Pandemic Past

Most of us are working to find ways of coping in the era of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. My friend, Kenneth Silsbee, has come up with an innovative approach to create some social time by hosting a Friday evening “cocktail hour” where friends can gather via a Zoom conference call. It’s allowed me to connect to some of my college alumni friends and make some connections with Kenneth’s Seattle-area friends.

During the first of these cocktail hours, Kenneth asked whether any of the attendees had any family stories from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. All I remembered was a brief mention that my maternal grandfather was serving in the Army Air Corps in France during one of the pandemic’s waves. However, the question did make me think of a book I read two years ago when I prepared to moderate a panel called “Magical History” at the Tucson Festival of Books. The photo below shows me with the panelists, Beth Cato, Mindy Tarquini, and Gail Carriger.

The book I’ve been remembering is Mindy Tarquini’s The Infinite Now. In the novel, Fiora Vicente, the daughter of an Italian immigrant fortune teller living in Philadelphia, loses her parents to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and is taken to live with a friend of the family in a tenement house. She takes possession of a magical curtain that allows her to see five minutes into the future. Afraid that the old man who has taken her in will die, she creates a bubble around the house to keep time from progressing. Meanwhile, a frightening healer seeks to entrap Fiora and take the curtain. The magic is subtle and metaphorical, and the author even introduces a bit of Clarke’s Third Law, the notion that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, at the novel’s end.

I’m sorry to have seen this year’s COVID-19 outbreak force the cancellation of the Tucson Festival of Books. That said, it’s clear from the way the virus is spreading that the organizers made the right call. Still, the Tucson Festival of Books has long been one of my favorite venues to meet and talk with authors from all around the country. In the panel, I not only discovered Mindy’s book, but I read books by Beth Cato and Gail Carriger as well. I highly recommend all their works if you’re looking for something good to read while social distancing.

As it turns out, the 2018 Tucson Festival of Books was not my first opportunity to meet Beth Cato. I had actually published her work on a few occasions in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. Volume 9, issues 2 and 4 along with Volume 10, issue 4 all have poems by Beth Cato and they are still in stock. As long as the post office is deemed an essential service, I’d be more than happy to pack up copies and send them to you. You can find all the issues of Tales of the Talisman at http://www.talesofthetalisman.com.

Reading, Writing and Yard Work

This week has flown by for me. Like many people around the world, I’ve been spending all my time at home to help stem the spread of the Coronavirus, but that hasn’t kept this from being a busy week. I’ve been doing lots of reading, I have a handful of writing projects in process and I have yard work to get me outside a little. I have lots and lots of yard work. It seems like February and early March were rainier than normal in the desert southwest this year and when it rains here, things grow fast. I was able to clean up the front yard and now I’m slowly making headway in the back yard.

When I’m not doing yard work, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. March is the month when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America announce the nominees for the Nebula Award. The Nebulas are given for the best science fiction or fantasy novel, novella, novelette, and short story of the previous year. Along with the Nebulas are the Norton Award for best young adult novel and the Bradbury Award for best screenplay. I like to read as many of the Nebula and Norton works as I can before voting. It’s a way for me to read several of the works that my peers consider to be the best writing of the past year.

I usually make it through all the shorter works before voting. The novels of both categories are more challenging. At a minimum I read the first chapter of each nominated work along with the description of the book at Amazon. This way, I get a sense for the writing style and I have a good idea of what the book is about. I then pick the ones I like the most and read them as far as I can. This year, it looks like I’m going to make it through more of the novels than I have in years past. I’m glad about that. I also was able to see all but one of the Bradbury-nominated works. I have choices in most of the categories, but it’s been tough. There are several great works in the running this year. Still, what I like best is what I learn from reading these very good writers. I hope I can find ways to spark my readers’ imaginations the way these writers have sparked mine.

I finally cleared my slate of some of the big editing projects I’ve been doing for other writers. I’ll have some announcements to make on that front soon, but this has allowed me to focus more of my time on my own writing. I’ve written down a treatment for a short story that was solicited by an editor and run it by him. He sent back some suggestions and I think we’ve converged on a story treatment that I will develop into a short story. I’m also glad to be back at work on The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m giving it another round of editing based on some early feedback of the new edition. I’m hoping to finish that task before it’s time for me to take my turn watching over Kitt Peak National Observatory for a few days in April. If you want to get an early peek at this work, please consider supporting me at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

I know this has been a tough time for many people. The unemployment numbers out this week are just staggering. I am hoping things will recover when people are allowed to return to their jobs. That said, I doubt the world will be quite the same as it was before. It makes me wonder about the world science fiction writers will imagine after this is all over.

Explore New Worlds from Home

In my last post, I mentioned how fortunate I am to have a fairly secure income during this difficult time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people are finding themselves unemployed or under employed. Fortunate as I am, it’s likely our family will also be affected by current events. I’m waiting to hear whether events I attend to promote my writing will be going forward. If not, this could result in a loss of sales for my books. What’s more, my wife performs bookkeeping duties for many small service-industry businesses. So far, these businesses have continued to operate, but some have had to limit their operations and depending on how long we’re asked to practice social distancing, may have to shut down for a time.

This crisis also comes at a time when my youngest daughter is preparing to graduate from high school and go to university. She’s been busy working on assignments at home, but we have had to defer a visit to her future school because of current events.

So far, my writing and editing work is keeping me busy, but I know this enforced period of isolation is hard on many people. That’s one of the reasons I’m participating in the “Authors Give Back” event at Smashwords. On Saturday, I shared two books I’m giving away for free. Because I do have family responsibilities, I can’t afford to give away all of my books, but I can offer deep discounts on two additional titles and give you a chance to explore the solar system and the galaxy in the process.

The first book I’m offering at 60% off the cover price is my novel The Solar Sea. In the novel, whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

In the novel, I use my experience as a professional astronomer to bring the solar system to life for the readers. You can get The Solar Sea for 60% off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/805692

The second book I’m offering at a discount is Firebrandt’s Legacy. In this book, Ellison Firebrandt fights the good fight for Earth. Under a letter of marque, he raids the ships of Earth’s opponents, slowing down their progress and ability to compete with the home system. On the planet Epsilon Indi 2, he rescues a woman named Suki Mori from a drug lord, only to find she isn’t so happy about living a pirate’s life. However, when the captain finds a new engine that will make him the most successful pirate of all, Suki is the only one who can make it work. Now Firebrandt must find a way to keep his crew fed and his ship supplied while relying on a woman who barely trusts him and while every government in the galaxy hunts him to get the engine back!

This book sets the stage for The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now, along with the rest of the Space Pirates’ Legacy series. In the opening chapter, Captain Firebrandt attacks a ship and discovers a whole cargo hold of … toilet paper. It’s just a small moment, but who knew that would be a thing? You can get Firebrandt’s Legacy for 60% off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/916916

Authors Give Back

Word of shutdowns in the United States to curb the spread of Coronavirus came while I was on a shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Working on a remote mountaintop, it seems like we should have few concerns about the Coronavirus, but we also have visitors traveling there from all around the country and all around the world, both as tourists and as visiting scientists. Because of this, the decision was made to suspend science operations and make all the equipment safe so it could be monitored by a small, skeleton staff. The last night of my shift was the last night of regular operations. Fortunately, it was a very productive one for the DESI project. We had a nice clear night and gathered lots of good test data for the team to chew on while things are shut down.

As it turns out, because I’m an observing associate and one of the people trained to tell at a glance whether something is wrong or not, I’m part of the skeleton crew that will be rotating in to keep an eye on the facility during the shutdown period. I will likely also have some telecommuting work to do as well. In the meantime, I’m hard at work preparing Don Braden’s fine science fiction novel Upstart Mystique for release and hope to return my attention to my own novel The Pirates of Sufiro, so I can release that soon.

So far, the whole process of watching people around me go into self-isolation mode has felt a little surreal. Because the shutdown period at work happened right as I would normally start a break, little has actually changed about my personal schedule. I’m also fortunate that I can continue to work and will continue to be paid. I know a lot of people face an all too real income shortfall and many people are working to fill their time with something positive. Because of that, I am participating in the “Authors Give Back” event at Smashwords. Through the event, I’m sharing two of my ebooks absolutely free until April 20.

Revolution of Air and Rust is a stand-alone novella set in the Empires of Steam and Rust world created by Robert E. Vardeman and Stephen D. Sullivan.

Set in 1915, the American Expeditionary Force under the command of General “Black Jack” Pershing has invaded Northern Mexico. Pancho Villa leads his revolutionary army in a desperate raid against the American force only to be outflanked. Just as Pershing’s airships prepare to deliver the death blow, Pancho Villa is transported to a parallel Earth where he finds an unexpected ally and the technology that might just turn defeat into victory. This is a story filled with military action, espionage and gadgetry that’s sure to satisfy fans of steampunk and alternate history.

You can get Revolution of Air and Rust absolutely free at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/254622

The other giveaway I’m offering is my short story “The Slayers” which first appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine in 2001. Dragon bellies are full of powerful carbide that allows them to breathe fire. Dragon carbide is a valuable treasure. Rado is a young man who sails the winds in a flyer. He signs aboard a mighty dirigible called the Slayer to hunt dragons. However, he soon learns that Captain Obrey will not rest until he strips the teeth and carbide from a mighty gold dragon.

Since this was written, other people have done their own versions of Moby Dick with dragons, but as far as I know, mine is the original. You can download “The Slayers” for free at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/58303

Back to Barsoom

Today, I’m taking a look at a couple of older science fiction novels from the book collection I share with my wife. These are two of the later volumes in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous John Carter of Mars series. The series had its start in 1912 when Percival Lowell still argued there were canals built by intelligent beings on the surface of Mars. John Carter himself was a former Confederate soldier prospecting in Arizona when his human body died in a cave and he found himself resurrected on Mars, known to its inhabitants as “Barsoom.” What’s interesting about this back story is how much it resembles the fate of Camille Flammarion’s heroes from his 1890 novel, Urania.

Each of the Burroughs’ Mars novels opens as one of the characters on Mars, usually John Carter returning to his human body, comes home to tell humans a story of recent events on the red planet. I picked up the Mars books where I left off, on volume 7, A Fighting Man of Mars. In this book, the Martians develop Tesla-like long-distance radio to communicate with Earth and the story is told that way. In this novel, John Carter is relegated to the role of minor supporting character. The protagonist is Tan Hadron, a warrior infatuated with one of Barsoom’s noblewomen, Sanoma Tora. The plot moves into full swing when raiders capture Sanoma Tora and Hadron volunteers to rescue her. It’s good fun action and adventure that makes a lot of twists and turns. Along the way, Hadron meets a slave girl named Tavia who proves to be a capable and competent fighter. It’s a set up that could easily have become cliche or fallen into tropes of romantic adventure fiction that were tired even then. At worst Burroughs teeters on the edge of those tropes before giving us a rousing conclusion.

I had so much fun with this book that I continued into the next book in the series, Swords of Mars. This one is focused on John Carter, who returns to Earth to narrate his story to an old friend. In this tale, Carter travels to the Martian city of Zodanga to break up an assassination ring. While in Zodanga, Carter learns that two scientists are racing to build rockets to travel to the moons of Mars. When the assassins learn Carter is on their tail, they use one of the space vessels to travel to Carter’s home of Helium and kidnap his wife, Dejah Thoris. They then take her to Mars’s moon called Thuria with plans of holding her for ransom. Carter takes the other space vessel and goes in pursuit.

These two novels were published in 1930 and 1936 respectively. At this time, there were still questions about whether or not Mars could support life. Although these novels first appeared when my parents were young children and they do fall into “damsel in distress” plots, Burroughs does make a point of showing women as capable and competent, which felt refreshing after Voyage of the Space Beagle with its all-male crew.

Can one still find relevance in pulp fiction written nearly a century ago, set on a planet we know has no ancient cities linked by canals? I think the answer is yes. In both books, John Carter has a motto: “I still live.” The idea is that while Carter still lives, he has a chance of finding his way out of even the most difficult situations. In these challenging times, I take comfort in Carter’s motto. I also appreciate how the heroes in these novels stand up for the oppressed despite terrible odds. Percival Lowell may have imagined a Mars with canals and ancient life, but Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined a Mars that I would, at the very least, want to visit and explore.

Voyage of the Space Beagle

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s mission: explore new worlds, seek out new life … and kill it!

Wait, what?

Let me step back a moment. When I married my wife, a friend quipped that I was marrying her for her collection of science fiction novels. One of those novels was A.E. van Vogt’s classic science fiction tale, Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s one of those novels I’ve long meant to read and I came across it the other day on the bookshelf and decided to give it a go.

The novel is a fix-up of four novellas written between 1939 and 1943 that describe a large space ship full of scientists sent out to the galaxy to learn everything they can. The primary point of view character is Elliott Grosvenor, an early practitioner of a science called nexialism which endeavors to take the results of all the sciences and come up with comprehensive results that specialists in those fields can’t achieve alone. This is probably a good thing, since the Space Beagle’s all-male crew consists of a bunch of scientists from different specialties, most of whom don’t seem to work and play well with others. Even Grosvenor felt like something of a know-it-all jerk at times.

In the first part, the Space Beagle lands and takes the cat-like creature from the cover aboard as a specimen. This coeurl turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone anticipated and it goes on a killing rampage through the crew until they figure out how to dispatch it. In the second part, hypnotic suggestions begin flooding the ship and causing the crew to turn against each other. Grosvenor figures out that they’re receiving communications from an alien race. In the third part, they encounter a living creature out in space called an Ixtl and decide to bring it aboard as a specimen. It promptly begins going around the ship and inserting its eggs into the intestinal tracts of the crew. Finally, the Space Beagle leaves the galaxy and encounters a galaxy-spanning entity at M33. It transforms planets into jungle planets with lots of life that it can feed on.

I found it difficult to sympathize with a lot of the characters in this novel. While it was interesting that they had egos and that led to conflict, I just wanted them to get over themselves and work together once in a while as something nasty attacked the ship. What’s more, for a thin novel, it was rather plodding and methodical in its pacing. Despite that, the real importance of this novel is in its influence. The first thing I noticed was the cat-like creature on the cover. He reminded me of one I’d seen on another recent novel.

It turns out that Haruka Takachiho, the author of the Dirty Pair light novels was a fan of A.E. van Vogt and Mughi, the third lovely angel, shown on the cover, is supposed to be a coeurl. There are obvious parallels in this novel with movie and TV space opera that followed, such as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. When van Vogt mentioned his all-male crew, I immediately thought of the problems the crew of the C-57D had when it’s all-male crew encountered a woman on Altair IV. Although I poke fun at the Star Trek connection in the opening of this blog, it does resemble Star Trek in that the Space Beagle ostensibly is an exploratory ship that finds itself in the position of defending Earth against creatures that would do Earth harm. For that matter, the coeurl feeds on the potassium in human bodies, not unlike the creature that kills people for salt in an early episode of Star Trek.

One thing that’s quite striking in this novel is its resemblance to the plot of 1979’s movie, Alien. Most people point to the obvious parallels of the egg-implanting Ixtl, but the coeurl story also resembled Alien quite a bit. I was especially struck at the end of that story when the biologist, Kent, suggests that a crew should return to the coeurl’s planet and exterminate the species before they become more of a problem, the setup for this universe’s version of Aliens. Apparently van Vogt did sue the producers of Alien and was awarded a settlement.

Although it feels dated, and I’ve read novels from the period that I enjoyed more, I was glad to discover this influential science fiction novel and travel with the crew of the Space Beagle for a little while, and survive the experience.

A Weekend in the Wild West and an Interview

This past weekend, I attended Wild Wild West Con 9 held at Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona. This is my ninth time attending the event and I am the only author who has attended every single year the event has been held. It’s a great event and I saw many good friends from Arizona, California, Texas and beyond. As with most years, I ran a booth where I sold my books and was tempted by the wares of my neighboring vendors. In the photo, you see me sporting a new outfit I assembled at the convention. In addition to selling books, I spoke on several panels throughout the weekend on topics ranging from weird westerns to steampunk mysteries.

One of the more interesting panels this weekend was one entitled “Authors After Hours” which was held at the convention hotel on the first evening. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this panel, but we ended up delving into the deep dark secrets of the authors on the panel. As part of the panel, I discussed the genesis of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. As I told the audience, this was an easy novel in the sense that I knew the setting and the themes well, but it was a difficult novel to write because of peering into those dark corners of my mind. The challenge of writing the novel was so great that I really needed to write two novels after that, Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy, before I could feel ready to even consider starting the second novel in the Wilderness of the Dead series.

One popular event at Wild Wild West Con is tea dueling. This is an event where contestants dunk a cookie in a cup of tea and must be the last one to eat it cleanly before it crumbles into bits. Heaven forbid that the cookie should besmirch one’s beautiful outfit. As it turns out, my younger daughter, who has come to be called “The Cutosity” ended up being the grand champion tea dueler for the weekend. Madame Askew and the Grand Arbiter who host the tea dueling made a big show of how much she’ll be missed as she gets ready to leave for college. In the photo below, you can see The Cutosity getting ready to face down tough competition from the West Texas town of El Paso.

Seeing the amazing costumes people make is perhaps one of the major attractions of steampunk. I was impressed by the Victorian-inspired fantasy costumes many of my friends sported at the event. Below is a gallery that features just a sampling of their amazing handiwork.

Over the weekend, friends who couldn’t attend the event asked if anyone took video of panels I was on or recorded audio. I’m sorry to say, I don’t know of any recordings. However, back at Thanksgiving, Ben Ragunton and Keith Lane came up to Kitt Peak National Observatory on a blustery winter day and interviewed me. Their interview, which went live yesterday, actually covers many of the topics we discussed on panels at Wild Wild West Con. I encourage you to listen to it. Even more, I encourage you to subscribe to their podcast and learn about even more of the fine authors and creators they interview. You can find your favorite platform to listen to their interview with me by visiting: https://www.tggeeks.com/blog/2020/03/09/tg-geeks-webcast-episode-264/