Communion Of Dreams


The Storytellers.

You should read this: Born to Be Conned. Seriously, it’s a very good examination of the human tendency to construct narratives to explain the world around us, and how that trait can easily be manipulated and used against us. Here’s a good passage, explaining why we’re susceptible to grifters of every sort:

Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.

And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.

The piece also reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, because of this insight:

Before humans learned how to make tools, how to farm or how to write, they were telling stories with a deeper purpose. The man who caught the beast wasn’t just strong. The spirit of the hunt was smiling. The rivers were plentiful because the river king was benevolent. In society after society, religious belief, in one form or another, has arisen spontaneously. Anything that cannot immediately be explained must be explained all the same, and the explanation often lies in something bigger than oneself.

I don’t mean to pick on religion here, just to point out that this is a very human trait. In fact, I have often wondered whether it is a defining human characteristic, something which could easily set us apart from other intelligent species. It’s fairly easy to imagine how intelligent, sophisticated, technologically-advanced civilizations could be constructed by species which don’t have this human gift for storytelling. You can, after all, have curiosity and scientific inquiry, art and poetry, even narrative and historiography, without having something like literary fiction.* I think that it might be interesting to write a science fiction story/series based on the premise that humans become the storytellers of the galaxy, because of our unique ability to create explanation narratives unrelated to reality.

How very meta.

 

Jim Downey
*Of course.



And you thought Skynet was scary …

Three billion bank accounts ended on August 29th, 2016. The survivors of the monetary collapse called it Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the War of the Billionaires. The cartel which controlled the money, Ca$hnet, sent several Terminators back through time. Their mission: to leverage the buyout of the remaining political system. The first Terminator had taken the form of Donald Trump, who quickly moved to consolidate power in the Republican Party. The second Terminator was known as Micheal Bloomberg, who sought disruption and control of the Democrats. By the time Terminators Gates, Zuckerberg, and Buffett showed up, the working republic which had struggled for decades was finished.

Then the Billionaires began to war among themselves …

 

Jim Downey

(With apologies to James Cameron.)
[I can’t believe I just said that.]



I hate to say ‘I told you so’, but …

Last week I wrote the following excerpt from St Cybi’s Well:

Megan came out of the bedroom, dressed, but still toweling her hair. “Done. Bathroom’s all yours. What did the BBC have to say?”

Darnell glanced over at the stereo system, then back to her. “The government is asking people to just stay home if they have any indications of illness. There’s talk of a week-long ‘bank holiday’, so people don’t go in to work or school; 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 [Viral Cytokine Syndrome, which is the initial name for the spreading illness] itself. Looks like it is caused by a flu strain which is similar to the 1918 virus, 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.”

“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. Anyone who is young, or old, or otherwise has a compromised immune system, can get the flu and 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.” He sighed. “But 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? Do you remember how devastating haemorrhagic 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.”

Today, from NPR’s coverage of a new global health risk report:

Sands says the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15 was a wake-up call. It showed that the world is not prepared to deal with a rapidly spreading disease.

“The alerts were raised too slowly. Local health systems were quickly overwhelmed. The international response was slow and clumsy,” he says. “We lacked many of the medical products we needed, either therapeutic or vaccination or indeed even effective diagnostics.”

* * *

If an outbreak like the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed more than 50 million, were to happen today, the economic damage would be in the trillions of dollars. And the psychological toll could make things worse. Sands says news of a deadly, highly contagious pathogen could prompt people all over the world to panic.

“We are much more connected not just physically but by media nowadays,” he says. “Hearing about and seeing infectious disease outbreaks on TV can spread fear even more rapidly than the disease itself. That in turn can grow changes in behavior and policy which magnify the economic impact.”

*sigh*

 

Jim Downey



“Your lot got the right idea, I say.”

I wrote the following for Chapter 12 of St Cybi’s Well some months back. It’s set near the visitor’s center at Stonehenge, and occurs just as the pandemic influenza* is getting started in the UK, when people aren’t quite sure yet what is happening. The main character, Darnell Sidwell, sees a group of protesting people, and finds out that they’re members of the ‘British Defense League’, my fictional version of this group.

Before he got to the front of the protest, he looked over the fence, saw something of a party going on. People drinking, dancing to music from a portable sound system, standing around smoking. A couple of young men were standing beside the fence, watching the crowd flow by, passing a bottle back and forth.

One of the men saw him looking at them. “Wotcha lookin’ at?”

Darnell walked over to them. He stopped a couple of paces before the fence. “Nothing, really. You?”

“Oh, a Yank, are ya?” The man seemed to relax a bit. His friend, who had been looking down the road, turned to look at Darnell as well. “Jus’ watchin’ this lot go by. Havin’ a bit of a laugh. You got any cigs?”

“No, sorry, I don’t smoke. Yeah, I’m a Yank.”

The friend spoke. “Your lot got the right idea, I say.”

“Howso?”

“‘Bout the illegals.” He turned to his mate. “We should do that.”

“Yeah, kick ‘em all out,” agreed the friend. “All the Pakis and Blackies. They the ones what got this flu goin’. ‘Cause they’s dirty.”

“Uncivilized,” added his friend, taking a long pull on the bottle, then handing it over to the other.

“Flu?” asked Darnell, feigning ignorance.

“Yeah, the flu. What’s got ever’one comin’ here.” He gestured towards Stonehenge. “All the nutters lookin’ like Druids or Harry Potter. Ain’ you heard of it?”

“Um, no, I was just coming over to visit Stonehenge. Isn’t it always like this?”

“Nah. There’s a flu goin’ ‘round. Bad one,” said the man.

“People dyin’,” said the other. “Gov’s tryin’ to hide it, but word’s out.”

“Me aunt’s a nurse o’er London. She tol’ me mum.” He gestured behind him, towards the party going on. “Others heard ‘bout it too. Then some heard th’ nutters were coimin’ here, thought that we’d have a chance to make th’ telly.”

“Ah.”

The first man tilted up the bottle, drained it. “Say, got anythin’ t’ drink in your bag, there?”

“Just water.” Darnell smiled. “It’s a bit early for me.”

“Yeah, well,” said the second man, “ain’ for me. Drink’ll keep the sickness out. Alcohol kills it. Ever’one knows that.”

“Sounds like good advice,” said Darnell, turning to walk away.

“Hey, Yank,” called one of the men.

“Yeah?” asked Darnell, pausing.

The two men exchanged glances. The first one said “You seem OK. Word to th’ wise: don’t stick around too long.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

From the news yesterday:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Following that news item, Bend the Arc Jewish Action issued the following statement:

“Registering everyone of a certain religion to a list? We’ve seen that. It doesn’t end well.

“There is no way American Jews will ever find it acceptable for anyone – anyone – to be registered, singled out, profiled, discriminated against, or in any way mistreated by the government on the basis of their religion in this country. Mr. Trump’s suggestion is as terrifying as it is abhorrent.

“This runs counter to everything we believe in as Americans and Jews and we will not stand idly by as fear and bigotry are used to dominate our politics.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

St Cybi’s Well is set in an alternate time-line to our own, where the United States has become a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ in part as a response to the 9-11 attacks. It’s fiction.

At least, I intended for it to be fiction …

Jim Downey

*What is referred to as the ‘fire-flu’ in Communion of Dreams, set 40 years later.



Writing is a process of discovery …

It’s an annual ritual. Salvaging what I can of the deer netting, pulling up the long lengths of rebar which pin the support towers in place, packing up chickenwire. While it wasn’t as good a year as it could have been, it was a better year than I thought it would be, and I hope that the next year to come will be even better yet.

* * *

This is good. Relevant excerpt:

You know what writers feel like when they’re not writing?

Guilty. Incredibly guilty.

Miserable.

They don’t need anyone to come by and kick them while they’re lying there, writhing in the seventh circle of hell, telling them, “Oh, remember those ten books and multiple short stories you wrote? Well, sorry, you stopped writing for a year so none of that counts. You’re no longer a writer.”

* * *

We live in a disposable world. Disposable electronics (when was the last time you tried to fix a tablet, laptop, or television?). Disposable water bottles. Disposable people.

Last week, I did this:

20151104_095415

20151104_110513

That is, I detached the deer netting I had put on my tomato towers, folded it up, secured it, and stowed it away to reuse next year.

This, actually, was a stupid thing to do. That’s about $20 bucks of deer netting. It took me about 90 minutes to salvage it. The amount of my time (in terms of billable hours) which went into doing that is literally 10x the value of the netting I saved. Stupid.

I don’t mention this to tout how environmental, enlightened, or noble I am. None of those things explains why I did what I did.

Well, OK, I try to be environmentally conscious. But I’m not fanatic about it.

No, I did that because in this instance it wasn’t about economics. Gardening, in purely economic terms, is fairly dumb. I don’t do it to save money. I do it to save my sanity.

* * *

By nature and profession, I save old things. It’s just part of my life. And I’m good at it.

Now, that deer netting above isn’t old, or valuable. And how does spending 90 minutes on a weekday morning fiddling around with rusty twist ties and uncooperative lightweight netting save my sanity?

Well, because it gives me time to think.

And thinking is how I spend the vast majority of my time & energy writing.

* * *

It’s an annual ritual. Salvaging what I can of the deer netting, pulling up the long lengths of rebar which pin the support towers in place, packing up chickenwire. While it wasn’t as good a year as it could have been, it was a better year than I thought it would be, and I hope that the next year to come will be even better yet.

Yeah, I’m talking about my garden. But I’m also talking about St Cybi’s Well.

I should have been finished with the book two years ago, according to my Kickstarter plan and promises. Hell, even at that point, I thought I would be done with the manuscript early in 2013.

But writing is a process of discovery. Self discovery. I knew this, but having it driven home during the last couple of years has been … sobering.

Other than periods when I’ve struggled to sort out some particular issue with the book, I haven’t suffered the writer’s block which J.H. Moncrieff discusses in her blog post linked above. But upon occasion my writing has made me feel miserable. And guilty.

Part of that is just a sense of failure because I grossly misunderstood what it was going to take to finish this book. Yeah, I’m talking about the time & energy commitment. But I’m also talking about the psychological challenge of writing a book about the onset of the end of the world we know. Thinking through the details of that takes a toll.

Recently I asked an old friend to read the book so far, and give me feedback. As I told him, I have been so deep in this thing that I had lost my bearings — I could no longer tell whether the thing was any good or not. And that was true.

But the deeper truth was that I could no longer tell whether I was any good or not as a writer.

He says it is. We’ll see if I am.

 

Jim Downey

 



That’s not a bad idea …

Via BoingBoing, this news item:

Navy Revives Ancient Navigation as Cyber Threats Grow

Sometimes old school is best. In today’s U.S. Navy, navigating a warship by the stars instead of GPS is making a comeback.

The Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation in the late 1990s, deeming the hard-to-learn skill irrelevant in an era when satellites can relay a ship’s location with remarkable ease and precision.

But satellites and GPS are vulnerable to cyber attack (paywall). The tools of yesteryear—sextants, nautical almanacs, volumes of tables—are not. With that in mind, the academy is reinstating celestial navigation into its curriculum. Wooden boxes with decades-old instruments will be dusted off and opened, and students will once again learn to chart a course by measuring the angles of stars.

 

Interestingly, here’s a passage from Chapter 13 of St Cybi’s Well:

After selling Darnell the books he’d purchased, the bookseller had kindly recommended another nearby shop which specialized in all manner of maps, from antiques to the latest Ordnance Survey publications before he closed up his store. Because once he heard the news of what had happened, he immediately understood why Darnell had selected the books he did, and wanted to go make his own preparations.

So with only a slight delay Darnell was able to get Landranger maps covering most of Wales and the border country and get back on the road. They sat in a large sack on the floor of the passenger’s seat, cheap insurance should the cell network or GPS system go down.

 

Jim Downey



Excerpt.

It’s been a month. Let’s have another excerpt from the current chapter of St Cybi’s Well I am working on, this time set at this site. A somewhat-related personal experience from a decade ago which … inspired … the larger scene from which this is drawn.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Yes.”  The old man took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh. “Think of the reliquary at St David’s. What did you feel there?”

Darnell thought back. It had only been a few days, and yet so much had happened that it seemed to be an age ago. “Solace.”

“Solace,” repeated Eleazer. “Gentle reassurance, succor for the spirit in time of turmoil.”

“Yes,” agreed Darnell.

“Comfort, but not a cure.” Eleazer looked him full in the face. “Was it enough?”

Darnell saw the reliquary in his mind, found himself standing there before it again, feeling what he felt. “No.”

“Solace is what the holy men offer. It is what they always offer. Just as the leaders, the kings and princes and politicians, offer power. That’s what they understand, how they try and shape the world.” Eleazer gestured towards the memorial to Dafydd ap Gwilym. “But the poets … ah, the poets, the artists, the musicians … they offer something else, don’t they?”

“Do they?”

Eleazer nodded. “Yes. They offer dreams. Dreams of a better world.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim Downey




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