Battle Angel

November is my birthday month and in this modern age of digital shopping, that usually means a slew of coupons find their way into my email over the course of the month. I don’t use all the coupons. If I did, I’d probably go broke saving all that money. That noted, the coupons that tempt me most are the ones that get me to shop at bookstores. Among other things, the coupons become an excuse to try some books I haven’t explored before.

Battle Angel Alita

This time around, I found myself looking at the manga shelf at the local bookstore when Kodansha Comics’ beautiful deluxe edition of Battle Angel Alita caught my eye. Mostly I knew of Alita from the recent film directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Rosa Salazar. I’d put off seeing the film because I knew it had been based on a manga and I wanted to know the source material before going to see the film. Among other things, I’ve often been disappointed by American interpretations of manga and anime.

Kodansha’s deluxe edition of the manga features an introduction by Brenden Fletcher, beautifully reproduced artwork at large size and some great translator notes. From the introduction, I learned that this cyberpunk manga by Yukito Kushiro had its origins in the early 1990s. Its Japanese title might best be translated as “Gun Dream Gally.” The manga first appeared in the United States in the mid-1990s, which probably explains why I wasn’t familiar with it. I was busy being a new dad at that point. However, arriving in the mid-1990s, manga and anime characters were still subject to having their names changed by translators, so Gally (or Garii) became Alita.

Battle Angel Alita is set in a dystopian, dark futuristic version of Kansas City, which sits under a floating, modern city called Zalem. A cybernetics specialist called Ito finds a beautiful robotic head in the scrap dropped by Zalem. He repairs the head and attaches it to a body and thus Alita is born. It turns out that Ito isn’t just a cybernetics specialist, he’s also a bounty hunter who dispenses justice to humans and rogue cyborgs who have broken the laws of the factory, which has become the central authority in this version of Kansas City. Alita’s first volume is largely a martial arts adventure story as Alita discovers she is a skilled warrior. She must battle a rogue cyborg called Makaku.

In the second volume, Alita falls in love with a boy named Yugo who dreams of going to the floating city. The only problem is that Yugo is illegally killing cyborgs and harvesting their spinal columns, the only part of the human body cyberneticists can’t duplicate. This volume explored the Yukito Kushiro’s science fictional world much more and I found myself much more engaged by the complicated set of emotions experienced by Alita and Yugo. Overall, I highly recommend this deluxe hardcover manga.

Upstart Mystique

It turns out that Battle Angel Alita was also made into a short original video animation. As of this writing, the anime can be watched for free on YouTube and it does tell much the same story as the manga, though somewhat condensed. Having watched the anime and read the manga, I’m now interested in seeing the American film.

As with many of the best cyberpunk stories, Battle Angel Alita explores questions of our relationship with machines. In the future, how much will machines become part of our bodies? Will we be able to move our consciousness from one body to another? Can the brain live long enough to be transplanted? Can consciousness survive in a computer without the brain? I was pleased to edit and publish a novel that also explores these questions, though it’s set on a distant alien world encountered by the crew of a starship. If you’re intrigued by these questions, I also encourage you to read Upstart Mystique by Don Braden. The book is available at: http://hadrosaur.com/UpstartMystique.php

NaNoWriMo-ish

November is the National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. During the month, many authors endeavor to write 50,000 words. While that won’t count as a complete novel for most publishers these days, it’s a large chunk of a novel. To reach 50,000 words in one month, you have to write about 1,667 words per day. You can even sign up to participate at nanowrimo.org and to find tools, structure, community, and encouragement to help you succeed. My daughter has signed up and participated for the last couple of years. Although I didn’t officially sign up to participate in NaNoWriMo, I wrote two novels as NaNoWriMo challenges when LBF Books was publishing my novels.

The Solar Sea

The first of my NaNoWriMo novels was The Solar Sea, which I wrote in 2004. This is a novel I’d tried to write twice before, but abandoned both times partway through. The first time I abandoned the novel, it was because I was a young writer who lacked the discipline to see the story through. The second time, I had a sense of the plot, but hadn’t really nailed down the themes I wanted to explore. Between that and not being really certain what I audience I was writing for, the novel bogged itself down. In 2004, I had two young daughters who I wanted to excite about math and science. That and the 50,000-word goal of NaNoWriMo encouraged me to write The Solar Sea as an adventure story primarily for a young adult audience. I calculated my daily word goal and set myself a time to write each day after my daughters went to bed. Once I got into the routine, I found I could meet my writing goals pretty well each day. It taught me the value of writing each day at a set schedule. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Dragon’s Fall:
Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires

I wrote my second NaNoWriMo novel in 2005. This was intended to be a prequel to my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order which had recently been published by LBF. In this case, I knew 50,000 words would only be a little more than half the novel. When I wrote The Solar Sea, I had a clear idea of the plot and I had been thinking about certain story elements for almost fifteen years before I started NaNoWriMo. When I wrote Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, I had a one-page synopsis. So, my 50,000 words were much more stream-of-consciousness than The Solar Sea. At the end of the month, I really liked the beginning of what I wrote, but felt the stuff I wrote at the end of the month lacked focus. Still, this gave me a solid core that I could work on and develop. It took about two years, but the novel did take shape. I added a few chapters before the original opening and then tightened the latter sections and added a solid ending. This experience helped me see that I could be disciplined while writing by the seat of my pants, and I was ultimately happy with my tale of three vampires who come form a band of mercenaries. You can learn more about Dragon’s Fall at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

This year, NaNoWriMo occurred right as Kitt Peak National Observatory reopened from being shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo this year. That said, I was given the assignment of writing a novella in early September. At the time, I knew Kitt Peak would likely reopen around mid-October to early November, so I wanted to get as much of the novella written as possible before work resumed and I had to settle into a regular work routine at the observatory again. To accomplish the task, I used the skills I had gained in NaNoWriMo. In this case, I wrote a detailed outline and I set myself a clear word-count goal for each day. Even though I had an outline, my characters did their own thing at parts of the story and I did have to re-outline, but I’m used to this. I managed to finish my novella by the time I returned to work at Kitt Peak. I have since turned it in to the publisher who assigned me the project. Just this past week, the publisher sent me the contract for the story. I’ll share more details about this novella soon.

Although I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo this month, I did assign myself the project of writing my first comic book script. In honor of being NaNoWriMo, it’s an adaptation of one of the scenes from Dragon’s Fall. I’m currently working with an artist to bring “Guinevere and the Stranger” to life and hope we’ll have something to show off by spring 2021.

Magic, Science, and Vampires

The first time I remember hearing about nanotechnology or nanites was in 1989 in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Evolution.” At the time, I was in graduate school at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology working on a way to use an automated telescope to search for dwarf novae. In the episode, nanites were presented as tiny, self-replicating robots used to repair damaged human cells. It was an interesting idea, but one that seemed very science fictional even to me who was working in the field of robotics. My office at the time was on the fourth floor of a building called Workman Center, which I show below. This was actually the tallest building in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. I had this office by virtue of needing access to microwave transmitters and receivers on the tower that communicated with our automated telescope.

Workman Center as it appeared in the 1980s.

Over the next few years, I encountered nanites in other science fictional venues. One was the fine novel Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams where aristocrats use nanites to build their dreams. Another was Mystery Science Theater 3000 where they’re deliberately presented as a deus ex machina. In all cases, nanites seemed like a concept representing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”

I first began to understand the real scientific basis behind nanotechnology in the early 2000s when I learned that nanites would likely not be literal robots, but as self-replicating chemicals that could carry instructions like DNA. The idea was exciting and I could definitely see how such chemicals could have the medical applications imagined in Star Trek in the 1980s. I could also see how such chemicals might be tailored to attack certain metals and armor. This gave me the idea that they might start being used in weapons research. As it turns out, New Mexico Tech is the home of an explosives research laboratory which has been featured several times in the Mythbusters TV series.

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Back when I worked in Workman Tower on that robotic telescope, my graduate advisor was a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He got his start there in the 1950s, working on the H-bomb project under Edward Teller. Another professor had been a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who ran the Manhattan Project. Of course, I was familiar with Oppenheimer’s famous paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita where he said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Taking all these ideas and putting them together led me to create the physicist Jane Heckman from Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Oppenheimer’s quote brought to mind the history of New Mexico and the little town of Socorro where I lived. Socorro was one of the first places Spanish settlers established a mission when they came into the land that would be the modern United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what if one of those conquistadors who came with the missionaries still lived in the area. If he was a vampire, he would be the embodiment of the phrase, “I am become death.” Jane meeting the vampire Rudolfo became a way for a modern physicist to confront the idea of the death she created by making weapons. By the time I wrote all this, the Workman Center I had an office in had been torn down and rebuilt. Here’s what the new version looks like:

Workman Center Today

This is the building as I describe it in the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Throughout the novel, I continue to explore the idea of science so advanced it begins to look like magic. Jane working with nanites for simple destructive reasons becomes a way to make it seem more likely that someone might use nanites to reprogram cells in human beings. While I can see some wondrous potential in that idea, I can also see the potential for things to go horrifyingly wrong.

You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

Recharging the Spirit

My routine during much of this COVID-19 pandemic has involved getting up early in the morning and taking a three-mile walk in my neighborhood before settling in for work at home for the rest of the day. This month, I have returned to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in a mode, we hope, is as safe as possible. When I returned to work, it was amazing to have the sense of little time passing and working in spaces just as familiar as those at home. As someone who enjoys traveling and seeing new things, this has been a challenging time.

Because of this, my wife gave me a terrific birthday present. As soon as my first shift at Kitt Peak finished, we made plans to visit the Chiricahua National Monument in Southeastern Arizona. I have driven just north of the monument on I-10 to and from work for a little over twelve years and I’ve passed the turnoff to the monument many times. However, I have never before taken the time to visit. In a pandemic when we we’re discouraged from gathering and where outdoor spaces are safer than indoor, this seemed an ideal time to visit. I’m glad we did. We started our visit at Massai Point, which gave us a wonderful view not only of the rock formations the Chiricahua Mountains are noted for, but a look back into New Mexico.

Massai Point Overlook, Chiricahua National Monument

On the recommendation of the ranger, we decided to hike the Echo Canyon Trail. Unfortunately, when we drove over to the parking lot, we found it full. After a quick look at the map, my wife and I realized the Massai Nature Trail connects to the Echo Canyon Loop trail. So we returned to Massai Point and started our hike.

Rhyolite pillars

The distinctive pillar formations of the Chiricahua began their life when a volcano erupted in the region 27 million years ago and spewed ash over 1200 square miles. The ash compressed and has been weathered by wind and rain. The Echo Canyon loop trail gives a good view of these pillars and takes you through countryside where you can see grottoes looking into and through rocks. With our little addition, we ended up hiking 4.3 miles. It wasn’t bad in light of my routine 3-mile hikes in the neighborhood, but still a little challenge since there was more up and down than my nice circuitous path through the neighborhood.

Because we were in the area, we decided to visit some nearby historical sites as well. We stopped by the grave site of gunman John Ringo, most famous for his involvement as a member of the Cowboy faction in Tombstone, Arizona in the events leading up to and after the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. We also took time to visit Fort Bowie. This was my second visit, but my wife’s first. When I first visited, it was a spur-of-the-moment visit on my way to work one shift. It was also monsoon season, so I ended up making the hike very fast. This time, we were better able to take our time and take the ridge trail that gave us a good overview of the site. As it turns out, Fort Bowie had two locations, which you can see in the photo below. You can likely make out the foundations of the later Fort Bowie on the left in the photo below. A little harder to see is the smaller, original encampment, only used for six years, on the hill to the right.

Both Fort Bowie Locations

Fort Bowie features in my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, I imagine the Chiricahua Apaches end up capturing a mining machine from the Clantons, also famous from their involvement in Tombstone, Arizona. With the help of machinists in Mexico, they replicate the mining machine and turn them into war wagons. Using them, they’re able to capture Fort Bowie, putting them into a position where the United States government is forced to negotiate with them. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

Once More Unto the Breach

On the early hours of March 16, I walked out of the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, aware that the world had been gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, but thinking I would be back for my next normal shift. After all, a facility like Kitt Peak needs maintenance and care even when things were shut down and my team, the observing associates, were one group standing by to fill that role.

As the following week wore on, plans evolved. The number of people who would be on site would be significantly scaled back. Engineers were ordered to ready the telescopes and instrumentation at the observatory for a long-term shutdown. A very small skeleton staff would come to the mountain to maintain those systems that required attention. My team would work from home.

As it turns out, I had a productive spring and summer. One major job was creating a plan for safe reopening. Unfortunately, right as we started discussions of this plan, cases of COVID-19 began to rise dramatically in Arizona. We made our plan. It was reviewed by upper management and then we waited for cases to go down again. While waiting, I made strides on improving the operations manual for the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Not only did I revise it to discuss updated software for moving the telescope, I took some online courses in Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript and put those skills to use modernizing the look of the manual. It’s even mobile friendly, now, though I suspect that’s a function that won’t get much use! Still, we do have limited wireless in the building and I can imagine a future when people might access the site on phones or tablets.

David at the Mayall

On November 6, I returned to the Mayall telescope. I was the last operator to work during a commissioning run for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. I would be the first operator to wake up the sleeping giant and put it through its paces with some pointing and tracking tests. It turned out, after several hot, dry months, we found ourselves with a stormy weekend. Winds gusted as high as 75 miles per hour. We had fog, rain, and even snow. Despite that, we did have a few clear hours. We actually haven’t opened up the main mirror on the telescope. We only used a small pointing camera mounted to the telescope’s side, but it’s good to know the telescope still can point to targets on the sky as it’s designed to. We tracked a few targets for extended times. After my shift finishes, other observing associates will work with the DESI commissioning team to get the spectrograph itself running again. It should not be long before commissioning resumes and hopefully not long after that before the telescope begins regular science.

One thing that has been a challenge, is getting used to working within “bubbles.” As I’ve noted in posts before the shutdown, the telescope operators, DESI scientists, and any needed engineers would gather together in one big control room to do the night’s work. Since I’ve been back, I haven’t even stepped into the new Mayall control room. I’ve done all my work from the old console room, we though abandoned many months ago.

Working in the Old Console Room again.

A lead observer works alone in the new console room and we communicate using conferencing software. My meals are still prepared by the Kitt Peak cafeteria, but they’re delivered to the console room before I arrive. I get to heat them up in the microwave. So my days are mostly going between my dorm room and the console room. In the few times a night I do need to venture forth, I don my mask and check on the radio to make sure I’m not going to get within six feet of another person. It’s a little awkward, but not too different from working with observers who have signed in to work from their home institutions.

All in all, it’s a challenge getting used to this “new normal” while remembering everything required to operate the telescope. Still, it’s good to resume science operations. Shakespeare’s Henry V might look at us getting ready to resume science operations and say: “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start.”

Scarlet Order Showcase

When Chaz Kemp created new artwork for my Scarlet Order novels earlier this year, he brought my characters to life in a whole new way. Within the novels, the vampires keep journals, drink coffee, and generally enjoy their immortal existence. I wanted to celebrate these characters and Chaz’s portrayal in a way that wouldn’t hide on the bookshelf. So, with his permission, I created a small line of products featuring the Scarlet Order Vampires.

Show your love for the Scarlet Order Vampires!

Modern print-on-demand companies will allow you to print a design on almost everything ranging from T-shirts and underwear to clocks and wall art. Also, the products cost a bit more than comparable mass-market retail items. So, when I set out to design these products, I decided to design things I would actually use and enjoy, so I kept it simple. That said, if someone reading this has a Scarlet Order product they would like to see that I didn’t design, by all means let me know and I’ll see if I can make it happen!

The first thing I knew I wanted to create were some coffee mugs. When I wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I decided the one thing that would make an immortal existence truly intolerable would be the inability to enjoy a good cup of coffee or tea, so I allowed the vampires in my world to enjoy liquids, even if they could no longer enjoy solid food. Here are the mugs I designed.

The mug with Daniel reads: “I sipped a cup of coffee, trying to stimulate the old blood in my veins.” Draco’s mug reminds us that “We are transcendent creatures of mysterious origin.” The mug with Marcella reads: “When one becomes a vampire, one expects to encounter some strange shit.”

Because Vampires of the Scarlet Order is very much an epistolary novel, I thought it would be appropriate to have some notebooks inspired by the characters.

We have “The Journal of Dr. Jane Heckman” and “The Notebook of Daniel McKee.”

I also created a set of buttons, because these can be fun to wear in almost any casual occasion and are a great way to show off your favorite Scarlet Order Vampire.

Finally, because I’m on the road a lot, I love a good travel mug. What’s more, the overall cover layouts are so nice, I wanted to find a way to use the whole thing. I realized the two Scarlet Order covers fit nicely back to back on a travel mug. So if you don’t have a favorite Scarlet Order vampire, you can always get all of the ones who appear on the covers in one convenient package! Here is the front and back of the mug:

All of the Scarlet Order products are listed in my eBay store at: https://www.ebay.com/sch/hadrosaur_productions/m.html

My print provider has only recently started offering to post products to eBay and I’ve helped them debug some issues with the connection. I think it’s working pretty reliably now, but if for some reason you see something here that you would like, but it’s showing as “sold out” at eBay, please use the contact link at http://hadrosaur.com/ and let us know. We should be able to help you get the product you’re looking for.

What the Doctor Ordered

As I’ve been getting ready to return to regular observing shifts at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve been continuing my look at the season-long box sets from the classic era of Doctor Who. The most recent I’ve watched is the second season of Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. Baker only played the Doctor for two seasons. After his first season, the series went on a year-and-a-half hiatus. When it came back, the show was effectively on trial by the BBC to see if they would allow it to keep running. With that in mind, show runner John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward decided to make the entire season a trial of Doctor. Even though there are four separate stories, they all aired under the title “The Trial of a Time Lord.”

The Sixth Doctor and the cookbook created during his era.

“The Trial of a Time Lord” is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, it was a story that almost needed to be done. The Doctor is an alien from the planet Galifrey and his people are an ancient race called the Time Lords who observe what goes on throughout time and space but never interfere. At the end of the second Doctor’s tenure, he was captured and put on trial for meddling in the affairs of other worlds. As a result, he’s forced to regenerate and becomes the third Doctor. Since then, the Doctor has done nothing but continue to meddle. So, it’s not surprising the Time Lords should want to have more words with him. Despite all that, the episodes as a whole aren’t especially memorable.

The best element of the season is that Colin Baker was allowed to play the Doctor more as he wanted. In his first season, he’s presented as something of an overbearing, unpredictable character. In the second season, he’s brash, yet charming. His relationship with his first companion, Peri, improves. When his new companion, Melanie, arrives, they clearly have a good rapport. Baker still wears his almost clown-like bright outfit, but there is something very 1980s about that suit. In fact, it reminds me of the costume worn by another eccentric scientist—Doc Brown in Back to the Future Part 2!

The special features on this Blu-ray set are almost better than the episodes themselves. Colin Baker himself discusses his role in many of the featurettes. It’s clear he’s a fan of the series and is sorry he didn’t get the opportunity to play the role on screen as he’d hoped. This did remind me that he’s done some wonderful audio work as the Doctor for Big Finnish Productions. Those stories are very well written and feature many cast members from the original series. If you really want the best of Colin Baker as the Doctor, listen to his audio stories. I can highly recommend “The Holy Terror” and “Davros.” I’ve heard others of his stories are even better.

Another fun special feature discusses The Doctor Who Cookbook, published during that 18-month hiatus. I purchased the book back in the day and still have my copy. Compiled by Gary Downie, partner of John Nathan-Turner, it features recipes by many people who played parts in the show or worked behind the scenes. In the special feature, some of those cast members recreate their dishes. I’ve made some of the dishes from the book before, but was inspired to try a few more. One very nice recipe was “Davros’s Extermination Pudding” by Terry Molloy, who played Davros, one of the Doctor’s arch enemies. It’s less a “pudding” and more baked bananas topped with meringue and raspberry jam. Still, it’s a nice treat for a weekend afternoon!

A long-time favorite recipe in the book is “Doctor’s Temptation,” a Swedish recipe presented by Colin Baker himself. It’s basically a casserole with potatoes, tuna, onions, and cream all topped with bread crumbs. It’s a rich, satisfying dish that goes nice with a good salad. One could say it’s just what the Doctor ordered.

The City of Crosses

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

I’ve told the origin story of my novel, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, numerous times. In short, it got its start in early 2000 during a conversation with a fellow author. We began to imagine what a vampire would make of Las Cruces, which is Spanish for “the crosses.” Soon after that discussion, a title popped into my mind, “Vampire in the City of Crosses.” That title demanded an exploration of vampires and their relationship to crosses.

Over the years in movies and books, vampires have had many different reactions to crosses. In Hammer Studio’s Dracula films, Peter Cushing could practically grab any two sticks and put them together into a cross form, which would make Christopher Lee cower in fear. Some books I’ve read have suggested that vampires are repelled by any faith. Crosses then serve as a focal point for Christian faith. In the great Doctor Who vampire story, “The Curse of Fenric,” a Soviet agent repels vampires with a hammer and sickle! Then there’s Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire who declares his fondness for crosses. So I wanted to explore this idea of vampires and crosses.

When I moved to Las Cruces in the mid-1990s, Main Street stopped at downtown. Traffic had been routed to two side streets and a pedestrian mall had been installed. Unfortunately, once that had been done, most of the businesses moved away to other parts of town. The only reason to go to the mall at the time was to visit an amazing used bookstore called COAS or the farmer’s and craft market held on weekends. That said, the place where traffic was diverted had three flower beds in the form of giant crosses. Here they are in a photo courtesy courtesy fellow Las Cruces author David G. Thomas.

David G. Thomas has several other photos of downtown from this period in the post https://lascrucesblog.com/history/2007/las-cruces-worst-mistake/

If you’re at all interested in the history of Southern New Mexico, where people like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett lived, it’s well worth reading David’s blog at https://lascrucesblog.com

I don’t want to throw out any spoilers, but while the vampire Daniel learned there’s a good reason to be cautious around crosses in the story “Vampire in the City of Crosses,” I had to send him on a longer quest to learn why they have those properties. After his encounter with the cross, the vampire Mercy resuscitates Daniel at a nearby memorial, commemorating the Don Juan de Oñate’s entrance into New Mexico. I picked the location because both the vampires Mercy and Rudolfo actually would have experienced the events the memorial commemorated. The memorial has since been moved, but here’s what it looked like in the early 2000s when we took a friend to see it.

At the time, the memorial sat next to an abandoned theater, which serves as a lair for a family of vampires in the novel. Today, the Rio Grande Theater is a nice venue for plays and performances, but at the time of the story, it was gutted on the inside and boarded up on the outside. Here’s the memorial next to the theater.

The work on the theater was on-again, off-again over the years as funding came and went. I met a worker at the time, who told me whenever he was in there, he could imagine spectral eyes watching him from the balcony. Here’s the boarded up front of the theater as it appeared at the time of the novel.

If you’d like to delve into the world of the Scarlet Order Vampires, this is a great month to do so. The novel is the featured selection of the Vampyre Library Book Club. The club is all online at Facebook and you can join at https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704/. If you want to learn more about the novel, visit: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Election Day

Today is election day in the United States. I hope by now you have already voted if you’re legally entitled to do so. If you haven’t voted, I hope you’re able to get out and safely cast your ballot today.

I don’t spend much time here or on other social media networks talking politics. That’s not because I don’t think elections are important. Quite the contrary, I think they’re very important and I pay careful attention to what elected officials are doing from the local to national levels. One reason I don’t discuss politics much on social media is that as an employee of the national observatory, I’m asked to assure that there’s no implication that the observatory endorses my personal beliefs. Because I do spend time on the web as something of an unofficial ambassador for the national observatory, I feel I must be especially careful.

Another reason I don’t share much about my personal political beliefs on social media is that it’s far too easy for people to lash out with a knee-jerk response the minute they see something they disagree with. I’m generally happy to discuss politics with you face to face and have a thoughtful dialog. I’m less interested in a shouting match from the relative anonymity of a keyboard and screen where no one seriously considers the other person’s point of view.

I am also somewhat reluctant to share personal political beliefs online because I have encountered situations where I have shared an opinion about a particular political issue and someone immediately assumes they understand what I believe about everything. I think this is a symptom of the lock the Democratic and Republican parties have on American democracy.

At a theoretical level, I can understand how a strict two-party system could work well. First, imagine two parties who each hold the country’s well-being first and foremost in their hearts. Each of them brings solutions to issues they care about to the table. They discuss those issues and come up with a compromise that may not be perfect and may not even satisfy everyone, but moves things forward and, at least, improves things for everyone.

The problem is that a feedback loop has arisen. As a legislator, one states a position. If everyone understands that position is an ideal that may move toward a more moderate position, things are fine. However, when people feel betrayed by compromise, they expect legislators to fight tooth and nail to get exactly what they promised and no different. The legislators are then backed into a corner and don’t feel they can compromise.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a clear path out of this feedback loop, at least in the near future. While I think it would help to have a couple more parties in the mix to put more ideas on the table, I think the ultimate issue is that people have to realize that government’s job is not to give one set of people their way all the time. Government’s job is probably best stated in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’ve just gone through annual job performance reviews. In a sense, elections are a performance review. We do not work for the president or our legislators. They work for us. As their managers, we need to keep in mind their job is not to do exactly what I tell them, or you tell them, or our neighbor down the street tells them. Their job is to do the best they can for all of us. Your job is to be a responsible manager and let them know how they’re doing by voting.

Halloween Reading

In the lead-up to Halloween, I’ve been indulging in a mix of comic books and novels that fit the season. Throughout the year, I’ve been reading the Van Helsing Versus the League of Monsters miniseries published by Zenescope Entertainment. This month saw the release of the finale, so I took time to re-read the entire series. October’s selections for the Vampyre Library Book Club were the first two novels in Charlaine Harris’s “True Blood” series, Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas.

At their roots, Halloween and horror fiction are about humans facing the one thing they can never escape—death. The confrontation can bring out the best and worst in people. They might face death with bravery and dignity or they might do everything they can to run away from it. They may even try to cheat death, but that usually has horrible consequences.

The “True Blood” novels tell the story of telepathic cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse who has started dating a vampire named Bill Compton. In Dead Until Dark, a murderer is stalking women who date vampires. Of course, Sookie would like to see this murder caught before they come for her. Along the way, her grandmother is killed, her brother is thrown in jail, and Sookie must face the real murderer. In the second novel, Bill is asked to bring Sookie to Dallas to help solve the mystery of a vampire’s disappearance. She ends up a captive of a church who wants nothing more than to see all vampires destroyed. I’ve been enjoying these novels because Sookie is an ordinary person who rises to extraordinary heights when confronted by death.

Van Helsing Versus the League of Monsters is sort of a cross between a superhero comic and those great Universal Monster Mash-ups of the 1940s like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or The House of Frankenstein, which adds Dracula to the mix. Zenescope’s title character is Liesel Van Helsing, daughter of the famous vampire hunter. In this set of comics she teams up with other Zenescope heroines such as Robyn Hood and Angelica Blackstone to face off against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, a group of werewolves and more. As with most comics, the heroines of Van Helsing face death with a quip upon their lips and stylish action, but they are ready to throw their lives on the line for humanity.

Both sets of books are good fun romps. Of course, both have vampires in common. I’ve long been fascinated by the different ways vampires are used in fiction. Sometimes they’re the implacable monsters who have seemingly defeated death. Sometimes they exist as a metaphor for addictive behavior. Some vampires are heroes and many are villains. I’ve long thought an extended life could either be a blessing or a curse. It all depends on what you do with it.

My Halloween reading doesn’t tend to stop on October 31. I’ll keep reading scary stuff well into November. Somewhere around Thanksgiving, I may turn to some lighter fare to get into the spirit of Christmas. Or maybe I’ll keep reading spooky stuff. Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas if there weren’t a few ghosts lurking in the shadows. With that in mind, allow me to present you with a couple of Halloween treats. First is a reminder that Vampires of the Scarlet Order is November’s selection for the Vampyre Library Book Club. You can learn more by joining the Facebook group at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704. I’ll be sharing behind the scenes looks at the novel throughout the month, then Vampyre Librarian Steven Foley will interview me at the end of the month. If you attend, you’ll be entered to win some cool prizes.

If you’re more interested in ghostly scares, you can pick up the ebook edition of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt for just $1.00 at Smashwords until November 15. In the novel, astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from the beginning of time collide at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. Use the coupon code YL57J on checkout. The book is at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1025608

Happy Halloween!