Revisiting Excalibur

As the year began, Lachesis Publishing decided to put the ebook of Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order on sale for 99 cents through January 21. Because of that, I’ve been thinking back to some of the inspiration for the novel.

I’ve long been a fan of Arthurian lore. In many ways, that fandom began back during my university days soon after watching John Boorman’s film Excalibur. After the film, I remember hot debate about how closely the film followed the “true” legend of King Arthur. I found myself wondering what exactly people meant by “the ‘true’ legend of King Arthur.” Soon after that, I was at a used bookstore in Albuquerque where I found a book with the historical and early literary texts that were the root of the Arthur legend. This opened up a whole new world to me and told me that the Arthur story is far more nuanced than I originally thought.

What most people think of as the “true” story of Arthur is based on the novel Le Morte d’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Mallory in 1485. It includes many of the familiar elements of the story including Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to become king, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s also written approximately a thousand years after the historical Arthur would have lived. It’s built up from numerous folk tales Mallory would have known and put together into a single narrative. In fact, the sword in the stone, Lancelot, and the Holy Grail don’t appear in the earliest Arthur narratives.

As it turns out, the earliest Arthurian history from a Welsh monk named Nennius can be summed up as: “Arthur was a warlord who won many battles against the Saxons, until he finally defeated them at Badon Hill.” Even this version of the story wasn’t written until almost three or four hundred years after Arthur would have lived. Since that time, numerous folk tales developed. Many are reminiscent in tone to the tall tales of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan from the American frontier. I’ve read speculation that Lancelot started as the star of his own set of French Celtic folk tales and was then grafted onto the Arthur stories. Others say he has antecedents in minor characters from the earlier Celtic stories of Arthur.

This past week, I watched Excalibur for the first time in about twenty years. Admittedly, it’s been about fifteen years or so since I last read Le Morte d’Arthur, but it struck me that the movie did a tolerably good job following the plot of Mallory’s novel. Many have criticized the movie for its depiction of Arthur and his knights in bright, shiny armor. However, it struck me that this is a valid interpretation of Mallory, in much the same way as it would be valid to present a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with characters in Elizabethan garb. One can make a case it’s the way it would have been visualized by audiences at the time of the novel’s release.

Back when I wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order, one of the characters mentioned that the vampire Drake was, “a British peer, a Dragon serving King Ambrosius.” The character goes on to explain “Ambrosius was King of the Britons before King Arthur. This was all around the year 480 A.D.” When I decided to write Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order which tells Drake’s origin story, I thought it would be fun to explore what I’d learned about Arthurian history and lore.

As an author, I put together some of my favorite ideas and pet theories of what the “true” King Arthur story was like. I knew people would expect to see Lancelot so I created a reason for him to be there, yet “erased” from history. It was a fun exercise and we also travel to other points in history as well. We go to ancient Greece and to England just after the Norman invasion. The novel ends in Mallory’s time in Eastern Europe where a certain famous nobleman often associated with vampires is coming to power. You can pick up Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order as an ebook at the following retailers. But hurry, the 99 cent special ends this weekend!

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Supporting Indie Publishing

By necessity, big publishers can’t provide a platform for every writer whose voice is worth hearing. They simply have a limited number of books they can publish. Also, over time, big publishing has been reduced to five media companies with an obligation to their stock holders to maximize profits. This limits the number of risks they can and should take. These two facts limit the number of new and diverse voices that can share their creativity.

Indie publishing allows an outlet for those voices. The term “indie publishing” has evolved over the last few years to incorporate self-published authors, authors with boutique presses, and small press authors. It’s a little misleading because they’re not all the same. However, they all provide the opportunity for more voices to be heard.

Self-publishing literally allows anyone to publish a book in print or electronically. That said, it probably still favors voices of privilege since they’ll be the ones who have money for the best covers, editing, and advertising, plus potentially more free time to do the work of getting the word out. Small presses vary greatly but there are a lot of them out there. The best will provide editing, covers, and at least some marketing.

Indie publishing keeps authors from being forced to accept the publication terms of the big publishing houses. While it’s true the big publishing houses pay advances up front, and arguably pay more per book than small presses, the pay can still be surprisingly small. At least anecdotally, I know writers who stick with the big five and yet sometimes barely make ends meet. Indie publishing provides a possible alternative outlet for authors to supplement their pay. When authors do well with indie publishing, it provides some pressure for the big five to offer better pay to compete.

The limited number of publishing venues is a small problem compared to the tiny number of retail outlets for books. By far, most people discover books by visiting bookstores and we only have one major brick-and-mortar retailer in the United States, Barnes and Noble. Shelf space at Barnes and Nobles is limited. It’s not uncommon for me to go into Barnes and Noble and have difficulty finding even current, big name authors with big publishers.

The challenge is how can readers find and support good authors, working through small presses and who self-publish. The usual recommendation is to leave reviews in places like Goodreads and Amazon. This is good, and it’s incredibly helpful.

Some public libraries and local, indie bookstores will host events for authors. I have attended wonderful events at the Branigan Library in Las Cruces and at stores such as Bookmans in Tucson, COAS in Las Cruces, and Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. If your library or bookstore hosts such events, please go and meet the authors. Talk to them, find out if what they write is to your taste. If it is, give their work a try and then follow them online. If it’s not to your taste, please don’t write off small press or self-published authors because of one or two bad experiences. Go to the next event and meet different authors until you find someone you like.

In the genre world, there are science fiction, steampunk and comic conventions. Some of these provide venues for indie authors, either on panels or in the dealer’s room. If you like hearing from indie authors, make sure to send your feedback to the convention committees. If they hear that people like hearing from indie voices as well as the most popular authors, they will often make room for those indie authors.

Indie publishing provides a platform for new and diverse voices. I won’t try to convince you that all those voices will be ones you want to hear or even great voices, which is true of any media. But if you look, you will find the gems. I encourage you to seek out the gems. Leave reviews and visit authors at stores and events. There’s some great stuff out there, just waiting for you to find it.

The Orville

Last week, I watched the first season of Seth MacFarlane’s new series, The Orville, with my daughter who’s home from college. Marketed as a science fiction comedy in the vein of Galaxy Quest, I find that the show is, in many ways, a true successor to Star Trek.

The premise of the show is that Captain Ed Mercer, played by MacFarlane, has just been given command of a mid-size exploratory vessel. To his chagrin, his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki serves as his first officer. Other members of the crew include Lt. Commander Bortus, the Klingon-like second officer from the Planet Moclan, Lt. Alara Kitan, the hyper-strong but young security chief from the planet Xelaya, and Lt. Gordon Malloy, Ed’s wisecracking friend who serves as the ship’s helmsman.

The first couple of episodes focused more on the humor, but as the show progressed it became decidedly more like classic Star Trek exploring themes of gender, religion, and the role of social media in society. It’s even taken on some interesting science fictional ideas such as what exploring other dimensions would mean, our interactions with life forms both more advanced and more primitive, and time travel.

Overall, the show’s exploration of science fiction themes works. This is perhaps no surprise since there’s a strong overlap of production staff not only with some of the Star Trek series, but with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. Although the show keeps its humor low-key, it’s still an integral part of the presentation. It keeps the show light and avoids it taking itself too seriously. That said, my most serious complaint about the show is that its humor is tied very strongly to 21st century pop-culture references. In a show set in the 24th century that is pretty decent at its science fiction, it feels a little jarring. It’s as though me and all my friends were experts in the 1600s and only read books and watched plays from that era. Okay, as an avowed Steampunk there is, perhaps, some feeling of truth in this portrayal, but I think you get what I mean!

I find I don’t always agree with the positions Seth MacFarlane and the producers present in the show, but that’s fine. He presents them in a thoughtful way that doesn’t put me off, which allows me to evaluate my own positions. In fact, he doesn’t always give us easy answers at the end of an episode or imply that what the crew did was the best choice. In this way, The Orville really does what science fiction does best: help us look at our own time with a critical eye.

As it turns out, I don’t have cable. I gave it up as an unneeded luxury back in 2001. I decided to buy the first season of The Orville on iTunes after watching those episodes that were available for free on Fox’s website. I will note that I still haven’t watched Star Trek: Discovery. Here’s the key difference: Fox allowed me to sample some episodes for free (albeit with commercials), and then gave me a means to subscribe to the series for a reasonable cost. CBS All Access, where Discovery runs will only allow me to subscribe to the channel and won’t even let me sample the series without a subscription that includes a whole lot of content I really don’t want. That’s why I gave up cable back in 2001!

I’m currently on Patreon raising funds for my collection of space pirate stories, Firebrandt’s Legacy. Like The Orville, I endeavor to mix some light-hearted humor with good science fiction to provide an entertaining mix. You can read the first story in the collection with absolutely no commitment right here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/chapter-one-for-14391922. If you like what you read, you can subscribe for any amount you like at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. In exchange for your patronage, you get to see each story in the collection as it’s written or reedited. I share behind the scenes information about the stories, and I’ll give you a “thank you” in the finished book.

Dragon’s Fall – On Sale

The ebook edition of my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order is on sale for just 99 cents from today through January 21. This is my novel that tells the origin story of the Scarlet Order vampires.

The novel opens in Hellenistic Athens, when the slave Alexandra is sold to Theron, a mysterious banker who is never seen during the day. As time goes on, she notices that slaves called upon to serve Theron in his chamber at night do not return the next morning. When Alexandra’s turn comes, she learns Theron is a vampire who takes his pleasure with the slaves, then drinks their blood. She refuses to be a victim, but as she fights his embrace, Alexandra ingests some of Theron’s blood and becomes a vampire herself.

Next we meet Desmond, a dragon lord in the service of King Ambrosius in Britain of the year 480. He longs for the king’s daughter, the beautiful Guinevere. However, her heart belongs to the king’s young ally, L’ancelot. When Desmond and his friend Arthur are sent to battle Saxon invaders, Desmond is mortally wounded. He is saved by Wolf, a vampire who is seeks the Holy Grail in hopes that it might bring salvation to their kind. Desmond knows he and Wolf cannot find the Grail alone. He returns to court where he finds that Guinevere is pledged to Arthur but still longs for L’ancelot. Now king, Arthur is anxious to remove L’ancelot from court for a time, so he agrees to Desmond’s request for aid in the search for the Grail cup.

A century later, Desmond’s quest carries him to Constantinople and there he meets Alexandra. He persuades her to join him on his quest and the two fall in love. However, Desmond is unaware that another vampire lurks in the shadows. The mysterious Roquelaure, whose identity is cloaked even from himself, serves the human underworld as an assassin and also loves Alexandra.

Three vampires forge a bond of love and blood. Together, they form a band of mercenaries called the Scarlet Order, and recruit others who are like them. Their mission is to protect kings and emperors against marauders, invaders, and rogue vampires. Their ultimate test, though, comes when they’re hired by none other than Vlad the Impaler.

Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order is available for just 99 cents until January 21 at the following retailers:

Hunting Asteroids

I rang in the new year by helping Robert McMillan, Jim Scotti, and Melissa Brucker from the University of Arizona hunt for potentially hazardous asteroids in our solar system at the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope. This is important work since asteroid impacts are one of the few completely predictable and preventable natural disasters. Here I am at the telescope console.

As it turns out, this observing run was something of a bittersweet milestone. Bob, Jim, and Melissa are the last scheduled visiting observers on the 4-meter. At this point, we have about five more weeks of observing with a scheduled imaging survey program and then the telescope shuts down so it can be refitted with an instrument called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, or DESI. DESI will measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. It will obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a 3-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

So, what about the asteroids? Well, the good news is that there are smaller telescopes on Kitt Peak devoted to the search. The reason Bob, Jim, and Melissa use the 4-meter is that it allows them to look for more distant asteroids on nights when the small telescopes are not as effective. In this case, we were attempting our observations during the full moon. Because the moon is so bright, it’s hard to see faint, distant objects with small telescopes because you need to expose on the sky for a long time. The 4-meter can take shorter exposures and still detect these faint objects without having the skylight swamp the exposures. In the meantime, Bob, Jim, and Melissa have applied for time on other telescopes around the world to do the work they were doing on the Kitt Peak 4-meter.

Often times when I’m involved in these runs, I’m asked if I’ll let people know if something is going to fall on us. Well, if I know, I’ll tell. However, what we often do is identify small objects a long ways away. It’ll usually take more than the observations we get to determine the object’s orbit and find out whether or not it presents a serious hazard.

So what actually happens if we discover an asteroid that might hit the Earth? I found this NASA video that gives a nice explanation. I notice there is also an image credit from my friend Mike Weasner, a talented amateur astronomer who is also a science fiction fan.

If you want to get more of a sense of what life is like behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory, be sure to read my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and get a sneak peak at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

A Look Ahead at 2018

Happy New Year! I hope your 2018 is off to a terrific start.

In my last post, I looked back at some of the highlights of my writing and publishing life from 2017. However, one of the truths of the publishing world is that books take time to write, edit, and publish. The upshot is that many of 2017’s books don’t actually represent work done in 2017. It’s this post, where I look ahead to 2018 that actually represents a lot of the actual work I’ve been doing the past few months.

I spent the last days of 2018 revising book four of my Clockwork Legion steampunk series, Owl Riders. Just a couple of days ago, my editor wrote to tell me he was happy with the latest draft and would give the book a copy edit and then turn it in to Sky Warrior Publishing. While I don’t have a formal release date, the tentative plan is for the novel to come out this spring. Set in 1885, Ramon Morales leaves his home and job in New Orleans to broker peace between the Apaches and white settlers in Southern Arizona. While he’s away, Fatemeh Morales’s past catches up with her and and her one-time betrothed kidnaps her to take her back to Persia.

Now that Owl Riders is moving into the final stages of production, I have my sights set on a couple of science fiction projects. One of those is finishing my collection of space pirate stories, Firebrandt’s Legacy. For now, the project is live on Patreon where you can read the first story for free. For just $1.00 per month, you can see each story as they’re edited into their final form for the book. I say “for now” because Patreon recently announced a change to their fee structure and I know many authors and artists who have expressed their concerns about it. I’m also concerned, but have decided to wait and see how it actually impacts me and those who support me before taking action.

That said, we do have some exciting things planned for this project. Actor Eric Schumacher in Tucson is helping me produce a full-cast audiobook edition of the first Firebrandt’s Legacy story, “For a Job Well Done.” I can’t say much about the audiobook yet, but I’m really excited about some of the talent involved. Once this is finished, we’ll move on to the rest of the book and there will be opportunities for you to help and get some great rewards, so stay tuned!

In addition to Firebrandt’s Legacy, I’ll be releasing a new edition of my novel, The Solar Sea, which tells the story of humanity’s first voyage through the solar system in a solar sail spacecraft. I already have a fantastic cover by Laura Givens and will show that off soon as I finalize plans for the re-release.

If all goes according to plan, these projects will be released, or at least in their final stages, by the middle of the year. What about the second half of the year, you ask? Well, I would like to move on to the second book in my Wilderness of the Dead series, and I’m considering reading for another anthology.

I also have several events planned. I’ll be at Arizona’s Wild Wild West Con and the Tucson Festival of Books this March. I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in April. In May, I plan to do a signing at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans.

In the world of astronomy, the DESI spectrograph will be installed at the Mayall 4-meter telescope. This instrument will be used to map the dark energy distribution of the universe. The NEID spectrograph will be installed at the WIYN telescope and that will be used to support NASA’s extrasolar planetary research.

All in all, 2018 promises to be an exciting year. Of course, I hope it’s exciting in good ways. I hope the world at large finds a little more sanity and our leaders seek peace and work for a world that’s better for all, and not just a select few. As a mid-term election year, I hope the people of the United States will hold the leaders accountable for their actions. In short, I hope we leave this planet better at the end of 2018 than we find it at the beginning. All best wishes for the year ahead.

A Look Back at 2017

2017 has proven another tumultuous year in the United States and around the world. Despite all that and despite my concerns for the future, I find that 2017 was another good year from a personal perspective.

I was pleased to see the release of three new books this year. Technically, my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt was released at the end of 2016, but the paperback edition wasn’t released until January of this year, so I’ll go ahead and count it. In addition to the novel, I released two new anthologies, Kepler’s Cowboys co-edited with Steve B. Howell of NASA and Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales co-edited with Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. You can learn more about my novels and my anthologies at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html

I’m also proud to have stories in three outstanding new anthologies. Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop features my story “Fountains of Blood” in which Larissa Seaton and Billy McCarty from my Clockwork Legion novels find the dark truth behind the 1896 Albert Fountain disappearance. Disharmony of the Spheres edited by J Alan Erwine features a brand new Captain Ellison Firebrandt story about his quest for lost treasure with his father. Finally, Extinct? edited by Dana Bell features my story “Jackson’s Hadrosaurs” in which the Battle of New Orleans is re-imagined in a world of dinosaurs. You can find links to these books and other short stories I’ve written at http://www.davidleesummers.com/shorts.html

I contributed introductions to two books. The first is the wonderful Astropoetry by Christina Sng. I published many of Christina’s poems over the years in Tales of the Talisman magazine and have always marveled at her use of words. As I say in the introduction, “We glimpse a wonder, ponder it for a time, then move on to another. The experience doesn’t diminish with time. Instead, it builds, layer upon layer.” You can find Christina’s fine collection at http://store.albanlake.com/product/astropoetry/

I also edited and wrote the introduction to Legends of the Dragon Cowboys which presents two weird western novellas, one by David B. Riley and the other by Laura Givens. You can learn more about the collection at http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Dragon-Cowboys

My novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves appeared on Audible.com in editions read by Edward Mittelstedt. The timing of these audio releases proved quite fortuitous, because they allowed me to revisit the earliest chapters of the series while plotting out the fourth novel. My editor and I have just finished our work on that novel and I hope to have more news about its release soon. You can explore the entire Clockwork Legion series at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Perhaps the accomplishment I feel most proud of is the production of the short film and trailer based on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, many writers dream of seeing their creations come to life on the screen and I’m no exception. What’s more, this exercise expanded my horizons as I explored screenplay writing and I learned a lot about the movie making process from the wonderful professionals I worked with. Watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ

As we reach the end of 2017, I find I have a lot to be thankful for. Not only for the projects I’ve just mentioned, but my daughters have had good academic success this year and my wife was able to get knee surgery that has improved her mobility considerably. My work at Kitt Peak National Observatory continues to be fulfilling and I’m proud of the work I’ve done helping scientists obtain the data they need to further their understanding of the universe.

Of course, this all begs the question, where do I go from here? I’ll take a look at things to come in Monday’s post.