When Cultures Meet

This week at Kitt Peak National Observatory finds me working with an astronomer logged in and observing from Kyoto, Japan. Meanwhile, on our walkie talkies, we hear French as optical scientists from France work on the new spectrographs at the Mayall Telescope. A favorite memory of working at Kitt Peak involves an astronomer who left the control room at appointed hours to face Mecca and pray. One of the things I enjoy about my “day” job is the way people of different cultures come together to work toward the common goal of understanding the universe around us.

Morning meeting in the Mayall Control Room

At Kitt Peak, our cultural differences allow people to bring different life experiences to the table when solving problems. Language differences can teach us patience as we learn to communicate our goals with members of the same team and who share the same objective. Cultural diversity is also fun as we share our tastes in such things as music, movies, and food.

As someone whose family has lived in the United States since the early days of European colonization, my own culture is defined by a blending of melding of cultural influences from places like Germany, Scotland, and Mexico. Of course, history is replete with examples of people with different cultures having conflicting goals. The results include invasion, forced relocation, and cultural appropriation. There’s more than a little of that in my ancestral background as well on all sides of the issue.

I find the meeting of different cultures inherently fascinating. It forms a big part of my Clockwork Legion books such as The Brazen Shark and Owl Riders. I find it interesting to think what might have been if different cultures met on different terms and perhaps had different perspectives. In science fiction novels such as The Solar Sea, I echo much of what I see at work, people of different cultures coming together for a common goal.

All of this contributed to my excitement when Sheila Hartney proposed assembling an anthology of stories about exchange students to be published by Hadrosaur Productions. There’s a lot of potential for drama as people learn about each other and try to understand each other. Of course, since we publish science fiction and fantasy, Sheila wants to give this anthology a science fictional twist. We want to imagine exchange students coming together from other planets, across time, and across dimensions. Do you have a story of a vampire exchange student staying with a werewolf family? We want to see it? Do you have a story of someone from Earth going to Kepler-22b to study. We want to see it. Do you have a story of an elf studying in dwarven forges? I think you get the idea. The guidelines are at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/ExchangeStudents-gl.html. I hope we’ll see a submission from you.

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

As the year starts, I have the rare treat of being able to visit the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club two months in a row. This month, I visited as a reader. The club’s selection is the fine novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I’ll visit next month because the selection is my own novel, Owl Riders. It’s always a pleasure to visit the club and speak to its members about my books. This rare double visit gets to happen because my work schedule at Kitt Peak had start dates the Monday following each of the meetings.

Set in 1883, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street tells the story of Thaniel Steppleton, a telegraph operator in Britain’s Home Office who returns from work one day to find a watch in his rooms. An alarm on the watch saves him from an Irish bomb planted at Scotland Yard. Curious about the origin of the watch, he goes in search of its maker, who he suspects may be tied to the bombing. The maker is a Japanese watchmaker named Keita Mori. Not only does Mori make watches, but he makes amazing automata such as birds and an octopus named Katsu with randomized gears that make him seem almost alive.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow, an Oxford student who anticipates the Michaelson-Morley experiment and also owns a Mori watch meets Thaniel at a party. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on academic women of her period, but she stands to inherit a house from her aunt if she can find someone to marry. She sets her sights on Thaniel.

The story takes many twists and turns and explores the nature of time, artificial intelligence, and precognition. What’s more, it’s well bounded by actual historical events. The bombing of Scotland Yard actually did happen, as did other significant events in the book. At the steampunk society book club meeting, the question was raised about whether this book was more steampunk or more historical fiction. Using my rough and ready description of steampunk as “Victorian inspired fantasia,” I call it very thoroughly steampunk in its exploration of scientific ideas and even “what ifs” through the lens of a Victorian reality.

Another interesting discussion we had at the book club was about whether or not the novel has an actual villain. Throughout the novel, we’re interested in figuring out who bombed Scotland Yard. Despite that, time itself and the time period are almost presented as greater antagonists than the actual bomber. We also discussed the characters and the characterization in the novel and we came to the insight that at this period of time, many of the people are almost treated as parts of a clockwork machine. All in all, it was a fascinating discussion.

As I say, next month, we’ll be discussing my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders at the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club. If you’re in Tucson, I encourage you to join us. The club meets on the second Sunday of each month at 3:30pm at Antigone Books, located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. The meeting to discuss Owl Riders will be on Sunday, February 10. If you can’t join us, The book club takes video of the meetings and they’re posted to the Society’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/. If you want to learn more about the novel and where to order, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

On the subject of schedules, I have been posting new content to this blog every Monday and Saturday. I’ve decided to make a change and start posting every Tuesday and Saturday. I’m doing this to give more even spacing of the posts each week. Also, because of her schedule, my daughter will start updating her blog every Monday. Even though our audiences aren’t identical, it does allow some more effective cross promotion. You can find my daughter’s blog about her crochet business at http://entropycreations.wordpress.com.

Always Available

It occurs to me that a central theme in many of my stories is communication. Some of my stories are set in the past, well before the advent of modern communication, or they’re set in the distant future, when communication becomes a technical challenge again because of the constraints imposed both by the speed of light and signal degradation over distance. This proves to be an interesting time to write about these challenges, because most of us have some form or another of this device.

Most of us are available to get a call or receive a text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We might be inconvenienced by the occasional dead time during a flight where we’re instructed to turn off our phones to avoid interfering with navigation equipment, but that’s about it.

That said, I work in a world where I’m not so easily available. I work at an observatory with radio telescopes and the spread spectrum signals from cell phones interfere with their observing. So, I’m required to turn off my phone while at work. Because my work shifts require me to be on the mountain for up to six days at a time, I can be out of cell phone contact that whole time. Even observatories without radio telescopes are often in remote mountain areas, out of range of cell service. Because of this, the whole lack of cell service became a plot point in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is a nice feature for a horror novel where you don’t want help to arrive at a moment’s notice.

In my novel The Solar Sea, a valiant crew of explorers take a solar sail to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even on relatively short distances like within the solar system, communication can be a challenge. On average, it takes about 15 minutes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Mars, about 30 minutes for a signal to reach Jupiter, and almost an hour and a half to reach Saturn. This assumes the planets are aligned on the same side of the sun as Earth. Still, imagine having a conversation where you speak and wait 15 minutes for your voice to get to Earth, then wait 15 minutes for a reply. Your messages would be more like voice mails. Or you might resort to something like email or texts for communication, which is what they do in my novel.

Back in the nineteenth century, inventors were working on ways to use electromagnetism to speed up communication. The upshot was the development of the telegraph and then the telephone. I have long found it interesting how delays in news affected events before these inventions, and even before these inventions became widely available. This allows for some fun what-if games when writing steampunk. What if instant communication was available to some? How would people view it in the 19th century. In Lightning Wolves, bounty hunter Larissa Crimson asks Professor Maravilla to devise a way for her lightning wolf corps to communicate as they spread out across San Francisco. He devises something he calls a clacker, essentially a portable, wireless telegraph that acts like a messaging device. Eight years later, in Owl Riders, clackers are much more widespread to Ramon Morales’s chagrin. At one point, he hands his clacker to his wife and pretends he didn’t get a message, an action perhaps not unlike what some of us are tempted to do today when certain texts come in.

Remember, all of these books make great last-minute holiday gifts. You can find these and more at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html.


Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Inca Butterflies

Fantasy and steampunk are genres that have earned reputations of being steeped in European history and culture. However, there is a whole world of historical and magical lore to draw on for exciting fantasy tales. That’s why I was excited back in 2003 when Gary Every approached me about publishing two related novelettes he’d written called “Inca Butterflies” and “The Inca’s Cattle.” At the time, I was publishing the magazine Hadrosaur Tales and I really couldn’t publish stories as long as those Gary presented in the magazine. But I loved them enough that I decided to publish them in a standalone chapbook with cover art by Charles Pitts.

I’ve known Gary through his work for many years. His work appeared in almost every issue of Hadrosaur Tales and Tales of the Talisman Magazine. His career has followed many diverse paths including geology exploration, carpenter, chef, piano player, ditch digger, photographer, freelance writer, dishwasher, soccer coach, and storyteller. His works have been featured in many publications in addition to my magazines. I was honored to meet Gary at his home in Sedona just about ten years ago when he hosted me for a writing workshop at a local bookstore. After the workshop, he took me and my daughter to enjoy a local production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

In the photo above Gary and I are hanging out with my daughters in Sedona. Gary’s non-fiction writing inspired me to explore the wilds of Southern Arizona, which in turn inspired scenes in my second Clockwork Legion novel, Lightning Wolves. Because of that, I dedicated the novel to Gary.

In his stories for my magazines, Gary showed a deep interest in Native American lore. The chapbook I published opens with the story of Incan Emperor Huaina Capec who came of age as Alejo Garcia and his band of mutineers arrived in America carrying a weapon far more devastating than cannons. In the second story, Huaina Capac’s successor, Manco Inca, must lead his remaining people as bearded men from Europe swarm the countryside like butterflies sweeping the plains. Set in the last days of the Inca Empire, Inca Butterflies is a tale for all times.

When the book was released, Kane S. Latranz of the Albuquerque Alibi wrote, “Every is an inventive writer and this chapbook encapsulates the bittersweet truth: Life is a thing of dualities, where the only constant is change.”

Inca Butterflies is a short read and packs a lot of value in a small price. I encourage you to pick up a copy. They’re available at the Hadrosaur Productions website at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Inca-Butterflies

The Greatest Showman

This weekend finds me at Gaslight Expo in San Diego. If you’re in Southern California, I hope you’ll consider dropping by this event at the Town and Country Hotel and check out all the great steampunk festivities. You can get more information at http://www.gaslightexpo.org

Recently, I had the opportunity to see the new musical The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman. I had been looking forward to this for some time. After all, there are few actors like Jackman who have the talent and the presence to be both believable action stars and great musical performers. What’s more, I’ve long been fascinated by P.T. Barnum. In many ways he defined showmanship. He had a complicated relationship with his performance company. It’s easy to dismiss Barnum as someone who exploited the “oddities” who worked for him (and anyone else, for that matter). Yet, if not for Barnum these people arguably would have had far worse lives in nineteenth century New York. What’s more, Barnum was a skeptic who called out people who preyed on others, such as William Mumler, who convinced many grieving people, he could capture the images of the dearly departed in photographs. Barnum showed it was simply a trick done with double exposures.

Overall, I enjoyed the show’s music. I thought the songs and dances were quite well done. Several times in the movie, I felt they were building up to a real confrontation between Barnum and his company, but it seems like the screenwriters sidestepped it and ultimately the company just seemed to rally around Barnum when he was at his lowest. Although I don’t really expect musical theater to be the most historically accurate medium, the musical strayed quite far from the true story. Among other things Barnum never had a partner at the American Museum, there never was a romantic scandal with Jenny Lind (although she did get tired of his constant exploitative marketing of her and left his company), and it took about 30 years from the time he opened his museum in New York until it burned down. The two daughters we saw in the movie would have had time to grow up in the time span portrayed.

When I first heard about The Greatest Showman, I was a little disappointed, though not altogether surprised that they didn’t simply adapt the much more historically accurate, albeit stylized, 1980 musical Barnum to the big screen. I haven’t heard a definitive reason this wasn’t done, though I can make some guesses. First and foremost, I imagine the music in Barnum probably didn’t seem hip enough for a modern movie musical. Even though it was released in 1980, the musical feels much like the musicals of the 50s and the 60s. I’m also guessing there were some rights issues. I gather the musical is still being performed and it just saw a recent revival in London. That said, Barnum makes the point that one could have made a more accurate movie musical than the one that was made.

Of course, one of the things that’s strongly emphasized to those of us who write speculative fiction is that we should do everything we can to allow the reader (or the viewer) to suspend their disbelief of the fantastical elements. For me, the history was less of an issue than the problem of the averted confrontation. That point actually is what made me look closely at the history. (That and not remembering that Barnum had a partner named Carlyle, which he didn’t.) With that in mind, I’ll close out today’s post by recommending two authors who get the history right to the point that they can sell you on a little humbug and pass off some razzmatazz.  They are David B. Riley and Laura Givens. I’ve had the honor of publishing them both together in a book called Legends of the Dragon Cowboys. In the book, you’ll meet Ling Fung, a wandering businessman encounters a Mayan god, crooked enterprises and Yeti, the Abominable Snowman. You’ll also meet Chin Song Ping, a scoundrel, gambler and trouble magnet who has no little P.T. Barnum in him. Why not check out a copy of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys today at: https://www.amazon.com/Legends-Dragon-Cowboys-David-Riley/dp/1885093837

The Midwest Book Review said, ” These two Western novellas are seasoned a dash of exotic adventure, featuring cowboy protagonists who hail from the Far East and pursue their dreams in the tough-as-nails frontier. Riveting from first page to last, Legends of the Dragon Cowboys is enthusiastically recommended for public library collections and connoisseurs of the genre!”

Steampunk Batman

One of the appeals of alternate history and steampunk is the ability to imagine wrongs of the past made right. Of course, one of the most notorious villains of the Victorian age was Jack the Ripper. For me, my first Jack the Ripper tale wasn’t alternate history, but science fiction. It was an episode of Star Trek written by Robert Bloch called “Wolf in the Fold” in which Chief Engineer Scott is accused of committing some very Jack the Ripper-like murders.

One of my earliest exposures to alternate history was the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola. It imagines that Jack the Ripper travels to Gotham City and starts his murder spree again, only to confront Batman. I bought and read the graphic novel soon after it was released in 1989. I was in graduate school at the time and comics were one of the few things I had time to read. It’s hard to call the original Gotham by Gaslight steampunk. The story pretty much limits itself to technology that was well established in the nineteenth century. That said, the artwork reminds me more than a little of Jacques Tardi’s artwork in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Also, it’s worth noting that Robert Bloch, who wrote the Jack the Ripper Star Trek episode, also wrote the graphic novel’s introduction.

Earlier this year, Warner Brothers produced a direct-to-video animated adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight. I knew I wanted to reacquaint myself with this story. I watched it on Netflix and liked it enough, I went out and bought a copy. I discovered Best Buy has a special edition that includes a reprint of the original graphic novel—very cool because that meant I could refresh my memory of the original without damaging my first edition.

As it turns out, the plot of the movie is quite a bit different from that of the graphic novel. This becomes apparent right away when it opens with Pamela Isley (better known to many Batman fans as Poison Ivy) working in a burlesque house and becoming the Ripper’s first murder victim. I have to admit to mixed feelings on this point. One on hand, it feels a bit like a betrayal of character to make Pamela a victim. On the other, it establishes right away that you can’t take your expectations of certain characters for granted and that does pay off as the movie progresses.

It’s pointed out in the commentary that the graphic novel was only 40 pages long and that doesn’t really provide enough material to fill out a 70-minute movie. What I like is that they didn’t add stuff just to add stuff. They fleshed out the mystery and we got to see my favorite aspect of Batman—we got to see him working as a detective, hunting for clues and actually figuring out who the Ripper is.

They also made it more steampunk than the original, but it’s not a gratuitous addition of gadgets. Instead, they added a World’s Fair, which was very much a showpiece of technology at the time, and they gave the police an airship. This latter works because in Batman: The Animated Series the police are shown as having airships, so it was great to see that idea explored in this alternate history version. They also gave Batman a couple of steampowered gadgets. Of course, Batman always needs cutting-edge technology in his work.

There’s great voice acting in the movie with Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Anthony Head as Alfred the Butler, and Jennifer Carpenter as Selina Kyle. The DVD’s special features are pretty much teasers for other DC/Warner film projects, but the Blu Ray includes a couple of bonus Batman cartoons, a commentary and a making-of featurette. All in all, this ended up being one of my favorite adaptations of a DC comic book. It seems like the makers of the live-action DC movies could learn a thing or two from the animation department.

Of course, if you’re in a steampunk mood, you should check out my Clockwork Legion series. I have plenty of airships to go around, plus there’s even the New Orleans World Cotton Exposition in the fourth book—one of the original World’s Fairs. You can learn more about the series by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion. If you’re in Las Cruces, I’m signing copies this morning at COAS Books downtown from 10 until noon. If you miss that, I’ll be at Branigan Library tomorrow from 2 until 4pm.