Owl Riders in the Sky

While driving up to Kitt Peak National Observatory late on Saturday night, Johnny Cash’s rendition of the great Stan Jones song, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” cycled on my mp3 player. To my mind, the song is a great example of a weird western expressed in music. It tells the story of an old cowhand who rides out on a dark and dusty day and encounters the devil’s own herd being chased by a phantom cowboys.

As I listened, I found myself substituting some images from my own Clockwork Legion novels. In fact, the title of the fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, is kind of an homage to the spooky feelings evoked by the “Ghost Riders.” Different cultures in the southwest often see the appearance of owls as bad omens. As portrayed in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me Ultima, owls are sometimes seen as the familiars of witches. In my novel, the owls themselves are ornithopters, which are craft that fly by flapping their wings. The owl riders of the title are the pilots of these craft. It struck me that with a few tweaks, the song goes from being more of a horror-flavored weird western to more of a science fictional weird western or even a steampunk song.

I don’t feel I can share the full song as I envisioned it since that would include some verbatim lyrics from the original. While it’s part of a discussion of the song and could arguably be “fair use,” quoting complete lines would be a substantial part of the song itself, like quoting an entire chapter from a novel. It’s not my intention to cut into sales of the song. In fact, if you don’t already own a copy of the song, I strongly recommend buying a legal download or a CD of one of the many fine versions. What’s more the lyrics are easily available on the web. Still, I thought it would be fun to describe the song in my revised version and share a few of the altered lyrics.

In the original song, a cowpoke rides out on a stormy day. In my version one of the owl riders is named Billy McCarty and I imagine that he’s a version of Billy the Kid who was diverted off the path to become the infamous outlaw and becomes a hero instead. I could imagine that the cowpoke in my version is one of Billy’s associates who takes shelter to get some rest. He looks up in the sky, “When all at once a parliament of steel-eyed owls he saw.”

As they travel through the clouds, he gets a good look: “Exhaust pipes breathing fire and their talons made of steel. Their beaks were black and shiny and their hot wake he could feel.” Our cowhand shudders as he hears his old friend Billy shout out, “owl riders in the sky!”

Billy’s old friend then sees the determined looks on the riders’ faces. Unlike the original song, these are not desperate men who never hope to reach the end of their quest. These are men and women on the quest for justice. It’s possible it will never end, but the next bad guy they catch makes the world just a little better. It’s at this point that Billy turns to his old companion and warns him to change his ways, otherwise the owl riders will come or him next.

Songs rarely tell a whole story. Like poems, they just present a moment in time or an image. This will go in my mental file as an image that might be part of a story. It may not be used directly, but might inspire something down the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed this peak into how I get my ideas. If you want to learn more about the owl riders and how they came to be, read the novel Owl Riders. You can read the first chapter and find places to buy the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

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Podcasting about Astronomy, Steampunk and More

This weekend finds me at Wild Wild West Con, which is being held at Old Tucson Studios just outside Tucson, Arizona. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll make time to join us. We’re having an amazing time. You can get more information about the convention at https://www.wildwestcon.com/

In the run-up to the convention, I was interviewed on the podcast, Madame Perry’s Salon. Madame Perry is a little like Barbara Eden’s character in I Dream of Jeannie. After a lead in from Captain Kirk and Mr. Sulu, she invited me to sit on the cushions in her genie’s bottle. We discussed how reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love and John Nichols’ The Magic Journey while thinking about the story of my mom’s family set me on the path to writing my first novel The Pirates of Sufiro. We also talked about how working at an observatory and making discoveries in the late twentieth century using nineteenth century instrumentation was an important inspiration for my steampunk writing. Madame Perry asked some great questions. We also had a listener question and a visit from Wild Wild West Con’s programming director James Breen. You can listen to the entire show at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/madameperryssalon/2019/02/28/author-and-astronomer-david-lee-summers-visits-madame-perrys-salon

While you’re at the site, be sure to navigate up to Madame Perry’s main page. In other episodes, she interviews several other Wild Wild West Con featured artists as well, including cosplayer Tayliss Forge, maker Tobias McCurry, and musical guest Professor Elemental among others. If you can’t make it to the convention, the podcast is a great way to get to know some of the people attending. If you were able to make it Wild Wild West Con, you can listen and learn even more about those of us in attendance!

As it turns out, Madame Perry’s Salon wasn’t the only podcast I visited recently to speak about Victorian astronomy. A while back Jeff Davis invited me to speak on his show about something called the Carrington Event. In effect this was a massive solar storm in 1859 that resulted in a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth head on sparking electrical disruption through telegraph lines, triggering auroras and making compasses go crazy. I had to admit that I didn’t know much about the Carrington Event, but Jeff recommended I read a great book called The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark.

The Sun Kings told the story of the Carrington Event and how solar observations in the nineteenth century contributed to the rise of modern astrophysics. Among other things, it discussed the advent of astrophotography and spectroscopy and how astronomers began to notice commonalities between the sun and other stars. This really gets to the root of work I’ve done studying RS CVn stars, which are sun-type binary systems where one or both of the stars have massive spots. It also ties into my work at Kitt Peak where I routinely support spectrographic observations.

Jeff’s show is on the Paranormal UK Radio Network. Despite the network title, we didn’t really get into the paranormal, even though the subject does fascinate me. You can listen to my discussion with Jeff at: http://paranormalukradio.podbean.com/

Revisiting the War of the Worlds

During the run-up to this month’s Wild Wild West Con, I was talking to one of my co-workers about how Victorian science influenced early science fiction novels. During our conversation, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells came up. We spoke a little bit about the famous Orson Welles radio version and the 1953 George Pal film. He also mentioned the Jeff Wayne musical version. As it turns out, I remember seeing ads for this album when it was released, but I never actually listened to it. What’s more, even though the story of The War of the Worlds is well known and almost a part of the collective subconscious, I had never actually read the original novel. I decided it was time to rectify both omissions.

As I say, the story of the novel is familiar and there were, in fact, few surprises. The story is somewhat sparse and very personal, which allows a reader to transport it in time and place. It’s easy to visualize the events happening in your own time to you. This is likely helped because Wells never names his protagonist. Despite all this, I found the novel fit very well in its Victorian period. It loses a little something when it’s transported out of that. I think some of it is that the Martian war machines seem all that more awesome when most people only have horses and buggies for transportation. Also, the story is set in Victorian England at the height of England’s colonial power, so it seems especially frightening to see it brought to its knees so readily.

If anything, one of the elements I did find surprising about the novel is that it appears that the entire Martian invasion is focused on England. It’s never explicitly said Martian vehicles weren’t landing in other places, but we never hear that they are either. It makes an eerie view of the world that a single, powerful country could be attacked like that and the world would be unwilling to come to its aid. There is danger in big colonial powers alienating everyone else! Especially, given that another surprise of the novel is that the Martian War Machines prove to be somewhat vulnerable to the weapons of the time. A massed worldwide front seems like it could have stopped the Martian invasion.

A real weakness of the novel is the way the women get shoved into the background. Our protagonist’s wife is sent off to live with the protagonist’s cousin—then it turns out he may have placed her in greater danger for doing that. The only other women in the novel are a pair encountered by the protagonist’s brother. While one woman is somewhat resourceful, the other is a hysterical mess. This is where the Jeff Wayne musical version does a decent job improving on the original. The protagonist’s wife is given a name. They’re already separated at the start of the story and part of the story is his attempt to get to her. Even then circumstances keep them apart.

In the novel, our protagonist encounters a curate, basically an assistant parson, and the two cower together in an abandoned house. In the album, the curate is now a full parson and he has a wife named Beth, who has one of the album’s greatest songs. I was impressed that the album and the novel generally follow each other pretty well. The album’s music reminds me of works by some of my favorite contemporary steampunk bands. Another high point of the album is Richard Burton’s narration, which mostly follows Wells’s narrative.

One of my big takeaways after reading the novel was that many stories could be told based on the events of The War of the Worlds. One could tell stories set in other countries, or tell a story about the rest of the world watching the attack on Britain and reacting. It seems the protagonist’s wife has a great untold story that could make an outstanding steampunk novel. Of course, there have been a few sequels such as Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars, and even Jeff Wayne suggests a sequel of sorts that could make a fascinating story.

Mannheim Steamroller

Back on December 5, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Mannheim Steamroller in concert at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was a special treat for me since I’ve been a big fan of this group of musicians since I first heard them way back in 1974. It was also a special treat because my youngest daughter was part of the choir selected to greet concert goers on their way into the show.

Now, I should note that I didn’t originally discover the Mannheim Steamroller musicians AS Mannheim Steamroller. Like many people I first heard them playing as the backup band for a country artist named C.W. McCall, whose hits at the time included such songs as “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” C.W. McCall, in turn, was the nom de guerre of ad man Bill Fries. I’m still a fan of C.W. McCall, and in fact the space pirate story I posted this week at my Patreon site is inspired by “Convoy.”

I learned about Mannheim Steamroller as a separate entity from C.W. McCall when I went to college in 1984. My dorm’s RA was a fan of both groups and introduced me to their four albums at that point, the original Fresh Aire albums. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out that very year and really defined the band for many people. For me, Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental mix of renaissance, classical, jazz, and modern instruments was great music to study by and it’s still among my favorite music to write to. They currently seem to refer to themselves as a neo-classical group and the classification fits pretty well.

One of the first things I noticed when I got the program was that there are two touring groups for Mannheim Steamroller, nicknamed the Red and Green groups. This seemed quite fitting for a concert in New Mexico. The group that played for us was the “Green” Tour group. Most of their names were unfamiliar and when they came out, I realized that many of the people on stage were too young to have been playing since 1974. I came to realize that Mannheim Steamroller is now more like a classical ensemble with players who change out with time and less like a rock or a country band where you see a set of specific personalities.

The one personality who seems indelibly connected with Mannheim Steamroller is composer and one-time drummer Chip Davis. I gather he no longer tours with the group, but they showed videos during the concert where Davis spoke. They were interesting from a marketing standpoint. In one of the videos, Davis spoke about the band’s history and success, including clips from various television shows. Another was a direct appeal to visit the merchandise booth. The videos combined with the band’s performance brought to mind some great points about artists marketing themselves.

  1. First and foremost, create something your passionate about.
  2. Collaborate with experts in the craft to make your art shine.
  3. Tout your successes.
  4. Remind people to support your art through purchases.

Point one, should be pretty obvious. For a writer, point two can be as simple as working with a good editor or a good cover artist to breathe life into your work. It can also take other forms like working with a narrator on an audio book, or a team on a short film. Numbers three and four require some balance. To be honest, I was almost turned off by the video of the successes, but I came back around because the group in concert showed me what wonderful music they perform. That’s why the order of the list is actually important. You have to do as well as you can with steps one and two before you move on to steps three and four. What’s more, you need to remember that the art itself takes precedence.

Art on Your Own Terms

In addition to Dexter Dogwood’s Fables from Elsewhere, which I wrote about on Saturday, Paul McComas sent me the fifteenth anniversary edition of his novel Unplugged. I have to admit, I looked at it with some skepticism. It’s the tale of a rock star named Dayna Clay who survived childhood sexual abuse and suffers from depression. On the last night of a big tour, she disappears off stage to go home and attempt suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide fumes in her garage. Fortunately, a squirrel falls from the rafters and she feels she can’t take another life with her, even a small one, so she moves herself and the squirrel to safety.

After the suicide attempt, she gets in the car and retreats out west to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once there, she goes on a personal quest to discover who she is and whether or not she can continue with her music career. On the surface, it seems a lot more introspective and possibly even sad book than I would go in for. I will admit that I’ve had low points in my life and have even heard that frightening siren call from the back of my brain that made me think about suicide. Fortunately, between my amazing family and my own stubborn self-preservation instinct, I never got all that close to the brink, but I’ve glimpsed enough to know how scary it is and hesitated getting closer, even in fictional form. Despite that, I found myself captivated with Dayna’s story and how she becomes enchanted by the Badlands and the people she meets along her journey. Even though the novel opens with Dayna in a dark place, the novel proves hopeful and even fun at times as Dayna finds help for her depression and rebuilds her life.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was Dayna’s early decision that if she was going to return to the music world, she would return on her own terms. Dayna has a demanding agent, a full public appearance schedule, and pressure to get into the studio to record more songs. Dayna’s story actually parallels a lot of writers I know, who have numerous publishing obligations and travel to science fiction and comic conventions every available weekend. There are intense pressures to move the books already published and produce more books at a steady rate. In fact, I know some writers, editors, and agents who will insist that this kind of intense schedule is the only viable career path available. Anyone not on this path is a failure as a writer and should quit wasting their time.

I’m sorry. I just don’t accept that. All it takes to be a musician is to make music. All it takes to be a writer is to write. All it takes to be a painter is to paint. All it takes for something to be a career is that money from the occupation must flow to the person doing the job in some sustainable way. How an artist makes that happen is between the artist and those paying for the art. For any occupation to be sustainable, the person occupied must feel satisfied with their life as a whole. For me, right now, satisfaction with life includes spending time contributing to astronomy through my work at Kitt Peak, spending time with family, in addition to writing. I choose writing jobs and projects that both give me satisfaction and allow me to do the other things that give me satisfaction.

I’m glad I joined Dayna on her journey to the South Dakota Badlands and visiting the real Badlands is now something I must do. You can find the novel at: https://www.amazon.com/Unplugged-Anniversary-Novel-Paul-McComas/dp/1564746046. As I’ve mentioned, this is a novel about a musician. It turns out that Paul McComas has collaborated with Maya Kuper to create an album of Dayna’s music and it’s a pretty amazing listen. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you do art on your own terms. It frees you to explore and I was delighted to hear Dayna’s songs come to life. “Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Karma Bomb” will likely get frequent play from me, but all of the songs are great. You can listen and buy at: https://daynaclay.bandcamp.com/

Proceeds from both the novel and album go to benefit two causes. One is the Kennedy Forum, which works to improve the way mental health and addiction issues are treated in this country. You can learn more at kennedyforum.org. The other cause is the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. In addition to these two great causes, I want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case anyone reading this needs it: 1-800-273-8255

What’s Opera, Harlock?

Like many Americans of my age, my education in opera came from the wonderful 1957 Bugs Bunny short, “What’s Opera, Doc?” In the short, Bugs and Elmer Fudd satirize pieces from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen among other operas.

It turns out, Bugs and Elmer aren’t the only characters from animation to take on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In 1999, Leiji Matsumoto made an adaptation of Das Rheingold featuring Captain Harlock and the crew of the Arcadia called Harlock Saga. In this case, they don’t sing, but act out a loose, science fictional adaptation of the opera. I gather Matsumoto took the idea further in print and there are manga adaptations of Die Walküre and Siegfried as well as Der Rheingold.

In a way, bringing a character like Harlock into an opera closes a loop of sorts. Of course, Captain Harlock is a classic “space opera” character. So, what does “space opera” have to do with plain ol’ opera? To answer that, one has to go back to the original genre opera—the “horse opera.” The term “horse opera” goes all the way back to wild west shows of the nineteenth century. In that case, there’s a good chance that the term was a reference to the big spectacle that those shows represented.

By the time we get to the early twentieth century, the term “horse opera” began to be applied to movies we’d just call Westerns today. In fact, early Western star William Hart was called “the Caruso of the horse opera” in 1917. The term then migrated to western stories broadcast on the radio. When romance stories started on the radio, many sponsored by soap companies, they picked up the moniker “soap opera.” The term “space opera” started being applied to science fiction stories soon after that.

Today, when we speak of space opera, we tend to think of science fiction stories told on a grand scale, featuring larger-than-life characters, engaging in epic quests. In that sense, space opera is much the same kind of spectacle as, well, opera.

Lest one speak poorly of cartoons, I’ll note that “What’s Opera, Doc” and Harlock Saga have inspired my wife and I to finally watch Der Ring des Niberlungen. It’s definitely big and epic like a space opera. It’s also got its share of illicit romance, not unlike a soap opera. Of course, there’s the great music. Hours and hours of it. Der Ring des Niberlungen runs to some fifteen hours.

While I’m on the subject of space opera, today marks the relaunch of my space opera saga, now christened “The Space Pirates’ Legacy.” Click on the button below to visit my Patreon page and see the awesome cover Laura Givens created for the first book in the series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you become a Patron (and you can do so for just $1 a month), you’ll be able to read the book’s first story today. It first appeared in the collection Space Pirates, but I’ve given it a thorough edit to better line up with later stories in the book. My goal is that patrons will get to read at least one new story a month. If I get enough patrons, I’ll make sure they all get a copy of the complete book upon release. Click the button and get all the details right now.

Wrangling Sharks in the Wild West

This weekend, I’m at the Tucson Festival of Books on the University of Arizona campus. I’ll be on the Scientists Writing Science Fiction panel at 10am on Sunday morning in the Integrated Learning Center, room 151. I’ll be signing books afterwards. Also, be sure to stop by the Massoglia Books booth, number 446 to find out when I’ll be signing there.

I spent last weekend at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios, which is always a treat. Old Tucson Studios is where many classic Western films from 3:10 to Yuma and Rio Bravo to Tombstone and The Quick and the Dead were made. Walking through the studios is like walking back in history in more ways than one.

I had to work the Thursday night before the convention, so I got a short nap and then drove down. Bill and Deb Ball The only thing scheduled was a reading, which happened during the heat of the afternoon outside when there was little traffic. A few people dropped by and sat down in seats I set up in the shade and listened for a while, but I think if I propose a similar event for next year, I’ll suggest we do this as an indoor event. Meanwhile, my wife and daughter set up our artist table in the dealer’s room, which I shared with authors David Drake and Sparky McTrowell, who provided one of my cover quotes for The Brazen Shark. As it turns out, Bob Vardeman, the other author who provided a cover quote, was also there, though he didn’t participate in panels. He just decided to hang out and have fun. Another treat was that my co-worker from Kitt Peak, Bill Ball, was around on Friday along with his wife Deb. That’s them on the left.

Friday night, my wife, daughter, and I went to a concert by the Dry River Yacht Club and Steam Powered Giraffe. Rabbit Both were excellent performances and really helped me get into the spirit of the event. Unfortunately, when we got back to the house where we were staying, I discovered my wife had left the garment bag at home with almost everything I planned to wear! Luckily, my wife did bring all my hats, I had an extra waistcoat, and our friend had a washer and dryer, so I was able to change out my look a bit for Saturday and still wear clean clothes!

I was scheduled for two presentations on Saturday, but was drafted for a third. My first presentation was called “The Wild West: Real and Mythical,” but could have been renamed “How it Sucked to be Anything but Anglo in the Wild West.” We took a hard look at Native American, Latino, Irish, and the Chinese as they were treated. You may look at that list, and say “but the Irish are white,” but it was very eye-opening to see how they were denigrated and forced to conform to “society norms” much like the other groups. After that presentation, Diesel Jester invited me to be on a panel about researching steampunk, where we discussed various historical resources we’ve found useful. On the panel with me were Diesel, Justin Andrew Hoke, Cynthia Diamond, Rose Corcoran, and Sean Walter. For my last presentation of the day, I discussed astronomy around the world during the Victorian age. Part of the discussion actually involved what one would call “Victorian age” astronomy because different parts of the world developed different mathematical tools and concepts at different times. For example, the Arab world gave us many of the mathematical tools for astronomy back in the 11th and 12th centuries while some schools of thought in Asia viewed an infinite universe of free-floating objects long before the common era.

Not only did I go to presentations, but I did some shopping at the convention. Because, I suddenly found myself without much of my wardrobe, I bought a new shirt and a new hat. Also, going between presentations, I was lucky enough to catch several of the great presentations going on all around, including an outdoor concert by the extremely talented cellist and singer, Unwoman.

Unwoman

On the final day of the convention, I was scheduled for a panel on multicultural steampunk literature with the delightful Madame Askew. We had a great time recommending such books as The Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohammed, and Beyond the Rails by Jack Tyler. Again, Diesel Jester asked me to be on a steampunk writing panel I wasn’t scheduled for. I joined the same gang as the day before and we continued our discussion of the process of writing steampunk. I finished the day at El Charro, a wonderful Mexican Restaurant in downtown Tucson with many friends from the convention. In the photo below courtesy James Spring, I’m not only showing off my Clockwork Legion Books, but my new shirt and hat!

David-With-Books-Small

So, what does all this have to do with wrangling sharks? Well, this was the debut event for the third novel in my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark. I ended up selling out of all but two copies of the new novel. Fortunately, a fresh shipment was waiting for me when I returned to Las Cruces, so I have plenty of copies for the Tucson Festival of Books. If you missed both events, don’t despair, you can wrangle a shark of your own by visiting Amazon.com or BN.com.