Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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October 1 Reflections

October 1 can be a challenging day for me. On this date in 1980, my dad passed away. I was only 13 years old. This year, October 1 comes with an added twist. In just six weeks, I’ll be the same age my dad was when he passed away. That noted, and given the caveat we never really know how long we have, I don’t have a lot of fear that my time is nigh. My doctor says I’m in good health and I don’t smoke like he did. Also, my brothers are more than ten years older than me and they’re still around.

This is the last photo I have with my dad. My mom is sitting between us. Soon after this photo was taken, my dad had his first heart attack. Part of his recovery was to walk a mile each day and I would take those walks with him. In many ways, I think I got to know my dad better in that time than I had in the years before that.

As I approach the age my dad was when he died, I find myself thinking about his hopes, dreams, and fears at that age. I look at his successes and the occasional regret he shared. I find myself starting to evaluate my life, asking how satisfied I am with what I’ve done, asking what I still want to do.

My life has been quite a bit different than his. After graduating high school, he joined the Marine Corps at the tail end of World War II. Fortunately, he didn’t have to go overseas. After he left the Corps, he went to work for Santa Fe Railroad. He moved up through the ranks until he became a General Locomotive Foreman at the shops in San Bernardino, California, where the photo above is taken. Beyond that, he was also a leader in the Boy Scouts. He gave me an appreciation of this great nation and showed much of it to me in the short time we had together. He was a leader in our church and he gave me a strong appreciation of the spiritual side of life. He was an artist who loved to paint.

The day before my dad died, he’d gone in to see the doctor and asked if he would write a letter recommending early retirement. Instead, the doctor cleared him to go back to work. My dad was proud of what he’d done, but I think he wanted a change. Unfortunately, he didn’t feel he could make that change without the financial security that would have come with taking early retirement.

I sometimes wonder if my dad would have been proud of the work I do in astronomy, or my writing. I suspect he would have been. He’d certainly find the astronomical machinery, electronics, and optics I work with fascinating and I think he would have enjoyed my Clockwork Legion books. He might have looked askance at some of my horror, but then again I have memories of watching The Omen with him when it appeared on Showtime. It scared me, but he pointed out the silly parts, commenting on them Mystery Science Theater-style and I was less afraid. In a way, it’s a skill that let me analyze horror and actually write it.

Bittersweet as these memories are, they also come on the official release day of the anthology DeadSteam edited by Bryce Raffle. I’m proud to share a table of contents with such talented writers as D.J. Tyrer, Karen J. Carlisle, Alice E. Keyes, and James Dorr. In the tradition of the Penny Dreadfuls, this anthology takes us back to horrors of the Victorian age. Whether it be the fog-shrouded streets of London or a dark cave in the desert southwest, who knows what will appear from the shadows. I hope you’ll join us. You can pick up a copy of DeadSteam at:  https://www.amazon.com/DeadSteam-Bryce-Raffle/dp/0995276749/

Evolution of the Lightning Wolf

As a writer, one of the things I most appreciate is my family’s support. My family enjoys going to science fiction and steampunk conventions and is willing to help me out. They’re there to help me through the inevitable bad review and cheer me on when I get a good review. They enjoy many of the same shows I like to watch for research and inspiration. They’re also extremely creative in their own right. My youngest daughter, in particular, likes to create things inspired by my writing as well as books and movies I like. A couple of years ago, she created this interpretation of Larissa Crimson’s lightning wolf from my Clockwork Legion novels.

In the novel Lightning Wolves, the army attempts to recruit Professor Maravilla to help build more effective war machines to help repel the Russians, who have invaded America. The professor, however, has had enough of war machines and doesn’t want to go. Larissa, a bounty hunter who has apprenticed herself to the professor, agrees to go in his place.

Like most real-world inventions, the lightning wolf is a hodgepodge of things Larissa had on hand at Fort Bliss in the novel. She adds the engine from an ornithopter to power a safety bicycle, which holds one of the army’s lightning guns between the handlebars. In effect it’s an armed, steam-powered moped. In the novel, few people take this frail-looking contraption seriously until they see it in action and see the damage it can cause. It ultimately proves itself an effective weapon against much larger machines.

She returns to Professor Maravilla and the two join forces against common foes in the last act of Lightning Wolves. In many ways, Larissa and Maravilla are a family, even if they aren’t related by blood. Their relationship is fraught and sometimes tense. People on the outside don’t always understand it, but when one is in trouble, the other will be there to help out. In essence, my family is not just there to provide moral support, but they do provide the experience that helps me build effective characters and relationships on the pages of my books. As writers, we should always keep a lookout for those things around that we can use on the page.

Like most inventors, Larissa is not content with what she built. As the series proceeds, she tinkers, improves, and takes the lightning wolf to new levels. We see the upgraded version both in my novel Owl Riders and in my short story “Fountains of Blood” in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, which is coming out in a mass market paperback edition this fall.

If you would like to meet the family who created the lightning wolf and see this invention grow, change, and evolve, I invite you to give the Clockwork Legion series a try. You can learn about the books at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

Branigan Library Book Talk on Wednesday

On Wednesday, June 13 at 1:30pm, the Friends of the Branigan Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico have invited me to present a Book Talk about my Clockwork Legion novels. I’ll be presenting at the library’s main branch at the corner of Picacho and Main Streets.

I’m proud to have called the Mesilla Valley my home for the last 23 years. It’s a real honor to give a presentation and reading in my home town. Garnering an interest in history from family trips as a child, I brought my interests together in the Clockwork Legion novels. The Clockwork Legion series includes four novels: Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, The Brazen Shark, and Owl Riders. In the Clockwork Legion novels I combine science fiction and history to imagine a world that wasn’t, but could have been, weaving stories reminiscent of those told by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

The Clockwork Legion novels follow the adventures of Ramon Morales, a former sheriff of Socorro, and Fatemeh Karimi, a healer from Persia. During their adventures together, they meet inventors, outcasts, misfits, and even pirates who they gather together when the Russians use airships to invade the Civil War-ravaged United States in 1877.

The third novel in the series, The Brazen Shark, was voted Best Steampunk Novel in the 2017 Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. The fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, was just released. I’m an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a former vice president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. My poems have been nominated for the Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

In my presentation, I plan to talk about the history of steampunk and weird western stories. I also plan to talk about how I got started writing steampunk and weird westerns in general as well as how the Clockwork Legion novels in particular came about. I’ll give a couple of readings and I will have books available for sale at the talk. I gather refreshments will be served as well. If you’re in Las Cruces, I hope you’ll join me for this fun Book Talk. I look forward to meeting you.

If you want to learn more about the books before the talk, visit: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Pterodactyls, Mummies, and Magic

I’m beginning to think the French are particularly adept at making steampunk films. I enjoyed 2013’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart which had lovely animation and used steampunk images and metaphors to tell a tale of falling in and out of love that included among other things a loving tribute to Georges Méliès. Last week, I discussed the 2015 animated film April and the Extraordinary World drawn in the style of cartoonist Jacques Tardi. This week, I take a look at a film that precedes both of these, 2010’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which is based on Jacques Tardi’s comic book series of the same name.

The film is directed by Luc Besson, probably best known in America as the director of The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis. Adèle Blanc-Sec is a writer and adventurer living in 1912 who, as the movie opens, has traveled to Egypt to look for the mummy of the physician of Ramses II. Meanwhile, back in Paris, a professor uses mental powers to resurrect a pterodactyl at the French Museum of Natural History. The pterodactyl breaks free and manages to kill a high ranking French official. Like in The Fifth Element, many disparate characters and situations eventually come together, sometimes with humorous results. Sometimes tragedy ensues. In the end, I felt like I had been treated to a good and satisfying yarn.

As it turns out, the original comic series goes all the way back to 1976 and predates the K.W. Jeeter’s 1987 letter to Locus magazine where he gives Victorian fantasies the name “steampunk.” Even so, the adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec have all the hallmarks of good gonzo, historical fiction. We see a 1912—and even glimpse an ancient Egypt—where technology is so advanced for some, that it’s indistinguishable from magic. We see a pterodactyl brought back to life. For reasons that become clear over the movie’s course, we discover that Adèle wants to bring a mummy back to life. I have no problem calling this movie set just before World War I, steampunk.

Steampunk literature has brought us some strong female protagonists. Among them are Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Briar Wilkes of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Agatha Heterodyne of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. I’d like to think that Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Seaton of my Clockwork Legion novels could also stand by their sisters. There’s no question that Adèle Blanc-Sec qualifies. In fact, one thing that impressed me about the movie was Adèle’s lack of interest in romance. There’s a young scientist who is enamored with her, but she doesn’t share his infatuation. Her character isn’t defined by any kind of a romantic interest. Like many good action heroes, her character is defined by the object of her quest.

If you’re looking for a good steampunk romp, it’s hard to go wrong with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. In its way, it’s very much an heir to Jules Verne’s own extraordinary adventures. Perhaps being a countryman of Jules Verne or Georges Méliès helps when you set out to make a steampunk film. I think Hollywood could do worse than pay attention to France’s successes in this area.

If you enjoy The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and would like more rollicking tales featuring strong women, be sure to check out my Clockwork Legion Series.

Croquet in the Old West

About three years ago came news that a new photo of Billy the Kid might have been unearthed. Experts hired by National Geographic purported that the tintype showed Billy and a number of his associates on John Tunstall’s ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico playing croquet. You can see the full photo and learn more at National Geographic’s site. The detail below supposedly shows Billy on the left with Tom O’Folliard in the center pointing at him. On the right may be Sallie Chisum.

I love this photo on many levels. If this is Billy the Kid, we now have an image of him wearing a cardigan and a bow tie, playing croquet with his gang. Tom O’Folliard was Billy’s best friend. Like Billy, O’Folliard was shot and killed by Pat Garrett. Sallie Chisum was the niece of prominent rancher John Chisum, who in turn was a business partner of Billy and Tom’s boss John Tunstall. Sallie Chisum lived in Lincoln County until her death in 1934. To put that date in perspective, my mom, the daughter of New Mexico homesteaders, would have been seven years old. Sallie Chisum is important to historians because her diary contains stories about both Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.

Historians have been debating whether or not this photo actually shows Billy the Kid, the Regulators, and their associates. Whether or not Billy the Kid is in this photo, we do see a scene of people in the Old West playing croquet. We know croquet sets were sold in New Mexico because Gazette of Las Vegas, New Mexico ran an ad featuring croquet sets in 1878.

In my Clockwork Legion novels, I have a character named Billy McCarty. When pressed, I tell people Billy may or may not be Billy the Kid. In many ways, he’s like the person in the photo, who also may or may not be Billy the Kid. I’m not a historian, but a fiction writer. As a fiction writer, I’m allowed to ask, what if this photo really depicts the Billy of my stories. What if his boss, Englishman John Tunstall, introduced him and his friends to croquet? What if he was an aficionado of the game?

I play with this idea in my latest novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, Ramon Morales first encounters Billy teaching the men who work at Onofre Cisneros’s warehouse in Nogales how to play croquet. As the novel progresses, we find that Billy has skills with a croquet ball and mallet that rival his skills with a six-gun.

You can learn more about Owl Riders and read the first chapter at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

On Saturday, I mentioned that I’ll be signing my vampire books at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. This will also be the formal debut event for Owl Riders. You might wonder if that means that there are vampires in my new steampunk novel, especially in light of my Billy encountering vampires in last year’s Straight Outta Tombstone. In fact, there are no vampires in the new novel, but Boutique du Vampyre is in the same block of the French Quarter where Ramon and Fatemeh Morales live in the novel.

Saddle up and take flight with the Owl Riders!