The Stories They Tell

I recently had a chance to see the movie The Kid which was directed by Vincent D’Onofrio and stars stars Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett and Dane DeHaan as Billy the Kid. The movie is actually focused on a boy, Rio (played by Jake Schur), and his sister, Sara (played by D’Onofrio’s daughter, Leila George) who have an abusive father. One night, the father goes into a rage and starts beating their mother. Unable to stand it any longer, Rio shoots his father, but it’s too late. Rio and Sara’s mother is already gone. What’s more, their uncle (played by Chris Pratt) is as bad or worse than the father and he plans no good for his niece and nephew because of what they did to his brother.

The kids escape their uncle only to take refuge in a shack that Billy the Kid and his associates use as a hideout. Billy and Rio take a liking to each other just as newly minted Sheriff Pat Garrett arrives to take the gang in. There’s a shootout, during which Charlie Bowdre is killed. Pat takes Billy’s gang into custody, then discovers Rio and Sara. They make up a story about meeting their parents in Santa Fe. Pat doesn’t quite believe them, but offers to take them anyway. At this point, the movie essentially follows the historical story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, while Rio tries to decide which of the two to trust with his secret. Later in the film, the stakes are upped when the uncle captures Sara. Then Rio must make a decision about who can be trusted to help rescue his sister.

I first heard this movie was in production soon after watching the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I was curious what other movies Dane DeHaan had been in and when I saw he would be playing Billy the Kid and Ethan Hawke (who had a bit part in Valerian) would be Pat Garrett, I knew I had to see this movie. It struck me that DeHaan had the potential to be a great Billy and he didn’t disappoint. Despite the Valerian connections, the movie almost crosses over more with the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven, in which Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke all had starring roles. Despite these connections and despite watching for it, the movie managed to come and go from theaters without my notice.

Overall, the movie used historical characters and events the way I try to in my steampunk and weird western stories. They became a way to ground the story in a historical reality and give it a sense of authenticity. For the most part, the history actually seemed quite good. The major events Billy the Kid’s last days played out as I know the story from Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. I only had two historical quibbles. First, they kept referring to New Mexico as a state. New Mexico wouldn’t become a state until 31 years after Billy’s death. Also, Santa Fe looked too much like a western boom town and not the longtime settlement it was.

The line that resonated most with me was one spoken by Pat Garrett near the end of the film. “It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters the story they tell when you’re gone.” It echoes why characters like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are so fascinating. We have images and we have countless depictions, but we still want to get to know the truth of those characters. Sometimes we find new truths when we see them through the eyes of contemporaries as was imagined in The Kid. I think they did a great job of portraying Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as humans, neither totally good nor bad, but products of their circumstances. Sometimes we find truths when we put these characters into new situations as I do in the Clockwork Legion novels.

You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion novels by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Always Available

It occurs to me that a central theme in many of my stories is communication. Some of my stories are set in the past, well before the advent of modern communication, or they’re set in the distant future, when communication becomes a technical challenge again because of the constraints imposed both by the speed of light and signal degradation over distance. This proves to be an interesting time to write about these challenges, because most of us have some form or another of this device.

Most of us are available to get a call or receive a text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We might be inconvenienced by the occasional dead time during a flight where we’re instructed to turn off our phones to avoid interfering with navigation equipment, but that’s about it.

That said, I work in a world where I’m not so easily available. I work at an observatory with radio telescopes and the spread spectrum signals from cell phones interfere with their observing. So, I’m required to turn off my phone while at work. Because my work shifts require me to be on the mountain for up to six days at a time, I can be out of cell phone contact that whole time. Even observatories without radio telescopes are often in remote mountain areas, out of range of cell service. Because of this, the whole lack of cell service became a plot point in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is a nice feature for a horror novel where you don’t want help to arrive at a moment’s notice.

In my novel The Solar Sea, a valiant crew of explorers take a solar sail to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even on relatively short distances like within the solar system, communication can be a challenge. On average, it takes about 15 minutes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Mars, about 30 minutes for a signal to reach Jupiter, and almost an hour and a half to reach Saturn. This assumes the planets are aligned on the same side of the sun as Earth. Still, imagine having a conversation where you speak and wait 15 minutes for your voice to get to Earth, then wait 15 minutes for a reply. Your messages would be more like voice mails. Or you might resort to something like email or texts for communication, which is what they do in my novel.

Back in the nineteenth century, inventors were working on ways to use electromagnetism to speed up communication. The upshot was the development of the telegraph and then the telephone. I have long found it interesting how delays in news affected events before these inventions, and even before these inventions became widely available. This allows for some fun what-if games when writing steampunk. What if instant communication was available to some? How would people view it in the 19th century. In Lightning Wolves, bounty hunter Larissa Crimson asks Professor Maravilla to devise a way for her lightning wolf corps to communicate as they spread out across San Francisco. He devises something he calls a clacker, essentially a portable, wireless telegraph that acts like a messaging device. Eight years later, in Owl Riders, clackers are much more widespread to Ramon Morales’s chagrin. At one point, he hands his clacker to his wife and pretends he didn’t get a message, an action perhaps not unlike what some of us are tempted to do today when certain texts come in.

Remember, all of these books make great last-minute holiday gifts. You can find these and more at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html.


Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Evolution of the Lightning Wolf

As a writer, one of the things I most appreciate is my family’s support. My family enjoys going to science fiction and steampunk conventions and is willing to help me out. They’re there to help me through the inevitable bad review and cheer me on when I get a good review. They enjoy many of the same shows I like to watch for research and inspiration. They’re also extremely creative in their own right. My youngest daughter, in particular, likes to create things inspired by my writing as well as books and movies I like. A couple of years ago, she created this interpretation of Larissa Crimson’s lightning wolf from my Clockwork Legion novels.

In the novel Lightning Wolves, the army attempts to recruit Professor Maravilla to help build more effective war machines to help repel the Russians, who have invaded America. The professor, however, has had enough of war machines and doesn’t want to go. Larissa, a bounty hunter who has apprenticed herself to the professor, agrees to go in his place.

Like most real-world inventions, the lightning wolf is a hodgepodge of things Larissa had on hand at Fort Bliss in the novel. She adds the engine from an ornithopter to power a safety bicycle, which holds one of the army’s lightning guns between the handlebars. In effect it’s an armed, steam-powered moped. In the novel, few people take this frail-looking contraption seriously until they see it in action and see the damage it can cause. It ultimately proves itself an effective weapon against much larger machines.

She returns to Professor Maravilla and the two join forces against common foes in the last act of Lightning Wolves. In many ways, Larissa and Maravilla are a family, even if they aren’t related by blood. Their relationship is fraught and sometimes tense. People on the outside don’t always understand it, but when one is in trouble, the other will be there to help out. In essence, my family is not just there to provide moral support, but they do provide the experience that helps me build effective characters and relationships on the pages of my books. As writers, we should always keep a lookout for those things around that we can use on the page.

Like most inventors, Larissa is not content with what she built. As the series proceeds, she tinkers, improves, and takes the lightning wolf to new levels. We see the upgraded version both in my novel Owl Riders and in my short story “Fountains of Blood” in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, which is coming out in a mass market paperback edition this fall.

If you would like to meet the family who created the lightning wolf and see this invention grow, change, and evolve, I invite you to give the Clockwork Legion series a try. You can learn about the books at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Branigan Library Book Talk on Wednesday

On Wednesday, June 13 at 1:30pm, the Friends of the Branigan Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico have invited me to present a Book Talk about my Clockwork Legion novels. I’ll be presenting at the library’s main branch at the corner of Picacho and Main Streets.

I’m proud to have called the Mesilla Valley my home for the last 23 years. It’s a real honor to give a presentation and reading in my home town. Garnering an interest in history from family trips as a child, I brought my interests together in the Clockwork Legion novels. The Clockwork Legion series includes four novels: Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, The Brazen Shark, and Owl Riders. In the Clockwork Legion novels I combine science fiction and history to imagine a world that wasn’t, but could have been, weaving stories reminiscent of those told by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

The Clockwork Legion novels follow the adventures of Ramon Morales, a former sheriff of Socorro, and Fatemeh Karimi, a healer from Persia. During their adventures together, they meet inventors, outcasts, misfits, and even pirates who they gather together when the Russians use airships to invade the Civil War-ravaged United States in 1877.

The third novel in the series, The Brazen Shark, was voted Best Steampunk Novel in the 2017 Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. The fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, was just released. I’m an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a former vice president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. My poems have been nominated for the Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

In my presentation, I plan to talk about the history of steampunk and weird western stories. I also plan to talk about how I got started writing steampunk and weird westerns in general as well as how the Clockwork Legion novels in particular came about. I’ll give a couple of readings and I will have books available for sale at the talk. I gather refreshments will be served as well. If you’re in Las Cruces, I hope you’ll join me for this fun Book Talk. I look forward to meeting you.

If you want to learn more about the books before the talk, visit: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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

Road Trip to the Dragoon Mountains

Today, we have another Arizona stop on the Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World Road Trip. I enjoy giving places I’ve visited and read about a steampunk twist in my Clockwork Legion novels. Today’s stop is a dramatic place on Interstate-10 in Southern Arizona that I imagine many people drive by with barely a glance: The Dragoon Mountains. The Dragoons feature prominently in book two of my Clockwork Legion series, Lightning Wolves and in book four, Owl Riders.

As it turns out, I drive through the Dragoons just about every week on my commute to and from work. Some of these photos are from 2014 when I made a stop to refresh my memories about some of the details of the region while preparing the novel for release.

The Dragoons are very dramatic and rocky mountains. They were also the source of real-life wild west drama. The Apache Warrior Cochise defeated a company of Confederate dragoons there in 1862 and stole their cattle. Hence the name of the mountains. The Confederates and the Apaches clashed again just a few days later and the soldiers reclaimed their livestock. Twenty years later, during Wyatt Earp’s famous Vendetta Ride, Earp’s posse captured and killed “Indian Charlie” Cruz in the Dragoons.

Lightning Wolves is set between these two historical events. In the novel, many of the soldiers who would normally have been in the area have been called to fight a Russian invasion in the Pacific Northwest and the Apache Warrior Geronimo has set up a stronghold in the Dragoons. Needless to say, this makes some of the remaining settlers, such as Newman Clanton and his sons very nervous. In the middle of all this is exiled Mexican inventor M.K. Maravilla and the bounty hunter Larissa Crimson, who are in the area building a mining machine for a pair of prospectors. What happens makes the Gunfight at OK Corral look like a petty squabble.

As it turns out, I revisit this setting in book four of the series, Owl Riders. This fourth novel is set eight years after Lightning Wolves and the Apaches once again use the mountains as a place to make their stand against white settlers. This time, they are armed with battle wagons based on Professor Maravilla’s mining machine and they face off not against the Clantons, but Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Since we’re in the neighborhood, I’d be remiss not to drop down to the town of Tombstone. The scene of one of the wild west’s most famous gun battles might not seem very retrofuturistic, but the city of Tombstone is very welcoming to steampunks who want to strut their stuff in parades such as the Helldorado Days Parade in October. Also, Tombstone is a veritable shopper’s paradise for Victorian era clothing that you can use when building your steampunk wardrobe!

Steampunks on Parade in Tombstone

I hope you’ve enjoyed this steampunk road trip stop. If you would like to explore Lightning Wolves and all the places visited in the novel, you visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/lightning_wolves.html to get more information and find all the places the novel is available.