Music for the Journey

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve started evaluating my revisions of The Pirates of Sufiro and deciding whether or not it’s ready for publication as is, or whether I should take the book through another round of edits. As I mentioned in the last post, The Pirates of Sufiro tells the story of a planet founded by pirates and their conflict with even more unscrupulous people. I’ve also come to realize that The Pirates of Sufiro serves as a bridge, showing how a pirate captain like Ellison Firebrandt guided the next two generations into becoming heroes who would save the galaxy.

The first part of this process is making sure characters like Ellison Firebrandt, Carter Roberts, and Suki Mori are true to the characters I envisioned in Firebrandt’s Legacy. I also reread the next two books in the series, Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth, to make sure I believe that Fire Ellis, daughter of Ellison Firebrandt, and her son, John Mark Ellis, are where they need to be. Of the two, I think Fire will need the most help in Pirates while John Mark needs a little more work in Children of the Old Stars.

The good news of my reading adventure is that while it looks like I’ll be spending a little more time rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro than I originally expected, the rewrites of Children and Heirs will probably go a bit quicker than I initially expected. In fact, I’m thinking once Pirates is released, it’ll only take about two or three months to finish the new editions of the next two books.

To elaborate a bit on the issue of character consistency, one element of the story that becomes increasingly important as the series progresses is that John Mark Ellis comes from Nantucket. He has a connection with the sea and has even become acquainted with Earth’s whales as intelligent beings. I think there’s enough connection with Nantucket and the whales in Pirates that these things don’t come out of the blue. Nantucket takes on greater importance in Children of the Old Stars.

Despite that, there’s a scene where a character looks into Ellis’s mind and sees a castle on the Scottish moors. I wrote that because I imagined Ellis’s ancestors as Scottish, but it doesn’t really serve a story point or fit Ellis’s self image. In the new edition, look for him to be sheltered in a light house against a raging sea. In another scene in Children of the Old Stars, I imagine Ellis humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I did this at a point where he reaches an important decision and it happens because Ulysses S. Grant was an early inspiration for the character and I wanted that Civil War connection. The problem is that Ellis himself wouldn’t see that connection. He would actually sing songs related to Nantucket and whaling. This led me on a quest to find such songs. During the search, I discovered a wonderful musician and educator named David Coffin based in Boston. He has an album called David Coffin and the Nantucket Sleighride which includes songs just like the ones I was looking for. I even discovered that one of the old songs from circa 1820 fits the mood of the scene I was looking for very well. What’s more, his old songs are great for getting me in the mood to write scenes with Ellis. If you want to learn more about David, his website is: http://www.davidcoffin.com. His albums are available on Amazon and iTunes and I highly recommend them if you want to learn more about sea chanteys and early American music.

Why Pirates?

During a quiet moment at 2018’s MileHiCon, author Jane Lindskold and I sat down and had a nice conversation. In that conversation she asked why an apparently law-abiding, nice person like me would be interested in writing about pirates. After all, I’ve not only written about space pirates, but I’ve written about airship pirates in my steampunk fiction, and pirates have appeared in my vampire fiction. The drug traffickers in The Astronomer’s Crypt could also be seen as pirates of a sort. I have a two-part answer to the question. One part is related to story potential and the other is more personal.

To summarize the United Nations definition of piracy, it is a criminal act of violence, detention or depredation committed by the crew or passengers of a ship or aircraft directed against another ship or aircraft—or directed against a ship, aircraft, persons or property outside the jurisdiction of a country.  Apply that idea to any vessel that is either in space or operating on a distant world, and you open up tremendous story potential.

In fact, when I first wrote my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, the working title was simply Sufiro. The novel really is about the history of a planet founded by pirates, the disaffected people who follow, and the unscrupulous people who find resources on the world they can exploit. I added “Pirates” to the title because the planet is not only founded by pirates, but those unscrupulous people who come later are committing acts of violence, detention and depredation against their fellows outside the jurisdiction of a country. In a very real way, they are even more piratical than the story’s avowed pirates.

On a more personal level, pirates stir the imagination despite the fact that they steal from others to make a living and often murder to do so. If you look into the history of piracy—particularly during piracy’s “golden age” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—you find that discipline on military and legitimate trading vessels was brutal and crews were paid almost nothing. On pirate ships, the crews had more of a voice in how things were run and the booty was split more evenly.

Today, in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a world where companies monitor our e-mails and website usage. People can be fired for saying the wrong thing in the heat of the moment. In point of fact, the corporate world of today has nothing on the day when you could be flogged to within an inch of your life for a perceived insult. Still, the idea of setting out to sea or the stars with no one watching your every move and not having to watch your every word does have a certain appeal.

In Leiji Matsumoto’s famous Captain Harlock anime series and manga, the titular pirate captain fights under the skull and crossbones flag because it’s a symbol that one should fight to the death for freedom and that one shouldn’t be subject to corrupt and decadent governments. I wrote The Pirates of Sufiro before I got to know Harlock as any more than a cameo character in Galaxy Express 999, but the idea does capture some of what I tried to capture in my novel.

As it turns out, The Pirates of Sufiro was the first novel I ever wrote and I think it’s fair to say the idea was more ambitious than my skills were ready for almost twenty-five years ago. I’ve been spending much of the last year revising The Pirates of Sufiro for a new edition. I think I’ve made it much better, but I’m in the process of taking a good hard look and deciding whether or not I’ve succeeded in making it the book I want it to be. Much of that is making sure the characters are true to themselves as they developed in the books I wrote after Pirates.

You can help me in my quest to make The Pirates of Sufiro the book it should be by joining my Patreon campaign. My fix-up novel Firebrandt’s Legacy may be read in its entirety. Also, you can read the last published edition of The Pirates of Sufiro and the draft as it stands now. It’s likely there will be even one more draft before the book is published. Once it is published, I’ll give download codes for all the novels in the Space Pirates’ Legacy universe that are in print: The Solar Sea, Firebrandt’s Legacy, and The Pirates of Sufiro. Of course, I love to hear feedback from my patrons and it’s a great way to weigh in on what you think of the books. You can become a patron for just $1.00 a month. To learn more, click the button below. It’s time for some piracy!

Christmas in Space

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the first celebration of Christmas in space. This happened during the Apollo 8 mission commanded by Frank Borman with James Lovell Jr. serving as command module pilot and William Anders serving as lunar module pilot. On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 entered orbit around the Moon. During the mission, they took the famous Earthrise photo, showing the Earth rising over the Lunar horizon. Ten hours later, they took turns during a transmission to Earth to read the opening verses of Genesis. Borman concluded the transmission by saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” During a transmission four hours later, James Lovell reported, “Please be informed there IS a Santa Claus.”

Image credit: NASA

After he retired from NASA, Borman lived for a time to Las Cruces, New Mexico and was still living there when I moved to town in 1995.

In December 1993, Mission Specialist Jeffrey Hoffman celebrated Hanukkah on the Space Shuttle Discovery. He brought a dreidel and a travel menorah and spoke about Hanukkah during a live television broadcast. During the mission, the shuttle captured the Hubble Space Telescope, brought it into the shuttle bay and performed a full service of the instrument over the course of five space walks.

Although we have never achieved the science fictional promise of cities in space, we have achieved more regular habitation of space in the years since Apollo 8 through the International Space Station. Christmas is regularly celebrated there and its fun to see stockings hung on the station and astronauts with fuzzy, red hats. That said, Americans aren’t the only crew members. Russians who serve aboard the ISS often emphasize New Year celebrations over Christmas. When they do celebrate Christmas, many celebrate Orthodox Christmas in January.

When I wrote my novel The Solar Sea, it seemed only natural that people would make an effort to celebrate those holidays that were special to them. December arrives as the solar sail Aristarchus travels to Mars. The character Vanda Berko finds special meaning in the menorah’s light while traveling through the darkness of space. The ship’s cook brings a small tree aboard the ship and the crew decorate it and sing carols on Christmas morning.

James Lovell, the astronaut who declared “there IS a Santa Claus” on Apollo 8 would go on to become commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13. When the Aristarchus crew gets into trouble, they cheer themselves by remembering that dire as that early mission was, Lovell helped to bring the crew home safely.

You can learn more about The Solar Sea and found out how to get your own copy by visiting http://www.zianet.com/dsummers/solar_sea.html

Tesla: Man Out of Time

My brother sent me an early birthday present this year, a copy of Margaret Cheney’s biography of Nikola Tesla called Tesla: Man Out of Time. Nikola Tesla is something of a steampunk icon and his work has fascinated me ever since I saw my first Tesla coil at the Griffith Park Observatory on a family outing when I was a child. I would actually take a crack at building a Tesla coil as an electronics club project in college. The two experiences helped to inspire my story “A Specter in the Light,” which appears in the anthology DeadSteam. The title is a link and will take you to the Amazon page where you can get your own copy of the anthology. I’ve even written a story where I imagine Tesla’s research in Colorado Springs led him to learn more about Mars than is widely known. That story appeared in the All-Martian Spectacular issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine, which appears to be out of print.

In the real world, Tesla was interested in the propagation of electromagnetic waves. He’s directly responsible for all of our buildings being wired with AC plugs. His patents also led directly to the invention of radio. He pioneered the development of remote control vehicles for defensive purposes. In particular, he experimented on remote-control ships and submarines, but one can easily see how these anticipate the remote-control military aircraft of today. He provided light to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which helped expand the acceptance of electric lighting.

Tesla was also a charismatic visionary who had more ideas than he could possibly test. Because of this, he attracted such luminaries to his circle as Mark Twain and science fiction pioneer, Hugo Gernsback. In her biography, Cheney fills in details of Tesla’s youth in Serbia, his education around Europe, and his immigration to the United States where he briefly worked for Thomas Edison, but found a longtime ally in George Westinghouse. She paints a picture of Tesla as a dapper man who always wore fine clothes and was meticulous in his appearance. She also discusses his love of pigeons, which he fed regularly and kept at his rooms in New York.

Cheney’s book filled in many details I didn’t know about Tesla, such as how he lived much of his adult life in New York City hotel rooms and his friendship with the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine. Cheney also discusses Tesla’s love of Serbian poetry. I’ve long been fascinated by his brief foray to Colorado Springs where he conducted large-scale experiments he couldn’t conduct in the city and she gives good information about that time period. What’s more, the book pointed out an amusing connection with Tesla and my own writing I hadn’t know about. In my first steampunk story, “The Slayers,” I created a character named Rado, who was meant as a tribute to Ray Douglas Bradbury. However, Tesla had a friend who was a professor at New York University known as Dr. Rado.

As it turns out, not all of Tesla’s ideas seem like good ones. As an astronomer, I found his notion of charging the entire sky so it’s never dark at night to be particularly horrifying. Admittedly, Tesla was thinking about nighttime urban safety, but I’ve long felt that humans need the night and the stars to be able to dream of better futures, including the kind of future Tesla wanted to build.

If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla, I recommend Marget Cheney’s Tesla: A Man Out of Time. There’s a lot of good information and it was a breezy, compelling read.

Peter and Wendy

I suspect I’m like most people in that I am most familiar with the story of Peter Pan as told in the 1953 Disney film. The film is based on a 1904 play of the same name by J.M. Barrie. The play’s author novelized the play as Peter and Wendy in 1911. As it turns out, the first motion picture novelizations appeared around this time. The upshot is that Peter and Wendy is probably one of the most enduring novelizations ever written.

To be honest, Peter Pan is not my favorite Disney film. Peter always seemed like a bit of a jerk and while Hollywood in general was not known for its cultural sensitivity in the 1950s, the song “What Made the Red Man Red” is a low point in racist portrayals of Native Americans. Still, there’s a lot I feel like I ought to like about Peter Pan. It’s the story of kids who don’t want to lose their imagination by growing up, which is a theme that appeals to me a lot as a writer of imaginative fiction. Also, Captain Hook and his crew are among the most iconic pirates in fiction, which should appeal to me as a writer of pirate fiction. Of course, the Disney film does have its good points. I love its portrayal of Tinker Bell and I feel the movie actually improved a bit on Barrie by changing the location of the Neverland from “first to the right and straight on till morning” to “first star to the right and straight on till morning.”

So, I sought out Peter and Wendy. It’s probably no surprise that I liked the book more than the movie, even if the movie was made by Walt Disney. The Native Americans in the book are still stereotypes, but it’s easier to see how they were connected to the Native Americans of the period’s dime novels and would be the ones kids would see in their imaginations. The pirates were wicked and wonderful. Mr. and Mrs. Darling show a lot of love and concern for their children. The biggest surprise, though, was the relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy Darling.

In the novel, Wendy shows affection for Peter, but Peter doesn’t quite understand that affection and doesn’t how to return it. Peter describes himself as “gay and innocent and heartless.” Although I’m no expert on J.M. Barrie, this takes on an interesting added dimension when I read that he was likely asexual. A lot about Peter Pan and his relationship with Wendy feels like the author trying to come to terms with a kind of relationship he didn’t completely understand.

My favorite element of the story is the emphasis on holding onto the imagination and the importance of storytelling. After all, the reason Peter brings Wendy to the Neverland is so she can serve as a storyteller to the Lost Boys. Ultimately, it’s Wendy the storyteller who brings the Lost Boys back from the Neverland to grow to adulthood under the care of her parents. In this way, Peter and Wendy reminds us that we shouldn’t forsake our imaginations and the stories of our youth because they can be a way to help us understand and process the reality around us.

I encourage you to join me on adventures to lands near and far. You’ll likely even find a few pirates along the way. You can learn more about my fiction at http://www.davidleesummers.com.

The Inevitable Cycle Revisited

This past summer, I paid a return visit to one of my favorite places, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In light of that visit, I thought I’d revisit a post I originally wrote for my Scarlet Order Journal three years ago on the occasion of another visit and share some new photos. Lowell Observatory is famous as the site where Percival Lowell observed Mars for many years, recording his observations of the canals he—and most mainstream scientists of the day—believed they saw. It’s also the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Of course, in mythology, Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld and a figure closely associated with the spirits of the dead. Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill is also the site of Percival Lowell’s Crypt. The photo here is from my 2019 visit.

If you look carefully at the tomb, there is an epigraph, to the right of the door. It reads, in part, “Everything around this Earth we see is subject to one inevitable cycle of birth, growth, decay … nothing begins but comes at last to an end … though our own lives are too busy to mark the slow nearing to that eventual goal …” The words on this astronomer’s crypt go a long way to explaining what draws me to horror. Birth, growth, and decay are not only inevitable, but all can be frightening. Horror provides a mechanism for taking a look at the things that frighten us and getting a handle on them.

The epigraph continues: “Today what we already know is helping to comprehension of another world. In a not distant future we shall be repaid with interest and what that other world shall have taught us will redound to a better knowledge of our own and of the cosmos of which the two form a part.” The quote comes from Percival Lowell’s book, The Evolution of Worlds. Horror might be scary, but it reminds me that humans can overcome even the worst terrors to accomplish great things. In fiction that can be defeating a villain or a monster. In real life, we might conquer our fears to expand the borders of human understanding.

Right next to Lowell’s crypt is the telescope where he observed Mars for many years. This year, we arrived on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was my second opportunity to go in, and see the telescope. I got to ask questions about the building, the original clock drive and whether the original f-stop is still on the telescope. My daughter even had a chance to move the dome around. They had a public night scheduled, but our schedule didn’t allow us to return. Back in 2016, we were able to visit at night and we had a terrific view of Saturn. We could see resolution in the clouds and the rings were sharp and beautiful. If the ghost of Percival Lowell wanders the observatory grounds, I suspect he’s proud of the job the people there do of giving the public a glimpse at the universe, which can be at once scary and beautiful.

I hope my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt scares you when you read it. I also hope you’ll see how people overcome fear and accomplish great things. Even though I hope to show you scary things in that novel, I also hope to show you some of the beauty that this universe and the people who inhabit it possess.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is on sale for just 99 cents this month of October 2019. You can get copies at:

Gaslight Steampunk Expo 2019

Next weekend, from Friday, September 26, 2019 through Sunday, September 28, 2019, I will be giving presentations and I will be on panels at the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California, being held at the Mission Valley Mariott Hotel. The guests of honor are author Gail Carriger, Madame Askew, and the Grand Arbiter. The theme for the weekend is Ancient Egypt Steampunk Style! You can get all the details about the convention at http://www.gaslightexpo.org/. My schedule for the weekend is as follows:

Friday September 26

6:00PM-7:00PM – Salon C Astronomy in the Victorian Age: Many tools of the trade that make modern astronomy possible were developed around the world during the Victorian Era. In this presentation, I will introduce you to many of the women and men who transformed astronomy from simple stargazing to a disciplined scientific pursuit and how their technical and scientific achievements still impact us today.

Saturday, September 27

10:00AM-11:30AM – Salon C Evolution of Steampunk Literature:  Hear how steampunk literature has changed over the last 60 years as both readers and writers look for new definitions. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.

2:00PM-3:00PM – David Lee Summers Autograph Session – Autograph Table in the Vendor Hall

5:00PM-6:00PM – Salon B Mars In the Victorian Age: During the Victorian Era, observations transformed Mars from a reddish light in the sky to an exotic desert planet people might visit one day. At a time the Suez Canal was considered the height of engineering prowess, astronomers saw a planet of canal builders. I look at the observations of Mars in nineteenth century, what we learned, and how careful astronomers were misled by their worldview to see the Martians they wanted to see.

Sunday, September 28

10:00AM-10:45AM – Salon B Reading  of “The Sun Worshippers” by David Lee Summers: A spiritualist is invited to a Victorian mummy unwrapping party hosted by skeptical scientists. What could possibly go wrong when the mummy wakes? I read my story from the anthology After Punk.

11:00AM-12:00PM – Salon B Worldbuilding: As genre writers, we need to create the world that our characters live in. Sometimes it’s similar to our own, while other times it is vastly different. In this panel, we will discuss the nuts and bolts of world building. Does it start with your character or with your story? And does it need a “universal truth” to anchor it and make the unbelievable, believable. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.


If you find yourself in San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Steampunk Expo!