Uncanny Encounters

During my first year of graduate school, I joined a small acting troop that called itself the Socorro Little Theater and we put on a series of related one-act plays known collectively as The God’s Honest: An Evening of Lies by playwright Jules Tasca. The idea is that in each play, one or more characters is lying and through their lies some truth is revealed. The whole thing was done with minimalist sets that could be used in each of segments. Below, is a photo from the segment called “The Twin Mendaccios” where I play Clarence, a poor befuddled soul who isn’t sure which twin, Terry or Thomasina (both played by the same actress), that I’ve been to the movies with, had dinner with, or even slept with!

While performing in the play, the director, Carolyn Abbey, had me hard at work adapting my short story “A Matter for Madness” into a stage play that we hoped to perform. I’m sorry to say, the stage play was never produced, but the story did go on to be one of my first story sales. Also, the play’s protagonist, John Mark Ellis, would go on to be one of the heroes of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series and is featured prominently in the novel Heirs of the New Earth which is on sale for half price at http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#heirs.

It’s from this perspective that I turned my attention to the book Uncanny Encounters—Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan. The book collects eight short plays with distinctly science fictional or horror elements in the vein of The Twilight Zone. Some of the plays are very short. In fact, the shortest is only one page, but published in 2015, “The Most Terrifying Three Word Dystopian/Dark-Fantasy/Horror Story Ever Written” proves to be the most chillingly predictive piece of science fiction I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read the book or see the play to know what I mean!

As someone who fell in love with stagecraft many years ago, I’d enjoy watching or performing in any or all of the plays in this volume. That said, my two favorite pieces were “Corona Encounters” by Stephen D. Sullivan and “Be Mine” by Paul McComas. These were two of the longer plays in the volume and I suspect they grabbed me as much as they did because there was a little more time to explore the characters and watch them change as they reacted to the events. “Corona Encounters” tells the story of a UFO enthusiast who has calculated the time of the aliens’ return and the skeptical photographer she convinces to go out to the desert with her. It starts out as a lighthearted romp that takes a chilling turn. “Be Mine” is the story of a man who dabbles in Voodoo magic to win the heart of a woman who is in a relationship with another man. The problem is that once our hero wins the woman’s heart, he can’t stop using the magic.

If you’re an actor, director, producer looking for fresh material, I highly recommend taking a look at this volume. For that matter, if you’re a reader looking for a great read, this is worth putting on your list. It’s available at: https://www.amazon.com/Uncanny-Encounters-Sci-Fi-Screams-Horrific/dp/1499706014. Contact information for performance rights is in the book. Like The God’s Honest, these plays are designed to work with minimalist sets. So, even though they’re science fiction and horror, don’t let the potential cost scare you. These should be adaptable to companies working with even modest budgets.

If you want to learn more, you can hear an interview with Stephen and Paul at: https://narrativespecies.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/paul-mccomas-and-steven-sullivan-navigate-uncanny-encounters-rod-serling-used-to-tour-the-nation/

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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

Shogun

Looking back on it, 1980 was a very influential year for me. It was the year Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired, which helped me consider a career in astronomy. It was the year I started high school. It was the year my father passed away. While it seems something of a blip compared to those other things, it was also the year the mini-series Shōgun ran on television. The series was based on James Clavell’s novel of the same name. It told the story of a Dutch ship piloted by an Englishman, John Blackthorne, that lands on Japan’s shores circa 1600. Blackthorne soon gets swept up in a power struggle between a daimyo named Toranaga and other daimyos close to the Emperor regent. I recently had the chance to read the novel that inspired the series. The miniseries was my first introduction to Japanese history and the samurai. It also made me consider the difficulties of sailing off in a frail ship on a mission of discovery around the world.

As a kid who grew up watching Star Trek, I was captivated that on the sailing ship Erasmus, the crew deferred to the ship’s pilot as much or more than they did to the captain. My dad explained to me that it was because the pilot was the guy who was going to get these guys home safely. When I read the novel, I was reminded that Blackthorne was not only a pilot but a trained shipbuilder. I first conceived of my novel The Solar Sea just three years after I saw the miniseries. Even in its earliest days, I wanted a story that didn’t look like a Star Trek retread. One of the ways I did that was to introduce a character called Pilot, who designed the solar sail and then took it out into the solar system. He would essentially share authority with the ship’s captain. My Pilot ended up being a very different character from the virile Blackthorne in Shōgun and I used the power sharing idea to introduce some mystery and conflict into the story. You can learn more about The Solar Sea at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

The miniseries also left me with a fascination for Japanese history and culture, which I would come back and explore in my third Clockwork Legion novel The Brazen Shark.  Much of my Clockwork Legion series is set in the southwestern United States in the 1800s. Of course, here in the United States, we developed a whole mythology about that time and place. We have an image of the cowboy and the Wild West that’s more the product of authors like Louis L’Amour and directors like John Ford than from history. When researching The Brazen Shark, I learned that a similar situation developed in Japan. In the years from the Meiji Restoration through World War II, an almost mythic, idealized version of the samurai was created in the popular imagination. One of the interesting characteristics of the novel, is that I felt like I was reading that Japanese mythic, idealized vision of the samurai filtered through an American writer’s vision. Because of that, I wouldn’t use Shōgun as a historical reference, but more as a window into a cultural picture that grew up later. You can learn more about The Brazen Shark by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html

It was not only fascinating to read the novel as someone interested in history, but as a writer. Clavell does not stick with a limited point of view at all. Instead he hops from the head of one character to another at will, to the point that I almost had a hard time following when we’d left one character’s point of view and entered another’s. The novel was written in 1975 and it was a huge seller, which reminds me that things like “the correct way” to do point of view are sometimes a more a matter of fashion than anything else. It also reminds me that a book doesn’t have to be “perfect” by an arbitrary, contemporary standard to be good. It was different from what I’m used to and I’d argue not as good as the limited point of view books I see now, but it still works.

I’ve seen several reviews that take the novel Shōgun to task for its ending. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the ending actually worked for me. Throughout, Toranaga is essentially portrayed as a consummate chess player. To him, it’s all about getting all the pieces in the right place. If he succeeds, he will win the day. If he fails, or misread his opponent, he will fail. Karma, neh?

Exploring Space

Today, I’m at TusCon, in Tucson, Arizona where I’m anxiously awaiting the world premier of the film Revenge of Zoe, in which I have a small part. If you’re in Tucson, please drop by the convention and say hello. You can learn more about the event at: http://www.tusconscificon.com

A little over a week ago, I received an email from Bill Nye the Science Guy in his role as CEO of the Planetary Society, an organization I proudly support. The email encouraged members to take a photo with a Planetary Society T-shirt or with a sign included in the email. I was at work at Kitt Peak and I used my laptop to take this selfie which I then tweeted:

I first joined the Planetary Society in 1983, when the organization was only three-years old. It was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman who recognized a tremendous public interest in space. This was about three years after Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking television series Cosmos and the Voyager flyby of Saturn.

The Planetary Society’s newsletter, The Planetary Report, became a great source of information about what was happening in solar system exploration. It helped reinforce my interest in astronomy as I was deciding what kind of career I wanted to pursue. One article I remember in particular talked about the possibility of solar sails. I have a vivid memory of a painting of a heliogyro, a type of solar sail that was not only pushed by sunlight, but spun, so that the centrifugal force could provide simulated gravity for the crew. This sparked my imagination and I started writing a novel called The Solar Sea.

I started my college career in 1984. I didn’t have time to continue my novel at the time, so it waned. Also, on a college student’s budget, I let my membership in the Planetary Society lapse. After college, I did make a couple of attempts to restart the novel, but was never happy with the direction it was going. It wasn’t until 2007 that my publisher challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month that I finally sat down and wrote the book.

It’s probably a good thing that I waited to write the novel. In the 24 years from 1983 until 2007, I learned quite a bit more about the solar system. I also learned a lot more about plot and character. I had long ago thrown away the original draft of the novel and wrote the new version from scratch. By that point, the novel couldn’t wait to get out onto the page. I had no problem completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. I spent December and January after NaNoWriMo finishing the novel. My publisher loved it enough to take it and the first edition appeared soon after. The second edition of The Solar Sea was released earlier this year and you can pick it up at: https://www.amazon.com/Solar-Sea-David-Lee-Summers/dp/1885093845/.

I’m sorry to say the Planetary Society itself fell off my radar until 2015. Fortunately, I became aware of a Kickstarter they had started to fund a solar sail experiment. I contributed to Kickstarter and rejoined the Society. I’m glad I did and proud to be part of a group that works to keep space exploration alive and well. The Lightsail 2 craft that was funded by the Kickstarter is now built and installed in a Cubesat awaiting launch. At this point, it’s expected Lightsail 2 will launch in early 2019. You can learn more about the Planetary Society and all of its initiatives, including the development of solar sails by visiting: http://www.planetary.org.

By the way, that amazing painting I mentioned of a real heliogyro solar sail that inspired my dreams of writing a novel is on their website. You can find it at: http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/story-of-lightsail-part-1.html. The essay also gives you a great overview of the history and science of solar sailing.

See You Space Cowboy…

Last week, NASA announced that after nine years of service, the Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be switched off. It’s in an orbit around the sun, far from Earth. To date, it has been credited with the discovery of some 2,681 planets outside our solar system from both the Kepler and K2 missions. The K2 mission was the follow-up that happened after two of Kepler’s reaction wheels failed and it could no longer point at its target field. There are 2,780 candidate planets still to be checked with ground based observations, so Kepler’s total discovery count will likely increase even now that Kepler is off line. Among the planets Kepler has discovered include numerous Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting their stars in mere hours, many ice giant worlds like Uranus and Neptune, and there are some 361 candidate and confirmed planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

Earlier this year, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched. Whereas Kepler was designed to monitor one part of the sky and see how many planets it could find, TESS is designed to survey the stars nearest to the Earth. TESS has already its announced its first exoplanet discoveries.

Steve Howell observing at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, confirming Kepler discoveries.

At Kitt Peak, I work at the Mayall and WIYN telescopes, which are involved in confirming exoplanets. WIYN’s telescope scientist was Dr. Steve Howell when I started working at Kitt Peak eleven years ago. Steve since moved on to become Kepler’s Project Scientist and now serves as the head of the astronomy and astrobiology section at Ames Spaceflight Center which serves as the center of Kepler and TESS operations. One night while observing Kepler targets we began to talk about how Mars became more of a place in people’s imaginations after it started appearing in the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so we hatched plans to compile an anthology of stories set on Kepler worlds.

Our first anthology was A Kepler’s Dozen, which collected action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Authors like Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine imagined stories set in places like a prison colony, or escaping from the authorities, or encircling a binary star. We collected thirteen stories in all. We also included facts about each of the planets written about in the anthology. You can learn more about the anthology at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.htmlAlso at the page is a link to a press release by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory that gives more background about the Kepler telescope and Kitt Peak’s role in confirming discoveries.

This anthology has done well and Kepler’s success continued, so we decided to compile a second anthology. The follow up was Kepler’s Cowboys, which imagined the space cowboys and cowgirls who would visit the worlds discovered by Kepler. In this anthology, we encouage you to saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. You’ll meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. You’ll fight for justice in a lawless frontier. You can go on a quest for a few dollars more. We wanted an exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology. This one included fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, and L.J. Bonham. You can learn more about this anthology at:  http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

Kepler has had a great run and it’s sad to see it reach the end of it’s life. Still, I think we could fill many more anthologies with stories about its planets and that’s even before we do any anthologies featuring discoveries by TESS. While you’re waiting, you can check out my space pirate story collection Firebrandt’s Legacy, which not only visits a couple of Kepler planets, but several other possible worlds out in the galaxy. You can learn more about that project at my Patreon page: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

TusCon 45

Next weekend, I’m proud to be a participant at TusCon 45 being held at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona. The guest of honor is Joe R. Lansdale, the author of more than forty novels and numerous short stories, including Paradise Sky, the Edgar Award-winning The Bottoms, Sunset and Sawdust, and Leather Maiden. This year’s toastmaster is Weston Ochse. TusCon is a small convention but one that attracts dedicated and enthusiastic fans of all ages who share a love of the written word.

My schedule at the convention is as follows:

Friday, November 9

  • 4:00-5:00pm – Panel Room 2 (Mesa) – Letting your personal secrets out in your stories. Alcoholic writers with alcoholic characters. Gay writers with gay characters. Abused writers with abused characters. How much of yourself should be in your story. On the panel with me are Joe R. Lansdale, Eric T. Knight, Gemma Lauren Krebs, and Gloria McMillan.
  • 7:00-9:00PM – Ballroom (Sabino) – Meet the Guests. Come rub elbows with the guests, enjoy the cash bar, and be regaled by Toastmaster Weston Ochse.
  • 10:00-11:00pm – Ballroom (Sabino) – Drake & McTrowell’s Hot Potato School of Writing. The authors of “The Adventures of Drake & McTrowell” will lead two guest authors and the audience in a madcap improvisational writing game show reminiscent of their signature “Hot Potato” team writing style. Two audience volunteers will each team up with two guest authors to form two “writing teams.” The audience will select three plot elements from a list provided by Drake & McTrowell. The two teams will take turns “writing” the beginning, middle, and end of a story incorporating all three elements with two audience-created “Hot Potatoes” thrown in for excitement. Erasmus Drake and Sparky McTrowell host the show. Ross Lampert and I will be the guest authors.

Saturday, November 10

  • 11:00am-noon – Ballroom (Sabino) – Have We Lost the Spirit of Exploration? NASA is a joke, deep sea exploration is dead, and nobody is listening to SETI. What happened to our frontiers? On the panel with me are Bob Nelson, Hal C.F. Astell, Wolf Forrest, Ross Lampert, and Joe Palmer.
  • 1:00-2:00pm – Catalina Ballroom Foyer – Autographs. I’ll be signing autographs alongside such luminaries are Ken St. Andre, Jennifer Roberson and Frankie Robertson.
  • 6:30-9:00pm – Ballroom (Sabino) – Revenge of Zoe. Premier of the film Revenge of Zoe, starring Bradford Trojan, Nathan Campbell, Eric Schumacher, and Rachel Netherton as Zoe/Fren-Zee. In the film, screenwriter Billy Shaw must face his inner demons while convincing comic book store owners John and Pete to help him write a sequel to his greatest work; a movie about comic book super heroine Fren-Zee. Filmed in, and around, Tucson. Hosted by actor/producer Geoff Notkin, followed by Q&A with cast & crew from the film. I play one of the customers in the shop and I’m looking forward to my motion picture debut.

Sunday, November 11

  • Noon-1:00pm – Ballroom (Sabino) – Great Art Comes From Limitations. How what you can’t do influences your art. On the panel with me are Diana Terrill Clark, William Herr, Julie Verley, and Curt Booth.

In addition to all these great programming options, Hadrosaur Productions will have a table in the dealer’s room. Come by and see what great books we have to offer. Also, Hadrosaur Productions along with Massoglia Books will be sponsoring the annual birthday party for Marty Massoglia and myself on Saturday night. Drop by our booths in the dealer’s room to learn to learn the time and location of the party!

October Adventures Continue

In my last post, I shared some of my adventures traveling around the country this month. Admittedly, a travelogue may seem a little out of place for a post appearing just two days before Halloween, but I’ll share a book at the end to put you in the spirit of the season and it’s even a quick read.

I left Kansas City on the train on Sunday night, October 14. By the time I woke up on Monday morning, the ground was covered in snow. I like traveling by train when I can. It’s a great way to see the countryside and although it takes longer than traveling by plane, it feels much more civilized. I enjoy flying, but the hassle of crowds, airport security, and flights filled to the brim take away much of the fun. Besides, my grandfather, dad, and brother all worked on the railroad, so I feel a certain family connection when I travel by rail.

I met my wife in Albuquerque where she brought my faithful Smart Car in for a service. We then drove down to Las Cruces with a brief stop in Socorro for some chicken mole enchiladas. For me, chocolate and chile come together to form the ultimate comfort food. After a four-hour sleep, I then drove to Tucson for a daytime shift at Kitt Peak where we’re continuing to refit the Mayall 4-meter for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Survey.

After three days on the mountain, I gritted my teeth for another short sleep, got up early in the morning to drive to the airport where I caught a plane for Denver, Colorado. There, I celebrated MileHiCon 50. The highlight of the event was that every living convention guest was invited back as a guest. Here you see them assembled at opening ceremonies.

MileHiCon is always a special for me because I get to connect with so many people I’ve worked with over the years. These include Bob Vardeman who was one of the honored guests and who created the Empires of Steam and Rust Series,  David B. Riley one of the co-authors of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys, J Alan Erwine and Carol Hightshoe who have edited many anthologies I’ve been in and who appeared in A Kepler’s Dozen. Denver is also home to Laura Givens, the talented artist who has done many of my covers, and also the co-author of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys.

A particular high point of MileHiCon was the annual poetry reading. This year it was moderated by Stace Johnson. Ronnie Seagren joined us and read poems by several different people. Sadly, Gail Barton, a staple of past MileHiCon poetry readings had passed away, but I was fortunate enough to have a copy of the poetry journal she often handed out at the event, which allowed me to share some of her poems. It was lovely to have her voice at the event at least one more time.

Once MileHiCon was finished, I returned to Kitt Peak to continue work on the DESI spectrograph. This time, I helped a team from Ohio State University build the racks that will hold the spectrographs themselves once they all arrive. I have to admit, building the racks was a process not unlike assembling a piece of Ikea furniture!

At last, I am back home for Halloween. I’m turning my attention to some editorial projects, including a new novella from David B. Riley and two great books from Greg Ballan. In my off hours, I’m reading some spooky comic books and watching a few hair-raising films.

If you’re looking for something good to read between trick-or-treaters on Wednesday night, may I recommend the collection Blood Sampler? This book collects thirty-five vampire flash fiction stories written by Lee Clark Zumpe and me. The cover is by Laura Givens and the book features interior illustrations by Marge Simon. Chris Paige, writing for the fan newspaper ConNotations in Arizona said, “If you like vampire stories, this may be the best seven dollars you can spend.” Admittedly the new edition of the paperback went up to $8.00, but the ebook is only $4.00. You can learn how to get your claws on a copy by visiting  http://www.davidleesummers.com/Blood-Sampler.html