Owl Riders in the Sky

While driving up to Kitt Peak National Observatory late on Saturday night, Johnny Cash’s rendition of the great Stan Jones song, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” cycled on my mp3 player. To my mind, the song is a great example of a weird western expressed in music. It tells the story of an old cowhand who rides out on a dark and dusty day and encounters the devil’s own herd being chased by a phantom cowboys.

As I listened, I found myself substituting some images from my own Clockwork Legion novels. In fact, the title of the fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, is kind of an homage to the spooky feelings evoked by the “Ghost Riders.” Different cultures in the southwest often see the appearance of owls as bad omens. As portrayed in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me Ultima, owls are sometimes seen as the familiars of witches. In my novel, the owls themselves are ornithopters, which are craft that fly by flapping their wings. The owl riders of the title are the pilots of these craft. It struck me that with a few tweaks, the song goes from being more of a horror-flavored weird western to more of a science fictional weird western or even a steampunk song.

I don’t feel I can share the full song as I envisioned it since that would include some verbatim lyrics from the original. While it’s part of a discussion of the song and could arguably be “fair use,” quoting complete lines would be a substantial part of the song itself, like quoting an entire chapter from a novel. It’s not my intention to cut into sales of the song. In fact, if you don’t already own a copy of the song, I strongly recommend buying a legal download or a CD of one of the many fine versions. What’s more the lyrics are easily available on the web. Still, I thought it would be fun to describe the song in my revised version and share a few of the altered lyrics.

In the original song, a cowpoke rides out on a stormy day. In my version one of the owl riders is named Billy McCarty and I imagine that he’s a version of Billy the Kid who was diverted off the path to become the infamous outlaw and becomes a hero instead. I could imagine that the cowpoke in my version is one of Billy’s associates who takes shelter to get some rest. He looks up in the sky, “When all at once a parliament of steel-eyed owls he saw.”

As they travel through the clouds, he gets a good look: “Exhaust pipes breathing fire and their talons made of steel. Their beaks were black and shiny and their hot wake he could feel.” Our cowhand shudders as he hears his old friend Billy shout out, “owl riders in the sky!”

Billy’s old friend then sees the determined looks on the riders’ faces. Unlike the original song, these are not desperate men who never hope to reach the end of their quest. These are men and women on the quest for justice. It’s possible it will never end, but the next bad guy they catch makes the world just a little better. It’s at this point that Billy turns to his old companion and warns him to change his ways, otherwise the owl riders will come or him next.

Songs rarely tell a whole story. Like poems, they just present a moment in time or an image. This will go in my mental file as an image that might be part of a story. It may not be used directly, but might inspire something down the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed this peak into how I get my ideas. If you want to learn more about the owl riders and how they came to be, read the novel Owl Riders. You can read the first chapter and find places to buy the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

Bubonicon 49

Today’s main event is the solar eclipse happening over much of the United States. I hope you have a good place to watch with clear skies and proper eye protection. I’m in Louisiana, where we should see about 80% of the sun eclipsed, presuming we get clear skies.

This coming weekend, I’ll be in Albuquerque, New Mexico for Bubonicon 49. The link will take you to their page with more information. This year’s theme is Back in Time (Time Travel). C.J. Cherryh and Sherwood Smith are the author guests of honor, Ursula Vernon is the toastmaster, and Elizabeth Leggett will be the guest artist. The convention is being held at the Albuquerque Mariott Uptown at 2101 Louisiana Blvd NE. Read on for my tentative schedule.

Friday, August 25

  • 4-5pm – Main Room – Jurassic Spark: Dino Appeal. Not just kids love dinosaurs. They’ve fascinated people of all ages for almost 200 years. Why? What is the enduring appeal of dinosaurs in the popular imagination? Dreaming about dinosaurs constitutes mental time travel. Usually. Does this fascination explain the appeal of Godzilla, Rodan, etc? On the panel with me are C.J. Cherryh, Steven Gould, Emily Mah, and John Saberhagen. Victor Milan will be moderating.

Saturday, August 26

  • 10-11am – Salon A-D – Fancy Pants: Idea Strategy. Are you a pantser? An outliner? How do you get at your material? The most common question asked of SF writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” and we’re all interested. Do you keep ‘em in your pants? Should we rephrase that? Where do you find them? What are your ideation strategies? Is that an idea in your pants, or are you just happy to see me? On the panel with me are Brenda Drake, Betsy James, and Susan R. Matthews. Robert E. Vardeman will be moderating.
  • 2-3pm – Main Room – Exo-Planets: What We’ve Learned. Astronomers have discovered several planets in orbit around far stars. What have we learned? Are there any in reach? Are any *really* habitable, or is it just that some could be habitable if all the conditions are just right? On the panel with me are Larry Crumpler, Loretta Hall, Kathleen Kitts, and Cathy S. Plesko. I’ll be the moderator.
  • 4-5pm – Main Room – SF As a Stealth Delivery Platform. Everybody knows that SF has inspired legions of young people to grow up and become scientists; half of NASA was weaned on Star Trek. But does SF’s influence with these people end with their choice of career? Might SF actually serve as a legitimate means of transmitting scientific ideas between working scientists in different disciplines? Might it, in certain circumstances, be more effective than usual technical publications? On the panel with me will be Kathleen Kitts, Pari L. Noskin, and Corie Weaver. Emily Mah will be moderating.
  • 5:25-6:40pm – Main Room – Mass Autographing. I’ll be joining all the Bubonicon participants in the main room where we’ll all be happy to autograph your books, programs, and anything else you want signed!

Sunday, August 27

  • 10-11am – Carlsbad – 55 Minutes with David Lee Summers. Although this is billed as a solo event, I’ve invited Gene Mederos to join me and we’ll read stories from Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales and Kepler’s Cowboys. We’ll be happy to answer questions and there may be some surprises as well. Come by and join us for 55-minutes of thrilling science fiction adventure!
  • 1:30-2:30pm – Salon A-D – Ask a Scientist! Larry Crumpler, Cathy S. Plesko and I will field your questions about science!

As usual, I will be helping with the Bubonicon Author Tea on Sunday afternoon. Check the program book for details. Because of my schedule, I’ll be helping at the second session. There are always some amazing teas to try and lovely snacks to eat.

What will be unusual for me this year, is that I won’t have a dealer’s table. I will be a free range author at this year’s Bubonicon. You will be able to find my books at the Who Else Books Table and possibly at the Barnes and Noble table as well. If you’re in Albuquerque this weekend, I hope to see you at Bubonicon!