Pandemic Past

Most of us are working to find ways of coping in the era of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. My friend, Kenneth Silsbee, has come up with an innovative approach to create some social time by hosting a Friday evening “cocktail hour” where friends can gather via a Zoom conference call. It’s allowed me to connect to some of my college alumni friends and make some connections with Kenneth’s Seattle-area friends.

During the first of these cocktail hours, Kenneth asked whether any of the attendees had any family stories from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. All I remembered was a brief mention that my maternal grandfather was serving in the Army Air Corps in France during one of the pandemic’s waves. However, the question did make me think of a book I read two years ago when I prepared to moderate a panel called “Magical History” at the Tucson Festival of Books. The photo below shows me with the panelists, Beth Cato, Mindy Tarquini, and Gail Carriger.

The book I’ve been remembering is Mindy Tarquini’s The Infinite Now. In the novel, Fiora Vicente, the daughter of an Italian immigrant fortune teller living in Philadelphia, loses her parents to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and is taken to live with a friend of the family in a tenement house. She takes possession of a magical curtain that allows her to see five minutes into the future. Afraid that the old man who has taken her in will die, she creates a bubble around the house to keep time from progressing. Meanwhile, a frightening healer seeks to entrap Fiora and take the curtain. The magic is subtle and metaphorical, and the author even introduces a bit of Clarke’s Third Law, the notion that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, at the novel’s end.

I’m sorry to have seen this year’s COVID-19 outbreak force the cancellation of the Tucson Festival of Books. That said, it’s clear from the way the virus is spreading that the organizers made the right call. Still, the Tucson Festival of Books has long been one of my favorite venues to meet and talk with authors from all around the country. In the panel, I not only discovered Mindy’s book, but I read books by Beth Cato and Gail Carriger as well. I highly recommend all their works if you’re looking for something good to read while social distancing.

As it turns out, the 2018 Tucson Festival of Books was not my first opportunity to meet Beth Cato. I had actually published her work on a few occasions in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. Volume 9, issues 2 and 4 along with Volume 10, issue 4 all have poems by Beth Cato and they are still in stock. As long as the post office is deemed an essential service, I’d be more than happy to pack up copies and send them to you. You can find all the issues of Tales of the Talisman at http://www.talesofthetalisman.com.

Voyage of the Space Beagle

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s mission: explore new worlds, seek out new life … and kill it!

Wait, what?

Let me step back a moment. When I married my wife, a friend quipped that I was marrying her for her collection of science fiction novels. One of those novels was A.E. van Vogt’s classic science fiction tale, Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s one of those novels I’ve long meant to read and I came across it the other day on the bookshelf and decided to give it a go.

The novel is a fix-up of four novellas written between 1939 and 1943 that describe a large space ship full of scientists sent out to the galaxy to learn everything they can. The primary point of view character is Elliott Grosvenor, an early practitioner of a science called nexialism which endeavors to take the results of all the sciences and come up with comprehensive results that specialists in those fields can’t achieve alone. This is probably a good thing, since the Space Beagle’s all-male crew consists of a bunch of scientists from different specialties, most of whom don’t seem to work and play well with others. Even Grosvenor felt like something of a know-it-all jerk at times.

In the first part, the Space Beagle lands and takes the cat-like creature from the cover aboard as a specimen. This coeurl turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone anticipated and it goes on a killing rampage through the crew until they figure out how to dispatch it. In the second part, hypnotic suggestions begin flooding the ship and causing the crew to turn against each other. Grosvenor figures out that they’re receiving communications from an alien race. In the third part, they encounter a living creature out in space called an Ixtl and decide to bring it aboard as a specimen. It promptly begins going around the ship and inserting its eggs into the intestinal tracts of the crew. Finally, the Space Beagle leaves the galaxy and encounters a galaxy-spanning entity at M33. It transforms planets into jungle planets with lots of life that it can feed on.

I found it difficult to sympathize with a lot of the characters in this novel. While it was interesting that they had egos and that led to conflict, I just wanted them to get over themselves and work together once in a while as something nasty attacked the ship. What’s more, for a thin novel, it was rather plodding and methodical in its pacing. Despite that, the real importance of this novel is in its influence. The first thing I noticed was the cat-like creature on the cover. He reminded me of one I’d seen on another recent novel.

It turns out that Haruka Takachiho, the author of the Dirty Pair light novels was a fan of A.E. van Vogt and Mughi, the third lovely angel, shown on the cover, is supposed to be a coeurl. There are obvious parallels in this novel with movie and TV space opera that followed, such as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. When van Vogt mentioned his all-male crew, I immediately thought of the problems the crew of the C-57D had when it’s all-male crew encountered a woman on Altair IV. Although I poke fun at the Star Trek connection in the opening of this blog, it does resemble Star Trek in that the Space Beagle ostensibly is an exploratory ship that finds itself in the position of defending Earth against creatures that would do Earth harm. For that matter, the coeurl feeds on the potassium in human bodies, not unlike the creature that kills people for salt in an early episode of Star Trek.

One thing that’s quite striking in this novel is its resemblance to the plot of 1979’s movie, Alien. Most people point to the obvious parallels of the egg-implanting Ixtl, but the coeurl story also resembled Alien quite a bit. I was especially struck at the end of that story when the biologist, Kent, suggests that a crew should return to the coeurl’s planet and exterminate the species before they become more of a problem, the setup for this universe’s version of Aliens. Apparently van Vogt did sue the producers of Alien and was awarded a settlement.

Although it feels dated, and I’ve read novels from the period that I enjoyed more, I was glad to discover this influential science fiction novel and travel with the crew of the Space Beagle for a little while, and survive the experience.

A Weekend in the Wild West and an Interview

This past weekend, I attended Wild Wild West Con 9 held at Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona. This is my ninth time attending the event and I am the only author who has attended every single year the event has been held. It’s a great event and I saw many good friends from Arizona, California, Texas and beyond. As with most years, I ran a booth where I sold my books and was tempted by the wares of my neighboring vendors. In the photo, you see me sporting a new outfit I assembled at the convention. In addition to selling books, I spoke on several panels throughout the weekend on topics ranging from weird westerns to steampunk mysteries.

One of the more interesting panels this weekend was one entitled “Authors After Hours” which was held at the convention hotel on the first evening. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this panel, but we ended up delving into the deep dark secrets of the authors on the panel. As part of the panel, I discussed the genesis of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. As I told the audience, this was an easy novel in the sense that I knew the setting and the themes well, but it was a difficult novel to write because of peering into those dark corners of my mind. The challenge of writing the novel was so great that I really needed to write two novels after that, Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy, before I could feel ready to even consider starting the second novel in the Wilderness of the Dead series.

One popular event at Wild Wild West Con is tea dueling. This is an event where contestants dunk a cookie in a cup of tea and must be the last one to eat it cleanly before it crumbles into bits. Heaven forbid that the cookie should besmirch one’s beautiful outfit. As it turns out, my younger daughter, who has come to be called “The Cutosity” ended up being the grand champion tea dueler for the weekend. Madame Askew and the Grand Arbiter who host the tea dueling made a big show of how much she’ll be missed as she gets ready to leave for college. In the photo below, you can see The Cutosity getting ready to face down tough competition from the West Texas town of El Paso.

Seeing the amazing costumes people make is perhaps one of the major attractions of steampunk. I was impressed by the Victorian-inspired fantasy costumes many of my friends sported at the event. Below is a gallery that features just a sampling of their amazing handiwork.

Over the weekend, friends who couldn’t attend the event asked if anyone took video of panels I was on or recorded audio. I’m sorry to say, I don’t know of any recordings. However, back at Thanksgiving, Ben Ragunton and Keith Lane came up to Kitt Peak National Observatory on a blustery winter day and interviewed me. Their interview, which went live yesterday, actually covers many of the topics we discussed on panels at Wild Wild West Con. I encourage you to listen to it. Even more, I encourage you to subscribe to their podcast and learn about even more of the fine authors and creators they interview. You can find your favorite platform to listen to their interview with me by visiting: https://www.tggeeks.com/blog/2020/03/09/tg-geeks-webcast-episode-264/

Remembering My Mother-in-Law

This past week, we received the sad news that my wife’s mom, Violet Oliver, passed away quietly in her sleep while in hospice care. She was 80 years old. I remember when I first met her. My wife, Kumie, and I went to Albuquerque to pick her up at the train station. Kumie went on to meet her mom while I stopped off at the restroom. When I came out, I saw a lady with the same smile and the same sparkle in her eye as my wife, but who was not my wife. She asked if I was Dave and when I said yes, she introduced herself. It turned out, Kumie also needed to make a trip to the restroom and Violet was waiting for us.

The photo above was taken of Kumie and Violet the night my wife received her master’s degree from the University of Arizona in 1994. One thing I remember on that trip was giving Violet a copy of my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, to read. Like many members of a writer’s extended family, I think Violet was a little skeptical of my prospects. However, after she read the manuscript, she became an earnest supporter of my writing career. Her early support meant the world to me and she was always happy to share news of my writing accomplishments with her friends. When she had enough money, she even bought books for others and shared them.

She came out west several times. Notable visits happened soon after each of our daughters were born so she could help out and get to know her grandchildren. She was an avid reader and when she visited she would read to the girls. When she had quiet time, she could often be seen reading a book she’d brought with her. She was often opinionated about the books she read and she didn’t always agree with my assessment of some novels, but that only made me appreciate her support of my writing all the more. I knew she wouldn’t hold back if she hadn’t liked the writing.

I’m told Violet suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was a child and her parents were told she would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 18. Despite the diagnosis, she remained mobile throughout her life until near the very end. Her willpower to keep going even when others didn’t necessarily believe she could proved to be an inspiration.

I’m sorry I won’t get another chance to talk about books, or family, or even just share another holiday with my Mother-in-Law. I hope she’s found peace and perhaps even a joyous reunion with those loved ones who passed on before her.

Wild Wild West Con 9

Next weekend will find me at Wild Wild West Con 9, which is being held at Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona from March 5-8. Click on the title to get more information about tickets, the venue, and places to stay.

Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention (WWWC) is America’s first and only Steampunk convention and festival that takes place in a western-themed town and amusement park. Not only that, it’s the largest Western-style Steampunk Convention in the United States! The organizers have created many successful events since 2011 and I’m pleased to be returning for the ninth time!

The event takes place within Old Tucson, the famous movie studio and amusement park built in 1939 and featured in over 300 movies and TV shows. For the weekend of WWWC, Old Tucson is transformed into America’s only Western-style Steampunk Theme Park! Concerts, street performers, special events, panels, workshops, rides, games, and much more are here for your enjoyment!

I will be participating in panel discussions and I’ll be sharing a booth in the Stage 2 Barn with Diesel Jester and Drake and McTrowell. Among the three of us, we’ll have a wide range of steampunk novels and short story collections along with science fiction, fantasy, and horror books, plus other assorted treats as well! Be sure to make the trek out to the barn and see us there. As for where you can find me on panels I’ll be at the following places:

Friday, March 6

11am-Noon – Sheriff’s Office – Weird Westerns: The Greatest Genre Nobody Ever Heard Of. David B. Riley and I will be on hand to introduce you to weird western fiction. We’ll talk about movies, books, and television that contributed to the growth of the Weird Western and give you some ideas about where you can find it today.

3-4pm – Chapel – Authors of Steampunk. Diesel Jester, David Lee Summers, CI Erasmus L. Drake, and Sparky McTrowell are several of the authors attending Wild Wild West Con. We’ll discuss how we were drawn to Steampunk, what we do and what we see as trends in the field.

5-6pm – Chapel – Steampunk Mystery Fiction. CI Erasmus L. Drake, David B. Riley, Diesel Jester, and I will talk about the ways steampunk and mystery go hand in hand. What makes a good steampunk mystery? Can you just hand Sherlock Holmes a pair of goggles and call it steampunk?

9-10pm – Cholla Room of the Westward Look Hotel – Authors After Dark. Leanna Renee Hieber, Diesel Jester, CI Erasmus L. Drake, and I hold a no-holds-bard reading and discussion of steampunk writing not suitable for the younger crowd.

Saturday, March 7

11am-Noon – Sheriff’s Office – Advance Weird Western Panel. David B. Riley and I continue our discussion of weird westerns. We’ll explore the perceived lack of popularity of these books and stories and why they keep being published anyway.

1-2pm – Chapel – Magic in Steampunk Fiction. David B. Riley, Dr. Sparky McTrowell, Diesel Jester and I talk about the ways magic and fantasy can be explored in steampunk. What makes it different than more traditional magic and fantasy? Does adding magic to your steampunk make the world your building richer?

Sunday, March 8

2-3pm – Courtroom Center – Drake and McTrowell’s Hot Potato School of Writing. CI Drasmus L. Drake and Dr. Sparky McTrowell host their game show-style presentation where Diesel Jester and I will team up with members of the audience to create wild steampunk adventures.

Stand Alone or Series

When people first learn about my books, one of the first questions they ask me is whether they’re stand-alone novels or part of a series. In fact, most of my books are part of series because I think it’s fun to continue to explore the consequences of the actions a group of characters take across several volumes. That said, I also believe that each book in a series should stand on its own. In other words, if a reader has never encountered a book in the series before, they should be able to jump in at any point in the series and not be lost. Moreover, when they reach the end of the book, they should feel they’ve had a satisfactory journey without having to buy another book. I want them to buy the next book because they like the characters, not necessarily because I left them with a cliffhanger.

In my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels, I achieved that by introducing an alien traveler called Legion who has the good intention of wanting to keep humans from destroying each other by meddling in human affairs. Legion starts by encouraging the Russian Empire to “unify” Earth by taking over the North American continent. That story became Owl Dance and the story is essentially resolved in the book. In Lightning Wolves we explore consequences of the war. The Arizona desert becomes an even more lawless frontier than it was before and miners go head to head with cattle rustlers. Meanwhile, we find the Russian invasion is still happening in California. Again, those events are resolved. In the third book, The Brazen Shark, we see the Japanese worried about powerful Russian neighbors and what happens when a samurai force steals a Russian airship for their own political aims. The fourth book, Owl Riders, returns to Arizona and the consequences of leaving a mining machine in the hands of the Apaches.

My hope is each book can be read on its own, but you get a little more out of the story if you read the whole thing. One of the ways I know whether or not I succeeded is by handing a later book to a new reader and asking them whether they were able to follow along or if there were points that lost them. Of course, you can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.zianet.com/dsummers/books.html#clockwork_legion.

Right now, my writing focus is on my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. The first book, Firebrandt’s Legacy, is very much a standalone story telling the adventures of Captain Ellison Firebrandt and his band of swashbuckling space pirates. I’m working on rewriting the second book of the series, The Pirates of Sufiro. It tells how Firebrandt influenced his children and grandchildren’s generation to become heroes. The third book, Children of the Old Stars, is about Firebrandt’s grandson, John Mark Ellis, who goes on a quest to understand an set of beings called the Cluster who destroy starships for no reason people can understand. In the final book, Heirs of the New Earth, those ships have taken over Earth and the galaxy is about to be changed forever.

I’m working as hard as I am to make The Pirates of Sufiro the best book I can because I don’t want people who start with Firebrandt’s Legacy to lose interest and stop. That said, I think a reader could jump into Children of the Old Stars or Heirs of the New Earth and understand what what’s happened without reading the earlier novels. In fact, I just had a lot of fun reading those two novels again. It’s not uncommon for me to pick up a book I wrote a few years before and cringe at some of my word choices or directions I sent my characters, but for the most part, I thought these books still held up. Of course, you can leap into this series right at the beginning by picking up Firebrandt’s Legacy at: http://hadrosaur.com/FirebrandtsLegacy.php. If you want to leap ahead and see how well Heirs of the New Earth stands on its own, I have a few copies of the first edition available at half off the cover price at: http://hadrosaur.com/HeirsNewEarth.php. I hope you’ll join Firebrandt and his heirs for their exciting adventure.

Music for the Journey

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve started evaluating my revisions of The Pirates of Sufiro and deciding whether or not it’s ready for publication as is, or whether I should take the book through another round of edits. As I mentioned in the last post, The Pirates of Sufiro tells the story of a planet founded by pirates and their conflict with even more unscrupulous people. I’ve also come to realize that The Pirates of Sufiro serves as a bridge, showing how a pirate captain like Ellison Firebrandt guided the next two generations into becoming heroes who would save the galaxy.

The first part of this process is making sure characters like Ellison Firebrandt, Carter Roberts, and Suki Mori are true to the characters I envisioned in Firebrandt’s Legacy. I also reread the next two books in the series, Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth, to make sure I believe that Fire Ellis, daughter of Ellison Firebrandt, and her son, John Mark Ellis, are where they need to be. Of the two, I think Fire will need the most help in Pirates while John Mark needs a little more work in Children of the Old Stars.

The good news of my reading adventure is that while it looks like I’ll be spending a little more time rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro than I originally expected, the rewrites of Children and Heirs will probably go a bit quicker than I initially expected. In fact, I’m thinking once Pirates is released, it’ll only take about two or three months to finish the new editions of the next two books.

To elaborate a bit on the issue of character consistency, one element of the story that becomes increasingly important as the series progresses is that John Mark Ellis comes from Nantucket. He has a connection with the sea and has even become acquainted with Earth’s whales as intelligent beings. I think there’s enough connection with Nantucket and the whales in Pirates that these things don’t come out of the blue. Nantucket takes on greater importance in Children of the Old Stars.

Despite that, there’s a scene where a character looks into Ellis’s mind and sees a castle on the Scottish moors. I wrote that because I imagined Ellis’s ancestors as Scottish, but it doesn’t really serve a story point or fit Ellis’s self image. In the new edition, look for him to be sheltered in a light house against a raging sea. In another scene in Children of the Old Stars, I imagine Ellis humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I did this at a point where he reaches an important decision and it happens because Ulysses S. Grant was an early inspiration for the character and I wanted that Civil War connection. The problem is that Ellis himself wouldn’t see that connection. He would actually sing songs related to Nantucket and whaling. This led me on a quest to find such songs. During the search, I discovered a wonderful musician and educator named David Coffin based in Boston. He has an album called David Coffin and the Nantucket Sleighride which includes songs just like the ones I was looking for. I even discovered that one of the old songs from circa 1820 fits the mood of the scene I was looking for very well. What’s more, his old songs are great for getting me in the mood to write scenes with Ellis. If you want to learn more about David, his website is: http://www.davidcoffin.com. His albums are available on Amazon and iTunes and I highly recommend them if you want to learn more about sea chanteys and early American music.