Communion Of Dreams


Taking it on faith.

A couple weeks ago I quipped that I was thankful for the TSA, because they are always good fodder for a blog post when things were otherwise slow. Well, likewise, I’m glad that the big multinational banks are around to put my own mistakes in some perspective:

A billion here, a billion there

JPMORGAN, widely considered the best run of all the large banks in America, if not the world, on May 10th provided the kind of news that has become all too common in the financial industry: a $2 billion charge for errant trades. The markets responded within seconds of the opening on May 11th, sending Morgan’s share price down 9%, and its value by $14 billion. Late on May 11th, Standard & Poor’s announced it was downgrading the outlook for the company, and Fitch knocked down its ratings.

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The bluntest criticism of Morgan’s failure came from the bank’s own chief executive, Jamie Dimon. He said the losses were the result of self-inflicted “sloppiness”, “poor judgment” and “stupidity”, for which “we are accountable”.

And the news this morning is that a number of the executives involved in the losses have ‘retired’. No, not in the Blade Runner sense. But in the sense that they’ll not be drawing a salary of more than a million bucks a month. Though I imagine that these people have more than a bit of savings and contractual retirement income to cushion the blow.

Anyway.

Yesterday’s Kindle promotion for Communion of Dreams wasn’t a huge mistake, but it also wasn’t a stunning success. A total of 1,571 copies of the book were downloaded. Chances are it wasn’t what was needed to kick us up to the next orbital level, but neither did it crash & burn.

What *was* surprising was that our care-giving memoir Her Final Year proved to be very successful, with a total of 3,112 downloads. Wow.

I find it hard to explain just how happy this makes me. As I had noted previously, I was very disappointed with the response to Her Final Year. Only recently have I come to understand that it was about more than just simple sales.

See, I have been very pleased with the response to Communion of Dreams. The sales are nice, and the income helps. The reviews and ratings are rewarding. But what really makes me happy is that the book has found an audience, a home in people’s lives, a place in their imaginations.

That Her Final Year hadn’t found such a home was what bugged me. Because I have a lot of faith in the book. Faith that it can help others, if they would just read the damned thing. But that faith had been betrayed by my inability to get any attention for the book. Or, rather, I felt like I had betrayed my faith – and the book – by my inability to promote it.

Now, just because 3,112 people downloaded the book yesterday that doesn’t mean that the book will be read. But it sure as hell is a lot more likely that it’ll be read than just having the thing sit forgotten on Amazon’s servers. We’ll just have to see.

But no longer do I feel like I have betrayed the promise of the book. That gives me a happiness, and a hope, which I haven’t felt for a long time.

Thanks, everyone.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the HFY blog.)



Coincidence.

Last night I watched a movie made before I was born.  By coincidence, the timing was perfectly in sync with the news yesterday.

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Over a year ago, I wrote this, about Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace (one of the speakers at the Heinlein Centennial):

Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”

And this, in a piece about Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets:

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

Well, yesterday a Falcon 1 rocket from the Space X corporation made it to orbit.  From Phil Plait:

Congratulations to the team at Space X! At 16:26 Pacific time today (Sunday, September 28, 2008), their Falcon 1 rocket achieved orbit around the Earth, the first time a privately funded company has done such a feat with a liquid fuel rocket.

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As coincidence would have it, about the time the Space X rocket reached orbit I was watching Destination Moon, a movie I had added to my NetFlix queue after the Heinlein Centennial, and which just now had floated to the top.

What’s the big deal?  Well, Destination Moon was about the first successful private corporation launch, not to orbit, but as a manned mission to the Moon.

It’s not a great movie.  But it was fascinating to watch, an insight into those heady post-war years, into what people thought about space, and into the mind of Robert Heinlein, who was one of the writers and technical advisors on the film (with connections to two of his novels: Rocket Ship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon).  Interesting to see the trouble they went to in order to explain what things would be like in space (no gravity, vacuum, how rockets would work, et cetera) because this was a full 8 years prior to the launch of Sputnik.  We’ve grown up with spaceflight as a fact, with knowing how things move and function – but all of this was unknown to the average viewer when the movie was made and released.  They did a surprisingly good job.  And the images provided Chesley Bonestell are still breath taking, after all these years.

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It may yet be a while before any private corporation wins the Google Lunar X Prize, let alone sends a team of astronauts there and gets them back, as was done in Destination Moon.  But it’ll happen.  When it looks like it will, I may need to schedule another viewing of the movie, and not just trust to coincidence.

Jim Downey



Fox and squirrel.

Standing there, looking out the window to the driveway just below, I saw the fox take the unwitting squirrel. One quick, quiet leap from behind a tree, a snap, pause to snap again at the struggling grey mass, and it had breakfast. A pretty, lethal thing, yellow-red short fur, characteristic long legs and bushy tail, eyes sharp as it looked around. Probably weighed twelve to fifteen pounds, lean and long. Made me consider keeping the cats inside.

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Peter Diamandis received a standing ovation for his presentation on the absolute need to go into space. It wasn’t just that the attendees at the Heinlein Centennial Gala were predisposed to his message – it was because his energy and enthusiasm swept away all doubts that this was *going* to happen, that it was economically inevitable, once we realized that it was actually possible. What’s that? Charlie Stross and others have said that while something like asteroid mining might be possible, it won’t lead to colonization? Yeah, that’s the argument. But Diamandis calculates that one 0.5 kilometer metallic asteroid will contain a *lot* of valuable metal…to the tune of 20 Trillion dollars worth. Sure, such asteroids only comprise about 8% of the known bodies anywhere near our space…but still, you’re talking tens of thousands of such asteroids of varying size. That’s a damned big incentive to build infrastructure, and once the infrastructure is in place, once the basic research has been done and there are multiple private corporations, countries, and even private citizens exploiting this resource, there are going to be some who find it advantageous to actually locate in space (semi-)permanently.

Diamandis joked that his strategy is going to be to issue a lot of ‘put options’ for the precious metals, then announce that he is going to go grab one of these asteroids and use the procedes to finance the expedition. Hey, when a man worth that kind of money makes such a joke, people should take it seriously.

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I watched, one afternoon last week, while my mother-in-law suffered a slight TIA. She was sitting in her wheelchair, having just gotten up from her afternoon nap, and was finishing some yogurt. I was sitting and talking with her, when she just slowly sort of folded in on herself. While she is 90 and suffers from Alzhemer’s, she is usually capable of responding to direct questions about immediate events (how she feels, if she likes her yogurt, et cetera), but she suddenly went quiet, almost insensate. I checked to see whether something like a heart attack was in process, and asked if she was hurting or if there was some other indicator of a serious emergency. Eventually I got enough information to conclude it was likely ‘just’ a TIA or some similar event, and got her back in bed. I monitored her, and all seemed to be well. She woke two hours later, with no evidence of damage. But it was an indication of her condition, and likely a hint at things to come.

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I want to have Jeff Greason’s baby.

Greason (pronounced ‘Grey-son’) is the head of XCOR Aerospace, and is one of the many companies trying to build the infrastructure of private commercial spaceflight. He and his company have accomplished a lot in the development of dependable, reusuable, and powerful rocket engines…engines sufficiently well engineered that they show no indication of wearing out after even thousands of operating cycles (being turned on and off). As he explains, the two biggest problems previously with rocket engine design was that there was wear leading to failure on both the throat of the engine (where the burning fuel exhausts) and on the nozzle (which creates the high thrust needed). The XCOR designs have engineered these problems out, and they’re still waiting to find out what other life-span problems the engine might have. And once you have dependable rocket engines, you can build a reusable and dependable vehicle around them.

But that’s not why I want to have his baby. Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”

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In one of the sessions, people got to talking about what drives technological development, and one of the big things that people focused on was war. This has been a common theme in a lot of SF, including my favorite series Babylon 5 (see the Shadow War arc). I don’t entirely buy it. I tend to think that economics are a bigger force in tech development – even in wartime, most of the tech developed isn’t something like a pure weapon such as the atomic bomb; it is all the support infrastructure which has dual-use and can be adapted easily after a war because it is economically advantageous.

But this discussion took another familiar turn: that only after we have threatened ourselves with extinction through something like a nuclear war, would we find the will to go into space in a big way. That, actually, is one aspect of Communion of Dreams, but I don’t see mankind being able to survive a major nuclear exchange and then still have the capability to get into space. The infrastructure necessary to support a space-faring tech is really quite extensive, even if you have just small private companies and individuals building and using the rockets/spaceplanes to get to low-earth-orbit. Take out that infrastructure…wipe out the industrial base of the major nations, or even kick it back 50 years…and you will not have access to the kinds of composite materials, computing systems, et cetera, which are necessary components of any spacecraft. Burt Rutan will not be making SpaceShipTwo unless he has the parts – it’s that simple.

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There are a few things I’ve learned in my 49 years here. One is that we age, and we will die (sure, I’d love for Heinlein’s rejuvenation technology to come into play, or some version of ‘Singularity’ to save me from personal extinction…but I’m not counting on it.) It might be through something like the advancing senescence of global warming which we should see coming but act on too late. It might be something quick and unexpected, perhaps one of Diamandis’ $20 trillion rocks taking us out before we get around to using it for other purposes.

We should be like the fox, not the squirrel. The quick-witted one. The one who takes the future and makes it his own, rather than the one who is unpleasantly surprised for a brief and painful moment.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)