Blood Communion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reassembling the Mayall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sandman Mystery Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

See You Space Cowboy…

Last week, NASA announced that after nine years of service, the Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be switched off. It’s in an orbit around the sun, far from Earth. To date, it has been credited with the discovery of some 2,681 planets outside our solar system from both the Kepler and K2 missions. The K2 mission was the follow-up that happened after two of Kepler’s reaction wheels failed and it could no longer point at its target field. There are 2,780 candidate planets still to be checked with ground based observations, so Kepler’s total discovery count will likely increase even now that Kepler is off line. Among the planets Kepler has discovered include numerous Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting their stars in mere hours, many ice giant worlds like Uranus and Neptune, and there are some 361 candidate and confirmed planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

Earlier this year, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched. Whereas Kepler was designed to monitor one part of the sky and see how many planets it could find, TESS is designed to survey the stars nearest to the Earth. TESS has already its announced its first exoplanet discoveries.

Steve Howell observing at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, confirming Kepler discoveries.

At Kitt Peak, I work at the Mayall and WIYN telescopes, which are involved in confirming exoplanets. WIYN’s telescope scientist was Dr. Steve Howell when I started working at Kitt Peak eleven years ago. Steve since moved on to become Kepler’s Project Scientist and now serves as the head of the astronomy and astrobiology section at Ames Spaceflight Center which serves as the center of Kepler and TESS operations. One night while observing Kepler targets we began to talk about how Mars became more of a place in people’s imaginations after it started appearing in the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so we hatched plans to compile an anthology of stories set on Kepler worlds.

Our first anthology was A Kepler’s Dozen, which collected action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Authors like Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine imagined stories set in places like a prison colony, or escaping from the authorities, or encircling a binary star. We collected thirteen stories in all. We also included facts about each of the planets written about in the anthology. You can learn more about the anthology at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.htmlAlso at the page is a link to a press release by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory that gives more background about the Kepler telescope and Kitt Peak’s role in confirming discoveries.

This anthology has done well and Kepler’s success continued, so we decided to compile a second anthology. The follow up was Kepler’s Cowboys, which imagined the space cowboys and cowgirls who would visit the worlds discovered by Kepler. In this anthology, we encouage you to saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. You’ll meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. You’ll fight for justice in a lawless frontier. You can go on a quest for a few dollars more. We wanted an exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology. This one included fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, and L.J. Bonham. You can learn more about this anthology at:  http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

Kepler has had a great run and it’s sad to see it reach the end of it’s life. Still, I think we could fill many more anthologies with stories about its planets and that’s even before we do any anthologies featuring discoveries by TESS. While you’re waiting, you can check out my space pirate story collection Firebrandt’s Legacy, which not only visits a couple of Kepler planets, but several other possible worlds out in the galaxy. You can learn more about that project at my Patreon page: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

October Adventures Continue

In my last post, I shared some of my adventures traveling around the country this month. Admittedly, a travelogue may seem a little out of place for a post appearing just two days before Halloween, but I’ll share a book at the end to put you in the spirit of the season and it’s even a quick read.

I left Kansas City on the train on Sunday night, October 14. By the time I woke up on Monday morning, the ground was covered in snow. I like traveling by train when I can. It’s a great way to see the countryside and although it takes longer than traveling by plane, it feels much more civilized. I enjoy flying, but the hassle of crowds, airport security, and flights filled to the brim take away much of the fun. Besides, my grandfather, dad, and brother all worked on the railroad, so I feel a certain family connection when I travel by rail.

I met my wife in Albuquerque where she brought my faithful Smart Car in for a service. We then drove down to Las Cruces with a brief stop in Socorro for some chicken mole enchiladas. For me, chocolate and chile come together to form the ultimate comfort food. After a four-hour sleep, I then drove to Tucson for a daytime shift at Kitt Peak where we’re continuing to refit the Mayall 4-meter for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Survey.

After three days on the mountain, I gritted my teeth for another short sleep, got up early in the morning to drive to the airport where I caught a plane for Denver, Colorado. There, I celebrated MileHiCon 50. The highlight of the event was that every living convention guest was invited back as a guest. Here you see them assembled at opening ceremonies.

MileHiCon is always a special for me because I get to connect with so many people I’ve worked with over the years. These include Bob Vardeman who was one of the honored guests and who created the Empires of Steam and Rust Series,  David B. Riley one of the co-authors of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys, J Alan Erwine and Carol Hightshoe who have edited many anthologies I’ve been in and who appeared in A Kepler’s Dozen. Denver is also home to Laura Givens, the talented artist who has done many of my covers, and also the co-author of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys.

A particular high point of MileHiCon was the annual poetry reading. This year it was moderated by Stace Johnson. Ronnie Seagren joined us and read poems by several different people. Sadly, Gail Barton, a staple of past MileHiCon poetry readings had passed away, but I was fortunate enough to have a copy of the poetry journal she often handed out at the event, which allowed me to share some of her poems. It was lovely to have her voice at the event at least one more time.

Once MileHiCon was finished, I returned to Kitt Peak to continue work on the DESI spectrograph. This time, I helped a team from Ohio State University build the racks that will hold the spectrographs themselves once they all arrive. I have to admit, building the racks was a process not unlike assembling a piece of Ikea furniture!

At last, I am back home for Halloween. I’m turning my attention to some editorial projects, including a new novella from David B. Riley and two great books from Greg Ballan. In my off hours, I’m reading some spooky comic books and watching a few hair-raising films.

If you’re looking for something good to read between trick-or-treaters on Wednesday night, may I recommend the collection Blood Sampler? This book collects thirty-five vampire flash fiction stories written by Lee Clark Zumpe and me. The cover is by Laura Givens and the book features interior illustrations by Marge Simon. Chris Paige, writing for the fan newspaper ConNotations in Arizona said, “If you like vampire stories, this may be the best seven dollars you can spend.” Admittedly the new edition of the paperback went up to $8.00, but the ebook is only $4.00. You can learn how to get your claws on a copy by visiting  http://www.davidleesummers.com/Blood-Sampler.html

October on the Road

This has proven to be a busy travel month for me. Given that I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, this says a lot. Fortunately, I don’t have to make that commute daily. I have a residence at the observatory and I typically work for six nights, then have nine nights off. My work nights at Kitt Peak average right around 13-14 hours, which is how this works as a full-time job. To make this month’s travel work, I took four nights of vacation time.

My month started on October 1 with a drive from Las Cruces to Tucson for a writing session with a friend. From his house, I drove up to Kitt Peak and worked two nights at the WIYN telescope helping an observer from Indiana University view old galaxies before lots of metals formed to see how they fit into the scheme of galactic evolution. Once those two nights were finished, I drove to San Diego for the Gaslight Steampunk Exposition. On the first morning of the exposition, I had the honor of meeting in person a fellow who already felt like a friend from our online correspondence, Jack Tyler, author of a wonderful steampunk adventure set in Africa called Beyond the Rails and its two sequels.

Jack founded a group called the Scribbler’s Den at a now defunct site called The Steampunk Empire. The group has now been moved to the website Welcome to Steampunk. The group has connected me to many writers around the North America, and even around the world! Not only do we talk about writing, but we’ve produced two anthologies, Den of Antiquity and Denizens of Steam. Also, it’s directly because of connections I made in the group that I learned about the spooky Victorian anthology DeadSteam edited by Bryce Raffle. Jack continues to promote quality Indie books and shares his recommendations every Thursday at his blog: https://blimprider.com/

Another highlight of Gaslight Expo was getting to spend time visiting with Hugo-winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge. I’m a fan of his novels A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. We had a panel discussing the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine designed by Charles Babbage. In addition to writing, Vinge is a retired computer science professor from San Diego State University and I had the privilege of speaking with him about the topic for over an hour outside of the panel as well as the hour on the panel itself.

Of course, the convention as a whole was a delight. William Ball, who works with me at Kitt Peak also traveled to the event. Here you see him in a stylish vest decorated with armillary spheres. I was delighted to attend Hal Astell’s Apocalypse Later festival that showed many indie steampunk short films. Also, I got to see Madeleine Holly-Rosing, creator of The Boston Metaphysical Society comic and related novels. This only touches the surface, but I had a delightful time.

From Gaslight Expo, I drove back to Las Cruces, spent one night at home, then went out to vote on the first day of early voting. After that, my daughter and I picked up the U-Haul she’d packed and drove it to Kansas City where she had a job waiting. This was my first visit to Kansas City, so it was a bit of an adventure finding our way around. We spent our first two nights in a motel, but quickly secured a nice apartment for my daughter. After that, we were able to take a little time to explore the city. Fortunately, Dayton Ward, one of my co-editors on the anthology Maximum Velocity lives in the area and graciously agreed to meet us downtown one day for a visit. Dayton is a talented author in his own right with numerous Star Trek novels under his belt. He took this photo of me and my daughter at the Arabia Steamboat museum.

We’re about halfway through the month’s adventures, so I’ll break it off here. Come back on Monday for more planes, trains, and automobiles as I return to Tucson to work on the DESI spectrograph and then go to Denver to help MileHiCon celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.

DeadSteam Trailer

Two weeks from today, on October 1, Grimmer and Grimmer Books will release its dreadpunk anthology DeadSteam. The term dreadpunk refers to Gothic inspired horror and fantasy, often with something of a steampunk flavor. The TV series Penny Dreadful was a good example.

As for the book itself? Reader beware: to open this tome is to invite dread into your heart. Every page you turn will bring you closer to something wicked. And when the dead begin to rise from the steaming pits of hell, only then will you discover that it is already too late. Your life is forfeit.

Featuring an introduction by Leanna Renee Hieber, author of The Eterna Files and Strangely Beautiful saga, DeadSteam plays host to the scintillating writing of Jen Ponce (The Bazaar, Demon’s Cradle), Wendy Nikel (The Continuum), Karen J Carlisle (The Adventures of Viola Stewart), Jonah Buck (Carrion Safari), and more…

With seventeen chilling tales of dreadpunk, gaslamp, and dark steampunk, DeadSteam will leave you tearing at the pages, desperate for more. For within these pages, the dead rise from their graves to haunt the London Underground, witches whisper their incantations to the wind, a sisterhood of bitten necks hunts fog-drenched alleyways lit only by gaslight, and only one thing is certain: that dread will follow you until you turn that final page.

And that sinking feeling in the pit of your chest? That fear that something is following you, watching you, hunting you? It is not for nothing. Look over your shoulder, dear reader. Watch behind you. Listen to the whispers in the darkness.

But know this … it is all inevitable.

I’m excited that my story, “A Specter in the Light,” is part of this anthology. The story was first published in the anthology Six-Guns Straight to Hell, which has been out of print for five years now. So if you missed the story in its first incarnation, be sure to catch it in this new volume. It’s a truly chilling tale of mining engineers using a Tesla coil to bring light to a mine, only to reveal an ancient horror.

If this has not been enough to tantalize your interest in the anthology, editor Bryce Raffle has debuted the book’s trailer today. Take a look:

I think this will make a great book for getting into the Halloween spirit. What’s more, you don’t have to wait to order. It can be preordered from major retailer’s right now. If you’re a book collector and prefer your books in hardcover, they can accommodate that as well! Drop over to https://deadsteam.wordpress.com/pre-order/ and order your copy today so you can have your copy right at the beginning of October. While you’re at the site, be sure to visit the blog links and read interviews with the authors, including yours truly!