Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

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Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur

This past weekend I watched a movie that’s been on my “want to see” list since it came out in 2004, Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. It promised to deliver a more historically accurate vision of King Arthur than other films and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it more-or-less succeeded in a Hollywood action movie sort of way. The movie came to mind when I received my contributor copies of the anthology Camelot 13.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Arthurian history and lore. On a subject where there are nearly 1500 years’ worth of lore and fiction, no one can create a new version without people bringing their own perceptions to the table and nitpicking this element or that. With that said and before I go too much further, I’ll note that the earliest documents on which the Arthur story is based essentially say that around 500 AD during the Roman occupation of Britain, a general led the Celtic tribes in a campaign against the Saxons and there was a big battle at Badon Hill. Arthur’s name doesn’t even appear in the history’s until almost 300 years after he supposedly lived.

In the film, Arthur is the son of a Roman general and a Celtic woman who rose to the rank of general himself. He leads an elite band of Roman conscripts stationed near Hadrian’s Wall. The Saxons are invading the island and Arthur is given the mission to go retrieve the son of a Roman consul favored by the Pope who lives north of the wall before the Saxons rampage over their villa. As the Saxons move in, the Celts, led by Merlin, form an alliance with Arthur. They fall back to Hadrian’s Wall where their version of Mt. Badon exists and have a climactic battle. In this version, Guinevere is a Celtic woman who is also a fighter. Without looking too closely at the details, all the elements fit interpretations of the history I’ve seen.

As it turns out, I cover some of these same events in my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. However in my version, Arthur is a Christian Celt with some Roman training. His knights are also Celts, including Lancelot, who in my version is from Brittany. Guinevere is a Roman noble. I actually wrote a version of the battle of Badon Hill for the novel, but left it “off camera” for the novel since none of the protagonists were there. What’s fun for me is that I think both versions of the story are valid interpretations of the history such as it’s known. Of course, in the novel, I end up introducing King Arthur to a vampire who wants to find the Holy Grail because he think the artifact will help him find redemption. If you want to go on this quest, you can learn more about Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order at http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, if you want even more far out explorations of Arthurian Legend, be sure to check out Camelot 13. Copies will be available at Amazon next month, but you can order a copy today at http://hadrosaur.com/collections.html#Camelot13

Que tal?

This past Friday, I was interviewed live on Las Cruces Community Radio Station, KTAL-LP 101.5FM, by Lynn Moorer for her show “Book Talk.” The station’s call letters were picked deliberately to evoke the Spanish phrase, “Que tal?” which means “What’s happening?” I mention this at the outset not just because it’s fun trivia, but because language ended up being a big theme of the interview. Unfortunately, the interview wasn’t recorded, so I can’t share a link with you, but I can share some highlights from the conversation.

The interview focused on my novel, The Brazen Shark, book three of my Clockwork Legion series. Like all of my series novels, I endeavor to make them stand alone and Lynn indicated she had no problem diving in. She was extremely well organized, with pages of notes and questions, plus her copy of the book had numerous passages marked. She did note that she hasn’t read much science fiction or alternate history. That aspect proved more of a challenge for her, but she clearly followed the book’s story and was captivated by its themes.

In the interview, Lynn asked me to give a broad description of the book. I described it as the story of a honeymoon gone quite wrong in 1877, Ramon and Fatemeh Morales have just been married and their friend, Captain Cisneros has taken them on a vacation to Hawaii. When business calls the captain to Japan, they decide to accompany him rather than staying behind. Once they get to Japan, they find themselves embroiled in a plot by samurai to steal a Russian airship and foment war between Japan and Russia.

It was clear from the interview that Lynn was especially fascinated by the character of Legion. Legion started life as an organic being who uploaded his consciousness into a computer. Over the years, that computer evolved and upgraded itself until it became a swarm of discrete elements that can travel at will through space. In the interview, we discussed how Legion saw humans as younger versions of himself. When we meet Legion in the first novel, Owl Dance, he’s not especially emotional. He embarks on an experiment to unify humanity. By The Brazen Shark, his time among humans has awaken his emotions and he feels a certain tenderness toward us and he realizes that there’s a danger that interference may have harmed us as a species.

Lynn also liked the idea that Legion could understand people’s thoughts and translate them for other people. In effect, Legion acts as a real-time translator, breaking down the barriers between people. As I pointed out in the interview, I see language as a window into culture, so Legion’s observations help the reader understand the disparate cultures in the novel as well as helping the characters understand each other.

Another aspect of the book Lynn highlighted was the role of women in the novel. Imagawa, Ipokash, and Fatemeh all have talents that arguably exceed their closest male counterparts. I did this deliberately when I wrote the novel. The late nineteenth century was a time when women stood up for their rights. It was the era of women’s suffrage and the era of women taking prominent roles in academia. I wanted strong, but believable women to be a hallmark of the novel.

The novel is available locally in Las Cruces at COAS Books on Main Street. It’s also available through Amazon.

Diplomacy

I find the process of diplomacy fascinating. I watched the recent summit between the president of the United States and the leader of South Korea with interest. Perhaps even more interesting were the glimpses we had of all the work behind the scenes that led to that historic face-to-face meeting. One of the people who has worked behind the scenes for a long time is New Mexico’s former governor Bill Richardson. Of course, before he was governor of the state I call home, he had been a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of the Department of Energy.

My latest novel, Owl Riders is largely a reflection of my interest in diplomacy. A lot of books, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres, are about wars and fighting. That certainly can make for exciting reading, but I’ve long believed there can be a lot of tension and suspense in stories about the people who struggle to keep conflicts from blossoming into full-scale wars.

Ramon Morales, one of the protagonists of my Clockwork Legion series, was created as a man of action. When we meet him, he’s sheriff of Socorro, New Mexico, but he’s not altogether happy with his lot. The city has been changing and most of the people he knew growing up have moved away. He’s also tired of breaking up fights and facing angry people with guns. I introduced him to the series’ other protagonist, Fatemeh Karimi. She’s a healer fleeing injustice. She sees the process of making peace as a kind of healing.

Initially, Ramon was inspired by real life lawman Elfego Baca, who was quite a character in New Mexico history. He gained fame when he kept several Texans from breaking their compatriot out of the local jail in a gunfight. After being sheriff of Socorro, Baca went on to be an attorney. Unlike Ramon, Baca never really had a diplomatic career. The closest he came was when he served as counsel to General Huerta during the Mexican Revolution. Apparently this resulted in Pancho Villa putting a price on Baca’s head!

Early in the Clockwork Legion novels, Ramon and Fatemeh encounter a microscopic alien swarm that calls itself Legion. Because it’s microscopic, no one can see it or touch it, but it can communicate with people directly through their brains and it can communicate with several people at the same time. This ultimately proves to be an advantage when Ramon is first making his reputation as a negotiator. Legion helps him see and understand things about the other parties that no one else can.

In Owl Riders, Ramon’s career is on a track similar to that of Elfego Baca, or even Bill Richardson. He has gained his Juris Doctorate. He’s working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Louisiana when he’s called in to settle an Apache uprising in Arizona. The challenge for Ramon is that Legion is long gone and now he has to do this himself. What’s more, Fatemeh has been taken captive by a man from her past. Will Ramon be able to save the woman he loves and successfully negotiate peace without extraterrestrial intervention? I hope you’ll join me on the pages of Owl Riders to find out.

You can learn more about Owl Riders, read a sample chapter, and find out where to order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

New Orleans Book Signing

This Friday, May 25, I’ll be signing copies of my novels, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, The Astronomer’s Crypt, and Owl Riders at Boutique du Vampyre at 709 1/2 St. Ann Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Boutique du Vampyre is a unique store that offers everything from jewelry and apparel to art and dolls to both vampires and mortals who are friends of vampires. My two Scarlet Order novels are clearly right at home at Boutique du Vampyre and I’m proud to be featured on their shelves alongside such authors as Alys Arden and Bruce T. Jones.

While The Astronomer’s Crypt doesn’t feature literal vampires, I’ve long thought of those of us who work all night long at observatories as kindred. We start work at sunset and leave before sunrise. It’s possible to avoid the daylight entirely in the job. Some observatories do have actually have crypts on site, and perhaps it’s not surprising that we hear our share of ghost stories. There are also more than a few mundane dangers that come with working at remote high-altitude locations late at night. The book imagines what happens when ghosts, gangsters, a monster from Apache lore, and astronomers collide during a terrible thunder storm. The Astronomer’s Crypt may not be a vampire novel, but it sits comfortably in their company!

Owl Riders is my latest novel and like The Astronomer’s Crypt does not feature vampires. Much of the novel, though, is set in the New Orleans French Quarter and the character Marie Lalande is a Voodoo practitioner. What’s more the novel’s protagonists, Ramon and Fatemeh Morales, live on the same French Quarter block as Boutique du Vampyre. This will be the novel’s first official book signing and it seems fitting to release it so close to Ramon and Fatemeh’s fictional home.

While getting ready for the signing event, I was going through files on my computer and found a book trailer I’d created for the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order about twelve years ago, but never released. Overall, I felt like it held up. The only problem was that some of the information at the end was incorrect, but I was able to fix that with some judicious editing. So now, the trailer is live on YouTube and you can watch it here.

I created the trailer from illustrations Steven C. Gilberts did for the novel and gave it some film stutter and scratches, so it had the feeling of old vampire films I remember watching, such as Dracula or Nosferatu.

After the signing, I’ll be reading from my vampire novels at Potions Lounge on Bourbon Street. If you come by the signing the staff at Boutique du Vampyre will give you all the details about when to join us. If you’re in New Orleans for Memorial Day weekend, I hope you’ll join us for a truly special event. If you can’t make it, you can order signed books from Boutique du Vampyre by visiting http://www.feelthebite.com.

Understanding Time

Back in high school, I remember wondering what time actually is. I believe my interest really started by learning about Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and realizing that clocks would measure time differently depending on how fast you’re going. It’s at that point that I consciously thought about the fact that clocks don’t measure something in the way you measure something with a ruler. Clocks are simply mechanical devices designed to move at a fixed rate. When I reached college and then graduate school, I learned about Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in which time and space are all wrapped up in gravity.

While I was learning about General Relativity in graduate school, I was also learning about Lagrangian mechanics, which is basically a reformulation of Newton’s classical mechanics that endeavors to understand the motions of bodies by understanding the total energy in a system rather than the understanding the forces applied to a physical body. Newtonian mechanics requires that you know where and when a body exists in time and space to understand its behavior. Lagrangian mechanics doesn’t.

It’s with that background that I caught a fascinating episode of Science Friday on NPR the other day. In the episode, host Ira Flatow interviewed physicist Carlo Rovelli who makes a case that time might not even exist. You can listen to the interview at: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/a-case-for-why-time-may-just-not-exist/

In the interview, Rovelli discusses the idea that mechanical systems can be understood though their energy distributions and that time is not really a factor. The only place time, or change if you will, manifests is in the second law of thermodynamics, which quantifies how systems become increasingly disordered. He talks about relative time—how someone traveling near the speed of light will experience time differently than a person standing still. He also talks about how time near a black hole would virtually stop. One of the fascinating concepts he introduced is that as we move into space, we may need a new vocabulary of time, just as we developed a new definition of “up” when we discovered the world was a sphere. At that time, no one quite knew what “up” was. Was up over your head in Greece? If so, and you were on the other side of the planet, did that mean “up” was under your feet?

Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing Rovelli introduced in the interview was the idea that time and space may not “exist” as such, but simply be the way our brains interpret the action of gravitation on the energy fields that make up all existence.

There’s a lot of fodder in these ideas for a science fiction or fantasy writer. I certainly recommend giving the podcast a listen and I’ll likely be checking out Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time. Playing with the idea that time, space, and gravity are all interrelated led me to the Erdon-Quinn drive of my space pirate stories. One could certainly imagine a story where one finds a way to travel through time using these concepts. Of course, such travel may create ripples in the fabric of reality that would make the so-called butterfly effect look like simple child’s play to untangle.

Ray Bradbury, who played with the butterfly effect in his story “A Sound of Thunder” once told me a story of being at a carnival, when a performer named Mr. Electrico sat in an electric chair. When the switch was pulled, Mr. Electrico pointed a lightning rod at Ray Bradbury and said, “Live forever!” Pondering time and space in this way, I even begin to wonder if a person lives forever by existing at all.

I hope you’ll make time to travel to other realities with me in my books and stories. Learn more at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Pterodactyls, Mummies, and Magic

I’m beginning to think the French are particularly adept at making steampunk films. I enjoyed 2013’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart which had lovely animation and used steampunk images and metaphors to tell a tale of falling in and out of love that included among other things a loving tribute to Georges Méliès. Last week, I discussed the 2015 animated film April and the Extraordinary World drawn in the style of cartoonist Jacques Tardi. This week, I take a look at a film that precedes both of these, 2010’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which is based on Jacques Tardi’s comic book series of the same name.

The film is directed by Luc Besson, probably best known in America as the director of The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis. Adèle Blanc-Sec is a writer and adventurer living in 1912 who, as the movie opens, has traveled to Egypt to look for the mummy of the physician of Ramses II. Meanwhile, back in Paris, a professor uses mental powers to resurrect a pterodactyl at the French Museum of Natural History. The pterodactyl breaks free and manages to kill a high ranking French official. Like in The Fifth Element, many disparate characters and situations eventually come together, sometimes with humorous results. Sometimes tragedy ensues. In the end, I felt like I had been treated to a good and satisfying yarn.

As it turns out, the original comic series goes all the way back to 1976 and predates the K.W. Jeeter’s 1987 letter to Locus magazine where he gives Victorian fantasies the name “steampunk.” Even so, the adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec have all the hallmarks of good gonzo, historical fiction. We see a 1912—and even glimpse an ancient Egypt—where technology is so advanced for some, that it’s indistinguishable from magic. We see a pterodactyl brought back to life. For reasons that become clear over the movie’s course, we discover that Adèle wants to bring a mummy back to life. I have no problem calling this movie set just before World War I, steampunk.

Steampunk literature has brought us some strong female protagonists. Among them are Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Briar Wilkes of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Agatha Heterodyne of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. I’d like to think that Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Seaton of my Clockwork Legion novels could also stand by their sisters. There’s no question that Adèle Blanc-Sec qualifies. In fact, one thing that impressed me about the movie was Adèle’s lack of interest in romance. There’s a young scientist who is enamored with her, but she doesn’t share his infatuation. Her character isn’t defined by any kind of a romantic interest. Like many good action heroes, her character is defined by the object of her quest.

If you’re looking for a good steampunk romp, it’s hard to go wrong with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. In its way, it’s very much an heir to Jules Verne’s own extraordinary adventures. Perhaps being a countryman of Jules Verne or Georges Méliès helps when you set out to make a steampunk film. I think Hollywood could do worse than pay attention to France’s successes in this area.

If you enjoy The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and would like more rollicking tales featuring strong women, be sure to check out my Clockwork Legion Series.