The Biggest Explosions of All

I’ve spent a lot of time in my astronomy career pointing telescopes at some of the biggest explosions of all—type 1a supernovae. This kind of supernova starts with a white dwarf star and another star orbiting each other. White dwarfs are very dense stars at the end of their lives. The only objects more dense are neutron stars and black holes. The white dwarf’s gravity draws material off the companion star until it reaches critical mass and the whole thing explodes. One such star that I had the chance to observe in detail in was Supernova 2011fe in the galaxy M101. Here’s an image from the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak, one of the telescopes I used to observe this object. The supernova is the bright blue star outshining everything else in the upper right-hand part of the image.

Image by T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), H. Schweiker & S. Pakzad NOAO/AURA/NSF

These cosmic explosions are pretty interesting in their own right. Our own star is expected to end its life as a white dwarf and these explosions give us a glimpse at the hearts of these stellar corpses. These explosions are also one of the ways heavy elements formed in the cores of stars get distributed out into the universe. Supernova 2011fe was, in fact, one of the closest Type 1a supernovae we’ve ever observed. We caught the explosion soon after it happened, watched the supernova brighten to maximum, then start to fade away.

Type 1a supernovae also have another useful property. Because white dwarfs have a fairly uniform mass, the brightness of the explosion is also uniform. So, if every Type 1a supernova observed were placed at the same distance away from you, they would all, more or less, be the same brightness. This means that by measuring the apparent brightness of the supernova, you can figure out how far away it is. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but there are ways to calibrate that information based on the how fast the explosion brightens and fades.

Back in the 1990s, an astronomer named Saul Perlmutter was granted target-of-opportunity time on Kitt Peak telescopes. In this case, it meant if a type 1a supernova went off, he could ask the telescope to point to it and take an image and calibration data. He and his colleagues hoped to get distances to as many galaxies as possible. I helped acquire some of that data which was combined with a lot of other data from a lot of telescopes to provide evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Perlmutter would go on to share a Nobel prize with Adam Riess and Brian P. Schmidt for this work.

This is one of those discoveries that shows some of the true fun of science. We learned that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but that raises an even bigger question. Why is it accelerating? Typically that’s attributed to something called “Dark Energy.” This attribution isn’t meant to be an answer in itself. It’s meant to be a placeholder. It’s “Dark” energy because we don’t know precisely what kind of energy it really is, or even if it’s energy at all! Later this year, a new instrument called DESI will be installed on the Mayall 4-meter which will endeavor to get answers to some of those questions. But like all good science, I expect a veritable explosion of new questions raised for every answer we’re able to get.

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, the day set aside for remembering those soldiers who gave their life for the country. I was surprised to learn that although Memorial Day has been recognized by the states for a long time, it only became an official Federal holiday during my lifetime. Memorial Day was one of the holidays created by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which went into effect in 1971. That’s the point that the Memorial Day holiday started being celebrated on the last Monday in May.

The Memorial Day weekend has become traditionally associated with the beginning of the summer season in the United States. This year, my schedule at Kitt Peak worked out that I had to work the entire holiday weekend. Normally, working at the observatory over a holiday weekend isn’t much of a hardship, but this year, my shift started with wild 55 mile per hour winds, too high to open the telescope. Also, I’ve been suffering from a bout of sinus congestion. When we were able to open, the telescope where I was working developed some networking problems, which meant instead of working on cosmic mysteries, I was busy running between a couple of buildings (in the high wind) swapping out parts trying to solve more mundane computer mysteries. Fortunately the weather has improved as the weekend has progressed, and last night we were able to open the Mayall 4-meter to clear skies as shown in the photo.

Of course, I’m not the only person working this Memorial Day weekend. It’s all too easy to forget that many people have to work on weekends to do everything from keeping essential services running to keeping our favorite retail stores open so we can go shopping. In fact, if I weren’t working at the observatory this weekend, I’d likely be at a convention this weekend discussing my books and manning a booth. My next event will be Westercon 70 in Phoenix, Arizona, on the July 4 weekend.

Even though I’m not at a convention this weekend, I still had a unique opportunity to give a presentation about my writing work. I was interviewed by Emily Guerra of KRWG-FM, the NPR affiliate in Las Cruces, New Mexico for the PUENTES: Bridges to the Community segment of the station’s Fronteras news show. You can listen to the interview at their website: http://krwg.org/post/astronomy-steampunk-fiction. I was also pleased to see a review of my novel Owl Dance at the Steampunk Journal website: https://www.steampunkjournal.org/2017/05/24/owl-dance-david-lee-summers-review/#

One of the goals of my Clockwork Legion Steampunk series is to tell a good tale where the protagonists are actively doing their best to find peaceful solutions to the problems they encounter. In a way, I think that speaks to the spirit of a holiday like Memorial Day. After all, what better way to honor those who have fallen protecting us and our freedoms than working toward a world where no one else has to fall in battle.

Seven Samurai … In Space!

I’m a big fan of both Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai and John Sturges’s American remake with gunfighters instead of swordsmen, The Magnificent Seven. Here at the Web Journal, I’ve discussed both the anime series Samurai 7 and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. However, I’ve never discussed the first version of Seven Samurai I remember seeing—Roger Corman’s 1980 film Battle Beyond the Stars. This cheezy, but fun film is arguably a classic of the “space cowboy” genre.

The movie stars Richard Thomas as Shad from the planet Akir. Thomas is most famous as John Boy from the the critically acclaimed TV series The Waltons. The planet’s name is a clear nod to Akira Kurosawa. The peaceful world has been threatened by the villainous Sador, played by John Saxon. Shad must go out and recruit fighters to help him. In this version, the seven are: Gelt, a mercenary played by Robert Vaughn who like his character in the original Magnificent Seven must always watch his back; Cowboy played by George Peppard, a literal space cowboy who is also a gun runner; Nanelia played by Darlanne Fluegel, a technician who provides the Akira with sensors; Cayman, a reptilian captain who has a vendetta against Sador played by Morgan Woodward, who I fondly remember as Captain Tracy of the Exeter in the original Star Trek; Nestor, five members of a race of clones—their leader is played by Earl Boen; St. Exmin, a Valkerie played by Sybil Danning; and Kelvin, a pair of beings who communicate through heat. The seven of Battle Beyond the Stars actually provide a nice preview of the diverse cast we would get in the 2016 Magnificent Seven. One thing that was especially gratifying in this version is that it’s the only one to date that includes women among the seven.

Of some note, Battle Beyond the Stars features one of the first film scores by James Horner. As it turns out, the 2016 Magnificent Seven would feature Horner’s final film score. That said, Horner’s score from Battle Beyond the Stars reminds me more of his score for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan than his score for The Magnificent Seven.

If you’ve seen any version of The Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai, there will be few plot surprises in Battle Beyond the Stars. Like most remakes, the fun is in the details. Even though the effects are clearly low budget, there are several interesting space ships including Shad’s ship, Nell, who is a sentient AI. Nell proves to be a great character in her own right—something of a smart-ass, but genuinely helpful. Befitting the low budget, this film doesn’t take itself as seriously as its more earnest cousins. The actors clearly deliver their lines with tongues fully in cheek.

Have I missed a remake of Seven Samurai? If there’s one you know of that I haven’t mentioned in this post, let me know in the comments!

As I said at the outset, I believe this would have been the first version of Seven Samurai I actually saw. I believe I first saw this in 1985 at college, about five years after the original release. It’s clearly one of the films that gave rise to my love of space cowboys—a theme Steve Howell and I explored on planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope in the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys. In the book, Steve even does his own space-based retelling of a western classic: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. If you’d like to check out our anthology of space cowboy stories, visit: http://www.davidleesummers/Keplers-Cowboys.html

Coming Soon – Straight Outta Tombstone

As of today, we’re just about six weeks from the release of Straight Outta Tombstone, a weird western anthology edited by David Boop. I’m excited about this anthology for several reasons. First of all, I was able to bring two of my favorite worlds together in one story. Larissa and Billy from the Clockwork Legion series encounter Marcella and Rosen from my Scarlet Order Vampire series during the historical Albert Fountain disappearance. What’s more, this story appears in an anthology including several people who I admire, many of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends, including Jim Butcher, Jody Lynn Nye, Phil Foglio, Robert E. Vardeman, Nicole Kurtz and more!

People who have read both the Clockwork Legion novels and the Scarlet Order novels may wonder how I can bring the two together. I only briefly mentioned vampires in Owl Dance, and more as a literary concept than a reality. Also, savvy readers will notice that I killed off one of the Clockwork Legion characters in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. The way I could make this work was to realize that the Scarlet Order novels are essentially a “secret history.” They’re set in the shadows of our world. However, the Clockwork Legion novels are set in a distinctly alternate history. So the Scarlet Order vampires you meet in my story “Fountains of Blood” are the ones who exist in my Clockwork Legion world!

I’m not the only author playing with a world of my creation in this book. Larry Correia explores the roots of his best-selling Monster Hunter International series in “Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers.” Jim Butcher reveals the origin of one of the Dresden Files’ most popular characters in “Fistful of Warlock.” Kevin J. Anderson’s Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I., finds himself in a showdown in “High Midnight.” Alan Dean Foster brings us a new Mad Amos Malone story in “The Treefold Problem.”

Here’s the complete table of contents:

  • Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers by Larry Correia
  • Trouble in an Hourglass by Jody Lynn Nye
  • The Buffalo Hunters by Sam Knight
  • The Sixth World by Robert E. Vardeman
  • Easy Money by Phil Foglio
  • The Wicked Wild by Nicole Givens Kurtz
  • Chance Corrigan and the Lord of the Underworld by Michael A. Stackpole
  • The Greatest Guns in the Galaxy by Bryan Thomas Schmidt & Ken Scholes
  • Dance of Bones by Maurice Broaddus
  • Dry Gulch Dragon by Sarah A. Hoyt
  • The Treefold Problem by Alan Dean Foster
  • Fountains of Blood by David Lee Summers
  • High Midnight by Kevin J. Anderson
  • Coyote by Naomi Brett Rourke
  • The Key by Peter J. Wacks
  • A Fistful of Warlocks by Jim Butcher

Hope you’ll join us for ride out to an old west far stranger and scarier than the one your granpappy told you about. This one includes soul-sucking ghosts, steam-powered demons and wayward aliens. The book will be released on July 4. You can preorder it right now at Amazon. You can also visit the book’s page at Baen Books, where you can get a sneak peak of the entire first half.

Lightning Wolves on Audible

Lightning Wolves, the second novel in my Clockwork Legion steampunk series, is now available as an audiobook at Audible.com. In the novel, it’s 1877 and Russian forces occupy the Pacific Northwest. They are advancing into California. New weapons have proven ineffective or dangerously unstable. The one man who can help has disappeared into Apache Country, hunting ghosts. A healer and a former sheriff lead a band into the heart of the invasion to determine what makes the Russian forces so unstoppable while a young inventor attempts to unleash the power of the lightning wolves.

One thing that makes this release special is that I love to listen to audiobooks while I’m driving from my home in New Mexico to the observatory where I work in Arizona. Elements of this novel were inspired by the very same commute. Almost every week, I pass the Whetstone Mountains which house Kartchner Caverns State Park. I drive by the turnoff for Tombstone, famous for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. I drive through the Dragoon Mountains where Apache warriors made camp. All of these locations feature in Lightning Wolves. I look forward to giving the book a listen during a couple of my upcoming commutes through the region. Here we have a look at one of the real-world settings in the novel.

As it turns out, I’m revisiting a lot of these same locations in the novel I’m currently writing. I left a few plot threads dangling at the end of Lightning Wolves which didn’t get resolved in The Brazen Shark because pirate captain Onofre Cisneros took my protagonists Ramon and Fatemeh first to Hawaii and then to Japan. Also, it seemed like it would be fun to leave those dangling plot threads alone for a few years worth of story time and see how they develop. The result is that Southern Arizona is in quite a mess by the opening of Owl Riders and you know Ramon and Fatemeh will be right in the middle of it, presuming other aspects of their life don’t get in the way.

The audiobook is narrated by Edward Mittelstedt who did a terrific job on Owl Dance. What’s more, Lightning Wolves was a top ten finisher in the best steampunk novel category of the 2014 Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. My daughter Autumn created Larissa, the young inventor mentioned in the story’s description. She served as the model for Larissa on the book’s cover.

You can listen to a sample and buy a copy of the Lightning Wolves audiobook at: https://www.audible.com/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Lightning-Wolves-Audiobook/B0716QC53Y

The Space Pirate’s Legacy

As of today, all rights for the so-called “Old Star/New Earth” series have been reverted to me from Lachesis Publishing. This includes my novels The Solar Sea, The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. For the time being, this means that ebook editions are no longer available and the only print copies available are copies retailers have in stock, or used copies.

It’s a little sad to see these titles go out of print, but in the long run, I think this will be for the best. Also, I should mention that Lachesis did offer to renew my contracts, but I’m the one who terminated them, not because I’m unhappy with Lachesis, but because I think the time has come for new editions of these books. In fact, I still have three titles with Lachesis: The Astronomer’s Crypt, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, and Vampires of the Scarlet Order. I still have a good relationship with them and nothing but respect and goodwill toward the company.

To better explain the reason I terminated my contracts, I should step back and give you some history. All four of these novels were originally acquired and published by LBF Books. Lachesis Publishing acquired LBF and Lachesis itself has gone through a couple of ownership changes since then.

When I sold The Pirates of Sufiro and Children of the Old Stars to LBF, they asked me for a series title. The obvious title to me at the time was “The Cluster series” because the series is about solving the mystery of the alien known as the “the Cluster.” The problem is that a series of that title already existed and I wanted to avoid confusion. So, in a rush to come up with something, I called it “The Old Star Saga” based on the title of the second book. I never was happy with the title but LBF’s editorial team didn’t question it, so it stuck.

Another issue was that I was not satisfied with the ebook editions generated soon after ebooks started taking off in popularity. The books were converted directly from the PDF files using optical character recognition software. The work was adequate for the time, but the process introduced numerous typos and formatting errors. I spoke to the current owners a while back about correcting these editions and they decided the errors weren’t serious enough to warrant the work needed to make corrections.

Finally, The Solar Sea was never intended to be part of this series. I wrote it as a standalone novel set in the same universe, but much earlier in time. Despite that, Lachesis marketed The Solar Sea as “Book 4,” which I think created some confusion.

So, by getting the rights to these books back, I hope to correct these issues. Over the coming months, I plan to re-edit the books and put out new editions through my company, Hadrosaur Productions. Since publishing the Old Star Saga, I’ve written numerous short stories featuring Captain Firebrandt of The Pirates of Sufiro. I want to put those stories together in a standalone book. To my mind, it makes sense that this new book should be “Book 1” of the rebranded series.

The revised series will be called “The Space Pirate’s Legacy Series” because it’s about Captain Firebrandt and his descendants. There’s also a play on the fact that Firebrandt’s ship is the Legacy. My goal in the re-edit will simply be to correct faults, update the science, improve the prose a bit, and clarify some things. If you already have the original editions, I don’t want you to feel you need to buy the updates unless you just want to! And of course, there will be a whole new book 1.

I want to take a moment and thank everyone who has read these books, written reviews, and shared them. Later this year, I’ll share ways you can help with the revised series. There will be opportunities to help shape the revisions, bonus perks and more pirate loot to come! I hope you’ll join me for this exciting voyage to the galaxy’s far side and back!

Marketing Buzzwords

One of the things that drives me crazy about the publishing business is that as writers and editors we strive to be clear, concise, and avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases. Yet, when it comes time to market books, many people including some very talented writers and editors will fall back on some very tired and overused phrases to describe the process. One phrase in particular that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it is “building buzz.”

The idea here is that when a new book comes out, an author should make a concerted effort to get word out about the book. Because there are only so many people an author can interact with personally, the author wants to encourage others to talk and write about their book. And just to be clear, this is a good thing and authors absolutely need to do this. My problem is with the hackneyed phrase used to describe this activity.

My first problem with the phrase is that it sounds horribly egotistical. It’s like what you’ve written is so totally amazing that everyone is going to drop what they’re doing and talk incessantly about it until it becomes a drone, like the buzzing of bees. Let’s be real, no one has ever written a book that’s set people talking that much before they even read them. The closest I can think of are the Harry Potter novels. Of course, these books were discovered, read, recommended and discussed enough that they became best sellers, then had movies made of them, and remain popular years after they were written.

“Buzz” is earned through engaging writing. It’s not something manipulated and built artificially after the book has gone to press. People talked and wrote about the Harry Potter books because they liked them, not because J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Publishing, or some marketing company told them to talk about them. The buzz happened because the books touched the imagination of the audience.

What’s more, I think clichés like “building buzz” do a disservice to writers and publishers trying to navigate the complicated and ever-changing world of book marketing. It lends credence to the notion that there’s some magical recipe that will make your book so successful that everyone talks about it. If you didn’t successfully “build buzz” with your first attempts, you’ve failed and you should stop trying. As I implied earlier, the hard work of “building buzz” happens when you write the book and create something people want to read. Once the book is out, your job is to find creative ways to tell people about your book without droning on like the buzz of a bee.

When your book comes out, do tell people it exists. Tell them what it’s about in concise, clear words. Find creative ways to get that message out. Talk to other writers and find out what worked for them. Those almost certainly include such things as newsletters, blog posts, sending out free copies to reviewers, book trailers, social networking, bookmarks, and lots more. That said, don’t limit yourself to those things people have told you work. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try new things. This is not a recipe. It’s a process.

Finally, if I ever use the phrase “building buzz” as a shorthand for getting the word out about your books or mine, you’re more than welcome to call me on it!