Communion Of Dreams


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



Hype, or Hyperstealth?

This is starting to get some attention:

A Canadian company called Hyperstealth is reporting that it has developed Quantum Stealth, a material that renders the target “completely invisible by bending light waves around the target.” If the mock-up photos are to be believed, Quantum Stealth basically works like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

Since 2002, Hyperstealth has been in the business of designing camouflage patterns for military uniforms, vehicles, and installations. In 2010, at the International Camouflage Symposium, Hyperstealth’s CEO Guy Cramer demonstrated SmartCamo — a material that could reportedly adjust its camouflage markings to match its surroundings. We say “reportedly” because Cramer apparently published a video demonstration of SmartCamo, but then US military intervened and asked him to take it down. Presumably Quantum Stealth is a follow-up from SmartCamo.

Again, for security reasons, Cramer is saying very little about Quantum Stealth. All of the pictures that you see here, and on Hyperstealth’s site, are mock-ups, because “for security issues we can not show the actual technology.” Cramer says that both the US and Canadian military have seen Quantum Stealth in action, and that they’ve also confirmed that the material obscures the target from infrared (thermal) imaging. Below, you can see Cramer talking to CNN’s Pentagon correspondent about Quantum Stealth.

In addition to the cited CNN video, there’s another news item from a paper which seems to be local to the company. In that article Cramer has more to say:

“That’s the thing that surprises most of the people at these meetings, that it works as well as we’re showing there. It only takes a few seconds for someone in these meetings to verify, yeah it obviously works for the visual spectrum.”

The invisibility cloak also conceals ultra-violet and infra-red heat rays.

“It actually masks the entire thermal signature from the user.”

Cramer added, “We’ve proven it, but I’m not about to show it because there’s no need to show you what works because the only people who need to see this are the people we have shown.”

Uh-huh. He has a magic, er, make that “quantum technology” cloak, but doesn’t want to show anyone outside of the military, even though he’s perfectly happy to discuss how great it is.

Is my skepticism showing? Or has that been masked by quantum effects?

OK, so he’s shown it to the military. Wouldn’t just about any special forces organization in the world literally kill for such technology? Here’s what one such officer said, again from the Maple Ridge News article:

Maj. Doug MacNair, with Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, confirmed that Cramer made a presentation to special operations within the last few years.

But there’s been no decision to follow through.

“We didn’t pursue it further, at least not at this time anyway.

“It wasn’t something we were interested in pursuing at the time. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t in the future, necessarily. “We’re aware of the company, we have the information. But we don’t have a contract in place at the time.”

Maybe Mr. Cramer is asking too much money for his technology. Or perhaps this is some kind of ruse on the part of the military, to make it seem like the technology ain’t that big a deal. Because the clever thing to do is to promote this all over the web, and then deny that it is something that any government would want. That way no one will pay attention to it. Right?

Er, right.

Don’t get me wrong — I think such technology is possible, and I use something very like it in Communion of Dreams. This is from Chapter 18:

Jon walked to the edge of the pool. He heard a noise behind him, turned slowly to look at it.

From beside a large bush a pile of boulders shifted. The air shimmied, light danced, and a crouching figure emerged, covered in a fabric drape that tried to keep up with the changing surroundings. One hand pulled the drape to the side. Another was holding a very
large sidearm.

But that’s 40 years in the future. I don’t think that this is a tech which has come to be real quite so soon.

Jim Downey

 



From small beginnings…

Got a note from a friend, with a link to an article. The note said “Yet another shade of Communion of Dreams.” Here’s the start of the article:

As Bison Return to Prairie, Some Rejoice, Others Worry

WOLF POINT, Mont. — Sioux and Assiniboine tribe members wailed a welcome song last month as around 60 bison from Yellowstone National Park stormed onto a prairie pasture that had not felt a bison’s hoof for almost 140 years.

That historic homecoming came just 11 days after 71 pureblood bison, descended from one of Montana’s last wild herds, were released nearby onto untilled grassland owned by a charity with a vision of building a haven for prairie wildlife. Some hunters and conservationists are now calling for bison to be reintroduced to a million-acre wildlife refuge spanning this remote region.

This is from the first page of Communion of Dreams:

He could see four or five thousand buffalo, one of the small herds. They stretched out in a long line below him, wide enough to fill the shallow valley along this side of the river, coming partway up the sides of the hill, not fifty meters from where he stood. The sky was its perpetual blue-grey, as clear as it ever got at this latitude, though the sun was almost bright. Late winter snow, churned into a dull brown mass by the buffalo where they trekked along the valley floor, nonetheless glinted along the tops of the hills. Weather forecasts said more snow was coming. It was Friday, April 12.

He leaned on the railing, looking down, the windows of the research station behind him. He liked the solitude of the open sky of the National Buffalo Commons. Though he had many painful memories associated with these plains, they could fill the void inside him in a way that no place else could. He had grown up not too far away, back when people used to live out here. Now there were only the stations – small shelters where scientists could study the herds as they migrated, or where people with enough connections could escape for a few days.

The Commons had been borne of the fire-flu, with so few people left out in the great northern plains after it was finally all over that it was a relatively simple matter to just turn things back over to nature.

Every writing instructor or book out there will tell you that the opening sentences/paragraphs of a novel has a huge job: to establish the set and setting, introduce tone, and intrigue the reader enough that they want to keep reading. I think the opening page of Communion does that.

And so does the release of two small herds of bison.

Jim Downey