Tesla: Man Out of Time

My brother sent me an early birthday present this year, a copy of Margaret Cheney’s biography of Nikola Tesla called Tesla: Man Out of Time. Nikola Tesla is something of a steampunk icon and his work has fascinated me ever since I saw my first Tesla coil at the Griffith Park Observatory on a family outing when I was a child. I would actually take a crack at building a Tesla coil as an electronics club project in college. The two experiences helped to inspire my story “A Specter in the Light,” which appears in the anthology DeadSteam. The title is a link and will take you to the Amazon page where you can get your own copy of the anthology. I’ve even written a story where I imagine Tesla’s research in Colorado Springs led him to learn more about Mars than is widely known. That story appeared in the All-Martian Spectacular issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine, which appears to be out of print.

In the real world, Tesla was interested in the propagation of electromagnetic waves. He’s directly responsible for all of our buildings being wired with AC plugs. His patents also led directly to the invention of radio. He pioneered the development of remote control vehicles for defensive purposes. In particular, he experimented on remote-control ships and submarines, but one can easily see how these anticipate the remote-control military aircraft of today. He provided light to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which helped expand the acceptance of electric lighting.

Tesla was also a charismatic visionary who had more ideas than he could possibly test. Because of this, he attracted such luminaries to his circle as Mark Twain and science fiction pioneer, Hugo Gernsback. In her biography, Cheney fills in details of Tesla’s youth in Serbia, his education around Europe, and his immigration to the United States where he briefly worked for Thomas Edison, but found a longtime ally in George Westinghouse. She paints a picture of Tesla as a dapper man who always wore fine clothes and was meticulous in his appearance. She also discusses his love of pigeons, which he fed regularly and kept at his rooms in New York.

Cheney’s book filled in many details I didn’t know about Tesla, such as how he lived much of his adult life in New York City hotel rooms and his friendship with the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine. Cheney also discusses Tesla’s love of Serbian poetry. I’ve long been fascinated by his brief foray to Colorado Springs where he conducted large-scale experiments he couldn’t conduct in the city and she gives good information about that time period. What’s more, the book pointed out an amusing connection with Tesla and my own writing I hadn’t know about. In my first steampunk story, “The Slayers,” I created a character named Rado, who was meant as a tribute to Ray Douglas Bradbury. However, Tesla had a friend who was a professor at New York University known as Dr. Rado.

As it turns out, not all of Tesla’s ideas seem like good ones. As an astronomer, I found his notion of charging the entire sky so it’s never dark at night to be particularly horrifying. Admittedly, Tesla was thinking about nighttime urban safety, but I’ve long felt that humans need the night and the stars to be able to dream of better futures, including the kind of future Tesla wanted to build.

If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla, I recommend Marget Cheney’s Tesla: A Man Out of Time. There’s a lot of good information and it was a breezy, compelling read.

Making Instruments Work

Today, I’m at the TusCon Science Fiction Convention in Tucson, Arizona. You can get all the details about the event at http://tusconscificon.com. One of the topics I’ll be speaking about is the work we’ve been doing for the last year, installing the DESI Spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter telescope. At this point, installation is nearing completion and we’re beginning the process of commissioning the instrument. In short, we’re actually making it work with the telescope so we can get the data we hope to obtain.

DESI isn’t the only instrument that we’ve recently installed. We’ve also installed the NEID spectrograph on the WIYN telescope. While DESI has the goal of making a 3D map of about one-third of the sky, NEID has the goal of looking for planets around other stars. I’ve shared quite a bit about the DESI installation because that instrument is of a scale that it required a major refit of the telescope. The NEID spectrograph has involved a similar amount of time in development, but much of that development has happened off site at places such as Penn State University and the University of Wisconsin. NEID, which rhymes with fluid, takes its name from the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.”

Two weeks ago, the port adapter, built by the University of Wisconsin, and the spectrograph, built at Penn State University, both arrived at WIYN and have been installed at the telescope. You can see the port adapter on the side of the telescope in the photo above. It’s job is to capture light coming through the telescope from a distant star and feed it into fiber optics that run downstairs to a high precision spectrograph.

The spectrograph itself lives in a clean room on the WIYN Observatory’s ground floor. To get the kind of precision needed to see planets around other stars, the temperature within the spectrograph must be carefully maintained and the spectrograph elements must be kept in the same relative position. Footsteps nearby could disturb this device. Because of that, the spectrograph itself is built inside a coffin-like housing. Once the Penn State team gets everything set up, they’ll seal up the coffin and, unless there’s a serious problem, no one will look inside again. I got to peak inside the spectrograph a few days ago and it may be my only view.

Now that the instrument is installed at the telescope, we have to make sure everything works as it should and programmers are working to make sure we have software to assure we can efficiently get the data we need. We’re starting with the port adapter itself. I point the telescope at stars and a team of scientists and engineers check the function of the various parts within the adapter to make sure they understand the alignments on the sky, which are necessary for tracking the stars. They check the tip-tilt electronics, which make sure we get as much of the star’s light as possible down the fiber, and make sure all the calibration functions work. After this, work will begin commissioning the spectrograph itself. This is a process which takes a few months to complete to assure we’re getting the performance out of this instrument that we want.

Commissioning nights are very different from normal observing nights at a telescope. On a normal observing night, it’s often me and an observer. Often the observer isn’t even at the telescope, but working from their home institution, controlling a camera on the telescope over the internet and talking to me through computer chat. On a commissioning night, I can have anywhere from five to fifteen people in the control room with me, all working on different elements of the instrument. This marks a busy and exciting time as we get these new instruments ready for service at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Textual Origami

Back in 1993, when I was first writing my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, I created a very broad synopsis of each of the novel’s four parts. I wrote one page in a notebook describing what I expected to happen in that part of the book. Then, as I had time, I wrote the scenes that, I hoped, would bring the story to life. When I’m working on a novel, I often have a flash of a moment in a story. Back then, I was good about writing those moments down right when they happened. I would then call it a completed scene, then start thinking about the next “moment.”

Reading the novel now, over 25 years later, I realize many of those moments read more like scene fragments rather than complete scenes in their own right. The scene fragment might describe something significant that happens to a character, but it’s over and done with so fast that we don’t really feel like we spent time with the character or got to know how that fragment fit in the story’s bigger context. So, one of the things I’m doing in the novel’s 25th anniversary edition is identifying fragments that can be folded together into longer scenes, so the reader spends more time with each character getting to know them and understand their motivations a little more before moving on to another scene. I’ve begun to think of the process as textual origami.

As an example, I had a scene fragment where a colonel is watching a holographic display of a space ship. His adjutant arrives and they have a brief conversation. I then move onto another scene fragment with other characters. In the next scene fragment with the colonel, he’s still watching the hologram. Another ship arrives. Then we move onto the next fragment. It occurred to me, there’s no reason at all that the two fragments of the colonel and the hologram couldn’t be combined into one scene. The colonel and his adjutant could be talking when the second ship arrives, adding another layer to the scene.

Over the years, as I grew as a writer, I tended to get better about creating longer scenes all on my own. However, I still occasionally wrote and inserted a scene fragment here or there. I didn’t really think about my tendency to create scene fragments until I wrote my novel Owl Riders just a couple of years ago. The novel’s editor was the first editor to encourage me to combine some of these fragments into longer scenes. Once it was pointed out, it was easier to see my scene fragments in other novels.

Admittedly, not every scene fragment needs to be folded into long, extended scenes. Sometimes a fragment can help to highlight a moment or emphasize a very particular incident. With that in mind, I think the scene fragment is a very powerful tool, but its one that should be wielded carefully.

If you want to see more in-depth posts detailing my process of rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary edition, I encourage you to support my Patreon campaign at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Also, I should point out that supporting my Patreon campaign is also a way to help support this blog. I took the leap earlier this year to buy paid WordPress hosting for this blog to give readers an ad-free experience. A portion of the money I get at my Patreon site helps to cover the hosting fees.

TusCon 46

Next weekend, I’m delighted to return to TusCon in Tucson, Arizona as a panelist and book dealer. This year, TusCon’s author guest of honor is Jonathan Mayberry. The artist guest of honor is the very talented Chaz Kemp, whose work I’m proud to display in my home. The toastmaster is Weston Ochse. The convention will be held at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites at 5151 Grant Road. You can get all the details by visiting http://tusconscificon.com.

My schedule at the convention is as follows:

Friday, November 8

Changing Channels: How/Why Do Authors Change Genre? Panel Room 1. 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm. Given how much publishers want writers to stay in their box why deal with the arguments? Are the publishers right? Will your fans follow? Are you just changing things up for fun? On the panel with me are Frankie Robertson, Jill Knowles, Paul Clinco and Thomas Watson

Meet the Guests. Ballroom. 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm. Hobnob and schmooze with our guests, enjoy the cash bar, and laugh it up with Toastmaster Weston Ochse.

Saturday, November 9

What I Know Now, What I Wish I Knew Then: A Writer’s Journey. Panel Room 1. 9:00 am – 10:00 am. Successful writers talk about what they`ve learned along the way. On the panel with me are Eric T. Knight, Gloria McMillan, Ross Lampert

Autograph Session. Autograph Area. 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm. Come get autographs from your favorite folks. Some are even probably selling stuff. Not only can you get my autograph, you can get autographs from Ross Lampert, Tabitha Bradley, and Thomas Watson as well!

Surveying the Universe – Our Five-Year Mission to Create a 3D Map of the Universe. Panel Room 2. 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm. Did you know Kitt Peak was mapping the universe? Come to this presentation to find out about awesome stuff in Tucson’s own backyard.

Sunday, November 10

Southwest Folklore, Urban Legends, and Paranormal Encounters. Panel Room 1. 10:00 am – 11:00 am. A lot of cultures meet here. With a lot of history. How have these combined to build our legends and ghosts? On the panel with me are Chris R. Chavez, Liz Danforth, and Weston Ochse.

Making Light of the Dark: Humor in Horror. Ballroom. 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm. Terror seems like it should preclude amusement. What makes us laugh does not seem like it should be capable of also making us scream. But while seemingly attempting to achieve opposite results, comedy and horror are intricately linked. While playing on different emotions, both are devised to generate specific and extreme reactions from their audiences. Two sides of the same coin, humor and horror are strong on their own, but working together, they can create a marriage of unexpected twists and turns. This panel will explore the rise of the horror comedy and address why the combination works and why it sometimes fails. On the panel with me are James Sabata, William Herr, Wolf Forrest, and K.S. Merbeth.

When I’m not at one of these events, I’ll be at the Hadrosaur Productions table in the dealer’s room. Please come by and shop our fantastic selection of books and I’ll be happy to talk to you more about any of the panel topics, or things that don’t even relate to the panels. Also, be sure to ask about the annual party that we thrown in conjunction with Massoglia Books at TusCon. It’s always a great event and I hear there will be cake.

Literary Cosplay

Before the term “cosplay” came into common use, I always loved Halloween as one of the times I could create a costume and become someone else for a day. Nowadays, pop culture conventions also provide a fun excuse to dress up. Of course, most people who dress up for conventions make costumes based on their favorite television shows, movies, or comic books. A creator has already designed the costume and it’s up to the fan to make their own version. Likewise, most commercial Halloween costumes are also based on these same mass media heroes. However, novels can also be a great source of costume ideas and they often provide a wide latitude of ways to interpret characters. This can be especially useful if you’re looking for materials you can grab from a thrift store or something you can create with some simple make-up effects.

I have been known to dress up in outfits inspired by my novels. Back in 1993, I went to a Halloween party dressed as a Rd’dyggian (pronounced Red-dye-chian) from my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. The Rd’dyggians are aliens with orange skin and a purple mustache-like array of tentacles under their noses. On top of that, they like to wear long, flowing robes. I was able to create a version using some face paint, hair dye, and some odds and ends from the closet. I didn’t match the Rd’dyggians from my novels perfectly, but I was close enough that my friends who had read the novels understood what I was supposed to be. Those who hadn’t read the novels still understood that I was some kind of alien.

I will note that when I first got into science fiction fandom, costume contests were a big part of conventions. You can still find contests, but an important element several years ago was that most of the people who dressed up created costumes based on favorite novels they’d read, rather than favorite visual media. This allowed them a lot of creativity in how they interpreted their costumes. These days, most of the literary-inspired costumes I see are at steampunk conventions.

As a steampunk author, I often dress up for the conventions I attend. It’s rare that I dress up as a specific character from my novels, but I do like to wear clothing like I describe in my novels. Here I am from an event last week, where I went to Ruidoso to speak about my Clockwork Legion Novels to the Fortuitous Book Club. The club at the recommendation of my dear friend, Margo McKee, read my novel Owl Dance. What’s more, Ruidoso is in Lincoln County, the heart of Billy the Kid Country. So, while I didn’t dress as a specific character from the novels, I did put on an outfit that said Wild West steampunk. Most of the outfit is just western wear, which is easy to find in New Mexico, but topped up with a pair of goggles and a cool steampunk looking watch. Of course, my outfit also evokes the feeling of the old Wild Wild West television series starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, which was one of the inspirations for my series.

If you’re looking for an original costume this Halloween, or want to find something new and unique for a pop culture or science fiction convention, I encourage you to look no further than the pages of your favorite novel. See what it inspires you to create. If you want to look at my novels for inspiration, click the links below to learn more about the series:

The Addams Family

This has been a busy month for me, but despite that, I made some time to see this year’s animated adaptation of The Addams Family. I first got to know about Charles Addams’s famous family during my college years. The 1964-66 series with John Astin and Carolyn Jones ran in reruns at a time I could catch it during a break between classes. I soon learned that the library at New Mexico Tech had a couple of the collections of original Charles Addams cartoons from The New Yorker Magazine. I loved the originals so much, I photocopied a handful and put them up as posters in my dorm room.

Like most cartoons from The New Yorker, the cartoons Addams drew were single panels. Not all of them featured his famous family, but they were frequent subjects starting back in the 1930s. A favorite cartoon I remember saving included carolers at the door of the Addams mansion while the family stood on the rooftop, gleefully ready to dump a cauldron of boiling oil. Another depicted the family’s mother looking out at a snowy winter scene and saying to her family, “Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.” A third depicted the children in animal carriers, brought home in the hands of a deliveryman and the mother calling out, “It’s the children, darling, back from camp.”

I deliberately didn’t use the names of the characters in the descriptions, because cartoonist Charles Addams didn’t give them names until the 1964 series was in development. The series added many elements people now consider staples of the family. In particular the dad’s, Gomez’s, wild attraction for the mom, Morticia, especially when she spoke French. Ted Cassidy gave voice to the cartoon’s mute butler, Lurch, with his mournful and deep, “You rang,” when answering the door. Jackie Coogan brought a frenetic energy to weird Uncle Fester, who could make bulbs light up by putting them in his mouth.

I was delighted when the 1991 film came out. Barry Sonnenfeld’s film recalled several of the jokes from the original Addams cartoons, and included some callbacks to the TV series. Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston were wonderful successors to John Astin and Carolyn Jones. They brought their own interpretations to the roles, but kept the sex appeal. The real delight was Christina Ricci bringing young Wednesday Addams to Gothic life. One of my favorite scenes in the movie does a great job of capturing Charles Addams’s macabre sense of humor. A Girl Scout asks Wednesday and her brother, Pugsley, whether the lemonade they’re selling is made from real lemons. She then tries to sell them cookies and they ask her if they’re made from real Girl Scouts. Of course, what I really appreciated about this movie is that reprints and new collections of Charles Addams’s cartoons were made available and I built up my personal collection of books as much as possible in that era.

Now we come to the 2019 movie. What I loved about this movie was that the character designs do a lovely job of hearkening back to Addams’s original cartoons. I liked the origin story for the family presented at the beginning of the movie and I really liked the fact that the son of the Addams family, Pugsley, finally had a chance to be featured without sacrificing a good story arc for his sister, Wednesday. That said, the movie feels a little tame for my taste, closer kin to “safe” Halloween kids fare such as the Hotel Transylvania franchise than a true successor to the wickedly wonderful world Charles Addams created. Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem showing my kids the original comics, the 1960s series, or the 1990s movies. The gags are all built in the anticipation of the horror that happened out of view or the horror about to happen. Today, when anime has gone more mainstream, when we have series like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network exists, I’m baffled that Hollywood still feels compelled to make cartoons as safe and tame as possible, doing absolutely nothing that could be deemed risque or daring. Yes, Pugsley does play with explosives, but they always feel like cartoon explosives where no one really gets hurt. As a result, this Addams Family comes off as just a little weird, without the piquant hints of danger or sexiness their other incarnations have.

I’m glad I saw the movie and I don’t have any problem recommending it for a home video night. That said, if you really want to get to know the Addams Family, get to your favorite library or bookstore and seek out the original Charles Addams cartoons. Those are family albums well worth perusing.

Peter and Wendy

I suspect I’m like most people in that I am most familiar with the story of Peter Pan as told in the 1953 Disney film. The film is based on a 1904 play of the same name by J.M. Barrie. The play’s author novelized the play as Peter and Wendy in 1911. As it turns out, the first motion picture novelizations appeared around this time. The upshot is that Peter and Wendy is probably one of the most enduring novelizations ever written.

To be honest, Peter Pan is not my favorite Disney film. Peter always seemed like a bit of a jerk and while Hollywood in general was not known for its cultural sensitivity in the 1950s, the song “What Made the Red Man Red” is a low point in racist portrayals of Native Americans. Still, there’s a lot I feel like I ought to like about Peter Pan. It’s the story of kids who don’t want to lose their imagination by growing up, which is a theme that appeals to me a lot as a writer of imaginative fiction. Also, Captain Hook and his crew are among the most iconic pirates in fiction, which should appeal to me as a writer of pirate fiction. Of course, the Disney film does have its good points. I love its portrayal of Tinker Bell and I feel the movie actually improved a bit on Barrie by changing the location of the Neverland from “first to the right and straight on till morning” to “first star to the right and straight on till morning.”

So, I sought out Peter and Wendy. It’s probably no surprise that I liked the book more than the movie, even if the movie was made by Walt Disney. The Native Americans in the book are still stereotypes, but it’s easier to see how they were connected to the Native Americans of the period’s dime novels and would be the ones kids would see in their imaginations. The pirates were wicked and wonderful. Mr. and Mrs. Darling show a lot of love and concern for their children. The biggest surprise, though, was the relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy Darling.

In the novel, Wendy shows affection for Peter, but Peter doesn’t quite understand that affection and doesn’t how to return it. Peter describes himself as “gay and innocent and heartless.” Although I’m no expert on J.M. Barrie, this takes on an interesting added dimension when I read that he was likely asexual. A lot about Peter Pan and his relationship with Wendy feels like the author trying to come to terms with a kind of relationship he didn’t completely understand.

My favorite element of the story is the emphasis on holding onto the imagination and the importance of storytelling. After all, the reason Peter brings Wendy to the Neverland is so she can serve as a storyteller to the Lost Boys. Ultimately, it’s Wendy the storyteller who brings the Lost Boys back from the Neverland to grow to adulthood under the care of her parents. In this way, Peter and Wendy reminds us that we shouldn’t forsake our imaginations and the stories of our youth because they can be a way to help us understand and process the reality around us.

I encourage you to join me on adventures to lands near and far. You’ll likely even find a few pirates along the way. You can learn more about my fiction at http://www.davidleesummers.com.