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.

Understanding Time

Back in high school, I remember wondering what time actually is. I believe my interest really started by learning about Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and realizing that clocks would measure time differently depending on how fast you’re going. It’s at that point that I consciously thought about the fact that clocks don’t measure something in the way you measure something with a ruler. Clocks are simply mechanical devices designed to move at a fixed rate. When I reached college and then graduate school, I learned about Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in which time and space are all wrapped up in gravity.

While I was learning about General Relativity in graduate school, I was also learning about Lagrangian mechanics, which is basically a reformulation of Newton’s classical mechanics that endeavors to understand the motions of bodies by understanding the total energy in a system rather than the understanding the forces applied to a physical body. Newtonian mechanics requires that you know where and when a body exists in time and space to understand its behavior. Lagrangian mechanics doesn’t.

It’s with that background that I caught a fascinating episode of Science Friday on NPR the other day. In the episode, host Ira Flatow interviewed physicist Carlo Rovelli who makes a case that time might not even exist. You can listen to the interview at: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/a-case-for-why-time-may-just-not-exist/

In the interview, Rovelli discusses the idea that mechanical systems can be understood though their energy distributions and that time is not really a factor. The only place time, or change if you will, manifests is in the second law of thermodynamics, which quantifies how systems become increasingly disordered. He talks about relative time—how someone traveling near the speed of light will experience time differently than a person standing still. He also talks about how time near a black hole would virtually stop. One of the fascinating concepts he introduced is that as we move into space, we may need a new vocabulary of time, just as we developed a new definition of “up” when we discovered the world was a sphere. At that time, no one quite knew what “up” was. Was up over your head in Greece? If so, and you were on the other side of the planet, did that mean “up” was under your feet?

Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing Rovelli introduced in the interview was the idea that time and space may not “exist” as such, but simply be the way our brains interpret the action of gravitation on the energy fields that make up all existence.

There’s a lot of fodder in these ideas for a science fiction or fantasy writer. I certainly recommend giving the podcast a listen and I’ll likely be checking out Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time. Playing with the idea that time, space, and gravity are all interrelated led me to the Erdon-Quinn drive of my space pirate stories. One could certainly imagine a story where one finds a way to travel through time using these concepts. Of course, such travel may create ripples in the fabric of reality that would make the so-called butterfly effect look like simple child’s play to untangle.

Ray Bradbury, who played with the butterfly effect in his story “A Sound of Thunder” once told me a story of being at a carnival, when a performer named Mr. Electrico sat in an electric chair. When the switch was pulled, Mr. Electrico pointed a lightning rod at Ray Bradbury and said, “Live forever!” Pondering time and space in this way, I even begin to wonder if a person lives forever by existing at all.

I hope you’ll make time to travel to other realities with me in my books and stories. Learn more at http://www.davidleesummers.com

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.

Treat Yourself to a Scary Read

This week, my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt is Lachesis Publishing’s Book of the Week.

In my novel, astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from the beginning of time collide at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. You might ask why a professional astronomer who operates telescopes would set a horror novel at an observatory. There are actually several reasons I chose to present this as a venue for a scary tale.

First, one of the scariest movies from my teen years was Ridley Scott’s movie Alien. Part of the reason the movie was so effective was that I was a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan growing up. Alien allowed haunted house horror to encroach on the “safe place” of science fictional optimism and action. Sure, Star Trek and Star Wars had their scary moments, but those moments were soon relieved by the heroes escaping the scary situation, a logical scientific explanation, or even humor. In Alien, the scary moments never let up. What’s more, the space ship was dark, dank, and full of shadows, not like the bright and colorful ships of those other science fictional franchises. For me, having a monster on the loose in an astronomical observatory is very much a call back to Alien.

Setting a horror story at an observatory is also something of an homage to one of the masters of twentieth century horror, H.P. Lovecraft. He was fascinated by astronomy and actually wrote scientific articles. Of course, he imagined ancient creatures from the depths of space to be among his horrors that tormented those people who dared to look in dark places.

Arguably one of the most important reasons for setting a horror story at an observatory relates to the adage, “write what you know.” I’ve worked at observatories for twenty-two of the last thirty years. Ironically, I feel comfortable and even safe working at observatories. However, some of the scariest stories happen in places where we don’t expect horrific things to occur. It’s one of the reasons Ray Bradbury could scare people with a story set at a fun carnival, and why Stephen King could scare us so effectively with a resort hotel in the Rockies. If you watch science shows, you’ve undoubtedly seen an astronomer speaking about the mysteries of the universe. You don’t expect something horrible in that situation.

And yet, it’s never far from the back of my mind that horrific things can happen. We’re at a remote site with wild animals. Observatories have big industrial equipment that come with their own safety issues. We work in the dark, in big, windowless buildings. When the power goes out, it can be really and truly dark. I’ve made the mistake of going into rooms without a flashlight and having doors close behind me and becoming quickly disoriented. There are access hatches that open into big, open areas. Those of us who work at observatories have to be ever vigilant to make sure accidents don’t happen.

I’ve also spoken at some length about how some observatories have literal crypts in or near their structures. James Lick is buried in the pier of the 36-inch telescope and Percival Lowell is interred in a mausoleum just outside the 24-inch telescope where he observed the features he thought were Martian canals.

In The Astronomer’s Crypt, I dared to take a place I loved and then scared myself by imagining the worst possible things happening. This Halloween, I dare you to come along with me and peer into the dark places behind the scenes at an observatory.

Lachesis Publishing has sweetened the deal making this a great Halloween treat. They’ve reduced the ebook from $4.99 to 99 cents for the rest of October at:

Good Writing Requires Good Reading

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot since this year began. I agreed to moderate a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, which required me to read books by each of the panelists. Soon after that was the voting deadline for SFWA’s Nebula Award and I wanted to read as many of the nominated works as possible before I cast my ballot. This was a great exercise because it introduced me to quite a few good books. The ones below are a sample of those I read for the Festival of Books panel.

The stack there is nothing compared to my Kindle, which feels like it should be bulging at the seams from all the great books I added to it. This has proven to be a great time to do some extra reading, because I’ve been working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel. It might seem counter-intuitive to be busy reading when I’m also busy writing, but in my mind, the two activities go hand in hand and one is actually essential for the other.

I’m not the only one who says this. In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that anyone serious about writing should have a book along so they can read in any spare time available. I was in the audience at a writers event in Tucson some years ago when Ray Bradbury suggested that someone serious about being a writer should read one poem, one essay, and one short story every single day.

It might seem like it’s tempting to steal ideas from writers when you do so much reading. I’ll be a little provocative and suggest that’s exactly the point of reading so much. Okay, yeah, lifting whole passages from another book into yours is plagiarism. Don’t do that! That said, when you’re writing, you might have difficulty finding just the right way to describe a series of events, knowing how much detail to include, or making a character feel really alive. By reading others, you can see how other writers have solved those problems which might suggest solutions to you.

The converse of this is also true. By reading a lot, you see pitfalls other writers have stumbled into and paths you don’t want to go down. In fact, while reading the Nebula-nominated books and stories, I become aware that even the best authors write passages that don’t work for me. It allows me to see that the piece might work in spite of a slight stumble. Sometimes when I think about something that looks like a stumble, I realize “fixing” a minor problem might result in either clunky prose, or might cause the writer to tell an entirely different story than the one they set out to tell. It also reminds me that I don’t have to be a perfectionist. Imperfect books are sold and even get nominated for awards all the time!

At this point, it might be tempting to invoke Sturgeon’s Law, which usually claims “90% of everything is crud.” Often a stronger word than “crud” is used, but that was Ted Sturgeon’s original word and I’ll stick with it. It’s become fashionable in fandom to bandy this “law” about and cynically state that this applies to any set of books or movies you might want to name. Now, I’m here to say that of all my reading in the last three months, hardly any of it was crud. Most was quite good. Some wasn’t quite as much to my taste as others. Some of the stories and books worked better for me than others, but I saw value in all of it.

In fact, it’s important to realize that “Sturgeon’s Law” was not meant to be invoked about absolutely anything. Originally, Theodore Sturgeon referred to it as “Sturgeon’s Revelation” and it was an argument against people using the worst examples of science fiction film and literature to demonstrate the worthlessness of the genre. His point was you can find bad examples from any art form or genre and use that as an excuse to vilify it.

Sturgeon’s Revelation came about because Ted Sturgeon was not only a great science fiction writer, but he was also a science fiction fan who loved to read. He hoped to encourage people to dive in and find the good stuff science fiction and fantasy had to offer. In short, that’s what I’ve been doing and I hope to see it pay dividends in the writing I produce.

San Bernardino

News of the December 2 attack on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California has been particularly sad for me to watch. I grew up there and still have friends in the area. A childhood friend even received treatment at the Inland Regional Center. No one I knew seems to be among the dead or wounded, but San Bernardino has been a town going through tough times for a while and I suspect this is going to make things even tougher as people associate the city with the incident.

My family moved to San Bernardino when I was 4. My dad was a General Locomotive Foreman for one of the city’s major industries, Santa Fe Railroad. The other two big employers in the area were Kaiser Steel and Norton Air Force Base. All of those were closed by the early 1990s. We lived in three different houses while we were there, but the house that sticks in my memory as “my” house is one my parents bought in the 1950s just a block away from the site of the original McDonalds. When my parents left San Bernardino for a time in the late 60s and early 70s, my grandmother moved into the house. So, it was a house I visited regularly from my earliest days. They moved back into the house when my grandmother passed away in 1974.

McDonalds Museum

I have a lot of good memories from my years in San Bernardino. It was where I discovered both my love for writing and for astronomy. I made my first attempt at writing The Solar Sea when I was in high school. That draft long since has vanished in time, but the novel that exists probably wouldn’t have been written if not for my early daydreams of riding a solar sail to the outer planets.

Those daydreams were no doubt inspired by a love of astronomy. I started by attending meetings of the San Bernardino Valley Amateur Astronomers when I was a freshman in high school. By the time I was a senior, I took an astronomy class at Cal State San Bernardino from Dr. Paul Heckert and went on to observe variable stars with him for several years.

Of the three times I had a chance to meet with and speak to Ray Bradbury, two of them were in San Bernardino. The first time was at Pacific High School when he came to speak to the students. I actually attended San Bernardino High School across town, but Pacific’s principal invited me to share lunch with Mr. Bradbury. I saw him a gain a few years later at Cal State. Not only did I get to meet Ray Bradbury, but I also got to meet Jerome Bixby, author of the short story “It’s a Good Life” which became a Twilight Zone episode starring Billy Mumy. Bixby also wrote several of my favorite Star Trek episodes including Mirror, Mirror and “Day of the Dove.”

Arrowhead

One of the things I really love about San Bernardino are the mountains. Above is Mt. Arrowhead and the arrowhead feature is a natural rock formation. The Arrowhead is on private land, but I had the rare privilege of being able to climb the mountain one Saturday during my high school years. As it turns out, the springs at the base of the mountain are where Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water gets its name. The nearby San Gorgonio wilderness area and Big Bear Lake provide even more breathtaking sights and I spent time hiking and camping with my family and friends in those areas as well.

My time thinking of San Bernardino as “home” largely came to an end in 1989 when Santa Fe closed their shops, my brother moved with the railroad to Topeka, Kansas. My dad had passed away in 1980, so my mom decided to move to Seattle. I went back to the house I lived in through my high school years, packed up all my belongings and moved them to Socorro, New Mexico. San Bernardino is a town on tough times and those times are even tougher now that such a tragedy has struck. The people of San Bernardino are very much in my heart this holiday season.

Visiting a Creative Writing Class

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit my daughter’s high school creative writing class. The teacher had the students read my short story “The Zombie Shortage” from the anthology Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie. I followed that by coming into the class and talking about my process for writing short stories and how I put that into practice with “The Zombie Shortage”. As I pointed out to the class, there are exceptions to all of these ideas, but these are things that have worked for me.

Edgar Allan Poe

Write the story in a single sitting. Back in high school, I was introduced to Edgar Allan Poe’s statement that a short story is a story that can be read in a single sitting. A few years later, I came to realize that if I expect a reader to read a story in a single sitting, I should endeavor to write a story in a single sitting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I write a finished, polished story all at once, but at least I do my best to get a draft down in one sitting. Indeed, my most successful stories—meaning the ones that have sold for the most money or I’ve received the most positive feedback on—have all been written this way.

Focus on one coherent theme and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Again, the source of this idea is Edgar Allan Poe. The part about focusing on one theme is probably the part most people might question, but again, I’ve found my most satisfying stories do that. The problem of the story is laid out in the first paragraph and a satisfying conclusion is reached by the end. Now, a satisfying conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean a “happy ending.” It just means wrap things up so your reader feels like they’ve read a complete story and not a chapter in a longer work.

Ray Bradbury

Visualize your story. There are various techniques for this. When I met Ray Bradbury, shown here in a photo by Alan Light, he talked about visualizing as he wrote—following the characters and seeing what they did and where they went. Some people today talk about this as writing “by the seat of your pants.” For me that’s not the most effective way to work. I find I like to visualize a story before I begin. I like to get to know it well and think of the characters as real people in a real situation before I sit down to write. I like to see the setting and I write based on things I know.

Practice. When I first heard Ray Bradbury talk thirty years ago, he likened writing to shooting baskets. You have to do it a lot to get good at it. You shoot and miss a lot. Eventually swish you get the ball in the basket. The more you do it, the more that happens. For me, the most successful stories have indeed felt much the same as a ball going through a basket. I haven’t really had doubt they were successful stories. Nevertheless, the lesson here is to practice and keep practicing until you get there.

Finally, while I have “The Zombie Shortage” on my mind, I just learned that the collection Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie is now out in paperback! Here’s the link for it at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zombiefied-Anthology-All-Things-Zombie/dp/0615910270/