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:

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:

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: 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!


El Paso Comic Con 2018

Next weekend, I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. The event is being held from Friday, April 13 through Sunday, April 15 at the El Paso Convention Center. Special guests for the weekend include Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, and Marina Sirtis who played Riker, Data and Troi, respectively in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There will be cosplay, vendors, and panels all weekend long. You can get more information about the event at:

Through much of the event, you will be able to find me at booth A30 in the vendor hall. I will have all my books available for sale and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Also, on Sunday, April 15 at 11am, I’ll join authors C.M. Bratton, Ken Hudnall, Ray Ramos and R.H. Webster for a special Q&A session in the Juarez Panel Room. Be sure to bring all your questions for us!

At the event, I’ll be unveiling the second edition of my novel The Solar Sea, which tells the story of a voyage through the solar system aboard a solar sail space craft. In the novel, the crew hope to solve the mystery of particles that apparently travel through time, found in great quantity around Saturn’s moon, Titan. Along the way, the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus find clues to suggest that we are not alone in the universe after all.

Much of the plot is imaginary, but my goal was to transport readers to Mars, Jupiter and Titan as we know them to be. I also transported them using a technology that’s being developed. As it turns out, the Planetary Society is getting ready to launch their LightSail 2 spacecraft aboard an upcoming SpaceX flight. LightSail 2 has now been integrated into the NanoSat in preparation for launch. You can learn more about the process at the latest edition of The Planetary Post featuring Robert Picardo (from Star Trek: Voyager) and several special guest stars.

Characters Are What They Eat

As the old saying goes, “you are what you eat.” My post’s title though refers less to nutrition than what you can reveal about a character through scenes set at mealtimes. I thought about this last week while revising the story “Jump Point Blockade” for my collection-in-progress, Firebrandt’s Legacy. During the story, Captain Firebrandt shares bobotie with Suki, the woman he’s building a relationship with. Bobotie is a South African dish that shares characteristics of a meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, and a curry. We decided to try our hand at making it this weekend. Here’s the result.

We picked a recipe from a South African site based on the author’s family recipe. If you want to try your hand at bobotie, here’s the recipe we used:

Part of the reason for the choice is that this version didn’t include nuts at cook time, since our daughters are nut-allergic. Different recipes call for different types of nuts. We went with cashews to serve with our version, but almonds and pine nuts also seem to be common choices. We also used a homemade apple and pear chutney in the mix. Finally, just a note that the recipe specifies “sultanas” over raisins. It turns out that most raisins sold in the United States are, in fact, sultana raisins.

Firebrandt is South African because I created him during the time apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa. He came from a culture where his ancestors had been part of an oppressive regime and he wanted no part of belonging to one himself. What’s more South Africa is one of the few countries to have developed nuclear weapons, but voluntarily destroyed them. I see the elimination of nuclear weapons as one of the necessary paths forward for the human race. In my head, Firebrandt has always spoken with a South African accent and having him share bobotie with a friend was a way to show that on the page.

Scenes including mealtimes not only reveal what people eat, but their accepted manners while eating. How strongly they adhere to meal customs can tell you much about a character, no matter what those customs are. If someone cares a lot about protocol, they might adhere strongly to custom. Other characters might care more about conversation. Some characters might reveal themselves to be completely uncouth at the dinner table. How hosts react to good and bad manners can also be revealing.

One of the challenges in Firebrandt’s Legacy is that I wrote many of the chapters as stand-alone short stories. It could be that when I’m finished collecting the stories and read them as a whole, I might find that I’ve overused the number of times my characters have shared meals. If that’s the case, I’ll need to cut a few of them and share only those that are the most revealing and most interesting.

I invite you to share some adventures, and perhaps a few meals, with the crew of the pirate ship Legacy. I’m posting a new chapter each month. So far, most of the chapters have been revisions of stories that have appeared far and wide in the small press and aren’t always easy to find. I’m nearing a point where most of the stories will be new and unpublished. You can read these stories for just a dollar a month. Of course, this helps me fund other projects as well, such as my recent publication of The Solar Sea. This leads to surprise bonus rewards. I just gave all my wonderful patrons a free ebook copy of the new novel. (If you join my Patreon page now, you can still pick up a copy!) Click the button below to read the first chapter for free and learn how to support this fun project.

Revisiting Contact

When I visited the VLA a little over a week ago with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help but note they had copies of both the novel Contact by Carl Sagan and the Robert Zemeckis film based on the novel on prominent display in the gift shop. This is perhaps not surprising given that a large portion of the novel is set at the VLA and a large portion of the movie was filmed there as well. My wife and I decided to pick up a copy of the movie on DVD to replace our aging VHS copy.

It’s been years since I watched the film, even longer since I read the novel, but it was fun to go back and see it again. One element that was fun was the behind-the-scenes look at both Arecebo Radio Observatory and the Very Large Array. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes look I wanted to give people with The Astronomer’s Crypt and also, to some degree, with The Solar Sea. While I’ve never visited Arecebo, I have worked at the VLA and recognized the control room and other places in the control building. It was great to see those places again. One thing I noticed, though, was that in the movie, the astronomers themselves operated the telescopes. In real life, specialists who know the instrumentation actually operate the telescope. Scientists might be in the room analyzing data as it comes in, but even that is somewhat rare. For the most part, I chalk this up to streamlining the storytelling and keeping the number of on-screen characters to a manageable number.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie more on this viewing than I remembered. I like how the movie focuses on the human reaction to alien contact more than the science fictional elements of the actual alien encounter. We see a wide variety of reactions from the general public, to religious figures, to politicians. While we see some paranoia, most of the extreme reactions come from … well, extremists. The acting is fine with Jodie Foster turning in a believable performance as astronomer Eleanor Arroway. I also especially enjoyed seeing Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, one of Ellie’s chief critics and ultimately her rival to meet the aliens. Another fun appearance was John Hurt from Alien and Doctor Who as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden who funds Ellie’s experiments.

As I recall, the movie is a generally faithful adaptation of the novel. I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t include one element of the novel I really disliked. I’m not certain how necessary it is to give a spoiler warning for a novel that’s over thirty years old, but just in case, I’ll cover this element in the next paragraph. Skip over it if you haven’t read the book and don’t want the spoiler!

In the novel, Ellie has a stepfather named John Staughton. He’s a university professor who raises her after Ted Arroway dies. It’s ultimately revealed that Arroway is not really Ellie’s father, but that Staughton was her biological father all along. To me, this felt like academic elitism of the worst order. When I read it, it seemed as though Carl Sagan was saying that brilliant Dr. Eleanor Arroway couldn’t really be the daughter of an ordinary working man, but required the genetics of an actual PhD scientist in order to be as smart as she was. Of course, this impression could be unintentional, and it could have resulted from an editor’s suggestion at some point in the revision process to add more drama to the story. That said, it was bad enough, it almost proved a showstopper for me when I read the novel.

One element of the movie that was both fun, yet dates the film was the addition of scenes with President Bill Clinton. On one hand, it adds a certain credibility to the film, but it also sets it indelibly in the past. Of course, that will happen with almost any near-future science fiction and it’s perhaps better to fix it in time than let the older tech in the control rooms and older cars on the streets be the main “tells.”

Ultimately, I think both the novel and film are great in that they provide a look into the mind of Carl Sagan, who long served as an important spokesman for science and astronomy. Like Urania by Camille Flammarion, Contact provides insights into Carl Sagan that his non-fiction alone couldn’t provide. We get to see more of his hopes and fears and even though many of us never got to meet him, we still have the opportunity to know him better.

Sailing the Solar Sea

The Planetary Society was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in 1980 as a voice in support of planetary exploration. I was in high school at the time and joined soon after it was founded. I remember an article in the society’s magazine The Planetary Report that discussed solar sails as vehicles for planetary exploration. The idea immediately grabbed me and I had an idea for a book about astronauts who traveled aboard a solar sail and made a sort of grand tour of the solar system much as NASA’s Voyager space craft was doing at the time. The novel was to be called Sailors on the Solar Sea. It took over twenty-five years for me to see a draft through to completion and the novel was finally published in 2009 with a shortened title: The Solar Sea. Now in 2018, I’m pleased to announce the release of the second, updated edition.

In the novel, whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

I started the novel soon after my mom bought me my first typewriter. It was a Smith-Corona electric and man that thing was nice. I remember sitting down for a couple of hours every weekend and savoring the hum of the typewriter and the tap-tapping as the ball hit the ribbon. I carefully saved those pages for many years. Jonathan Jefferson goes all the way back to the beginning. Natalie Freeman started as Nathaniel Freeman. I remember finding those early pages sometime in the early 1990s and feeling like there wasn’t enough of a plot to preserve, so I tossed the whole thing out. Around 2000, I made another attempt at the novel. I think I only succeeded in hammering out four chapters. That’s when Myra Lee and the whales came into the story. I grew up in Southern California and visited Marineland as a kid. My first job in astronomy was on Nantucket Island. Long before Captain Kirk saved the whales in Star Trek IV, I’ve been captivated by the idea of whale intelligence.

In 2007, Jacqueline Druga-Johnston, who was then the owner of LBF Books, challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month. I looked at what I had written before and didn’t like the direction I had been going with The Solar Sea, tossed that draft aside, and made a third go at it. In 2007, my youngest daughter was just getting ready to start Kindergarten. I wrote the novel in the evenings after the kids went to bed. I succeeded in writing 50,000 words in a month and felt satisfied that I had, essentially, a complete story. I took the next three months and revised the novel, adding about 13,000 more words and then submitted it to LBF for publication. The novel was published in early 2009. In the subsequent years, LBF was acquired by Lachesis Publishing.

The novel is set in the near future, less than a hundred years hence. Despite that, the novel has mostly aged well and not become too dated, though there were a couple of places where I saw time rapidly encroaching on the novel. Also, in the years since the novel’s release, I’ve continued to learn more about solar sails and realized I could do better. Lachesis, for their own business reasons, didn’t want to invest in a new edition, so when the contract came up for renewal in 2017, I requested a reversion of the rights. The upshot is that I’m proud to announce the release of the newest edition this week.

Although the new edition has been re-edited, I haven’t introduced any new plot points. Readers of the first edition should recognize it as the same novel with just a few updates to the science and technology. One nice new feature is that I worked with artist Laura Givens to create diagrams of the Solar Sail Aristarchus for the book.

Print copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Ebook copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Returning to the VLA

One of the reasons I decided to attend the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology was its proximity to the Very Large Array, which at the time, was the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope. In my senior year at Tech, I got my dream job, and spent the year working at the VLA. This past weekend, My wife and I took our daughter out to visit my old stomping grounds.

The VLA was an awesome place to work. As you can see from the photo above, the scenery is dramatic. It’s an alto plano in central New Mexico. In fact, the VLA is at higher altitude than Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. I went out to the VLA site every Friday of my senior year to work. What exciting, groundbreaking science did I do with the world’s largest radio telescope? I observed clouds. Yes, clouds on Earth.

Here’s the thing, at the time the National Radio Astronomy Observatory was looking to build something called the Millimeter Array or MMA. Millimeter Array may not sound very spectacular when you’re talking about the Very Large Array, but the name referred to the frequency of light the telescope would observe. My job was to support the site survey work for the MMA. In other words, we were trying to find the very best place in the world to build the MMA. The reason for observing clouds is because while radio waves can travel through clouds, clouds can cause something called phase instability. With a big telescope like the VLA or the MMA, you can have clouds over one part of the array and not the other. The ideal site is phase stable, meaning you don’t get a lot of variation in the cloud cover across the site.

As it turns out, the MMA was never built. Instead, in 1997, the MMA project in the United States joined forces with the European Southern Observatory’s Large Southern Observatory project. The new project was called ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. In 2003, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan joined the project. So, my work at the VLA observing clouds was an early step in the development of ALMA, which is now on the air. You can read about it here:

One fun display they had set up at the VLA now was a radio receiver. This actually was one of the radio receivers used when the VLA received data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft at Neptune. I actually watched that data come in at the Array Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. On our visit, my daughter and I got to use the receiver to detect radio waves from the sun.

As it turns out, the VLA plays an important role in my novel The Solar Sea. The second edition will be released on the first day of spring. You can learn more and preorder it here:

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.