Reading, Writing and Yard Work

This week has flown by for me. Like many people around the world, I’ve been spending all my time at home to help stem the spread of the Coronavirus, but that hasn’t kept this from being a busy week. I’ve been doing lots of reading, I have a handful of writing projects in process and I have yard work to get me outside a little. I have lots and lots of yard work. It seems like February and early March were rainier than normal in the desert southwest this year and when it rains here, things grow fast. I was able to clean up the front yard and now I’m slowly making headway in the back yard.

When I’m not doing yard work, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. March is the month when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America announce the nominees for the Nebula Award. The Nebulas are given for the best science fiction or fantasy novel, novella, novelette, and short story of the previous year. Along with the Nebulas are the Norton Award for best young adult novel and the Bradbury Award for best screenplay. I like to read as many of the Nebula and Norton works as I can before voting. It’s a way for me to read several of the works that my peers consider to be the best writing of the past year.

I usually make it through all the shorter works before voting. The novels of both categories are more challenging. At a minimum I read the first chapter of each nominated work along with the description of the book at Amazon. This way, I get a sense for the writing style and I have a good idea of what the book is about. I then pick the ones I like the most and read them as far as I can. This year, it looks like I’m going to make it through more of the novels than I have in years past. I’m glad about that. I also was able to see all but one of the Bradbury-nominated works. I have choices in most of the categories, but it’s been tough. There are several great works in the running this year. Still, what I like best is what I learn from reading these very good writers. I hope I can find ways to spark my readers’ imaginations the way these writers have sparked mine.

I finally cleared my slate of some of the big editing projects I’ve been doing for other writers. I’ll have some announcements to make on that front soon, but this has allowed me to focus more of my time on my own writing. I’ve written down a treatment for a short story that was solicited by an editor and run it by him. He sent back some suggestions and I think we’ve converged on a story treatment that I will develop into a short story. I’m also glad to be back at work on The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m giving it another round of editing based on some early feedback of the new edition. I’m hoping to finish that task before it’s time for me to take my turn watching over Kitt Peak National Observatory for a few days in April. If you want to get an early peek at this work, please consider supporting me at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

I know this has been a tough time for many people. The unemployment numbers out this week are just staggering. I am hoping things will recover when people are allowed to return to their jobs. That said, I doubt the world will be quite the same as it was before. It makes me wonder about the world science fiction writers will imagine after this is all over.

Voyage of the Space Beagle

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s mission: explore new worlds, seek out new life … and kill it!

Wait, what?

Let me step back a moment. When I married my wife, a friend quipped that I was marrying her for her collection of science fiction novels. One of those novels was A.E. van Vogt’s classic science fiction tale, Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s one of those novels I’ve long meant to read and I came across it the other day on the bookshelf and decided to give it a go.

The novel is a fix-up of four novellas written between 1939 and 1943 that describe a large space ship full of scientists sent out to the galaxy to learn everything they can. The primary point of view character is Elliott Grosvenor, an early practitioner of a science called nexialism which endeavors to take the results of all the sciences and come up with comprehensive results that specialists in those fields can’t achieve alone. This is probably a good thing, since the Space Beagle’s all-male crew consists of a bunch of scientists from different specialties, most of whom don’t seem to work and play well with others. Even Grosvenor felt like something of a know-it-all jerk at times.

In the first part, the Space Beagle lands and takes the cat-like creature from the cover aboard as a specimen. This coeurl turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone anticipated and it goes on a killing rampage through the crew until they figure out how to dispatch it. In the second part, hypnotic suggestions begin flooding the ship and causing the crew to turn against each other. Grosvenor figures out that they’re receiving communications from an alien race. In the third part, they encounter a living creature out in space called an Ixtl and decide to bring it aboard as a specimen. It promptly begins going around the ship and inserting its eggs into the intestinal tracts of the crew. Finally, the Space Beagle leaves the galaxy and encounters a galaxy-spanning entity at M33. It transforms planets into jungle planets with lots of life that it can feed on.

I found it difficult to sympathize with a lot of the characters in this novel. While it was interesting that they had egos and that led to conflict, I just wanted them to get over themselves and work together once in a while as something nasty attacked the ship. What’s more, for a thin novel, it was rather plodding and methodical in its pacing. Despite that, the real importance of this novel is in its influence. The first thing I noticed was the cat-like creature on the cover. He reminded me of one I’d seen on another recent novel.

It turns out that Haruka Takachiho, the author of the Dirty Pair light novels was a fan of A.E. van Vogt and Mughi, the third lovely angel, shown on the cover, is supposed to be a coeurl. There are obvious parallels in this novel with movie and TV space opera that followed, such as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. When van Vogt mentioned his all-male crew, I immediately thought of the problems the crew of the C-57D had when it’s all-male crew encountered a woman on Altair IV. Although I poke fun at the Star Trek connection in the opening of this blog, it does resemble Star Trek in that the Space Beagle ostensibly is an exploratory ship that finds itself in the position of defending Earth against creatures that would do Earth harm. For that matter, the coeurl feeds on the potassium in human bodies, not unlike the creature that kills people for salt in an early episode of Star Trek.

One thing that’s quite striking in this novel is its resemblance to the plot of 1979’s movie, Alien. Most people point to the obvious parallels of the egg-implanting Ixtl, but the coeurl story also resembled Alien quite a bit. I was especially struck at the end of that story when the biologist, Kent, suggests that a crew should return to the coeurl’s planet and exterminate the species before they become more of a problem, the setup for this universe’s version of Aliens. Apparently van Vogt did sue the producers of Alien and was awarded a settlement.

Although it feels dated, and I’ve read novels from the period that I enjoyed more, I was glad to discover this influential science fiction novel and travel with the crew of the Space Beagle for a little while, and survive the experience.

Why Pirates?

During a quiet moment at 2018’s MileHiCon, author Jane Lindskold and I sat down and had a nice conversation. In that conversation she asked why an apparently law-abiding, nice person like me would be interested in writing about pirates. After all, I’ve not only written about space pirates, but I’ve written about airship pirates in my steampunk fiction, and pirates have appeared in my vampire fiction. The drug traffickers in The Astronomer’s Crypt could also be seen as pirates of a sort. I have a two-part answer to the question. One part is related to story potential and the other is more personal.

To summarize the United Nations definition of piracy, it is a criminal act of violence, detention or depredation committed by the crew or passengers of a ship or aircraft directed against another ship or aircraft—or directed against a ship, aircraft, persons or property outside the jurisdiction of a country.  Apply that idea to any vessel that is either in space or operating on a distant world, and you open up tremendous story potential.

In fact, when I first wrote my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, the working title was simply Sufiro. The novel really is about the history of a planet founded by pirates, the disaffected people who follow, and the unscrupulous people who find resources on the world they can exploit. I added “Pirates” to the title because the planet is not only founded by pirates, but those unscrupulous people who come later are committing acts of violence, detention and depredation against their fellows outside the jurisdiction of a country. In a very real way, they are even more piratical than the story’s avowed pirates.

On a more personal level, pirates stir the imagination despite the fact that they steal from others to make a living and often murder to do so. If you look into the history of piracy—particularly during piracy’s “golden age” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—you find that discipline on military and legitimate trading vessels was brutal and crews were paid almost nothing. On pirate ships, the crews had more of a voice in how things were run and the booty was split more evenly.

Today, in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a world where companies monitor our e-mails and website usage. People can be fired for saying the wrong thing in the heat of the moment. In point of fact, the corporate world of today has nothing on the day when you could be flogged to within an inch of your life for a perceived insult. Still, the idea of setting out to sea or the stars with no one watching your every move and not having to watch your every word does have a certain appeal.

In Leiji Matsumoto’s famous Captain Harlock anime series and manga, the titular pirate captain fights under the skull and crossbones flag because it’s a symbol that one should fight to the death for freedom and that one shouldn’t be subject to corrupt and decadent governments. I wrote The Pirates of Sufiro before I got to know Harlock as any more than a cameo character in Galaxy Express 999, but the idea does capture some of what I tried to capture in my novel.

As it turns out, The Pirates of Sufiro was the first novel I ever wrote and I think it’s fair to say the idea was more ambitious than my skills were ready for almost twenty-five years ago. I’ve been spending much of the last year revising The Pirates of Sufiro for a new edition. I think I’ve made it much better, but I’m in the process of taking a good hard look and deciding whether or not I’ve succeeded in making it the book I want it to be. Much of that is making sure the characters are true to themselves as they developed in the books I wrote after Pirates.

You can help me in my quest to make The Pirates of Sufiro the book it should be by joining my Patreon campaign. My fix-up novel Firebrandt’s Legacy may be read in its entirety. Also, you can read the last published edition of The Pirates of Sufiro and the draft as it stands now. It’s likely there will be even one more draft before the book is published. Once it is published, I’ll give download codes for all the novels in the Space Pirates’ Legacy universe that are in print: The Solar Sea, Firebrandt’s Legacy, and The Pirates of Sufiro. Of course, I love to hear feedback from my patrons and it’s a great way to weigh in on what you think of the books. You can become a patron for just $1.00 a month. To learn more, click the button below. It’s time for some piracy!

My Star Trek

Back in 2007, the current actor playing the Doctor in Doctor Who, David Tennant, appeared alongside one of the classic Doctors, Peter Davison in a short film for charity called “Time Crash.” In the short, Tennant has a moment that’s close to breaking the fourth wall. He glances at Davison with admiration, talks about all the things about him that inspired his interpretation of the character and then declares, “You were my Doctor.” Ever since then Doctor Who fans are fond of proclaiming which Doctor was the one that made them a fan of the series. That Doctor is my Doctor.

It’s possible to do almost the same thing with Star Trek. The show is almost as old and existed in numerous incarnations, much like Doctor Who. What’s more, as I talk to people of different ages, I do find that people do remember different Star Trek series with different amounts of fondness, often related to which one they discovered first and really hooked them. Thanks to having older brothers, I have watched and loved Star Trek as long as I remember, but to some degree, the original series is their Star Trek. For me, the series that hooked me was the one that debuted on Saturday morning TV around the time I started the second grade.

The animated Star Trek produced by Filmation Studios and helmed by D.C. Fontana essentially gave us two more seasons of the original series, completing the original five year mission. What’s more, I’d argue most of the episodes were better than the episodes that appeared in the third live action season. We got to see cool new aliens, such as Arex, a new navigator with three arms and three legs, and a Vendorian shapeshifter with tentacles who no doubt stuck in my mind enough to inspire my Alpha Centaurans when I wrote the first chapter of my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. We also got to see a return of the tribbles and a return to the planet from the episode “Shore Leave.”

I was pleased to see that someone finally devoted a book to the animated series, Star Trek: The Official Guide to the Animated Series by Aaron Harvey and Rich Schepis with an afterward by Dayton Ward, who co-edited the anthology Maximum Velocity with me. It has nice episode summaries plus behind the scenes information. For instance, I didn’t realize that Lou Scheimer of Filmation had been trying to get rights to do an animated Star Trek since before the original went off the air. What’s more, I learned the animated series the only one to win an Emmy in a non-technical category. It won for “Outstanding Children’s Program” in the second season.

The animated Star Trek often suffers from arguments about the series’ canon. In fact, all canon refers to is the collected body of original work produced by the licensed owners. What people really seem to mean when they argue about “canon” is “the consistent internal history of the show.” It doesn’t help that the series creator, Gene Roddenberry, didn’t want to consider the animated series part of that official history. Despite that, several authors in later series have included references to it. Now, to put this kind of debate into perspective, I have a hard enough time maintaining consistency in a multi-book series that I, alone, create. I can’t imagine being absolutely consistent throughout a series that has lasted over 50 years with multiple creators, where history itself has changed some of the backstory. (We all remember Khan Noonien Singh’s reign in the 1990s, right?) I think the best new creators can do is know what came before, do their best to get it right, and maybe even have a little fun when they find contradictions and anachronisms.

If you haven’t seen the animated series, or it’s been a while, I encourage you to take a look. Bringing Harvey and Schepis’s book along for the journey might just add to your appreciation.

Remember Yamato

On Christmas, my older daughter surprised me with a copy of one of the myriad Space Battleship Yamato soundtrack albums. She found the Japanese import at a convention this past year. A search of Tim Eldred’s amazing Yamato fan site, OurStarBlazers.com, revealed that it was the 1995 release of the Space Battleship Yamato: The New Voyage Symphonic album.

As I’ve mentioned before, I collect soundtracks and love to play them while I write. They can help me find a mood or a tone while I’m writing certain scenes. Sometimes they just help me escape the mundane worries of the world while I try to get into a creative headspace. The TV series Space Battleship Yamato debuted in October 1974 in Japan and featured one of the most epic scores ever to appear in a space opera TV series. Here in America, John Williams’s amazing soundtrack for Star Wars set a standard for space adventure music. I’ve heard it speculated that George Lucas was inspired to have Williams create such an epic score because he’d seen it done with great success in Japan. Whether that speculation is true or not, I still consider the Yamato soundtracks to be among the gold standard of science fiction music.

Even though I have been a fan of Space Battleship Yamato since I first saw it on American TV circa 1978 or so, I haven’t seen every episode of the translated series, Star Blazers, or every movie. It doesn’t help that the original movies only had limited release in the United States. When they were released on DVD, they came out at a price I couldn’t readily afford. Space Battleship Yamato is noted for having a rousing opening song performed by Isao Sasaki. In the album for Space Battleship Yamato: The New Voyage, there’s a new opening song, also performed by Isao Sasaki, called “Remember Yamato.” The song is so distinctive, that I realized The New Voyage was one of the stories I missed.

A search of Amazon revealed that The New Voyage was still available on DVD and it was at a price I could now afford, so I sent away for it and finally had a chance to watch it. I knew the events of the story because I had friends who had described it to me during my high school years. Still, this was the first time I’d seen this particular story for myself. It’s quite an iconic chapter in the Yamato storyline. In short, it tells the story of how the Captain Kodai of the Yamato teamed up with Lord Dessler of the Gamilon Empire to attempt to save the planet of Dessler’s greatest love from an evil empire strip-mining her planet. If we were to put this in Star Wars terms, it would be like Luke Skywalker teaming up with Lord Vader after the Empire’s defeat to go fight evil industrialists. I’d definitely pay to see that!

It turns out the special features on this particular disc were assembled by none other than Tim Eldred, whose website helped me identify the soundtrack album, which in turn led me on a quest to find the movie. One of the special features is a translation of creator Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s liner notes for the album! At the end of the notes, he says, “Please enjoy the sound of this space opera and revive the vast anime-universe in your heart. I also hope you will create your own wonderful images which surpass mine.”

I’m delighted that I have been able to create some of my own space opera adventures in novel form which have been inspired by the music of Space Battleship Yamato and I will forever be grateful to Mr. Nishizaki for his creation. You can explore my work at my website http://www.davidleesummers.com

Weighing Planets

At this month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the team developing the NEID spectrograph at Kitt Peak National Observatory announced the instrument’s first light and released a great, processed image of the first spectrum that illustrates much of what I’ve talked about when giving behind-scenes-glimpses of the work. This is a spectrum of 51 Pegasi, which happens to have been the first star discovered to have an exoplanet back in 1995.

Credit: Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson/Princeton University/Penn State/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/KPNO/AURA

The rainbow in the image above shows light from the star 51 Pegasi spread out by the spectrograph. To the left, you see the spectrum magnified so you can see more details. In particular, you see dark lines bisecting the rainbow in different places. These lines are caused when elements in the star’s atmosphere absorbs a little bit of the light. The dots above the lines come from a “calibration” image. They serve as a road map to tell you where you are in the spectrum. When a planet pulls the star toward us, those dark lines move a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum (to the left in the image above). When the planet goes behind the star, those lines move a little toward the red end of the spectrum (to the right, in the image above).

What’s cool about this kind of measurement is that how far the planet moves those lines is directly related to how massive the planet is. If you measure the line movement precisely, you can measure how much the planet weighs. If you then use another telescope and take images of the star and watch for the planet to cross in front of the star, you can measure how much the planet makes the star’s light decrease. That tells you the diameter of the planet. With the diameter and the mass, you can calculate the density, which tells you whether you’re looking at a gas giant, a rocky world, a water world, or an ice giant world.

What’s more, I was on-hand when that first image was taken. We celebrated by pulling out a bottle of sparkling cider and toasting the instrument’s success. Afterwards, we got back to work characterizing and testing the instrument’s behavior. As you can tell from the image below, we have lots of people in the control room on these commissioning nights!

This past week has been especially fun as a science fiction writer and long time fan. We’ve been starting our nights by observing the star Tau Ceti, which appears in many science fiction novels, movies, and TV series. Among the notable novels where Tau Ceti appears are such classics as Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Empire Star. In Star Trek, Tau Ceti is known as the home of the doomed cargo ship, Kobayashi Maru. The system is the home of the planet Sea of the Morningstar in Bodacious Space Pirates, a wonderful anime series.

In fact, the star itself is very similar to the sun. It has a similar spectral type and a mass about 0.78 times the mass of the sun. It has four candidate planets in orbit and it’s a little less than 12 light years away, so it seems conceivable these are planet humans could eventually visit. I even gave it a cameo in the new, upcoming edition of my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro.

Captain Pike’s Discovery

By coincidence, actor Ethan Peck visited Kitt Peak National Observatory the week Star Trek: Discovery’s second season was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I enjoyed the first season enough, I had already planned to watch the second second when I could get it on disk. Meeting the actor who played Spock in the series provided even more motivation. When I finished my shift at the observatory, I stopped in Tucson and picked up a copy of the season on Blu-Ray. I finished watching the season earlier this week.

Season one ended on a cliffhanger. The Starship Discovery encountered a badly damaged Starship Enterprise. When the second season opens, Captain Christopher Pike beams over to the Discovery and announces that he’s been given temporary command so that he can investigate the appearance of seven mysterious red signals around the galaxy while the Enterprise continues to dock for repairs. We soon learn that Pike’s science officer, Mr. Spock, has committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Spock’s adopted sister, Michael Burnham, is the series protagonist and serves as Discovery’s science officer.

Soon after the season begins, Spock leaves the psychiatric hospital and goes on the run. He’s accused of killing his doctors and the Discovery goes after him. The ship is then stopped in its tracks by an ancient artificial intelligence at the end of its operational life. They end up downloading all of the AI’s data into their computers. At this point, Section 31, a covert operations division of Starfleet takes a strong interest both in the ancient data and in Spock. Saying much more about the plot will get into spoiler territory, but we do end up with a season of political intrigue and personal drama.

As a long-time Star Trek fan, the most satisfying aspect of this season was getting to know Captain Christopher Pike. Way back when there was only one Star Trek TV series, he appeared in one episode as the grievously wounded former captain of the Enterprise. During the episode called “The Menagerie,” Mr. Spock hijacks the ship to take his former captain to the mysterious world Talos IV. In the process we learn about the first time Pike visited Talos IV. During the episode we learn that Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is conflicted about command. He regrets ordering his crew into dangerous situations and considers a new career.

In the 2009, Star Trek film, we see Captain Pike again. This time he’s played by Bruce Greenwood. The movie portrays Pike as something of a cool father figure. Anson Mount, who plays Captain Pike in Star Trek: Discovery, bridges these two portrayals and shows us a captain who cares deeply about his crew and is willing to sacrifice himself for others. Ethan Peck does a great job of playing a young Lieutenant Spock dealing with inner demons. In the process, we get a good sense of why he was loyal enough to Captain Pike to risk a court martial to help his mentor in the original series. We also see how Spock and Burnham influenced each other growing up and we see a fun brother/sister dynamic between the two characters.

The second season of Discovery includes a lot of action, which I enjoyed and I was glad to get to know the series’ regular characters better. The season-long arc format continues to suit Star Trek. That said, aside from our encounter with the ancient AI, we don’t seem to “explore new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations” as much as we did in the original series or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. That said, the season’s end did set us up to go “where no one has gone before.” At the end of the season, we got a nice taste of Captain Pike’s Enterprise. I think it would be a lot of fun if we saw a spin-off series that gave us more of Captain Pike and Mr. Spock’s adventures before the more famous five-year mission.