When Mars Invaded England

In the twenty years from 1877 until 1897, the planet Mars underwent a dramatic transformation in the public’s consciousness. In 1877, Mars made a particularly close approach to the Earth. The planet’s two moons were discovered and efforts were made to map the planet’s surface in detail. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced the presence of interconnected features that resembled channels. Over the next 20 years, astronomers would continue to study the planet and many, including Schiaparelli, would come to believe those channels were canals engineered by intelligent Martians. In 1897, Pearson’s Magazine serialized The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Wells’ novel captures an image of the Martians very close to that painted by astronomers such as Percival Lowell. He portrayed them as an ancient people using their vast intellect to survive on a desert world. Wells imagined those Martians turning their attention to their lush neighbor, closer to the sun. He then imagines those intelligent, powerful beings pitting themselves against the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. Of course, to Wells, that would be Victorian England. The novel has a timeless quality and it’s not surprising that many people who adapt the story to other media present it in a setting contemporary to the presentation. Orson Welles imagined the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey of 1938 during his radio adaptation. George Pal set his movie in the Cold War of 1953. Steven Spielberg would again update the setting for his 2005 film.

As a fan of steampunk, I’ve always been a little disappointed that none of these mainstream adaptations return to the book’s original Victorian setting. That said, I recently came across an independent film that did just that and it’s pretty good. The movie is War of the Worlds: The True Story directed by Timothy Hines. It presents the story in a form that reminds me of History Channel documentaries and imagines that the Martians really did invade England in the last days of the nineteenth century. The film intercuts stock footage with dramatizations of scenes from the novel and interview segments with “Bertie Wells,” the last survivor of the Martian War. It would be hard to imagine a film adaptation that more faithfully captured the key points of the original novel.

In addition to the faithful adaptation and Victorian setting, I loved Floyd Reichman’s portrayal of the 86-year-old Bertie Wells, supposedly filmed in 1965. I also enjoyed the depiction of the Martian tripods, which you can see in the poster. I thought they were among the coolest versions of the Martian war machines I’ve seen portrayed so far. That noted, the Martians themselves did look like they might be well at home in a 50s B-movie, but they only make a brief appearance. Also, the stock footage did seem to come from a variety of sources over a somewhat longer time period than that covered by the film. Still, as a fan of both the novel and ambitious indie films, I thought the movie did a creditable job.

I gather that this is Timothy Hines’ second attempt to adapt The War of the Worlds. The first attempt was a movie called H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and it’s a three-hour, word-for-word retelling of the novel. I have not seen this version, but I gather the “historical recreations” from War of the Worlds: The True Story come from the earlier film. Reviews of the earlier film are not kind, but I admire Hines for persevering and recutting the film into a version that, while not perfect, is a lot of fun to watch.

My only complaint about War of the Worlds: The True Story is that I couldn’t obtain a copy of the movie on DVD. I tried to order through the official website. To the credit of the people who run the site, they refunded my money when they couldn’t deliver the DVD. The only way to watch is to stream it from Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/War-The-Worlds-True-Story/dp/B00HH0VG5E

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Sisters of the Wild Sage

My parents loved to watch western movies on weekend afternoons when I was a kid. As I’ve mentioned before, I never really saw the appeal until I happened upon the TV series, The Wild Wild West starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. Ostensibly, the show was a mashup of the western with spy shows that were popular in the day, but it also introduced science fictional and magic elements to the western. The Wild Wild West was my first real exposure to the weird western genre.

Another show that changed my mind about the western was the mini-series adaptation of James Michener’s Centennial. The series and book told the story of a Colorado town, showing the continuum of history from the Native Americans who lived in the area through the fur trappers to the early settlers, the farmers, the cattlemen, and ultimately finishing up in the present day, which was 1976 when the book came out. The classic western story exists in a brief moment in history, typically somewhere between about 1870 and 1890 and tends to ignore what led up to that time and what came after.

When Nicole Givens Kurtz asked me a few days ago if I’d like a preview copy of her new weird western story collection, Sisters of the Wild Sage, I jumped at the chance. I already knew Nicole’s talent. I’d published two of the collection’s stories in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. What’s more, her story “Justice” appeared in the anthology Six-Guns Straight from Hell alongside one of my stories and her story “The Wicked Wild” is in Straight Outta Tombstone.

Many of this collection’s stories are set in the mythic old west in a fictional town called Wild Sage, New Mexico. It’s not exactly that 1870-1890 time period. Instead the setting is the very early twentieth century, around the time my own family came to New Mexico, and still a time when New Mexico was very much the Wild West. These stories often tell about African American women just trying to find a peaceful existence in the world but having to deal with men who want to pull them back into the slavery they or their parents had just left behind. Fortunately, these women are often empowered by magical gifts that help them fight injustice.

My favorite of these “traditional” weird western tales was “Belly Speaker” which provides some truly scary twists to the spooky ventriloquist dummy story. “The Wicked Wild” is also a strong story about a cleaning woman who can summon wind having to battle a demon-possessed cowboy. In the collection’s title story, men come to run a pair of sisters from their land. Fortunately, one of the sisters can control plants and the other has a magically accurate aim with her six-gun.

Like Centennial, this collection spans time, giving a more complete view of the west. Stories like “Kq'” feature Native Americans, possibly even before people of European or African descent arrived in the west. Stories like “Los Lunas” and “The Trader” feature magic in the contemporary west. Nicole even takes us to the future in stories like “The Pluviophile” and “Rise.”

I highly recommend Sisters of the Wild Sage. The anthology will take you on a tour of the weird west not only as it existed in the past, but as it might exist in today’s dark shadows and also as it might exist in the future, especially if we don’t take steps to change the world we live in now. You can pre-order Sisters of the Wild Sage at: https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Wild-Sage-Western-Collection-ebook/dp/B07PBP3S7X/

When Cultures Meet

This week at Kitt Peak National Observatory finds me working with an astronomer logged in and observing from Kyoto, Japan. Meanwhile, on our walkie talkies, we hear French as optical scientists from France work on the new spectrographs at the Mayall Telescope. A favorite memory of working at Kitt Peak involves an astronomer who left the control room at appointed hours to face Mecca and pray. One of the things I enjoy about my “day” job is the way people of different cultures come together to work toward the common goal of understanding the universe around us.

Morning meeting in the Mayall Control Room

At Kitt Peak, our cultural differences allow people to bring different life experiences to the table when solving problems. Language differences can teach us patience as we learn to communicate our goals with members of the same team and who share the same objective. Cultural diversity is also fun as we share our tastes in such things as music, movies, and food.

As someone whose family has lived in the United States since the early days of European colonization, my own culture is defined by a blending of melding of cultural influences from places like Germany, Scotland, and Mexico. Of course, history is replete with examples of people with different cultures having conflicting goals. The results include invasion, forced relocation, and cultural appropriation. There’s more than a little of that in my ancestral background as well on all sides of the issue.

I find the meeting of different cultures inherently fascinating. It forms a big part of my Clockwork Legion books such as The Brazen Shark and Owl Riders. I find it interesting to think what might have been if different cultures met on different terms and perhaps had different perspectives. In science fiction novels such as The Solar Sea, I echo much of what I see at work, people of different cultures coming together for a common goal.

All of this contributed to my excitement when Sheila Hartney proposed assembling an anthology of stories about exchange students to be published by Hadrosaur Productions. There’s a lot of potential for drama as people learn about each other and try to understand each other. Of course, since we publish science fiction and fantasy, Sheila wants to give this anthology a science fictional twist. We want to imagine exchange students coming together from other planets, across time, and across dimensions. Do you have a story of a vampire exchange student staying with a werewolf family? We want to see it? Do you have a story of someone from Earth going to Kepler-22b to study. We want to see it. Do you have a story of an elf studying in dwarven forges? I think you get the idea. The guidelines are at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/ExchangeStudents-gl.html. I hope we’ll see a submission from you.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

As the year starts, I have the rare treat of being able to visit the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club two months in a row. This month, I visited as a reader. The club’s selection is the fine novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I’ll visit next month because the selection is my own novel, Owl Riders. It’s always a pleasure to visit the club and speak to its members about my books. This rare double visit gets to happen because my work schedule at Kitt Peak had start dates the Monday following each of the meetings.

Set in 1883, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street tells the story of Thaniel Steppleton, a telegraph operator in Britain’s Home Office who returns from work one day to find a watch in his rooms. An alarm on the watch saves him from an Irish bomb planted at Scotland Yard. Curious about the origin of the watch, he goes in search of its maker, who he suspects may be tied to the bombing. The maker is a Japanese watchmaker named Keita Mori. Not only does Mori make watches, but he makes amazing automata such as birds and an octopus named Katsu with randomized gears that make him seem almost alive.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow, an Oxford student who anticipates the Michaelson-Morley experiment and also owns a Mori watch meets Thaniel at a party. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on academic women of her period, but she stands to inherit a house from her aunt if she can find someone to marry. She sets her sights on Thaniel.

The story takes many twists and turns and explores the nature of time, artificial intelligence, and precognition. What’s more, it’s well bounded by actual historical events. The bombing of Scotland Yard actually did happen, as did other significant events in the book. At the steampunk society book club meeting, the question was raised about whether this book was more steampunk or more historical fiction. Using my rough and ready description of steampunk as “Victorian inspired fantasia,” I call it very thoroughly steampunk in its exploration of scientific ideas and even “what ifs” through the lens of a Victorian reality.

Another interesting discussion we had at the book club was about whether or not the novel has an actual villain. Throughout the novel, we’re interested in figuring out who bombed Scotland Yard. Despite that, time itself and the time period are almost presented as greater antagonists than the actual bomber. We also discussed the characters and the characterization in the novel and we came to the insight that at this period of time, many of the people are almost treated as parts of a clockwork machine. All in all, it was a fascinating discussion.

As I say, next month, we’ll be discussing my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders at the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club. If you’re in Tucson, I encourage you to join us. The club meets on the second Sunday of each month at 3:30pm at Antigone Books, located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. The meeting to discuss Owl Riders will be on Sunday, February 10. If you can’t join us, The book club takes video of the meetings and they’re posted to the Society’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/. If you want to learn more about the novel and where to order, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

On the subject of schedules, I have been posting new content to this blog every Monday and Saturday. I’ve decided to make a change and start posting every Tuesday and Saturday. I’m doing this to give more even spacing of the posts each week. Also, because of her schedule, my daughter will start updating her blog every Monday. Even though our audiences aren’t identical, it does allow some more effective cross promotion. You can find my daughter’s blog about her crochet business at http://entropycreations.wordpress.com.

Always Available

It occurs to me that a central theme in many of my stories is communication. Some of my stories are set in the past, well before the advent of modern communication, or they’re set in the distant future, when communication becomes a technical challenge again because of the constraints imposed both by the speed of light and signal degradation over distance. This proves to be an interesting time to write about these challenges, because most of us have some form or another of this device.

Most of us are available to get a call or receive a text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We might be inconvenienced by the occasional dead time during a flight where we’re instructed to turn off our phones to avoid interfering with navigation equipment, but that’s about it.

That said, I work in a world where I’m not so easily available. I work at an observatory with radio telescopes and the spread spectrum signals from cell phones interfere with their observing. So, I’m required to turn off my phone while at work. Because my work shifts require me to be on the mountain for up to six days at a time, I can be out of cell phone contact that whole time. Even observatories without radio telescopes are often in remote mountain areas, out of range of cell service. Because of this, the whole lack of cell service became a plot point in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is a nice feature for a horror novel where you don’t want help to arrive at a moment’s notice.

In my novel The Solar Sea, a valiant crew of explorers take a solar sail to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even on relatively short distances like within the solar system, communication can be a challenge. On average, it takes about 15 minutes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Mars, about 30 minutes for a signal to reach Jupiter, and almost an hour and a half to reach Saturn. This assumes the planets are aligned on the same side of the sun as Earth. Still, imagine having a conversation where you speak and wait 15 minutes for your voice to get to Earth, then wait 15 minutes for a reply. Your messages would be more like voice mails. Or you might resort to something like email or texts for communication, which is what they do in my novel.

Back in the nineteenth century, inventors were working on ways to use electromagnetism to speed up communication. The upshot was the development of the telegraph and then the telephone. I have long found it interesting how delays in news affected events before these inventions, and even before these inventions became widely available. This allows for some fun what-if games when writing steampunk. What if instant communication was available to some? How would people view it in the 19th century. In Lightning Wolves, bounty hunter Larissa Crimson asks Professor Maravilla to devise a way for her lightning wolf corps to communicate as they spread out across San Francisco. He devises something he calls a clacker, essentially a portable, wireless telegraph that acts like a messaging device. Eight years later, in Owl Riders, clackers are much more widespread to Ramon Morales’s chagrin. At one point, he hands his clacker to his wife and pretends he didn’t get a message, an action perhaps not unlike what some of us are tempted to do today when certain texts come in.

Remember, all of these books make great last-minute holiday gifts. You can find these and more at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html.


Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Inca Butterflies

Fantasy and steampunk are genres that have earned reputations of being steeped in European history and culture. However, there is a whole world of historical and magical lore to draw on for exciting fantasy tales. That’s why I was excited back in 2003 when Gary Every approached me about publishing two related novelettes he’d written called “Inca Butterflies” and “The Inca’s Cattle.” At the time, I was publishing the magazine Hadrosaur Tales and I really couldn’t publish stories as long as those Gary presented in the magazine. But I loved them enough that I decided to publish them in a standalone chapbook with cover art by Charles Pitts.

I’ve known Gary through his work for many years. His work appeared in almost every issue of Hadrosaur Tales and Tales of the Talisman Magazine. His career has followed many diverse paths including geology exploration, carpenter, chef, piano player, ditch digger, photographer, freelance writer, dishwasher, soccer coach, and storyteller. His works have been featured in many publications in addition to my magazines. I was honored to meet Gary at his home in Sedona just about ten years ago when he hosted me for a writing workshop at a local bookstore. After the workshop, he took me and my daughter to enjoy a local production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

In the photo above Gary and I are hanging out with my daughters in Sedona. Gary’s non-fiction writing inspired me to explore the wilds of Southern Arizona, which in turn inspired scenes in my second Clockwork Legion novel, Lightning Wolves. Because of that, I dedicated the novel to Gary.

In his stories for my magazines, Gary showed a deep interest in Native American lore. The chapbook I published opens with the story of Incan Emperor Huaina Capec who came of age as Alejo Garcia and his band of mutineers arrived in America carrying a weapon far more devastating than cannons. In the second story, Huaina Capac’s successor, Manco Inca, must lead his remaining people as bearded men from Europe swarm the countryside like butterflies sweeping the plains. Set in the last days of the Inca Empire, Inca Butterflies is a tale for all times.

When the book was released, Kane S. Latranz of the Albuquerque Alibi wrote, “Every is an inventive writer and this chapbook encapsulates the bittersweet truth: Life is a thing of dualities, where the only constant is change.”

Inca Butterflies is a short read and packs a lot of value in a small price. I encourage you to pick up a copy. They’re available at the Hadrosaur Productions website at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Inca-Butterflies