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.

One Small Step

I was just a little too young to remember watching Neil Armstrong’s famous first step on the moon and his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” However, watching later Apollo landings on television were among my earliest memories. From a young age, I was proud to be part of a species that had flown beyond the Earth and explored another world. Star Trek was on TV and I saw a direction humans might pursue. The space program was important in my house. My dad worked on the railroad but he understood how technology developed by NASA had far-reaching benefits. One of his friends worked at Goldstone Radar Tracking Station in Barstow, California and put together this display of Apollo patches for my dad. It hung in our living room when I was a kid and it hangs in my living room to this day.

In graduate school, I worked on a project automating a telescope to hunt for supernovae and dwarf novae. The computer we used was a Prime 300. The CPU cabinet was about the size of a refrigerator and it had four hard drives the size of small washing machines. I was smug in those days. I had a whole gigabyte of hard drive space to work with! In the same room as the supernova search computer were a bank of Apollo computers which had been purchased to record seismological data. In the 1980s, my Prime 300 was a primitive machine and the old Apollo machines looked like dinosaurs. I was amazed we had sent people to the moon using those ancient computers. It was a testament to how brilliant the people were who sent the first people to the moon.

In 2006, my wife and I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Ansari X-Prize Competition. What’s more, my daughter’s school class had a chance to spend the day watching the events. We saw demonstrations of updated lunar landing vehicles. We even got to see one of them lift off, fly a short distance, and land again. We met people working on space elevator technology. The highlight of the day was getting to hear Buzz Aldrin speak. My daughter’s class got to sit right up front. My daughter is the kid in the red baseball cap in the photo. Aldrin recounted his experiences training for the lunar mission and actually landing on the moon.

Today, on this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, I find myself reflecting on these experiences. I want to see humans continue the exploration of space. We’re doing great things with unmanned probes, but there’s so much more we could do if we had humans out in the solar system learning about our corner of the universe. We did great things fifty years ago and our technology is improving. We should continue to do great things. For those who suggest we have too many problems on Earth to spend time exploring space, I say we have an Earth with over seven billion people. Many of them are brilliant, strong, and brave. We can and should work on more than one problem at once. Our real enemies in this endeavor are greed and fear. If we defeat them, we’ve earned the stars.

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

Gaslight Steampunk Expo

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California. This is my first time attending this event. It will be held at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego from October 5-7. The guests of honor include James P. Blaylock, often cited as one of the originators of steampunk, and Scott Bordeen, a maker who is credited as creating most of the commercially available versions of Disney’s famous Nautilus from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You can get more information about the convention and a complete schedule at https://www.gaslightexpo.org/

My schedule at the convention is as follows.

Saturday, October 6

  • 3-4pm – Brittany Room – When Yesterday’s Science Becomes Tomorrow’s Fantasy. When you want to use retro technology, where are the boundary lines to make that technology believable in a modern context? On the panel with me are James Blaylock, Stephen Potts, and Vernor Vinge.

Sunday, October 7

  • 10-11am – Garden Salon One – The Rise of Science and Science Fiction in the Victorian Era. Mars is an ancient world filled with technology and robots. Venus is a primitive jungle world populated by dinosaurs. Where did these early science fiction tropes come from? How much was from science and how much was social science? A look at how science and science fiction developed together.
  • Noon-1pm – Vendor Hall – Autographing. I’ll be signing a selection of my books in the Vendor Hall. Of course, my policy with conventions is you can ask for signatures any time as long as you’re not interrupting a conversation. I don’t know whether books will be available with a vendor as of this writing, but I will have a selection with me and I invite you to ask me about my books at any time!
  • 2-3pm – Garden Salon Two – Victorian Computing: From the Babbage Engine to Automata. Vernor Vinge will explore Victorian era computers and what they could and couldn’t do and how they operated.

If your plans include a trip to San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Expo. It promises to be a fun event.

Sail 25

As we come to the end of summer, my convention season has shifted into full swing. This weekend finds me in Phoenix, Arizona at CoKoCon. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. It’s a great event. You can find more information about the convention at http://cokocon.org/. A week ago, I was at Bubonicon, celebrating its 50th anniversary and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. To get ready for the event, I decided to read some Golden Age SF. One of the stories I encountered was an early story about solar sailing called “Sail 25” by Jack Vance.

“Sail 25” was originally published in 1962 in Amazing Stories under the title “Gateway to Strangeness.” It was retitled for Vance’s collection Dust of Far Suns. I read it in the anthology The Seven Deadly Sins and Cardinal Virtues of Science Fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. It tells the story of a group of cadets who must make a voyage on a solar sail space craft under the watchful eye of a notorious instructor named Henry Bolt. Those who survive Bolt’s training expeditions often go on to the top ranks of the space service.

This may sound as though Bolt is a rigorous taskmaster. In fact, he seems completely the opposite. He all but ignores the cadets while he sits in his cabin getting drunk on whiskey he smuggled aboard in a box labeled “radio parts.” He only appears to give them demerits for talking out of turn or showing signs of hopelessness. At one point in the journey, the mechanical computer—which felt like it would be more at home in a steampunk story than a science fiction tale—malfunctions and the cadets go sailing past Mars. Their only hope is to repair the computer before they also go past Jupiter. They do repair the computer, but make a mistake in the gear alignment, so they pass Jupiter after all. At this point, they have to keep their wits about them to find a way back home.

I’ve been interested in solar sails since I first heard about them in the 1980s and I’ve been following more recent solar sail projects such as the Planetary Society’s Lightsail 2 experiment with great interest. I was impressed to see how much this early story about solar sailing got right about the process. Admittedly, the sail proves very easy to deploy and it sometimes behaves a bit more like a sail on Earth than a thin sheet of reflective material under little gravitational influence. Still, Vance correctly talks about the sail as being pushed by light and correctly talks about the sheer size required for such a craft while at the same time requiring as small a mass as possible.

Aspects of the story remind me of my own novel, The Solar Sea. Vance talks about needing a crew who can perform calculations themselves without reliance on a computer. In fact, as I mentioned before, the “computer” is really more a mechanical adding machine than a modern electronic computer, but I like how the character of Henry Bolt insists the characters know how to fix it. Like The Solar Sea, Vance’s characters sail past Mars and Jupiter and attempt to use the gravity to help them navigate. In my book, I actually let my characters have a chance to explore. Both stories bring our characters to a point where things appear to be hopeless. I can’t say much more without risking minor spoilers. While the stories have similar elements, they’re also quite different. Vance’s story is about the journey and my story is more about the destinations. It’s just that our characters use similar modes of transportation and take a similar route.

If you want to voyage through the solar system with my characters, you can pick up a copy of The Solar Sea in print at:

You can pick up the ebook at:

Pretty Planets All in a Row

This is a great time to view planets in the night sky. Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible right now and the fifth will be reappearing around the middle of the month. The night starts with Venus in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. It’s followed by Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Around August 20, Mercury should be visible in the eastern sky just before sunrise. What’s more, Mars is near opposition, its closest approach to the Earth. In fact, it’s the closest Mars has been to the Earth since 2003 and it’ll be 17 years before Mars is this close again.

Although I operate two large telescopes for the National Observatory, I don’t get many opportunities to look at just anything I’d like. Most of the time, if I want to look at planets, I need to do so with my old reliable 8-inch Celestron telescope in my backyard. Fortunately, because this planetary show is happening in the summer and in the early evening, it’s actually pretty comfortable to sit outside with the telescope. Also, ever since my wife bought me an Orion Starshoot camera, I’m able to share my views with you.

It’s monsoon season here in New Mexico, so that often means clouds in the evening. I missed getting any views of Venus, but I did manage to get images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is especially fun, because they are also the planets the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus visits in my novel The Solar Sea. Each of the planet pictures below is shown at the same scale, so you get a sense for how big they appear relative to each other in my telescope’s eyepiece.

Mars is the planet furthest in the east and the last of the three I observed. It was a little disappointing in that I didn’t see a lot of surface features. You can see one of the polar caps and some contrast between dark and light areas. Some of this is no doubt due to a planet-wide dust storm which has been engulfing the planet for the last month. I gather that dust storm is finally beginning to die down, so there’s a chance we’ll get better views later in the month while Mars is still close. In a way, this was kind of cool because one of the dangers the crew of the Aristarchus faced in The Solar Sea was a dust storm, albeit a somewhat more localized one than the planet is currently experiencing.

Jupiter was quite lovely and helped to demonstrate that the seeing—the atmospheric stability—wasn’t the reason Mars was somewhat washed out. The very best view of Jupiter I’ve had is through the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. It’s one of the few telescopes of that class with an eyepiece adapter, so I have had occasion to actually go out in the dome and look at objects through the telescope. This is probably about the clearest I’ve seen the bands of Jupiter through my backyard telescope and I was pleased to see the great red spot. In The Solar Sea, the crew of the Aristarchus makes a point of flying over the red spot. It’s the largest, longest lasting storm in the solar system. If I went to Jupiter, I’d have to get close, though I wouldn’t want to be in it!

Of course, the real star of the show, as it often is, was Saturn. This is by far the best photograph I’ve ever taken of Saturn. I was pleased to capture Cassini’s Division in the rings along with a band on the planet’s surface. The only time I’ve ever seen Saturn better was when I had the opportunity to look through the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Saturn is the object of the quest in The Solar Sea. Thomas Quinn, who designs and builds the Aristarchus, discovers powerful particles near Saturn that appear to be able to travel through time. It turns out there’s more to these particles than meets the eye!

The Solar Sea is on my mind not just because of these pretty planets all in a row. It turns out that as of last week, copies are now for sale at the Kitt Peak National Observatory visitor center, alongside the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. Be sure to look for a copy next time you visit. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a visit to Kitt Peak to pick up a copy of The Solar Sea, you can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Dying to Get to Mars

In the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter escapes from Apaches in the Arizona desert by going into a mysterious cave where he succumbs to mysterious gasses. Soon afterward, his spirit is transported to Mars where he becomes substantial again and makes a new life as a warlord of Mars. It seems a very odd way of getting to Mars and one that’s probably doomed to failure if you or I were to try it. However, John Carter was not the first literary hero to get to Mars via this unusual method of transportation.

A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. In 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published the novel Uranie (or Urania as it’s known in English). In mythology, Urania is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. She’s also the great granddaughter of Uranus, for whom the planet is named. Urania is the muse of astronomy. Camille Flammarion was, for all intents and purposes, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Victorian age. His popular works on astronomy inspired a generation around the world. In many ways, he was a true life astronomical muse.

The novel is told in three parts. In the first part, Urania takes Camille Flammarion on a journey to the stars. She shows him worlds orbiting other stars and the life inhabiting those worlds. He learns that life can come in many different forms. So far, this makes Uranie the oldest novel I know that imagines life on planets outside our solar system. In the second part of the novel, we meet one of Flammarion’s colleagues, George Spero, who is courting a woman from Norway named Icléa. George and Icléa have a long, intense courtship that includes discussions of the nature of thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, and the nature of death. Eventually they travel to Norway to get married. Before the ceremony, George decides to take a balloon to make measurements of the Aurora Borealis. At the last minute Icléa jumps in the balloon with him and off they go.

Alas, part way into the journey, the gas valve breaks and the balloon begins a rapid descent. In order to save George, Icléa jumps from the balloon to the frigid waters of the lake below. The balloon begins to rise and George is saved, but he’s unable to go on without Icléa and jumps out. He misses the lake and hits the ground and the two join each other in death. Sad for the loss of his friend, Flammarion goes to a séance. There he learns that George and Icléa have taken on new forms on the planet Mars. What’s more George is now a woman and Icléa is now a man! This brings us to the end of part two.

Part Three is a combination of essays about telepathy and other unexplained phenomena, how they could be, and a ghostly visit to Flammarion from George where we learn more about the couple’s new life on Mars. I won’t say much more, I’ve given spoilers enough. Still, I found it interesting that death on Earth and rebirth on Mars was not unique to Burroughs in early science fiction. I have no idea whether or not Burroughs was directly influenced by Flammarion, but Burroughs would have been a teenager when Uranie was released in the United States and Flammarion’s work was widely read. It was, after all, Camille Flammarion who inspired Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona to study the planet Mars.

If you’d like to read this interesting, science fiction novel, it’s in the public domain in the United States and available to download from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41941.