Westercon 70 Revisited

Last weekend was a long holiday for many folks in the United States as the country celebrated its 241st year of independence. As far as my “day” job at Kitt Peak National Observatory was concerned it was just an ordinary weekend—no extra days off for me. Fortunately, those days coincided with the dates of Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona. Westercon, otherwise known as the West Coast Regional Science Fantasy Conference, is held in a city in the Western United States, typically around Independence Day weekend. The last Westercon I was fortunate enough to attend was Westercon 62, which was also held in Tempe at the same hotel that hosted Westercon 70.

Westercon started on Saturday, July 1. My daughter, Autumn, and I went in early to make sure we could drop books off with Duncan’s Books and More, who kindly sold my books over the weekend. Also, I wanted to check in. Autumn was working the convention as a volunteer and wanted to see what she could do. As it turns out, it was a low-key morning with few events. I did get to spend some time chatting with Emily Devenport and Ernest Hogan. Programming coordinator Michael Senft also came by and introduced himself and chatted for a while. In the afternoon, I participated in a panel on “The Return of Space Opera.” Much of our discussion centered around defining space opera and much of our conclusion is that you know it’s kind of a know-it-when-you-see-it thing. We did note that a defining characteristic was grand scope and that space opera doesn’t require great science accuracy, but that you can certainly have scientifically accurate space opera!

Sunday was the day we decided to brave Phoenix heat in costume. I was actually dressed in a relatively light version of my normal steampunk attire. Autumn dressed as “Entropy,” spokesperson for her crochet store, Entropy Creations. Verity dressed as the night sky. Although it’s not altogether visible in the photo, her skirt is lighted with constellations she sewed in and wired herself.

Sunday was my big panel day. I started with a panel discussing the science of steampunk. The discussion began with panelists throwing out a steampunk gadget from their work while those with science backgrounds on the panel thought about how it might be may to work. From there, we moved on to a discussion of the nineteenth century technology that inspired us and how steampunk doesn’t necessarily require working technology—a good, internally consistent magic system can work just as well. This discussion was followed by a panel on the future of steampunk writing. Vaughn Treude, Arlys Holloway and I concluded that steampunk has a bright future because there are so many possibilities, but that it’s still waiting for its J.K. Rowling or Stephen King—an author so famous that they’re literally household names. We noted some are close, but haven’t quite crossed that threshold.

In the afternoon, I joined Thomas Watson, Ernest Hogan, and Weston Ochse for a fun panel about cryptids. The discussion opened up by defining a cryptid, which usually is a monster but one that people believe might exist and people claim to have seen, although there is no hard evidence. Ernest brought up that some cryptids do prove to be real. His example was gorillas, who were not proven until the middle of the nineteenth century. Because Westercon 70 was also known as Conalope, we also discussed the history of jackalopes and how they grew from a novelty item in tourist shops to even grander folklore. For example, homesteaders were told that they should wear stovepipes on their legs to prevent jackalopes from goring them. Also, apparently you can pacify a jackalope by giving it a shot of whiskey. In my research for the panel, I even learned that my home town of Las Cruces has its own cryptid, the elusive teratorn, a giant bird or pteranodon said to snatch up small animals or even children!

My final panel for the day was called “Alien Autopsy, the Biology of ET.” Dr. Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Thomas Watson and Syd Logsdon joined me. Much of this panel was spent discussing the requirements for life and whether we might even recognize fellow lifeforms when we first see them. After the panels were over, it was time for the masquerade. MC for the show was Diana Given, one of the owners of Wild Wild West Con, an event I’m fond of attending in Tucson. Autumn volunteered as runner for the masquerade to deliver messages. Here you see her consulting with Weston Ochse, serving as one of the event’s judges. Some conventions have very large masquerades. This one was rather small. I suspect the summer heat in Tempe kept people from doing as much with costuming as they might. Still it was a fun event with a nice card trick performance as entertainment.

Monday of Westercon started with my exoplanet presentation, which always seems to draw a crowd. I was glad that Dr. Dave Williams was in the audience because he’s an expert in our solar system and helped me answer a few questions I didn’t know as well as he did. After the talk, I went for coffee with longtime friend Jeff Lewis. Jeff performed the part of Roberts back in our very first audio recording of The Pirates of Sufiro back in the 1990s. We discussed the state of science fiction, what we’ve been doing in writing and he introduced me to the program Scrivener. I’ve been hearing good things about the program and I’m trying it out now. I’ll see about giving a report of my impressions soon. That afternoon, I joined Madame Askew, Dirk Folmer, and Katherine Stewart for a steampunk free-for-all where we talked about what a dynamic culture it is, with everything from events, to games, to costumes, to gadgets to writing.

Independence Day itself started with a panel about putting the science in science fiction. We had a good discussion about researching science for your writing, but making sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail. After the panel, I went to an autographing session and signed some books.

As it turns out, Westercon was the same weekend as Libertycon, which was the official debut event for the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop and including stories by such luminaries as Jim Butcher, Jody Lynn Nye, Larry Correia, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Kevin J. Anderson. I’d already committed to Westercon when I learned about Libertycon, but still, I was pleased to be able to celebrate the release of the anthology by reading my story. I was pleased a few people came out to my reading. One of the folks in the audience asked, “Are all the stories in the book as good as yours?” She then said my reading was “Almost as good as Harlan Ellison.” That seemed like high praise to me! You can get a copy of Straight Outta Tombstone from your favorite local bookstore, or you can order it directly at: https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Outta-Tombstone-David-Boop-ebook/dp/B071JGTN3H/

Also at the reading, I gave a special sneak peak of the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt we’re working on, noting that the trailer still very much a work in progress!

Overall, the event went well for me and I was glad to be part of it. I know behind the scenes there were snags and hiccups, but I’ve been behind the scenes of some book events and know how hard it is to keep everything moving forward. What’s especially impressive is that most, if not all, of the organizers are volunteers with other full-time jobs. Thanks for inviting me and thanks for putting on a good event.

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Westercon 70

Next weekend, I’ll be a program participant at Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona, also known as Conalope and LepreCon 43. Julie Dillon is the artist guest of honor, Connie Willis is the author guest of honor, Bjo and John Trimble are special media guests of honor. Sharing the spotlight with them are local author guest of honor Gini Koch and toastmaster Weston Ochse. Be sure to drop by the Westercon 70 page at westercon70.org to get details about the location, all the guests, and programming.

I will not have a dealer’s table at the event, but Duncan Rittschoff of Duncan’s Books and More will have a selection of my books in the dealer’s room. Also, it sounds like we may have copies of Straight Outta Tombstone in time for the show. I’m keeping my finger’s crossed!

Here’s my schedule for the event, which of course is subject to last minute change. Also, apologies if I missed a fellow panelist in the program grid.

Saturday, July 1

  • 3:30-4:30pm – The Return of Space Opera – Room: Jojake. With the return of Star Wars, the success of The Expanse on TV and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, the space opera has returned. The panelists look at the appeal of these action-filled adventures where the science doesn’t get too hard and the characters have plenty of drama and romance. On the panel with me are Colette Black, H. Paul Honsinger, and Michael D’Ambrosio.

Sunday, July 2

  • 9:30-10:30am – The Science of Steampunk: What Makes the Gears Go Round? – Room: Jojake. Steampunk style is filled with all sorts of clockwork creatures and fantastical machines. Scientists and authors look at the science and tech behind airships, submarines, and giant mechanical spiders. On the panel with me are Ashley R. Carlson, Bruce Davis, Suzanne Lazear and Steve Howe.
  • 11:00-noon – The Future of Steampunk Writing – Room: Jojake. Vaughn Treude and Arlys Holloway will join me to discuss our thoughts on the future of steampunk writing.
  • 12:30-1:30pm – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Drop by the autograph table and I’ll be happy to sign books for you! Jenn Czep, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, and Natalie Wright will also be signing at the same time.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Jackalopes and Other Cryptids – Room: Sand Lotus. In honor of Conalope’s mascot, authors will pay tribute to the strange creatures that may or may not inhabit the dark corners of the world. On the panel with me are Weston Ochse, Thomas Watson, and Ernest Hogan.
  • 5:00-6:00pm – Alien Autopsy of ET – Room: Dolores. Would it be possible for an alien species which found water poisonous to even land on Earth? How would two hearts work? What does green Vulcan blood say about their circulatory system? Join scientific experts and authors as they get to the guts of creature creation and make sure that “damned alien biology” is more than just a vague explanation. On the panel with me are Syd Logsdon, Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Thomas Watson.

Monday, July 3

  • 9:00-10:00am – Exoplanets – Room: Augustine. In this presentation, I discuss how exoplanets are discovered and present some highlights about the kinds of exoplanets that have been discovered.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Steampunk Roundtable – Room: Jojake. What is it that makes Steampunk an enduring pop-culture phenomenon? Attend this roundtable discussion of steampunk represented by contributors in a variety of fields. On the panel with me are Katherine Stewart, Dirk Folmer, and Madame Askew.

Tuesday, July 4

  • 9:30-10:30am – Bullets in Space: Putting the “Sci” in “SciFi – Room: Campanile. Hard sci-fi requires intensive research and lots of math to make sure everything adds up. We talk about that process, where to find the scientific answers and how to make sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in physics calculations. On the panel with me are Michael D’Ambrosio, Steve Howe, Amy K. Nichols, and Thomas Watson.
  • 11:00am – noon – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Another opportunity for you to get your wares signed by me and other panelists! Those other panelists would be Michael D’Ambrosio, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, Stephine Weippert, and Connie Willis.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Reading – Room: Boardroom. In honor of release day, I plan to read my short story “Fountains of Blood” from Straight Outta Tombstone. There’s also a good chance, I’ll be able to give attendees a special, early, sneak peak at a very exciting short movie project I’ve been working on. Also reading during this session will be Cynthia Ward and Thomas Watson.

It looks like it’s going to be a busy weekend, but I can’t wait. Also, just for fun, if you come to the convention and cosplay a character from one of my books, I’ll give you a free book from those I have in stock at hadrosaur.com. Since I won’t have a dealer’s table, I may have to send it to you afterwards, but we’ll make it happen!

Steampunk Art Fest and More Aliens With Tentacles

Today, I’ll be in El Paso, Texas for the Steampunk Art Fest, being held at Barmen Kitchen and Patio at 4130 N. Mesa from 2 until 9pm. Although work at Kitt Peak National Observatory will call me away, the fun will continue on Sunday from 4 until 9:30pm. There will be a fire show, live music, and a costume contest, plus steampunk artists. I will be there today and will have a selection of my books available and will be happy to chat with you!

This past week, I’ve been catching up with some 2016 films I missed. One of them was the fine science fiction film, Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. It tells the story of twelve mysterious alien spacecraft that land around the world. Every few hours, the aliens open the door and allow people in to talk to them. Adams plays a linguist attempting to understand their language while Renner plays a physicist.

The aliens in the film prove to be a fine example of aliens with tentacles, which I wrote about back in February. These creatures have seven legs and look like giant octopi or squids.

Another fascinating aspect of these aliens is that they don’t perceive time linearly like humans do. This leads the characters to ask whether they would make the same choices if they knew the future as they would if they didn’t. I don’t want to give away too many specifics because that risks spoiling the movie’s central mystery. However, it struck me that these aliens are not unlike the character Legion in my Clockwork Legion novels.

Legion does see time linearly like humans, but he is a living consciousness transferred into a vast computational array with tremendous predictive abilities. Legion’s appearance on Earth helps to give rise to the steampunk alternate reality. In my case, I worked to avoid the deus ex machina kind of plot where Legion simply tells humans how to build advanced technology. Rather, I use Legion as a means to clear away all doubt. Humans design the machines and Legion tells them whether or not they’re possible. This in turn means the leaders of society are willing to fund those inventions ahead of their time. Of course, another aspect of Legion is that he doesn’t always make the best choices about which humans to talk to.

If you’d like to meet Legion, be sure to check out the novels at:
http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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:

octopus

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!

Secret Science

A fictional trope I encounter frequently working at Kitt Peak National Observatory is the idea that I might have access to some top secret information that the general public doesn’t know. For example, I’m often asked whether there’s an asteroid getting ready to pummel the Earth or if aliens exist. I have indeed pointed telescopes at objects expected to pass close to the Earth, and even one that passed between the Earth and Moon. That object had already been on the news before I went to work. As for aliens—I work near the Mexican border. All the aliens I’ve met have perfectly terrestrial origins.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

The fact of the matter is that science, by its nature, is remarkably open and transparent. We aren’t in the business of keeping secrets. Science progresses by presenting not only results but details of how those results were obtained so others can attempt to duplicate the results. What’s more, scientists actually require independent confirmation of results before they’re presented as discoveries.

This is why the president’s recent actions requiring that press releases and announcements from agencies such as the EPA and the Forest Service be vetted by the White House concerns me. It’s just like the fictional trope of the government deciding what science is fit for the public to hear. Of course, what’s almost worse is the impression that the White House wants all scientific results to match its political objectives.

Admittedly there are times when scientific secrecy is appropriate. A good example would be World War II’s Manhattan Project in which the atomic bomb was developed. That said, here’s a story my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, used to tell. He was a high school student at the Los Alamos Boys School, which was part of the land taken over for the Manhattan Project. He remembers seeing two mysterious strangers called Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones who toured the campus. He met up with some friends and they realized Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones were, in fact Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, whose photos were in their physics textbooks. They pondered why Oppenheimer and Fermi were visiting their little out-of-the-way school and realized that they were there to build the atomic bomb. The point of this story is that while the project was secret, the physics used was available to anyone, and even a high school boy in New Mexico could have sufficient theoretical understanding to know what was afoot. Of course, a boy smart enough to understand that scientists were about to build the atomic bomb was smart enough to know he’d get in a lot of trouble if he revealed what he figured out!

An element of secrecy that I deal with on a daily basis is that I avoid discussing results obtained by the astronomers I work with before they’ve had a chance to publish it. This is not because the data itself is necessarily secret, but because the observers need time to analyze their data and feel confident in the results before they announce it to the world. In this case, my role as an observing associate is not unlike my role as a book editor. As an editor, it would be inappropriate for me to post an author’s work without their permission. In much the same way, the data obtained at the telescope isn’t “mine” to share.

astronomers-crypt-453x680

In my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I playfully use the trope of secret science when two characters encounter a creature at the observatory they don’t understand. The joke is that secret science doesn’t really happen and that astronomers don’t grow monsters in their mountaintop laboratories. While not everyone takes the time to understand science, the facilities are generally open and the results are available. Unfortunately, one of the dangers of a government releasing only the science it deems appropriate is that it throws a cloak over the whole process, which is no laughing matter. There suddenly becomes the possibility that results are selectively presented for political aims. This not only has the potential to invalidate scientific results, but also means the public doesn’t get to see what their tax dollars are funding. For all anyone knows, we might be growing monsters, harboring aliens, or keeping the next apocalyptic asteroid a secret for fear it might cause the stock market to plummet.

The “Monsters” of Star Trek

I remember the first episode of the original Star Trek I watched. I must have been around five or six years old and Captain Kirk was being chased around the desert by the largest, most ferocious green lizard man I had ever seen. Monsters-Star-Trek When the creature first appeared hissing and growling with its strange, segmented eyes, it would have sent me to hide and watch from behind the couch if our couch hadn’t been backed against a wall. Scared as I was, the episode hooked me and even made me feel a little sorry for the green lizard man when Captain Kirk finally beat him. That likely was not only the beginning of my love of Star Trek but my love of monsters as well.

In 1980, soon after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a book appeared at my local bookstore called The Monsters of Star Trek. It was a thin book clearly designed to capitalize on the new movie. On the cover was the Gorn—the lizard man from my childhood—so I had to pick it up. The book discussed mind-bending aliens such as the Talosians from the series pilot and Sylvia and Korob from Star Trek’s twisted Halloween episode “Catspaw.” It talked about dangerous animals such as the giant space amoeba and the ape-like Mugato. Browsing through the pages today, it strikes me that the original Star Trek dealt with vampires not just once but twice. In the first season, they met a salt vampire, then in the second, they met a vampire cloud that Kirk obsessively hunted. No doubt this contributed to my own vampire novels.

Of course many of Star Trek’s monsters prove to be misunderstood aliens or aliens who don’t understand humans. The most recent Star Trek movie, Beyond had an alien that definitely fell into this latter category—a swarm-like race led astray by an outside force. (I won’t say more, lest I give spoilers). I’ve always found swarms a bit scary, since they’re a large force with a single purpose, operating like one organism. For me, the best zombie stories work from this basis. One zombie is a little scary. A bunch of zombies working in concert is really scary! You can find my zombie stories in the anthologies Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie and Zombiefied: Hazardous Materials from Sky Warrior Publishing.

As it turns out, zombies aren’t my only look at the scary swarm. In Owl Dance, I introduce Legion, a swarm of microscopic computers who decide to help humans evolve in the second half of the nineteenth century causing near disaster. Legion clearly took some inspiration from Star Trek. In fact, one of the chapters in The Monsters of Star Trek is called “Androids, Computers, and Mad Machines.”

I never really thought of myself as a horror writer or even a horror fan until I started reading Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft as an adult and writing my first vampire stories. That said, it’s interesting to look back and see how scary stories were influencing me even from an early age. Still, it should really be no surprise. I’ve often said my interest in science fiction novels began from paying attention to the writer credits on the original Star Trek. One of those writers was none other than Robert Bloch, a writer mentored by H.P. Lovecraft who would go on to write the novel Psycho. Bloch wrote the Star Trek episodes “Wolf in the Fold” about an evil entity who possessed Scotty and made him a murderer, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which featured Ted Cassidy from The Addams Family as a decidedly creepy android, and the aforementioned Halloween episode “Catspaw.” If you’re looking for some good creepy TV, you could do worse than hunt up copies of these episodes on video!

Dangerous Aliens

This past week, I’ve been at Kitt Peak National Observatory, helping to obtain spectra of distant galaxies, while at the same time, waiting for my beta readers to get back to me with their comments about my novel, The Brazen Shark. Obtaining these spectra is a process that involves precisely positioning the telescope on a faint galaxy so light goes down a fiber optic bundle to a spectrograph two floors below. Once the light arrives, it’s separated by a grating and recorded on a camera. It’s a process that involves a lot of care and patience. What’s more, it can be especially tricky, when the wind is gusting around 45 miles per hour!

Children of the Old Stars

These kinds of long nights are good ones for contemplating what life might be out there looking back at us. Back in 2010, Stephen Hawking famously said in a series for the Discover Channel, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” It’s a pretty pessimistic view.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer for the SETI Institute rebutted that statement, saying, “This is an unwarranted fear. If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago.” Shostak makes a good point, but well meaning people have caused disasters without trying.

The universe is so vast and there are so many stars out there, as I’m reminded during each of my working nights, that it’s almost inconceivable to think we’re the only intelligent life. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to find intelligent life taking many different forms ranging from frightening to benevolent and a whole range in between. In that sense, I suspect that both Hawking and Shostak are right. We’ll find life we’ll enjoy meeting and life we’ll regret meeting.

Also, there’s been a lot of talk in the news that life may be closer to us than we’ve thought. NASA scientists are talking about sending a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa where they believe conditions are right for simple life to exist. One thing I’ve long suspected is that if an alien race is advanced enough for long-distance space exploration, they can probably hide themselves from us rather easily, much as a hunter can hide behind a duck blind.

Heirs of the New Earth

I experiment with all of these ideas in my Old Star/New Earth science fiction novels. It’s perhaps not surprising the ideas for many of these came while working at Kitt Peak looking at the many wonders of the universe and discussing them with visiting astronomers.

In the novels, the Titans are benevolent aliens who live much closer than we might imagine. They hid for much of human history to avoid harming us. The Cluster is an ancient life form born of the oldest stars in our cosmic neighborhood. Saying much more will provide spoilers, but I will say contact with them doesn’t go so well. Other creatures such as the Rd’dyggians have their own agendas and just tend to ignore humans, unless they feel they need something.

Here’s hoping any encounters you have with aliens turn out to be pleasant ones!