One Day Older…

At the very end of September in 1980, I had just started my freshman year of high school. I remember waking up to a voice calling out. I followed the voice from my bedroom to the living room, where I found my dad on the couch, calling for my mom, who was sound asleep. He told me he thought he was having a heart attack. I ran in and woke my mom who called the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I called my brothers and asked them to meet us at the hospital. I don’t remember much of what happened next. I just remember being in a hospital waiting room when the doctor came in and talked to us. My dad hadn’t lived to see another sunrise.

As of this morning, I’m one day older than my dad ever was. I find myself thinking of all the things he was and all the things he did. He was a general foreman for the Santa Fe railroad, a lifelong Boy Scout leader, a talented painter, and a model railroad hobbyist who made sure the toy trains were as accurate as he could make them. He was a Marine at the end of World War II, a church elder, and a Mason. From him, I gained a love of history, nature, genealogy, and so much more. Now that I’m one day older than he ever was, I find myself wondering what he would think of the man I became.

This last year during the DESI installation at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve been spending a lot of time wearing a hard hat at work. My dad almost always wore his hard hat at work. While it’s a superficial comparison, the image of him in his hard hat is indelibly burned into my memory. I know he would find the observatory fascinating and would love to see behind the scenes of everything we do, just as he enjoyed giving behind-the-scenes tours of the Santa Fe shops in San Bernardino, California. I suspect he’d be mystified by my love of science fiction but interested in how I play with “what if” questions in my alternate history. I know my dad would be proud of my daughters and interested in the things they’ve accomplished.

The date of my dad’s death has hung over me like a specter these last four decades. The rational part of my mind has known that barring accidents, there’s no particular reason I wouldn’t outlive my dad. Then again, doctors talking genetics have a way of keeping his early demise closer to the forefront of my mind than I would like. I’ve often felt the urge to accomplish as much as I can before this date, to assure that if I died young, I would have lived as full a life as possible. I’m glad I’ve made it to this point and I’m glad I have more life to live to share with my friends and loved ones. I know life is finite and I have no idea how much longer I have. What I do know is that the rest of my life is an open book and I plan to fill the pages with as much fun, action, and wonder as I possibly can.

Return to Bisbee

On the weekend of August 17 and 18, the Tucson Steampunk Society invaded the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, a picturesque town a few miles south of Tombstone. This is the second year in a row I was able to join the group. As it turns out, I joined them after spending two weeks in a row at Kitt Peak National Observatory, so this provided a nice respite from my “day” job. As with last year, there were only a few scheduled events, making this a weekend where steampunks could meetup, relax, and actually socialize with one another. One of several highlights for the weekend was dinner at the Travellers Camp at Juniper Flats in the mountains above Bisbee. Here’s the whole group in a photo.

Photo courtesy Pete Mecozzi. Visit him online at:
https://petemecozziphotography.mypixieset.com/

In this case, the Travellers refer to “displaced people of Irish origin” and they provided a delightful supper of vegetable soup, chicken, and flat bread with herbs and bacon. They also provided wonderful Irish music.

After dinner, we moved on to another highlight of the weekend, the PG PJ Potluck Parlour Party. Like last year, I was invited to regale the attendees with a story. I read my story “The Zombie Shortage” which appears in the anthologies Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie edited by Carol Hightshoe and then was reprinted in The Many Tortures of Anthony Cardno, edited by Anthony R. Cardno. As I mentioned in my recent post about editing and ego, it’s not always possible to read an audience, but I was pleased to find the audience laughing along with me as I read my wicked little tale that asks what happens should we suffer the zombie apocalypse, put the zombies to use, and then run out of zombies.

In fact, if you want to listen to the reading, Jim Springer of the Creative Play and Podcast Network recorded it and you can listen to the reading at: https://creativeplayandpodcastnetwork.podbean.com/e/a-reading-from-zombiefied-an-anthology-of-all-things-zombie-by-david-lee-summers/

One of many fun things about the Bisbee Inn where the steampunks gathered is that it’s also part of several ghost tours. Because of that, there’s a rather suspicious looking mannequin in the entryway. I have to pass him several times before I remind myself he is a mannequin and not a person. Perhaps one of the most delightful moments from the weekend came when I learned the Tucson steampunks had officially named the mannequin “Egon” after the assistant character in “The Zombie Shortage.”

Over the course of the weekend, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Frank Goglia and his son, Joseph, of Meridian Books and Comics in Bisbee. He has a great stock of books and comics and after this weekend, he now has a few of my books. If you’re in Bisbee and you’re looking for some great reading, be sure to visit the store!

I find weekends like this are a vital part of recharging my creative energy. In fact, just before the weekend, I had received an invitation to pitch a story idea for a shared world anthology. Before the weekend, I almost dreaded pitching a story. It wasn’t so much a case of writer’s block as burn out from a long work shift and feeling the weight of several other projects that also needed attention. After the weekend, I saw several places to jump in and after several good emails with the anthology’s editor, I had a direction. Since then, I’ve turned my general story direction into an outline. As it turns out, this outline has no ending, but that’s fine. At this point, I see at least three possible endings all depending on who the characters reveal themselves to be when I actually write the story.

At this point, it’s a little too early for me to say much about the story itself. I want to wait and see if the editor likes the end result. What I will say is that the story is set in the past, but it’s not steampunk. Of course, there are many people who now want to carefully classify exactly what brand of retrofuturism a story explores. If it’s World War I era, it’s dieselpunk. If it’s the 1920s, it’s jazzpunk. If it’s after World War II, it’s atompunk. My story’s set in the 1980s, an era I lived through, so with tongue embedded in cheek, I’ll declare it punkpunk for now.

Now that my batteries are recharged, I just need to get ready for another week at the observatory, some editing work, then I can turn my attention to actually writing this story that I’m excited about thanks in no small part to my friends in the Tucson Steampunk Society.

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.

Shogun

Looking back on it, 1980 was a very influential year for me. It was the year Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired, which helped me consider a career in astronomy. It was the year I started high school. It was the year my father passed away. While it seems something of a blip compared to those other things, it was also the year the mini-series Shōgun ran on television. The series was based on James Clavell’s novel of the same name. It told the story of a Dutch ship piloted by an Englishman, John Blackthorne, that lands on Japan’s shores circa 1600. Blackthorne soon gets swept up in a power struggle between a daimyo named Toranaga and other daimyos close to the Emperor regent. I recently had the chance to read the novel that inspired the series. The miniseries was my first introduction to Japanese history and the samurai. It also made me consider the difficulties of sailing off in a frail ship on a mission of discovery around the world.

As a kid who grew up watching Star Trek, I was captivated that on the sailing ship Erasmus, the crew deferred to the ship’s pilot as much or more than they did to the captain. My dad explained to me that it was because the pilot was the guy who was going to get these guys home safely. When I read the novel, I was reminded that Blackthorne was not only a pilot but a trained shipbuilder. I first conceived of my novel The Solar Sea just three years after I saw the miniseries. Even in its earliest days, I wanted a story that didn’t look like a Star Trek retread. One of the ways I did that was to introduce a character called Pilot, who designed the solar sail and then took it out into the solar system. He would essentially share authority with the ship’s captain. My Pilot ended up being a very different character from the virile Blackthorne in Shōgun and I used the power sharing idea to introduce some mystery and conflict into the story. You can learn more about The Solar Sea at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

The miniseries also left me with a fascination for Japanese history and culture, which I would come back and explore in my third Clockwork Legion novel The Brazen Shark.  Much of my Clockwork Legion series is set in the southwestern United States in the 1800s. Of course, here in the United States, we developed a whole mythology about that time and place. We have an image of the cowboy and the Wild West that’s more the product of authors like Louis L’Amour and directors like John Ford than from history. When researching The Brazen Shark, I learned that a similar situation developed in Japan. In the years from the Meiji Restoration through World War II, an almost mythic, idealized version of the samurai was created in the popular imagination. One of the interesting characteristics of the novel, is that I felt like I was reading that Japanese mythic, idealized vision of the samurai filtered through an American writer’s vision. Because of that, I wouldn’t use Shōgun as a historical reference, but more as a window into a cultural picture that grew up later. You can learn more about The Brazen Shark by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html

It was not only fascinating to read the novel as someone interested in history, but as a writer. Clavell does not stick with a limited point of view at all. Instead he hops from the head of one character to another at will, to the point that I almost had a hard time following when we’d left one character’s point of view and entered another’s. The novel was written in 1975 and it was a huge seller, which reminds me that things like “the correct way” to do point of view are sometimes a more a matter of fashion than anything else. It also reminds me that a book doesn’t have to be “perfect” by an arbitrary, contemporary standard to be good. It was different from what I’m used to and I’d argue not as good as the limited point of view books I see now, but it still works.

I’ve seen several reviews that take the novel Shōgun to task for its ending. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the ending actually worked for me. Throughout, Toranaga is essentially portrayed as a consummate chess player. To him, it’s all about getting all the pieces in the right place. If he succeeds, he will win the day. If he fails, or misread his opponent, he will fail. Karma, neh?

Steampunk in the Wild

In many ways, steampunk is more than a literary genre and more than a fandom. It can be a lifestyle and it can be a community. I experienced this when I joined the Tucson Steampunk Society to invade the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, just a few miles south of Tombstone. The Society secured lodgings at the Bisbee Inn, also known as the Hotel La More, at one edge of Bisbee, overlooking Brewery Gulch, a home to saloons in the old west days and still a home to some fine breweries today. The Bisbee Inn is a lovely building that still feels very much like a nineteenth century hotel, even with its modernized plumbing and kitchen.

Unlike a convention, this outing was not jammed full of scheduled items. Most events happened on Saturday, August 18. We started with a meetup at the Cafe Cornucopia for an informal lunch. Afterwards, from 1-5pm, the League of Pythean Metachronists and Explorers of the Paraverse welcomed participants to a High … very High Tea in the far reaches of the Mule Mountains. Many participants hiked into the Mule Mountains for tea and adventure. Some remained below at the base camp, still others took the time to explore the shops and attractions of Bisbee.

My wife, daughter, and I decided to take the Queen Mine Tour, which is quite an adventure in itself. The Queen Mine was a copper mine that operated as recently as 1975 and our tour guide was one of the miners who worked there. The people who take the tour are loaded on a little train that rides along the old mining cart tracks deep into the Earth. There, the guide gave us a look at the equipment used in the mining operation and regaled us with anecdotes of his days working in the mines. I last took the tour circa 1994 and information I gained was used when I described the Erdonium mines in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to start my rewrite of that novel at my Patreon page, so you can bet the fresh visit will be useful!

After the mine tour, I joined the family for a visit of the shops. Va Voom near the Bisbee Inn specializes in many steampunk items and held a no-purchase-necessary raffle for a beautiful leather parasol holder. All of us found treasures in the store to take home with us. After that, we took a break until dinner time and had a nice, quiet dinner as a family. Bisbee is the kind of town where you can walk into a fine restaurant in your steampunk best and be welcomed with open arms. The group did elicit a few comments, and though a few were puzzled or curious, most were complimentary.

After dinner, my family and I visited a few more shops before rejoining members of the Society for gelato. We then returned to the hotel for the PG PJ Potluck Parlour Party. This was a chance for steampunks to gather and mingle. I was invited to read and the hotel, like many old hotels, is said to have its share of ghosts, so I read a sampling from my story “The Sun Worshiper” about a mummy-unwrapping party gone wrong, which appears in the anthology After Punk published by eSpec Books.

You might notice in the photo that I wore a top hat and tails to a PJ party. Of course, as an astronomer, that is viable late night wear! After the reading, the party moved on to a mix of tarot and tea leaf readings plus some party games. The whole thing wound down between midnight and one in the morning.

All in all, it proved to be a wonderful and relaxed time. It gave me a chance to know members of the Tucson Steampunk Society better than I would have at a convention. What’s more, when I go to a convention in a town, I rarely have time to actually explore the town. I loved that I got to spend time in Bisbee, visit its shops and see some of the people who weren’t part of the event, including a dear friend who lives there and another friend who was in town for a different event. I would certainly be happy to return for another such event either in Bisbee or in a new and different location.

I can tell many people worked behind the scenes to make this a wonderful event. At the risk of leaving someone out, I want to give kudos to Andie Ruiz, Kathleen Hill, John and Sabrina Floyd, and Jim Spring. And of course a very special thank you to Madame Askew who invited me to read at the event and is the vibrant and delightful personality at the center of many outstanding steampunk events. You should visit her Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/MadameAskew

Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur

This past weekend I watched a movie that’s been on my “want to see” list since it came out in 2004, Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. It promised to deliver a more historically accurate vision of King Arthur than other films and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it more-or-less succeeded in a Hollywood action movie sort of way. The movie came to mind when I received my contributor copies of the anthology Camelot 13.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Arthurian history and lore. On a subject where there are nearly 1500 years’ worth of lore and fiction, no one can create a new version without people bringing their own perceptions to the table and nitpicking this element or that. With that said and before I go too much further, I’ll note that the earliest documents on which the Arthur story is based essentially say that around 500 AD during the Roman occupation of Britain, a general led the Celtic tribes in a campaign against the Saxons and there was a big battle at Badon Hill. Arthur’s name doesn’t even appear in the history’s until almost 300 years after he supposedly lived.

In the film, Arthur is the son of a Roman general and a Celtic woman who rose to the rank of general himself. He leads an elite band of Roman conscripts stationed near Hadrian’s Wall. The Saxons are invading the island and Arthur is given the mission to go retrieve the son of a Roman consul favored by the Pope who lives north of the wall before the Saxons rampage over their villa. As the Saxons move in, the Celts, led by Merlin, form an alliance with Arthur. They fall back to Hadrian’s Wall where their version of Mt. Badon exists and have a climactic battle. In this version, Guinevere is a Celtic woman who is also a fighter. Without looking too closely at the details, all the elements fit interpretations of the history I’ve seen.

As it turns out, I cover some of these same events in my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. However in my version, Arthur is a Christian Celt with some Roman training. His knights are also Celts, including Lancelot, who in my version is from Brittany. Guinevere is a Roman noble. I actually wrote a version of the battle of Badon Hill for the novel, but left it “off camera” for the novel since none of the protagonists were there. What’s fun for me is that I think both versions of the story are valid interpretations of the history such as it’s known. Of course, in the novel, I end up introducing King Arthur to a vampire who wants to find the Holy Grail because he think the artifact will help him find redemption. If you want to go on this quest, you can learn more about Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order at http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, if you want even more far out explorations of Arthurian Legend, be sure to check out Camelot 13. Copies will be available at Amazon next month, but you can order a copy today at http://hadrosaur.com/collections.html#Camelot13

Diplomacy

I find the process of diplomacy fascinating. I watched the recent summit between the president of the United States and the leader of South Korea with interest. Perhaps even more interesting were the glimpses we had of all the work behind the scenes that led to that historic face-to-face meeting. One of the people who has worked behind the scenes for a long time is New Mexico’s former governor Bill Richardson. Of course, before he was governor of the state I call home, he had been a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of the Department of Energy.

My latest novel, Owl Riders is largely a reflection of my interest in diplomacy. A lot of books, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres, are about wars and fighting. That certainly can make for exciting reading, but I’ve long believed there can be a lot of tension and suspense in stories about the people who struggle to keep conflicts from blossoming into full-scale wars.

Ramon Morales, one of the protagonists of my Clockwork Legion series, was created as a man of action. When we meet him, he’s sheriff of Socorro, New Mexico, but he’s not altogether happy with his lot. The city has been changing and most of the people he knew growing up have moved away. He’s also tired of breaking up fights and facing angry people with guns. I introduced him to the series’ other protagonist, Fatemeh Karimi. She’s a healer fleeing injustice. She sees the process of making peace as a kind of healing.

Initially, Ramon was inspired by real life lawman Elfego Baca, who was quite a character in New Mexico history. He gained fame when he kept several Texans from breaking their compatriot out of the local jail in a gunfight. After being sheriff of Socorro, Baca went on to be an attorney. Unlike Ramon, Baca never really had a diplomatic career. The closest he came was when he served as counsel to General Huerta during the Mexican Revolution. Apparently this resulted in Pancho Villa putting a price on Baca’s head!

Early in the Clockwork Legion novels, Ramon and Fatemeh encounter a microscopic alien swarm that calls itself Legion. Because it’s microscopic, no one can see it or touch it, but it can communicate with people directly through their brains and it can communicate with several people at the same time. This ultimately proves to be an advantage when Ramon is first making his reputation as a negotiator. Legion helps him see and understand things about the other parties that no one else can.

In Owl Riders, Ramon’s career is on a track similar to that of Elfego Baca, or even Bill Richardson. He has gained his Juris Doctorate. He’s working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Louisiana when he’s called in to settle an Apache uprising in Arizona. The challenge for Ramon is that Legion is long gone and now he has to do this himself. What’s more, Fatemeh has been taken captive by a man from her past. Will Ramon be able to save the woman he loves and successfully negotiate peace without extraterrestrial intervention? I hope you’ll join me on the pages of Owl Riders to find out.

You can learn more about Owl Riders, read a sample chapter, and find out where to order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.