Dracul

Last month, I was invited to join the Vampyre Library Book Club hosted by Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. The first featured selection was the novel Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker. Dacre Stoker is the great grandnephew of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and the manager of the Bram Stoker estate.

Dracul

The novel Dracul imagines that Bram Stoker was inspired to write his most famous novel by events from his life. It’s known that Bram was a rather sickly child and there were fears he wouldn’t survive to adulthood. Instead, Bram suddenly became very healthy and, in fact, became an outstanding athlete at Dublin’s Trinity College. In Dracul, the authors imagine this happened because the Stoker family nanny was a vampire. After she saves Bram’s life, the nanny, Ellen Crone, disappears. Bram and his sister Matilda follow Ellen to nearby Artane Castle where they find a box of putrid earth. An arm rests in the dirt. On its finger is a ring bearing the inscription, “Dracul.”

The story follows Bram, Matilda, and their brother Thornley as they attempt to solve the mystery of Ellen Crone and “Dracul.” They reach a dead end as children but the mystery returns to haunt them in their 20s and they find more clues, which then lead them to a climactic encounter inspired by Bram’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” In the afterword, Dacre shares how he has come to know that “Dracula’s Guest” was actually part of the first 100 pages of Dracula excised before publication. I found Dracul to be a thrilling and suspenseful novel and I was delighted to read Dacre’s afterword that explained several of the real life and literary inspirations.

In the afterword, Dacre discusses some of the controversy surrounding the inspiration of the character of Dracula. It’s often taken for granted that Stoker used Wallachia’s Vlad III as the inspiration for his vampire. As Dacre points out, that’s not at all a given and he argues that Bram had in mind a creature who had been living from a time much before the fifteenth century. I found this interesting. Although it has been a while since I read Dracula, I do recall noting that Bram shrouded the origins of the title character in mystery.

Dragon’s Fall

It was partly because of that and partly because my favorite screen Dracula is Christopher Lee, that I decided to explore the idea that the Dracula legend came about because people conflated an ancient vampire with Vlad III. The names Dracul and Dracula come from “the order of the dragon” a chivalric order of knights who fought to defend Christendom. This particular order was founded in 1408 by Sigismund von Luxembourg who was then the King of Hungary. However, there are other knights through the centuries who used dragons as emblems or titles and I imagined the “real” Dracula might be one of them. You can learn the full story of my version in my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires. You can find all the places its available at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html. You can find signed copies of Dracul at: https://feelthebite.com/

Tombstone Rashomon

I’ve been waiting for the DVD release of Tombstone Rashomon ever since I first heard about the movie, which was during its production. The movie stars my friend Eric Schumacher as Doc Holliday. It’s directed by Alex Cox, who directed Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, and tells the story of the infamous gunfight outside Tombstone’s OK Corral from the perspective of several of the participants in a style similar to Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon.

The gunfight at OK Corral is a tale worthy of a Rashomon-like treatment. It’s a difficult historical moment to understand because the people involved were tangled in so many ways. It wasn’t as simple as the Clantons vs. the Earps as many filmed versions would have you believe. Both sides had dealings that seem both shady and noble, and self-interests muddied up the lines of who was on what side at various points leading up to the affair. I researched the Earps and the Clantons quite a bit for my novels Lightning Wolves and Owl Riders. When I wrote Lightning Wolves and decided the Clantons needed to be part of it, I knew I was writing a period of history before the arrival of the Earps and Doc Holliday. So, my research focused on the family and their allies in the days before Tombstone’s founding. The events set up in that novel prevented Tombstone’s founding, which meant the two factions never came together and the gunfight never happened, but that didn’t prevent Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday from seeing business opportunities in Arizona Territory in Owl Riders. Eric’s research into Doc’s character for Tombstone Rashomon helped inform my portrayal of Doc.

The movie imagines that time travelers arrive in Tombstone the day after the gunfight. They interview Doc Holliday and his girlfriend, Kate Elder, along with Wyatt Earp, Sheriff John Behan, Ike Clanton, and a saloon owner named Hafford. I especially enjoyed Christine Doidge’s performance as Kate. In real life Kate was a Hungarian immigrant and Doidge played up that aspect. In Hungarian, there are not separate words for “he” and “she” and Kate gets flustered and often just uses “she” for both. Kate also seems to relish how this bothers people and refers to Doc as her “wife” even though there are separate words for husband and wife in Hungarian.

Eric played Doc Holliday as an educated man who will do anything he can to succeed in life and make a buck. As in real life, Doc was wracked with tuberculosis and Eric gives a moment that made me more sympathetic to his plight than Val Kilmer’s understated take in the movie Tombstone. The suggestion is made that Doc became a drinking man to dull the pain of the terminal disease. Of course, the movie is all about unreliable narrators.

At times, the film becomes almost impressionistic, mixing modern elements into the historical. There’s always a danger of this confusing an audience, but it can also be interesting to let it be a way of seeing older events through the lens of more familiar, contemporary icons. The film also literally takes you back in time by starting at modern Boot Hill just outside Tombstone, Arizona with tourists taking selfies in front of the Clantons’ tombstones and then dissolving back into the past.

In addition to Eric, I was excited to see Rogelio Camarillo in the film as Billy Claiborne. He was the sound man when we filmed the book trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I was also delighted to see Bradford Trojan as Tom McLaury. I had a bit part in the movie Revenge of Zoe, which starred Bradford and Eric Schumacher. I’m still looking forward to that movie’s DVD release!

If you’re fascinated by the history surrounding the gunfight at OK Corral or would just like to see a non-traditional take on a western film, I recommend ordering a copy of the Tombstone Rashomon DVD. While you’re waiting for it to arrive, check out the links to my books below. On the page for The Astronomer’s Crypt, you’ll find the trailer that Eric and Rogelio helped me make.

Beards and Horror

Let’s face it, some people think bearded men are scary. In this post, I’ll introduce you to some scary, bearded men. However these men aren’t scary because of their beards. They’re scary because of the stories they’ve created.

I grew my own beard while working on my physics degree in the late 1980s. My older brother had grown a beard during his college days and I always liked way it looked. In addition to that, I attended a technical university where many of my classmates grew beards. All those factors combined to make growing a beard an easy choice.

A decade after I first grew my beard, I experimented with writing horror. I also decided to experiment with my beard and I shaved it down to a goatee. I liked the way it looked and have, for the most part, kept it that way ever since. Some people say beards obscure a man’s appearance, but my beard has always seemed a natural part of my face. Trimming it to a goatee is a minor concession to fashion.

To write well, you must read well. Over the years I’ve read a lot of horror fiction, including many classics of the genre. It was fun to discover that many of the authors whose work influenced me and shaped the genre also had the good taste to grow beards. Without further ado, allow me to introduce you to some of the pioneers and greats of the field.


Sheridan Le Fanu

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish writer who lived from 1814 to 1872. His specialty was writing mysteries and ghost stories. His most famous work was undoubtedly the vampire novella “Carmilla” which he wrote in 1871 and predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-six years.

I pay tribute to the story in my tale “Fountains of Blood” which appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop. In most pictures of Sheridan Le Fanu, he rocks the neck beard. However, later in life he grew a full beard. You can learn more about Straight Outta Tombstone at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1481482696/


Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn was a journalist who lived from 1850 to 1904. Born in Ireland, he immigrated to the United States, lived for a time in New Orleans, and finally moved to Japan. I write a lot of stories set in the nineteenth century and I find Hearn a valuable resource. He makes the people he knew and the places he saw come alive on the page.

The reason he earns a spot on this list was that he not only wrote the obituary for Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, he also assembled collections of frightening Japanese stories. One of those collections was made into the 1965 movie Kwaidan. Most photos and illustrations of Hearn show him with only a mustache, but while in New Orleans, Hearn waxed his mustache and sported a goatee. He appears as a character in my novel Owl Riders, which you can learn about at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html


Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker, who lived from 1847 to 1912, gave us Dracula. I first read his most famous novel while working at Kitt Peak National Observatory in 1994 during a fierce storm. I particularly remember reading the scene where the ship Demeter comes into Whitby harbor and the vampire, in the form of a large wolf, runs from the ship. My duties required that I had to leave my nice, comfortable reading nook periodically to check on the weather. Every time I stepped outside, I imaged the creature would run out of the shadows to attack me.

The experience of reading Dracula first led me to write my novel of vampire mercenaries called Vampires of the Scarlet Order. You can learn about this novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html. Years later, I would write a novel of a monster that prowled an observatory’s grounds called The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn about this novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. Mr. Stoker maintained an epic, full beard worthy of admiration!


Around the beginning of the twentieth century, beards tended to fall out of fashion. I’ve often wondered why that happened. A recent article at Vox.com suggests that beards fell victim to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Claims were made that beards were unsanitary and led to greater rates of infection. According to the article, this isn’t necessarily true. It says shaving abrades the skin and can slightly raise the risk of infection. You can read the full article here: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/30/21195447/beard-pandemic-coronavirus-masks-1918-spanish-flu-tuberculosis.

Of course this all makes me wonder whether the current pandemic will have an impact on beards or fashion in general. Do you have any predictions? Any favorite bearded writers? Share them in the comments.

Pandemic Past

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Barsoom

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

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

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

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

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

Voyage of the Space Beagle

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

Wait, what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.