Weredragons

One of the most awesome scenes in Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty is when the sorceress Maleficent turns into a dragon to do battle with Prince Phillip. It’s beautifully executed, frightening, and you realize that strange headpiece Maleficent wears is reminiscent of dragon horns and you wonder whether the dragon or the human is her “true” form. Ever since I saw that, I felt like the idea of a human who could transform into a dragon had a lot of story potential.

What’s more the idea of a humans who can become dragons and vice versa have some mythic basis. After all, Fafnir in Nordic legend is a dwarf who is turned into a dragon through the power of a cursed ring. In the Grimms’ story “The Dragon and His Grandmother”, we’re introduced to a dragon who has a human grandmother. Although it’s not part of the story, one gets the impression that either the grandmother is a dragon in human form or the dragon is her transformed grandson.

It’s because of this relatively untapped potential, that I was excited to see the novel Lost Sons by fellow Lachesis Publishing author Greg Ballan. Not only is there a beautiful dragon on the cover from artist Laura Givens, but the description tells us the story’s protagonist, Duncan Kord is a Viking Warrior who was saved at the moment of death by a race of advanced beings who “infused his body and mind with the essence of a powerful dragon.” I knew I had to read this book.

As the novel begins, Duncan uses his superhuman strength to save an Amish village from a biker gang. He’s banished for his efforts because the elders don’t want the children to learn violent ways. Kord respects the elders enough to abide by their decision even there’s no requirement for him to do so. He goes across country and settles in Alaska, where he stumbles upon a corporate war between two oil companies which threatens to turn into a real shooting war. What’s more, the CEO of one of two oil companies is none other than the man who brought him to his moment of death back in the Viking days. The people who saved Kord also saved the man who nearly killed him almost 1500 years before. That man is now known as William Jefferson Sagahr.

Lost Sons is the first part of a bigger story. In this novel, Kord fights to bring peace to his newly adopted home of Caribou Point, Alaska and hopes to lure Sagahr into a confrontation. However, Sagahr refuses to be baited and remains focused on his feud with a rival oil company. In the process, we learn that Sagahr has also been infused with powers and that he and Kord have tangled at least one other time after the initial battle where they nearly took each other’s lives. While in Caribou Point, Kord begins to fall for a waitress. As a powerful immortal he knows the pain of watching comrades die over the centuries, but that doesn’t prevent him from being swept up by his emotions.

One of the challenges of writing a character who can transform into a dragon is to hint at the abilities without overusing them. Also, we need a good reason why he doesn’t turn into a dragon at every opportunity it could possibly be an advantage. Greg does a great job of this and roots it to Kord’s underlying humanity giving us a reason to care about him. Lost Sons kept me turning pages and I look forward to seeing what happens in the second installment of this series. As it stands, this book is a great new addition to the lore of people who can transform into dragons.

You can find the book at Amazon and Lachesis Publishing.

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WordFire Press Super Showcase Bundle

One of this year’s great pleasures has been getting to know Kevin J. Anderson better. Not only do we share a table of contents in the weird western anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, but he served as the publisher of the anthology Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. As we come to the end of year, I’m proud to learn that Kevin has selected Maximum Velocity to be part of a terrific story bundle that includes many titles from WordFire Press.

This Super Spotlight features 17 different WordFire Press titles that highlight an amazing range of titles and authors. You can get all 17 books for a minimum price of $15—but feel free to pay what you feel they’re worth. The bundle only runs Dec 6-28.

A part of the proceeds will go directly to the worthy Be a Santa nonprofit run by Patricia Tallman (from Babylon 5 and Night of the Living Dead). It’s a real honor to help support this great cause created by a person whose work I’ve long admired.

The bundle includes Kevin’s novel, Death Warmed Over, the first novel in his Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. series. There’s also the fun and exciting Monsterland, by Michael Okon, the Goonies meets Jurassic Park with monsters. And JB Garner has Indomitable, the first in his entertaining superhero trilogy.

If you like unusual detectives who aren’t zombies, there’s Brooks Wachtel’s beautifully illustrated and innovative Lady Sherlock and David Boop’s noir She Murdered Me With Science. Or maybe you prefer werewolves with PTSD? Then try Julie Frost’s Pack Dynamics. In other Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, there’s Griffin’s Feather by J.T. Evans and First Chosen by Todd Gallowglas. Death Wind by Travis Heerman and Jim Pinto is a weird western horror novel, while Mike Baron’s Banshees proves that death doesn’t have to put an end to sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

In the edgier, dark thriller category, Jeff Mariotte’s Empty Rooms and Colum Sanson-Regan’s The Fly Guy will keep you awake at night better than espresso at midnight. Aaron Michael Ritchey’s post-apocalyptic adventure Dandelion Iron is about a strong young woman trying to lead a cattle drive in the West after the fall of civilization. And The Crown and the Dragon is a colorful epic fantasy with (as the title suggests) crowns and dragons, as well as a few swords and magic.

If you want a lot of short stories, the bundle includes three anthologies, A Fantastic Holiday Seasons, with everything from zombies for Thanksgiving to aliens at Christmas: perfect reading for this time of year. Award-winning Mike Resnick has Away Games, a collection of his stories about sports and science fiction. Last but not least, Maximum Velocity is a collection of science fiction adventure stories curated by Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, and me.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Go check out the Story Bundle. There’s lots to enjoy. Thanks for your support of small press publishing and the wonderful Be a Santa organization. Remember, the WordFire Press Super Showcase RUNS ONLY THROUGH DEC 28.

The initial titles in the The WordFire Press Super Showcase Bundle (minimum $5 to purchase) are:

  • Monsterland by Michael Okon
  • A Fantastic Holiday Season by Kevin J. Anderson and Keith J. Olexa
  • Empty Rooms by Jeffrey J. Mariotte
  • Maximum Velocity edited by David Lee Summers, Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt
  • She Murdered Me with Science by David Boop

If you pay at least the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular titles, plus TWELVE more!

  • Death Wind by Travis Heerman and Jim Pinto
  • Away Games by Mike Resnick
  • Banshees by Mike Baron
  • First Chosen by M. Todd Gallowglas
  • Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson
  • Pack Dynamics by Julie Frost
  • The Crown and the Dragon by John D. Payne
  • Griffin’s Feather by J.T. Evans
  • Indomitable by J.B. Garner
  • The Fly Guy by Colum Sanson-Regan
  • Lady Sherlock by Brooks Arthur Wachtel
  • Dandelion Iron: The Juniper Wars Book 1 by Aaron Michael Ritchie

This bundle is available only for a limited time via http://www.storybundle.com/wordfire. It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub and .mobi) for all books!

Art on Your Own Terms

In addition to Dexter Dogwood’s Fables from Elsewhere, which I wrote about on Saturday, Paul McComas sent me the fifteenth anniversary edition of his novel Unplugged. I have to admit, I looked at it with some skepticism. It’s the tale of a rock star named Dayna Clay who survived childhood sexual abuse and suffers from depression. On the last night of a big tour, she disappears off stage to go home and attempt suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide fumes in her garage. Fortunately, a squirrel falls from the rafters and she feels she can’t take another life with her, even a small one, so she moves herself and the squirrel to safety.

After the suicide attempt, she gets in the car and retreats out west to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once there, she goes on a personal quest to discover who she is and whether or not she can continue with her music career. On the surface, it seems a lot more introspective and possibly even sad book than I would go in for. I will admit that I’ve had low points in my life and have even heard that frightening siren call from the back of my brain that made me think about suicide. Fortunately, between my amazing family and my own stubborn self-preservation instinct, I never got all that close to the brink, but I’ve glimpsed enough to know how scary it is and hesitated getting closer, even in fictional form. Despite that, I found myself captivated with Dayna’s story and how she becomes enchanted by the Badlands and the people she meets along her journey. Even though the novel opens with Dayna in a dark place, the novel proves hopeful and even fun at times as Dayna finds help for her depression and rebuilds her life.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was Dayna’s early decision that if she was going to return to the music world, she would return on her own terms. Dayna has a demanding agent, a full public appearance schedule, and pressure to get into the studio to record more songs. Dayna’s story actually parallels a lot of writers I know, who have numerous publishing obligations and travel to science fiction and comic conventions every available weekend. There are intense pressures to move the books already published and produce more books at a steady rate. In fact, I know some writers, editors, and agents who will insist that this kind of intense schedule is the only viable career path available. Anyone not on this path is a failure as a writer and should quit wasting their time.

I’m sorry. I just don’t accept that. All it takes to be a musician is to make music. All it takes to be a writer is to write. All it takes to be a painter is to paint. All it takes for something to be a career is that money from the occupation must flow to the person doing the job in some sustainable way. How an artist makes that happen is between the artist and those paying for the art. For any occupation to be sustainable, the person occupied must feel satisfied with their life as a whole. For me, right now, satisfaction with life includes spending time contributing to astronomy through my work at Kitt Peak, spending time with family, in addition to writing. I choose writing jobs and projects that both give me satisfaction and allow me to do the other things that give me satisfaction.

I’m glad I joined Dayna on her journey to the South Dakota Badlands and visiting the real Badlands is now something I must do. You can find the novel at: https://www.amazon.com/Unplugged-Anniversary-Novel-Paul-McComas/dp/1564746046. As I’ve mentioned, this is a novel about a musician. It turns out that Paul McComas has collaborated with Maya Kuper to create an album of Dayna’s music and it’s a pretty amazing listen. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you do art on your own terms. It frees you to explore and I was delighted to hear Dayna’s songs come to life. “Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Karma Bomb” will likely get frequent play from me, but all of the songs are great. You can listen and buy at: https://daynaclay.bandcamp.com/

Proceeds from both the novel and album go to benefit two causes. One is the Kennedy Forum, which works to improve the way mental health and addiction issues are treated in this country. You can learn more at kennedyforum.org. The other cause is the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. In addition to these two great causes, I want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case anyone reading this needs it: 1-800-273-8255

Fabulous Fables

Author Paul McComas recently sent me a copy of a book called Fables from Elsewhere by Dexter Dogwood. McComas wrote the foreword and served as the book’s editor. The book left me reflecting on the power of fable as a storytelling form.

Of course, many of us grew up with Aesop’s fables. In particular, I remember Jay Ward poking gentle fun at the fables with his Aesop and Son segments during The Bullwinkle Show. Because many of us encountered Aesop’s fables at a young age and because the lessons have become so ingrained, it’s easy to dismiss fables as simple kids stories in which talking animals dispense life lessons.

In fact, fables can do much more. They can tell us about the culture from which they originated, including that culture’s values. Fables don’t always present simple morals. Sometimes they give the reader something to ponder. They might even question a society’s values.

In both The Astronomer’s Crypt and my forthcoming novel Owl Riders, I used retellings of Native American fables to provide insights into the ways characters addressed problems they had to deal with.

In Fables form Elsewhere, Dexter Dogwood brings us a dozen fables from a distant world populated by such fantastic creatures as sladlours, trobligors, and cojolitors. It’s left as an exercise for the reader to determine whether this world was created in Dogwood’s fertile imagination or whether they he translated signals intercepted between two worlds. However these fables were conceived, they contain a mix of homespun wisdom, challenging concepts, and topics worthy of thought couched in simple, but not simplistic, tales of creatures making a life on a faraway planet. I now know the importance of song when harvesting snerfet plants and while some people only look at their feet, they may yet know the sky’s true color.

If you want to check out Fables from Elsewhere, you can pick up a copy at https://www.amazon.com/Fables-Elsewhere-Dexter-Dogwood/dp/1540504468/

Enterprise Cut-Away Model

Last Christmas, my family presented me with a wonderful cut-away model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the classic Star Trek series. This is actually something I wanted long before the model actually existed. I was a fan of the original Star Trek from a very young age. The very first model I ever helped my dad build was a model of the Enterprise from the show. The one in the photo below is the new one, but it looks very much like that original I helped with.

I remember when the Universal Studio Tours started up in Southern California and my aunt and uncle went. When they came back, I asked them how it was. My aunt told me all about how they learned how movies and TV shows were made. I asked her if they had a model that showed the inside of the Starship Enterprise, because at that young age, I equated the imagined reality of the show with how the show was made. In order to placate me, my aunt assured me that such a model must exist. I was disappointed when I went to Universal Studios with my parents a few weeks later to discover such a model did not exist after all.

Flash forward some forty years and I saw just such a model in a Hastings store in Albuquerque. After doing some research, I specifically requested a version of the model produced during 1996, during the show’s thirtieth anniversary. My understanding was that the mount was more steady and the pieces fit together better than the later edition of the model. My wife found the one she gave me on eBay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to dive right into building the model. I had a novel to finish this year, plus I worked on the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt. However, once both of those projects were complete, I finally built the model and was pleased with how it came out. In the photos of the exterior, you’ll see some seams, but those are simply the places where the model comes apart to reveal the interior.

When I was a child, I confused the idea of what the fictional ship would look like with the sets a TV show would be filmed on. However, as I became a professional writer, I found detailed visualizing and understanding of how a fictional ship works is very handy for selling it as a real machine in my writing. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time understanding the deck layouts of the ships in my Space Pirates’ Legacy universe and how the solar sail Aristarchus works in my novel The Solar Sea. Given that perspective, it was fun to return to one of my first science fiction loves to see how the creators of Star Trek envisioned the interior of the Enterprise.

The photo above shows the completed interior. One thing that was disappointing in the 30th Anniversary edition of the model was that it included a very limited decal set. It did not include the interior decals for the secondary hull decks you see above and many of the exterior decals were the wrong size for the model scale. I discovered that Round-2, the company that owns AMT who produced the model, had improved the decal set. What’s more, they sell decal sets for their models. So, I simply bought the decal set for the later model and used those instead of the decals that came with the model.

This year, I came full circle on the idea of visualizing spaces for a novel and learning how to realize them for film. While writing The Astronomer’s Crypt I kept a chart of my fictional 5-meter telescope at Carson Peak Observatory. While similar to the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak where I work, there were key differences and those differences made it easy to get confused. When we filmed the book trailer, I had hopes we could use the control room at the 4-meter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get permission, so we dressed an office space to look like a control room, which really isn’t that much of a stretch. We had to put together shooting locations that weren’t adjacent to one another and make it look like they were. If you haven’t seen the results, you can check out the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ.

Thanksgiving at Kitt Peak

For the most part, astronomy doesn’t stop for holidays. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, the only nights we don’t open to observe are Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, members of my team are on hand to tend instruments and keep watch over the site so things are ready to go the day after the holiday. This year, my shift happened to fall across the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Fortunately, my wife and daughter were able to come up and spend the holiday with me.

At this time of year, I work long nights. My “day” starts around 3:30pm and I work until about 7am the following morning. On Thanksgiving Day, I walked into work to discover my workstation occupied. If you’ve seen the trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt you might recognize this as something of a recurring theme in my work life! Al Cabone (the skeleton in the chair) showed up at the telescope a little over a year ago at Halloween time and has become something of a mascot.

We start in the afternoon to allow observers an opportunity to calibrate their data. This Thanksgiving, the early start allowed me a chance to bring my daughter to the telescope. She has a definite interest in the sciences with some thoughts of pursuing astronomy. So, this proved a great opportunity to give her taste of what professional astronomy is like.

During afternoon calibrations, I let her have the operator’s chair to enter some commands and try her hand at moving a 3.5-meter telescope.

After calibrations, we were able to take a break for Thanksgiving dinner. At this time of year, dinner is by necessity brief. We finished calibrations at 4:30pm. I needed to be back before the 5:25pm sunset so we could finish getting the telescope ready for the night. Fortunately, we have a kitchen staff at Kitt Peak and they prepare food for us. So my daughter and I joined my wife at the mountain cafeteria for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I speak to people about my work at the telescope, I sense that people imagine that I get to see numerous awe-inspiring sights in the night sky. In fact, some nights I do. However, some nights, the beauty comes from gaining a deeper understanding than what you see in the usual pretty pictures. On Thanksgiving, our job was to measure the spectra of stars in a couple of clusters to understand their chemical abundances. Now spectra can be very pretty, like this one of the star Arcturus, taken with the Coudé Feed telescope at Kitt Peak.

N.A.Sharp, NOAO/AURA/NSF

In that image, the interesting science is contained in the pattern of dark lines scattered among the rainbow colors. Those dark lines, or absorption lines, serve as a kind of fingerprint that tells us about the composition of the star’s atmosphere. We were using a multi-object spectrograph, which allows us to get up to 100 objects at a time. That sounds awesome, and it is. That said, this is what the raw spectra look like when we take them.

Each one of the gray stripes in the image is the spectrum of a different star in the cluster. They don’t look much like that. They’re more interesting when you use a graphics program to plot them.

That plot may not look much like the rainbow image above, but it actually contains as much information. Plotted left to right, this shows the spectrum of a star from blue to red. The downward spikes correspond to the dark lines in the rainbow images. The depth of the lines gives you information about abundances. The position of the lines relative to the light frequency can tell you such information as how fast the star is rotating, how far away it is, or even whether it has planets, all depending on the specific measurements you take.

So, the pictures we take aren’t always like those you see in the press releases on the web. Nevertheless, they do inspire dreams of faraway places and allow us to ferret out hidden information in the night sky. I’m not certain whether my daughter will ultimately choose a career in astronomy, but I am pretty sure we’ve given her something to dream about.

Extinct?

In the spring of 2014, when I first visited New Orleans, I looked up at the statue of Andrew Jackson in front of the St. Louis Cathedral and thought, wouldn’t it be cool if Jackson was riding a hadrosaur instead of a horse. As that thought occurred to me, I could almost hear the bellowing of hadrosaurs echoing the walls of Pirate’s Alley behind the cathedral and I knew I wanted to write a story about the Battle of New Orleans with dinosaurs.

That fall, I went to MileHiCon in Denver and Dana Bell told me that she was considering an anthology about extinct and mythical creatures living outside their time. She wanted to ask what if those ancient creatures of so beloved in fiction, myth and science had not disappeared or been real? What type of uses might have been developed to handle them and how might man have felt about the thundering giants in yesterday’s, today’s, or tomorrow’s worlds? I pitched my idea and she invited me to send the story. I wrote it up, sent it in, and she ultimately accepted it. And now, I’m pleased to announce that Extinct? is available for sale and “Jackson’s Hadrosaurs” is the lead story in the volume.

What else will you find in the book? Imagine a sanctuary for dinosaurs that displaces humans. Raptors used on a distant planet as scouts for a new colony. Dodo birds leaving a record about what happened to them or an unusual way dragons help settlers. A conqueror who learns a hard lesson from a goddess and two children who create their own monster.

You’ll find lovely tales about those lumbering giants of old in ways not shown before, of those who ruled the skies and many others once thought to be mythical, and yet, here they appear in Extinct?

I’m thrilled once again to be listed in a table of contents alongside so many of my favorite authors. Here are the stories you’ll find in this anthology:

  • Jackson’s Hadrosaurs – David Lee Summers
  • The Horse Man – Rebecca McFarland Kyle
  • The Wizard and the Dinosaur Riding Pirate – Sam Knight
  • Flutterlight – Ronnie Seagren
  • One More Bad Decision – M.R. Anglin
  • Ryuu Poo – Tam Lin
  • Unmaking Lord Rex Tyran – A.M. Burns
  • Dunce de León – Quincy J. Allen and Aaron Michael Richey
  • Fury – Spencer Carvalho
  • Dinosaura & Hominana – Todd A. Walls
  • The Goons – Matt Bille
  • The Mask Maker of Venezia – C. John Arthur
  • Song of the Sireini – Sean Jones
  • Across the Blood-Stained Sea – Rob S. Rice
  • The Prophecy Foretold – Lorelei Suzanne
  • Dodo’s Atlantis – Tam Lin
  • Man Versus Rex – Denise Miller Holmes
  • Lift – R. Joseph Maas
  • Children of the Goddess – Carol Hightshoe
  • Best Decision – Dana Bell
  • Brown and the Allosaurus Wrecks – J.A. Campbell

One of the things I wanted to explore in my story was the notion of herbivorous dinosaurs somehow being “tame” or “safe.” I think anyone who has spent time on a farm or around animals knows that herbivores can be dangerous if not treated with respect. On another trip to New Orleans, I stopped at a rest area and saw a crane standing in a bog while an alligator swam around hunting. The bird and the reptile were completely at ease with each other. Both seemed much more interested in eating the fish that swam around them than fighting. It made me think of symbiotic relationships in nature and I began to wonder how alligators would react to dinosaurs. Would they be friends or enemies? You can see my approach in the story.

When I was in New Orleans this past summer, I drove out to the Chalmette Battlefield, site of the real Battle of New Orleans. I was gratified to see it that it was much as I pictured it from descriptions. What’s more, I found descendants of dinosaurs wandering the field.

Extinct? is available in print at: Amazon.com

And as an ebook at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0778XYJ67/