The Greatest Showman

This weekend finds me at Gaslight Expo in San Diego. If you’re in Southern California, I hope you’ll consider dropping by this event at the Town and Country Hotel and check out all the great steampunk festivities. You can get more information at http://www.gaslightexpo.org

Recently, I had the opportunity to see the new musical The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman. I had been looking forward to this for some time. After all, there are few actors like Jackman who have the talent and the presence to be both believable action stars and great musical performers. What’s more, I’ve long been fascinated by P.T. Barnum. In many ways he defined showmanship. He had a complicated relationship with his performance company. It’s easy to dismiss Barnum as someone who exploited the “oddities” who worked for him (and anyone else, for that matter). Yet, if not for Barnum these people arguably would have had far worse lives in nineteenth century New York. What’s more, Barnum was a skeptic who called out people who preyed on others, such as William Mumler, who convinced many grieving people, he could capture the images of the dearly departed in photographs. Barnum showed it was simply a trick done with double exposures.

Overall, I enjoyed the show’s music. I thought the songs and dances were quite well done. Several times in the movie, I felt they were building up to a real confrontation between Barnum and his company, but it seems like the screenwriters sidestepped it and ultimately the company just seemed to rally around Barnum when he was at his lowest. Although I don’t really expect musical theater to be the most historically accurate medium, the musical strayed quite far from the true story. Among other things Barnum never had a partner at the American Museum, there never was a romantic scandal with Jenny Lind (although she did get tired of his constant exploitative marketing of her and left his company), and it took about 30 years from the time he opened his museum in New York until it burned down. The two daughters we saw in the movie would have had time to grow up in the time span portrayed.

When I first heard about The Greatest Showman, I was a little disappointed, though not altogether surprised that they didn’t simply adapt the much more historically accurate, albeit stylized, 1980 musical Barnum to the big screen. I haven’t heard a definitive reason this wasn’t done, though I can make some guesses. First and foremost, I imagine the music in Barnum probably didn’t seem hip enough for a modern movie musical. Even though it was released in 1980, the musical feels much like the musicals of the 50s and the 60s. I’m also guessing there were some rights issues. I gather the musical is still being performed and it just saw a recent revival in London. That said, Barnum makes the point that one could have made a more accurate movie musical than the one that was made.

Of course, one of the things that’s strongly emphasized to those of us who write speculative fiction is that we should do everything we can to allow the reader (or the viewer) to suspend their disbelief of the fantastical elements. For me, the history was less of an issue than the problem of the averted confrontation. That point actually is what made me look closely at the history. (That and not remembering that Barnum had a partner named Carlyle, which he didn’t.) With that in mind, I’ll close out today’s post by recommending two authors who get the history right to the point that they can sell you on a little humbug and pass off some razzmatazz.  They are David B. Riley and Laura Givens. I’ve had the honor of publishing them both together in a book called Legends of the Dragon Cowboys. In the book, you’ll meet Ling Fung, a wandering businessman encounters a Mayan god, crooked enterprises and Yeti, the Abominable Snowman. You’ll also meet Chin Song Ping, a scoundrel, gambler and trouble magnet who has no little P.T. Barnum in him. Why not check out a copy of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys today at: https://www.amazon.com/Legends-Dragon-Cowboys-David-Riley/dp/1885093837

The Midwest Book Review said, ” These two Western novellas are seasoned a dash of exotic adventure, featuring cowboy protagonists who hail from the Far East and pursue their dreams in the tough-as-nails frontier. Riveting from first page to last, Legends of the Dragon Cowboys is enthusiastically recommended for public library collections and connoisseurs of the genre!”

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October 1 Reflections

October 1 can be a challenging day for me. On this date in 1980, my dad passed away. I was only 13 years old. This year, October 1 comes with an added twist. In just six weeks, I’ll be the same age my dad was when he passed away. That noted, and given the caveat we never really know how long we have, I don’t have a lot of fear that my time is nigh. My doctor says I’m in good health and I don’t smoke like he did. Also, my brothers are more than ten years older than me and they’re still around.

This is the last photo I have with my dad. My mom is sitting between us. Soon after this photo was taken, my dad had his first heart attack. Part of his recovery was to walk a mile each day and I would take those walks with him. In many ways, I think I got to know my dad better in that time than I had in the years before that.

As I approach the age my dad was when he died, I find myself thinking about his hopes, dreams, and fears at that age. I look at his successes and the occasional regret he shared. I find myself starting to evaluate my life, asking how satisfied I am with what I’ve done, asking what I still want to do.

My life has been quite a bit different than his. After graduating high school, he joined the Marine Corps at the tail end of World War II. Fortunately, he didn’t have to go overseas. After he left the Corps, he went to work for Santa Fe Railroad. He moved up through the ranks until he became a General Locomotive Foreman at the shops in San Bernardino, California, where the photo above is taken. Beyond that, he was also a leader in the Boy Scouts. He gave me an appreciation of this great nation and showed much of it to me in the short time we had together. He was a leader in our church and he gave me a strong appreciation of the spiritual side of life. He was an artist who loved to paint.

The day before my dad died, he’d gone in to see the doctor and asked if he would write a letter recommending early retirement. Instead, the doctor cleared him to go back to work. My dad was proud of what he’d done, but I think he wanted a change. Unfortunately, he didn’t feel he could make that change without the financial security that would have come with taking early retirement.

I sometimes wonder if my dad would have been proud of the work I do in astronomy, or my writing. I suspect he would have been. He’d certainly find the astronomical machinery, electronics, and optics I work with fascinating and I think he would have enjoyed my Clockwork Legion books. He might have looked askance at some of my horror, but then again I have memories of watching The Omen with him when it appeared on Showtime. It scared me, but he pointed out the silly parts, commenting on them Mystery Science Theater-style and I was less afraid. In a way, it’s a skill that let me analyze horror and actually write it.

Bittersweet as these memories are, they also come on the official release day of the anthology DeadSteam edited by Bryce Raffle. I’m proud to share a table of contents with such talented writers as D.J. Tyrer, Karen J. Carlisle, Alice E. Keyes, and James Dorr. In the tradition of the Penny Dreadfuls, this anthology takes us back to horrors of the Victorian age. Whether it be the fog-shrouded streets of London or a dark cave in the desert southwest, who knows what will appear from the shadows. I hope you’ll join us. You can pick up a copy of DeadSteam at:  https://www.amazon.com/DeadSteam-Bryce-Raffle/dp/0995276749/

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.

Steampunk Batman

One of the appeals of alternate history and steampunk is the ability to imagine wrongs of the past made right. Of course, one of the most notorious villains of the Victorian age was Jack the Ripper. For me, my first Jack the Ripper tale wasn’t alternate history, but science fiction. It was an episode of Star Trek written by Robert Bloch called “Wolf in the Fold” in which Chief Engineer Scott is accused of committing some very Jack the Ripper-like murders.

One of my earliest exposures to alternate history was the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola. It imagines that Jack the Ripper travels to Gotham City and starts his murder spree again, only to confront Batman. I bought and read the graphic novel soon after it was released in 1989. I was in graduate school at the time and comics were one of the few things I had time to read. It’s hard to call the original Gotham by Gaslight steampunk. The story pretty much limits itself to technology that was well established in the nineteenth century. That said, the artwork reminds me more than a little of Jacques Tardi’s artwork in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Also, it’s worth noting that Robert Bloch, who wrote the Jack the Ripper Star Trek episode, also wrote the graphic novel’s introduction.

Earlier this year, Warner Brothers produced a direct-to-video animated adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight. I knew I wanted to reacquaint myself with this story. I watched it on Netflix and liked it enough, I went out and bought a copy. I discovered Best Buy has a special edition that includes a reprint of the original graphic novel—very cool because that meant I could refresh my memory of the original without damaging my first edition.

As it turns out, the plot of the movie is quite a bit different from that of the graphic novel. This becomes apparent right away when it opens with Pamela Isley (better known to many Batman fans as Poison Ivy) working in a burlesque house and becoming the Ripper’s first murder victim. I have to admit to mixed feelings on this point. One on hand, it feels a bit like a betrayal of character to make Pamela a victim. On the other, it establishes right away that you can’t take your expectations of certain characters for granted and that does pay off as the movie progresses.

It’s pointed out in the commentary that the graphic novel was only 40 pages long and that doesn’t really provide enough material to fill out a 70-minute movie. What I like is that they didn’t add stuff just to add stuff. They fleshed out the mystery and we got to see my favorite aspect of Batman—we got to see him working as a detective, hunting for clues and actually figuring out who the Ripper is.

They also made it more steampunk than the original, but it’s not a gratuitous addition of gadgets. Instead, they added a World’s Fair, which was very much a showpiece of technology at the time, and they gave the police an airship. This latter works because in Batman: The Animated Series the police are shown as having airships, so it was great to see that idea explored in this alternate history version. They also gave Batman a couple of steampowered gadgets. Of course, Batman always needs cutting-edge technology in his work.

There’s great voice acting in the movie with Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Anthony Head as Alfred the Butler, and Jennifer Carpenter as Selina Kyle. The DVD’s special features are pretty much teasers for other DC/Warner film projects, but the Blu Ray includes a couple of bonus Batman cartoons, a commentary and a making-of featurette. All in all, this ended up being one of my favorite adaptations of a DC comic book. It seems like the makers of the live-action DC movies could learn a thing or two from the animation department.

Of course, if you’re in a steampunk mood, you should check out my Clockwork Legion series. I have plenty of airships to go around, plus there’s even the New Orleans World Cotton Exposition in the fourth book—one of the original World’s Fairs. You can learn more about the series by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion. If you’re in Las Cruces, I’m signing copies this morning at COAS Books downtown from 10 until noon. If you miss that, I’ll be at Branigan Library tomorrow from 2 until 4pm.

Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Las Cruces Events

I’ve been on the road a lot this past month, so I’m looking forward to a week at home. That said, a week at home doesn’t mean a break from promoting books. It just means I’ll be promoting them in my hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico at a pair of terrific events.

The first event is a signing at COAS Books downtown at 317 North Main Street from 10am until noon on Saturday, September 15. What’s especially fun about this event is that it happens during the Farmer’s and Craft Market downtown, so my daughter will be selling her crochet items nearby.

The second event will be the fifth annual Celebrate Authors event held in the Roadrunner Room of the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library at 200 E. Picacho Avenue from 2-4pm on Sunday, September 16. There will be 30 authors in all at this event including my friend R.H. Webster. The event is hosted by the Friends of the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library and they always provide a wide range of tasty snacks. It’s a great opportunity to discover local authors and discover what they’re doing.

I will have a selection of all my books at both of these events. That said, I will be featuring three recent releases.

Owl Riders

First is my latest novel, the steampunk adventure Owl Riders. In the year 1885, Apaches have captured a large swath of Southern Arizona and former lawman Ramon Morales must negotiate peace. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, his wife is kidnapped by a man from her native Persia. A band of outlaws and pirates called the Owl Riders must assemble to reunite Ramon and his wife so they can tame the Wild West.

The Solar Sea

The next book I’ll be featuring is the reissue of my novel The Solar Sea. Whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. Along the way, they discover humans may not be alone in the solar system.

Straight Outta Tombstone

Last but not least, the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone is now out in a mass market paperback edition. These tales may not be the ones your grandpappy spun around the chuck wagon campfire, unless he was talking about soul-sucking ghosts, steam-powered demons, and wayward aliens! This collection of weird western short stories features tales by Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, Alan Dean Foster, Kevin J. Anderson and more. Among the tales is my take on the disappearance of Albert J. Fountain, best known from history as Billy the Kid’s defense attorney.

If you’re in Las Cruces, New Mexico next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at COAS Books, the Branigan Library, or both!

Steampunk in the Wild

In many ways, steampunk is more than a literary genre and more than a fandom. It can be a lifestyle and it can be a community. I experienced this when I joined the Tucson Steampunk Society to invade the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, just a few miles south of Tombstone. The Society secured lodgings at the Bisbee Inn, also known as the Hotel La More, at one edge of Bisbee, overlooking Brewery Gulch, a home to saloons in the old west days and still a home to some fine breweries today. The Bisbee Inn is a lovely building that still feels very much like a nineteenth century hotel, even with its modernized plumbing and kitchen.

Unlike a convention, this outing was not jammed full of scheduled items. Most events happened on Saturday, August 18. We started with a meetup at the Cafe Cornucopia for an informal lunch. Afterwards, from 1-5pm, the League of Pythean Metachronists and Explorers of the Paraverse welcomed participants to a High … very High Tea in the far reaches of the Mule Mountains. Many participants hiked into the Mule Mountains for tea and adventure. Some remained below at the base camp, still others took the time to explore the shops and attractions of Bisbee.

My wife, daughter, and I decided to take the Queen Mine Tour, which is quite an adventure in itself. The Queen Mine was a copper mine that operated as recently as 1975 and our tour guide was one of the miners who worked there. The people who take the tour are loaded on a little train that rides along the old mining cart tracks deep into the Earth. There, the guide gave us a look at the equipment used in the mining operation and regaled us with anecdotes of his days working in the mines. I last took the tour circa 1994 and information I gained was used when I described the Erdonium mines in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to start my rewrite of that novel at my Patreon page, so you can bet the fresh visit will be useful!

After the mine tour, I joined the family for a visit of the shops. Va Voom near the Bisbee Inn specializes in many steampunk items and held a no-purchase-necessary raffle for a beautiful leather parasol holder. All of us found treasures in the store to take home with us. After that, we took a break until dinner time and had a nice, quiet dinner as a family. Bisbee is the kind of town where you can walk into a fine restaurant in your steampunk best and be welcomed with open arms. The group did elicit a few comments, and though a few were puzzled or curious, most were complimentary.

After dinner, my family and I visited a few more shops before rejoining members of the Society for gelato. We then returned to the hotel for the PG PJ Potluck Parlour Party. This was a chance for steampunks to gather and mingle. I was invited to read and the hotel, like many old hotels, is said to have its share of ghosts, so I read a sampling from my story “The Sun Worshiper” about a mummy-unwrapping party gone wrong, which appears in the anthology After Punk published by eSpec Books.

You might notice in the photo that I wore a top hat and tails to a PJ party. Of course, as an astronomer, that is viable late night wear! After the reading, the party moved on to a mix of tarot and tea leaf readings plus some party games. The whole thing wound down between midnight and one in the morning.

All in all, it proved to be a wonderful and relaxed time. It gave me a chance to know members of the Tucson Steampunk Society better than I would have at a convention. What’s more, when I go to a convention in a town, I rarely have time to actually explore the town. I loved that I got to spend time in Bisbee, visit its shops and see some of the people who weren’t part of the event, including a dear friend who lives there and another friend who was in town for a different event. I would certainly be happy to return for another such event either in Bisbee or in a new and different location.

I can tell many people worked behind the scenes to make this a wonderful event. At the risk of leaving someone out, I want to give kudos to Andie Ruiz, Kathleen Hill, John and Sabrina Floyd, and Jim Spring. And of course a very special thank you to Madame Askew who invited me to read at the event and is the vibrant and delightful personality at the center of many outstanding steampunk events. You should visit her Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/MadameAskew