Music Through the Ages

Even if I hadn’t been working this year, I’m not the kind of person to stand in line for Black Friday deals. That said, I did take advantage of one Black Friday special this year and I’m glad I did. It was the download of Abney Park’s New Nostalgics and in retrospect, I would have been pleased with this album if I’d paid full price for it. This album is comprised entirely of songs from the early 20th century covered in modern style by the band Abney Park. There are songs about airships, burlesque halls, and how people who built the modern world often aren’t the ones who see its benefits. What makes the download really special is a 20-minute “documentary” by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Robert Brown, where he plays snippets of the old recordings of the songs and then follows that with how he updated them for a modern audience. You can pick up the album in the music downloads section at http://abneypark.com/market/

Music has always been an important part of my writing. Often, when I write, I like to have instrumental music on in the background that captures the mood of what I’m trying to create. In fact, one of the things I like about Abney Park is that they provide instrumental-only versions of many of their albums and I use those a lot when I’m writing steampunk or retrofuturistic fiction. I also like to collect soundtracks of favorite films or TV shows. Listening to those can be a great way for me to get into the proper mindset for a given scene, whether it be romance, action, or suspense.

While I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I’m in the process of writing, I love listening to songs from a period of time I’m going to write about as part of my research for historical fiction. It provides a valuable window into the things that brought joy and sadness to previous generations. You can often catch slang terms people might have used. If you catch an odd turn of phrase in an old song, it’s often worth looking it up to see if it had a broader meaning. Maybe it’s something you can use in your story. In setting a scene, I often like to describe the kinds of music people are listening to. Even if I don’t mention a particular song, I like to mention the kinds of instruments people heard.

That covers the past, but what about the future? While part of me loves it when a science fiction character espouses their love of David Bowie or Dolly Parton, part of me groans. While I hope these artists will still be known two or three centuries down the road, I’m pretty sure they won’t be mainstream. People in the future will be writing and singing their own songs. They’ll write about their own heroes, like Jayne in Firefly’s “The Hero of Canton” or the ballads sung about Edmund Swan in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There will be new musical forms and maybe even alien instruments. As a writer, you don’t necessarily have to write these songs, but you can add some color by mentioning them and talking about how they make the characters in your story feel.

With that, it’s time for me to go listen to some good music and find some inspiration. If you would like to see how I write about futuristic music, you can read The Pirates of Sufiro by subscribing to my Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Paint Your Wagon

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how my parents loved Westerns on television and at the movies. I’ve also discussed how the classic show The Wild Wild West taught me there was a type of western that I could fall in love with to. However, I may not have been open to even trying The Wild Wild West if it weren’t for another show, and that’s the 1970 movie of Paint Your Wagon starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw the movie, but I was in elementary school and I know my family had recently traveled through Gold Rush country in Northern California. I had been captivated by the forests and mountains of Northern California and this movie captured that and told a story that made me laugh as well. I even enjoyed many of the songs, especially Lee Marvin’s rendition of “Wandrin’ Star” which has always felt like something of an anthem in my own life. The movie Paint Your Wagon doesn’t get a lot of love from musical fans. Now, I’m not one of those people who says that singing should be left to professionals. I think music belongs to everyone and we work a little too hard to keep it away from people who just want to sing on their own and lift their spirits. Even so, I have to admit, Clint Eastwood’s rendition of “I Talk to the Trees” can be a challenge to listen to. The movie was also an almost complete rewrite of the original Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical. Many new songs were written by Alan Jay Lerner and the music was largely re-scoured by Andre Previn.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to play the part of Angus in Lerner and Lowe’s Brigadoon. I had great fun, but thought it would be fun to see my school stage Paint Your Wagon. After all, we went to a mining school and it was a musical about miners. One of the themes of the story is about how few women there are in the camp, an issue we shared on campus back in the day. Never mind that the musical features a very male-heavy cast and even at a campus with a large male to female ratio, it was a challenge to get enough male science students out to try out for parts in any musical. Still, that’s about the point when I first got really curious what the Broadway musical was like and how it differed from the movie.

A couple of years later, I found a CD of the original musical’s soundtrack. It included many familiar songs plus several I hadn’t heard before. I gathered Ben Rumson had a daughter in the musical, which he didn’t in the movie. Also, she was in love with a Latino miner who didn’t appear in the movie. The album from the 50’s was truncated just enough for it to be difficult to glean the musical’s entire plot.

A few weeks ago, I learned about a revival of the musical performed in New York in 2015 starring Keith Carradine. What’s more, I discovered they released a more complete and higher fidelity soundtrack than the original from 1952. So, I gave it a try. There were more songs and I got a better sense of the musical. Over the years I’d learned the musical isn’t performed very often. That said, I did decide to see if the script was available. It turns out Alan Jay Lerner published the book with the script in 1952 and I was able to find a good used copy on line.

I can see why the musical never quite achieved the “classic” status other Lerner and Lowe musicals such as Brigadoon, Camelot, or My Fair Lady. It’s a pretty straight-ahead tale of the rise and fall of a mining camp. Jennifer Rumson falls in love with Julio Valveras on first sight. They only get about one scene and a partial of another scene in the first act. He’s gone for most of the second act as well. It’s not exactly a romance for the ages. We also have a plot about Jennifer’s dad, Ben, marrying a Mormon woman. That part was largely preserved in the movie. Still, I could see it being fun to see and perform, even if it isn’t one of the great musicals.

What really struck me was that certain parts of the musical echoed themes I’ve explored in my own work. The story of miners in a new land echoes themes in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There’s a great line about being Latino in America during the 1800s that echoes themes I explore in my Clockwork Legion novels. Julio says, “One time all this was part of Mexico. I’m a citizen. Suddenly a few years ago they start fighting in some place called Texas. I’m a foreigner.”

You can help support this blog and my rewrite of The Pirates of Sufiro by donating at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion.

Tesla: Man Out of Time

My brother sent me an early birthday present this year, a copy of Margaret Cheney’s biography of Nikola Tesla called Tesla: Man Out of Time. Nikola Tesla is something of a steampunk icon and his work has fascinated me ever since I saw my first Tesla coil at the Griffith Park Observatory on a family outing when I was a child. I would actually take a crack at building a Tesla coil as an electronics club project in college. The two experiences helped to inspire my story “A Specter in the Light,” which appears in the anthology DeadSteam. The title is a link and will take you to the Amazon page where you can get your own copy of the anthology. I’ve even written a story where I imagine Tesla’s research in Colorado Springs led him to learn more about Mars than is widely known. That story appeared in the All-Martian Spectacular issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine, which appears to be out of print.

In the real world, Tesla was interested in the propagation of electromagnetic waves. He’s directly responsible for all of our buildings being wired with AC plugs. His patents also led directly to the invention of radio. He pioneered the development of remote control vehicles for defensive purposes. In particular, he experimented on remote-control ships and submarines, but one can easily see how these anticipate the remote-control military aircraft of today. He provided light to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which helped expand the acceptance of electric lighting.

Tesla was also a charismatic visionary who had more ideas than he could possibly test. Because of this, he attracted such luminaries to his circle as Mark Twain and science fiction pioneer, Hugo Gernsback. In her biography, Cheney fills in details of Tesla’s youth in Serbia, his education around Europe, and his immigration to the United States where he briefly worked for Thomas Edison, but found a longtime ally in George Westinghouse. She paints a picture of Tesla as a dapper man who always wore fine clothes and was meticulous in his appearance. She also discusses his love of pigeons, which he fed regularly and kept at his rooms in New York.

Cheney’s book filled in many details I didn’t know about Tesla, such as how he lived much of his adult life in New York City hotel rooms and his friendship with the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine. Cheney also discusses Tesla’s love of Serbian poetry. I’ve long been fascinated by his brief foray to Colorado Springs where he conducted large-scale experiments he couldn’t conduct in the city and she gives good information about that time period. What’s more, the book pointed out an amusing connection with Tesla and my own writing I hadn’t know about. In my first steampunk story, “The Slayers,” I created a character named Rado, who was meant as a tribute to Ray Douglas Bradbury. However, Tesla had a friend who was a professor at New York University known as Dr. Rado.

As it turns out, not all of Tesla’s ideas seem like good ones. As an astronomer, I found his notion of charging the entire sky so it’s never dark at night to be particularly horrifying. Admittedly, Tesla was thinking about nighttime urban safety, but I’ve long felt that humans need the night and the stars to be able to dream of better futures, including the kind of future Tesla wanted to build.

If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla, I recommend Marget Cheney’s Tesla: A Man Out of Time. There’s a lot of good information and it was a breezy, compelling read.

Literary Cosplay

Before the term “cosplay” came into common use, I always loved Halloween as one of the times I could create a costume and become someone else for a day. Nowadays, pop culture conventions also provide a fun excuse to dress up. Of course, most people who dress up for conventions make costumes based on their favorite television shows, movies, or comic books. A creator has already designed the costume and it’s up to the fan to make their own version. Likewise, most commercial Halloween costumes are also based on these same mass media heroes. However, novels can also be a great source of costume ideas and they often provide a wide latitude of ways to interpret characters. This can be especially useful if you’re looking for materials you can grab from a thrift store or something you can create with some simple make-up effects.

I have been known to dress up in outfits inspired by my novels. Back in 1993, I went to a Halloween party dressed as a Rd’dyggian (pronounced Red-dye-chian) from my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. The Rd’dyggians are aliens with orange skin and a purple mustache-like array of tentacles under their noses. On top of that, they like to wear long, flowing robes. I was able to create a version using some face paint, hair dye, and some odds and ends from the closet. I didn’t match the Rd’dyggians from my novels perfectly, but I was close enough that my friends who had read the novels understood what I was supposed to be. Those who hadn’t read the novels still understood that I was some kind of alien.

I will note that when I first got into science fiction fandom, costume contests were a big part of conventions. You can still find contests, but an important element several years ago was that most of the people who dressed up created costumes based on favorite novels they’d read, rather than favorite visual media. This allowed them a lot of creativity in how they interpreted their costumes. These days, most of the literary-inspired costumes I see are at steampunk conventions.

As a steampunk author, I often dress up for the conventions I attend. It’s rare that I dress up as a specific character from my novels, but I do like to wear clothing like I describe in my novels. Here I am from an event last week, where I went to Ruidoso to speak about my Clockwork Legion Novels to the Fortuitous Book Club. The club at the recommendation of my dear friend, Margo McKee, read my novel Owl Dance. What’s more, Ruidoso is in Lincoln County, the heart of Billy the Kid Country. So, while I didn’t dress as a specific character from the novels, I did put on an outfit that said Wild West steampunk. Most of the outfit is just western wear, which is easy to find in New Mexico, but topped up with a pair of goggles and a cool steampunk looking watch. Of course, my outfit also evokes the feeling of the old Wild Wild West television series starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, which was one of the inspirations for my series.

If you’re looking for an original costume this Halloween, or want to find something new and unique for a pop culture or science fiction convention, I encourage you to look no further than the pages of your favorite novel. See what it inspires you to create. If you want to look at my novels for inspiration, click the links below to learn more about the series:

MileHiCon 51

Next weekend, I’ll be a participating author at MileHiCon 51, which will be held at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center in Denver, Colorado. The guests of honor are authors Angela Roquet and Marie Brennan and artist Elizabeth Leggett. The toastmaster is author Carol Berg. You can get more details at the convention’s website: https://milehicon.org. A selection of my books will be available in the Vendor Hall at the table run by Who Else Books. My schedule is below.

Friday, October 18

9-10pm – Mesa Verde B – Group Reading and Discussion: After Dark. Authors James Van Pelt, J.T. Evans, Joseph Paul Haines, and Shannon Lawrence will join me to read selections from and discuss our horror fiction.

Saturday, October 19

10-11am – Mesa Verde C – Put a Gear On It. I will join Meghan Bethards, J. Campbell, Craig Griswold, and Rob Rice to discuss steampunk fiction.

Noon-1pm – Grand Mesa Ballroom – We Named the Dog Indiana. I join Carol Berg, J. Bigelow, V. Calisto, and James Van Pelt to discuss the whys and wherefores of naming characters.

1-2pm – Mesa Verde A – Year in Science. I’ll discuss the topic with J. Campbell, Dan Dvorkin, Courtney Willis, and Ka Chun Yu.

3-4pm – Wind River B – From Kitt Peak to the Universe. I’ll introduce the new DESI spectrograph that’s been installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory and how it will be used to make a three-dimensional map of the northern sky.

4-5pm – Grand Mesa Ballroom – Mass Autographing. I’ll be available during the mass autographing to sign any books you bring along.

Sunday, October 20

3-4pm – Wind River B – Patreon, Kofi, Drip, and other Alternate Funding Sources. I discuss the topic with R. Hayes, Patrick Hester, and Stant Litore.


If you’re in Denver, Colorado next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at MileHiCon!

Lovely Angels

I’m a fan of stories featuring strong women. While I recognize that physical strength or proficiency with weapons is not the only way to be a strong person, my love of action stories does mean I enjoy a story with women who fall into this category. While in Bisbee, Arizona’s wonderful Meridian Books and Comics a few weeks ago, my wife’s eyes happened to fall on the book, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair.

I immediately recognized the title and the women on the cover from an anime series of the mid-1980s. What I didn’t realize is that the anime series was inspired by a series of novels by Haruka Takachiho. The book my wife found was an English translation of the first two novels published in 2007 by Dark Horse Books. For those not familiar with the books or the anime series, the “Dirty Pair” are Kei and Yuri, two young interplanetary agents in the distant future who investigate crimes for the World Welfare Works Association or WWWA. They’re essentially female James Bond types who travel in their own space ship with their pet Mugi, which is essentially an intelligent, alien cat. Their code name is “the lovely angels” but because they’re famous for leaving death and destruction in their wake, they’ve come to be known as “the dirty pair.”

Unlike many anime series, each episode of Dirty Pair is a self-contained adventure. Kei and Yuri often find one mystery that leads to a bigger mystery or find that a tactical situation has gone out of control and they must go in guns blazing while wearing their battle bikinis. At least the novels explain that their outfits do include a transparent polymer that protects them while giving them the appearance of lots of exposed skin.

What I love about the series and the books is that Kei and Yuri are strong, well defined characters. Kei is more hot-tempered and impulsive while Yuri is more thoughtful. It’s fun to see their camaraderie and how the situations regularly blow up for them to cause damage worthy of a contemporary superhero film. What I find a little annoying is that at times it feels like Kei and Yuri are Betty and Veronica from Archie comics each competing for the next cute boy, even in the midst of worlds blowing up around them.

One key difference between the novels and the anime series is that in the novels, Kei and Yuri have clairvoyant powers. If they concentrate and then hold hands, they can get a precognitive clue to the mystery they’re trying to solve. The only time I know this appears in the anime is in the movie, Affair on Nolandia. Of some note, this movie seems to be one of the least popular Dirty Pair stories, but it does feel like it takes most of its beats from the books.

The first Dirty Pair novels were serialized in 1979 in the Japanese magazine SF Magajin. This means Kei and Yuri started kicking butt the same year as Ripley in the American Alien franchise.

The Dirty Pair novels are fun if you’re a fan of the anime and curious about the story’s history. The anime is fun if you like diverting science fiction stories with plenty of gun battles and explosions. Just don’t go in expecting a lot of depth. You can find strong women who will tell more thoughtful stories in other places.

If you want to explore some of the strong women characters in my stories, you might enjoy meeting Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Crimson in my Clockwork Legion Series. You might also enjoy meeting Suki Mori, Fire Ellis, and Kirsten Smart in my Space Pirates Legacy Series or Marcella DuBois, Jane Heckman, and Mercy Rodriguez from my Scarlet Order Vampire Series.

Gaslight Steampunk Expo 2019

Next weekend, from Friday, September 26, 2019 through Sunday, September 28, 2019, I will be giving presentations and I will be on panels at the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California, being held at the Mission Valley Mariott Hotel. The guests of honor are author Gail Carriger, Madame Askew, and the Grand Arbiter. The theme for the weekend is Ancient Egypt Steampunk Style! You can get all the details about the convention at http://www.gaslightexpo.org/. My schedule for the weekend is as follows:

Friday September 26

6:00PM-7:00PM – Salon C Astronomy in the Victorian Age: Many tools of the trade that make modern astronomy possible were developed around the world during the Victorian Era. In this presentation, I will introduce you to many of the women and men who transformed astronomy from simple stargazing to a disciplined scientific pursuit and how their technical and scientific achievements still impact us today.

Saturday, September 27

10:00AM-11:30AM – Salon C Evolution of Steampunk Literature:  Hear how steampunk literature has changed over the last 60 years as both readers and writers look for new definitions. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.

2:00PM-3:00PM – David Lee Summers Autograph Session – Autograph Table in the Vendor Hall

5:00PM-6:00PM – Salon B Mars In the Victorian Age: During the Victorian Era, observations transformed Mars from a reddish light in the sky to an exotic desert planet people might visit one day. At a time the Suez Canal was considered the height of engineering prowess, astronomers saw a planet of canal builders. I look at the observations of Mars in nineteenth century, what we learned, and how careful astronomers were misled by their worldview to see the Martians they wanted to see.

Sunday, September 28

10:00AM-10:45AM – Salon B Reading  of “The Sun Worshippers” by David Lee Summers: A spiritualist is invited to a Victorian mummy unwrapping party hosted by skeptical scientists. What could possibly go wrong when the mummy wakes? I read my story from the anthology After Punk.

11:00AM-12:00PM – Salon B Worldbuilding: As genre writers, we need to create the world that our characters live in. Sometimes it’s similar to our own, while other times it is vastly different. In this panel, we will discuss the nuts and bolts of world building. Does it start with your character or with your story? And does it need a “universal truth” to anchor it and make the unbelievable, believable. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.


If you find yourself in San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Steampunk Expo!