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.

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Visiting Fort Bowie

As my forthcoming novel Owl Riders opens, we learn that the Chiricahua Apache have taken Fort Bowie in Eastern Arizona territory with the help of Battle Wagons modeled on the Javelina mining machine left behind by Professor Maravilla. I use Fort Bowie in the novel because it has both historic and symbolic significance. Fort Bowie was established at the site of the Battle of Apache Pass where the United States Army fought Cochise. The fort’s purpose was to guard the water at Apache Pass, necessary to the famous Butterfield Stage, and to “control” the Apaches in the region. If Apaches were given machines that could capture the fort, it seems likely they would take an opportunity to do so. Here’s a great classic image of soldiers riding out of Fort Bowie.

Here’s basically the same scene as it appears today.

As you can tell, even from this viewpoint, not much exists of the original fort. What this viewpoint doesn’t provide is a sense of how big the fort was. It actually was a rather extensive compound. Here’s what the fort looked like in 1886:

Pretty much what exists now are foundations and a few walls. Some of the walls stand just a little over my head. What it lacks in intact buildings, it makes up for in giving you a sense of the facility’s scale. There’s also a nice, albeit small visitor center where they talk about the history of the fort. It was great to see faces I recognized right on the visitor’s center walls. For example, I walked in the door, turned around and saw General Nelson A. Miles (at the top in the photo below) right above Albert J. Fountain (in the center below Miles). Miles is a major antagonist to both the Apaches and Ramon Morales in Owl Riders. Fountain has appeared as Billy McCarty’s defense attorney in The Brazen Shark and he returned in my story “Fountains of Blood,” which appeared in Straight Outta Tombstone. His memorial is about a quarter mile behind my back door in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

What intrigued me almost more than the story of the fort and the soldiers who served there was the connection I made to the Native Americans I talk about in the books. Along the trail to the fort, they have a setup of an Apache camp, including a wickiup. I describe these camps both in Lightning Wolves and in Owl Riders, so it was exciting to see one up close and even go inside.

Also, in both Lightning Wolves and Owl Riders, I talk about the importance of knowing where to find water. For those who drive along Interstate-10 in Southern Arizona and Southern New Mexico, it’s not obvious that there’s water anywhere in the region. However, as I mentioned at the outset of the post, part of the reason for Fort Bowie was its proximity to reliable water. So, it was great to see this actual spring a mere dozen miles from the Interstate where the land appears so barren.

Visiting Fort Bowie was a fascinating walk back in time. The site is about twelve miles south of present day Bowie, Arizona. Once you get to the parking area, you have to hike about a mile and a half to get to the site. Along the way are signposts describing aspects of the area’s history. If you go out, I’d recommend allowing at least three hours to explore the site. Be aware it can be hot and storms can come up suddenly in that part of Arizona, as they did the day I was there. I was rained on for part of my trip. Bring water and suitable clothing. A picnic lunch would also be nice.

If you would like to learn more about my novel Lightning Wolves visit: http://www.davidleesummers.com/lightning_wolves.html. You can learn more about my forthcoming novel Owl Riders at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

Rodeo Day

I’ve been working days this past week at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. The telescope is undergoing a roughly year-long refit to equip it with a 5000-fiber spectrograph which will be used to obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a three-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years. This week, much of our work has been disassembling the telescope to prep it for new parts coming this year. In the photo below, you see the top end of the telescope with all the optics removed. That entire top end will be removed and replaced with the fiber optics which will then direct light to spectrographs some four floors below.

This past week was also a short work week. For most people in the United States that was because Monday, February 19 was President’s Day. Even though Kitt Peak is a federal contractor, we actually don’t take President’s Day as a holiday. Instead, we get Rodeo Day the Friday after President’s Day.

Before I continue, allow me to make a brief aside. I’ve mentioned before that at Kitt Peak, we work through most holidays. I should clarify that we are on sky, observing almost every night of the year. Telescope support staff such as telescope operators, electronic maintenance technicians, and even kitchen staff only take off Christmas Eve and Christmas. However, Kitt Peak also maintains a large support staff of mechanics, electricians, carpenters, and heavy equipment operators, most of which get weekends and regular holidays off. The refit work at the Mayall mostly requires this larger team of employees, so it follows a more familiar weekday schedule.

So, where did Rodeo Day come from and why is it so important in Tucson? Apparently, it started in 1925 when the president of the Arizona Polo Association, a fellow named Leighton Kramer, paraded a group of trick riders, folk dancers, and marching bands through downtown Tucson to the University of Arizona’s polo field where they held a community sponsored Wild West show and rodeo. That first rodeo featured steer wrestling, steer tying, calf roping, and saddle bronc riding. The rodeo’s official name is La Fiesta de los Vaqueros.

Over the years the event grew and it became tradition for Tucson schools to give kids the Thursday and Friday of rodeo weekend off. I think it goes to show the importance of rodeo in the Southwestern United States that it can supplant even President’s Day in some communities.

The Spanish name for the Tucson Rodeo, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, reminds us that rodeo’s popularity isn’t limited to the Southwestern United States. It’s actually quite popular throughout central and South America. When I visited Chile in 1998, the driver for Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory made a point of taking me by the rodeo grounds in La Serena. He noted that it was perhaps the second most popular sport in La Serena, right behind Soccer. I’ll also note that CTIO is actually a United States Observatory in Chile and the Blanco 4-meter outside of La Serena is, for all intents and purposes a twin of the Mayall 4-meter on Kitt Peak.

As it turns out, this whole business of rodeo being important to the people I work with in the astronomy business is one of the influences on my story “Calamari Rodeo” which appears in the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about the anthology at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Keplers-Cowboys.html.

In the Heart of the Sea

An all too frequent lament I hear these days is that Hollywood is too obsessed with superhero blockbuster movies and remakes. They can’t seem to make anything original. A couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to discover a recent historical film called In the Heart of the Sea directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13 among others) and starring such bankable stars as Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Holland (Spiderman Homecoming), and Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer). The movie tells the story of the Essex, an early nineteenth century Nantucket whaler whose story went on to inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. What was surprising to me was that I’d heard nothing about this film until I saw a preview for it in front of a superhero movie I was watching with my kids.

I am a big fan of Herman Melville’s magnum opus. I first read the novel in high school and had a difficult time understanding it. I was also disappointed to discover that the version I bought was an abridged version. After I met Ray Bradbury in 1983 and learned he’d written the screenplay for the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck, I vowed to give the novel another try. I sought out a copy of the unabridged novel and dived in. I read it in college and loved not just the main story, but all the diversions Melville took to tell us about aspects of whaling. I felt they helped me understand the plot much better.

Not long after I read the novel, I ended up taking a job on Nantucket, working at a small observatory. I got to visit the whaling museum there and experience the town that gave rise to an important part of early nineteenth century Americana. It’s fair to say Moby-Dick worked its way into my very bones. Parts of which strongly influenced my novels Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth.

In fact, my first professional sale was a retelling of Moby-Dick in which the crew of an airship hunts dragons for the fuel that allows them to breath fire. It was published in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 2001 and is now available in a standalone reprint edition at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Perhaps after all this, it comes as no surprise that I loved In the Heart of the Sea. It told the story of men hunting whales from little wooden boats, using hand-thrown harpoons. In the story, we already see that whales are becoming over-hunted and hard to find. This drives the crew of the Essex to attempt to hunt whales out on the open ocean where they find one angry whale that has grown large and isn’t going to put up with this hunting nonsense any longer.

I found it a powerful movie, well told. It was both exciting and thoughtful, which seems a rare combination in movies these days. It endeavored to be faithful to history. Sadly, the big name blockbuster stars didn’t really shine in this film, and it would seem they didn’t draw much of an audience, either. Reviewer Matthew Lickona of the San Diego Reader said the movie had “a strange decency and politeness for a film that strives to depict, in epic form, man’s dark and visceral struggle with the world and himself.” The thing is, that’s actually one of the things I find compelling about history is that often times people found ways to be polite and decent in the heart of darkness.

If you like good, historical fiction, I would recommend In the Heart of the Sea. It’s not an amazing film, but it is a good one, and a good change of pace from yet another superhero film. It gives me hope that I might find a few more good films out there, lurking under the surface.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

I’ve been spending much of this last week revising my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. This is the pass when I’m working to make sure the novel is internally consistent, clean up the prose, get rid of all but the most essential of those pesky adverbs, and make sure the scenes are not too rushed nor bogged down with info dumps. This is also the pass where I attempt to touch up the history. Although I try to get things correct in the first pass, I sometimes find there are details that add credibility to the story.

When I was recently in New Orleans, Marita Crandle of Boutique du Vampyre recommended I visit the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. The suggestion was uncanny because I had not told her about the character of Fatemeh in my Clockwork Legion novels. Those who’ve read the books know she’s a healer. As the books continue, she seeks more formal training. By the beginning of Owl Riders, she has a pharmacy degree. The timing is not inconsistent with history. The woman to get a pharmacy degree was Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi, who graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1863. So, a trip to the Pharmacy Museum seemed in order.

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is on Chartres Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter on the site of America’s first licensed pharmacy. It’s about a block away from the site of the fictional pharmacy in Owl Riders. In history, the bottles of brightly colored liquids in the front window known as “show globes” weren’t just decorative. If all the bottles in the window had the same thing, you knew there was an epidemic in the city the pharmacy had plenty of the remedy in stock. If the bottles were multiple colors, the pharmacist was advertising their skills compounding a variety of medicines and cosmetics. Yes, compounding cosmetics was part of an early pharmacist’s job. They might also have a soda fountain, since the forerunners of modern soft drinks were believed to be tonics of one variety or another. Here’s a look at the kinds of bottles and shelves that would have stood behind the counter of a nineteenth century pharmacy such as the one I have in my novel.

If you visit the museum, I highly recommend going in time to hear the daily presentation. When I visited, that happened at 1pm. The museum’s website is http://www.pharmacymuseum.org/ and you can check for any updates, plus they have several photos of their exhibits. During the tour, they discussed the history of the pharmacy on the site, the practices of early pharmacies, and how early drugs were administered.

Of course the museum tour pointed out that one of the reasons New Orleans started licensing pharmacies was to make things more difficult for traditional healers, many of whom were female and people of color, a fact that’s true of my character Fatemeh. This was already a subject I’d addressed in the novel, but in this last week’s pass I added just a little bit to show how she had to work to overcome officials who might not welcome her services.

Get ready for Owl Riders by reading the three novels that come before it. Who knows, you might find the cure for what ails you!

Elizabeth Patton Crockett

I’m home at last after a trip that took me up to Colorado to sign the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, to Louisiana to sign my vampire and horror novels, and to Bubonicon in New Mexico where I promoted all my recent books and debuted Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. In the middle of all that was Texas and on the way from Colorado to Louisiana I stopped in Acton, just outside Dallas to visit a memorial to a distant relative of mine, Elizabeth Patton Crockett.

Elizabeth was Davy’s widow and she was granted a plot of land after Texas became a state in gratitude for Davy’s service at the Alamo. She moved from Tennessee to Texas in 1853 and lived on the land until her death in 1860. There seems to be some debate about whether the statue is supposed to depict Elizabeth Patton Crockett or a pioneer woman in general. I like to think of it as Elizabeth, or at least an idealized form of Elizabeth. The one painting I’ve seen of her could be an older version of the woman immortalized by the statue.

Another homesteader in the area around Acton was a fellow named Isaac C. Burson, born in Alabama around the outbreak of the War of 1812. He died the year after Elizabeth Patton moved to the area around Acton. His daughter Martha married one of Elizabeth’s sons from her first marriage, a fellow named James C. Patton around 1859. As it turns out, Martha’s brother, Elisha Micah Burson was my great great grandfather. Three of Elisha Micah’s sons picked up and moved out of the Acton area. Two of the brothers homesteaded in Briscoe County, Texas in the late nineteenth century while my great grandfather, James Daniel Matthew Burson went on to homestead in the northeastern corner of New Mexico. The photo to the right shows him at his general store in Des Moines, New Mexico circa 1920.

My daughter, who accompanied me, thought this little side trip through the heart of Texas to see a statue dedicated to the memory of a pioneer woman connected to our family was worthwhile. It’s rare to see a statue to a woman and, indeed, this one is hidden away in a quiet little cemetery. The “Acton Historic Site” is supposedly the smallest state park in Texas and is Elizabeth Patton Crockett’s grave site. I grew up knowing several women like Elizabeth Patton Crockett and elements of their personalities became templates for characters such as Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Crimson in my Clockwork Legion novels.

If you’d like to read the novels, they are:

The Magic of Old Books

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, tentatively titled Owl Riders. These novels are steampunk steeped in history. The first novel, Owl Dance starts in a wild west very much like the wild west of history. However, as an alien character called Legion interferes in human affairs and humans themselves gain confidence in their inventions, the world of the novels gradually diverges from the world of history.

Because I start in the world of history, I like to do my homework and understand the places and peoples I describe in my books. Even when I diverge from history, the cultural experience of the people in the novel will be the same up until the divergence point. Reading books that discuss the history of the region and peoples I’m writing about is, of course, important, but one thing I like to do over and beyond that is find books written by people who lived at the time the book takes place.

One of the challenges of Owl Riders is that I have some scenes set in Persia of 1885. I found some good histories of Iran which gave me insights not only into the country in the nineteenth century, but how that history helped to shape the modern country. However, I wasn’t sure what I would find written at the time period. A search at my local library didn’t turn up anything. On an off chance, I went to COAS, our wonderful used bookstore in Las Cruces and happened on a book called Land of the Lion and Sun by Absalom D. Shabaz, published in 1901. The book’s subtitle is “Personal Experiences, the Nations of Persia—Their Manners, Customs and Their Beliefs.”

This sounded perfect, a personal viewpoint of someone living in Iran within a few years of my story’s time period. On closer inspection, I discovered that the book was written as a guide for people hoping to be Christian Missionaries in Persia. I’ve just started the book and I find that Shabaz was raised a Christian in Persia and had to deal with the reactions of his friends and neighbors. This actually proves to be an interesting viewpoint because it combines elements from both my protagonists, Ramon Morales who is a Catholic-raised lawyer visiting Persia for the first time and Fatemeh Morales who converted to the Bahá’í Faith as a young woman and then left home.

For me, the real magic of a book like Land of the Lion and Sun is that I can hear the words of the author speaking directly to me across more than a century. I can read a personal perspective in the language of the time, with all the attitudes and prejudices of the time intact. I think it’s important to start by reading modern histories precisely because an author of a particular time can’t help but share their prejudices. It allows me to separate the perceptions of the historical author from history as it unfolded. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Shabaz experienced the history I’ve read about and see where that might lead me as I prepare to revise my novel.

While you’re waiting for the fourth novel, be sure to catch the three novels that are already published. Clicking the titles will take you to pages with more information: