The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!

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Returning to the VLA

One of the reasons I decided to attend the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology was its proximity to the Very Large Array, which at the time, was the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope. In my senior year at Tech, I got my dream job, and spent the year working at the VLA. This past weekend, My wife and I took our daughter out to visit my old stomping grounds.

The VLA was an awesome place to work. As you can see from the photo above, the scenery is dramatic. It’s an alto plano in central New Mexico. In fact, the VLA is at higher altitude than Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. I went out to the VLA site every Friday of my senior year to work. What exciting, groundbreaking science did I do with the world’s largest radio telescope? I observed clouds. Yes, clouds on Earth.

Here’s the thing, at the time the National Radio Astronomy Observatory was looking to build something called the Millimeter Array or MMA. Millimeter Array may not sound very spectacular when you’re talking about the Very Large Array, but the name referred to the frequency of light the telescope would observe. My job was to support the site survey work for the MMA. In other words, we were trying to find the very best place in the world to build the MMA. The reason for observing clouds is because while radio waves can travel through clouds, clouds can cause something called phase instability. With a big telescope like the VLA or the MMA, you can have clouds over one part of the array and not the other. The ideal site is phase stable, meaning you don’t get a lot of variation in the cloud cover across the site.

As it turns out, the MMA was never built. Instead, in 1997, the MMA project in the United States joined forces with the European Southern Observatory’s Large Southern Observatory project. The new project was called ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. In 2003, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan joined the project. So, my work at the VLA observing clouds was an early step in the development of ALMA, which is now on the air. You can read about it here: http://www.almaobservatory.org/en/home/

One fun display they had set up at the VLA now was a radio receiver. This actually was one of the radio receivers used when the VLA received data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft at Neptune. I actually watched that data come in at the Array Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. On our visit, my daughter and I got to use the receiver to detect radio waves from the sun.

As it turns out, the VLA plays an important role in my novel The Solar Sea. The second edition will be released on the first day of spring. You can learn more and preorder it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/.

Dying to Get to Mars

In the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter escapes from Apaches in the Arizona desert by going into a mysterious cave where he succumbs to mysterious gasses. Soon afterward, his spirit is transported to Mars where he becomes substantial again and makes a new life as a warlord of Mars. It seems a very odd way of getting to Mars and one that’s probably doomed to failure if you or I were to try it. However, John Carter was not the first literary hero to get to Mars via this unusual method of transportation.

A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. In 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published the novel Uranie (or Urania as it’s known in English). In mythology, Urania is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. She’s also the great granddaughter of Uranus, for whom the planet is named. Urania is the muse of astronomy. Camille Flammarion was, for all intents and purposes, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Victorian age. His popular works on astronomy inspired a generation around the world. In many ways, he was a true life astronomical muse.

The novel is told in three parts. In the first part, Urania takes Camille Flammarion on a journey to the stars. She shows him worlds orbiting other stars and the life inhabiting those worlds. He learns that life can come in many different forms. So far, this makes Uranie the oldest novel I know that imagines life on planets outside our solar system. In the second part of the novel, we meet one of Flammarion’s colleagues, George Spero, who is courting a woman from Norway named Icléa. George and Icléa have a long, intense courtship that includes discussions of the nature of thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, and the nature of death. Eventually they travel to Norway to get married. Before the ceremony, George decides to take a balloon to make measurements of the Aurora Borealis. At the last minute Icléa jumps in the balloon with him and off they go.

Alas, part way into the journey, the gas valve breaks and the balloon begins a rapid descent. In order to save George, Icléa jumps from the balloon to the frigid waters of the lake below. The balloon begins to rise and George is saved, but he’s unable to go on without Icléa and jumps out. He misses the lake and hits the ground and the two join each other in death. Sad for the loss of his friend, Flammarion goes to a séance. There he learns that George and Icléa have taken on new forms on the planet Mars. What’s more George is now a woman and Icléa is now a man! This brings us to the end of part two.

Part Three is a combination of essays about telepathy and other unexplained phenomena, how they could be, and a ghostly visit to Flammarion from George where we learn more about the couple’s new life on Mars. I won’t say much more, I’ve given spoilers enough. Still, I found it interesting that death on Earth and rebirth on Mars was not unique to Burroughs in early science fiction. I have no idea whether or not Burroughs was directly influenced by Flammarion, but Burroughs would have been a teenager when Uranie was released in the United States and Flammarion’s work was widely read. It was, after all, Camille Flammarion who inspired Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona to study the planet Mars.

If you’d like to read this interesting, science fiction novel, it’s in the public domain in the United States and available to download from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41941.

Visiting Fort Bowie

As my forthcoming novel Owl Riders opens, we learn that the Chiricahua Apache have taken Fort Bowie in Eastern Arizona territory with the help of Battle Wagons modeled on the Javelina mining machine left behind by Professor Maravilla. I use Fort Bowie in the novel because it has both historic and symbolic significance. Fort Bowie was established at the site of the Battle of Apache Pass where the United States Army fought Cochise. The fort’s purpose was to guard the water at Apache Pass, necessary to the famous Butterfield Stage, and to “control” the Apaches in the region. If Apaches were given machines that could capture the fort, it seems likely they would take an opportunity to do so. Here’s a great classic image of soldiers riding out of Fort Bowie.

Here’s basically the same scene as it appears today.

As you can tell, even from this viewpoint, not much exists of the original fort. What this viewpoint doesn’t provide is a sense of how big the fort was. It actually was a rather extensive compound. Here’s what the fort looked like in 1886:

Pretty much what exists now are foundations and a few walls. Some of the walls stand just a little over my head. What it lacks in intact buildings, it makes up for in giving you a sense of the facility’s scale. There’s also a nice, albeit small visitor center where they talk about the history of the fort. It was great to see faces I recognized right on the visitor’s center walls. For example, I walked in the door, turned around and saw General Nelson A. Miles (at the top in the photo below) right above Albert J. Fountain (in the center below Miles). Miles is a major antagonist to both the Apaches and Ramon Morales in Owl Riders. Fountain has appeared as Billy McCarty’s defense attorney in The Brazen Shark and he returned in my story “Fountains of Blood,” which appeared in Straight Outta Tombstone. His memorial is about a quarter mile behind my back door in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

What intrigued me almost more than the story of the fort and the soldiers who served there was the connection I made to the Native Americans I talk about in the books. Along the trail to the fort, they have a setup of an Apache camp, including a wickiup. I describe these camps both in Lightning Wolves and in Owl Riders, so it was exciting to see one up close and even go inside.

Also, in both Lightning Wolves and Owl Riders, I talk about the importance of knowing where to find water. For those who drive along Interstate-10 in Southern Arizona and Southern New Mexico, it’s not obvious that there’s water anywhere in the region. However, as I mentioned at the outset of the post, part of the reason for Fort Bowie was its proximity to reliable water. So, it was great to see this actual spring a mere dozen miles from the Interstate where the land appears so barren.

Visiting Fort Bowie was a fascinating walk back in time. The site is about twelve miles south of present day Bowie, Arizona. Once you get to the parking area, you have to hike about a mile and a half to get to the site. Along the way are signposts describing aspects of the area’s history. If you go out, I’d recommend allowing at least three hours to explore the site. Be aware it can be hot and storms can come up suddenly in that part of Arizona, as they did the day I was there. I was rained on for part of my trip. Bring water and suitable clothing. A picnic lunch would also be nice.

If you would like to learn more about my novel Lightning Wolves visit: http://www.davidleesummers.com/lightning_wolves.html. You can learn more about my forthcoming novel Owl Riders at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

Rodeo Day

I’ve been working days this past week at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. The telescope is undergoing a roughly year-long refit to equip it with a 5000-fiber spectrograph which will be used to obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a three-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years. This week, much of our work has been disassembling the telescope to prep it for new parts coming this year. In the photo below, you see the top end of the telescope with all the optics removed. That entire top end will be removed and replaced with the fiber optics which will then direct light to spectrographs some four floors below.

This past week was also a short work week. For most people in the United States that was because Monday, February 19 was President’s Day. Even though Kitt Peak is a federal contractor, we actually don’t take President’s Day as a holiday. Instead, we get Rodeo Day the Friday after President’s Day.

Before I continue, allow me to make a brief aside. I’ve mentioned before that at Kitt Peak, we work through most holidays. I should clarify that we are on sky, observing almost every night of the year. Telescope support staff such as telescope operators, electronic maintenance technicians, and even kitchen staff only take off Christmas Eve and Christmas. However, Kitt Peak also maintains a large support staff of mechanics, electricians, carpenters, and heavy equipment operators, most of which get weekends and regular holidays off. The refit work at the Mayall mostly requires this larger team of employees, so it follows a more familiar weekday schedule.

So, where did Rodeo Day come from and why is it so important in Tucson? Apparently, it started in 1925 when the president of the Arizona Polo Association, a fellow named Leighton Kramer, paraded a group of trick riders, folk dancers, and marching bands through downtown Tucson to the University of Arizona’s polo field where they held a community sponsored Wild West show and rodeo. That first rodeo featured steer wrestling, steer tying, calf roping, and saddle bronc riding. The rodeo’s official name is La Fiesta de los Vaqueros.

Over the years the event grew and it became tradition for Tucson schools to give kids the Thursday and Friday of rodeo weekend off. I think it goes to show the importance of rodeo in the Southwestern United States that it can supplant even President’s Day in some communities.

The Spanish name for the Tucson Rodeo, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, reminds us that rodeo’s popularity isn’t limited to the Southwestern United States. It’s actually quite popular throughout central and South America. When I visited Chile in 1998, the driver for Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory made a point of taking me by the rodeo grounds in La Serena. He noted that it was perhaps the second most popular sport in La Serena, right behind Soccer. I’ll also note that CTIO is actually a United States Observatory in Chile and the Blanco 4-meter outside of La Serena is, for all intents and purposes a twin of the Mayall 4-meter on Kitt Peak.

As it turns out, this whole business of rodeo being important to the people I work with in the astronomy business is one of the influences on my story “Calamari Rodeo” which appears in the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about the anthology at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Keplers-Cowboys.html.

Road Trip to New Orleans

The Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World event is going on a road trip and exploring new places. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing when writing my Clockwork Legion books is visiting places around the world and imagining them with a steampunk twist. So, I thought it would be fun to visit some of the places that appear in the novels and share my connection to them. For this final post in the series, I’m going to the Big Easy—New Orleans, Louisiana. Unlike Tokyo in my last post, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans several times.

The fourth novel in the Clockwork Legion series, Owl Riders, opens with Ramon and Fatemeh living in a flat in New Orleans. The approximate location I imagine is near site of the Boutique du Vampyre, which is near the corner of St. Ann and Royal Streets. The Boutique is well worth a visit for fans of Gothic literature and lifestyle. It is full of amazing curiosities and I have it on good authority that some of my books are on the shelf there as well.

Ramon works at the building that would have housed the United States District Court in 1885, which was the U.S. Custom House. The building still stands and it now houses the Audubon Butterfly and Insectarium in the French Quarter.

Fatemeh surreptitiously owns a pharmacy in New Orleans. Her ownership is surreptitious because women weren’t allowed to own pharmacies in New Orleans in 1885. On the books, the establishment is owned by her assistant, Picou, but everyone knows who really runs the Blessed Life Apothecary. I had a lot of help visualizing Fatemeh’s business when I visited the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. It’s a fascinating place and well worth making it at a time when they’re giving their guided tour.

The novel actually opens with Ramon and Fatemeh paying a visit to the World Cotton Exposition which was held in New Orleans staring in the winter of 1884. The exposition buildings no longer stand, but the site is Audubon Park in New Orleans, which is a great place to go for a stroll. It’s right across the street from Tulane University. If you continue through the park, you’ll arrive at the Audubon Zoo.

New Orleans with its old-fashioned charm, magic in the air, and party atmosphere makes a grand setting for steampunk and Gothic stories. I’m glad I’ve gotten to know the city and I look forward to more visits in the future.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this final steampunk road trip stop. Owl Riders is due for publication later this spring. While you’re waiting for the book to be published, be sure to check out the first three novels in the Clockwork Legion series at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion. There are omnibus editions of the first three volumes available for one low price as well as the individual books and ebooks. You can also visit the Owl Riders page at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html and preview the novel’s first chapter today!

Road Trip to Tokyo

This is my third stop on the Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World road trip exploring different places in the world of steampunk. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing when writing my Clockwork Legion books is visiting places around the world and imagining them with a steampunk twist. Because of that, I’m visiting some of the places that appear in the novels and share my connection to them. Today’s stop is a place I’m sorry to say I haven’t actually visited, but dearly want to. Tokyo features prominently in book three of my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark.

Because my imagination and the requirements of plot and character development don’t always feel constrained by my travel budget, I’m grateful that there are resources which allow me to travel not only across the ocean but back in time. Here’s a public domain photograph of Yokohama in the 1880s that I shared in a blog post back at the end of 2014:

What I like about this photo is how much the scene looks like many U.S. cities of the same period. There are wooden buildings, a gas lamp, and dirt streets. Of course, there are elements of this photo that seem very unique to Japan, such as the rickshaws and the banners hanging over the doors. I love how people are just going about their business, like the two guys on the right just chatting about some long forgotten subject. Some people are striding with purpose. Others are just hanging out.

Here’s another photo I like. This photo shows Kyobashi. According to Wikipedia, the photographer died in 1898 and this is supposed to be a nineteenth century street scene.

One of the themes in The Brazen Shark is an exploration of the way in which Emperor Meiji’s “Restoration” was a transition from old feudal Japan to a new, modern vision of Japan. I introduce scientists and inventors who want to bring this about, but I also showed that they’re working in a city where this is all new and exciting. One new element I introduce are automata, used as servants to escort visitors around the city. I also introduce Japanese airships.

In these photos, I see people walking and taking rickshaws through the streets. I see horse-drawn streetcars. I see someone carrying baskets. I see horses and masonry buildings. As long as I keep in mind what would and wouldn’t be in this scene in the time period of my novel, the photos serve as a tool to help me describe nineteenth century Tokyo. One possible anachronism in the second photo is the guy in the straw hat in the lower left. That suit just says 1901 to me more than 1880!

I didn’t just use old photos to visit Meiji era Japan, I also used books written at the time. Books, of course, are one of the most tried and true means of traveling to new places and new times! One of the most important books I used was Gleanings in Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was a reporter born in Ireland who immigrated to the United States. He lived for many years in New Orleans before moving to Japan and raising a family. His writings provided a wonderful insight into daily life of people in Meiji Era Japan. Hearn also provided something of a literary bridge and a fictionalized version of the author appears in Owl Riders during his New Orleans days as the chronicler of Ramon and Fatemeh’s adventures up to the events of Owl Riders.

I’ll wrap up this road trip to Tokyo with one other observation. I often seem to encounter the notion that no one has made a truly great steampunk film. I don’t feel that’s true. I’d argue that Japanese filmmakers have done a great job. For example, Hiyao Miyazaki has made several great steampunk films including Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. Also, Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the cyberpunk masterpiece Akira, made the strong steampunk film Steamboy. Anime played a part in my research for The Brazen Shark as well. In this case, I turned to the anime of Rurouni Kenshin. I gather the anime worked hard to get the historical background of Meiji Era Tokyo right. I didn’t necessarily use the show as a primary resource, but as a way of better visualizing the look and feel of the time and place.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this steampunk road trip stop. If you would like to explore The Brazen Shark and all the places visited in the novel, you visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html to get more information and find all the places the novel is available.