A High Tech New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is often a quiet affair for me. In a normal year, Kitt Peak National Observatory attempts to have telescopes pointed at the sky, doing science-related tasks on as many nights as possible. The only exceptions are closures for weather, engineering tasks, and we’re often closed on Christmas. Over the last decade, I’ve toasted the New Year several times at work with a nice cup of coffee. This year, proved a rare exception and I was able to ring in the New Year at home. In years past, New Year’s Eve at home has involved cooking up a big pot of a red chile, hominy, and pork stew called posole, then either playing games, working on puzzles, or watching movies until near midnight, then sharing a toast of sparkling cider with the family.

The posole still happened this year and, if I do say so myself, it was one of the best batches I’ve made in a long time. I credit that to my wife making stock for the base from some leftover pork bones we had in the freezer. The meat on those bones also became the meat for the stew. This is really the way posole is supposed to be made, but we often shortcut this step and cook the meat on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

Another thing that made this New Year’s Eve special was the opportunity to connect with numerous friends via video chat. On top of that, the band Abney Park performed a live streaming concert from their home studio in Seattle. I’ve seen advertisements for Abney Park’s New Year’s Eve concerts for several years now and I’ve always wanted to go. Among other things, one of their frequent venues for those concerts was quite close to the neighborhood where my brother used to live. So this was like a wish come true. What’s more, this concert came just a couple months before the tenth anniversary of seeing Abney Park play live the first time at Wild Wild West Con in 2011. Shortly before that, my family and I had seen a YouTube video of the band giving an impromptu performance of the title song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. When my youngest daughter met Captain Robert, she asked him if they could play it at the concert. He told her they hadn’t rehearsed it and didn’t have the music along, so they couldn’t. However, at the New Year’s Eve Concert, ten year’s later, with my daughter home from college and in the audience, Captain Robert and the band actually played Chitty Chitty Bang Bang live. It was a delight.

My daughters and a friend meeting Robert Brown and Nathaniel Johnstone at the first Wild Wild West Con

The other parties we attended were just as much fun, if for different reasons. I spent time with several college friends in one call. It was a relaxed time where we chatted casually as friends are wont. This party ended about 8pm and then we joined Madame Askew and her Temporal Entourage for their New Year’s Eve festivities where I connected with friends from all across the country and around the world. Author Karen Carlisle confirmed for us that the sun really did rise as expected on January 1 in Australia. If all goes well, I hope you will be able to purchase a new anthology this coming year with stories by me and Karen. Performing at the event was burlesque dancer Eve Riot. I will note, all the links so far in this post point to the Patreon pages for these amazing artists. I encourage you to visit their pages, learn more about them, and support them if you’re able to!

This has been such a difficult year for many people, but one thing I’m grateful for is the way people have found new ways to use technology to reach out and connect to one another across the globe. Even once the pandemic situation improves and we are able to gather again, I hope we don’t lose all of this ability. I’ve been able to attend events and connect with people I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to otherwise.

On the subject of remote chatter, there has been recent news of a strange radio signal from Proxima Centauri. It’s at a frequency not typically used by spacecraft. It disappeared when the Parkes Radio Telescope moved away from Proxima, then returned when it pointed in that direction again. There is no known astronomical phenomenon that broadcasts at that frequency. Also, there’s a habitable zone planet around Proxima Centauri. I’ve even imagined people living there in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. That said, there’s a good chance this is just an undiscovered natural phenomenon. Still, I find myself wondering if someone out there wants to get on our video chat action. If you want to follow this story, the Planetary Society has set up a page discussing the detection at: https://www.planetary.org/articles/aliens-at-proxima-centauri-a-new-radio-signal-raises-the-question.

Steampunk Christmas

To me, steampunk and Christmas go hand in hand. Steampunk is all about Victorian-inspired fantasy worlds. What’s more, Victorians in England and America gave us many of the trappings of the modern secular Christmas. Thomas Nast in New York gave us wonderfully detailed renderings of Santa in his workshop, using such scientific gadgets as telephones and telescopes to fulfill his mission of figuring out who was naughty and who was nice. In the meantime, Charles Dickens unleashed a series of ghosts on miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.

So, when I wrote my first steampunk novel, Owl Dance, it seemed natural to include a scene about Christmas. It’s a simple scene. Ramon Morales and Fatemeh Karimi find themselves in a poor part of San Francisco with little money. Ramon gives Fatemeh a simple gift. Always curious about other people’s religions, Fatemeh asks Ramon how people celebrate Christmas. He tells her many people celebrate with song. She then asks Ramon to sing a song of the angels, anticipating their travels to Los Angeles after the holidays. You can learn more about Owl Dance at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html. If you’ve already read and enjoyed the novel, remember there are three more novels in the series. You can find out about them at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion.

Music is an important part of this scene because I see music as an important part of both Christmas and the steampunk aesthetic. That said, I don’t own a lot of Christmas albums. Because I grew up in a Christian family, we sang Christmas carols in church and would go out caroling. The one album that was an important part of my family’s Christmas tradition growing up was A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special. It’s just chock full of a lot of the old traditional carols sung reverently in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s booming bass voice that made the song “Sixteen Tons” a hit back in the day.

In one fun bit of trivia, I learned not too long ago that while Tennessee Ernie Ford did indeed hail from Tennessee, he actually became famous while he was working as a radio announcer for KFXM in my home town of San Bernardino, California after World War II.

A more recent favorite album is Abney Park’s Through Your Eyes on Christmas Eve. As I mentioned in my recent post Music Through the Ages, Abney Park’s songwriter and lead singer, Robert Brown, has a great understanding of older songs. The album’s title song is a new one that longs for the innocence of Christmas as seen through a child’s eyes. The rest of the album is filled with some great classic Christmas songs given the band’s signature treatment, which can include some minor key weirdness to offset the sweetness of the season and some unabashed playfulness with the classic songs. You can find this album at their website: http://abneypark.com/market/.

Whether your Christmas is more secular or sacred, I hope you have a wonderful one. If you celebrate a different winter holiday, may it be a blessed and peaceful time. If you don’t celebrate anything, I hope you at least have some time to relax enjoying what you love best. Happy Holidays!

Music Through the Ages

Even if I hadn’t been working this year, I’m not the kind of person to stand in line for Black Friday deals. That said, I did take advantage of one Black Friday special this year and I’m glad I did. It was the download of Abney Park’s New Nostalgics and in retrospect, I would have been pleased with this album if I’d paid full price for it. This album is comprised entirely of songs from the early 20th century covered in modern style by the band Abney Park. There are songs about airships, burlesque halls, and how people who built the modern world often aren’t the ones who see its benefits. What makes the download really special is a 20-minute “documentary” by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Robert Brown, where he plays snippets of the old recordings of the songs and then follows that with how he updated them for a modern audience. You can pick up the album in the music downloads section at http://abneypark.com/market/

Music has always been an important part of my writing. Often, when I write, I like to have instrumental music on in the background that captures the mood of what I’m trying to create. In fact, one of the things I like about Abney Park is that they provide instrumental-only versions of many of their albums and I use those a lot when I’m writing steampunk or retrofuturistic fiction. I also like to collect soundtracks of favorite films or TV shows. Listening to those can be a great way for me to get into the proper mindset for a given scene, whether it be romance, action, or suspense.

While I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I’m in the process of writing, I love listening to songs from a period of time I’m going to write about as part of my research for historical fiction. It provides a valuable window into the things that brought joy and sadness to previous generations. You can often catch slang terms people might have used. If you catch an odd turn of phrase in an old song, it’s often worth looking it up to see if it had a broader meaning. Maybe it’s something you can use in your story. In setting a scene, I often like to describe the kinds of music people are listening to. Even if I don’t mention a particular song, I like to mention the kinds of instruments people heard.

That covers the past, but what about the future? While part of me loves it when a science fiction character espouses their love of David Bowie or Dolly Parton, part of me groans. While I hope these artists will still be known two or three centuries down the road, I’m pretty sure they won’t be mainstream. People in the future will be writing and singing their own songs. They’ll write about their own heroes, like Jayne in Firefly’s “The Hero of Canton” or the ballads sung about Edmund Swan in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There will be new musical forms and maybe even alien instruments. As a writer, you don’t necessarily have to write these songs, but you can add some color by mentioning them and talking about how they make the characters in your story feel.

With that, it’s time for me to go listen to some good music and find some inspiration. If you would like to see how I write about futuristic music, you can read The Pirates of Sufiro by subscribing to my Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Wild Wild West Con 2018

It’s time once again for Wild Wild West Con, which has grown into one of the largest, regular steampunk conventions in the United States. I will be there giving presentations, running a workshop, and on panels. I will be vending in the Stage 2 Dealer’s Area with the ever fabulous Chief Inspector Erasmus Drake and Dr. Sparky McTrowell.

This year’s Saturday night concert features DEVM and Abney Park. There will be tea dueling, make and take workshops, fun activities for kids, plus all the regular attractions of Old Tucson Studios. Old Tucson is the place where many famous western films were made including Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Tombstone. It’s fabulous to see these famous western sets occupied by people in steampunk attire. It always gives me another year of steampunk inspiration.

I will be at Wild Wild West Con all three days. My schedule is as follows:

Friday, March 2

    2pm – Steampunk Authors – Panel Tent. The authors of Wild Wild West Con will gather to discuss their experiences, the state of the genre, and how you can succeed as a Steampunk author. Diesel Jester and I will be there for sure. We’ll see who else we can round up to share the stage with us!

Saturday, March 3

    11am – Robots are from Mars. Dinosaurs are from Venus – Courtroom Center. This presentation is a look at the astronomy of the Victorian era, what people thought life on alien planets was like, and how it influenced the science fiction of the day, and perhaps introduce you to some authors you’ve never heard of before!

    2pm – Meet and Greet – Aristocrat Lounge. Diesel Jester and I are scheduled for an author meet and greet, open to those folks who purchased Aristocrat tickets to the convention. It’s a great chance to sit down, have a cool drink, and ask us questions. Who knows? Maybe you can persuade us to read something to you!

Sunday, March 4

    12pm – Dinosaurs and Robots in Verse – Chapel. I will be leading a poetry workshop. I have a few exercises and fun prompts that will let you create your own poems about steampunk robots, dinosaurs and more. Also, I will note that poems created at these workshops have gone on to achieve publication.

Also at the convention this year will be Hadrosaur Productions author David B. Riley who will be presenting several panels. His book Legends of the Dragon Cowboys will be available at our table.

Wild Wild West Con is being held in Tucson at Old Tucson Studios during the day and at the Doubletree Hotel, Tucson Airport this Friday through Sunday, March 2-4, 2018. For more information about the convention, visit http://wildwestcon.com