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.

Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

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.

The Danger of Honesty

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth.” And this perhaps, is one of the scariest aspects of writing fiction, especially if you create a fictional world close to the one you inhabit.

In my most recent novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I write about an astronomical observatory similar to several I’ve worked at. There is always a danger of creating characters in a setting where you work, especially when that setting is a relatively small community. People will have a tendency to draw comparisons between characters in the book and real world characters, no matter how carefully I tried to assure that no one had the same name or exact characteristics of someone I know.

Another challenge is that in my experience, astronomers tend to be idealized in fiction. They’re often portrayed as heroes, or at least people who always try to do the right thing. Sometimes they’re portrayed as selflessly devoted to the pursuit of science. If they err, it’s because they put science ahead of everything else.

Of course, we also live in an era where certain politicians want to vilify science or scientists. They want to dismiss well established findings to justify their actions or lack of action in the political arena. It’s important, though, to understand that the process of science is designed to preserve the integrity of science in spite of the personalities of individual scientists.

One of the things I was committed to in The Astronomer’s Crypt was portraying the astronomers as real, fallible human beings. Some are good guys, some are selfish and arrogant. They all have real human problems which both motivate them and lead them astray. Because the media has given us strong preconceptions, I suspect some people will look at the book and see me putting scientists on a pedestal. Some will look at the book and see me as talking trash about people I’ve known.

In fact, my goal was simply to follow Stephen King’s advice and tell the truth as best as I see it.

If you dare to take a walk on this dangerous journey through the truth, you can learn more about the book and find places to order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Research in Writing: Reality vs Perceptions

I don’t think any sensible person would question that a responsible writer should do their homework and research any facts that go into their writing, even if what they’re writing is fiction. However, over the years, I’ve learned that getting it right doesn’t always mean that the people reading the story will think you’ve gotten it right. The reason is that not all readers have done the homework and come to a story with a set of preconceived notions. If you violate those preconceived notions they may actually think you’ve made a mistake.

For example, I’m an astronomer who works with telescopes for a living. When I say that, I know a lot of people might picture this dude from a Bud Light commercial a few years back:

In fact, we don’t wear lab coats. We don’t spend all night standing at the back of a telescope. Telescopes have been using digital cameras, feeding pictures into computers since the 1980s. Even in the days when we did work at the telescope, you were more likely to find us wearing heavy coats and we’d be working in the dark all night long blasting loud music to try to keep ourselves awake. In fact, this is what the control room at the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak looks like:

And you’ll notice there’s not a lab coat in sight. Why would there be? It’s not like we’re working with dangerous chemicals or anything.

I play with this very idea a bit in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt when gangsters from a Mexican cartel show up at the story’s observatory to track down a missing drug shipment. They come to the place with preconceived notions they gained from television, but learn that the real astronomers they meet aren’t much like what they believed.

I run into this dichotomy when writing weird westerns and steampunk. People think they know the history of the old west because stories like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the life of Billy the Kid have been told in numerous movies. Even I get caught off guard. A while back, I was watching Doctor Who’s version of the Gunfight at OK Corral and they introduced a character named Phin Clanton. From all the movies, I knew Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, but who the heck was Phin? Sure enough, I looked it up and Ike and Billy had a brother named Phineas who was not at the famous gunfight. In tribute to my newfound knowledge, I gave Phin a role in Lightning Wolves.

In the end, this raises something of a question. Is it better to write to the facts, as best as they can be known, or to write to people’s perceptions? My take on this is that you should absolutely do due diligence researching the facts. You’ll bring an air of authenticity to your work and you’ll likely be able to bring better and richer details to the table. However, you should also see if pop culture has addressed your topic and how it’s been portrayed. If the facts seem to contradict what you’re seeing in the more pop cultural references, you may want to find a way to address the dichotomy in your story. Otherwise, you might get a rejection from a well meaning editor or a poor review from a fan who thinks you got the facts wrong despite your hard work.

The Horror of Time Management

My daughter recently wrapped up another semester’s midterms in college, which presented her with a nearly overwhelming set of projects and exams. On top of that, she has a job with its own set of responsibilities. At the same time, I’ve been juggling quite a few projects as well. I’m drafting a novel, shepherding an anthology through its final phases of publication, promoting those books that are already out. Of course, I also have the “day” job of operating telescopes. Included in my job duties is oversight of the telescope operation manuals, which keeps me busy by itself. Given our different time management challenges, we had a good discussion about the subject and how to move forward without feeling overwhelmed.

The photo shows me with both of my daughters a couple of years ago at Gator Chateu in Jennings, Louisiana. The picture is kind of a metaphor. If you think of projects as alligators, they’re easy to handle and kind of fun when they’re small. The challenge is when they get big and you have several of them at once!

I’ve been seeing several articles in recent months that suggest multitasking is counterproductive. I can believe it. To extend my alligator metaphor, it’s like trying to go up against all the gators by yourself at once. You’re more likely to get eaten than get something useful done with the gators. Not multitasking sounds great until you’re confronted with the reality of several big projects and looming deadlines.

The first thing to realize is that it’s actually rare for all deadlines to fall at the exact same time. Even when deadlines do occur at the same time, there’s nothing saying you can’t finish one project early if possible. The first thing I like to do when confronted with several looming projects is figure out which things need to be done first. Also, some projects require more complete attention from me while others require me to contact a person and then wait for a response. This part is like getting your alligators into separate enclosures so you can deal with them one at a time.

To step back a little and make this more concrete for writers, this is why I think it’s invaluable for a writer to have good, regular writing habits. For me, it’s much easier to write productively in a small block of time if I have been writing routinely every day. If I take a long break from my writing, that’s when anxiety starts to build regarding what I’m going to write about. That’s when I spend long periods of time staring at the computer trying to figure out what words I’m going to be using. If I’m writing regularly, I can look at my outline, see the scene I want to write, then sit down and get it done in the block I have available. If you write by the seat of your pants, you won’t be looking at an outline, but you might think about the last scene you wrote and decide where you’re going.

Editing and book promotion can both involve some amount of writing emails or making phone calls and then waiting for responses. A daily routine that often works well for me is to wake up, check my email and see if there’s anything I need to deal with right away. I take care of what I need to, and then set aside those tasks that either don’t require an instant response or can’t be finished instantly. At that point, I turn off my email program and turn off the ringer on my phone. I write to the goal I have set myself. That goal varies depending on the project, but it’s often a thousand or two thousand words. Once that goal is done, I turn the phone back on and restart the email program, check for messages and move on to longer term editorial work.

Now, you’ll notice, I’ve not addressed the observatory job. One thing I like about my job is that while I work long hours at the telescope, I only work for about six or seven nights every two weeks. So, all my work taking data at the telescope and drafting manuals happens at the observatory and is only occasionally done at home when there’s a pressing deadline or a safety issue that needs to be dealt with right away. This kind of schedule isn’t for everyone, which means you need to adapt your schedule to your routine. It may mean smaller blocks of time every day for every job you do, or it may mean you do some jobs on some days and other jobs on other days.

After awhile, it starts to look like multitasking, but really I try hard to focus on one job at a time as much as possible.

I also didn’t mention family time in the equation, but for me, that’s perhaps the most important time of all and the least negotiable. It’s also probably a better reason for showing a photo with me and my daughters than a silly alligator analogy. When I’m at home, I typically stop work at 6pm to be available to my wife and daughters as they need. There are exceptions. Among other things, sometimes my younger daughter has after school activities or homework that take her attention for a while. Sometimes she works on that while I work on a project. When I’m at the observatory, I’m away from home, but I make time to Skype with my family every day and I’m available to take calls as needed.

So, to sum up, if I’m working on several long-term projects with deadlines, I like to prioritize those projects with earlier deadlines. I block out my day so I make progress on all my projects, taking it one thing at a time. I try to build up good habits so that limited blocks of time are productive. I recognize what I need to make myself productive at each type of project and try to maintain those conditions.

All of that said, yeah, I still get overwhelmed at times. Sometimes then, the best thing to do is take a break, go for a walk, clear my head and look at it all afresh. Sometimes then, those alligators don’t look quite as big as I thought the first time and I’m able to wrestle them into their compartments and get on with my life.

Making Life Better Through Astronomy #SHaW

The first stirrings of what would become my interest in steampunk happened the year K.W. Jeter coined the word in a letter to Locus Magazine. During the summer of 1987, I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, observing pulsating variable stars with an early twentieth-century telescope driven by a wind-up clock drive.


I would go on to publish those results and present them at Harvard College Observatory. The idea that I could explore the universe with equipment built in the Victorian era stuck with me through the years and eventually blossomed when I started writing steampunk and weird western stories.

When I started attending steampunk events about five years ago, the maker culture reminded me of my introduction to astronomy. A few years before I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory, I joined an amateur astronomy club and was encouraged to build a Dobsonian telescopes. Designed by amateur astronomer John Dobson, these inexpensive, easy-to-build telescopes allow anyone with an interest to look at planets, stars, and beyond. This history combined with some extra motivation from one of my daughter’s science projects, led us to build a little steampunk Dobsonian telescope.

steampunk dobsonian

The telescope’s tube is, in fact, cardboard, but I gave it a coat of brass paint as a tribute to the Alvan Clarke and Sons telescopes I worked with on Nantucket and which drove so much science through the Victorian era. Having built this telescope, we have since taken it to steampunk and science fiction conventions where we’ve viewed planets and nebulae. Here’s my daughter setting up the telescope on the deck of the Queen Mary at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in 2015.


I’ve also conducted workshops, using the steampunk telescope as an example of how easy and satisfying it is to build your own small telescope.


It’s exciting when people look through a telescope like this and realize they can peer into moon craters, see the rings of Saturn, or the ghostly Orion Nebula. For them, science has left the textbook and become something they can access. There’s even more magic when people realize they can get those kinds of views with something they built themselves. If you’re interested in building a telescope like this for your own enjoyment, I wrote two posts that should help you get started and include links to more detailed information.

This post is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World. Visit the Airship Ambassador for more information and to visit more great posts on the topic!