Communion Of Dreams


“If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales …”

I’m just going to post this entire review:

Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2020

From the very first page, St Cybi’s Well steeps you in the rich culture and landscape of Wales. It has a feel of ancient otherworldliness—until the scientific and political realities hit you full-on.

This book sounds uncanny echoes of our present predicament: Pandemic. Police. Politics. Racism. Rioting. Revolt. You can hear the ripping of the social fabric as fear overcomes reason.

And yet, there is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for a better future. Hope for us all.

With protagonist Dernell Sidwell’s quest for hope/healing/redemption set in the mystical, ancient sites of Wales, the reader feels deeply drawn to the power of the past—all while checking over their shoulder for what new nightmare the present has to offer.

You’d think the author was a time traveler, considering how closely Sidwell’s journey parallels the challenges we now face. You will appreciate Sidwell’s determination, his acute survival skills, and his willingness to consider, confront, and accept some things that stretch his perceptions of what is possible.

If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales, take the trip now. This is an urgent adventure that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the last page. I’ll see you at St Cybi’s Well.

St Cybi’s Well, and my other books, will be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month. Please download & share! And as I’ve said before: “And please, if you do read it, leave a review.”
Jim Downey


Thoughts while walking in the rain.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks. Which, on the one hand, is surprising, since I’m about at the top of my natural long (18 months), mildly bipolar cycle. On the other hand …

… we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has been incompetently managed at the federal level to the point where we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary deaths here before the end of the year. (Don’t bother to post a political comment disagreeing — I’ll just delete it.)

St Cybi’s Well has failed spectacularly to find an audience as of yet, with fewer than 500 total downloads/sales. Given how long I struggled with the book, and the very positive responses to it by people who have read it, that’s very frustrating.

… I’m having increasing problems with arthritis in my hands, which greatly limits how much book conservation work I can do. Given that I love doing this work, that’s been another source of frustration.

So it’s not terribly surprising that I would have this reaction. Lots of people are struggling with the stress of this current time. I know I am extremely fortunate in most ways, so I’m not asking for sympathy or anything.

But it pays to understand what is happening to me, and why. Only by doing so can I decide on the best way to proceed. And my morning walk helped.

I now walk 3 miles a day, about 5 days a week. Two or three days a week I take a break to allow my joints to recover a bit, or to accommodate appointments, inclement weather, et cetera. This morning I was supposed to have a solid couple hour window between thunderstorms to get my walk in, but I took along an umbrella just in case.

And it was a good thing I did. About 2 miles into my walk the skies were too heavy and unburdened themselves. I decided it was something of a metaphor, and that I should do the same. Hence this blog post.

No brilliant insights from this to share. I know how to deal with the frustrations, and am well equipped to do so. More precautions, in spite of the isolation. More writing, in spite of the failure. More work, in spite of the ache. More reaching out and doing what I can for others, in spite of the funk.

Jim Downey



The Waltz Dystopic

Why on Earth would you want to read a novel about a pandemic during a pandemic? Or why would you want to dive into a world where America is a dystopia of racial hatred and theocratic overreach when America is, well, trying to sort out racial hatred and theocratic overreach? There’d have to be something wrong with you to join in such a dance, wouldn’t there?

This was touched on in an interview on NPR I listened to this morning on my daily walk. In it, author Josh Malerman said that reading about a pandemic during a pandemic was somehow comforting; it was a way of saying “we know how to deal with this”.

In writing St Cybi’s Well I used an old literary technique to create some psychic space between the reader and my criticism of our American society, by not placing the story in America, but by having characters in the story reflect on and discuss what a dystopia American had become. This way the reader joins me in a dance, following my lead, but themselves moving through the story I’ve set out. The dystopia is there, but together we have defined it, perhaps tamed it enough that we can see it for what it is.

Of course, our reality is not the reality of St Cybi’s Well. Though it is still very early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I don’t think that it will be quite as devastating as the Fire-flu is in my book. And though we are perhaps at a turning point in the political history of our country, we’re not yet in a constitutional theocracy.

Take the lesson — or the warning — for what it is. That’s why you join the dance.

Jim Downey



“In the before time.”

Some variation of the phrase “in the before time(s)” has been a staple of post-apocalypse Science Fiction for so long that it’s a well-deserved cliche, mocked even by South Park. Usually invoked by some grungy child reciting a barely-understood mythos, or an aged ‘elder’ thinking back to their youth, it served as a mechanism to explain what happened to civilization.

Of course, in our post-modern, self-aware world “in the before time” came to be widely used in a joking manner, to refer to some not-so-serious turning point in recent history. Before YouTube. Before Google. Before the internet. Before Fonzie jumped the shark. Whatever. It was funny, see?

Except in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started hearing it used to refer to the pre-Covid pandemic times. And not in a humorous way. People are using it completely seriously. Here are just two examples, the first from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday program on 6/12:

New York Eater’s Chief Critic Isn’t Ready To Eat Out. Here’s Why

* * *

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about the future of the restaurant industry? I mean, do you think it will look anything like what it resembled before the pandemic?

SUTTON: I don’t think anyone knows what the restaurant industry is going to look like in the coming months, never mind the coming year or so. We can only agree – is dining out in the future won’t look anything like it did in the before times. We’re going to continue to see a lot more takeout, and we’re going to continue to see, I think, a lot of people continue to eat at home rather than treating restaurants like extensions of their dining rooms. It’s not going to be a nightly fare anymore. And that’s going to cost a lot of jobs, and that’s going to close a lot of restaurants. And that’s just a terrible thing for everyone.

And the second from a FaceBook post a friend shared, about whether schools would/could open in the fall:

A high school teacher in this state has a maximum class size of 32-35 students, which gives the teacher around 200 students across 4-6 classes in beforetimes schooling. To mitigate coronavirus would then require 3 kindergarten teacher now to do the job of one kindergarten teacher a year ago. High school would require 24 high teachers to do one beforetimes high school teacher’s work and that is if we overlook the very awkward point that having half the class meet half the time might limit the children’s risk but only extends the hours of exposure to the virus that is faced by the teacher.

In doing a bit of quick research for this post, I also find that lexicographer Ben Zimmer (brother of excellent science writer Carl Zimmer) has noticed this change as well:

‘The Before Time’: A Sci-Fi Idea That Has Made Its Way to Real Life

(I haven’t actually read that, since I don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription. But it’s obvious that he’s noted the same shift in usage.)

Just an interesting observation about how our language changes, and another example of how science fiction has had an effect on the ‘real’ world.

Jim Downey



“Did we actually go there, or … ?”

One of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well added this note under “TRIVIA”:

Most of the chapters start with information that looks like it came from Internet websites. I typed in some of the URLs, and they are exactly what they seem to be, lending credence to the book.

And several people have commented both on Amazon and on Facebook that the book could function as something of a travelog.

That’s very much by design. The chapter header URLs & info I used in the book are straight from real sites online, though I intentionally used versions which date back to ~ 2012 (the date in the novel) whenever possible. And likewise, each location specified in the book is real. As well as every bit of Welsh history or myth I used.

I did this to lend the book verisimilitude. I really want readers to wonder just how possible the story is, to feel that ‘thinness’ I describe between one reality and another in the book.  I want them to visit the sites mentioned, to feel what I have felt there.

I didn’t start writing the book with this in mind. I figured that I would simply use my own experience in traveling in Wales to ground the book in reality, and use what little I knew of Welsh history & mythology to help add color. But as I wrote, I found myself digging deeper and deeper, spending more time visiting sites virtually, until they became very well known to me.

After a while, I started to lose track of whether I had actually visited some of the sites in person, or had only visited them online. This led to the very surreal experience during a trip we took in 2017 where in going to Craig Rhosyfelin I was absolutely certain that we had visited the site previously … but also absolutely certain that we never had (the latter which was confirmed by my wife). I had spent so much time exploring the site virtually, working through the descriptions and history of it, writing the interaction of characters there, that it really did feel like I had my own personal memories of the place. Bizarre.

The same is true of several other locations in the book, to the point where my wife and I now joke about it. “Did we actually go there, or … ?” has become a standard in our travels.

And of course now, with the limitations imposed by our own real pandemic, such virtual travel is all we have at present. So if you need a vacation, maybe spend a little time in my novel. The links included on the website will help.

Jim Downey

 



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



With apologies to Ursula K. Le Guin

So, since I haven’t been blogging here much in the last couple of years, I haven’t said anything about just how surreal it was working to finish my novel about a global pandemic … while an actual global pandemic was unfolding around us.

Yeah. Seriously. Real Lathe of Heaven stuff, making me wonder about just how much my envisioning a given reality was bleeding into this reality.

To a certain extent this had been an ongoing problem with writing St Cybi’s Well, as I had mentioned previously. I had to keep going back and making the ‘dystopia’ of SCW worse as our own world took a turn for the worse with the election of Trump, elements of Christian fascism seemed to be in ascendancy, et cetera.

But this year, after I had gotten a solid re-start on finishing St Cybi’s Well, watching the Covid-19 virus start to spread, was just … bizarre. And as you’ll see when you read the book, how the virus spread and the efforts that various governments tried to curtail it was pretty much exactly as what happened in real life. Fortunately, of course, C-19 hasn’t proven to be nearly as deadly as the Fire-Flu.

Well, at least not yet.

< shiver >

Jim Downey



Progress report and excerpt.

As I noted I probably would a little over a week ago, I’ve just wrapped up work on Chapter Fourteen: Llangelynnin of St Cybi’s Well. It’s a long chapter — twice as long as most of the chapters are — and a pivotal one, since it includes the first instance of the faith healing/psychic abilities as referenced in Communion of Dreams. Here’s a critical passage, which will resonate for those who have read CoD already, where Darnell Sidwell’s sister Megan first encounters the healing energy just as the fire-flu is becoming a pandemic:

She stepped into the small room of the well, her arms opening wide, her face lifting to the heavens. It was indeed as though she were drinking in the light he still saw there, or perhaps like she was drinking in rain as it fell. She stood thus for a long minute, perhaps two. Then slowly she knelt before the opening of the well, her hands coming together and plunging into the cold, still water. The light filling the small space seemed to swirl around, coalescing into her cupped hands as she raised them out of Celynin’s Well.

Darnell stepped inside the small roofless room, bending to help Megan stand. As she did, he looked down and saw that she had water in her hands, but not filling them. Rather, it was water as he knew it from his time in space: a slowly pulsing, shimmering sphere. It seemed to float just above the cradle made by her hands.

 

That brings me to a total of approximately 95,000 words. I still have one short transitional ‘interlude’, then three named chapters, then a brief ‘coda’, and the book will be finished. Probably another 25,000 – 30,000 words. Which will put it right at about the total length of Communion of Dreams.

What’s interesting for me is that this chapter has proven to be a pivotal one in another way: it feels now like I really am on the home stretch of this project. Just finishing this chapter has changed the whole creative energy for me. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it no longer feels … daunting.

We’ll see.

 

Jim Downey



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