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!

Return to Bisbee

On the weekend of August 17 and 18, the Tucson Steampunk Society invaded the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, a picturesque town a few miles south of Tombstone. This is the second year in a row I was able to join the group. As it turns out, I joined them after spending two weeks in a row at Kitt Peak National Observatory, so this provided a nice respite from my “day” job. As with last year, there were only a few scheduled events, making this a weekend where steampunks could meetup, relax, and actually socialize with one another. One of several highlights for the weekend was dinner at the Travellers Camp at Juniper Flats in the mountains above Bisbee. Here’s the whole group in a photo.

Photo courtesy Pete Mecozzi. Visit him online at:
https://petemecozziphotography.mypixieset.com/

In this case, the Travellers refer to “displaced people of Irish origin” and they provided a delightful supper of vegetable soup, chicken, and flat bread with herbs and bacon. They also provided wonderful Irish music.

After dinner, we moved on to another highlight of the weekend, the PG PJ Potluck Parlour Party. Like last year, I was invited to regale the attendees with a story. I read my story “The Zombie Shortage” which appears in the anthologies Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie edited by Carol Hightshoe and then was reprinted in The Many Tortures of Anthony Cardno, edited by Anthony R. Cardno. As I mentioned in my recent post about editing and ego, it’s not always possible to read an audience, but I was pleased to find the audience laughing along with me as I read my wicked little tale that asks what happens should we suffer the zombie apocalypse, put the zombies to use, and then run out of zombies.

In fact, if you want to listen to the reading, Jim Springer of the Creative Play and Podcast Network recorded it and you can listen to the reading at: https://creativeplayandpodcastnetwork.podbean.com/e/a-reading-from-zombiefied-an-anthology-of-all-things-zombie-by-david-lee-summers/

One of many fun things about the Bisbee Inn where the steampunks gathered is that it’s also part of several ghost tours. Because of that, there’s a rather suspicious looking mannequin in the entryway. I have to pass him several times before I remind myself he is a mannequin and not a person. Perhaps one of the most delightful moments from the weekend came when I learned the Tucson steampunks had officially named the mannequin “Egon” after the assistant character in “The Zombie Shortage.”

Over the course of the weekend, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Frank Goglia and his son, Joseph, of Meridian Books and Comics in Bisbee. He has a great stock of books and comics and after this weekend, he now has a few of my books. If you’re in Bisbee and you’re looking for some great reading, be sure to visit the store!

I find weekends like this are a vital part of recharging my creative energy. In fact, just before the weekend, I had received an invitation to pitch a story idea for a shared world anthology. Before the weekend, I almost dreaded pitching a story. It wasn’t so much a case of writer’s block as burn out from a long work shift and feeling the weight of several other projects that also needed attention. After the weekend, I saw several places to jump in and after several good emails with the anthology’s editor, I had a direction. Since then, I’ve turned my general story direction into an outline. As it turns out, this outline has no ending, but that’s fine. At this point, I see at least three possible endings all depending on who the characters reveal themselves to be when I actually write the story.

At this point, it’s a little too early for me to say much about the story itself. I want to wait and see if the editor likes the end result. What I will say is that the story is set in the past, but it’s not steampunk. Of course, there are many people who now want to carefully classify exactly what brand of retrofuturism a story explores. If it’s World War I era, it’s dieselpunk. If it’s the 1920s, it’s jazzpunk. If it’s after World War II, it’s atompunk. My story’s set in the 1980s, an era I lived through, so with tongue embedded in cheek, I’ll declare it punkpunk for now.

Now that my batteries are recharged, I just need to get ready for another week at the observatory, some editing work, then I can turn my attention to actually writing this story that I’m excited about thanks in no small part to my friends in the Tucson Steampunk Society.

Visiting Marceline

My family’s story has been an important inspiration for my novels. My first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, was a science fiction tale inspired by my mom’s family of Texas and New Mexico pioneers. Learning more about their history led me to write more directly about the wild west in my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels.

When people learn about my interest in genealogy, they often ask me if I’ve taken on of the many DNA tests that are currently on the market. While I think that would be interesting and it’s something I’d like to do, it’s a fairly low priority. Some of that is because of I know the limitations of DNA testing. For example, some genes are passed along patriarchal lines and others are only passed along matriarchal lines. What’s more, genetic markers are based on statistical samples. For example, 80% of Scottish people may show a given genetic marker while 70% of people from Africa may have another genetic marker. So these tests are based on statistical samples rather than absolute measurements. Most of all, DNA doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about the day-to-day lives of my ancestors, which is the stuff that makes good story fodder.

In my recent travels, I paid a visit to Marceline, Missouri. The town is probably most famous as the hometown of Walt Disney. However, I went to pay my respects to my great great grandfather, Paul Teter. I knew he was a veteran of the Civil War and I also knew he was Marceline’s first Justice of the Peace. He was also the father of my great grandmother Montana and her sister Arizona, who I wrote about two years ago. While in Marceline, I paid a visit to the Carnegie Library, which has a depository of newspaper articles and genealogy resources. It proved to be a real treasure trove.

The Carnegie Library’s collection is fabulous. They’ve indexed their newspaper collections, which makes searching them easy. I soon found stories about weddings my great great grandfather officiated over, often having the families over at his house. I learned about his career as a “police judge.” Today, most jurisdictions would refer to the position as a “magistrate judge.” I also found two items of note in the “City and Vicinity” column of the Marceline Mirror dated February 9, 1906. The third paragraph reports that “Mrs. Paul Teter fell and sustained a sprained ankle that disabled her for many days.” A sad bit of news indeed. Two paragraphs below that, we learn, “Elias Disney, of Chicago, is in the city with the expectation of locating on a farm near this place.” The farm is the one Walt Disney grew up on and where he lay under the family’s famous dreaming tree. A DNA test wouldn’t have given me that little connection and I never would have seen the town that is said to have inspired Main Street at the Disney parks.

While searching through the genealogy records at the Carnegie Library in Marceline, I also came across a memory shared by Arizona Teter’s son. He noted that Paul Teter owned a book and stationary store located on the street above. One of his most famous customers was young Walt Disney who would choose a book and sit reading in the window seat until the store closed. Arizona remembered that his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. There’s something pretty amazing to learn that my great great grandparents contributed to Walt Disney’s love of adventure fiction. I don’t know quite where this research will lead me, but I’m sure it will inspire more stories in the future.

Mars Globes

One of the places my family and I visited during our July travels was Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was where Percival Lowell, a former US ambassador to Korea, set up shop in the late nineteenth century to observe the planet Mars and search for the elusive Planet X. One thing that captivated Lowell about Mars were the linear features crisscrossing the planet. The more he observed them, the more he became convinced they were canals built by intelligent beings. Over the years, Lowell would make many maps of Mars and publish essays detailing how the red planet must be an abode of life. Lowell also made globes.

Martian globe on display at Lowell Observatory

As it turns out, Lowell’s canals do not exist. They seem to be the result of some optical phenomena going on within the telescope itself enhanced by wishful thinking. It’s easy to imagine Lowell gazing up at Mars from his chair in Flagstaff, imagining a dying desert world with intelligent Martians hanging on through their ingenuity, digging canals to bring water from the polar caps to arable farm land in the equatorial regions. These ideas would go on to inspire writers like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury. Even if Lowell’s observations did not prove correct, he succeeded in making Mars a place in people’s imagination that we could visit.

As a young reader, I fell in love with the canal-lined Mars of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. When visiting Lowell Observatory, I always thought a Martian canal globe would be a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them in the gift shop. What’s more, they don’t sell them much of anywhere. Most Mars globes available today show the Mars we’ve mapped via orbiting probes. These are great globes and I’d love one of those, too, but they don’t capture the imagination that stirred me in my earliest days of reading science fiction. I did see that a master globe maker recreated a canal globe a while back and made them available for sale, but I also saw that he charged far more than I could afford. What’s more, when I looked again after visiting Lowell, I couldn’t find them anymore.

Of course, I’m not only a science fiction fan and a professional scientist, I’m a steampunk. If there’s one thing a steampunk knows it’s that when something isn’t available, you just have to go out and make it. My wife and I discussed approaches and I did some searching on the web. I already knew that several images of Lowell’s maps were available online. I found software that would convert rectangular maps to “map gores,” the strips used to make globes. With the power of Adobe Photoshop, I could resize those gores to any ball I wanted. So, I set out to make my own globe. Since this was the first time I’d ever tried something like this, I decided to make a prototype before making a nice one.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

The prototype wasn’t perfect. Despite measuring the ball I used for a form, I sized the gores just a little too small. This could have been a little bit of rounding error from several sources. Also, it took some tries to figure out how to get the gores on smoothly. I mostly figured it out, and I think some better tools would help. Despite that, I think the prototype globe turned out much better than I had any right to expect. In fact, the flaws actually add to the antique look of the globe.

At this point, I’m working on acquiring some better tools and a nice stand for the final globe. Who knows exactly what I’ll do with my new globe-making skills. If a steampunk event shows interest, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned. Given that the globes aren’t generally available, I might consider making a few for sale, as long as I confirm that I’m not violating any rights by using the old maps and I feel my skills are up to the task.

What I do know is that the globes I make for myself will serve as an inspiration. I look at the globe and dream of Mars as it could have been. When astronauts visit Mars in my novel The Solar Sea, they wax poetic about the old visions of Mars even as they see its real wonders. Of course, Lowell’s crypt next to the dome where he observed Mars was an inspiration for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. A part of me would like to think of Lowell’s spirit walking a canal-laced Mars, much as scientists who died did in Camille Flammarion’s novel Urania. As I look around the globe, I see that Lowell named one of the canals, Draco, a name shared with the leader of my Scarlet Order vampires. Maybe there’s a story out there about the Scarlet Order paying a visit to Mars.

A Culture of Outrage

Last Friday, I was browsing the web and I read a headline about a group being outraged at a public person’s words. I found myself thinking the person’s words weren’t the brightest, but I wasn’t quite sure they warranted “outrage.” Then I noticed another headline about people being outraged at something else and then there was another headline about outrage. I made an offhand comment to my wife that it’s no wonder with all this outrage that certain frustrated young men who don’t handle their emotions well start shooting people. The only emotion that seems to get validation by politicians and the media is outrage. Little did I know that in less than 24 hours, a young man would open fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, not all that far from where I live.

It may not be altogether clear from the map, but the borderland communities of Las Cruces, New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico are pretty tight knit. I used to do contract work for El Paso Community College and spent some of my time at the Valle Verde Campus not far from the Walmart where the shooting took place. I go to El Paso from time to time to see movies and, of course, I’ve been a guest author at El Paso Comic Con a few times. El Paso is also a safe town in this modern world. More people were killed in Saturday’s mass shooting than in the twelve months before that. These are people I consider my neighbors and this tragedy saddens me.

I know many are outraged in the wake of these events and I have my moments of outrage as well. Already there is renewed talk of gun control and that has triggered the outrage of gun control advocates. I fear that all this will go nowhere as it has in the wake of so many recent incidents. The challenge is that people need to move beyond the outrage and actually talk compromise and think about creative solutions. People need to understand what causes a person to take such hate-filled action as opening fire on families in a store, shopping for school supplies, then discourage that from happening.

It seems that the shooting in El Paso was fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric. This rhetoric is poisonous nonsense. I’ve recently been looking into my own family’s history. As far as I can tell, every one of my ancestors was in this country before 1800. The current President of the United States is the grandson of immigrants who came in 1885. From my family’s perspective, his family looks no different than those coming across the border today. I know that from the perspective of Native Americans, my family looks no different than any other immigrants.

This brings us back to the culture of outrage. Outrage is a momentary reaction. News reporters like it because it’s a raw emotion and it draws people to the narrative being told. Politicians like it because it keeps votes rolling in as they stoke the fires. However, outrage is only sustained by finding a new outrage. Eventually, the old outrage drains away as the families of the victims mourn and find ways to move forward after their losses. Instead of looking for new outrages, we need to actually talk to each other about possible solutions and find ways to implement them. In that way, we may just stand a chance of breaking out of the culture of outrage.

One Small Step

I was just a little too young to remember watching Neil Armstrong’s famous first step on the moon and his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” However, watching later Apollo landings on television were among my earliest memories. From a young age, I was proud to be part of a species that had flown beyond the Earth and explored another world. Star Trek was on TV and I saw a direction humans might pursue. The space program was important in my house. My dad worked on the railroad but he understood how technology developed by NASA had far-reaching benefits. One of his friends worked at Goldstone Radar Tracking Station in Barstow, California and put together this display of Apollo patches for my dad. It hung in our living room when I was a kid and it hangs in my living room to this day.

In graduate school, I worked on a project automating a telescope to hunt for supernovae and dwarf novae. The computer we used was a Prime 300. The CPU cabinet was about the size of a refrigerator and it had four hard drives the size of small washing machines. I was smug in those days. I had a whole gigabyte of hard drive space to work with! In the same room as the supernova search computer were a bank of Apollo computers which had been purchased to record seismological data. In the 1980s, my Prime 300 was a primitive machine and the old Apollo machines looked like dinosaurs. I was amazed we had sent people to the moon using those ancient computers. It was a testament to how brilliant the people were who sent the first people to the moon.

In 2006, my wife and I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Ansari X-Prize Competition. What’s more, my daughter’s school class had a chance to spend the day watching the events. We saw demonstrations of updated lunar landing vehicles. We even got to see one of them lift off, fly a short distance, and land again. We met people working on space elevator technology. The highlight of the day was getting to hear Buzz Aldrin speak. My daughter’s class got to sit right up front. My daughter is the kid in the red baseball cap in the photo. Aldrin recounted his experiences training for the lunar mission and actually landing on the moon.

Today, on this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, I find myself reflecting on these experiences. I want to see humans continue the exploration of space. We’re doing great things with unmanned probes, but there’s so much more we could do if we had humans out in the solar system learning about our corner of the universe. We did great things fifty years ago and our technology is improving. We should continue to do great things. For those who suggest we have too many problems on Earth to spend time exploring space, I say we have an Earth with over seven billion people. Many of them are brilliant, strong, and brave. We can and should work on more than one problem at once. Our real enemies in this endeavor are greed and fear. If we defeat them, we’ve earned the stars.