arrow slits looking out.

 

Inner room of the donjon.

 

The lower inner corridor in the donjon keep. 

Top of the donjon. 

Inner ward of the castle.

 

Across the inner ward.

 

Our last castle of the trip was to be Ewloe. This small Welsh castle was one I’d never even heard of, as its history is both brief and unremarkable. But it is a surprisingly charming little place. I’ll add a couple of pics, but I like the ones at Castle Wales better, so would recommend that you check those out.

From there, it didn’t take us long to drive the rest of the way to Manchester, where once again we had reserved a room at Ash Farm:

It was a good trip. Thanks for sharing it with us here.

 

Jim Downey

* I’ve always been struck by the fact that the shape of these passage graves is a cross. Obviously, that was the shape which came to symbolize Christianity, and which was used to construct churches and cathedrals for hundreds of years. But I don’t recall having ever read anything where someone has drawn the obvious connection between the two. Evidently that’s a gap in my knowledge.



Three weeks in Wales, Part 9: castles, churches, and the Green Desert.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8.

We were going to head north, to meet up with another of Martha’s friends from the online Welsh language community. But we decided to explore a bit along the way. Exploring, we discovered a castle we hadn’t visited previously: Cilgerran.

Here’s the nice image/intro discription from CADW:

This beautifully located castle has a romantic air.
The coracle, a one-person boat native to these parts, has a history dating back thousands of years. Cilgerran Castle, which overlooks the Teifi, a river favoured by the peculiar vessel, isn’t doing too badly either. Almost 800 years young and counting.Take the wall-walk to truly appreciate why it was built here. Stunning location. Perfect for stunning attackers. The Normans first saw the potential and established an early ‘ringwork’ castle here, but the imposing masonry castle we see today was probably the work of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke.

It really is an impressive structure, and we enjoyed poking around it for a good while.

Main gate.

 

Inner ward.

Not a strawman I’d care to fight.

 

The walls were surprisingly thick — about 10′. Which is about half again what you normally see in castles of this age.

Definitely glad that we stopped to check it out.

Martha’s friend Huw lives outside Aberystwyth, and we took a room at the Black Lion pub in nearby Pontrhydfendigaid. He met us there, and we went over to Strata Florida, another Cistercian abbey which played a very important role in Welsh history, and was a major center of learning. It also plays an important role in St Cybi’s Well, with one of the chapters titled with the name. Here’s a bit of that:

He led Darnell through the gateway, onto the smooth green lawn which once had been the floor of the abbey church. To the left and right were the foundations of the original walls, less than a half meter tall, and somewhat wider than that. Beyond those were the remains of the exterior walls of the north and south aisles. Looking down the long nave, and across to the far wall of the north transept, Darnell saw a small group of people before a large slate sign. From his previous visits, he knew that this was a marker dedicated to a famous Welsh medieval poet who was buried on the grounds.

This was familiar ground, ground he had walked before. And yet, for the first time he felt something different. It was an echo of that resonance he had felt at St David’s Cathedral, of the shimmering energy of Stonehenge. Something deep. Powerful. Old.

Whether the ground was so imbued with this strange … energy … before the monks had chosen this spot for their abbey, or whether the energy was the effect of hundreds of years of worship on the location, he didn’t know. But there was something there which touched him, which opened a door he had only recently come to realize even existed.

It really does have a special feel. See for yourself (first image is from Wikipedia):

Graves of princes and poets.

 

From Strata Florida, Huw took us up into Elenydd, the so-called ‘green desert of Wales’. It’s an upland plateau, a wild and largely empty place. And it is beautiful in its starkness, particularly with the clouds hanging less than 100′ above us:

Lovely.

Huw had one more treat in store for us that afternoon: the Church of Saint David at Llanddewi Brefi. While most of the current structure dates to the 19th century, the central tower is clearly 12th century:

The interior of the church:

But what is most impressive are the Ogham stones, probably dating back to the 6th century:

 

The next day the low-hanging clouds which had been threatening rain delivered on their threat. It was a good day for driving again in the Green Desert, with a visit to “the most remote chapel in all Wales”, Capel Soar y mynydd:

And while the chapel may be remote, they’re up with the times:

 

Jim Downey