Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.

Nightmare Scenarios

As a horror and science fiction writer, one of my jobs is to concoct nightmare scenarios and present them as realistically as possible for your entertainment. In my new novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, I had great fun imagining anything and everything that could go wrong on a night at a remote observatory. I imagine everything from a dangerous storm, to people being hurt by the large machinery we have, to strangers who might appear on the mountain. I even imagine ghosts and an even more terrifying monster. As it turns out, I actually do work at an observatory, and one of my jobs is to make sure visiting astronomers stay safe. One of my duties is to give a safety presentation where I warn people about dangers they might face in an observatory environment. This includes staying away from areas where they could be hurt by machinery, watching for areas that are known to be slippery, and taking care if they go outside in strong winds. The safety presentation doesn’t include ghosts and terrifying monsters, because although I can imagine those things—have even had moments where I wondered if ghosts might exist—they have never done me, or anyone else at the observatory, any harm.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of some of the recent politics in the United States. In many ways, it’s the job of legislators and the executive branch to imagine every nightmare scenario possible. However, their job is more like mine as a telescope operator than my job as a horror writer. They should look at the reasonable and creditable threats to people’s health and security, act on them where necessary and give people appropriate cautions. The scary part to me is that the current administration is acting like the worst kind of horror writer in that they have been presenting absolutely every scary thing they can imagine, whether or not it’s reasonable. For example, the recent travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries feels like it would be as responsible as me telling visiting astronomers to avoid every Latino they might meet on the mountain because a suspected illegal immigrant once pulled a knife on a couple of staff members, then ran away. Yes, there are scary people and there are desperate people, but they are rarely scary and desperate because of their skin color or nation of origin.

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This line of thought takes an interesting turn, because in my Clockwork Legion novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves, I imagine Russians coming to America and influencing people to support them with the help of an alien swarm called Legion. Of course, there have been allegations that the Russians attempted to influence the most recent American election and there might have been improper contact between Executive Branch officials and members of the Russian government. In the worst case, this could be a serious nightmare for America and is plausible enough to deserve serious inquiry, yet this nightmare scenario is regularly replaced with worries that a transgender person might be in the stall next to your daughter at school.

Of course, perhaps the greatest nightmare scenario of all would be living in a United States where people are not allowed to question the President and the press are barred from open inquiry. I would rather face the worst nightmares of The Astronomer’s Crypt than live in that world.

The Wild West I Wished For

Today, I’m excited to be at the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. It’s a free event, so if you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. I’m participating in two panels this weekend and will be available after both to sign books.

Last weekend, I was at Wild Wild West Con, at Old Tucson Studios where many classic westerns were filmed. When I grew up, my parents were big fans of westerns. My mom, in particular, was always delighted to find a good “shoot-em-up” on television during a Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a fan of westerns, at least not at first. It wasn’t until I discovered TV series like The Wild Wild West and Kung Fu that westerns began to click for me. As a kid, I loved science fiction and the former mixed tropes I found familiar into the western backdrop, which helped me take notice. The latter took the clash of cultures that often happened in the west seriously and I could see similarities between that world and the multicultural world of Southern California I lived in at the time.

A lot of these elements come to life at Wild Wild West Con. The event started for me on Thursday night at opening ceremonies, where I got to catch up with some old friends from other steampunk conventions. The next morning, I drove out to Old Tucson Studios to unload books. This year, the authors were housed in the building where they filmed the exteriors for the show High Chaparral. Here you see my Smart Car parked out front!

One of the things I love about steampunk conventions is getting to see the wonderful things people have built for costume or display. This year, outside of High Chaparral, was a display of steampunk vehicles. I thought this one could almost be a reinterpretation of Larissa Crimson’s invention from Lightning Wolves, or an evolved version of the vehicle.

The person who built this amazing vehicle is David Lee, principal artist of Hatton Cross Steampunk. He’s also the man behind the mask of Steampunk Darth Vader in the short films Trial of the Mask and Mask of Vengeance. Perhaps it’s not surprising that every now and then people confuse the two of us in correspondence. So it was a pleasure to finally meet David Lee and I was delighted to find him a pleasant person, as many people in the steampunk community prove to be.

In addition to meeting Steampunk Darth Vader, I also had the opportunity to meet Sam Jones, who played Flash Gordon in the campy 1980 movie. I also enjoyed meeting the creators of the comic book Proteus about steampunk fish people who live in the sunken Atlantis. The creators are all cosplayers and came dressed as their characters.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about steampunk is how it sometimes imagines a more civilized version of Victorian and Wild West times. One of the ways that manifests is through the sport of tea dueling. In a tea duel, participants dunk a cookie in a cup of hot tea for a set amount of time. The last one to eat the cookie without it falling apart and soiling their clothes is the winner. At many steampunk events the masters of ceremonies are Madame Askew and the Grand Arbiter. Here we see them with my daughter who is a tea dueling contestant. Not only was my daughter a contestant, she proved to be Wild Wild West Con’s tea dueling champion!

One of my goals as a writer is to inspire the imagination of people who play in steampunk worlds. What’s more, going to steampunk events helps to inspire my creativity. Wild Wild West Con came at the perfect time as I’m moving into the middle portion of my new novel Owl Riders. For me, that’s right about the point I need a little boost to keep the energy flowing. Right after Wild Wild West Con, I learned that my first steampunk novel was released as an audio book, narrated by Edward Mittelstedt. The book is available for download at Audible.com. If you’re a fan of audio books, I do hope you’ll join me for a journey into the wild west I wished for.

2017 Tucson Festival of Books

This weekend, I’m at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona. If you’re in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll drop by. This is a great steampunk event in an amazing venue and I’m doing readings, presenting panels, and talking to people all weekend long. Next weekend, on Saturday, March 11, I’ll be at the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona Campus.

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The event is free, the university mall will be packed with vendors and there will be panels and workshops with authors of all genres. If you’re in Tucson and love books, this event is well worth your time.

Here’s my schedule:

Saturday, March 11

    10-11am – Writing Science Fiction with Real Life Scientists – Integrated Learning Center Room 141. On this panel with me is J.L. Doty. We have expertise in science (telescope engineer and fiber optical engineer) and are making our way in the world of science fiction marketing our books. We discuss how we blend real science with fiction—and also get sales.

    4-5pm – Building Alternate Worlds – Integrated Learning Center Room 150. I’m moderating this panel that discusses how to create worlds where magic is real and gods, ghosts, and ghouls walk among us. The panelists are Gini Koch, Erika Lewis, Brian McClellan, and Samantha Shannon.

There will be an opportunity after each panel for you to buy books and have them signed. I’ve been reading the books by my fellow panelists and I know I’ll be getting books signed! The festival continues on Sunday, March 12. I’m sorry to say, my work schedule won’t permit me to attend the second day, especially since I know there are a lot more great panels and events. If you’re in Tucson next weekend, hope to see you there!

Wild Wild West Con 6

Next weekend, I’ll be a participating author at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson Arizona! The event is being held from March 3-5 at Old Tucson Studios. Among this year’s guests are Thomas Willeford from the TV show Steampunk’d and Sam Jones from the movie Flash Gordon. There will be workshops, panel discussions, and evening concerts. The bands performing include The Cog is Dead, Frenchy and the Punk, and Celtica – Pipes Rock. For more information about the event be sure to visit the convention’s web page at: http://wildwestcon.com

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This year’s theme is “Cthulhu for President.” My schedule for the weekend is as follows:

Friday, March 3

  • Noon-1pm – Aristocrat Lounge – Reading. I will be in the Aristocrat Lounge to entertain people with a steampunk story inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • 2pm-3pm – Arizona Theater – Invaders from the Depths of Space. Percival Lowell’s observations of canals on Mars led to stories of invasion from space and ultimately helped to lay the foundation for the Cthulhu Mythos. A look at the science that gave rise to a literary movement.
  • 4pm-5pm – Courtroom Center – Steampunk Authors. The authors attending Wild Wild West Con talk about their process creating the steampunk stories you love.

Saturday, March 4

  • 11am-Noon – Chapel – Steampunk and the Cthulhu Mythos. Writers discuss the Cthulhu Mythos, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and how they can be brought together with the steampunk aesthetic to create new tales of terror.
  • 1pm-2pm – Aristocrat Lounge – Reading. A special event for those who purchased Aristocrat tickets, Diesel Jester and I will read from our works. This reading is flagged for adults only.

Sunday, March 5

  • Noon-1pm – Sheriff’s Office – The Weird Wild West. Weird Westerns are stories that imagine strange happenings in the Wild West. Authors discuss how they are they similar and different from steampunk stories. Can they be one and the same?

If you’re in Southern Arizona next weekend, I hope to see you at Wild Wild West Con. When I’m not on panels, you can find me at High Chaparral where I’ll be selling my books.

Aliens with Tentacles

I’m in the process of assembling a presentation for Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona that discusses the origins of terrifying aliens from space coming to invade the Earth. The presentation dovetails with the convention’s theme, “Cthulhu For President.” H.P. Lovecraft describes his most famous creation as, “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” During my research, I discovered that Cthulhu is part of a long line of terrifying monsters inspired by octopi and squids.

Personally, I’ve always found cephalopods fascinating and a little mysterious. Octopi often seem elusive when I visit aquariums and either hide or don’t give me very good photo ops. This is one of the best photos I’ve taken of an octopus at the Seattle Aquarium in 2008:

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That said, when I invented the Alpha Centaurans for my novel The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave them tentacles to make them immediately distinct and “alien” as I was getting the action off the ground. When Captain Firebrandt from The Pirates of Sufiro returns in Kepler’s Cowboys, I wanted to give him a truly dangerous and frightening opponent in the water. The first thing that came to mind was a giant squid.

My octopus-inspired aliens and scary squid are really heirs to a science fiction trope that goes well back to the nineteenth century. For some reason, the Victorians found squids and octopi truly frightening. Camille Flammarion was, in many ways, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day. He wrote popular science books about astronomy and biology. He also wrote science fiction. In his book, Lumen, he imagines extraterrestrial beings from a star in the constellation Andromeda who live in water and must “keep their tentacles in unceasing motion.”

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells described the Martians as having pulsating bodies, a beak-like mouth, and lank, tentacular appendages. Although Jules Verne tended to steer away from aliens in his fiction, one can make a case that he capitalized on the Victorian terror regarding cephalopods when he had a giant squid attack the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

By all accounts, H.P. Lovecraft was an avid reader and would have been familiar with the works of Wells and Verne—and possibly Flammarion as well, who was widely translated and in circulation during Lovecraft’s youth. So, it’s really no surprise that in 1926 when Lovecraft created his most famous monster, he would invoke the image of the octopus to inspire terror in his readers.

When I created my tentacled alien for The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave it little conscious thought, but it’s clear I was being inspired by those early works as well. When I put Captain Firebrandt up against a giant squid, I knew Verne had inspired me. Whether conscious inspiration or not, it’s all enough to make me think twice the next time I order octopus sushi or calamari rings. I’d hate for our cephalopod overlords to be displeased!

G.O. Clark’s Collection of Robot Poetry

A few days ago, I received a collection of poetry in the mail from long-time Tales of the Talisman contributor, G.O. Clark. built-to-serve-g-o-clark-200x300 It was a copy of his new poetry collection, Built to Serve. In this collection, Clark tackles the subject of robots from many different angles. Of course, robots are no longer just the stuff of science fiction, they’re part of our every day world. I started my astronomy career working with a robotic telescope and over the course of my career, I’ve seen automation make many aspects of astronomical observation more efficient. I’ve long thought about artificial intelligence and my daughter recently took a college course in machine learning, which led to some interesting discussions. What’s more, writers have long used robots as metaphors for low wage workers or even slaves.

Clark’s collection takes a look at robots from both the practical and metaphorical angles. He starts the collection in an almost steampunk alternate reality and imagines robots of the past moving forward into futures of obsolescence, much as humans do in life. As he notes in “The Steam-Powered Robot”:

    Funny thing about the future,
    it never waits for anyone. His mainspring
    driven moment slipped away: old iron
    bones recycled for a newer model.

Clark compares and contrasts the sensations robots might experience to those of humans. He also imagines how humans might themselves go against the spirit of Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics and use robots to hunt down other humans. In a familiar science fiction trope, Clark imagines robots transforming the world into a better place, which doesn’t always go so well for the humans who created them.

C;arl reminds us that many of our first encounters with robots are with toys and he looks at those encounters with both fondness and terror. Some of the robots he introduces us to are toys of the more adult variety, but even they can induce nightmares such as the lady robot in this poem:

    Heading back towards the
    closet, she deftly unzips, then
    steps out of her perfect tan skin and
    hangs it upon a custom hanger.

It’s true Clark covers many familiar robot tropes, but he does it well and often times he gives those tropes fresh twists. Moreover, he looks at humanity through the eyes of robots and helps us understand more about ourselves. This is a collection well worth seeking out. You can find copies at the Alban Lake Store and at Smashwords.