Grade: Η — A solid read that may have greater appeal to individuals who are not fans of the genre than by aficionados.
You can buy this book at Amazon, or Direct from the Author at:
Communion of Dreams is the debut novel by James T. Downey. It is a First Contact/Alien Artifact story with a solid plot, and some good character arcs. While there are some areas which could be improved (see below), it also has one of the very few endings in a book of this nature that I actually enjoyed!
Most of this story occurs on Titan (Saturn’s Moon) at the end of this century (though that is never stated per se). Sometime in the living memory of some of the characters, there has been a horrible pandemic with an extreme morbidity that greatly reduced the human population. Nevertheless, it is a future where humanity has very rapid interplanetary travel (days to get to Saturn) but has not yet gone beyond the edge of the solar system. High level AIs exist, but are rare, though lower level AIs are more common.
I had a very hard time assigning a grade for this book, so much so that I had to revise my system (again). The reason? This is an interstitial work that non-the-less falls squarely into the Soft Science Fiction genre. I think many Sci-Fi fans will like it, but an equal number will probably find it unappealing. There are elements of the writing that break ‘golden rules’ for fiction, but it has a central storyline that is quite interesting. In short, Communion of Dreams may well appeal to many who don’t normally like the science fiction genre, but neither is it ground shaking enough to get an Omega rating.
In essence, the story is a classic ‘alien object’ story. In this case, the object in question is discovered on Titan by a “crotchety old” prospector before the opening of the book. The story is told as a third person single perspective narrative from the Point-of-View (POV) of the head of the scientific expedition that is sent to investigate this object. The problem (or I should say the first problem) is that while the object can be seen by people, no instruments (including cameras) seem to pick it up and descriptions of it vary from person to person. From this initial setup, the book follows a story arc that includes assembling a team, figuring out how to even begin examining this thing, political intrigue (both global and personal within the story setting), and as the story progresses, new more threatening problems. To this end, the premise and core structure produce a setting for a very interesting tale.
There are some things I absolutely loved about this book (particularly the final reveal and nature of the alien contact), but there were some elements of the story telling that could have been improved, and one or two that grated.
So… because I had such a hard time deciding how to rate this book, and because I don’t want to do any Spoilers, I’m going to leave my normal format and steal a page from Charlie’s book over on Smartgirls’. I’m going to say what I liked and what I didn’t like before I go on to a conclusion.
What I Didn’t Like:
There wasn’t enough description
Much of this book takes place on one of the most fascinating bodies in the solar system: Titan. This frozen moon orbits the gloriously ringed planet of Saturn. According to Cheetham, Titan is the only moon with a substantial atmosphere, with clouds that cover a terrestrial like landscape that is, in fact, nothing like Earth. The ground is mostly water-ice and the running water liquid methane. While all these facts are portrayed across the story, the descriptions are not. Never once do we seen the mighty gas giant with its vast rings rise over the horizon or described out the window of the orbiting space station. While tholin sleet is often mentioned, we never get the visceral feel or look of the landscape. In fact, I’m not sure I can even say what color it was. Nether are there any real descriptions of the space station, the ship that transport people, or much of the technology or even much beyond an initial description of the characters. More description would likely have pulled me deeper into the tale, making me feel present on this most fascinating of locations.
The writing of the story could have been tightened through combining certain scenes, particularly the dialogue scenes. There were a LOT of scenes of people talking to one another, and while I appreciate a slow paced novel with lots of talking heads, in this case some of them could have been combined into single scenes with a greater dynamic and built tension without creating a threat to safety or the project.
For example, towards the end of the book, Jon (our protagonist) has a conversation with the doctor on the space station, then goes to speak to one member of his team about what he’s discover, then goes on to have a very similar conversation with another team member. While some of the details they discuss in each of those scenes were different, there would have been greater tension created had Jon just met with all three people at the same time, or at least combined the meeting with his team members. Some debate could have been created, ideas discussed and through that pressure built in the scene. Since they were all discussing more or less the same thing, this could have added to the dynamic of the book. Instead, the scenes are almost placeholders, points that have to be passed to make the story move along, but nothing more.
In fact, there was a general lack of conflict between the principal characters that might have added to heighten tension without a need for life-and-death threats. This also could have given life to some of the tertiary characters who, to be honest, came across a bit flat at times. Oh, there were potential conflicts raised between Jon, the leader of the second team, the head of the security/army personnel, etc., but they never came to fruition. Problems were glossed over and amicably solved after short conversations.
There was also a notable lack of Archaeologists…. But as this is the case with most Alien artifact books, I’ll get to that later.
What I Liked About the Book:
The General Lack of Racism:
Often, Alien Object stories, particularly ones like this where an object is clearly thousands of years old, are unintentionally racist. They have aliens interfering with the development of human civilization: teaching them to build pyramids, putting stone in circles across the landscape, drawing lines in the desert that serve as runways (or the feet of birds… oh don’t get me started on Nazca lines), building really big heads, etc. What kills me about this approach, beyond the fact that it completely ignores the archaeological data, is that people don’t seem to realize how blatantly racist such ideas are. Pyramids must have been built by Aliens because they are so impressive. After all, nobody knows how they were built do they?
Well, guess what? Yes, we do know how they were built, or rather, we have several viable theories that are backed up by pretty hard data. We have makers marks, and chisel marks and all sorts of things that suggest that human beings made them, and, what is more, the human beings who made them were the indigenous populations around them (be that Egyptians in Egypt, Mayans in the Yucatan and Central America, Aztecs in Mexico, etc. etc. etc.). There are towns at the bloody base of the things that have tools and/or writing that matches those inside, there are… oh… fine. Topic for another post.
In short, we have a pretty good idea of how the pyramids were made, and for that matter, how Stonehenge was built, how the Mounds in North America came about, who built Ankorwat, etc. etc. etc. When people say we couldn’t build things like that today, they are wrong. We could build them, using ancient techniques (not to mention modern ones), it’s just that we have grown fat and lazy and less interested in the good and prestige of society than we are in having a double cheeseburger in front of our oversized plasma TV. Hell, we went to the moon using less computer power than I have in my iPod. Does that mean that Aliens were responsible for it?
What is more, we never turn around and say that Rome must have been built by aliens. That is because A: we have a written record, and B: they were European. When we as writers or researchers say that great architecture, ideas or other accomplishments couldn’t have been made by the people who lived there, what we are saying is that it couldn’t have been built by those funny little brown people. The building of these great cultural feats isn’t recorded in the way that I would record it, so we don’t know how it was done, can’t figure it out, and unless they are of Western cultural descent, the people who lived there couldn’t do it.
As a result, I almost always HATE books that suggest that contact between Humans and Aliens might have happened in the past.
In Communion of Dreams, however, this is definitely NOT the case. The topic of possible ancient alien contact is brilliantly handled and to my mind, makes perfect sense (within the context of the book that is). Indeed, it has quite the opposite effect that most such stories have on me, and is one of only two such conclusions that I actually liked. The other was Arthur C. Clark’s 2001, so that is very august company to keep, and to be honest, I thought the way that Downey handled it in this book was superior. I won’t go into any further details, for the question of whether or not there even was contact is one of the most interesting and intentionally downplayed elements of this book. Suffice it to say that the way this book addresses the whole concept of the ‘object’ is well worth the read.
It is Spiritual without being Spiritual:
That is to say, the book touches on elements of deeper personal growth without ever getting caught up in it. It is not dogmatic, and at times I think the title might do the book a disservice, as that it could suggest a degree of airy-fairyness that is totally absent from the book. Instead, it raises the possibility of greater self and/or power being present in the universe without pretending to answer, or even really suggest, what that might be. Indeed, you could ignore the whole element if you just want a good read.
There are a group of terrorists in this book, extremists who impact the story by creating a threat, but who are not the central element of the tale. What I like about the way they are addressed by Downey is that they are “home-grown” terrorist (i.e. they come from North America) and they are an interesting blend of both extreme left and extreme right wing politics. To that end,Downey avoids the book becoming a political commentary while making a great point about extremists in general.
The Lack of Archaeologists on First Contact and/or Alien Object Missions:
This is true of almost all Alien Contact books, most notably those with Alien Objects. Oh, sometimes there are sociologists, psychologists or anthropologists in the research team, but stories never have archaeologists sent out when they are going to investigate mysterious alien objects. Yet, that is exactly what archaeologists do. We try to figure out what weird ass things are. It is the primary job of archaeologists. I mean really.
Here, they include an artist, a socio-cultural anthropologist/sociologisty kind of a guy and all sorts of other people, but they don’t actually have an archaeologist on the crew. Sad, because one of the central problems they came across at the beginning of the story could have been answered by anyone who had gone to field school:
One of the big questions we meet at the beginning of the story is that no one actually knows what the artifact looks like. Instruments can’t measure it, people seem to have similar but substantially different descriptions of what they remember it looking like, no one can really answer the question. Yet any undergraduate who had undergone the most basic field training could have told you exactly how to measure an object that isn’t there. Archaeologists do that everyday.
You measure where it isn’t.
This is, effectively, how archaeologists can figure out what artifacts, buildings and other structures look like based on nothing more than soil stains in the dirt. In fact, the method described below is more or less the same approach we used to record the Ferry-Fryston Chariot Burial back in 2003, which allowed us to recreate the axle and chassis construction of an Iron Age vehicle we found in Yorkshire. In essence, even that was just an extrapolation of long cherished methods used by archaeologists. In this story the issues were similar. Admittedly, the measuring of the Alien Artifact on Titan is made more difficult because it is a hole in the air, not the ground, and there was a legitimate concern about wanting to avoid touching it or using active recording methods (e.g. lasers), but in essence, the approach is the same.
To begin with, one creates a datum point whose exact position is known. From there, there are a number of approaches that could be used. The first is putting a Transit over the datum and using it and a tape measure to record the object. Effectively you site in on a given point on the artifact, record it on an X,Y plane using the transit, and on a Z plane using the tape measure. You do not actually have to touch the object to do this, you just need to be able to measure to a point near its edge. Doing this using three stations will give you a pretty good 3D image of what the object looks like.
To do this on a more detailed level, you could also using a drawing frame, in this case, a 3D ‘cage’ that is precisely located on the ground, with premeasured points on the frame that give you exact positions to measure from.
Alternately, you could use a 3D measuring arm presently made by the Faro company: http://www.faro.com/FaroArm/Home.htm?source=google_branded&9gtype=search&9gkw=faro%20technologies&9gad=7870023974.1&gclid=CMS2xaqW3a8CFWYJRQodzFZB_A that effectively does the same thing. You don’t need to touch the object, just get close to its surface and it is available today.
While this won’t tell you exactly what it looks like, it will give you a pretty good approximation that could tell you a great deal about it. Yet, here, like every other alien object book, I never find archaeologists used in this kind of book anyway. Not in Clark(Rendezvous with Rama, 2001, 2010, 2075, or any other 200+x where x = a value greater than 1), not anywhere. So, I shouldn’t be so hard on Mr. Downey.
Get on with it Evans…
Okay, okay, okay okay – why-archaeologists-are-useful-in-space-exploration rant over, how do I rate the book?
Well, there were great ideas and elements in the book that surprised and delighted me, and there were parts of the narrative that dragged and could readily have been improved.
It is a slow paced intellectual book that will not appeal to everyone, but that I think some readers of Science Fiction, and even more so, readers of other genres might enjoy. Thus, I give it an Eta, the very first Eta given on this site. If you’d like to read an alien object story that introduces a degree of personal growth, than this is a great book to pick up.
You can buy this book at Amazon, or Direct from the Author at:
 I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that the author get’s more money if you buy direct from him!
 This, I should say, immediately piqued my interest since measuring things is kind of a way of life with me.
 Which discussing would spoil the book, so take my word for it, problems evolve.
 The Universe: A Journey from Earth to the Edge of the Cosmos, Cheetham, Nicolas (Smith-Davies Publishing, 2005)
 Beyond the ones already included in the story.
 Moon launch? I have an App for that!
 Because we didn’t read all those tediously long and boring books by people like the author of this website.
 Didn’t I already say I wasn’t going to rant about this? Get on with it Evans…
 Normal conversation in the field between two professional diggers:
“Hey Dude, did I really have ten pints last night?”
“Yeah you were totally… hey, what’s this?”
“Uh… a bit of rock?”
“Yeah, but… I was right, there’s a striking platform on it!”
“Any use wear?”
“I don’t… yeah, right here there’s some linear striations on the blunt side.”
“The blunt side? What the hell is that for?”
“Good question, maybe they used it to cure hides?”
“Maybe, but we are in the middle of an 18th Century deposit. In Italy.”
“So what? You think they couldn’t have used stone to cure hides? What do you think it was for? Rituals? You ALWAYS say ritual and…”
etc. etc. etc.
 Indeed, no one ever really does, which seemed to be a bit of an unfired gun in the plot line if you ask me.
 And…umm… harrumph… I was central in developing. Of course, now I would have done it very differently, and would have ensured I was on site the whole time despite what Bob said, because it would have solved an aweful lot of problems and… oh wait. Science Fiction. Book Review… right.
 With the chariot, we used a combination of hand measurements, laser rangefinder total station points, and digitally rectified photographs.
- A New Angle on Titan (universetoday.com)
- NASA – Saturn’s Brightly Reflective Moon Enceladus (beartales.me)
- NASA Research Estimates How Long Titan’s Chemical Factory Has Been In Business (eurasiareview.com)
- Is Saturn Moon’s Haze Old Enough for Life? (news.nationalgeographic.com)
- Saturn’s moon Phoebe could have been a planet [Space] (io9.com)
- Research estimates how long Titan’s chemical factory has been in business (phys.org)
- Incredible pictures shed new light on Saturn’s fog-shrouded moon Titan (dailymail.co.uk)
- Saturn’s Rings & Biggest Moon Dazzle in New Photo (livescience.com)
- Saturn’s Rings & Biggest Moon Dazzle in New Photo (space.com)
- NASA Research Estimates How Long Titan’s Chemical Factory Has Been in Business (saturndaily.com)
- The Mars Series by Kim Stanley Robinson (afetteredmind.com)
- Science Fiction Sub-Genres and all that! (rosieoliver.wordpress.com)
- Gluten free and inclusive communion / eucharist / Lord’s Supper (loveandbelief.wordpress.com)
- Avengers: Uber Rockin’ Awesomeness! (funstuffblogandreviews.wordpress.com)
- Why SF?: An Interview with Melinda Snodgrass, SF Novelist and Screenwriter (underwordsblog.com)