Salem’s Daughter

Salem’s Daughter graphic novel

Back in December, I purchased a bundle of graphic novels from Zenescope Publishing. I’ve discovered that I enjoy several of their titles including Van Helsing, The Black Sable, and Belle: Beast Hunter. One of the graphic novels in the bundle I purchased was a 2011 title called Salem’s Daughter. I was a little dubious when I saw the cover, but I have learned that you can’t always judge comics by their covers and this is especially true with Zenescope around the period when this book was released. When I flipped through the book, I found no scenes of a woman in lingerie being burned at the stake. What I did see in the interior pages looked very interesting. By all appearances this promised to be an interesting weird western story.

The graphic novel includes three story arcs. The first story arc introduces three characters. The woman on the cover is Anna Williams, a young witch who is just coming into her powers. She has a certain amount of clairvoyance and when threatened, she can literally burn an attacker’s face off. Over the course of the graphic novel she learns more powers. We also meet Braden Cole, a cowboy who rides into town seeking a no-good scoundrel who did him wrong. Finally, we meet that no-good scoundrel, Darius, who has the ability to manipulate people’s minds and get them to do what they want. The second story arc takes Anna and Braden to a new town where they learn about a missing child and discover that a Jersey Devil is terrorizing the town. The graphic novel concludes with a one-shot about Anna and Braden helping a man who has been seduced by a succubus.

All of this is great fodder for a set of weird western stories and I enjoyed the artwork as Anna and Braden make their way through old rustic towns and into saloons, jailhouses and remote caves. The only thing is, the dialogue tells us the settings for the stories are Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. I was reminded of episodes of The Wild Wild West where Jim and Artie travel to New Orleans. The series depicted the most desolate and dry, wild west version of New Orleans I’ve ever seen! In the show, it’s pretty clear the crew was given an “old west” town to shoot on and they did their best to make the sets they had look like the place in the story. I’m not quite sure why Salem’s Daughter is set in the northeast, yet looks like the Wild West. It seems like editing the story to place it further out west would have worked just fine. After all, there’s a small town outside Las Cruces called Salem and I could easily imagine a Jersey Devil finding his way out west.

Despite the disconnect in setting, I found the notion of a cowboy and a witch traveling together and solving problems to be appealing. It’s pretty much the premise I started with in my 2011 novel, Owl Dance. In my weird western, the magic is more subtle and the threats more science fictional in nature. You can learn more about Owl Dance at: http://davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

You can learn more about Salem’s Daughter at: https://zenescope.com/products/salems-daughter-trade-paperback. There was a sequel, Salem’s Daughter: The Haunting. It appears to be out of print, but it looks like you can get digital copies at Comixology.com.

Revisiting Space: 1999

I’m sure everyone remembers where they were on September 13, 1999. Or, at least, they would remember that momentous day if the events of the television show Space: 1999 had come to pass. In the show, that’s the day a nuclear waste dump exploded on Earth’s moon sending it out of orbit and on a long, harrowing journey out of the solar system. I recently found myself thinking about Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s series. I remember watching it when it first aired, but it occurred to me that I didn’t remember many details about the series, so I went back and watched most of the first season’s episodes.

The first thing that occurred to me as I watched the series is how much it owed to two sources: Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s previous live-action television series, UFO. The show reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the sense that it’s less about space as a setting for the story’s action as it’s a place where mankind will encounter phenomena that will stretch the mind and maybe even spur the next stage of human evolution. The uniforms, the moon base, and the overall feel of the show reminded me a lot of UFO and I’ve read that some elements of the series were, in fact, originally developed for a second season of UFO, which never materialized.

The science of Space: 1999 is much maligned. Isaac Asimov once famously remarked that an explosion big enough to knock the moon out of orbit would destroy it. Physicist Kevin Grazier has taken a much more balanced approach and calculated the energy it actually would take to knock the moon out of Earth’s orbit. He notes that enough energy to knock the moon out of orbit would be highly improbable and also remarks that getting the moon to leave Earth’s orbit isn’t as hard a problem as getting the moon to leave the solar system. You can read Grazier’s thoughts here: https://www.gerryanderson.co.uk/science-of-space-1999/

In his article, Grazier does point out one way in which Space: 1999’s science was ahead of its time and that was it’s presentation of rogue planets. In the series, the moon encounters numerous planets away from the sun wandering by themselves with no nearby star. Rogue planets were pure speculation when the series was created, but we now know them to be something that does exist. We still do have a science issue in that some of these rogue planets seem to support human-like life, despite the lack of a nearby star.

Part of how Space: 1999 sells its improbable physics is by giving us some of the most believable tech I’ve seen in a science fiction series. The Eagle spacecraft look like the kind of things you might have expected NASA to have developed if they had continued building on the Apollo program. The only real problem with the Eagles is their use in atmosphere and high gravity worlds as the series progresses. I believe them on the moon, but not necessarily flying through dense planetary atmospheres. The comlocks that people use to unlock doors and talk to each other feel like the kind of combination remote control, video cell phone that could have been developed in the 1990s.

One of the things I found remarkable about revisiting Space: 1999 was the quality of the cast. Of course, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, and Barry Morse all had wonderful, understated performances. They felt like humans coming to grips with the weird reality they found themselves in. I had forgotten that actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared in the series. Speaking of Cushing and Lee, I had forgotten how well the series did at presenting science fiction horror. The denizens encounter some truly frightening situations such as aliens who take over people’s bodies, or implacable tentacled aliens who dine on people’s flesh and spit out corpses.

One of the episodes I found especially interesting was one called “The Guardian of Piri.” In it, Catherine Schell plays an alien who convinces the Alphans they can have complete contentment if they settle. Much of it reminds me of the kinds of visions John Mark Ellis experiences in Children of the Old Stars and the Cluster’s eventual takeover of Earth in Heirs of the New Earth. The structures on Piri are even spheres, reminding me of the Cluster. Although I don’t remember the episode specifically, it does make me wonder how much the episode seeped into my subconscious and was reprocessed in my story.

So, where was I on September 13, 1999? I was working at New Mexico State University on the 1-meter telescope project based at Apache Point Observatory. We were about a month into a new semester, which meant that I was probably busy getting classroom demonstrations ready. I was also working on the novel Children of the Old Stars and thinking about some of the more metaphysical topics I wanted to explore in my series. You can help me create the new edition of my novel by supporting my Patreon campaign at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Sneak Peek at Breaking the Code

Last autumn, my friends at eSpec Books asked me to submit a novella for their NeoParadoxa imprint, which features books about cryptids. Many of these titles will be featured in Box Mountain’s monthly Cryptid Crate subscription boxes which include cryptid themed art and decor for your home in addition to the books.

What are cryptids? They are creatures lurking in our world. Obscure creatures long relegated to myth and legend. They have been sighted by a lucky-or unlucky-few, some have even been photographed, but their existence remains unproven and unrecognized by the scientific community.

These creatures, long thought gone, have somehow survived; creatures from our nightmares haunting the dark places. They swim in our lakes and bays, they soar the night skies, they hunt in the woods. Some are from our past, and some from other worlds, and others that have always been with us—watching us, fearing us, hunting us.

These are the cryptids, and the Systema Paradoxa books tell their tales.

Because the book will be featured in the Cryptid Crates, the folks at eSpec Books have asked me not to give away too much of the surprise of what’s inside. So I’m limiting myself to sharing the cover and a short book book description.

1942. Gallup, New Mexico. Marine recruiters have come to town looking to fill their ranks with a secret weapon against the Axis powers-what would become Navajo Code Talkers—but not everyone supports the prospect of young native men going off to war.

When one new recruit is found dead, and a rancher’s cattle are mutilated, whispers of witchcraft and skinwalker filter through the town, and interest in enlisting wanes. Is there evil afoot, or is that just what opponents to the cause want everyone to think?

Whether guided by magic, mischief, or malevolence, without a doubt, nothing is as it seems…

If you’re excited for the release of the novella, the very best way to get a copy is by subscribing to Cryptid Crate at: https://www.cryptidcrate.com. Not only will you get my novella and the goodies that come with it, you’ll get the other novellas in the series as they’re released.

If you would rather just get the book by itself, it is available for pre-order at fine bookstores including:

Santa Claus, A Century Ago

Born in the 1960s, I was in the prime audience for Rankin/Bass Studio’s stop motion animation productions. For me, movies like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus defined what I knew about the guy in a red suit who delivered toys on Christmas Eve. In fact, even though I was in college by the time it came out, it was a 1985 Rankin/Bass production that opened my eyes to a wider world of Santa lore. That year they released a production of L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This was the first time I’d learned that the guy who created The Wizard of Oz actually wrote a Santa story. It also struck me that the Santa portrayed was somewhat different than the one portrayed in those earlier Rankin/Bass productions. He lived in a magical land, not at the North Pole, and he had a whole assortment of magical helpers and foes, not just the little elves I’d known from the shows I’d grown up with.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published in 1902. As it turns out, this was during the era when the popularity of Santa Claus really began taking off, not only in the United States but around the world. It’s also the era when Santa really began to take on his most familiar characteristics. As you can see in the book cover, when The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published, the publisher didn’t feel the need the put Santa in his now-iconic red suit. Here we see Santa in a black suit with leopard fur and red pants. Up until this point, the most iconic Santa had been the version popularized by Thomas Nast, who portrayed Santa in a number of different colored coats (when he appeared in color) and often with a hat that was more fur or holly sprigs than red with a white pom-pom.

Curious about how the modern Santa developed from the beginning of the twentieth century through World War I, I started looking for images online. I found a wonderful article tracing the development of Santa Claus in illustration at The Public Domain Review, which is the source of the illustrations in this post. Go there if you want to see even more about Santa’s development.

Our modern, iconic image of Santa is often credited to a series of advertisements painted by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola beginning in 1931. However, the article at The Public Domain Review suggests that Santa in his modern form first appeared on the cover of Puck magazine in 1902, illustrated by Frank A. Nankivell. This is also the earliest illustration I can recall with ladies showing their appreciation for Santa’s gifts. As a bearded man who had grown somewhat broader around the mid-section as I’ve grown older, I must admit a certain appreciation for this trope.

Puck, Christmas 1902

As I continued my explorations of Santa Claus’s development through the early part of the twentieth century, I came to the blog “A Signal from Mars,” which discusses material from the Lowell Observatory archives. In it, I found a wonderful post depicting several photos of Percival Lowell, the man who popularized the idea of Martian canals, dressed as Santa on the observatory grounds in 1911. You can view the images at: https://asignalfrommars.wordpress.com/2018/12/03/up-on-the-rooftop/

Public Domain Review shares evidence of Santa’s growing worldwide appeal with the following 1914 illustration of Santa from Japan. We also see that Santa’s now-iconic image is making its way around the world a few years before the Coca-Cola ads.

Santa Claus visits a child in 1914 Japan.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself wondering how Santa fared during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I couldn’t find many photos from that period, but I did find an account of a visit by Santa to western Nebraska. Santa arrived in town by Union Pacific Railroad on December 2 and was immediately mobbed by children. Unfortunately, this put Santa in violation of a public gathering ordinance. The police soon arrived and stripped poor Santa of his hat and beard and put him in jail. The kids came together, though, and raised Santa’s bail money.

US Food Administration Poster

I’ll wrap up with this poster produced by the US Food Administration in 1918 showing Santa, Uncle Sam, and a soldier. It’s message “Peace: Your Gift to the Nation” seems especially apt today in the wake of a contentious election. I hope as COVID-19 vaccines roll out and a new year dawns, our nation can once again find peace and unity. Wishing you all a happy and peaceful holiday season!

Magic, Science, and Vampires

The first time I remember hearing about nanotechnology or nanites was in 1989 in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Evolution.” At the time, I was in graduate school at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology working on a way to use an automated telescope to search for dwarf novae. In the episode, nanites were presented as tiny, self-replicating robots used to repair damaged human cells. It was an interesting idea, but one that seemed very science fictional even to me who was working in the field of robotics. My office at the time was on the fourth floor of a building called Workman Center, which I show below. This was actually the tallest building in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. I had this office by virtue of needing access to microwave transmitters and receivers on the tower that communicated with our automated telescope.

Workman Center as it appeared in the 1980s.

Over the next few years, I encountered nanites in other science fictional venues. One was the fine novel Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams where aristocrats use nanites to build their dreams. Another was Mystery Science Theater 3000 where they’re deliberately presented as a deus ex machina. In all cases, nanites seemed like a concept representing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”

I first began to understand the real scientific basis behind nanotechnology in the early 2000s when I learned that nanites would likely not be literal robots, but as self-replicating chemicals that could carry instructions like DNA. The idea was exciting and I could definitely see how such chemicals could have the medical applications imagined in Star Trek in the 1980s. I could also see how such chemicals might be tailored to attack certain metals and armor. This gave me the idea that they might start being used in weapons research. As it turns out, New Mexico Tech is the home of an explosives research laboratory which has been featured several times in the Mythbusters TV series.

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Back when I worked in Workman Tower on that robotic telescope, my graduate advisor was a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He got his start there in the 1950s, working on the H-bomb project under Edward Teller. Another professor had been a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who ran the Manhattan Project. Of course, I was familiar with Oppenheimer’s famous paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita where he said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Taking all these ideas and putting them together led me to create the physicist Jane Heckman from Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Oppenheimer’s quote brought to mind the history of New Mexico and the little town of Socorro where I lived. Socorro was one of the first places Spanish settlers established a mission when they came into the land that would be the modern United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what if one of those conquistadors who came with the missionaries still lived in the area. If he was a vampire, he would be the embodiment of the phrase, “I am become death.” Jane meeting the vampire Rudolfo became a way for a modern physicist to confront the idea of the death she created by making weapons. By the time I wrote all this, the Workman Center I had an office in had been torn down and rebuilt. Here’s what the new version looks like:

Workman Center Today

This is the building as I describe it in the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Throughout the novel, I continue to explore the idea of science so advanced it begins to look like magic. Jane working with nanites for simple destructive reasons becomes a way to make it seem more likely that someone might use nanites to reprogram cells in human beings. While I can see some wondrous potential in that idea, I can also see the potential for things to go horrifyingly wrong.

You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

Recharging the Spirit

My routine during much of this COVID-19 pandemic has involved getting up early in the morning and taking a three-mile walk in my neighborhood before settling in for work at home for the rest of the day. This month, I have returned to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in a mode, we hope, is as safe as possible. When I returned to work, it was amazing to have the sense of little time passing and working in spaces just as familiar as those at home. As someone who enjoys traveling and seeing new things, this has been a challenging time.

Because of this, my wife gave me a terrific birthday present. As soon as my first shift at Kitt Peak finished, we made plans to visit the Chiricahua National Monument in Southeastern Arizona. I have driven just north of the monument on I-10 to and from work for a little over twelve years and I’ve passed the turnoff to the monument many times. However, I have never before taken the time to visit. In a pandemic when we we’re discouraged from gathering and where outdoor spaces are safer than indoor, this seemed an ideal time to visit. I’m glad we did. We started our visit at Massai Point, which gave us a wonderful view not only of the rock formations the Chiricahua Mountains are noted for, but a look back into New Mexico.

Massai Point Overlook, Chiricahua National Monument

On the recommendation of the ranger, we decided to hike the Echo Canyon Trail. Unfortunately, when we drove over to the parking lot, we found it full. After a quick look at the map, my wife and I realized the Massai Nature Trail connects to the Echo Canyon Loop trail. So we returned to Massai Point and started our hike.

Rhyolite pillars

The distinctive pillar formations of the Chiricahua began their life when a volcano erupted in the region 27 million years ago and spewed ash over 1200 square miles. The ash compressed and has been weathered by wind and rain. The Echo Canyon loop trail gives a good view of these pillars and takes you through countryside where you can see grottoes looking into and through rocks. With our little addition, we ended up hiking 4.3 miles. It wasn’t bad in light of my routine 3-mile hikes in the neighborhood, but still a little challenge since there was more up and down than my nice circuitous path through the neighborhood.

Because we were in the area, we decided to visit some nearby historical sites as well. We stopped by the grave site of gunman John Ringo, most famous for his involvement as a member of the Cowboy faction in Tombstone, Arizona in the events leading up to and after the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. We also took time to visit Fort Bowie. This was my second visit, but my wife’s first. When I first visited, it was a spur-of-the-moment visit on my way to work one shift. It was also monsoon season, so I ended up making the hike very fast. This time, we were better able to take our time and take the ridge trail that gave us a good overview of the site. As it turns out, Fort Bowie had two locations, which you can see in the photo below. You can likely make out the foundations of the later Fort Bowie on the left in the photo below. A little harder to see is the smaller, original encampment, only used for six years, on the hill to the right.

Both Fort Bowie Locations

Fort Bowie features in my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, I imagine the Chiricahua Apaches end up capturing a mining machine from the Clantons, also famous from their involvement in Tombstone, Arizona. With the help of machinists in Mexico, they replicate the mining machine and turn them into war wagons. Using them, they’re able to capture Fort Bowie, putting them into a position where the United States government is forced to negotiate with them. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

The City of Crosses

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

I’ve told the origin story of my novel, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, numerous times. In short, it got its start in early 2000 during a conversation with a fellow author. We began to imagine what a vampire would make of Las Cruces, which is Spanish for “the crosses.” Soon after that discussion, a title popped into my mind, “Vampire in the City of Crosses.” That title demanded an exploration of vampires and their relationship to crosses.

Over the years in movies and books, vampires have had many different reactions to crosses. In Hammer Studio’s Dracula films, Peter Cushing could practically grab any two sticks and put them together into a cross form, which would make Christopher Lee cower in fear. Some books I’ve read have suggested that vampires are repelled by any faith. Crosses then serve as a focal point for Christian faith. In the great Doctor Who vampire story, “The Curse of Fenric,” a Soviet agent repels vampires with a hammer and sickle! Then there’s Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire who declares his fondness for crosses. So I wanted to explore this idea of vampires and crosses.

When I moved to Las Cruces in the mid-1990s, Main Street stopped at downtown. Traffic had been routed to two side streets and a pedestrian mall had been installed. Unfortunately, once that had been done, most of the businesses moved away to other parts of town. The only reason to go to the mall at the time was to visit an amazing used bookstore called COAS or the farmer’s and craft market held on weekends. That said, the place where traffic was diverted had three flower beds in the form of giant crosses. Here they are in a photo courtesy courtesy fellow Las Cruces author David G. Thomas.

David G. Thomas has several other photos of downtown from this period in the post https://lascrucesblog.com/history/2007/las-cruces-worst-mistake/

If you’re at all interested in the history of Southern New Mexico, where people like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett lived, it’s well worth reading David’s blog at https://lascrucesblog.com

I don’t want to throw out any spoilers, but while the vampire Daniel learned there’s a good reason to be cautious around crosses in the story “Vampire in the City of Crosses,” I had to send him on a longer quest to learn why they have those properties. After his encounter with the cross, the vampire Mercy resuscitates Daniel at a nearby memorial, commemorating the Don Juan de Oñate’s entrance into New Mexico. I picked the location because both the vampires Mercy and Rudolfo actually would have experienced the events the memorial commemorated. The memorial has since been moved, but here’s what it looked like in the early 2000s when we took a friend to see it.

At the time, the memorial sat next to an abandoned theater, which serves as a lair for a family of vampires in the novel. Today, the Rio Grande Theater is a nice venue for plays and performances, but at the time of the story, it was gutted on the inside and boarded up on the outside. Here’s the memorial next to the theater.

The work on the theater was on-again, off-again over the years as funding came and went. I met a worker at the time, who told me whenever he was in there, he could imagine spectral eyes watching him from the balcony. Here’s the boarded up front of the theater as it appeared at the time of the novel.

If you’d like to delve into the world of the Scarlet Order Vampires, this is a great month to do so. The novel is the featured selection of the Vampyre Library Book Club. The club is all online at Facebook and you can join at https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704/. If you want to learn more about the novel, visit: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Election Day

Today is election day in the United States. I hope by now you have already voted if you’re legally entitled to do so. If you haven’t voted, I hope you’re able to get out and safely cast your ballot today.

I don’t spend much time here or on other social media networks talking politics. That’s not because I don’t think elections are important. Quite the contrary, I think they’re very important and I pay careful attention to what elected officials are doing from the local to national levels. One reason I don’t discuss politics much on social media is that as an employee of the national observatory, I’m asked to assure that there’s no implication that the observatory endorses my personal beliefs. Because I do spend time on the web as something of an unofficial ambassador for the national observatory, I feel I must be especially careful.

Another reason I don’t share much about my personal political beliefs on social media is that it’s far too easy for people to lash out with a knee-jerk response the minute they see something they disagree with. I’m generally happy to discuss politics with you face to face and have a thoughtful dialog. I’m less interested in a shouting match from the relative anonymity of a keyboard and screen where no one seriously considers the other person’s point of view.

I am also somewhat reluctant to share personal political beliefs online because I have encountered situations where I have shared an opinion about a particular political issue and someone immediately assumes they understand what I believe about everything. I think this is a symptom of the lock the Democratic and Republican parties have on American democracy.

At a theoretical level, I can understand how a strict two-party system could work well. First, imagine two parties who each hold the country’s well-being first and foremost in their hearts. Each of them brings solutions to issues they care about to the table. They discuss those issues and come up with a compromise that may not be perfect and may not even satisfy everyone, but moves things forward and, at least, improves things for everyone.

The problem is that a feedback loop has arisen. As a legislator, one states a position. If everyone understands that position is an ideal that may move toward a more moderate position, things are fine. However, when people feel betrayed by compromise, they expect legislators to fight tooth and nail to get exactly what they promised and no different. The legislators are then backed into a corner and don’t feel they can compromise.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a clear path out of this feedback loop, at least in the near future. While I think it would help to have a couple more parties in the mix to put more ideas on the table, I think the ultimate issue is that people have to realize that government’s job is not to give one set of people their way all the time. Government’s job is probably best stated in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’ve just gone through annual job performance reviews. In a sense, elections are a performance review. We do not work for the president or our legislators. They work for us. As their managers, we need to keep in mind their job is not to do exactly what I tell them, or you tell them, or our neighbor down the street tells them. Their job is to do the best they can for all of us. Your job is to be a responsible manager and let them know how they’re doing by voting.

Mars at Opposition

On October 13, 2020, the planet Mars reached a position in its orbit called “opposition” with respect to the Earth. What this means is that the Sun, Earth, and Mars are all lined up so that the Sun illuminates Mars from directly behind us. It actually wasn’t Mars’s closest approach, that happened about a week earlier on October 6. I decided to take advantage of Mars’s opposition to get some photographs.

I used the 8-inch Celestron telescope I received as a high school graduation present in the 1980s. My camera is an Orion Starshoot Eyepiece Camera that takes video. I use free software called Registax 6 to grab frames from the video and combine them into a single, finished image.

The first set of photos I tried were on the night of October 11, just before opposition. It was the most beautiful, clear night I had seen in Las Cruces in a long time. Unfortunately it had been windy during the day, making the atmosphere fairly turbulent. As a result, the images weren’t as clear as I could have hoped. Still, I took two images about an hour apart and was excited to notice that I could see that the planet had rotated from one frame to the next. Note, in the caption below, I use “Universal Time” or “UT” which is based on Greenwich Mean Time. Here in the Southwestern United States, around this time of year, midnight UT happens about an hour before sunset. It can be a convenient way for astronomers to measure time

While preparing for this blog post, I discovered that the website for Sky and Telescope Magazine has a very nice tool that lets you determine the longitude of Mars facing us at a given time of the night. You can find the tool at: https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/interactive-sky-watching-tools/mars-which-side-is-visible/#

With the longitudes in hand, I went back to my handy copy of A Photographic History of Mars: 1905-1961 by E.C. Slipher of Lowell Observatory and found photos of Mars that are similar to the longitudes I show in my photos above. It was gratifying to see my images with an 8-inch telescope compare somewhat favorably with images attained by the Lowell Observatory 24-inch telescope in 1941.

I went back out on the night of October 17, which proved to be a much more stable night. Unfortunately, there were some high clouds, but in my experience, those sometimes stabilize the atmosphere. I took a longer sequence of images and obtained a truly beautiful image of Mars. Just for comparison sake, Sky and Telescope’s calculator says it would be centered on longitude 200 degrees, which is close to the left image above.

Mars at 3:43UT on October 18.

I was very pleased with this last image about five days after opposition. It compares very well with images that were taken at Lowell Observatory on photographic plates. I also noticed that I captured a very small hint of the north polar cap in my photograph.

For fun, I also took images of Saturn and Jupiter both nights. The ones from October 11 aren’t very good, but here are my images from October 17.

Saturn

When I took my image of Jupiter, I wanted a “family portrait” showing the planet with the four Galilean moons that are easily visible in my 8-inch telescope. As it turns out, the human eye has better dynamic range than my Orion Starshoot camera. To photograph the moons, I had to overexpose the planet. So the image below is a little bit of photographic trickery. I took an image to capture the moons, then I took a second image to capture details on the planet. As the two images were taken back to back at the same orientation, I just overlaid one image over the other to get my family portrait. The moons, from left to right are Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Europa.

A Jovian family portrait.

As I write this, preparations are underway to reopen Kitt Peak National Observatory after it was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once I get back to work, I’ll be working with much larger telescopes and much more sophisticated instrumentation than my 36-year old Celestron and its little video camera. Even so, there’s nothing like sitting out on a dark night, looking across the gulf of space and dreaming of what it would be like to visit the planets in person.

Revisiting the Revolution

Back in 2012, after the release of my novel Owl Dance and while I was still in the early planning stages of the sequel, Lightning Wolves, author Robert E. Vardeman asked if I would like to contribute a novella to a series he was assembling. The series was called “The Empires of Steam and Rust” and it was set in an alternate 1915. Queen Victoria was still on the throne and growing younger. Teddy Roosevelt was still president of the United States and growing an empire. The Russian Revolution had failed and the Czar was still in power. The Meiji Restoration had not happened and there were still samurai in Japan. Bob had already written a novella in the series about an adventurer and an aeronaut who travel into a world where all metals have turned to rust. The novella also featured Albert Einstein’s scheming brother, Ernst, as an antagonist. Stephen D. Sullivan had written a novella set in the Russia of this world.

While seeking inspiration for a story, I happened on a photo of Pancho Villa in a pith helmet dated March 1916. At that moment, I knew I needed to write the story of the Mexican Revolution as it happened in this world. Bob had provided a detailed bible for this world. One notable aspect of the world was that while airships existed, airplanes had not yet been invented. What’s more, the American Expeditionary Force’s real life incursion into Mexico in 1915 was the first American military action to utilize airplanes. That gave me the story. What if the Americans had airships, but Pancho Villa discovered airplanes in another world and brought them to his?

While researching this story, author Jeffrey J. Mariotte invited me to participate in an author event being held in Douglas, Arizona at the Gadsden Hotel. Douglas sits right on the Mexican border and Pancho Villa had been a guest at the hotel along with General John J. Pershing. In fact, the two dined together at the hotel restaurant. The Gadsden Hotel is one of the biggest buildings in town. You can’t miss it and I decided I should find a way to use it in the story.

The Hotel Gadsden in Douglas, Arizona

The hotel has a beautiful lobby where I set some of the novel’s action.

Lobby of the Hotel Gadsden

That amazing, marble staircase in the center of the photo has two chips in it. There’s a story that the chips came about because Pancho Villa rode his horse up the staircase. Again, that was a real life event too good not to use. I have a scene where Pancho Villa rides full tilt at the hotel, hollers to open the door and rides right into the lobby and up the stairs to wake his men. In the photo below, my daughters and I are sitting on the steps by the chips said to have been made by Villa’s horse. The chips are right by my feet.

Stairway at the Gadsden Hotel

Of course, while I was in the area, I also drove around some of the surrounding countryside. This was a story about Pancho Villa and air power. He had to hide his plane somewhere. I found the washes around had lot of growth and would provide good cover for whatever Villa planned to do from his headquarters in Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico.

Can you see the hidden airplane?

The Tucson Steampunk Society’s virtual book club has chosen Revolution of Air and Rust to be their selection this month. They will be discussing the book from 4:30-5:30 Mountain Standard Time (Remember, Arizona does not switch to Daylight Savings Time, so that’s 5:30-6:30pm if you’re on Daylight time) on Sunday, October 18. I’ll be on hand to discuss the book as well! You can get more information about how to join the discussion at the event’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/671206483480544

You can learn more about the book and find all the places it’s available by visiting http://davidleesummers.com/Air-and-Rust.html. There are also links to all the other books in the Empires of Steam and Rust series if you want to continue your explorations of this world.