Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

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The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!

Arthurian Poetry

On Saturday, I discussed some of the history and prose that helped to give rise to the King Arthur legend we know today. As it turns out, Arthur has a long poetic history as well.

It appears that one of the earliest, Welsh literary references to Arthur is in the poem “Y Gododdin,” attributed to the poet Aneirin. It’s unclear when exactly when this was written, though I’ve seen it suggested it dates back to the seventh century. The manuscript we have is from the thirteenth century. In the poem, Aneirin praises the warrior Gwawrddur of the Gododdin tribe, but appears to hold Arthur in even high esteem.

Another early poem is “Brut” by Layamon written circa the year 1200. It appears to be a poetic adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Another poetic adaptation of Geoffrey’s Arthur story is the poem “Morte Arthure” written circa 1265 by an unknown poet.

The poet Chrétien de Troyes wrote several poems about Arthur’s knights in the twelfth century including “Yvain, the Knight of the Lion”, “Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart”, and “Perceval, the Story of the Grail.” The poetry of de Troyes and the poem “Morte Arthure” likely had a strong influence on Sir Thomas Mallory when he penned “Le Morte d’Arthur” in the fifteenth century.

As with two of the early poets I’ve mentioned, I’ve been strongly inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth. As it turns out, Geoffrey wrote two books related to Arthur and Merlin. The first and most famous is History of the Kings of Britain. His other work is called The Life of Merlin. In History, Geoffrey associates Merlin with Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. However, in The Life of Merlin, Geoffrey associates Merlin with the Welsh king Gwenddoleu and the poet Taliesin who likely would have lived over a century after Uther Pendragon. Geoffrey himself hand-waves this by suggesting Merlin has lived a long time and I wonder if this is the origin of the idea of Merlin living backward in time.

Two of my poems inspired by Geoffrey’s works appear in the current issue of the webzine Eye to the Telescope published by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. As it turns out, Geoffrey’s History is not just the story of King Arthur—though Arthur’s story takes up the lion’s share of the book. It’s also the story of Arthur’s ancestors. One of those is about a fellow named King Coel. I’ve seen some suggestions that Geoffrey’s King Coel is the inspiration for the King Cole of the nursery rhyme. “Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he.” I admit many dispute this, but it still inspired me to play with Geoffrey’s telling of the King Coel story in the form of nursery rhyme.

My other poem in the collection is a revised version of a poem I wrote several years ago. It’s called “The Passage of Merlin” and combines stories found in “The Life of Merlin” with stories from “History of the Kings of Britain to create a picture of a more dynamic Merlin than the trope of an old man in wizard’s robes that we’ve grown accustomed to.

You can read my poems plus other great Arthurian poems by such folks as Mary Soon Lee, Marge Simon, F.J. Bergmann, and Vince Gotera at: EyeToTheTelescope.com

A Look Back at 2017

2017 has proven another tumultuous year in the United States and around the world. Despite all that and despite my concerns for the future, I find that 2017 was another good year from a personal perspective.

I was pleased to see the release of three new books this year. Technically, my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt was released at the end of 2016, but the paperback edition wasn’t released until January of this year, so I’ll go ahead and count it. In addition to the novel, I released two new anthologies, Kepler’s Cowboys co-edited with Steve B. Howell of NASA and Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales co-edited with Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. You can learn more about my novels and my anthologies at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html

I’m also proud to have stories in three outstanding new anthologies. Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop features my story “Fountains of Blood” in which Larissa Seaton and Billy McCarty from my Clockwork Legion novels find the dark truth behind the 1896 Albert Fountain disappearance. Disharmony of the Spheres edited by J Alan Erwine features a brand new Captain Ellison Firebrandt story about his quest for lost treasure with his father. Finally, Extinct? edited by Dana Bell features my story “Jackson’s Hadrosaurs” in which the Battle of New Orleans is re-imagined in a world of dinosaurs. You can find links to these books and other short stories I’ve written at http://www.davidleesummers.com/shorts.html

I contributed introductions to two books. The first is the wonderful Astropoetry by Christina Sng. I published many of Christina’s poems over the years in Tales of the Talisman magazine and have always marveled at her use of words. As I say in the introduction, “We glimpse a wonder, ponder it for a time, then move on to another. The experience doesn’t diminish with time. Instead, it builds, layer upon layer.” You can find Christina’s fine collection at http://store.albanlake.com/product/astropoetry/

I also edited and wrote the introduction to Legends of the Dragon Cowboys which presents two weird western novellas, one by David B. Riley and the other by Laura Givens. You can learn more about the collection at http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Dragon-Cowboys

My novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves appeared on Audible.com in editions read by Edward Mittelstedt. The timing of these audio releases proved quite fortuitous, because they allowed me to revisit the earliest chapters of the series while plotting out the fourth novel. My editor and I have just finished our work on that novel and I hope to have more news about its release soon. You can explore the entire Clockwork Legion series at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Perhaps the accomplishment I feel most proud of is the production of the short film and trailer based on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, many writers dream of seeing their creations come to life on the screen and I’m no exception. What’s more, this exercise expanded my horizons as I explored screenplay writing and I learned a lot about the movie making process from the wonderful professionals I worked with. Watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ

As we reach the end of 2017, I find I have a lot to be thankful for. Not only for the projects I’ve just mentioned, but my daughters have had good academic success this year and my wife was able to get knee surgery that has improved her mobility considerably. My work at Kitt Peak National Observatory continues to be fulfilling and I’m proud of the work I’ve done helping scientists obtain the data they need to further their understanding of the universe.

Of course, this all begs the question, where do I go from here? I’ll take a look at things to come in Monday’s post.

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale

This weekend, I’m at Westercon in Tempe, Arizona, participating in panels on topics ranging from space opera, to science, to steampunk. As this is happening, the e-book retailer Smashwords has started their annual Summer/Winter sale, which runs from today through July 31. Why summer/winter? That’s because it’s summer here in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere! The timing couldn’t be better because Hadrosaur Productions has titles that cover all the subjects I’m talking about at Westercon. To celebrate, four of Hadrosaur’s titles are available for 50% off their retail price as part of this global event. All you have to do is enter the code SSW50 at checkout. Smashwords presents their ebooks in a variety of formats including mobi (which work on Kindles), epub (which work on Nooks), and PDF (which work on just about anything).


A Kepler’s Dozen

A Kepler's Dozen A Kepler’s Dozen presents thirteen action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. I edited this anthology along with Steve B. Howell, project scientist for the Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, these exoplanet stories will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


Kepler’s Cowboys

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited this exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694


Revolution of Air and Rust

Revolution of Air and Rust This is my tale of Pancho Villa in an alternate Steampunk reality. Set in 1915, Teddy Roosevelt is building an empire. Pancho Villa is the only man who stands in his way!

The American Expeditionary Force under the command of General “Black Jack” Pershing has invaded Northern Mexico. Pancho Villa leads his revolutionary army in a desperate raid against the American force only to be outflanked. Just as Pershing’s airships prepare to deliver the death blow, Pancho Villa is transported to a parallel Earth where he finds an unexpected ally and the technology that might just turn defeat into victory.

Revolution of Air and Rust is a stand-alone novella set in the Empires of Steam and Rust world created by Robert E. Vardeman and Stephen D. Sullivan. A story filled with military action, espionage and gadgetry that’s sure to satisfy fans of steampunk and alternate history.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/254622


Sugar Time

Sugar Time

Her name is Sugar. Sugar Sweet. But never EVER call her “Sweetie.”

When Sugar’s Uncle Max falls ill and his collaborators disappear, she investigates the old Victorian mansion where he conducted his research. She soon finds the collaborators—or what’s left of them—along with an angry Neanderthal. She also finds her uncle’s research project, a working time machine. Sugar must act quickly to unlock the secret of time travel so she can set things right and protect her uncle’s research.

Sugar Time collects all four of Joy V. Smith’s Sugar Sweet stories into one volume. I had tremendous fun editing this volume. If you enjoy a good time travel romp, this might just be the book to put at the top of your summer reading list.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/567992

Haiku

Last week, I learned that one of my haiku was selected as a finalist for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s Dwarf Stars Award and will be appearing in this year’s Dwarf Stars Anthology. Here’s the poem:

dead jackrabbit glares
at my car
with one glowing eye

The poem first appeared last Halloween in Lupine Lunes, an anthology of horror poems and short stories edited by Lester W. Smith of Popcorn Press. Pick up a copy to see several more of my haiku plus some great poems and stories by such folks as Deborah P. Kolodji, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Gary Davis, Deborah Walker, and Stephen D. Sullivan. Clicking the book cover will take you to Amazon’s page for the book.

I imagine there are a few people who will look at my poem and say that it’s not truly a haiku. Many of us were taught in school that a haiku is a three-line poem of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. In fact, that’s rather a poor approximation of the most formal Japanese approach to haiku.

In fact, in Japanese, a haiku is typically written as only a single line. A formal haiku will be heard as three lines of five, seven, and five sound-beats. The word for those “sound-beats” in Japanese is on, literally “sounds” and often translated as syllables. However, poetically, these sound-beats don’t really work like syllables. As an example, take the name of Japan’s northern most island: Hokkaido. To an English speaker, that’s three syllables. In Japanese, it’s spoken as “ho-(pause)-ka-i-do-o” or five sound-beats. Another example might be the word for one’s spirit or will, seishin, two syllables in English, but in Japanese there are four sound-beats, spoken as “se-i-shi-n.”

The upshot of all this is that the 5-7-5 syllable structure in English often results in haiku that are wordier and clunkier than their Japanese counterparts. My poem above is written in lines of five, three, and five syllables. This English-language haiku structure is called a lune because its structure resembles a crescent moon. It’s also the reason an anthology focused on werewolf stories and poems is called Lupine Lunes.

One of the goals of haiku as a poetic form is that it endeavors to capture a moment in time, a little like a snapshot. More than a snapshot, though, it also tries to present the emotions that go with that moment in time.

My brother, Dean Summers, has been writing haiku since 1969. His haiku have been published in such acclaimed journals as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, The Heron’s Nest and Cicada. With Ruth Yarrow, he served as a judge for the 2004 Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards. I can’t honestly remember whether I first learned about haiku from Dean or in school, but much as I’ve always loved the form, I was afraid to play in the haiku sandbox for a long time, just a little intimidated by his success.

What finally motivated me to really explore the form was discovering so called “scifaiku” and “horrorku,” basically haiku with science fiction and horror elements. As someone who already wrote science fiction and horror, this allowed me to move haiku into my “comfort” zone. I could imagine future moments in time or scary scenarios and imagine what my feelings would be and play with that in word form. In fact, encountering a dead jackrabbit by the side of a dark Arizona highway was a real moment in time involving an authentic sense of horror. Fortunately, all it did was glare, otherwise I might not be here to write this post!

I need to give a shout-out to my daughter Autumn Summers who helped me find a good way to explain on as related to haiku structure. Be sure to visit her craft blog at: https://entropycreations.wordpress.com/

My brother, Dean, has a great page about haiku which includes an in-depth article about haiku structure, tips for writing haiku, and several of his poems at: http://www.hollybooks.com/haiku.htm

G.O. Clark’s Collection of Robot Poetry

A few days ago, I received a collection of poetry in the mail from long-time Tales of the Talisman contributor, G.O. Clark. built-to-serve-g-o-clark-200x300 It was a copy of his new poetry collection, Built to Serve. In this collection, Clark tackles the subject of robots from many different angles. Of course, robots are no longer just the stuff of science fiction, they’re part of our every day world. I started my astronomy career working with a robotic telescope and over the course of my career, I’ve seen automation make many aspects of astronomical observation more efficient. I’ve long thought about artificial intelligence and my daughter recently took a college course in machine learning, which led to some interesting discussions. What’s more, writers have long used robots as metaphors for low wage workers or even slaves.

Clark’s collection takes a look at robots from both the practical and metaphorical angles. He starts the collection in an almost steampunk alternate reality and imagines robots of the past moving forward into futures of obsolescence, much as humans do in life. As he notes in “The Steam-Powered Robot”:

    Funny thing about the future,
    it never waits for anyone. His mainspring
    driven moment slipped away: old iron
    bones recycled for a newer model.

Clark compares and contrasts the sensations robots might experience to those of humans. He also imagines how humans might themselves go against the spirit of Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics and use robots to hunt down other humans. In a familiar science fiction trope, Clark imagines robots transforming the world into a better place, which doesn’t always go so well for the humans who created them.

C;arl reminds us that many of our first encounters with robots are with toys and he looks at those encounters with both fondness and terror. Some of the robots he introduces us to are toys of the more adult variety, but even they can induce nightmares such as the lady robot in this poem:

    Heading back towards the
    closet, she deftly unzips, then
    steps out of her perfect tan skin and
    hangs it upon a custom hanger.

It’s true Clark covers many familiar robot tropes, but he does it well and often times he gives those tropes fresh twists. Moreover, he looks at humanity through the eyes of robots and helps us understand more about ourselves. This is a collection well worth seeking out. You can find copies at the Alban Lake Store and at Smashwords.