Bubonicon 51

Bubonicon 51 will take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico this coming weekend, Friday August 23 through Sunday August 25. The guests of honor are Allen Steele, author of Arkwright, and Ursula Vernon, artist and author. The toastmaster is Darynda Jones, author of Summoned to the Thirteenth Grave. The guest artist is Greg Spalenka, who designed the logo you see in this post. The science speaker is Dr. Harrison Schmidt, the Apollo 17 astronaut, geologist, and former senator from New Mexico. The convention’s theme is “The Future is Now.” I will be there all weekend as both a guest author and a vendor. Bubonicon 51 will be held at the Albuquerque Marriott Uptown at 2101 Louisiana Boulevard. You can get more information about the convention at http://bubonicon.com.


My schedule is as follows:

Saturday, August 24

11am-noon. Main Room. Space Cowboys: Where Westerns and Space Opera Collide. Malcolm Reynolds hauled cattle on his spaceship. Captain Harlock strode through batwing doors into a few dusty saloons. Captain Kirk’s show was originally described as “Wagon Train to the Stars.” And then there’s the animated BraveStarr. At what point does the hero of a space opera become a space cowboy? How “retro” can you make your space opera before it becomes fantasy or steampunk? I’ll be moderating this panel that includes such luminaries as Robert E. Vardeman, Craig Butler, Susan Matthews, and Allen Steele.

4-5pm. Salon A-D. Surveying the Universe. Traditionally, astronomers made a hypothesis, applied for time on telescopes, took their data and examined it. That model is being replaced by large scale surveys being conducted by organizations such as the Department of Energy and NASA. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing astronomy, and science in general, by large scale survey as opposed to small teams working on their own questions? I’ll be moderating this panel which includes John Barnes, Loretta Hall, Kathy Kitts, and Cathy Plesko.

5:25-6:40pm. Main Room. Mass Autographing. All the Bubonicon guests will be happy to sign your books, art, or whatever you happen to bring. If it has the property of mass, I’ll do my best to sign it!

Sunday, August 25

2:45-3:30pm. Salon A-D. 45 minutes with David Lee Summers. I will read from my recent work. I’m thinking a sample of the revised version of The Pirates of Sufiro, but I may include a surprise or two if there’s time.


If you’re in Albuquerque this coming weekend, I hope you’ll drop by Bubonicon and check out a few of the many panels going on over the course of the weekend. Please drop into the “flea market” where Hadrosaur Productions will be set up. You can preview our wares, or shop online, at: http://www.hadrosaur.com.

Editing and Ego

A week ago, I was listening to the Freakonomics Radio Show on NPR and caught a segment where they interviewed Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. The interview was all about why we are poor judges of ourselves. For example we might think we’re wearing a mind-blowing wardrobe, but no one else notices. Or, maybe a professor thinks they’ve given the most poignant lecture ever, only to put the class to sleep. The interview was actually a rebroadcast, so the transcript of the interview is available online here or you can listen to it here. It occurred to me that Epley’s research gives a lot of insight into both the dangers of self-editing and the care one needs to take when editing others.

In the interview, Dr. Epley makes the point that human beings aren’t especially good at knowing what others think of them. The root of this problem is egocentrism. Epley doesn’t use “egocentrism” in a negative context. Rather, he means that we’re the people most expert in ourselves. So, when we change our hairstyle, we know we’ve made a change and understand immediately why we did it. When we say something, we say it from the context of our life experiences. The problem for us as writers is that our readers may not know everything we know, or even understand it the same way we understand it. Readers simply haven’t lived a life with the same experiences we have.

This is actually why editors are so vital to writing. A good editor has a good understanding of the audience you’re trying to speak to and can tell you where you haven’t been clear, or where they won’t understand what you’re trying to say, or where you may imply something you don’t mean at all.

The challenge of editing oneself is that you come to your writing knowing yourself better than anyone else. You know exactly what you meant to say when you wrote it. One way to defeat this is to give yourself time. I’m currently editing The Pirates of Sufiro, which I first wrote twenty-five years ago. I have twenty-five more years of life experience and I don’t see everything the same way I did before, so it’s much easier for me to see places where people could misunderstand what I meant or where I had pictures in my mind I didn’t fully communicate on the page. Now, you may not want to wait twenty-five years to edit your manuscript. If you don’t have a publisher who is covering the costs of editing, and you can’t cover them yourself, you really need a beta reader or two. It’s best if they have somewhat different life experiences than you do and are willing to give you honest feedback.

This actually goes a long way to explaining why its dangerous for family to edit your work. We’re often told its because family will spare your feelings. Those people don’t have my family! However, what family do have are many of the same life experiences. What’s more, they hear you every day and have learned what you mean, even if you may not be clear to someone else. So, utilize your family with caution.

I see an important caution for professional editors in Dr. Epley’s remarks as well. Early in my editing career, I sometimes gave in to the temptation to rewrite a sentence or a paragraph. In this case I’m not talking about replacing a misspelled word or adding a punctuation mark. I’m talking about changing the sentence in an effort to make it more clear. I’ve known other editors who do this as well. The problem is that the editor is now silencing the author and overwriting the author with their words. An editor’s job is not to rewrite. Instead, it’s better for an editor to point out how something can be more effective, or perhaps how they understood a paragraph or a sentence to confirm that’s what the author meant. The editor’s job is to point out how a character did something that doesn’t feel true to that character and let the author fix it. Now, I have some authors I work with and we have developed a rapport. In that case, I may take a crack at rephrasing something, but I endeavor to point out that it’s a suggestion and that the author should feel free to change it or even revert the suggestion if I’ve added unintended words.

The bottom line is that we need editors because our egos sometimes get in the way of expressing ourselves as clearly as we could. However, editors need to beware not to let their egos take over the manuscript. Their job is to make sure the author is communicating clearly and effectively.

Visiting Marceline

My family’s story has been an important inspiration for my novels. My first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, was a science fiction tale inspired by my mom’s family of Texas and New Mexico pioneers. Learning more about their history led me to write more directly about the wild west in my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels.

When people learn about my interest in genealogy, they often ask me if I’ve taken on of the many DNA tests that are currently on the market. While I think that would be interesting and it’s something I’d like to do, it’s a fairly low priority. Some of that is because of I know the limitations of DNA testing. For example, some genes are passed along patriarchal lines and others are only passed along matriarchal lines. What’s more, genetic markers are based on statistical samples. For example, 80% of Scottish people may show a given genetic marker while 70% of people from Africa may have another genetic marker. So these tests are based on statistical samples rather than absolute measurements. Most of all, DNA doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about the day-to-day lives of my ancestors, which is the stuff that makes good story fodder.

In my recent travels, I paid a visit to Marceline, Missouri. The town is probably most famous as the hometown of Walt Disney. However, I went to pay my respects to my great great grandfather, Paul Teter. I knew he was a veteran of the Civil War and I also knew he was Marceline’s first Justice of the Peace. He was also the father of my great grandmother Montana and her sister Arizona, who I wrote about two years ago. While in Marceline, I paid a visit to the Carnegie Library, which has a depository of newspaper articles and genealogy resources. It proved to be a real treasure trove.

The Carnegie Library’s collection is fabulous. They’ve indexed their newspaper collections, which makes searching them easy. I soon found stories about weddings my great great grandfather officiated over, often having the families over at his house. I learned about his career as a “police judge.” Today, most jurisdictions would refer to the position as a “magistrate judge.” I also found two items of note in the “City and Vicinity” column of the Marceline Mirror dated February 9, 1906. The third paragraph reports that “Mrs. Paul Teter fell and sustained a sprained ankle that disabled her for many days.” A sad bit of news indeed. Two paragraphs below that, we learn, “Elias Disney, of Chicago, is in the city with the expectation of locating on a farm near this place.” The farm is the one Walt Disney grew up on and where he lay under the family’s famous dreaming tree. A DNA test wouldn’t have given me that little connection and I never would have seen the town that is said to have inspired Main Street at the Disney parks.

While searching through the genealogy records at the Carnegie Library in Marceline, I also came across a memory shared by Arizona Teter’s son. He noted that Paul Teter owned a book and stationary store located on the street above. One of his most famous customers was young Walt Disney who would choose a book and sit reading in the window seat until the store closed. Arizona remembered that his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. There’s something pretty amazing to learn that my great great grandparents contributed to Walt Disney’s love of adventure fiction. I don’t know quite where this research will lead me, but I’m sure it will inspire more stories in the future.

The Pointing Dance

This week, I have been engaged in an important, albeit tedious activity at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I have been building pointing maps. Telescopes are large, bulky machines that have to point with extreme precision and track the almost literal clockwork motion of the sky. They are engineered carefully, but like any machine they are subject to wear and tear. What’s more, to keep getting the best science, telescopes have to be upgraded from time to time. This changes the telescope’s behavior with time.

The WIYN Telescope ready for a night of collecting pointing data

Because the Earth turns constantly, the sky overhead appears to move at a constant rate. To keep objects in the telescope’s field of view, the earliest telescopes were literally mounted to clocks that moved at the sky’s rate. To make these work, you have to imagine a line in the sky that’s a projection of the Earth’s equator. Then you have to tilt your tracking axis to be at the same angle as that imaginary line in the sky. Another way to think about it is that here at Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’re at 32 degrees north latitude, so you have to tilt your telescope 32 degrees up from the southern horizon to track the sky.

Now, if you look at the photo of the WIYN Telescope above, you’ll notice that it’s mounted flat to the floor and it’s not tipped to match our latitude. That’s because it’s expensive to engineer big heavy telescopes so they can be tipped up at an angle. So, the WIYN telescope actually has to track the sky in two axes: azimuth and elevation, kind of like a radar mount. To track the sky, we have to use computers to adjust the tracking rates constantly. The computers only know how fast to track in each axis if they know where we’re pointing in the sky. If there’s an error in pointing, there’s also an error in tracking.

When I tell people I’m a writer and an astronomer who operates telescopes, it’s often assumed that I have lots of free time on quiet nights at the telescope to write. That doesn’t happen on nights of pointing maps. Instead, it’s a busy night of pointing to a star, noting how far off it was from where we expected it and then moving on again. We do this for anywhere from 75 to 100 stars with a telescope like WIYN and the exercise takes about half the night.

The way pointing and tracking are interconnected also make me think of how I use outlines as a writer. With the telescope, we can imagine that I point to a star and correct the pointing at one spot, then let the telescope track. If the computer thinks the star will be a different point in an hour than it really will be, it will track toward that different point and it won’t follow the star. You need to know where the star really will be in an hour.

For me, an outline is like a little like a pointing map. It tells me where the plot is at point A and it tells me where I want to be once I reach point B. With the telescope, it better be pointed at the star at both points A and B. An outline is more flexible. It’s more like a guideline. I try to listen to my characters when I write my outlines and make sure that points A and B make sense for them. However, sometimes as I write, I find characters do things I didn’t quite imagine the first time. The beauty of an outline is I can change point B. The challenge is that when I do, I realize I may also have to change points C, D, and E as the plot progresses!

I’ve been having a lot of fun rewriting my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release. I actually wrote some of the original draft when the WIYN telescope was first being built in the 1990s. Rewriting the book is the ultimate case of writing to an outline, especially since I don’t want to change it so much that people can’t pick up older editions of the sequels and follow them. I’m expanding the story and letting my characters breathe more. I’m letting them guide me and asking if what they did entirely made sense for those characters. I’m taking them from point A to point B. Those points can’t really deviate, but I do allow myself to add points A.1, A.2, and A.3 to better explain how they moved from point A to point B.

You can read chapters from the previous edition and see how I’m following my version of a “pointing map” by following me Patreon. My site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Holmes, Pirates, and Cthulhu. Oh my!

Back in March, I had the honor of meeting Kazumitsu Akamatsu at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona. Akamatsu is not only a steampunk fanatic, he’s also written for anime and Japanese cinema, he’s an artist, and he’s a SOFUBI master. SOFUBI are Japanese soft vinyl figures, often depicting monsters. Here I am with Akamatsu and one of the other vendors, posing with steampunk guns he made. I’m the one with the red hair in a costume inspired by my Captain Firebrandt character.

I have been watching Gravion, one of the anime series Akamatsu contributed to. The premise is familiar to fans of anime from the early 2000s. A team of young people fly fighter craft which can combine with a smaller robot into a giant robot called Gravion, which is Earth’s best defense against alien invasion. The show has good action and a fun sense of humor. One thing that makes it stand out for me is that we have more young women in this team than men.

While at Wild Wild West Con, my wife and I bought Akamatsu’s book, The Quest for R’LYEH. In this steampunk book, a young Japanese woman named Mari enlists the aid of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to keep evil forces from traveling to Atlantis so they can wake the greatest of the old ones himself, Cthulhu. They get help from the mysterious Lady Steam and even take a ride on the Nautilus with Captain Nemo. Along the way, they must face a menagerie of Lovecraftian abominations, pirates, and even Rasputin. The story could be the basis for a terrific anime series or even a movie.

Although the plot was great fun, the prose was a challenge to follow. It felt like a word-for-word translation from the Japanese, without taking into account English grammar and idiom. The cover does say “Draft” so I wonder if a more polished translation will eventually be available. That said, the real gems in this book are Akamatsu’s beautiful illustrations of steampunk gadgets and Lovecraftian horrors. As a fan of Jules Verne, and now a fan of Kazumitsu Akamatsu’s work, I would love a model of his Nautilus design.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to conventions like Wild Wild West Con is having the opportunity to meet artists that I might not encounter in other venues. Meeting Mr. Akamatsu led me to explore his work and learn more about his art. I’ve long been inspired by Japanese television, cinema, and writing. Mr. Akamatsu’s writing has already inspired me to add an airship cameo to my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m sure his work will inspire me in other ways as well.

Practice Makes Perfect

I spent last week at Kitt Peak National Observatory assisting with the installation of the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope. We spent a couple of months running the refurbished telescope through its paces on the sky with a simple commissioning camera and now it’s time to finish installing the complete instrument. As we get ready to install this complex array of 5000 robot-positioned fibers that feed ten spectrographs, I find myself thinking of the old saw “practice makes perfect.” Well, how exactly do you practice building and installing an instrument no one has built and installed before? As it turns out, there are ways to do this.

One of the major tasks this week has been “dummy” petal installation. The photo above shows a view of the 4-meter telescope from the top. We’re facing the primary mirror (which is covered with white covers that say “Danger: No Step”). In front of that, and right in front of the camera is the prime focus assembly. The 4-meter mirror focuses light into the prime focus assembly. In the old days, a camera sat there. Now there will be 5000-optical fibers aligned with objects on the sky by robot positioners. Those robot positioners are quite delicate and take up a lot of room, so a test petal has been created. The petals fit in the pie-shaped wedges you see in the photo. The dummy petal is the one with Swiss cheese, like holes. It’s carefully guided into position by the red mechanical assembly. Lasers are used to make sure the petal is positioned very carefully and put in at just the right place. Here’s what one of the real petals looks like.

The entire fiber petal sits in the silver box. The black structure on the right is the same size and shape as the Swiss cheese dummy petal. Behind that is a tightly packed array of delicate fibers. The real petal above will have to be placed precisely without breaking anything. So, in this case, we practice by creating a mockup to try out all the procedures and check that we know what we’re doing before we start installing all the really delicate, expensive instrumentation. There will be ten petals like the one in the photo above and light from their fibers will go down to ten spectrographs two floors below the telescope. We currently have six of those spectrographs installed in a clean room.

Currently, three of the spectrographs are in the lower layer of racks. Three are in the upper layer of racks. The spectrographs are where the real science happens. Light that comes down the fibers is spread apart into a literal rainbow and we can see the characteristic fingerprint of the chemical elements of the objects that each fiber in the spectrograph is pointed to.

The spectrographs and the petals remind us that practice makes perfect when you do things repeated times. We’re practicing with the dummy petal, but then we’ll install ten real petals. We’ve installed six spectrographs and we have four more to go. Each time we take another step forward, the easier the process becomes.

Of course, practice made perfect on our way to building these spectrographs in the first place. We built other, smaller fiber spectrographs and learned lessons from their construction. We’ve learned about robotics and we’ve learned lessons from other people who also work in the field by following their work.

Writing is much like this. You practice by doing. You might start with some short stories to get the hang of writing. Then you might try your hand at a novel chapter, then you’ll write another. All the while, you should keep reading to see what others are doing and have done. You’ll learn techniques as you try them out. You will likely encounter difficulties, but as you keep reading, you’ll be sensitive to those difficulties and you’ll see how others have solved them. This is just one of the ways that science has taught me to be a better writer and being a writer has taught me to be better at the science work I do.

You can learn more about my writing at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Fathers in Fact and Fiction

We’re celebrating Father’s Day a day early at my house. Tomorrow, I have to get on the road and drive to Arizona for a shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Alas, I didn’t get to sleep in. It’s the first day this break from work I’ve had a chance to catch up some yard work and I want to get that done before the summer heat reaches full intensity. That said, there will be a nice payoff tonight with a family barbecue.

Father’s day feels especially poignant this year since I’m now the same age my dad was when he celebrated his last father’s day. The picture shows him at his desk, working as a General Locomotive Foreman for Santa Fe Railroad and it’s very much how I remember my dad. I don’t remember how we celebrated his last father’s day. I would have been in my last weeks of middle school, or junior high as we called it then. I would have been nervous about end-of-the-year tests. I remember being excited and nervous about going to high school in just three months. I remember dad being a reassuring presence at that time. I remember discussing classes I might take and how that might influence my career. I remember thinking I might want to be a doctor.

In the fairy tale version of that story, his death might have strengthened my resolve to study cardiac medicine. In the real world, I realized I never wanted to be the one to tell people they’d lost a dear family member. It was hard enough telling my brothers he’d had a second heart attack.

Despite that, a lot of what he taught me would live on in my fiction. My best memories of my dad were on long trips we would take during summer vacations, seeing sights around the United States. The story he told me about the Civil War’s Battle of Glorietta Pass in New Mexico influenced the climactic scenes in my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. I’ve been revising the novel for its 25th anniversary release and I realize the character Espedie Raton reminds me of my dad. Espedie didn’t get enough time on the page in the earlier editions. I’m giving him some better scenes now.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to Skype into the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club meeting where they were discussing the novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, which I recommended. Ironically, it can be seen as a tale about a group of women who had bad fathers. I was complimented on my fine daughters and told I was an example of a good father and was asked what I thought about the fathers in the book. I was horrified at the idea of fathers neglecting their daughters, or even worse, using them as experiments.

After all, one of the things my dad was great about was making time for me. Even when he worked nights, he cut sleep short to take me to school every morning, because he couldn’t be there in the afternoon. By the same token, I have to be gone for stretches of time in my observatory job, but I try to be there when I’m home. On reflection, there’s a truth about fatherhood in Goss’s novel. You can’t be there all the time. What’s more, kids are something of an experiment. You do your best to help them grow and give them what they’ll need to be good adults, but you don’t really know how well it worked until it happens.

My novel Owl Riders is the one where I drew the most on my own experiences of fatherhood. When writing Ramon Morales as a dad, I tried to be as honest as possible about the good parts of being a father and the painful parts. I wanted to show what it’s like to be there for your daughter, but to be pulled away by circumstances you can’t control. If Ramon Morales is a good dad, if I am a good dad, it’s only because I had a great example in my dad.