On Writing Alternate History

There is a maxim that if you write a story set in history, you better be sure your research is meticulous because if you make a mistake, someone is going to let you know about it. However, it doesn’t take much research to realize the truth of another old saw, “history is written by the victors.” To complicate matters further, a lot of people know their history from popular culture such as other fiction books or movies, so sometimes our hypothetical “someone” mentioned at the outset might be complaining about history as they saw it portrayed in a movie, rather than anything they researched in depth.

Alternate history takes on an added dimension because you’re writing about a history that didn’t actually happen. At first cut, this might appear to be freeing because you’re not constrained by history. However, one of the reasons I write alternate history is because I like to consider what might have happened if something in history was nudged a somewhat different direction than actually happened or to imagine what history would have been like if a different element such as vampires or aliens were introduced. To make such alternate history credible, it’s good to be as realistic as possible.

The problem is, you still have the problem that history isn’t necessarily absolute. It’s not that there is no truth to history, it’s just that history is often interpreted through the lens of the person writing about it. Sometimes there’s a blatant agenda to that lens (“history is written by the victors”). Sometimes that history is filtered through social bias, perhaps unconsciously.

Other reasons I might write about alternate history are to comment on issues of the past, or to comment on issues of the present through the lens of the past. Again, both of these require some effort at accuracy to give weight to that commentary. That said, another reason I write alternate history is to spin a rip-roaring good yarn. Doing that, I have to make a judgement call between whether to follow history closely or deviate to suit the story.

My approach to plotting an alternate history story is to start by looking at the time period and location I’m interested in and learn as much as I can about the events going on there. I particularly like to read books and essays written by people living those events. Although Wikipedia is much maligned, I find it a great resource for historical photos of people and places.

Clockwork-Legion

My Clockwork Legion series is set in a world that, for the most part, mirrors our world up until an intelligent swarm of microscopic computers that calls itself Legion starts interfering in the affairs of 1870s Earth. One of the important parts of this statement is “for the most part.” I have allowed some differences in the world of the Clockwork Legion even before Legion’s involvement. I’ve done this for a few reasons. Admittedly one of those reasons is to simplify some plot elements. For example, the railroads are a little further along in the book than they were in history, which allows a little more freedom of movement, but for the most part the bump is by months rather than by years. Allowing the differences also gives me the freedom to make judgment calls on uncertain pieces of history where research and scholarly debate are still ongoing. Finally, it was important to me that Legion didn’t advance humanity by giving them the answers. The point of Legion is that the alien frees humanity’s dreams and saves some steps by helping them avoid mistakes.

I once heard an interview with Isaac Asimov in which he said to write science fiction, you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist or even get the science dead accurate. What you have to do is respect the scientific process and do the homework to make it plausible. I think the same applies to history. I’m a trained astronomer, not a historian, but I respect the work of historians and appreciate the process. Hopefully I’ve avoided making any mistakes, but if I do, hopefully I have enough of my history correct that you can believe the changes are the result of the subtly different world I’m creating.

I hope you’ll take a ride back in time with me and explore the world of the Clockwork Legion. Follow the links below to learn more about the novels.

The Brazen Shark Available in Print

My third Clockwork Legion novel, The Brazen Shark is now available in print from Amazon.com. Here’s what Drake and McTrowell have to say about the novel: “Pack your goggles and your telescope and your atlas because the Clockwork Legion is taking us on another whirlwind adventure. And this one covers the globe in the air, on the sea, on terra firma, undersea … and even into space!”

Drake and McTrowell

Drake and McTrowell know their globe-spanning adventure. In the photo above, I crossed their path aboard the Queen Mary as they were bound for another exciting destination. You can read about their adventures at drakeandmctrowell.com. There, you’ll find five books of their adventures available to read on-line absolutely free. However, if you’re willing to send them some money, and I strongly recommend you do, you can pick up the hardcover edition of their first book featuring illustrations by Brian Kessinger and an introduction by Professor Elemental, or you can buy the audio version of their first adventure, which is fabulous.

Brazen Shark-300x450 The Brazen Shark is the third novel of my Clockwork Legion series. However, if you haven’t read the first two books, feel free to dive in right here. If you like what you read, you can always go back and read the first two! Set in 1877, this novel tells the story of a one-time sheriff named Ramon Morales who gave up his career in law enforcement to save an outspoken Persian healer named Fatemeh Karimi from a witchcraft trial. We’ve watched their romance develop over the last two books and this is the story of their honeymoon. However, it’s a honeymoon unlike any other when they find themselves embroiled in a plot by samurai warriors who have stolen a Russian airship to overthrow the Japanese emperor. The cover art is by the ever-talented Laura Givens.

The Brazen Shark is available in paperback and ebook. The paperback is ready to ship now. The ebook will be sent to your Kindle on February 1, 2016.

While I’m discussing steampunk writing, I’ll remind you there’s still time to support the Kickstarter for Gaslight and Grimm. This awesome anthology project is already funded, so there’s no risk in supporting it at any level. The book features my story “The Steam-Powered Dragon and His Grandmother.” It also features steampunked retellings of “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Nightingale”, “Red Riding Hood” and more by such authors as James Chambers, Jean Marie Ward, and Christine Norris. Lots of great stretch goal bonuses have been added already and if we receive enough funding, we’ll also have stories by Jody Lynn Nye and Gail Z. Martin in the anthology as well. So drop by and reserve your copy of Gaslight and Grimm today!

Exploring the Solar System from My Back Yard

When I graduated from high school, my mom bought me an 8-inch Celestron Telescope. To this day, I treasure that telescope and the journeys it’s allowed me to take. I’ve looked at planets, galaxies, and star clusters with the telescope. In my early years of college, when I spent summers working at Cal State San Bernardino, Professor Paul Heckert loaned me a photometer and I even took variable star data with the telescope that we published. However, one thing I’ve always wanted was have a camera to take photos and share. My wife remedied that this past Christmas when she bought me a little Orion StarShoot USB Eyepiece Camera. Unfortunately, the weather has been sufficiently poor since Christmas, I didn’t get a chance to try it out until a little over a week ago. Here I am in my back yard in New Mexico, pointing the telescope at Jupiter.

Backyard_Observing

For my first time out, I was able to get images of both Jupiter and Saturn. The camera works by taking video. Afterwards, the individual video frames may be combined using stacking software. My telescope doesn’t track perfectly. Also, the atmosphere shimmers and dances, especially when you point down near the horizon where Saturn was. This shimmering and dancing is called seeing and the stacking software attempts to take out the effects of poor seeing. My first target was Jupiter. On the left, you see Jupiter. The little bump on the left of the image is its moon Ganymede. The planet has a distinctly reddish cast because I used a red filter to try to cut down the brightness and help me see features on the planet better. The image on the right is saved as grayscale with the contrast turned up. I was amazed at how much detail I could see in the cloud features.

Two Jupiters

Next, I turned the telescope toward the horizon to catch Saturn. The ringed planet is in a great position right now with it’s rings tilted so they’re easily visible. The image below is at the same scale as the Jupiter images. As you can see, Saturn appears much smaller both because it is smaller than Jupiter and also because it’s farther away. I took a longer video sequence. Most of the images looked terrible and I didn’t think I got a very good image, but when I stacked them, I was amazed at how much detail I could see. I can see the shadow of the planet itself on the rings. I can see the Cassini division in the rings and even a feature in the clouds. Given the poor conditions, I’m very pleased with this image.

Saturn

Sitting behind the telescope is perhaps the closest I’ll get to exploring the solar system, but I hope we’ll send people to take a closer look. I imagined such a voyage in my novel The Solar Sea. Sitting behind the telescope, I find myself thinking about flying through Jupiter’s clouds or standing on the surface of Titan and seeing Saturn’s rings looming large above me.

If I can manage some clear skies, I hope to try Mars next. I’ve always wanted to climb Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system and admire the view from the rim of Valles Marineres, the solar system’s longest canyon. If I get some good Mars pictures, I’ll be sure to share them here.

The Brazen Shark Available for Pre-Order

Brazen Shark-300x450 I am proud to announce that the ebook edition of my ninth novel, The Brazen Shark, is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com! The Brazen Shark is the third novel of the Clockwork Legion series which began in Owl Dance and continues in Lightning Wolves. In this latest chapter, pirate captain, inventor, and entrepreneur Onofre Cisneros sweeps his friends Fatemeh and Ramon Morales off to Hawaii for their honeymoon. Once there, a British agent makes Cisneros an offer he can’t refuse and the captain must travel to Japan. Wanting to see more of the world, Ramon and Fatemeh ask to accompany the captain only to find themselves embroiled in a plot by samurai who steal a Russian airship, hoping to overthrow the Japanese emperor. I hope you’ll join me for this thrilling ride!

Back when the first Star Trek movie came out, Pocket Books acquired the rights to release the tie-in novels. I read each new one ravenously and one of my favorite authors was Robert E. Vardeman. In the years since, I’ve discovered Bob’s other series and my respect for his work has grown. He’s written more than fifty science fiction and fantasy novels and he writes amazing historical westerns under the pen name Karl Lassiter. He’s combined his love of science fiction and history in his steampunk novella Gateway to Rust and Ruin and you can find his story “The Transmogrification Ray” in Steampunk’d edited by Jean Rabe and Martin Greenberg. I was honored when Bob agreed to read The Brazen Shark. This is what he says: “Airships battling! Samurai fomenting war with Russia! Historical characters and powerfully drawn fictional ones mixing it up with political intrigues make David Lee Summers’ The Brazen Shark a steampunk novel not to be missed. Put it at the top of your reading list. Now!”

In the last few months, well-meaning folks have asked if it matters when they buy my book, or in what format. For the most part, the money to me is about the same no matter how you buy it, but this is one of those times it does matter. When you pre-order a book it sends a message to my publisher, Amazon, and really the entire industry if the sales rank goes high enough, that this is a book that matters to you. So, if you were going to buy the ebook and you’re a fan of the series, I hope you will pre-order the book. It’s only about the cost of a grande or venti mocha at Starbucks, and it’ll last longer!

Here are the links to all the books in the series:

And, if you want any of these autographed, I can! There’s a cool, free service called Authorgraph and you can find all my novels there. If you request an autograph through them, they will send me an email and I’ll send you a personalized PDF inscription you can store on your ereader. How cool is that! Request an Authorgraph today!

Now, I know a number of you out there don’t do ebooks and that’s cool. I love print, too! Never fear, the print edition is on its way. A little owl told a friend of mine that it might even be out a little before the February 1 ebook release. I’ll be sure to announce here when the print edition is available.

Going Back to the Classics

martian-anthology This week saw the release of The Martian Anthology edited by David B. Riley, which includes my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren.” The story imagines that the crew of a Martian colony discovers dangerous microbial life in an underground cavern. The supplies they need to study and possibly neutralize that life are coming aboard a solar sail from Earth. However, something has gone wrong with the spider robots that maintain the solar sail, hence the title of the story.

A lot is made of coming up with the idea for science fictional stories, but in this case, the science fictional ideas all came together rather quickly. I knew I wanted to tell a story about Martian life. I’ve loved the idea of solar sails ever since I first heard about them in the 80s and The Planetary Society’s LightSail Project had me thinking about cool uses for small, unmanned solar sails. What eluded me for a while in this story wasn’t the science fictional idea, but discovering what the characters learned about themselves in the story. In this case, Greek Mythology turned out to be a great source of inspiration.

One way of making the fabric for solar sails is to weave very light fibers together. Because of that, I had the idea of little nano “spiders” that could be deployed on solar sails to repair them en route. They would extrude and weave new reflective sail material. That sent me to the story of Arachne, most famous for winning a weaving contest with Athena. However, Athena proved to be a sore loser and turned Arachne into the first spider. That story didn’t quite mesh with the tale I was telling, but another story about Athena did. That was the story of how Athena adopted the son of Gaia and Hephaestus and raised him to be the first king of Athens. To see how I weaved that legend into the story, pick up a copy of the anthology at Amazon. In addition to my story, you’ll find great stories about Mars by such writers as J.A. Campbell, Sam Knight, Carol Hightshoe, and Nicole Givens Kurtz.

Grimm-tales

In addition to the release of The Martian Anthology, the Kickstarter for Gaslight and Grimm also went live this week. This is a very exciting project for me, since fairy tales are near and dear to my heart. I talk about that in detail in an interview I did with eSpec books. Also, there are some awesome people associated with the project including Jody Lynn Nye, Gail Z. Martin, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Christine Norris, and Jeff Young. I’ve been a fan of the Grimm Brothers’ faerie tales since I was a kid and I gained a deeper appreciation during my college days when I read “Little Snow White” in the original German. When Disney’s Snow White came out on DVD, I was inspired to buy the complete German language collection shown here. This collection is special to me because it not only has the stories, but the Grimms’ notes about the stories.

My story in Gaslight and Grimm is called “The Dragon and his Grandmother” and I started the story by translating it myself from the German. This helped me get very familiar with the tale, which then allowed me to re-imagine the characters in a steampunk reality. You’ll also find steampunked retellings of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Cinderella,” and the Baba Yaga legend. I look forward to reading it. If you haven’t supported this project, please drop by the Kickstarter page and giving it some support. Only $5.00 will get you the ebook plus there are lots of bonuses at higher levels. If you have supported the project, thank you!!! The Kickstarter has been live for less than a week and we’re over halfway funded. Still, we can use any additional help. Even if you have pledged, take another look, maybe there’s something that can entice you to another reward level, or maybe there’s an add-on gift you’d like. Let’s help this project fly!

Happy New Year 2016!

A new year has just started and I hope yours is off to a terrific start! As it turns out, I rang in the new year by myself in my dorm room at Kitt Peak National Observatory. My shift started the night of the first and I wanted to get up the mountain before Tucson traffic got too crazy. What’s more, the thermostats in our rooms are set to go into a power saving mode after 12 hours, so my room was only 45 degrees Fahrenheit. I wanted it a little warmer than that when it came time to sleep!

Despite the new year’s humble start, I did have some fun during the day of New Year’s Eve with my family. We spent the day in Tucson and visited the Yume Japanese Gardens. One of the things I like about the gardens is that they have a traditional Japanese house. Here, my daughter and I sit on the floor by the table.

Japanese-House-151231

In my novel The Brazen Shark which is scheduled for release on February 1, 2016, I imagine nineteenth century Japanese airships and the cabins look very much like what you see here. So, in essence, this visit to the Japanese Gardens allowed me a chance to get a taste of what life might be like aboard one of the airships.

Another exciting book coming out this year is the anthology Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine. It will be published by eSpec Books. They will be starting a Kickstarter campaign on January 5. If you click on the link, you will be taken to the preview page where you can ask to be notified when the Kickstarter goes live. The anthology includes steampunk retellings of “The Three Little Pigs” by Christine Norris, “The Nightingale” by Jean Marie Ward, and “The Goose Girl” by Bernie Mojzes. If stretch goals are met, we’ll also see stories by Gail Z. Martin and Jody Lyn Nye!

My story in the anthology is based on a little-known Grimm Fairy Tale called “The Dragon and His Grandmother.” The title is sometimes translated as “The Devil and His Grandmother.” I translated the story from German for Tales of the Talisman back in 2003. In this new version, I’ve sprinkled in a dash of Kipling and moved the action to India, mechanized the dragon, and gave my wayward soldiers an interesting lesson to learn. Among the Kickstarter rewards are signed copies of my steampunk novels and an opportunity to appear as a character in “The Steampowered Dragon and His Grandmother.” Be sure to visit the link to find out about the other cool rewards and be notified the minute the campaign goes live!

Here’s wishing you a wonderful 2016!

Star Wars and Battle of the Planets

By now I suspect you’ve heard a new Star Wars movie has come out. My work shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory didn’t let me see it for a few days. However, I just rectified that and enjoyed being swept into a pulp adventure in a galaxy far, far away. Another thing I have been watching in the last couple of weeks has been the contemporary anime series Gatchaman Crowds. As someone who was a kid in the 1970s, there is something of a connection between the Star Wars and Gatchaman universes.

Back in 1977, when Star Wars came out, there was no on-demand video, nor was there a DVD release of a movie three to six months after it was in the theater. If you were lucky, you might see the movie on commercial television a few months to a year after release and if you didn’t catch it when it aired, it was too late. Because of the popularity of Star Wars, television stations sought just about anything that looked remotely like Star Wars to bring in advertising dollars.

G-Force_-_group_shot2

As such, in 1978, Sandy Frank Entertainment bought the rights to the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which is a superhero show more akin Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers titles than Star Wars. It featured a team of teen superheroes in bird-themed costumes who fought an evil organization called Galactor. Through clever dubbing, careful editing, and judicious use of new animation, Sandy Frank recast Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets, a show about five heroes who fought aliens from the Planet Spectra. Sometimes the battles happened on Earth and other times, the battles happened on worlds that looked suspiciously like Earth. The lead villain, who looked sort of like a cross between Darth Vader and Batman was called Zoltar. The new animation featured a robot called 7-Zark-7 who looked suspiciously like R2-D2. The whole mishmash was a terrific escape for someone who was just starting the awkward journey into adolescence.

Fast forward thirty-seven years to 2015, I decided to pick up a copy of the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and I’ve been slowly working my way through the series and loving it in its original format. I’ve discovered that the team never left Earth and I now know Zoltar as Berg Katze, a stooge for an alien creature called X, who is trying to take over the Earth. It’s still tremendous, goofy fun, though it’s also much more coherent than the Battle of the Planets edit. It’s also much more violent.

Because of my renewed interest in Gatchaman, I became aware of a new Gatchaman series called Gatchaman Crowds. I decided to give it a try as well and I’m glad I did, though the two series are actually quite different. If Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is like the Justice Society of America, Gatchaman Crowds would be the Justice League. They’re both superhero teams and the new incarnation has many similarities to the old. The bird-themed costumes have become mecha, often with wings. They still say “Bird, Go” when they want to transform. Also, the G-Team of Gatchaman Crowds still fights a villain called Berg Katze, though the new incarnation now reminds me more of the Joker than Batman.

Whereas the original Gatchaman team faced a new plot by Berg Katze each week, the new Gatchaman team has a more sophisticated story-arc structure. The first season basically asks what happens when ordinary people are given the power to be heroes through the internet and do heroes really need secret identities. The second season, called Insight, addresses the complexities of democracy and how being united in heart and mind may be something of a dangerous dream.

Gatchaman-Crowds

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was fun and definitely hearkened back to the Buck Rogers serials that inspired the original trilogy. In that vein, I gather more Star Wars movies are expected to follow. I don’t know whether or not there will be a third season of Gatchaman Crowds, however, the Gatchaman team seems to be gaining an almost iconic status, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more adventures from some Gatchaman team in the future. I look forward to the stellar wars and planetary battles each series will bring.



Images in this article are low-resolution screenshots from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Gatchaman Crowds Insight respectively and are believed to be fair use since they are presented for identification of and critical commentary on the shows.