See You Space Cowboy…

Last week, NASA announced that after nine years of service, the Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be switched off. It’s in an orbit around the sun, far from Earth. To date, it has been credited with the discovery of some 2,681 planets outside our solar system from both the Kepler and K2 missions. The K2 mission was the follow-up that happened after two of Kepler’s reaction wheels failed and it could no longer point at its target field. There are 2,780 candidate planets still to be checked with ground based observations, so Kepler’s total discovery count will likely increase even now that Kepler is off line. Among the planets Kepler has discovered include numerous Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting their stars in mere hours, many ice giant worlds like Uranus and Neptune, and there are some 361 candidate and confirmed planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

Earlier this year, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched. Whereas Kepler was designed to monitor one part of the sky and see how many planets it could find, TESS is designed to survey the stars nearest to the Earth. TESS has already its announced its first exoplanet discoveries.

Steve Howell observing at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, confirming Kepler discoveries.

At Kitt Peak, I work at the Mayall and WIYN telescopes, which are involved in confirming exoplanets. WIYN’s telescope scientist was Dr. Steve Howell when I started working at Kitt Peak eleven years ago. Steve since moved on to become Kepler’s Project Scientist and now serves as the head of the astronomy and astrobiology section at Ames Spaceflight Center which serves as the center of Kepler and TESS operations. One night while observing Kepler targets we began to talk about how Mars became more of a place in people’s imaginations after it started appearing in the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so we hatched plans to compile an anthology of stories set on Kepler worlds.

Our first anthology was A Kepler’s Dozen, which collected action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Authors like Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine imagined stories set in places like a prison colony, or escaping from the authorities, or encircling a binary star. We collected thirteen stories in all. We also included facts about each of the planets written about in the anthology. You can learn more about the anthology at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.htmlAlso at the page is a link to a press release by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory that gives more background about the Kepler telescope and Kitt Peak’s role in confirming discoveries.

This anthology has done well and Kepler’s success continued, so we decided to compile a second anthology. The follow up was Kepler’s Cowboys, which imagined the space cowboys and cowgirls who would visit the worlds discovered by Kepler. In this anthology, we encouage you to saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. You’ll meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. You’ll fight for justice in a lawless frontier. You can go on a quest for a few dollars more. We wanted an exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology. This one included fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, and L.J. Bonham. You can learn more about this anthology at:  http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

Kepler has had a great run and it’s sad to see it reach the end of it’s life. Still, I think we could fill many more anthologies with stories about its planets and that’s even before we do any anthologies featuring discoveries by TESS. While you’re waiting, you can check out my space pirate story collection Firebrandt’s Legacy, which not only visits a couple of Kepler planets, but several other possible worlds out in the galaxy. You can learn more about that project at my Patreon page: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

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The Circle of (a Writer’s) Life

On Friday, I typed “The End” at the bottom of the last page of my latest book, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The book collects previously published stories of a space pirate captain named Ellison Firebrandt and his crew and adds some new stories to create what amounts to a “fix-up novel.” Each chapter is a short story, but the whole thing forms a complete story arc.

Like typing “The End” on most books, this really represents the beginning of the road to publication for this book. In this case, I don’t expect editing to be quite as arduous as some books I’ve worked on. Many of the original stories have been edited by such people as Hugo-nominated editors Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Of course, the new stories will need a critical eye and care will need to be taken to make sure the stories all work together as a whole. For those who want an early look, chapters 1 and 12 are available for anyone to read at my Patreon site. Thirteen chapters are available to read for all patrons—and it only costs $1.00 per month to be a patron. You may cancel at any time. I plan to share the last two stories this month. The site is: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Now these chapters are likely to get tweaked as beta readers and my editor work their way through it, but your support will help me pay cover artist Laura Givens and help pay the costs of editing and typesetting the book. What’s more, to show my appreciation, I plan to share a gift code with my patrons that will allow them to download the complete book once finished. I’ve also adjusted my Patreon goals. One of those goals is that with sufficient support, I can make this blog ad free.

As it turns out, I finished this book the day after I received news that I had been promoted from “Observing Associate” at Kitt Peak National Observatory to “Senior Observing Associate.” In essence, the promotion recognizes my seniority at the observatory plus the work I’ve been doing with the on-line manuals for my fellow operations’ staff.

These moments coming together do cause me to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going. I worked in astronomy full time from 1990 until 2000. At which point, I decided to devote myself to writing and editing full time. I did that until 2008 when staff members at Kitt Peak asked me if I wanted to return. I agreed under the provision that writing was recognized as my primary career. So far, my supervisors have been very supportive of this. I also returned because I feel astronomy is a way that I contribute to the larger body of human knowledge. My position as an astronomer and a writer allows me to communicate some of what we learn to the public through appearances at conventions and through this blog. This broader support mission is not part of my job, though, it’s supported through sales of my books and Patreon supporters.

My schedule at the observatory is not all that flexible, it involves working long nights, and those nights often require full concentration. My pay is pretty good for living in the southwest, but even with the most recent raise, it’s still below the average salary in the US according the Census Bureau. I note this just to point out that despite my full-time job, I’m not a well-to-do hobbyist. I do need support from sources like book sales and Patreon to continue publishing and to afford travel to events.

So, looking ahead, I’ll spend this fall polishing Firebrandt’s Legacy for publication. I’m scheduled to appear at several events including Bubonicon in Albuquerque, CoKoCon in Phoenix, TusCon in Tucson plus I’ll be signing books next month at a local bookstore. More about each of those soon.

I’m also working on some projects that I can’t discuss yet and am not entirely sure when I’ll be able to announce them or whether they’ll bear fruit at all. I say this less to tease you and more to say I am working on things in the background. In the meantime, as I announced on July 21, after Firebrandt’s Legacy is complete, I do plan to turn my attention to a new edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which was my very first novel. In a way, “The End” on Firebrandt’s Legacy has caused me to spiral back to the first book I wrote and I hope to take what I’ve learned on life’s journey so far and make it an even better book. Whether it’s through my books, appearances at conventions, Patreon, the web journal or some combination, I hope you’ll come along with me for this exciting journey.

End Game and New Beginnings

I’m currently working on the final chapters of my collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. This book collects space pirate stories that have appeared in numerous anthologies over the years alongside several new stories. The whole collection is an arc of related stories, so the book may be read as an episodic novel. I’ve been sharing the new and revised stories with my Patreon subscribers since September 2017.

Based on my current outline, I have about three stories to go to bring events up to the beginning of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro and to bring the collection up to the length I want. I will release the first story of the final three to my Patreon subscribers on Thursday, July 26.

My approach to Patreon has been pretty simple. I only have one tier and it only costs $1.00 per month to subscribe. Of course, patrons are welcome to pay more per month if they feel sufficiently moved by my work to support me at a higher level. My first goal is to use this money to pay the costs associated with publishing Firebrandt’s Legacy. My second goal is to print new editions of the other related books including The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. Patreon support has already helped me publish the new edition of The Solar Sea, which is a prequel to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series that tells the story of how humans became a space faring society. I shared a free download of the ebook with all my Patreon subscribers. Patreon support also helps support this blog and helps support my travel to conventions where I give both writing and science presentations.

For the duration of Firebrandt’s Legacy, I have been posting at least one new or revised story to the site per month along with a “Behind the Scenes” look at where the story first appeared (if it had been previously published) and what influenced me to write the story. Of course, I plan to share a free download of the complete ebook to all my Patreon subscribers when it’s complete.

Now that I’m about to finish Firebrandt’s Legacy, I’m thinking about the best way to share my progress revising The Pirates of Sufiro for a new edition. I expect that I’ll be heavily revising this novel for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that this was my very first novel and I’ve learned a lot since I first published it. I’ve also received a lot of feedback on the novel over the years and plan to take those comments into account. Sharing “reedited chapters” may not sound like much value to anyone who has already read the book and people may wonder why they should subscribe instead of just buying a cheap used copy of the book.

My current plan is that when I start The Pirates of Sufiro, instead of doing the “Behind the Scenes” segments, I’ll share the chapter as it appeared in the most recent edition, perhaps along with some notes about the inspirations and the origins of the ideas. I’ll wait a couple of weeks, then present the revised chapter, so people can see what I’m doing with this edit. In both cases, I’m delighted for people to comment on what I’m doing as the project progresses.

To prepare for this transition, I’ve recorded a brief intro video and posted it to my Patreon site. Also, I have made two of the Firebrandt’s Legacy stories/chapters available for anyone to read whether or not they’re a patron. They’re the first chapter, “For a Job Well Done”, and Chapter Twelve, “Calamari Rodeo.” I encourage you to drop over to the site, watch the intro video and read the two free stories. If you like these characters, please sign on as a patron. My Patreon site is: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

One last thing before signing off. Speaking of used copies of The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth, Hadrosaur Productions is running an auction at eBay for the last complete set of the LBF/Hadrosaur editions of the Old Star Saga in their stock. Drop by and place a bid at eBay!

Valerian and Laureline

While learning more about the movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec directed by Luc Besson and the comic of the same name by Jacques Tardi, I stumbled across another French comic which was recently adapted by Besson. The comic is Valérian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. The movie, called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, completely slipped under my radar. Because I love a good space opera, I immediately set out to see the movie and read some issues of the comic.

The comic started its run in November 1967. To put it in context, the original Star Trek was still on the air in the United States and Patrick Troughton was playing the title character of Doctor Who in England. It’s pure pulp action Sci Fi, reminding me most of Buck Rogers with a touch of Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure. The artwork, particularly in the first two installments, looks like it’s inspired by Mad Magazine and there is a definite satirical edge to the stories. The characters of Valérian and Laureline also remind me a little of Jamie and Zoe, the Doctor’s traveling companions at the time, but with some of their personality traits mixed up. Laureline, like Jamie McCrimmon, is from the past and doesn’t always want to follow the rules. Valérian, like Zoe, thinks highly of himself, and seems to need rescuing from time to time. I’m not convinced these similarities are deliberate. I suspect there’s an element of the zeitgeist of the period in these passing resemblances.

Fans of Valérian and Laureline are also fast to point out many similarities between the French comic and Star Wars which would come out a decade later. I gather George Lucas has acknowledged the French comic’s influence on the look of his world.

Jumping ahead to the movie, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a gem. It captured the spirit of the comic very well and I thought presented a dandy and cohesive story with some cool science fictional ideas that made valid commentary on what can happen when indigenous peoples find themselves caught between two civilizations at war. Valerian and Laureline themselves are introduced during a special ops mission at a market that exists in a different dimension from our own. I loved the way that concept was portrayed on screen.

I enjoyed the performances of Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. They’re not your usual Hollywood romantic couple. In fact, they seemed just a little uncomfortable with this whole romance thing, but it worked for me because that’s the way romance often works in real life. It’s figuring out how you each work, and not having the writer put phrases in your mouth that the other party has to be a moron to misunderstand and pout about until they make up. The film also features a truly outstanding performance by Rihanna as an alien called Bubble. I also loved the cameos by Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer.

As a bonus, I’ve discovered that about ten years ago, Valerian and Laureline was turned into a French-Japanese co-produced anime. From what I’ve seen so far, the anime’s story diverges from the comic’s, but it still looks fun. I definitely need to watch a few more episodes.

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good space opera. If you want to see my serialized space opera story, please drop by my Patreon site. You can read the first story of my Firebrandt’s Legacy for free. If you pledge just one dollar, you can read nine more stories right now. If you remain a patron, you’ll get each new story as its released. Stop by and check out Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Bringing Characters to Life

A little over a week ago, at El Paso Comic Con, I had the opportunity to meet Jonathan Frakes, who not only starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Commander William Riker, but directed two of the films and several episodes of the series. I told him a little about the Star Trek: The Next Generation script my friend William Grother and I had submitted back in 1991, which had made it to the producer’s desk, but wasn’t actually produced. We shared some kind words. His commanding voice and intense blue-eyed gaze, which made him perfect for Riker, stuck with me into the coming week.

After El Paso Comic Con was over, I needed to write a new story for my book-in-progress, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The book is a combination of previously published stories and new material about Captain Ellison Firebrandt and his crew of space pirates aboard the good ship Legacy. My goal has been to create a set of stories that work together as a satisfying story arc. The new stories are there to bring the story arc together and then bring the overall story to a satisfying conclusion. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the process and hope to finish the book over the summer.

The story I needed to write required a character who could put the indefatigable Captain Firebrandt into a tough spot. Firebrandt’s a privateer and he’s mentioned several times that he answers to authorities on Earth. I decided the time had come to show readers who exactly Captain Firebrandt answered to. I saw this person as a tough admiral who manipulates people and ships like pieces on a chessboard, doing everything possible to keep Earth out of open conflict because, frankly, in this universe Earth would be seriously outmatched in an open conflict. Because I wanted this to be a memorable character, I wanted to think of aspects that would bring him to life for the reader. One of the tricks I sometimes use to do this is to imagine the actor I would put in that part if this was dramatized. Jonathan Frakes with his intense presence seemed just the kind of person I would cast as the person to put Captain Firebrandt in a tough place!

A writer can also reverse this trick and think of a character who has characteristics very different from a familiar actor or character and then visualize that person. Another time I needed an opponent for Captain Firebrandt and his crew, I wanted to create someone who was capable, but not exactly likable. I turned to Sir Patrick Stewart and his portrayal of Jean-Luc Picard. However, I didn’t want a Picard, I wanted an anti-Picard. The result was William Robert Stewart, a posturing, arrogant, loud-mouthed captain who is happy to let his feelings be known. Captain “Billy Bob” Stewart has appeared in two of my Firebrandt’s Legacy stories.

I hope to release the book Firebrandt’s Legacy later this year, but why wait? You can read the stories as I edit and write them by becoming a patron at my Patreon site. Just click the button below or at the right side of the screen. For just one dollar a month, you’ll get a brand new story, plus behind the scenes information about the stories. I’ve also given away a free ebook of The Solar Sea to patrons and I plan to give away the complete ebook of Firebrandt’s Legacy to my patrons as well. For that matter, if I get a few more patrons, I might be persuaded to send out signed print copies. What’s more, patrons get a chance to be mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements. You want more? I’m also working with a very talented group of voice actors to create a full-cast audio dramatization of the book. So, why wait? Sign aboard the Legacy today!

Characters Are What They Eat

As the old saying goes, “you are what you eat.” My post’s title though refers less to nutrition than what you can reveal about a character through scenes set at mealtimes. I thought about this last week while revising the story “Jump Point Blockade” for my collection-in-progress, Firebrandt’s Legacy. During the story, Captain Firebrandt shares bobotie with Suki, the woman he’s building a relationship with. Bobotie is a South African dish that shares characteristics of a meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, and a curry. We decided to try our hand at making it this weekend. Here’s the result.

We picked a recipe from a South African site based on the author’s family recipe. If you want to try your hand at bobotie, here’s the recipe we used: http://www.getaway.co.za/food/recipes-food/traditional-south-african-bobotie-recipe/.

Part of the reason for the choice is that this version didn’t include nuts at cook time, since our daughters are nut-allergic. Different recipes call for different types of nuts. We went with cashews to serve with our version, but almonds and pine nuts also seem to be common choices. We also used a homemade apple and pear chutney in the mix. Finally, just a note that the recipe specifies “sultanas” over raisins. It turns out that most raisins sold in the United States are, in fact, sultana raisins.

Firebrandt is South African because I created him during the time apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa. He came from a culture where his ancestors had been part of an oppressive regime and he wanted no part of belonging to one himself. What’s more South Africa is one of the few countries to have developed nuclear weapons, but voluntarily destroyed them. I see the elimination of nuclear weapons as one of the necessary paths forward for the human race. In my head, Firebrandt has always spoken with a South African accent and having him share bobotie with a friend was a way to show that on the page.

Scenes including mealtimes not only reveal what people eat, but their accepted manners while eating. How strongly they adhere to meal customs can tell you much about a character, no matter what those customs are. If someone cares a lot about protocol, they might adhere strongly to custom. Other characters might care more about conversation. Some characters might reveal themselves to be completely uncouth at the dinner table. How hosts react to good and bad manners can also be revealing.

One of the challenges in Firebrandt’s Legacy is that I wrote many of the chapters as stand-alone short stories. It could be that when I’m finished collecting the stories and read them as a whole, I might find that I’ve overused the number of times my characters have shared meals. If that’s the case, I’ll need to cut a few of them and share only those that are the most revealing and most interesting.

I invite you to share some adventures, and perhaps a few meals, with the crew of the pirate ship Legacy. I’m posting a new chapter each month. So far, most of the chapters have been revisions of stories that have appeared far and wide in the small press and aren’t always easy to find. I’m nearing a point where most of the stories will be new and unpublished. You can read these stories for just a dollar a month. Of course, this helps me fund other projects as well, such as my recent publication of The Solar Sea. This leads to surprise bonus rewards. I just gave all my wonderful patrons a free ebook copy of the new novel. (If you join my Patreon page now, you can still pick up a copy!) Click the button below to read the first chapter for free and learn how to support this fun project.

The Orville

Last week, I watched the first season of Seth MacFarlane’s new series, The Orville, with my daughter who’s home from college. Marketed as a science fiction comedy in the vein of Galaxy Quest, I find that the show is, in many ways, a true successor to Star Trek.

The premise of the show is that Captain Ed Mercer, played by MacFarlane, has just been given command of a mid-size exploratory vessel. To his chagrin, his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki serves as his first officer. Other members of the crew include Lt. Commander Bortus, the Klingon-like second officer from the Planet Moclan, Lt. Alara Kitan, the hyper-strong but young security chief from the planet Xelaya, and Lt. Gordon Malloy, Ed’s wisecracking friend who serves as the ship’s helmsman.

The first couple of episodes focused more on the humor, but as the show progressed it became decidedly more like classic Star Trek exploring themes of gender, religion, and the role of social media in society. It’s even taken on some interesting science fictional ideas such as what exploring other dimensions would mean, our interactions with life forms both more advanced and more primitive, and time travel.

Overall, the show’s exploration of science fiction themes works. This is perhaps no surprise since there’s a strong overlap of production staff not only with some of the Star Trek series, but with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. Although the show keeps its humor low-key, it’s still an integral part of the presentation. It keeps the show light and avoids it taking itself too seriously. That said, my most serious complaint about the show is that its humor is tied very strongly to 21st century pop-culture references. In a show set in the 24th century that is pretty decent at its science fiction, it feels a little jarring. It’s as though me and all my friends were experts in the 1600s and only read books and watched plays from that era. Okay, as an avowed Steampunk there is, perhaps, some feeling of truth in this portrayal, but I think you get what I mean!

I find I don’t always agree with the positions Seth MacFarlane and the producers present in the show, but that’s fine. He presents them in a thoughtful way that doesn’t put me off, which allows me to evaluate my own positions. In fact, he doesn’t always give us easy answers at the end of an episode or imply that what the crew did was the best choice. In this way, The Orville really does what science fiction does best: help us look at our own time with a critical eye.

As it turns out, I don’t have cable. I gave it up as an unneeded luxury back in 2001. I decided to buy the first season of The Orville on iTunes after watching those episodes that were available for free on Fox’s website. I will note that I still haven’t watched Star Trek: Discovery. Here’s the key difference: Fox allowed me to sample some episodes for free (albeit with commercials), and then gave me a means to subscribe to the series for a reasonable cost. CBS All Access, where Discovery runs will only allow me to subscribe to the channel and won’t even let me sample the series without a subscription that includes a whole lot of content I really don’t want. That’s why I gave up cable back in 2001!

I’m currently on Patreon raising funds for my collection of space pirate stories, Firebrandt’s Legacy. Like The Orville, I endeavor to mix some light-hearted humor with good science fiction to provide an entertaining mix. You can read the first story in the collection with absolutely no commitment right here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/chapter-one-for-14391922. If you like what you read, you can subscribe for any amount you like at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. In exchange for your patronage, you get to see each story in the collection as it’s written or reedited. I share behind the scenes information about the stories, and I’ll give you a “thank you” in the finished book.