Gaslight Steampunk Expo 2019

Next weekend, from Friday, September 26, 2019 through Sunday, September 28, 2019, I will be giving presentations and I will be on panels at the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California, being held at the Mission Valley Mariott Hotel. The guests of honor are author Gail Carriger, Madame Askew, and the Grand Arbiter. The theme for the weekend is Ancient Egypt Steampunk Style! You can get all the details about the convention at http://www.gaslightexpo.org/. My schedule for the weekend is as follows:

Friday September 26

6:00PM-7:00PM – Salon C Astronomy in the Victorian Age: Many tools of the trade that make modern astronomy possible were developed around the world during the Victorian Era. In this presentation, I will introduce you to many of the women and men who transformed astronomy from simple stargazing to a disciplined scientific pursuit and how their technical and scientific achievements still impact us today.

Saturday, September 27

10:00AM-11:30AM – Salon C Evolution of Steampunk Literature:  Hear how steampunk literature has changed over the last 60 years as both readers and writers look for new definitions. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.

2:00PM-3:00PM – David Lee Summers Autograph Session – Autograph Table in the Vendor Hall

5:00PM-6:00PM – Salon B Mars In the Victorian Age: During the Victorian Era, observations transformed Mars from a reddish light in the sky to an exotic desert planet people might visit one day. At a time the Suez Canal was considered the height of engineering prowess, astronomers saw a planet of canal builders. I look at the observations of Mars in nineteenth century, what we learned, and how careful astronomers were misled by their worldview to see the Martians they wanted to see.

Sunday, September 28

10:00AM-10:45AM – Salon B Reading  of “The Sun Worshippers” by David Lee Summers: A spiritualist is invited to a Victorian mummy unwrapping party hosted by skeptical scientists. What could possibly go wrong when the mummy wakes? I read my story from the anthology After Punk.

11:00AM-12:00PM – Salon B Worldbuilding: As genre writers, we need to create the world that our characters live in. Sometimes it’s similar to our own, while other times it is vastly different. In this panel, we will discuss the nuts and bolts of world building. Does it start with your character or with your story? And does it need a “universal truth” to anchor it and make the unbelievable, believable. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.


If you find yourself in San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Steampunk Expo!

Vintage Justice

Reading is an essential part of any writer’s life. However, sometimes, I really do feel pressed for time to read. When that happens, my attention often goes to comic books. The best comics tell really good, tight stories and are presented with artwork I really admire. Lately, I’ve been spending time exploring the adventures of the Justice Society of America.

For those not familiar with the JSA, they were the original comic book super hero team, invented during World War II. The lineup included original versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom, along with heroes I’ve spoken about before like Sandman. Other members familiar to modern readers of DC comics include Dr. Fate, the Spectre, and Hawkman. Thanks to digital comics, it’s fairly easy to find their early adventures. In those stories, the Justice Society largely stays in the United States and roots out Nazi sympathizers and other criminals who want to undermine the war effort. Each hero usually receives their own assignment and we follow that hero’s story for a few pages, then move on to the story of another hero. At the end, they would come together to wrap up the case.

DC Comics has brought back the JSA in various forms over the years. Most recently at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer presented a JSA composed of elder heroes training a new generation. These stories are a lot of fun and we get to see children and grandchildren of those original heroes. Still, my favorite stories are those actually told in the original time period. I think there’s a lot of room for these kinds of stories, especially after I read the excellent run of Sandman Mystery Theatre. I was excited recently to find the graphic novel JSA: The Liberty Files originally published in 2004, that imagined early members of the society taking a more active role in the war effort.

JSA: The Liberty Files is one of DC’s so-called Elseworld stories. They ask what if the heroes existed in a different time and place than they did in the main continuity of the universe. Of course, continuity in comic books is relative since many heroes rarely seem to age beyond their thirties! The first story in The Liberty Files imagines Batman teaming up with Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite to track down a real Nazi Super-Man. Hourman is scientist Rex Tyler who developed a pill that gives him super powers for just one hour a day. Dr. Mid-Nite is Dr. Charles McNider, a doctor who can’t see well in regular light but has excellent night vision. Both Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite were early members of the classic JSA.

In the second story, Batman, Hourman, and a more familiar Superman along with some other JSA members must determine who is killing American agents in Berlin. I like the dark, realistic artwork in these stories. I think they allow for a little more exploration of the characters, though I was a little disappointed to see Batman and Superman take the limelight away from the lesser known JSA members. There were also some points where I felt the JSA members could have avoided disaster if they’d been a little smarter. And really, the best superheroes do rely more on their intellect and how they apply their powers than relying on the powers themselves.

I know there are a few other modern JSA stories told in vintage style available and I do plan to look those up in the coming months. I find these appealing in much the way I enjoy steampunk and other retro-futuristic stories. In many ways, a steampunk world is like a good superhero world. It’s one where heroes use their intellect to apply science or magic to solve a problem. Like an “Elseworlds” story, steampunk is an alternate universe that asks what would have happened if different conditions were met than those which happened in the world as we know it.

You can explore my Clockwork Legion Steampunk World by reading the following books, maybe you’ll find your next favorite “superhero.”

My Time in the Collective

About four months ago, my primary care physician referred me to my cardiologist because he was routinely detecting premature ventricular contractions. When my cardiologist examined me six weeks ago, he ran an EKG and could detect none of these so-called PVCs. So, he decided I should wear a “Mobile Cardiac Outpatient Telemetry” monitor or MCOT for a month. The MCOT is a rechargeable sensor that plugs into a bandage with electrodes. The whole thing connects via Bluetooth to a mobile phone that in turn sends data back to BioTelemetry, the company that makes the device. To be honest, I spent the month feeling like Jean-Luc Picard in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they made him part of the Borg Collective.

August was a challenging month to wear this thing. Because I had traded shifts at Kitt Peak with a co-worker, I was scheduled to be there two weeks in a row. What’s more, that was the time I traveled to Bisbee for the Steampunk Invasion. A week after that, I traveled to Albuquerque for Bubonicon where I worked at the booth and spoke on panels.

The monitor I wore needed to be recharged every five days. When that happened, I removed the electrode bandage, shaved that part of my chest anew, and put on a new bandage. A bigger logistical challenge was the monitor’s requirement to stay in cell phone connection with BioTelemetry. This was the part that really made me feel like part of the “collective.”

It never ceases to amaze me how much it’s now taken for granted that we will always be in cell phone communication range. The problem is, I work on a remote observatory with radio telescopes. We don’t have cell towers close to the observatory because they interfere with radio observations. We do have some limited WiFi capability now, but the MCOT monitor didn’t give me the option of utilizing that. So, I got to spend much of my two weeks finding places where I could get it to connect to its data server and transmit its data before the phone complained at me that I had been out of cell range for too long.

The most emotionally challenging part of wearing this monitor when I did was that it happened right around the time I reached the very same age my dad was when he died of heart disease.

While wearing the monitor, I got to learn how far these devices have come in the last fifteen or so years. One of my co-workers had to wear an early version of a cardiac monitor when she was a child and the whole thing was like a body suit. I imagine she felt even more like a member of the Borg Collective when she wore it than when I did!

Earlier this week, I learned the results of the monitoring. In short, I do seem to have the occasional premature ventricular contraction. They seem to occur most often when I’m under stress. This would imply that my primary care doctor is more stressful for me to visit than my cardiologist! By themselves, at the rate they occur for me, PVCs are not especially dangerous. I did learn by paying attention and comparing notes with my cardiologist how to recognize them, so I can alert a doctor if I notice their rate increase or become more severe. The experience of speaking to my co-worker about her cardiac monitor experience reminds me how far heart care really has come in the last few decades.

Still, I’m glad to be free of the collective and hope I don’t get assimilated again any time in the near future.

Of course, paying attention to technology like this helps me think about technological change as I write my science fiction and my science fiction-infused steampunk. If you find this blog of interest or just want to help support my writing endeavors, I encourage you to support my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

One Day Older…

At the very end of September in 1980, I had just started my freshman year of high school. I remember waking up to a voice calling out. I followed the voice from my bedroom to the living room, where I found my dad on the couch, calling for my mom, who was sound asleep. He told me he thought he was having a heart attack. I ran in and woke my mom who called the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I called my brothers and asked them to meet us at the hospital. I don’t remember much of what happened next. I just remember being in a hospital waiting room when the doctor came in and talked to us. My dad hadn’t lived to see another sunrise.

As of this morning, I’m one day older than my dad ever was. I find myself thinking of all the things he was and all the things he did. He was a general foreman for the Santa Fe railroad, a lifelong Boy Scout leader, a talented painter, and a model railroad hobbyist who made sure the toy trains were as accurate as he could make them. He was a Marine at the end of World War II, a church elder, and a Mason. From him, I gained a love of history, nature, genealogy, and so much more. Now that I’m one day older than he ever was, I find myself wondering what he would think of the man I became.

This last year during the DESI installation at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve been spending a lot of time wearing a hard hat at work. My dad almost always wore his hard hat at work. While it’s a superficial comparison, the image of him in his hard hat is indelibly burned into my memory. I know he would find the observatory fascinating and would love to see behind the scenes of everything we do, just as he enjoyed giving behind-the-scenes tours of the Santa Fe shops in San Bernardino, California. I suspect he’d be mystified by my love of science fiction but interested in how I play with “what if” questions in my alternate history. I know my dad would be proud of my daughters and interested in the things they’ve accomplished.

The date of my dad’s death has hung over me like a specter these last four decades. The rational part of my mind has known that barring accidents, there’s no particular reason I wouldn’t outlive my dad. Then again, doctors talking genetics have a way of keeping his early demise closer to the forefront of my mind than I would like. I’ve often felt the urge to accomplish as much as I can before this date, to assure that if I died young, I would have lived as full a life as possible. I’m glad I’ve made it to this point and I’m glad I have more life to live to share with my friends and loved ones. I know life is finite and I have no idea how much longer I have. What I do know is that the rest of my life is an open book and I plan to fill the pages with as much fun, action, and wonder as I possibly can.

Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.