My Life With Vampires

Today finds me in Denver, Colorado at MileHiCon 50! If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. You can get more information about the event at: http://www.milehicon.org.

As we approach Halloween, I find myself looking back at how I developed an interest in vampire fiction. I think the first vampires I encountered were the Scooby-Doo episodes “A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts” and “Vampire Bats and Scaredy Cats.” At the risk of spoilers, we find that both vampires are really criminals engaged in a scam. Somewhat scarier to me was the 1979 version of Dracula starring Frank Langella. That opened up an interest in Bram Stoker’s novel, which I remember starting, but not finishing at the time because I was 12 and easily distracted.

Illustration for Vampires of the Scarlet Order by Steven Gilberts

It was another 1979 film that really got me thinking about vampires and that was Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, which I saw in 1984. The film’s atmospheric quality and Klaus Kinski’s genuinely creepy portrayal of Dracula set a standard for me. Even so, I didn’t really get captivated by vampires until I started working at Kitt Peak National Observatory in 1992. At the time, the observatory had both solar astronomers working at the McMath Solar Telescope (as it was known then) and “stellar” astronomers working at night on the other telescopes. Those of us who worked at night jokingly referred to ourselves as the vampires of the observatory because we weren’t seen before sunset and went to bed before sunrise.

As it turns out, one of my co-workers at the time was a fan of vampire fiction. She encouraged me to finally read Dracula from start to finish. I read much of it during a stormy night on the mountain. Periodically I had to go check conditions outside and I kept imagining that predatory eyes were upon me. This really hooked me on vampire fiction. Soon after this, she encouraged me to read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. From there, I dove right into The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned. Even so, I didn’t really think about writing my own vampire fiction until nearly a decade later.

In 1995, I had moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico and soon got involved with the Border Book Festival. I hosted a panel in 2000 and afterward, my friend Janni Lee Simner asked, “What do you suppose a vampire would make of Las Cruces, the city of crosses?” She followed that with a comment by telling me if it sparked a story idea, I was welcome to it. A few days later, while driving to Apache Point Observatory, I had an idea for a story about a vampire astronomer who moved to Las Cruces. That story became “Vampire in the City of Crosses” and I sold it a few weeks later to the magazine The Vampire’s Crypt.

The story and those that followed suggested that the vampire was on a quest. His quest led him to discover the vampire mercenaries who called themselves the Scarlet Order. Those stories all came together to become the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Once I got that far, I wanted to explore how the vampires decided to fight for human kings and that led me to the prequel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. As mercenaries who fight for human causes, my vampires aren’t the kind to sit around and brood about their immortal existence, seduce mortal girls a fraction of their age, or sparkle in the sunlight. In short, I’ve enjoyed spending time with them these last seventeen years. They make great companions in the Halloween season. If you’re looking for a good read this time of year, learn more about the books at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order.

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MileHiCon 50

Next weekend, I’ll be attending MileHiCon 50 in Denver, Colorado. For its golden anniversary, MileHiCon is inviting all of its guests of honor back. Among the guests of honor I’m looking forward to seeing are Mario Acevedo, Paolo Bacigalupi, Steven Brust, Liz Danforth, Chaz Kemp, Jane Lindskold, James Van Pelt, Robert E. Vardeman, Carrie Vaughn, and Connie Willis.

The convention will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel – Tech Center in Denver on October 19, 20, and 21. You can get all the details about the convention at MileHiCon.org. Who Else Books, Massoglia Books, and Wolfsinger Publishing are all scheduled to be in the dealer’s room. Each one is likely to have a stock of books with my stories in them.

My schedule for MileHiCon is as follows:

Friday, October 19

  • 3-4pm – Wind River B – Group Reading and Discussion: Space Opera. With me are Carol Hightshoe, J Alan Erwine, and John Barnes. Alastair Mayer will be moderating.
  • 4-5pm – Mesa Verde A – Discovering New Worlds. Twenty years ago, we knew about one planetary system. Now we know about thousands of them. Author and astronomer David Lee Summers discusses how planets are discovered around other stars, what kinds of planets are being discovered, and the prospects for life on those planets.
  • 7-8pm – Mesa Verde C – On-Watch Parenting vs. On-Demand.  Technology is in our lives, including the kids. What tools and steps can parents use to keep their kids’ media consumption age-appropriate? On the panel with me are Karen Bjorn, Kim Klimek. Emily Mah will be the moderator.

Saturday, October 20

  • 1-2pm – Mesa Verde A – MileHiCon Poetry Reading. Stace Johnson, Carina Bissett, J.D. Harrison and I along with other poets attending the convention will read a selection of our poetry.
  • 4-5pm – Grand Mesa – Mass Autographing. All the authors at the convention will be on hand to autograph books.
  • 8-9pm – Bristlecone – Roundtable: 50 Years of Zombies. 
    From Night of the Living Dead to iZombie, let’s talk about a shambling half-century of fear, blood and braaiiiins. On the panel with me are Melissa Olsen and Travis Heerman, who will be moderating.

Sunday, October 21

  • Noon-1pm – Wind River A – Creatives Parenting: how as the creative process impacted your parenting?  How has your creative involvements impacted your parenting, for good or awkward? If you make your kids be creative, will that turn them off? If you don’t, will they be mad at you later? How much does the age of your kids have an impact on their interest? On the panel with me are Jennifer Campbell-Hicks, Fred Poutre, Vennessa Robertson. Ian Brazee-Cannon will be moderating.

Gaslight Steampunk Expo

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California. This is my first time attending this event. It will be held at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego from October 5-7. The guests of honor include James P. Blaylock, often cited as one of the originators of steampunk, and Scott Bordeen, a maker who is credited as creating most of the commercially available versions of Disney’s famous Nautilus from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You can get more information about the convention and a complete schedule at https://www.gaslightexpo.org/

My schedule at the convention is as follows.

Saturday, October 6

  • 3-4pm – Brittany Room – When Yesterday’s Science Becomes Tomorrow’s Fantasy. When you want to use retro technology, where are the boundary lines to make that technology believable in a modern context? On the panel with me are James Blaylock, Stephen Potts, and Vernor Vinge.

Sunday, October 7

  • 10-11am – Garden Salon One – The Rise of Science and Science Fiction in the Victorian Era. Mars is an ancient world filled with technology and robots. Venus is a primitive jungle world populated by dinosaurs. Where did these early science fiction tropes come from? How much was from science and how much was social science? A look at how science and science fiction developed together.
  • Noon-1pm – Vendor Hall – Autographing. I’ll be signing a selection of my books in the Vendor Hall. Of course, my policy with conventions is you can ask for signatures any time as long as you’re not interrupting a conversation. I don’t know whether books will be available with a vendor as of this writing, but I will have a selection with me and I invite you to ask me about my books at any time!
  • 2-3pm – Garden Salon Two – Victorian Computing: From the Babbage Engine to Automata. Vernor Vinge will explore Victorian era computers and what they could and couldn’t do and how they operated.

If your plans include a trip to San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Expo. It promises to be a fun event.

First Responder Training

This past week at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I renewed my first responder certification. As I mentioned in my Saturday blog post, observatories are in remote locations and bad things do happen. I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with much in the way of criminal activity at an observatory. I’m often asked if I have ever seen aliens at the observatory. My answer to that is that the law enforcement agency I’ve interacted most with at the observatory is the U.S. Border Patrol.

That said, things can be bad enough without people engaged in illegal activities. I have had to treat an astronomer who was stung by a scorpion. I also know of a time a person on the mountain suffered a heart attack, though did not go into cardiac arrest. As I approach the age my father suffered a fatal heart attack, I find myself grateful that many of my co-workers know CPR and have been trained in the use of Automated Electronic Defibrillators.

Even without worrying about heart conditions, I have also had more than my share of accidents. About a month before my oldest daughter was born, I was working on a telescope when I accidentally knocked a 15-pound weight off a ladder and it fell right into my jaw, puncturing my lower lip. Luckily I didn’t lose any teeth. More recently, an elevator became stuck. We were able to open the door and I jumped to the floor below to go find a ladder to get my fellow passengers out. I managed to sprain my knee in the process.

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, once we dial 911, it will take 45 minutes for the closest ambulance to make it to the observatory summit. Many observatories are even further from emergency response. Having a staff where many people have first responder training means we can help each other and help visitors during emergencies.

I strongly encourage you to get first responder training if it’s at all available. I have to admit, I don’t always remember all the lessons from the videos and practice sessions, but the training does give me the confidence to follow instructions from a 911 dispatcher when I call. I’ve also found that in those rare emergency situations, I’m surprised by how much I do remember.

Another aspect of first responder trainer that’s important to me is that it gives me experience I can draw on as a writer. Aspects of both Kitt Peak’s remote location and the training I’ve received as a first responder have gone into such novels as The Pirates of Sufiro. The novel is currently out of print, but I’m about to launch into a full rewrite in preparation of a fourth edition at my Patreon site. My Patreon site also helps to fund this blog and I currently have an initiative to raise enough money to upgrade this to an ad-free site. Drop over to my Patreon site and read two free stories of my new collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you sign on, you can read the rest of the collection for free, plus you can see how The Pirates of Sufiro develops in its new edition. I bet you’ll even see some examples of how I put my first responder training to use in my fiction writing. My Patreon site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Thoughts about the Sunspot Observatory Closure

From 1995 until 2001, I worked on New Mexico State University’s 1-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory. The observatory is about one mile down highway 6563 from the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The highway gets its number because the hydrogen-alpha spectral line which is important to solar astronomy is at 6563 angstroms. Here’s a look at Apache Point. The 1-meter enclosure is in the foreground with the 3.5-meter telescope in the background.

Occasionally, when I worked at Apache Point, I would make the hike down the road to get lunch at Sunspot’s on-site cafeteria. Sunspot recently made news because of it was suddenly closed and vacated on September 7. It just reopened at the beginning of this week on September 17.

Sunspot Solar Observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the same organization that manages Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. Because of all these connections, it’s not surprising that I received a lot of questions about what was happening at Sunspot.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t know much beyond what I’ve read in the news. It’s been 17 years since I’ve been to Sunspot and although Kitt Peak and Sunspot are administered by the same top level board, different companies actually run the observatories at a day-to-day level. Kitt Peak is run by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and Sunspot is run by the Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium, a group managed out of New Mexico State University.

The sudden closure created rampant speculation ranging from lost military secrets to Bigfoot to the observatory harboring a UFO. To be honest, I’m not quite certain how a remote solar observatory with a staff of nine would capture a UFO, but it sounds like it could make a fun short story. Just to demonstrate how even a hint of something can run away from people, when I mentioned the possibility of writing a short story on Facebook, it eventually came back around to me that I’m hard at work on a novel about this subject. That’s quite an upgrade!

As I understand, the reason for the sudden closure had to do with an on-going law enforcement investigation at the site. Apparently because there was concern that a suspect in the investigation might pose a threat to the people at Sunspot, the decision was taken to vacate the nine employees and close the facility. According to various media outlets later in the week, it was discovered that a janitor at the site was downloading child pornography and had made veiled threats against the management and fellow staff.

In fact, the “mundane” explanation of a criminal investigation makes a lot of sense to me. Over the years, I’ve heard numerous tales of various people at observatories all over getting up to no good. Perhaps the most infamous story has to do with a disgruntled employee firing a handgun at the primary mirror of the 107-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas back in 1970. The mirror survived the assault and, in fact, is still in use. The bullet holes have simply been painted black to avoid scattering light. I have known people at observatories who have threatened violence and even become violent. I’m glad to see a facility such as Sunspot take actions to avoid a more tragic outcome to a bad situation.

It’s stories like this and stories of real-world border crime that influenced one aspect of the conflict in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. That said, one of the criminals does allow himself to get carried away by the notion that there might be aliens or even a monster laboratory at the observatory. The irony is that it isn’t the astronomers who are creating the monster they encounter, but other dark forces at work around the observatory, including some aided by a disgruntled former employee.

My observatory in The Astronomer’s Crypt is entirely fictional. However it is set in the same mountains as the real Sunspot Solar Observatory. The one thing that struck me was how much the real world observatory closure reminded me of what the aftermath of my novel’s events would look like. That said, the observatory of my novel would not be opening just ten days after the incident was resolved. To find out why, you’d just have to read it. To do that, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html and find out where to order your copy.

Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

CoKoCon 2018

This weekend finds me at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. Next weekend, I’ll be at CoKoCon in Phoenix, Arizona. CoKoCon is the combined CopperCon and Con Kopelli run in tandem by the Central Arizona Speculative Fiction Society and the Western Science Fiction Association. It’s being held at the Doubletree by Hilton Phoenix North. You can find more information at cokocon.org

The author guest of honor is Harry Turtledove. The local author guest of honor is Beth Cato. The artist guest of honor is Steve Rude. Cheshire Moon are the filk guests of honor and Eric Wile is the gaming guest of honor. Because of my observatory schedule, I can only attend two days of CoKoCon. So if you can attend, I hope to see you on Friday or Saturday. Even though I’m only able to be there on Friday and Saturday, I have a pretty full schedule as shown below.

Friday, August 31

  • 5-6pm – Canyon Room 4 – Discovering New Worlds. In a presentation that’s become something of a standby at Arizona conventions, I discuss what we know about planets outside the solar system. How many have we found? What are they like?
  • 6-7pm – Book Signing. I’ll be in the book signing area and available to sign books for you.

Saturday, September 1

  • 9:30-10:30am – Canyon Room 4 – Robots are from Mars, Dinosaurs are from Venus. A look at the astronomy and paleontology of the Victorian era, what people thought life on alien planets was like, what dinosaurs were like, and how they influenced the science fiction of the day.
  • 11am-noon – Canyon Room 3 – Punked. There was cyberpunk, then steampunk (although that’s debatable). Now there’s clockpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk and, most recently, solarpunk. We help you navigate these sub-sub-sub-genres and make sense of all these punks messing up history and the future. On the panel with me are Jenn Czep, Rhonda Parrish, and Cynthia Ward.
  • 2-3pm – Canyon Room 4 – Steampunk in the Round. What is it that makes steampunk a lasting trend? We’ll discuss the evolution of steampunk and ask how we might see it in a few years, the literary and media side of steampunk, the commercial side of Steampunk and the splinter divisions of steampunk. Q&A with audience. On the panel with me are Dirk Folmer, Kurt Khave, Christen Pike, and Gary Sollars.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Canyon Room 3 – More than Airships. It’s not just flying anachronisms; steampunk is an aesthetic. Beth Cato leads our panel of authors in examining the style and the tropes of this whimsical version of alternate hist
    ory. Joining Beth and me are Cynthia Ward and Ashley Carlson.
  • 5-6pm – Book Signing. I’ll be available to sign my books in the convention signing area before I have to leave for a work week at Kitt Peak National Observatory.
  • If you attend the convention, you can find my books in the dealer’s room at Duncan’s Books and More. I look forward to seeing you there!