My novels of the 2010s

In my last post, I mentioned that I had the attitude of being a temporary employee at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Much of the reason I adopted that attitude in the first place is that then and now, I see myself first and foremost as a writer and editor. When I returned to Kitt Peak in 2008, I feared my writing output would fall off because of my job’s demands. I’m pleased to look back at the previous decade and realize that I actually produced more novels than in any previous decade.

In a very real way, the 2010s were the decade of the Clockwork Legion. These are my steampunk novels that chronicle what happens to Earth when a microscopic alien swarm arrives on Earth in 1876 and begins tampering with events in hopes of avoiding a worldwide catastrophe. Instead of averting catastrophe, the alien sets off the Russian invasion of the United States. Fortunately, a healer named Fatemeh Karimi and a disgraced sheriff named Ramon Morales are there to set things right.

The first novel was published in 2011. Although the original publisher changed focus, the series was picked up by Sky Warrior books and a new edition came out in 2014 quickly followed by the second novel, Lightning Wolves. In that novel, our characters find themselves caught between the miners of Southern Arizona, the Apache Nation, and the Clantons, all while the Russians continue their invasion from the first book.

In 2016’s The Brazen Shark, our characters travel to Japan and then to Russia where they bring the story of the alien’s visit to a conclusion. In 2018, I published Owl Riders, which is set ten years later and looks at the world in the aftermath of the alien’s interference and returns to resolve the conflicts set up in the second novel.

At this point, I don’t plan for the Clockwork Legion to be a series limited to the books created in the 2010s. I want to tell more about Ramon and Fatemeh’s adventures, but they are paused while I work on some other projects. In the meantime, you can learn more about the Clockwork Legion novels by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

The Clockwork Legion series wasn’t the only one I worked on this past decade. I also wrote a second book in my Scarlet Order vampire series. 2012’s Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order was actually a prequel to Vampires of the Scarlet Order. The Scarlet Order is a band of vampires who use their preternatural powers to fight as mercenaries. Dragon’s Fall tells the story of how the Scarlet Order was formed. We first meet Alexandra, a former Greek slave who becomes a vampire thief. Then we travel to King Arthur’s court where one of his rivals becomes a vampire and initiates the Holy Grail quest in hopes of finding redemption. Draco fails to find redemption through the Grail, but he meets Alexandra in his on-going quest. You can learn more about this novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Dragon’s Fall wasn’t my only excursion into horror. In 2016, I released The Astronomer’s Crypt, which imagines astronomers, drug dealers, ghosts, and Apache demons colliding during a terrible storm at an observatory in Southern New Mexico. Of course, this novel does pull a lot from my job at Kitt Peak National Observatory and I probably wouldn’t have been able to write it if I had not returned to telescope operations. On the surface, The Astronomer’s Crypt is a haunted house story inspired by the very labyrinthine Mayall building at Kitt Peak. However, it also imagines what might happen if different layers of existence hinted at through ancient stories collided with our contemporary and comfortable reality. You can learn more about The Astronomer’s Crypt and watch a cool book trailer at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

I finished the decade by returning to a series that really had its genesis way back in the 1980s while I was still in graduate school. In the 2000s when the series was with Lachesis Publishing, I was asked to create a name for the series. On the fly, I came up with “The Old Star/New Earth Series.” I never really liked that name because it didn’t really capture what the series was about. I’ve now reinvented the series as “The Space Pirates’ Legacy” and my last book of the 2010s was a new first book in this series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. It tells the story of a space pirate named Ellison Firebrandt and his band of buccaneers as they pillage ships for Earth’s benefit. I’m currently working on rewriting the first book I ever wrote, The Pirates of Sufiro, which is also the second book of this series. I hope to release the new edition in a few weeks. You can learn more about Firebrandt’s Legacy at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Firebrandts-Legacy.html

Looking back, that’s seven novel in ten years. I spent most of the 2000s as a freelance writer and wrote four novels. So, at some level, I needn’t have worried about about the observatory lessening my output. That said, I do find as the decade ends that I’m writing fewer short stories and poems now than I did at the beginning of the decade. One of my goals for this coming decade will be to spend more time on some of my shorter works again. Also, one of my first goals of the decade is to finish re-releasing the rest of “The Space Pirates Legacy” series. Concurrent with that, I hope to begin work on a new novel. I haven’t decided for certain what that will be. I’d love to visit Ramon and Fatemeh again. Also, The Astronomer’s Crypt was always meant to be the first book in a trilogy, so I may return to that world for a while. Either way, this promises to be another fun and productive decade.

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

Fathers in Fact and Fiction

We’re celebrating Father’s Day a day early at my house. Tomorrow, I have to get on the road and drive to Arizona for a shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Alas, I didn’t get to sleep in. It’s the first day this break from work I’ve had a chance to catch up some yard work and I want to get that done before the summer heat reaches full intensity. That said, there will be a nice payoff tonight with a family barbecue.

Father’s day feels especially poignant this year since I’m now the same age my dad was when he celebrated his last father’s day. The picture shows him at his desk, working as a General Locomotive Foreman for Santa Fe Railroad and it’s very much how I remember my dad. I don’t remember how we celebrated his last father’s day. I would have been in my last weeks of middle school, or junior high as we called it then. I would have been nervous about end-of-the-year tests. I remember being excited and nervous about going to high school in just three months. I remember dad being a reassuring presence at that time. I remember discussing classes I might take and how that might influence my career. I remember thinking I might want to be a doctor.

In the fairy tale version of that story, his death might have strengthened my resolve to study cardiac medicine. In the real world, I realized I never wanted to be the one to tell people they’d lost a dear family member. It was hard enough telling my brothers he’d had a second heart attack.

Despite that, a lot of what he taught me would live on in my fiction. My best memories of my dad were on long trips we would take during summer vacations, seeing sights around the United States. The story he told me about the Civil War’s Battle of Glorietta Pass in New Mexico influenced the climactic scenes in my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. I’ve been revising the novel for its 25th anniversary release and I realize the character Espedie Raton reminds me of my dad. Espedie didn’t get enough time on the page in the earlier editions. I’m giving him some better scenes now.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to Skype into the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club meeting where they were discussing the novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, which I recommended. Ironically, it can be seen as a tale about a group of women who had bad fathers. I was complimented on my fine daughters and told I was an example of a good father and was asked what I thought about the fathers in the book. I was horrified at the idea of fathers neglecting their daughters, or even worse, using them as experiments.

After all, one of the things my dad was great about was making time for me. Even when he worked nights, he cut sleep short to take me to school every morning, because he couldn’t be there in the afternoon. By the same token, I have to be gone for stretches of time in my observatory job, but I try to be there when I’m home. On reflection, there’s a truth about fatherhood in Goss’s novel. You can’t be there all the time. What’s more, kids are something of an experiment. You do your best to help them grow and give them what they’ll need to be good adults, but you don’t really know how well it worked until it happens.

My novel Owl Riders is the one where I drew the most on my own experiences of fatherhood. When writing Ramon Morales as a dad, I tried to be as honest as possible about the good parts of being a father and the painful parts. I wanted to show what it’s like to be there for your daughter, but to be pulled away by circumstances you can’t control. If Ramon Morales is a good dad, if I am a good dad, it’s only because I had a great example in my dad.

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.

Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.

Stamp Collecting

One thing astronomers do is attempt to classify the objects they see by common properties. For example, stars that display similar chemical fingerprints in their spectra will be assigned a certain spectral type. Galaxies can be grouped by shape such as spiral, barred spiral, elliptical, and my favorite, irregular. Here’s a chart from NASA showing the numbers of exoplanets discovered as grouped by size of planet.

Back in my college days, we called this “stamp collecting.” It’s a somewhat derogatory term because it’s not necessarily the most exciting work in astronomy and its significance can be somewhat misleading. A great example is the whole “is Pluto a planet” debate which was sparked by classifying Pluto a dwarf planet. To my mind a “dwarf planet” is just a type of planet. After all, we orbit a dwarf star! (A G2V yellow dwarf main sequence star if you want more of the taxonomy.)

That said, this process of stamp collecting does serve an important purpose. By seeing how many of what types of objects are out in the universe, it helps us understand how the universe evolved. It helps us see patterns that show us how particular objects might have changed. For example, when I mentioned that the sun is a G2V main sequence star, that not only tells me what it is, but gives me some idea where the star is in its life cycle.

We do stamp collecting in the writing world as well. We classify books broadly by subject: science fiction, horror, romance, adventure, etc. We often take these individual classifications down even finer. A science fiction book can be described as hard science fiction, space opera, military science fiction and more. Like stamp collecting in astronomy, this can be an important process. It helps readers find what they want to read. However, it can also get overblown.

It’s become a reality in the publishing industry that an author’s name is a sort of brand, and authors often get classified right along with their books. Mary Smith writes military science fiction while John Jones writes space opera. Some writers even go so far as to pick different pseudonyms each time they explore not just a new genre, but a new subgenre.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of my own writing career. For most of the last decade, I’ve been very focused on my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels. Now, I’m turning my focus more to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. To my mind, the two series actually have a lot in common. There’s a real space cowboy vibe in the Space Pirates series that echoes the retrofuturism of the steampunk. Of course, this does cause some people to ask if I’ve finished the Clockwork Legion series or won’t do more steampunk. The answer to both is absolutely not. I think I have many more steampunk stories to tell and many of those will feature Ramon, Fatemeh, Larissa, and the rest of the gang. However, I also like telling stories about Captain Firebrandt, Roberts, and Manuel Raton.

For what it’s worth, I classify myself as a writer of fantastic tales with a retrofuturistic vibe. That captures my steampunk, my space cowboys, and even my vampires, especially when I write stories set in a historical context.

If you’re in Tucson, I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, Sunday, February 10 at 3:30pm at Antigone Books for the Tucson Steampunk Society’s book club meeting where I’ve been invited to discuss my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders, which recently was a top-ten finisher in the Predators and Editors Reader’s Poll for best steampunk novel of 2018. Copies of the novel are available at Antigone and if you let us know you haven’t read it yet, we’ll try not to give away too many spoilers. Antigone Books is located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. If you can’t make it, the book club posts videos of the meeting that will be shared on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/

When Cultures Meet

This week at Kitt Peak National Observatory finds me working with an astronomer logged in and observing from Kyoto, Japan. Meanwhile, on our walkie talkies, we hear French as optical scientists from France work on the new spectrographs at the Mayall Telescope. A favorite memory of working at Kitt Peak involves an astronomer who left the control room at appointed hours to face Mecca and pray. One of the things I enjoy about my “day” job is the way people of different cultures come together to work toward the common goal of understanding the universe around us.

Morning meeting in the Mayall Control Room

At Kitt Peak, our cultural differences allow people to bring different life experiences to the table when solving problems. Language differences can teach us patience as we learn to communicate our goals with members of the same team and who share the same objective. Cultural diversity is also fun as we share our tastes in such things as music, movies, and food.

As someone whose family has lived in the United States since the early days of European colonization, my own culture is defined by a blending of melding of cultural influences from places like Germany, Scotland, and Mexico. Of course, history is replete with examples of people with different cultures having conflicting goals. The results include invasion, forced relocation, and cultural appropriation. There’s more than a little of that in my ancestral background as well on all sides of the issue.

I find the meeting of different cultures inherently fascinating. It forms a big part of my Clockwork Legion books such as The Brazen Shark and Owl Riders. I find it interesting to think what might have been if different cultures met on different terms and perhaps had different perspectives. In science fiction novels such as The Solar Sea, I echo much of what I see at work, people of different cultures coming together for a common goal.

All of this contributed to my excitement when Sheila Hartney proposed assembling an anthology of stories about exchange students to be published by Hadrosaur Productions. There’s a lot of potential for drama as people learn about each other and try to understand each other. Of course, since we publish science fiction and fantasy, Sheila wants to give this anthology a science fictional twist. We want to imagine exchange students coming together from other planets, across time, and across dimensions. Do you have a story of a vampire exchange student staying with a werewolf family? We want to see it? Do you have a story of someone from Earth going to Kepler-22b to study. We want to see it. Do you have a story of an elf studying in dwarven forges? I think you get the idea. The guidelines are at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/ExchangeStudents-gl.html. I hope we’ll see a submission from you.