Mars Globes

One of the places my family and I visited during our July travels was Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was where Percival Lowell, a former US ambassador to Korea, set up shop in the late nineteenth century to observe the planet Mars and search for the elusive Planet X. One thing that captivated Lowell about Mars were the linear features crisscrossing the planet. The more he observed them, the more he became convinced they were canals built by intelligent beings. Over the years, Lowell would make many maps of Mars and publish essays detailing how the red planet must be an abode of life. Lowell also made globes.

Martian globe on display at Lowell Observatory

As it turns out, Lowell’s canals do not exist. They seem to be the result of some optical phenomena going on within the telescope itself enhanced by wishful thinking. It’s easy to imagine Lowell gazing up at Mars from his chair in Flagstaff, imagining a dying desert world with intelligent Martians hanging on through their ingenuity, digging canals to bring water from the polar caps to arable farm land in the equatorial regions. These ideas would go on to inspire writers like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury. Even if Lowell’s observations did not prove correct, he succeeded in making Mars a place in people’s imagination that we could visit.

As a young reader, I fell in love with the canal-lined Mars of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. When visiting Lowell Observatory, I always thought a Martian canal globe would be a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them in the gift shop. What’s more, they don’t sell them much of anywhere. Most Mars globes available today show the Mars we’ve mapped via orbiting probes. These are great globes and I’d love one of those, too, but they don’t capture the imagination that stirred me in my earliest days of reading science fiction. I did see that a master globe maker recreated a canal globe a while back and made them available for sale, but I also saw that he charged far more than I could afford. What’s more, when I looked again after visiting Lowell, I couldn’t find them anymore.

Of course, I’m not only a science fiction fan and a professional scientist, I’m a steampunk. If there’s one thing a steampunk knows it’s that when something isn’t available, you just have to go out and make it. My wife and I discussed approaches and I did some searching on the web. I already knew that several images of Lowell’s maps were available online. I found software that would convert rectangular maps to “map gores,” the strips used to make globes. With the power of Adobe Photoshop, I could resize those gores to any ball I wanted. So, I set out to make my own globe. Since this was the first time I’d ever tried something like this, I decided to make a prototype before making a nice one.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

The prototype wasn’t perfect. Despite measuring the ball I used for a form, I sized the gores just a little too small. This could have been a little bit of rounding error from several sources. Also, it took some tries to figure out how to get the gores on smoothly. I mostly figured it out, and I think some better tools would help. Despite that, I think the prototype globe turned out much better than I had any right to expect. In fact, the flaws actually add to the antique look of the globe.

At this point, I’m working on acquiring some better tools and a nice stand for the final globe. Who knows exactly what I’ll do with my new globe-making skills. If a steampunk event shows interest, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned. Given that the globes aren’t generally available, I might consider making a few for sale, as long as I confirm that I’m not violating any rights by using the old maps and I feel my skills are up to the task.

What I do know is that the globes I make for myself will serve as an inspiration. I look at the globe and dream of Mars as it could have been. When astronauts visit Mars in my novel The Solar Sea, they wax poetic about the old visions of Mars even as they see its real wonders. Of course, Lowell’s crypt next to the dome where he observed Mars was an inspiration for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. A part of me would like to think of Lowell’s spirit walking a canal-laced Mars, much as scientists who died did in Camille Flammarion’s novel Urania. As I look around the globe, I see that Lowell named one of the canals, Draco, a name shared with the leader of my Scarlet Order vampires. Maybe there’s a story out there about the Scarlet Order paying a visit to Mars.

When Mars Invaded England

In the twenty years from 1877 until 1897, the planet Mars underwent a dramatic transformation in the public’s consciousness. In 1877, Mars made a particularly close approach to the Earth. The planet’s two moons were discovered and efforts were made to map the planet’s surface in detail. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced the presence of interconnected features that resembled channels. Over the next 20 years, astronomers would continue to study the planet and many, including Schiaparelli, would come to believe those channels were canals engineered by intelligent Martians. In 1897, Pearson’s Magazine serialized The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Wells’ novel captures an image of the Martians very close to that painted by astronomers such as Percival Lowell. He portrayed them as an ancient people using their vast intellect to survive on a desert world. Wells imagined those Martians turning their attention to their lush neighbor, closer to the sun. He then imagines those intelligent, powerful beings pitting themselves against the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. Of course, to Wells, that would be Victorian England. The novel has a timeless quality and it’s not surprising that many people who adapt the story to other media present it in a setting contemporary to the presentation. Orson Welles imagined the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey of 1938 during his radio adaptation. George Pal set his movie in the Cold War of 1953. Steven Spielberg would again update the setting for his 2005 film.

As a fan of steampunk, I’ve always been a little disappointed that none of these mainstream adaptations return to the book’s original Victorian setting. That said, I recently came across an independent film that did just that and it’s pretty good. The movie is War of the Worlds: The True Story directed by Timothy Hines. It presents the story in a form that reminds me of History Channel documentaries and imagines that the Martians really did invade England in the last days of the nineteenth century. The film intercuts stock footage with dramatizations of scenes from the novel and interview segments with “Bertie Wells,” the last survivor of the Martian War. It would be hard to imagine a film adaptation that more faithfully captured the key points of the original novel.

In addition to the faithful adaptation and Victorian setting, I loved Floyd Reichman’s portrayal of the 86-year-old Bertie Wells, supposedly filmed in 1965. I also enjoyed the depiction of the Martian tripods, which you can see in the poster. I thought they were among the coolest versions of the Martian war machines I’ve seen portrayed so far. That noted, the Martians themselves did look like they might be well at home in a 50s B-movie, but they only make a brief appearance. Also, the stock footage did seem to come from a variety of sources over a somewhat longer time period than that covered by the film. Still, as a fan of both the novel and ambitious indie films, I thought the movie did a creditable job.

I gather that this is Timothy Hines’ second attempt to adapt The War of the Worlds. The first attempt was a movie called H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and it’s a three-hour, word-for-word retelling of the novel. I have not seen this version, but I gather the “historical recreations” from War of the Worlds: The True Story come from the earlier film. Reviews of the earlier film are not kind, but I admire Hines for persevering and recutting the film into a version that, while not perfect, is a lot of fun to watch.

My only complaint about War of the Worlds: The True Story is that I couldn’t obtain a copy of the movie on DVD. I tried to order through the official website. To the credit of the people who run the site, they refunded my money when they couldn’t deliver the DVD. The only way to watch is to stream it from Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/War-The-Worlds-True-Story/dp/B00HH0VG5E

Revisiting the War of the Worlds

During the run-up to this month’s Wild Wild West Con, I was talking to one of my co-workers about how Victorian science influenced early science fiction novels. During our conversation, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells came up. We spoke a little bit about the famous Orson Welles radio version and the 1953 George Pal film. He also mentioned the Jeff Wayne musical version. As it turns out, I remember seeing ads for this album when it was released, but I never actually listened to it. What’s more, even though the story of The War of the Worlds is well known and almost a part of the collective subconscious, I had never actually read the original novel. I decided it was time to rectify both omissions.

As I say, the story of the novel is familiar and there were, in fact, few surprises. The story is somewhat sparse and very personal, which allows a reader to transport it in time and place. It’s easy to visualize the events happening in your own time to you. This is likely helped because Wells never names his protagonist. Despite all this, I found the novel fit very well in its Victorian period. It loses a little something when it’s transported out of that. I think some of it is that the Martian war machines seem all that more awesome when most people only have horses and buggies for transportation. Also, the story is set in Victorian England at the height of England’s colonial power, so it seems especially frightening to see it brought to its knees so readily.

If anything, one of the elements I did find surprising about the novel is that it appears that the entire Martian invasion is focused on England. It’s never explicitly said Martian vehicles weren’t landing in other places, but we never hear that they are either. It makes an eerie view of the world that a single, powerful country could be attacked like that and the world would be unwilling to come to its aid. There is danger in big colonial powers alienating everyone else! Especially, given that another surprise of the novel is that the Martian War Machines prove to be somewhat vulnerable to the weapons of the time. A massed worldwide front seems like it could have stopped the Martian invasion.

A real weakness of the novel is the way the women get shoved into the background. Our protagonist’s wife is sent off to live with the protagonist’s cousin—then it turns out he may have placed her in greater danger for doing that. The only other women in the novel are a pair encountered by the protagonist’s brother. While one woman is somewhat resourceful, the other is a hysterical mess. This is where the Jeff Wayne musical version does a decent job improving on the original. The protagonist’s wife is given a name. They’re already separated at the start of the story and part of the story is his attempt to get to her. Even then circumstances keep them apart.

In the novel, our protagonist encounters a curate, basically an assistant parson, and the two cower together in an abandoned house. In the album, the curate is now a full parson and he has a wife named Beth, who has one of the album’s greatest songs. I was impressed that the album and the novel generally follow each other pretty well. The album’s music reminds me of works by some of my favorite contemporary steampunk bands. Another high point of the album is Richard Burton’s narration, which mostly follows Wells’s narrative.

One of my big takeaways after reading the novel was that many stories could be told based on the events of The War of the Worlds. One could tell stories set in other countries, or tell a story about the rest of the world watching the attack on Britain and reacting. It seems the protagonist’s wife has a great untold story that could make an outstanding steampunk novel. Of course, there have been a few sequels such as Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars, and even Jeff Wayne suggests a sequel of sorts that could make a fascinating story.

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!

Bringing my Writing and Astronomy Careers Together – #SFWApro

Keplers Dozen

This week, Hadrosaur Productions released the ebook edition of A Kepler’s Dozen: Thirteen Stories About Distant Worlds That Really Exist. I co-edited the anthology with Steve B. Howell, project scientist of NASA’s Kepler Mission. Both of us also contributed stories to the anthology. I’m especially excited about this anthology because it allowed me to bring my passions for astronomy and science fiction together in one place.

Steve and I have been colleagues since I returned to Kitt Peak National Observatory in 2008. At the time, he was serving as the scientist for the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I was hired to be an observing assistant for the 3.5-meter, along with other telescopes on the mountain. Observing assistants operate the telescopes and help visiting observers get the best use out of the telescope time they’re granted. Soon after I returned to Kitt Peak, Steve learned about my interest in science fiction and fantasy and even bought a copy of the anthology Human Tales, which features my story “The Griffin’s Tail.” Here we see Steve enjoying his copy at the console of the WIYN telescope:

Human-Tales-Steve-1

A couple years later, after Steve took the job at NASA, he suggested assembling a collection of short stories set in the planetary systems discovered by the Kepler probe. I thought it was a great idea and took it to my colleagues at Hadrosaur Productions. They agreed and we decided to move forward with the project.

Hadrosaur’s primary publishing venture for the last decade has been Tales of the Talisman Magazine. Naturally, I approached a number of writers whose work has appeared in the magazine over the years to write stories for the anthology. We handled this as an invitation-only anthology simply because we wanted to make sure each story featured a different planet. We also approached other astronomy professionals with a strong interest in science fiction, including the University of Wyoming’s Mike Brotherton and my Kitt Peak colleague Doug Williams.

Our goal for this anthology was simple. The Kepler mission has been discovering hundreds of planets around other stars. We wanted to envision these systems as the real places they are and imagine what they might be like, just like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs once imagined the planet Mars. Much as our understanding of Mars has evolved over time, we expect our understanding of the Kepler planets will as well. We may be wrong in some of our assumptions about what these planets are like, but we hope to challenge the young and young-at-heart to dream about these places and take a closer look for themselves.

Katy Garmany of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory wrote a very nice press release about the book that even shows you where the book’s planets are in the sky. You can read that here: http://www.noao.edu/news/2013/pr1305.php

The ebook edition of A Kepler’s Dozen is available at Amazon and Smashwords. The print edition is available at many online retailers including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and direct from the publisher at Hadrosaur Productions.

Shortly after the book was released, it was announced that the Kepler spacecraft had lost one of the reaction wheels that keep it pointed accurately at one place in the sky. Despite that, Kepler has already produced more data than scientists have been able to keep up with. Steve and I are already talking about a possible second anthology that imagines even more of Kepler’s worlds.