Weeds

I’m not a big fan of winter or cold weather, but one thing I look forward to about this time of year is that the weeds in my yard typically die off and I don’t have to deal with them until the spring. Because of that January and February are often quite productive months for my writing and editing. This year, the weeds didn’t die off and I’ve been fighting them all through the winter.

As a writer who also operates telescopes at the National Observatory, I don’t have the kind of income that allows me to hire a gardener. So, this means I get to go out and deal with the weeds myself. Now, it’s not all bad. It gets me out from behind my desk to get some exercise and some sunshine. It also gives me some quiet time to think through plot lines and occasionally come up with blog posts about subjects like the hassles of dealing with weeds in the wintertime!

While weeding, I do find myself thinking that the process is not unlike writing and editing. When you write, you try to get everything you can down on paper. You try to make sure you explain why people do the things they do, what the setting is like, what the people are like, and who knows what about whom. It’s a little like letting a garden grow unchecked. Sure you’ll get blooms or vegetables, but they’ll be stunted by the weeds. As an editor, you’ve got to take out the weeds of the writing. That’s the stuff that isn’t really necessary to move the plot forward. You may move some of the plants you want around to make a better arrangement, or to make them healthier. In writing, that’s just presenting your information in the best order to reveal the information in a satisfying way to the reader.

This winter, I’m editing two terrific books by other authors plus I’m revising one of my own for re-release. I’ll have more news soon about the books I’m editing for others. Those are the supernatural adventure novel Armageddon’s Son by Greg Ballan and the weird western novella Fallen Angel by David B. Riley. The book I’m revising is The Pirates of Sufiro and I’m really excited about the progress I’m making. A lot of the credit there goes to my Patreon supporters. Because I’m answerable to them for the progress I’m making, it’s been motivating me to move forward with that project.

If you click the button above, it’ll take you to my Patreon site where you can browse the posts. Most of the content is just for those patrons who support me, but there is some free content. You can see the first chapter of The Pirates of Sufiro as it was in the most recent published edition and in the revision to see what sorts of edits I’m doing. A little over a week ago, I split one of the original chapters into two chapters because I felt I’d rushed the story in the original. The money I get from patrons helps to pay for cover art, layout and design. And who knows, if I get enough support, maybe I can afford to have someone help with the weeds!

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Stamp Collecting

One thing astronomers do is attempt to classify the objects they see by common properties. For example, stars that display similar chemical fingerprints in their spectra will be assigned a certain spectral type. Galaxies can be grouped by shape such as spiral, barred spiral, elliptical, and my favorite, irregular. Here’s a chart from NASA showing the numbers of exoplanets discovered as grouped by size of planet.

Back in my college days, we called this “stamp collecting.” It’s a somewhat derogatory term because it’s not necessarily the most exciting work in astronomy and its significance can be somewhat misleading. A great example is the whole “is Pluto a planet” debate which was sparked by classifying Pluto a dwarf planet. To my mind a “dwarf planet” is just a type of planet. After all, we orbit a dwarf star! (A G2V yellow dwarf main sequence star if you want more of the taxonomy.)

That said, this process of stamp collecting does serve an important purpose. By seeing how many of what types of objects are out in the universe, it helps us understand how the universe evolved. It helps us see patterns that show us how particular objects might have changed. For example, when I mentioned that the sun is a G2V main sequence star, that not only tells me what it is, but gives me some idea where the star is in its life cycle.

We do stamp collecting in the writing world as well. We classify books broadly by subject: science fiction, horror, romance, adventure, etc. We often take these individual classifications down even finer. A science fiction book can be described as hard science fiction, space opera, military science fiction and more. Like stamp collecting in astronomy, this can be an important process. It helps readers find what they want to read. However, it can also get overblown.

It’s become a reality in the publishing industry that an author’s name is a sort of brand, and authors often get classified right along with their books. Mary Smith writes military science fiction while John Jones writes space opera. Some writers even go so far as to pick different pseudonyms each time they explore not just a new genre, but a new subgenre.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of my own writing career. For most of the last decade, I’ve been very focused on my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels. Now, I’m turning my focus more to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. To my mind, the two series actually have a lot in common. There’s a real space cowboy vibe in the Space Pirates series that echoes the retrofuturism of the steampunk. Of course, this does cause some people to ask if I’ve finished the Clockwork Legion series or won’t do more steampunk. The answer to both is absolutely not. I think I have many more steampunk stories to tell and many of those will feature Ramon, Fatemeh, Larissa, and the rest of the gang. However, I also like telling stories about Captain Firebrandt, Roberts, and Manuel Raton.

For what it’s worth, I classify myself as a writer of fantastic tales with a retrofuturistic vibe. That captures my steampunk, my space cowboys, and even my vampires, especially when I write stories set in a historical context.

If you’re in Tucson, I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, Sunday, February 10 at 3:30pm at Antigone Books for the Tucson Steampunk Society’s book club meeting where I’ve been invited to discuss my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders, which recently was a top-ten finisher in the Predators and Editors Reader’s Poll for best steampunk novel of 2018. Copies of the novel are available at Antigone and if you let us know you haven’t read it yet, we’ll try not to give away too many spoilers. Antigone Books is located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. If you can’t make it, the book club posts videos of the meeting that will be shared on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/

When Cultures Meet

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

Morning meeting in the Mayall Control Room

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

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

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

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

Launching Firebrandt’s Legacy

I am proud to announce that my twelfth novel, Firebrandt’s Legacy, has officially launched! The title refers to Ellison Firebrandt, who fights the good fight for Earth. Under a letter of marque, he raids the ships of Earth’s opponents, slowing down their progress and ability to compete with the home system. On the planet Epsilon Indi 2, he rescues a woman named Suki Mori from a drug lord, only to find she isn’t so happy about living a pirate’s life. However, when the captain finds a new engine that will make him the most successful pirate of all, Suki is the only one who can make it work. Now Firebrandt must find a way to keep his crew fed and his ship supplied while relying on a woman who barely trusts him and while every government in the galaxy hunts him to get the engine back!

This novel represents a milestone in a long journey. I created the character of Ellison Firebrandt for a short story I wrote as part of a workshop back in 1989. Yes, Ellison Firebrandt is 30 years old this year. He went on to become a protagonist in my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, which was first published in audio form in 1995, then saw print publication in 1997. I revisited the character in 2008 when I edited the anthology Space Pirates for Flying Pen Press and decided to tell a story about the good captain before he was stranded on the planet Sufiro. Over the next few years, that one story became a handful which appeared in a number of great anthologies edited by such talented people as Jennifer Brozek, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Carol Hightshoe, and J Alan Erwine.

Carol Hightshoe was the first to suggest that I collect these tales. As I looked at what I had, I realized I didn’t really have enough for a book, so a little over a year ago, I created a Patreon account as a way of motivating myself to write more stories in this world. It was a tremendous success and the book is now complete. I’m now using the Patreon to both fund and serve as motivation for a complete rewrite of The Pirates of Sufiro. If you sign up for my Patreon site before the end of February, you can get the ebooks of Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Solar Sea as immediate bonuses, plus you can see Pirates rewritten as it happens. The link is: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Now, you might ask, if Firebrandt’s Legacy is a collection of short stories, why am I calling it a novel? One of my goals was to write the stories in such a way that there’s one continuous and satisfying story arc. Basically it’s a so-called “fix-up” novel. Yes, you can read it as short stories, but you can also read it as a single episodic novel.

Carol Hightshoe, who also writes the amazing Chaos Reigns series, says: “‘A privateer can be a force for good if he’s not too tempted to be a pirate.’ Meet Captain Ellison Firebrandt a privateer who walks that fine line – targeting enemy ships, rescuing damsels and protecting priceless relics. Swashbuckling adventures await all who come aboard Legacy.”

Firebrandt’s Legacy is available in print at Amazon.

It’s also available as an ebook at the following vendors:

Finally, if you’re a NetGalley, subscriber, you can get the book for the month of February at: https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/157799

Forbidden Planet

While re-reading some of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes stories over the last couple of weeks, I found myself thinking about the 1956 MGM film, Forbidden Planet. Much of that would seem to come from the fact that both involve space opera largely concerned with military vessels. Also, the earliest Grimes short story I know, “Chance Encounter” is from 1959 and the earliest Grimes novel, Into the Alternate Universe, is from 1964. The stories are from an era just after the movie.

Based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet tells the story of a spaceship crew on a rescue mission to Altair 4. They arrive to discover only one survivor from the original expedition along with his daughter who was born after the expedition landed and an amazingly cool robot named Robby. When the expedition’s sole survivor, Dr. Morbius, refuses to return to Earth, Captain Adams of the C-57D must cannibalize parts of the ship to make a long range transmitter to request further instructions. While the ship is helpless, a creature breaks into the ship and sabotages the transmitting gear. We ultimately learn that Dr. Morbius discovered the remnants of an ancient civilization on Altair 4 who had advanced far beyond humankind. The good doctor doesn’t feel humans are ready for such advanced knowledge. In the meantime, the captain and his first officer are busy trying to seduce Morbius’s daughter.

This was one of the first movies I ever bought on DVD. My copy was a transfer from an old film print with lots of scratches and hotspots. Even so, I remember my oldest daughter was captivated by the film and watched it as regularly as many kids her age would watch Disney Princess movies. In many ways, it kind of reminds me of a Disney Princess movie with Altaira Morbius serving as the princess. She even has a (mostly) happily ever after ending.

Because I had been pondering the film, I recently upgraded to a BluRay copy. My new copy is much cleaner and it amazed me how well the film holds up. It was filmed in the 1950s, but had great effects work, augmented by Disney animation. Given my love of retro-futurism, I didn’t really mind that the 1950s were reflected in the design of the C-57D or Dr. Morbius’s house on Altair 4. The two big things that really make the movie feel dated are that the C-57D is crewed by a bunch of white dudes and that Altaira Morbius exists largely as a creature to be seduced and won by a hero from the space vessel. Again, this doesn’t feel all that different from a lot of Disney Princess films.

One of the things I love about science fiction is that it’s very good at looking back with love at the works that inspire us and trying to figure out how to make them better. The John Grimes books feel like a step up from Forbidden Planet. In Chandler’s novels, we find strong women and more balanced spaceship crews and let those elements shape the stories accordingly. That said, Chandler’s novels do retain a certain amount of sexism in how he describes women. Often they seem all too content to play second fiddle to the men in the stories.

Ten years ago, I was one of the editors of the Full-Throttle Space Tales anthology series. These were anthologies that explored the space opera themes loved by the talented authors who wrote for them. Of course, we all endeavored to improve on elements we found needed some work from earlier generations of authors. In the future, I’m sure other authors will look at our works and find ways to improve the genre further.

Although the original Full-Throttle Space Tales books are out of print, the editors got together and collected the best tales from the series and assembled them into a volume called Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. The book is available from WordFire Press and your favorite online retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I hope you’ll take a moment and join us on some thrilling adventures through the darkest reaches of space.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commodore John Grimes

I remember going to the public library when I was in elementary school and discovering that many of the people who wrote Star Trek episodes also had novels on the science fiction shelves. I discovered many great writers that way including Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and Norman Spinrad. At one point in high school, a friend asked me if I read any science fiction written by people who didn’t write for Star Trek. I admitted there weren’t many. A few days later he gave me a book by A. Bertram Chandler. It was really two books, an Ace Double that combined Chandler’s novels The Road to the Rim and The Hard Way Up. Both were science fiction stories featuring Chandler’s hero, John Grimes.

Bertram Chandler was born in England and worked as a sailor aboard merchant ships. When World War II broke out, he joined the British Navy. During the war, he was stationed for a time in New York, where he met editor John W. Campbell Jr. of Astounding Stories Magazine. Campbell encouraged Chandler to write science fiction stories for him. After the war, Chandler immigrated to Australia and served in the merchant navy.

Chandler’s science fiction, especially the stories featuring John Grimes, are strongly influenced by his own life experiences. The upshot is that John Grimes is very reminiscent of C.S. Forrester’s famous hero Horatio Hornblower, except that the stories are set in the distant future instead of being set during the Napoleonic wars. Of course, another character I’d heard described as a Hornblower in space was none other than Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that I found the John Grimes stories appealing.

That said, there was a big difference Kirk and Grimes. Captain Kirk rarely made a bad decision. Every now and then a red shirted security officer would die and he would mourn for a moment on screen before solving the mystery or defeating the villain. Grimes sometimes screwed up. Sometimes he did the right thing and people took advantage of him. Grimes often did things that had life-altering consequences. He started out as an officer for Earth, got booted out of the service, became a privateer, and ultimately made a new life out to galaxy’s rim. This less-than-perfect hero appealed to me and I liked the people he met in his adventures.

I took a lot of lessons from Chandler’s John Grimes stories when I sat down to write space opera. I created a world that wasn’t too perfect for my characters to inhabit. I created a captain with a moral compass, but who could be pushed into extreme action by his circumstances. I saw a universe where most of the wealthy moved to other worlds leaving Earth somewhat destitute, relying on privateers to fight for economic superiority. This is the world of Captain Ellison Firebrandt and his ship, the Legacy. The first novel I wrote featuring Captain Firebrandt was The Pirates of Sufiro. However, a little over a decade after publishing that first novel, I started exploring the character before he was stranded on the planet Sufiro. As time marched on, Firebrandt’s Legacy was born.

With all of this background, you can imagine that I was thrilled when Robert E. Vardeman, who wrote one of my favorite Star Trek novels, The Klingon Gambit, said, “Commodore John Grimes move over. Captain Ellison Firebrandt is coming at ftl to take away your claim to best space opera. Firebrandt’s Legacy by David Lee Summers combines explosive space battles with political intrigue, conniving alien races and the human need to love and belong and serve. The Firebrandt universe is complex and wrapped up in astronomy with careful thought about human expansion and out of this world cosmic science. Join the privateer and his crew on their journey of adventure.”

If you want to take Bob’s advice, you can pre-order Firebrandt’s Legacy right now! The ebook will be released on Monday, January 28. The print edition should appear about the same time. Here are the places where you can pre-order the book: