Communion Of Dreams


“All our futures tend to be made up out of bits and pieces of our present.”

A very insightful essay into the role which speculative fiction played in the Victorian era, and how it is still echoed in our fiction today:  Future perfect Social progress, high-speed transport and electricity everywhere – how the Victorians invented the future

Here’s an excerpt, but the whole thing is very much worth reading:

It’s easy to pick and choose when reading this sort of future history from the privileged vantage point of now – to celebrate the predictive hits and snigger at the misses (Wells thought air travel would never catch on, for example); but what’s still striking throughout these books is Wells’s insistence that particular technologies (such as the railways) generated particular sorts of society, and that when those technologies were replaced (as railways would be by what he called the ‘motor truck’ and the ‘motor carriage’), society would need replacing also.

It makes sense to read much contemporary futurism in this way too: as a new efflorescence of this Victorian tradition. Until a few years ago, I would have said that this way of using technology to imagine the future was irrecoverably dead, since it depended on our inheritance of a Victorian optimism, expressed as faith in progress and improvement as realisable individual and collective goals. That optimism was still there in the science fiction of Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, but it fizzled out in the 1960s and ’70s. More recently, we’ve been watching the future in the deadly Terminator franchise, rather than in hopeful film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The coupling of technological progress and social evolution that the Victorians inaugurated and took for granted no longer seemed appealing.

 

I think this is very much why many people find that Communion of Dreams seems to fit in so well with the style of SF from the 1950s and 60s — in spite of being set in a post-apocalyptic world, there is an … optimism … and a sense of wonder which runs through it (which was very deliberate on my part). As noted in a recent Amazon review*:

James Downey has created a novel that compares favorably with the old masters of science fiction.
Our universe would be a better place were it more like the one he has imagined and written about so eloquently.

Anyway, go read the Aeon essay by Iwan Rhys Morus (who happens to be a professor at Aberystwyth University in Wales — no, I did not make this up).

 

Jim Downey

*Oh, there’s another new review up I haven’t mentioned.

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Hey, I’ve seen this movie … *

NASA Eyes Crew Deep Sleep Option for Mars Mission

A NASA-backed study explores an innovative way to dramatically cut the cost of a human expedition to Mars — put the crew in stasis.

The deep sleep, called torpor, would reduce astronauts’ metabolic functions with existing medical procedures. Torpor also can occur naturally in cases of hypothermia.

* * *

Economically, the payoff looks impressive. Crews can live inside smaller ships with fewer amenities like galleys, exercise gear and of course water, food and clothing. One design includes a spinning habitat to provide a low-gravity environment to help offset bone and muscle loss.

Hmm … seems that I’ve heard of something like that before …

 

Jim Downey

*Obviously. Hat tip to ML for the link.



What kind of future were you expecting?

One with an ‘expert’ like Seth from Communion of Dreams?

Or maybe, a little closer to our own time, say one which includes something like HAL from 2001?

Ha! Sucker. You should know that reality would prove to be more … banal. And corporate. Like this:

The phone call came from a charming woman with a bright, engaging voice to the cell phone of a TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer. She wanted to offer a deal on health insurance, but something was fishy.

When Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh. But then she failed several other tests. When asked “What vegetable is found in tomato soup?” she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection.

Over the course of the next hour, several TIME reporters called her back, working to uncover the mystery of her bona fides. Her name, she said, was Samantha West, and she was definitely a robot, given the pitch perfect repetition of her answers. Her goal was to ask a series of questions about health coverage—”Are you on Medicare?” etc.—and then transfer the potential customer to a real person, who could close the sale.

Hmm, I think I can still work “Samantha” into St. Cybi’s Well

 

Jim Downey



“A Look Behind the Future.”

Via Open Culture, this brilliant, and fairly hilarious, promotional documentary about the ‘forthcoming’ movie 2001: A Space Odyssey:

 

As the Open Culture post says:

The Apollo 11 moon landing would, of course, come just three years later. A Look Behind the Future reflects the enterprising if square technological optimism of that era, a tone that perhaps hasn’t aged quite as well as the haunting, bottomlessly ambiguous film it pitches.

 

Jim Downey



Because …

… I’m a big 2001: A Space Odyssey fan, as well as a paleo-future geek, I offer this wonderful insight into my past/future:

“2001: A Space Odyssey” Howard Johnsons Children’s Menu (1968)

Yeah, that’s what it was like back in ’68. Definitely.

 

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

 

 



Daisy, Daisy …

One of the things I’ve been a little bit surprised by has been just how many people have volunteered to me (or in reviews) just how much they like the ‘Experts’ in Communion of Dreams, and in particular how much of a favorite character Seth becomes to them in the course of the novel.

I don’t mean I’m surprised by how much people like the Experts, and particularly Seth. Hell, I intended the Experts to be likeable. I mean that this is something which people find remarkable enough to, well, remark on it.

That’s because humans tend to anthropomorphize just about everything. Our pets. Our cars. Our tools. Even nature. It’s one of the basic ways that we make sense of the world, as can be seen in religious and spiritual beliefs.  Long before Siri there was HAL, and inasmuch as Communion of Dreams is an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey I knew that Seth would resonate as a ‘real person’.*

So this morning I was amused to hear a story on NPR about how giving computers/robots more human characteristics tends to cause humans to develop a greater sense of empathy and socialization with them. Amused, but not surprised. From the article:

Many people have studied machine-human relations, and at this point it’s clear that without realizing it, we often treat the machines around us like social beings.

Consider the work of Stanford professor Clifford Nass. In 1996, he arranged a series of experiments testing whether people observe the rule of reciprocity with machines.

* * *

What the study demonstrated was that people do in fact obey the rule of reciprocity when it comes to computers. When the first computer was helpful to people, they helped it way more on the boring task than the other computer in the room. They reciprocated.

* * *

“The relationship is profoundly social,” he says. “The human brain is built so that when given the slightest hint that something is even vaguely social, or vaguely human — in this case, it was just answering questions; it didn’t have a face on the screen, it didn’t have a voice — but given the slightest hint of humanness, people will respond with an enormous array of social responses including, in this case, reciprocating and retaliating.”

 

On the NPR website version of the story there’s also this delightful video showing what happens when a robot with cat/human characteristics begs a research subject to not switch it off:

 

Interesting. But again, unsurprising. Consider the whole sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL is shut down — a powerful and poignant part of the movie. And referenced at the end of the video above.

Lastly, I laughed out loud once the story was over on NPR, and the transitional bit of music started up. Why? Because it was an instrumental work by the artist Vangelis, composed as the Love Theme from the movie Blade Runner.

Hilarious.

 

Jim Downey

*And for those who have read the book, consider what the role of Chu Ling’s devas are relative to Seth … 😉  We’ll see more of this reference in St. Cybi’s Well.



“My God, it’s full of stars!”*

I’m no mathematician, and I won’t claim that the imagery used of the ‘artifact’ in Communion of Dreams was intended to reference this, but if you think about it (and have read the entire book), this kind of explanation would work with higher orders of dimensional reality:

Mathematical Impressions: The Surprising Menger Sponge Slice

 

Jim Downey

*Of course. Which also fits with CoD, since it was an explicit homage to the first movie/book.