Communion Of Dreams

It’s the End of the Year as we know it…

So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here.

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As I mentioned a while ago, earlier this month I had fallen prey to the nasty bit of cold virus going around.  Turned out that the damn thing was even more stubborn for my wife, who is still struggling with a hacking cough and various other annoying symptoms.  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it, watching for signs of secondary pneumonia, which would call for antibiotic intervention, but I think she’ll get past this on her own.

Which is good, because there really isn’t much we can do to fight a virus. In this sense, medical science is at about the same place in viral treatments as we were in dealing with bacterial infection 70 years ago:

In 1941, a rose killed a policeman.

Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old policeman in Oxford, England, was pruning his roses one fall day when a thorn scratched him at the corner of his mouth. The slight crevice it opened allowed harmless skin bacteria to slip into his body. At first, the scratch grew pink and tender. Over the course of several weeks, it slowly swelled. The bacteria turned from harmless to vicious, proliferating through his flesh. Alexander eventually had to be admitted to Radcliffe Hospital, the bacteria spreading across his face and into his lungs.

Alexander’s doctors tried treating him with sulfa drugs, the only treatment available at the time. The medicine failed, and as the infection worsened, they had to cut out one of his eyes. The bacteria started to infiltrate his bones. Death seemed inevitable.

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You may not have heard much about it here, but the norovirus is causing all kinds of grief in the UK. Cases are up 83% over last year, and are estimated to have hit over a million people already. In the UK the norovirus is commonly called the “winter vomiting bug” whereas here we tend to call it “stomach flu”.  As miserable as it makes people feel, it’s usually not a life-threatening disease for otherwise healthy people, and the best thing to do is just ride it out.

Of course, public health authorities have taken steps to try and limit the spread of the disease into populations where the virus could be life-threatening, and a lot of hospitals have curtailed or eliminated visiting hours. Furthermore, appeals have been made to the public to not to go see their doctors or go to emergency rooms for routine cases of the norovirus, since there is little that can be done to treat the virus and this just contributes to the spread of the disease.

Still, people get scared when they get sick, even when they know that it is a fairly common bug that’s going around — and one that most people have had before and gotten over just fine. So they tend to swamp available medical services, overwhelming the health care system.

Just think about what would happen if it was a disease which wasn’t known. And one which was killing people so quickly that they’d drop over in the street on the way home from work.

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I’ve been thinking about that a lot, since it is an integral plot point to St. Cybi’s Well.  This isn’t a spoiler, since the advent of the fire-flu is part of the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams.

But it is something which has had me in a bit of a quandary this fall, as I’ve been working on writing St. Cybi’s Well.

Howso? Well, because I kept going back and forth on making one final decision: where to end the book.

See, I know how the *story* plays out — I’ve had that all sorted since I first worked up the background for Communion of Dreams. But in going to write St. Cybi’s Well, I needed to decide exactly where in the story that book would end. Which is to say, I needed to decide how much, if any, of the onset of the fire-flu would be included. Because I could set everything up and have the book actually finish at the onset of the fire-flu — after all, the reader would know what was about to happen. Why drag the reader through that horror?

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A week or so ago I made my decision, and I’ve been chewing it over since then as I’ve been busy with other things, making sure that I was comfortable with what I have decided, and why. I’m not going to give you the details, but you can safely assume from what I’ve said in this post that at least some of the pandemic will be portrayed.

I decided this not because I have a desire to write about the horror (in spite of what I may have said previously) but rather because it is critical for character development of the main character.

Poor Darnell.

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So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here. 293 posts (this makes 294), which is a faster pace than in some years. Of course, I’ve had a lot of promotional stuff do to with the launch of Communion of Dreams last January and everything to support that through the year, not to mention the Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well.

And while I’ve cautioned that I won’t be writing quite as much here on the blog as I’m working on St. Cybi’s Well, well, it does make for a nice change of pace.

So thanks for being along for the ride this year. Together we can see how things go in 2013.


Jim Downey



Thanks, Carl.*

*This post previously ran at UTI last year. And while some of the personal details mentioned in it have changed – I did indeed keep that promise to tweak my manuscript, obviously, and things have continued to progress with my MIL – the sentiment is the same.

Jim D.


This has been a hell of a day. Not as bad as some, perhaps, but as far as routine days go, not the sort you want to pop up often in the queue. It started with my mother-in-law being ill. Now, most adults know how a young child (either their own or one they’ve babysat) can be when sick. Think intestinal bug. Think explosive diarrhea, of the toxic/caustic variety. Poor kid doesn’t understand what’s going on, or how to best cope with their misbehaving body (if they are capable of that on their own yet). Then picture that not in a toddler, but in a 95-pound woman well into dementia before the effects of dehydration and fever kick in. Took my wife and I two full hours to get her and the bedroom cleaned up.

And then I was on deadline to write my final column for my newspaper. Yeah, my *final* column. My decision, and if I want to go back the paper will be glad to have me. But because of the demands of care-giving, I could not adequately keep up with the art scene in my community (what I wrote about – weird to see that in the past tense). And I was feeling a little burned out with it as well. But still, closing off that particular chapter of my life was somewhat poignant.

So it’s been a day. Which is all just prelude to explaining that one of the refuges I seek after such a day is one of my “regulars”. Typically, it’s Twain, likely his Roughing It, which I have long considered some of his best and funniest work. But tonight, I turn to another old friend I never met: Carl Sagan, particularly his book Pale Blue Dot.

I’ve said before that I’m not a scientist. Which is perhaps why I don’t have some of the same quibbles that many scientists have with Sagan. But I really respect someone who can take scientific research and knowledge and present it in a form an intelligent layperson can understand. Stephen Jay Gould could do that for me. PZ Myers does it for me. So does Carl Zimmer. I could name others, but these are people I respect. In that same way, I really respected Carl Sagan, who I knew more as an author than as the host of of the PBS series, most of which I missed in its initial broadcast. Sagan helped introduce me to whole areas of science I had never considered before, and his considerable human decency in his atheism helped me understand that my own misgivings about religion were not an indication that I was lacking in morals or ethics.

So it was that when I started to write my first novel, Communion of Dreams (unpublished – yeah, yeah, I know I need to finish tweaking the mss and send it out again), I set most of the action on Saturn’s moon Titan, as a tribute to Sagan. Sagan had formulated a theory as to the nature of Titan’s atmosphere (that it contained a complex hydrocarbon he called “tholin”) which accounted for the rusty-orange coloration of the moon. His theories were pretty well borne out by the Huygens probe, by the way, though he didn’t live long enough to know this.

So tonight, on the tenth anniversary of his death, on a day when I’ve been through my own trials, I will nonetheless raise a glass, and drink a wee dram of good scotch to the memory of Carl Sagan. And I’ll promise myself, and his memory, that I’ll get that manuscript tweaked and published, if for no other reason than to honor him.

Here’s to Carl: Sorry you had to leave so soon.

Jim Downey

Tomorrow’s Girls

They’re mixing with the population
A virus wearing pumps and pearls
Lord help the lonely guys
Hooked by those hungry eyes
Here come Tomorrow’s Girls
Tomorrow’s Girls

Donald Fagan, “Tomorrow’s Girls” from Kamakiriad

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I can always tell when I’m feeling better, or have gotten a bit of sleep and am able to think (somewhat) again: I get that little rush of energy, mind jumping and drawing connections between ostensibly divergent topics. It is a shadow of the way I feel when my bipolar condition swings to the manic phase, and all things seem clear and possible.

Such is the case this morning.

I read a lot of science blogs. Pharyngula. Cosmic Variance. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. The Angry Toxicologist. But even before he started blogging at The Loom, I was aware of the science reporting of Carl Zimmer. And recently Carl posted a link to his Seed Magazine cover story “The Meaning of Life.” It’s not terribly long, and you should just go read the whole thing.

But among the entire very interesting article is this wonderful idea: that it is a mistake to try and define what life is right now. Philosopher Carol Cleland of NASA’s Institute for Astrobiology is very much in the thick of this, saying that we do not have the necessary perspective. As Zimmer puts it:

Instead of trying to formulate a definition of life, Cleland and Chyba argue, we need to develop a theory of life—an overarching explanation of nature that joins together a myriad of seemingly random phenomena. Biologists have discovered a number of theories–the germ theory of disease and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, for example—yet they have no full-fledged theory of life itself. The underlying uniformity of life is one of the great discoveries of modern biology, but it’s also an obstacle. It represents only a single data point, and blinds us to the possibilities of “weird life.” We have no idea exactly which features of life as we know it are essential to life as we don’t know it.

A theory of life would allow us to understand what matters to life, what possible forms it can take, and why. It would let us see connections that we might otherwise miss, just as chemists can see the hidden unity between a cloud in the sky and a block of ice. Scientists are already trying to build a theory of life. A number of researchers have been developing a theory in which life is a self-organized system that can be described using the same principles physicists use to describe hurricanes or galaxies. As biologists learn more and more about how the millions of molecules in a cell work together, these theorists can put their ideas to more precise tests.

For Cleland, the most promising way to build a theory of life is to look for alien life. In 2013, the European Space Agency plans to put a rover back on Mars. Called Exomars, it will drill into the Martian crust to seek out signs of life. NASA has plans of its own on the drawing board, including one possible mission that would bring Martian soil back to Earth for intense study. Meanwhile, other promising habitats for life, such as some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, beckon. Cleland argues that finding alien life would allow us to start figuring out what is truly universal about life, rather than just generalizing from life as we know it. Only when we have more data, she reasons, will we have a basis for comparison. As it stands now, says Cleland, “we have no grist for the theoretical mill.”

Brilliant. This is not unlike the revolution in perspective which occurred with the transition to a heliocentric model of the solar system. It necessarily moves us from the bias that our version of life is the only possible model. I’ve written about this previously, but it is good to see such a complete treatment of the topic as Zimmer gives it.

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It looks like scientists have discovered the likely culprit in the collapse of the honey bee populations in the US: a virus.

Virus implicated in bee decline

A virus has emerged as a strong suspect in the hunt for the mystery disease killing off North American honeybees.

Genetic research showed that Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) turned up regularly in hives affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Over the last three years, between 50% and 90% of commercial bee colonies in the US have been affected by CCD.

And from the same source:

Also open is the question of how the virus arrived in the US. One finger of suspicion points to Australia, from where the US began importing honeybees in 2004 – the very year that CCD appeared in US hives.

The researchers found IAPV in Australian bees, and they are now planning to go back through historical US samples to see if the Antipodean imports really were the first carriers.

If they were, the US might consider closing its borders to Australian bees.

The way the researchers determined that a virus was involved is also interesting. Since the honey bee genome has been ‘solved’ (completely mapped), they were able to assay the entire genetic contents of a hive and then remove the known components. What was left included some bacterial agents which are probably in symbiotic harmony with the bees, and various fungi and other items. By comparing a healthy hive’s genetic assay with one suffering from CCD, they were able to identify possible culprits – in this case, the IAPV.

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Communion of Dreams is set in a post-pandemic Earth, where a viral agent was responsible for widespread death and sterility some 40 years prior to the time of the novel. One good model of exactly how that could happen is CCD with the honey bees, though that has occurred in the time since I first wrote the book.

Now, how does this all tie together? Well, only because the researchers looking into the honey bee problem had the tools of genetic mapping available to them were they able to understand what was (likely) going on. Something similar happens in Communion on two fronts – resolving the riddle of the orphan girl and understanding the threat of the new virus. But perhaps more importantly, there is the mystery of the alien artifact and its connection the the superconducting gel, which I describe as “more alive than not” – this gets to the very heart of the issue of understanding the true nature of the universe, and discarding our previous biases.

Oh, and lastly, I’m sure we’ll see something from Zimmer about the IAPV discovery. Why? Because one of his specialties is the nightmare-inducing world of parasites, and looking at the evolutionary struggle between hosts and diseases.

Jim Downey