Uncanny Encounters

During my first year of graduate school, I joined a small acting troop that called itself the Socorro Little Theater and we put on a series of related one-act plays known collectively as The God’s Honest: An Evening of Lies by playwright Jules Tasca. The idea is that in each play, one or more characters is lying and through their lies some truth is revealed. The whole thing was done with minimalist sets that could be used in each of segments. Below, is a photo from the segment called “The Twin Mendaccios” where I play Clarence, a poor befuddled soul who isn’t sure which twin, Terry or Thomasina (both played by the same actress), that I’ve been to the movies with, had dinner with, or even slept with!

While performing in the play, the director, Carolyn Abbey, had me hard at work adapting my short story “A Matter for Madness” into a stage play that we hoped to perform. I’m sorry to say, the stage play was never produced, but the story did go on to be one of my first story sales. Also, the play’s protagonist, John Mark Ellis, would go on to be one of the heroes of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series and is featured prominently in the novel Heirs of the New Earth which is on sale for half price at http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#heirs.

It’s from this perspective that I turned my attention to the book Uncanny Encounters—Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan. The book collects eight short plays with distinctly science fictional or horror elements in the vein of The Twilight Zone. Some of the plays are very short. In fact, the shortest is only one page, but published in 2015, “The Most Terrifying Three Word Dystopian/Dark-Fantasy/Horror Story Ever Written” proves to be the most chillingly predictive piece of science fiction I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read the book or see the play to know what I mean!

As someone who fell in love with stagecraft many years ago, I’d enjoy watching or performing in any or all of the plays in this volume. That said, my two favorite pieces were “Corona Encounters” by Stephen D. Sullivan and “Be Mine” by Paul McComas. These were two of the longer plays in the volume and I suspect they grabbed me as much as they did because there was a little more time to explore the characters and watch them change as they reacted to the events. “Corona Encounters” tells the story of a UFO enthusiast who has calculated the time of the aliens’ return and the skeptical photographer she convinces to go out to the desert with her. It starts out as a lighthearted romp that takes a chilling turn. “Be Mine” is the story of a man who dabbles in Voodoo magic to win the heart of a woman who is in a relationship with another man. The problem is that once our hero wins the woman’s heart, he can’t stop using the magic.

If you’re an actor, director, producer looking for fresh material, I highly recommend taking a look at this volume. For that matter, if you’re a reader looking for a great read, this is worth putting on your list. It’s available at: https://www.amazon.com/Uncanny-Encounters-Sci-Fi-Screams-Horrific/dp/1499706014. Contact information for performance rights is in the book. Like The God’s Honest, these plays are designed to work with minimalist sets. So, even though they’re science fiction and horror, don’t let the potential cost scare you. These should be adaptable to companies working with even modest budgets.

If you want to learn more, you can hear an interview with Stephen and Paul at: https://narrativespecies.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/paul-mccomas-and-steven-sullivan-navigate-uncanny-encounters-rod-serling-used-to-tour-the-nation/


Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Making Books Beautiful

This past week I’ve been laying out the print edition of my book Firebrandt’s Legacy. This is my collection of space pirate short stories that were assembled with the help of my Patreon supporters. If this is the first you’ve heard of my Patreon, you can still join in the fun at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Typesetting might sound like drudgery to some people, but I find it an enjoyable job. Also, over the last few years, I’ve learned that I can often tell the difference between an indie or self-published book and a professionally published book just by looking at the care given to the typesetting. Here’s an example of two pages I typeset in the re-issue of my novel The Solar Sea.

I’ll draw your attention to a few things I did in this typeset, some of which might be more obvious than others. I picked a chapter title font and a header font that was similar to the font my cover designer used on front cover. This helps to build a sense of uniformity throughout the book. The first paragraph, and every paragraph after a break, is flush left. This gives a nice, professional appearance to the typeset. I also used a drop-cap at the start of the chapter. That’s the oversized T on the first word. In each section break for this novel, I used an oversized asterisk. I chose that character because it actually resembles the solar sail in the novel. In my anthology Kepler’s Cowboys, I created a character for breaks that resembles the Kepler Space Telescope’s CCD array. In Firebrandt’s Legacy, I use a  skull-and-crossbone wingding because the book is about space pirates.

Also, in the example above, I center the page number on the bottom of the chapter’s first page. After that, the page number and either the author name or the book title appear on the top of the page, with the page numbers on the outside edge. The book title appears on the right hand pages, while my name appears on the left hand pages, except for the first page of a given chapter. One of the least obvious things in the photo is that I use a font other than Times New Roman. To me, TNR is a bit tight and compressed for comfortable reading. However, you should also avoid going too far from a basic TNR-like font, otherwise, you risk looking unprofessional again. I encourage you to look around at fonts and find one that suits your particular taste. Just be aware that some fonts are proprietary and you may need to buy a license to use them.

Now, there are no hard and fast rules about how these things should be done. I came up with my layout after looking at lots of books and deciding which elements I liked best. I recommend that you do the same for your books and come up with a style that you think works well. The important part is to be consistent and pay attention to the things that all professional publishers do. For example, the book’s title page should always be on a right-hand, or odd-numbered page.

I do my book layouts in Adobe InDesign. There’s a fairly steep learning curve and Adobe products can be expensive and I can understand that both of these elements may be daunting for a lot of indie publishers. However, I have found that once I’ve developed a template I like, it’s easy to apply and modify that template for other books. That said, even if you lay your books out in Microsoft Word, you can make a nice-looking typeset book. However, you should be aware there is something of a learning curve in figuring out how to make your layouts look the way you want them. I don’t recommend skimping on that learning curve.

In point of fact, the thing most readers will notice is the quality of your writing and how well the book is edited. By all means, you should do everything in your power to get those right before you start typesetting the book. That said, once you’ve invested the time in making the best read you possibly can, don’t you think it’s worth packaging it in a way that’s attractive to the readers?

If you want to check out some of the books I’ve typeset, I recommend the following. You can order the books at your favorite retailer or follow the links to go to my publishing company. Remember, beautiful books make great holiday presents!

My Adventures Without Coffee

Anyone who reads my books can probably guess that I love my coffee. Daniel the vampire astronomer cannot imagine being undead without coffee to warm the blood he consumes. Where would Ramon be without Fatemeh’s strong coffee to prime him for adventures in the wild west? Even my spacefaring adventurers make sure their ships are stocked with coffee.

As for me, I started drinking coffee during my senior year of college. I had housemates who made coffee, plus that was the year I worked at the Very Large Array radio telescope. Out there, the beverage choice was soda you could pay for or free coffee. As a college student, you can bet I took the free coffee. I hardly lived a caffeine-free existence before that. My mom always kept a pitcher of iced tea available. As a kid, if I wanted something to drink, it would be iced tea. As an almost nightly treat, she would let me have a Pepsi while I watched TV.

A few weeks ago, my doctor noted that I have an oddball heart rhythm. This is nothing new.  It was first diagnosed when I was in my 20s and as far as I knew, that was the way my heart rhythm has always been. Cardiologists have told me there’s little chance of it developing into anything worse. Despite that, my general practitioner was a bit worried. He immediately asked about my coffee consumption, and I told him I was a coffee drinker. He suggested I might want to give it up to see if it affected the heart rhythm. Given that the men in my family have a history of heart disease, I decided I should give it a shot and see what happened.

So, starting just before mid-November, I stopped drinking coffee. I also avoided caffeinated sodas and tea. I know I did consume some caffeine in chocolate and even in the occasional cup of green tea, but by my estimate, my caffeine consumption was the lowest it had been since I was a very small child. The first week without coffee wasn’t easy. The first day, I had a migraine-like headache. After that, I developed muscle aches in various parts of my body—my arms, back, legs, and hips all hurt at one time or another. This isn’t surprising given that caffeine does act as a vasodilator and giving it up would mean at least slight constriction of blood vessels. Despite that, I found I didn’t miss the coffee as much as I thought I would. It didn’t take me that much longer to “wake up” in the morning without it than it did with it. I really missed it on weekend mornings when I was most used to taking some leisurely time to read before starting my day. Also, after that first week, the pain finally vanished.

I didn’t get grumpy during my break from caffeine, but I did find myself feeling a little more prone to giving into my introvert tendencies and withdrawing to myself, especially during the first week when I was dealing with the pain. It’s hard to say whether this was a direct effect of stopping caffeine, or a side effect of the pain.

During this period, I looked into the effects of caffeine and learned that there, in fact, is little correlation between stopping caffeine use and correcting heart rhythm. Despite that, I personally have felt that I probably consumed a bit too much coffee on occasion and it seemed like it would be easier to return to moderate consumption if I started from “ground zero” so to speak. Sure enough, when I returned to my doctor this past week, he noticed essentially no change to my heart rhythm. I celebrated with a cup of coffee. Still, as I say, I hope this will be a first step in using a little more moderation in my coffee consumption.

Periodically a news story will come out about caffeine research. Sometimes the research indicates problems. Other times it indicates benefits. Most of it seems to agree caffeine, like most things in life, is best if done in moderation. Of course, any changes you make should be done in consultation with your doctor. I’m just a guy who tells thrilling tales of the imagination and studies distant galaxies, stars, and planets. Still, I found it empowering to know that I could give up caffeine with no problems if I desired.

If you want to read some of my coffee-inspired fiction, be sure to visit my website: http://www.davidleesummers.com.

Blood Communion

One of my birthday presents this year was Anne Rice’s latest Vampire Chronicle, Blood Communion. By my count this is her thirteenth vampire novel if we count both the official “Vampire Chronicles” and “The New Tales of the Vampires.” This is one of the few series I’ve made a point of keeping up with over the years. The first two books in the series, Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were recommended to me by one of my co-workers at Kitt Peak National Observatory circa 1994. My co-worker used to refer to those of us who worked at night as the “vampires of the mountain” because you rarely saw us before sunset and after sunrise. I bought a boxed set of the first four novels and read them straight through, a little before Neil Jordan’s film of Interview with the Vampire was released.

Blood Communion is told in the voice of Lestat, who is now prince of the vampires living in his restored estate in France. In many ways, this is the tale of Lestat settling into his role as leader of the vampires. The biggest threat to that rule is an ancient vampire named Rhoshamandes who has shown himself to be a real danger in previous volumes of the series and now intimates violence against vampires and their allies he believes have done him wrong. Lestat wants to believe the best in Rhoshamandes, but must take action when the ancient vampire ups the ante. The problem is that it’s not altogether clear whether or not this is a battle Lestat can win.

Blood Communion is a thin volume in terms of page count. The hardcover is only 256 pages. Despite that, it addresses one of the more difficult subjects today, bullying and unchecked anger that turns into violence against one’s coworkers and friends. Without spoiling the novel’s plot, I think it’s fair to say that Rice’s answer is that such behavior can’t be allowed to continue unchallenged. On a lighter note, I enjoyed spending more time with other fictional friends from previous volumes such as Louis, Gabrielle, Marius, and Pandora. Also, the hardcover featured lovely illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer.

One interesting moment in the novel came when Lestat is presented with a Medusa ring. I don’t remember Medusa playing a role in the Vampire Chronicles before this. The ring’s significance isn’t really explained and I’d be interested to know more about its significance to Rice’s vampires. In my own novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, the vampire Theron is fascinated by stories of Medusa. In particular he sees stories of her turning people to stone as being akin to his ability to subdue prey with the power of his mind. Also, he’s captivated by versions of the Medusa legend that portray her as so beautiful she made Athena jealous and it was Athena who turned her monstrous.

Interview with the Vampire was one of the novels that cultivated my interest in New Orleans. When my daughter went to Tulane University to study, it gave me an opportunity to know New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. While most of Blood Communion is set in France, I enjoyed the brief foray, Lestat took to visit a vampire in Louisiana.

Speaking of New Orleans, if you like the little Nosferatu next to the novel in the photo above, you can order them from Boutique du Vampyre in the French Quarter. Clicking the shop’s name will take you directly to the page. While you’re visiting the Boutique, you can also pick up a signed copy of Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order as a gift for this holiday season. Clicking the book title will take you right there.

Reassembling the Mayall

Back in July, I discussed some of the different components that had come in for the DESI instrument being installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s Mayall 4-meter telescope. You can read about them in the post, Assembling the Puzzle. The corrector optics and hexapod alignment system have been installed into the telescope’s top end. Here I am, hard at work torquing the bolts that hold it all together.

If all goes according to schedule, the new top end will be lifted to the top of the telescope next week. At that point, the telescope will look more like itself again. Control cables and network boxes for the top end assembly will then be assembled so astronomers working in the control room can talk to the instrument. At that point, the work platforms that are visible in the older post will be disassembled. Here’s a look at the top end, almost ready to lift up to the top of the top of the telescope.

Once the top end is back on the telescope, the primary mirror, which is currently out of the telescope, will need to be re-aluminized. Telescope mirrors are finely polished, curved glass. Over the top surface is a very thin layer of aluminum which is applied in a vacuum chamber. The vacuum chamber for this process is the biggest one in the southwestern United States. I describe a scary scene involving such a chamber in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Fortunately, care is taken to operate the chamber very safely in real life.

One thing to note about the top end in the photos above is that there is no actual instrument mounted yet. Astronomers rarely sit at an eyepiece actually looking through a telescope anymore. Most of the time, there’s a high precision digital camera looking through the telescope. Sometimes that high precision camera is designed to look at a specific wavelength region, such as optical light or infrared light. Sometimes that camera doesn’t look at the sky directly, but at light that’s been reflected off a grating. A grating is just a reflecting surface that breaks up light like a prism. The advantage to a grating is that you lose less light than you do when you shoot it through a chunk of glass. Breaking up light then allows you to see lines in spectra that tell you about the chemistry of the object you’re looking at.

In a nutshell, that’s the kind of instrument DESI is. Astronomers are interested in the chemistry of the objects they’re looking at. However, there’s one other feature you get by studying these spectral lines. When an object moves, the lines shift toward the blue end of the spectrum if the object is moving toward the observer or toward the red end of the spectrum if the object is moving away. That’s what we mean when we talk about blue shift and red shift. What’s more, how far the chemical lines have shifted is a measure of the object’s velocity through space. The goal of DESI is to measure the velocity of some 5000 objects every time the telescope points to a new target. That said, this data will be available to everyone and it contains all the fundamental chemical information about the objects the telescope is pointing at.

Before the final DESI instrument goes on, there will be a commissioning instrument. That will be more like a regular camera—more like looking through an eyepiece. The goal of the commissioning instrument will be to align the telescope on the sky after all this work has been done and assure that the telescope has good pointing so that we can get the best data when we’re using the spectrographs later.

Once the commissioning instrument goes on the telescope, I’ll return to my regular nighttime duties at the Mayall, shaking down the rebuilt telescope and getting it ready for its next five year mission. My novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, which I mentioned in passing, is not just a horror novel, but it provides a look behind the scenes at an observatory. If you’re interested in seeing what goes on at night at a facility like Kitt Peak, or one of the other observatories where I’ve worked over the years, it’s a great place to start. Just be warned, not only will you encounter astronomers, engineers and technicians, but some ghosts, a monster from Apache lore, and a few other surprises as well. You can get more information about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Sandman Mystery Theatre

When I first discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic in 1989, I may have been one of the only people disappointed that it wasn’t about a guy in a suit, a fedora, and a gas mask who fought crime. Of course, I’m alluding to the Sandman from the Golden Age of comic books, who was actually mentioned in that first issue of Neil Gaiman’s comic. In time, Gaiman’s comic would win me over on the merits of its own great writing, but it still didn’t satisfy that interest to see more stories about the Golden Age version of the character. Just a few weeks ago, I learned that there was a comic that would do just that.

Sandman Mystery Theatre, written by Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle, ran from 1993-1999. In its 71-issue run, it returned to the 1930s to follow the adventures of Wesley Dodds, a quiet stay-at-home millionaire by day who donned a suit, trench coat, fedora, gas mask and gas gun by night to fight crime on the streets of New York City. Looking at the years of its original run, it’s no surprise why I missed it. It coincided very neatly with the early years of my marriage, family life, writing, and astronomy careers!In the Monday of Thanksgiving week, I think it’s fitting to say that I’m very thankful for the existence of digital back issues of comics!

I first discovered the Sandman character when I was a kid, reading comics featuring the Justice Society of America. This was the superhero team that preceded the more famous Justice League. Sandman was one of the team’s founding members and I found him interesting. Like Batman, Sandman has no super powers. He’s basically a detective who carries a gun that puts people to sleep. The similarities between Batman and Sandman don’t stop there. As I mentioned, Wesley Dodds is a millionaire, like Bruce Wayne. He also has a loyal butler who knows his secret. As it turns out, the two characters were introduced to readers at nearly the same time. Sandman first appeared in New York World’s Fair Comics in January 1939, while Batman debuted in Detective Comics in May 1939. Of some note, Wesley Dodds always had his loyal butler Humphries, while Alfred didn’t join Bruce Wayne until 1943.

Another interesting element to the Sandman character is that he’s one of the first comic book heroes to have a sidekick who is not simply a miniature version of himself. His sidekick was a woman named Dian Belmont who was not written as a damsel in distress even in her earliest comic appearances and often shared dangers with Wesley.

In Sandman Mystery Theatre, Matt Wagner took the source material and brought it into a gritty, noir world written for adults. It starts in 1938, just before the time period of the original Sandman comics. The story follows Wesley and Dian as they get involved in a series of murder investigations. It’s hard to call these “cozy” mysteries because the comic does not steer away from racism, child abuse, and real social issues of the time period, many of which still resonate today. We also see Wesley and Dian grow closer together and a romance blossom between them. Unlike so many comic book romances, this is not one that flickers out every story cycle, but deals with characters learning about each other and making decisions about what to reveal and not reveal about their pasts. In many ways, the story reminds me very much of the Thin Man movies of the 1930s, but with less rampant alcoholism.

Like heroes such as Batman and the Green Hornet, Wesley Dodds is essentially a masked vigilante. He has some martial arts training. He’s not as powerful as Batman. Villains can hurt him—badly. While he has money, he doesn’t affect a playboy persona like Bruce Wayne. The overall effect is that Wesley Dodds becomes a much more relatable character, like many of the noir detectives. I’m having fun catching up on back issues of Sandman Mystery Theatre. You can find digital copies at places like Amazon and Comixology.