Westercon 70

Next weekend, I’ll be a program participant at Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona, also known as Conalope and LepreCon 43. Julie Dillon is the artist guest of honor, Connie Willis is the author guest of honor, Bjo and John Trimble are special media guests of honor. Sharing the spotlight with them are local author guest of honor Gini Koch and toastmaster Weston Ochse. Be sure to drop by the Westercon 70 page at westercon70.org to get details about the location, all the guests, and programming.

I will not have a dealer’s table at the event, but Duncan Rittschoff of Duncan’s Books and More will have a selection of my books in the dealer’s room. Also, it sounds like we may have copies of Straight Outta Tombstone in time for the show. I’m keeping my finger’s crossed!

Here’s my schedule for the event, which of course is subject to last minute change. Also, apologies if I missed a fellow panelist in the program grid.

Saturday, July 1

  • 3:30-4:30pm – The Return of Space Opera – Room: Jojake. With the return of Star Wars, the success of The Expanse on TV and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, the space opera has returned. The panelists look at the appeal of these action-filled adventures where the science doesn’t get too hard and the characters have plenty of drama and romance. On the panel with me are Colette Black, H. Paul Honsinger, and Michael D’Ambrosio.

Sunday, July 2

  • 9:30-10:30am – The Science of Steampunk: What Makes the Gears Go Round? – Room: Jojake. Steampunk style is filled with all sorts of clockwork creatures and fantastical machines. Scientists and authors look at the science and tech behind airships, submarines, and giant mechanical spiders. On the panel with me are Ashley R. Carlson, Bruce Davis, Suzanne Lazear and Steve Howe.
  • 11:00-noon – The Future of Steampunk Writing – Room: Jojake. Vaughn Treude and Arlys Holloway will join me to discuss our thoughts on the future of steampunk writing.
  • 12:30-1:30pm – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Drop by the autograph table and I’ll be happy to sign books for you! Jenn Czep, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, and Natalie Wright will also be signing at the same time.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Jackalopes and Other Cryptids – Room: Sand Lotus. In honor of Conalope’s mascot, authors will pay tribute to the strange creatures that may or may not inhabit the dark corners of the world. On the panel with me are Weston Ochse, Thomas Watson, and Ernest Hogan.
  • 5:00-6:00pm – Alien Autopsy of ET – Room: Dolores. Would it be possible for an alien species which found water poisonous to even land on Earth? How would two hearts work? What does green Vulcan blood say about their circulatory system? Join scientific experts and authors as they get to the guts of creature creation and make sure that “damned alien biology” is more than just a vague explanation. On the panel with me are Syd Logsdon, Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Thomas Watson.

Monday, July 3

  • 9:00-10:00am – Exoplanets – Room: Augustine. In this presentation, I discuss how exoplanets are discovered and present some highlights about the kinds of exoplanets that have been discovered.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Steampunk Roundtable – Room: Jojake. What is it that makes Steampunk an enduring pop-culture phenomenon? Attend this roundtable discussion of steampunk represented by contributors in a variety of fields. On the panel with me are Katherine Stewart, Dirk Folmer, and Madame Askew.

Tuesday, July 4

  • 9:30-10:30am – Bullets in Space: Putting the “Sci” in “SciFi – Room: Campanile. Hard sci-fi requires intensive research and lots of math to make sure everything adds up. We talk about that process, where to find the scientific answers and how to make sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in physics calculations. On the panel with me are Michael D’Ambrosio, Steve Howe, Amy K. Nichols, and Thomas Watson.
  • 11:00am – noon – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Another opportunity for you to get your wares signed by me and other panelists! Those other panelists would be Michael D’Ambrosio, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, Stephine Weippert, and Connie Willis.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Reading – Room: Boardroom. In honor of release day, I plan to read my short story “Fountains of Blood” from Straight Outta Tombstone. There’s also a good chance, I’ll be able to give attendees a special, early, sneak peak at a very exciting short movie project I’ve been working on. Also reading during this session will be Cynthia Ward and Thomas Watson.

It looks like it’s going to be a busy weekend, but I can’t wait. Also, just for fun, if you come to the convention and cosplay a character from one of my books, I’ll give you a free book from those I have in stock at hadrosaur.com. Since I won’t have a dealer’s table, I may have to send it to you afterwards, but we’ll make it happen!

Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

The Biggest Explosions of All

I’ve spent a lot of time in my astronomy career pointing telescopes at some of the biggest explosions of all—type 1a supernovae. This kind of supernova starts with a white dwarf star and another star orbiting each other. White dwarfs are very dense stars at the end of their lives. The only objects more dense are neutron stars and black holes. The white dwarf’s gravity draws material off the companion star until it reaches critical mass and the whole thing explodes. One such star that I had the chance to observe in detail in was Supernova 2011fe in the galaxy M101. Here’s an image from the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak, one of the telescopes I used to observe this object. The supernova is the bright blue star outshining everything else in the upper right-hand part of the image.

Image by T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), H. Schweiker & S. Pakzad NOAO/AURA/NSF

These cosmic explosions are pretty interesting in their own right. Our own star is expected to end its life as a white dwarf and these explosions give us a glimpse at the hearts of these stellar corpses. These explosions are also one of the ways heavy elements formed in the cores of stars get distributed out into the universe. Supernova 2011fe was, in fact, one of the closest Type 1a supernovae we’ve ever observed. We caught the explosion soon after it happened, watched the supernova brighten to maximum, then start to fade away.

Type 1a supernovae also have another useful property. Because white dwarfs have a fairly uniform mass, the brightness of the explosion is also uniform. So, if every Type 1a supernova observed were placed at the same distance away from you, they would all, more or less, be the same brightness. This means that by measuring the apparent brightness of the supernova, you can figure out how far away it is. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but there are ways to calibrate that information based on the how fast the explosion brightens and fades.

Back in the 1990s, an astronomer named Saul Perlmutter was granted target-of-opportunity time on Kitt Peak telescopes. In this case, it meant if a type 1a supernova went off, he could ask the telescope to point to it and take an image and calibration data. He and his colleagues hoped to get distances to as many galaxies as possible. I helped acquire some of that data which was combined with a lot of other data from a lot of telescopes to provide evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Perlmutter would go on to share a Nobel prize with Adam Riess and Brian P. Schmidt for this work.

This is one of those discoveries that shows some of the true fun of science. We learned that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but that raises an even bigger question. Why is it accelerating? Typically that’s attributed to something called “Dark Energy.” This attribution isn’t meant to be an answer in itself. It’s meant to be a placeholder. It’s “Dark” energy because we don’t know precisely what kind of energy it really is, or even if it’s energy at all! Later this year, a new instrument called DESI will be installed on the Mayall 4-meter which will endeavor to get answers to some of those questions. But like all good science, I expect a veritable explosion of new questions raised for every answer we’re able to get.

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, the day set aside for remembering those soldiers who gave their life for the country. I was surprised to learn that although Memorial Day has been recognized by the states for a long time, it only became an official Federal holiday during my lifetime. Memorial Day was one of the holidays created by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which went into effect in 1971. That’s the point that the Memorial Day holiday started being celebrated on the last Monday in May.

The Memorial Day weekend has become traditionally associated with the beginning of the summer season in the United States. This year, my schedule at Kitt Peak worked out that I had to work the entire holiday weekend. Normally, working at the observatory over a holiday weekend isn’t much of a hardship, but this year, my shift started with wild 55 mile per hour winds, too high to open the telescope. Also, I’ve been suffering from a bout of sinus congestion. When we were able to open, the telescope where I was working developed some networking problems, which meant instead of working on cosmic mysteries, I was busy running between a couple of buildings (in the high wind) swapping out parts trying to solve more mundane computer mysteries. Fortunately the weather has improved as the weekend has progressed, and last night we were able to open the Mayall 4-meter to clear skies as shown in the photo.

Of course, I’m not the only person working this Memorial Day weekend. It’s all too easy to forget that many people have to work on weekends to do everything from keeping essential services running to keeping our favorite retail stores open so we can go shopping. In fact, if I weren’t working at the observatory this weekend, I’d likely be at a convention this weekend discussing my books and manning a booth. My next event will be Westercon 70 in Phoenix, Arizona, on the July 4 weekend.

Even though I’m not at a convention this weekend, I still had a unique opportunity to give a presentation about my writing work. I was interviewed by Emily Guerra of KRWG-FM, the NPR affiliate in Las Cruces, New Mexico for the PUENTES: Bridges to the Community segment of the station’s Fronteras news show. You can listen to the interview at their website: http://krwg.org/post/astronomy-steampunk-fiction. I was also pleased to see a review of my novel Owl Dance at the Steampunk Journal website: https://www.steampunkjournal.org/2017/05/24/owl-dance-david-lee-summers-review/#

One of the goals of my Clockwork Legion Steampunk series is to tell a good tale where the protagonists are actively doing their best to find peaceful solutions to the problems they encounter. In a way, I think that speaks to the spirit of a holiday like Memorial Day. After all, what better way to honor those who have fallen protecting us and our freedoms than working toward a world where no one else has to fall in battle.

Meet Mike and Claire

This past weekend, I’ve been working on a book trailer for my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. To make this trailer, I’ve been collaborating with actor, director, and producer Eric Schumacher, who played Wyatt Earp in the Fox Network TV series, Legends and Lies: The Real West.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of book trailers. Some are more successful than others. I’ve even made a few using graphics provided by the wonderful artists who worked on my covers. For this trailer, Eric and I wanted to kick it up a notch, and make a more cinematic trailer featuring a scene from the novel. Eric is playing telescope operator Mike Teter and Sara Mirasola is playing astronomy graduate student Claire Yarbro. Here’s a sneak peak of the actors in character.

I have tried my hand at writing a couple of screenplays, and even submitted one to Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was on TV, but this marks the first time I get to see my words translated to the screen. Eric and I collaborated on the screenplay. Like most book screenplays, it’s not a word-for-word translation of what happens in the book, but we worked hard to keep the essence of one of the book’s scariest moments. As the scene opens, Mike and Claire’s dialog teases what’s been happening in the novel so far, then Mike leaves Claire alone. In the book, Claire goes through an internal monologue as she waits to find out what’s happening to the others with a few exclamations. We worked to translate enough of the words to give you a sense of what she’s thinking without giving you a Shakespearean-style monologue. I’ll leave the description there to avoid spoilers both for the book and the trailer.

The writing process started with me picking a handful of scenes I thought might be suitable. We developed one in hopes that Kitt Peak National Observatory could be a stand-in for the novel’s fictional observatory. However, that request was denied. The powers that be felt the Mayall 4-meter was just a little too recognizable and such a film would imply organizational endorsement for the project. Disappointing, but fair enough.

The new scene is set in an observatory control room, which is easier to mock up without implying institutional endorsement. So we went to one of our backup scenes. The scene I picked only had Claire. Eric roughed out a draft based on that scene, then I suggested an opening based on the previous scene where Mike and Claire are together. This allowed two actors to play off each other and set up the scene before Claire has to carry the ending alone. We then sent the script back and forth a few times. I checked for both scientific accuracy and assuring the script was true to the flavor of the book, while Eric worked to assure the scene could be filmed and actors could speak the lines.

It’s been exciting to see Eric and Sara bring Mike and Claire to life. In a future post, closer to the trailer’s release, I’ll discuss more of the technical aspects of making our short film. In the event you don’t want to wait for the trailer’s release to read the book, you can learn more about The Astronomer’s Crypt, read a sample chapter, and find places to buy the book at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Beautiful Sunsets

My work “day” at Kitt Peak National Observatory gets going in earnest when the sun sets. We have a saying at the observatory that beautiful sunsets mean poor observing. For better or worse, we’ve had some beautiful sunsets this past week.

There is some truth to the notion. Clouds can make dramatic sunsets, but they also obscure the view of even the most powerful optical telescopes. Red sunsets are often caused by dust or smoke in the air. Both are bad for observing in their own right. They make the sky hazy, but they can also settle out on telescope optics, which then becomes a problem when the weather gets even better. Unfortunately, big telescope optics are not easy to clean and the particulates can even damage them.

The wind that kicks up particulates or dries out the brush, giving us fire conditions, can also be a problem for observing. An unsettled atmosphere can make objects magnified with a telescope look fuzzy and distorted. It’s what we call bad “seeing.”

Nights with these kinds of poor, but not stormy conditions, can be the most difficult in my work life. We have to be ever vigilant to make sure the winds don’t get too high to safely operate the telescopes or the clouds don’t build up to ones that might drizzle. Even a little bit of water on telescope optics can ruin a telescope operator’s night. The wind can actually blow the telescopes around enough that we have a difficult time tracking targets precisely.

Our best nights are those when the sky is clear and calm at sunset. A few high clouds on the horizon aren’t ideal, but they’re not necessarily terrible. This was a sunset taken on a pretty good night.

This sunset’s pretty cool because I caught just a little of the “green flash” effect. I was just using the camera on my Kindle, so it doesn’t look as green as it did watching it, but you can see the after image of the sun just above the setting sun itself. That’s caused by atmospheric dispersion stretching the image of the sun like a prism or a rainbow. So you see the green/blue light of the sun set after the yellow light.

So, yeah, you can have pretty sunsets on good nights, too. They may just be a little less dramatic than the sunsets on the difficult nights.

If you want to see what happens when I imagine a truly dramatic night at an observatory, read my book The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about it here: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Like telescope operators, vampires also come out when the sun sets. I imagine a vampire telescope operator in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Astronomer’s Crypt Giveaway

I’m giving away two paperback copies of my latest novel The Astronomer’s Crypt on Goodreads. If you have an account, you can sign up for the giveaway at: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/232189-the-astronomer-s-crypt. If you don’t have an account, all you need to do is sign up for one—they’re free—then follow the link to enter the giveaway. You can enter the giveaway until May 1, at which point, Goodreads will pick the winners and I’ll send out the books.

The back of the book warns, “If you scare easily, don’t read this book. If you dare to read it, you’ve been warned.”

In this novel, gangsters, scientists, ghosts, and a monster from the beginning of time collide on a mountaintop during a raging storm. As you can likely tell, from this, May Day is an appropriate day to hold the drawing for this book. Wishing all those who enter the best of luck!

If you’d like to learn more about the novel, I discuss it and even share an excerpt at a brand new interview by Fiona Mcvie, which was just posted this week: https://authorsinterviews.wordpress.com/2017/04/16/here-is-my-interview-with-david-lee-summers/

In case you missed it, the novel’s protagonist, telescope operator Mike Teter was interviewed at the Lisa Burton Radio Show Blog: https://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/2017/02/09/the-astronomers-crypt-on-lisa-burton-radio/

This week I had my first glimpse at the interior pages of the forthcoming anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, due for release at the beginning of July. This was my chance to review the proofs for my story, a responsibility I take seriously. I’m pleased to say that I saw no typos in my story. Of course, this doesn’t mean an eagle-eyed reader won’t spot something I missed, but it does look quite good. I did request a change to one line for clarification.

It’s exciting to be in a book alongside so many people whose work I’ve admired for years, including Jim Butcher, Kevin J. Anderson, Jody Lynn Nye, and Phil Foglio. What’s more, there are a few veterans from my anthologies and magazines on these pages including Robert E. Vardeman and Nicole Givens Kurtz. My story in the anthology pits the Scarlet Order Vampires against members of the Clockwork Legion during the historical Albert Fountain disappearance. Learn more about the anthology and pre-order it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1481482696/