The Mechanics of the Heart

A little over a week ago, my family gathered around to watch the movie Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The trailer led me to believe we’d see a steampunk romance with something of a Tim Burton-influence. What we got was a rather surreal French film full of compelling visuals and an interesting soundtrack that reminded me of some of my favorite steampunk musical artists such as Abney Park, the Nathaniel Johnstone Band, Vernian Process, and Unwoman. In many ways, I fell in love with it, even though the film never quite achieved its full potential.

In addition to the music and the stunning visuals, I loved that the film’s mad scientist was a woman and that pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès appeared as a major character. Much of the film’s second half is set at a circus populated by loveable characters who would be at home in a Tim Burton film.

Although there’s a lot to like in this film, I was underwhelmed by the romantic plot. In it, boy falls in love with girl on first sight, girl disappears, boy meets rival for girl’s affections and endures years of abuse at said rival’s hand, boy finally learns where girl is and goes after her, boy can’t get courage to reveal to girl that he is the boy of her dreams. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. The ending is sufficiently unexpected to redeem this plot somewhat. Still, the women in the film generally exist as romantic interests or nurturing figures. To top it all off, the film has a somewhat rushed and flat-feeling English dub and the DVD we watched had no option to watch in French with subtitles. Since watching, I’ve looked and can’t seem to find the French version available on a Region 1 DVD at all, which is both something of a mystery and a shame. It’s not like many North American DVDs don’t include French-language tracks!

After watching the film, we watched the special features which teased us with information about a book and an album. It turns out the movie is based on a concept album called La Mécanique du Cœur by the band Dionysos which was turned into a book by the band’s lead singer, Mathias Malzieu. In something of a plot twist, I discovered that while I couldn’t find the English-language soundtrack album on iTunes, I could buy the French soundtrack and the original French album. The title translates as “The Mechanics of the Heart” and in many ways, that proves to be a much better title for the work.

Once I realized that Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart was basically intended to be a steampunk and Gothic-flavored rock operetta, it made much more sense to me. Overall, the piece is more a metaphor for the fragility and unpredictability of the human heart than a coming-of-age romantic tale. Also, I’d argue not all the scenes should be taken literally. For example there’s a scene where Jack the Ripper mysteriously appears. This confused me during my initial viewing, but after pouring over the lyrics, I realize that Jack the Protagonist is having a moment of fear that his obsession could turn him into Jack the Ripper. Indeed, not your usual light animated fare. Steampunks in particular will likely find the beautiful, imaginative artwork inspiring.

Parents of young children may want to preview the film to decide if it’s suitable for their family. Some moments, such as the aforementioned Jack the Ripper scene, may well be unsuitable for younger children. Also, parents should note, the original album does contain rather explicit lyrics in English, most of which were toned down considerably or removed for the movie.

Despite my reservations, it was exciting to see what French artists are doing in the steampunk realm. The images and music from this movie are still swirling around in my thoughts. The original album has already become part of my collection and I’ve decided I need to make the movie a part of my permanent collection. It’s solid musical poetry that could have achieved true greatness if the narrative elements were as solid as the imagery and the metaphors.

Update: 7/18/2017: My DVD copy of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart arrived and I’m pleased to report that it not only has the English dub, but it include the original French language track, along with optional English subtitles. I’m guessing the English-only copies are the ones for rental, but copies made for retail sale have both languages, even though they aren’t advertised as such.

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Dying Moon

This has been an exciting week. My wife and I were featured in a nice four-page article in our alumni magazine, The Gold Pan from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. The article is a pretty thorough overview of what my wife and I have been up to in science and publishing in the years since college. You can download a PDF of the issue here: Summer 2017 Issue of Gold Pan.

Also, this week, I joined editor David Boop and fellow authors Robert E. Vardeman, Nicole Givens Kurtz, and Peter J. Wacks to discuss the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone on the Baen Publishing Podcast. We talk about weird westerns, steampunk, and our stories. Our conversation lasted long enough, we’re in both this week’s episode and next. Come listen to our conversation at: The Baen Podcast.

Turning to this week’s featured book—ten years ago, I was editing science fiction and fantasy novels for LBF Books. At one point, the owners sent me a batch of novels to consider for publication and one clearly stood out from the rest. It was called Dying Moon and it was written by Shawn Oetzel. What really grabbed me was the seamless way Shawn blended crime drama and fantasy in his debut novel. As the tale unfolded, he explored the clash of elven and human cultures in the modern world and then added in plenty of action to keep me turning pages.

In the novel, an Elf called Dre Fao’lain is intent on the destruction of all his kind and enters into the world of 21st century Los Angeles to perform the magical ceremony necessary to accomplish his mission. Leaving a series of human bodies in his wake, the Elf is pursued by the LAPD. In the meantime the Elves send Kalen Or’Wain, Captain of the Elven Royal Guard, to stop him. Kalen teams up with a special agent who knows about the Elven world, an officer from the LAPD and even a street gang to stop Dre Fao’lain.

If you’re looking for a fun urban fantasy read, it would be hard to go wrong with this book. I bought several copies from LBF after the book was published to sell at conventions. I have a few left that I’m selling at a special clearance discount of 50% off. This makes a great summer read, helps me clear some room so I have space to stock new books as they come in, and helps support new projects I want to move forward. You can pick up a copy of Dying Moon at: http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Dying-Moon.

Westercon 70 Revisited

Last weekend was a long holiday for many folks in the United States as the country celebrated its 241st year of independence. As far as my “day” job at Kitt Peak National Observatory was concerned it was just an ordinary weekend—no extra days off for me. Fortunately, those days coincided with the dates of Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona. Westercon, otherwise known as the West Coast Regional Science Fantasy Conference, is held in a city in the Western United States, typically around Independence Day weekend. The last Westercon I was fortunate enough to attend was Westercon 62, which was also held in Tempe at the same hotel that hosted Westercon 70.

Westercon started on Saturday, July 1. My daughter, Autumn, and I went in early to make sure we could drop books off with Duncan’s Books and More, who kindly sold my books over the weekend. Also, I wanted to check in. Autumn was working the convention as a volunteer and wanted to see what she could do. As it turns out, it was a low-key morning with few events. I did get to spend some time chatting with Emily Devenport and Ernest Hogan. Programming coordinator Michael Senft also came by and introduced himself and chatted for a while. In the afternoon, I participated in a panel on “The Return of Space Opera.” Much of our discussion centered around defining space opera and much of our conclusion is that you know it’s kind of a know-it-when-you-see-it thing. We did note that a defining characteristic was grand scope and that space opera doesn’t require great science accuracy, but that you can certainly have scientifically accurate space opera!

Sunday was the day we decided to brave Phoenix heat in costume. I was actually dressed in a relatively light version of my normal steampunk attire. Autumn dressed as “Entropy,” spokesperson for her crochet store, Entropy Creations. Verity dressed as the night sky. Although it’s not altogether visible in the photo, her skirt is lighted with constellations she sewed in and wired herself.

Sunday was my big panel day. I started with a panel discussing the science of steampunk. The discussion began with panelists throwing out a steampunk gadget from their work while those with science backgrounds on the panel thought about how it might be may to work. From there, we moved on to a discussion of the nineteenth century technology that inspired us and how steampunk doesn’t necessarily require working technology—a good, internally consistent magic system can work just as well. This discussion was followed by a panel on the future of steampunk writing. Vaughn Treude, Arlys Holloway and I concluded that steampunk has a bright future because there are so many possibilities, but that it’s still waiting for its J.K. Rowling or Stephen King—an author so famous that they’re literally household names. We noted some are close, but haven’t quite crossed that threshold.

In the afternoon, I joined Thomas Watson, Ernest Hogan, and Weston Ochse for a fun panel about cryptids. The discussion opened up by defining a cryptid, which usually is a monster but one that people believe might exist and people claim to have seen, although there is no hard evidence. Ernest brought up that some cryptids do prove to be real. His example was gorillas, who were not proven until the middle of the nineteenth century. Because Westercon 70 was also known as Conalope, we also discussed the history of jackalopes and how they grew from a novelty item in tourist shops to even grander folklore. For example, homesteaders were told that they should wear stovepipes on their legs to prevent jackalopes from goring them. Also, apparently you can pacify a jackalope by giving it a shot of whiskey. In my research for the panel, I even learned that my home town of Las Cruces has its own cryptid, the elusive teratorn, a giant bird or pteranodon said to snatch up small animals or even children!

My final panel for the day was called “Alien Autopsy, the Biology of ET.” Dr. Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Thomas Watson and Syd Logsdon joined me. Much of this panel was spent discussing the requirements for life and whether we might even recognize fellow lifeforms when we first see them. After the panels were over, it was time for the masquerade. MC for the show was Diana Given, one of the owners of Wild Wild West Con, an event I’m fond of attending in Tucson. Autumn volunteered as runner for the masquerade to deliver messages. Here you see her consulting with Weston Ochse, serving as one of the event’s judges. Some conventions have very large masquerades. This one was rather small. I suspect the summer heat in Tempe kept people from doing as much with costuming as they might. Still it was a fun event with a nice card trick performance as entertainment.

Monday of Westercon started with my exoplanet presentation, which always seems to draw a crowd. I was glad that Dr. Dave Williams was in the audience because he’s an expert in our solar system and helped me answer a few questions I didn’t know as well as he did. After the talk, I went for coffee with longtime friend Jeff Lewis. Jeff performed the part of Roberts back in our very first audio recording of The Pirates of Sufiro back in the 1990s. We discussed the state of science fiction, what we’ve been doing in writing and he introduced me to the program Scrivener. I’ve been hearing good things about the program and I’m trying it out now. I’ll see about giving a report of my impressions soon. That afternoon, I joined Madame Askew, Dirk Folmer, and Katherine Stewart for a steampunk free-for-all where we talked about what a dynamic culture it is, with everything from events, to games, to costumes, to gadgets to writing.

Independence Day itself started with a panel about putting the science in science fiction. We had a good discussion about researching science for your writing, but making sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail. After the panel, I went to an autographing session and signed some books.

As it turns out, Westercon was the same weekend as Libertycon, which was the official debut event for the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop and including stories by such luminaries as Jim Butcher, Jody Lynn Nye, Larry Correia, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Kevin J. Anderson. I’d already committed to Westercon when I learned about Libertycon, but still, I was pleased to be able to celebrate the release of the anthology by reading my story. I was pleased a few people came out to my reading. One of the folks in the audience asked, “Are all the stories in the book as good as yours?” She then said my reading was “Almost as good as Harlan Ellison.” That seemed like high praise to me! You can get a copy of Straight Outta Tombstone from your favorite local bookstore, or you can order it directly at: https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Outta-Tombstone-David-Boop-ebook/dp/B071JGTN3H/

Also at the reading, I gave a special sneak peak of the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt we’re working on, noting that the trailer still very much a work in progress!

Overall, the event went well for me and I was glad to be part of it. I know behind the scenes there were snags and hiccups, but I’ve been behind the scenes of some book events and know how hard it is to keep everything moving forward. What’s especially impressive is that most, if not all, of the organizers are volunteers with other full-time jobs. Thanks for inviting me and thanks for putting on a good event.

Westercon 70

Next weekend, I’ll be a program participant at Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona, also known as Conalope and LepreCon 43. Julie Dillon is the artist guest of honor, Connie Willis is the author guest of honor, Bjo and John Trimble are special media guests of honor. Sharing the spotlight with them are local author guest of honor Gini Koch and toastmaster Weston Ochse. Be sure to drop by the Westercon 70 page at westercon70.org to get details about the location, all the guests, and programming.

I will not have a dealer’s table at the event, but Duncan Rittschoff of Duncan’s Books and More will have a selection of my books in the dealer’s room. Also, it sounds like we may have copies of Straight Outta Tombstone in time for the show. I’m keeping my finger’s crossed!

Here’s my schedule for the event, which of course is subject to last minute change. Also, apologies if I missed a fellow panelist in the program grid.

Saturday, July 1

  • 3:30-4:30pm – The Return of Space Opera – Room: Jojake. With the return of Star Wars, the success of The Expanse on TV and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, the space opera has returned. The panelists look at the appeal of these action-filled adventures where the science doesn’t get too hard and the characters have plenty of drama and romance. On the panel with me are Colette Black, H. Paul Honsinger, and Michael D’Ambrosio.

Sunday, July 2

  • 9:30-10:30am – The Science of Steampunk: What Makes the Gears Go Round? – Room: Jojake. Steampunk style is filled with all sorts of clockwork creatures and fantastical machines. Scientists and authors look at the science and tech behind airships, submarines, and giant mechanical spiders. On the panel with me are Ashley R. Carlson, Bruce Davis, Suzanne Lazear and Steve Howe.
  • 11:00-noon – The Future of Steampunk Writing – Room: Jojake. Vaughn Treude and Arlys Holloway will join me to discuss our thoughts on the future of steampunk writing.
  • 12:30-1:30pm – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Drop by the autograph table and I’ll be happy to sign books for you! Jenn Czep, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, and Natalie Wright will also be signing at the same time.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Jackalopes and Other Cryptids – Room: Sand Lotus. In honor of Conalope’s mascot, authors will pay tribute to the strange creatures that may or may not inhabit the dark corners of the world. On the panel with me are Weston Ochse, Thomas Watson, and Ernest Hogan.
  • 5:00-6:00pm – Alien Autopsy of ET – Room: Dolores. Would it be possible for an alien species which found water poisonous to even land on Earth? How would two hearts work? What does green Vulcan blood say about their circulatory system? Join scientific experts and authors as they get to the guts of creature creation and make sure that “damned alien biology” is more than just a vague explanation. On the panel with me are Syd Logsdon, Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Thomas Watson.

Monday, July 3

  • 9:00-10:00am – Exoplanets – Room: Augustine. In this presentation, I discuss how exoplanets are discovered and present some highlights about the kinds of exoplanets that have been discovered.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Steampunk Roundtable – Room: Jojake. What is it that makes Steampunk an enduring pop-culture phenomenon? Attend this roundtable discussion of steampunk represented by contributors in a variety of fields. On the panel with me are Katherine Stewart, Dirk Folmer, and Madame Askew.

Tuesday, July 4

  • 9:30-10:30am – Bullets in Space: Putting the “Sci” in “SciFi – Room: Campanile. Hard sci-fi requires intensive research and lots of math to make sure everything adds up. We talk about that process, where to find the scientific answers and how to make sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in physics calculations. On the panel with me are Michael D’Ambrosio, Steve Howe, Amy K. Nichols, and Thomas Watson.
  • 11:00am – noon – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Another opportunity for you to get your wares signed by me and other panelists! Those other panelists would be Michael D’Ambrosio, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, Stephine Weippert, and Connie Willis.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Reading – Room: Boardroom. In honor of release day, I plan to read my short story “Fountains of Blood” from Straight Outta Tombstone. There’s also a good chance, I’ll be able to give attendees a special, early, sneak peak at a very exciting short movie project I’ve been working on. Also reading during this session will be Cynthia Ward and Thomas Watson.

It looks like it’s going to be a busy weekend, but I can’t wait. Also, just for fun, if you come to the convention and cosplay a character from one of my books, I’ll give you a free book from those I have in stock at hadrosaur.com. Since I won’t have a dealer’s table, I may have to send it to you afterwards, but we’ll make it happen!

The Magic of Old Books

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, tentatively titled Owl Riders. These novels are steampunk steeped in history. The first novel, Owl Dance starts in a wild west very much like the wild west of history. However, as an alien character called Legion interferes in human affairs and humans themselves gain confidence in their inventions, the world of the novels gradually diverges from the world of history.

Because I start in the world of history, I like to do my homework and understand the places and peoples I describe in my books. Even when I diverge from history, the cultural experience of the people in the novel will be the same up until the divergence point. Reading books that discuss the history of the region and peoples I’m writing about is, of course, important, but one thing I like to do over and beyond that is find books written by people who lived at the time the book takes place.

One of the challenges of Owl Riders is that I have some scenes set in Persia of 1885. I found some good histories of Iran which gave me insights not only into the country in the nineteenth century, but how that history helped to shape the modern country. However, I wasn’t sure what I would find written at the time period. A search at my local library didn’t turn up anything. On an off chance, I went to COAS, our wonderful used bookstore in Las Cruces and happened on a book called Land of the Lion and Sun by Absalom D. Shabaz, published in 1901. The book’s subtitle is “Personal Experiences, the Nations of Persia—Their Manners, Customs and Their Beliefs.”

This sounded perfect, a personal viewpoint of someone living in Iran within a few years of my story’s time period. On closer inspection, I discovered that the book was written as a guide for people hoping to be Christian Missionaries in Persia. I’ve just started the book and I find that Shabaz was raised a Christian in Persia and had to deal with the reactions of his friends and neighbors. This actually proves to be an interesting viewpoint because it combines elements from both my protagonists, Ramon Morales who is a Catholic-raised lawyer visiting Persia for the first time and Fatemeh Morales who converted to the Bahá’í Faith as a young woman and then left home.

For me, the real magic of a book like Land of the Lion and Sun is that I can hear the words of the author speaking directly to me across more than a century. I can read a personal perspective in the language of the time, with all the attitudes and prejudices of the time intact. I think it’s important to start by reading modern histories precisely because an author of a particular time can’t help but share their prejudices. It allows me to separate the perceptions of the historical author from history as it unfolded. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Shabaz experienced the history I’ve read about and see where that might lead me as I prepare to revise my novel.

While you’re waiting for the fourth novel, be sure to catch the three novels that are already published. Clicking the titles will take you to pages with more information:

Lightning Wolves on Audible

Lightning Wolves, the second novel in my Clockwork Legion steampunk series, is now available as an audiobook at Audible.com. In the novel, it’s 1877 and Russian forces occupy the Pacific Northwest. They are advancing into California. New weapons have proven ineffective or dangerously unstable. The one man who can help has disappeared into Apache Country, hunting ghosts. A healer and a former sheriff lead a band into the heart of the invasion to determine what makes the Russian forces so unstoppable while a young inventor attempts to unleash the power of the lightning wolves.

One thing that makes this release special is that I love to listen to audiobooks while I’m driving from my home in New Mexico to the observatory where I work in Arizona. Elements of this novel were inspired by the very same commute. Almost every week, I pass the Whetstone Mountains which house Kartchner Caverns State Park. I drive by the turnoff for Tombstone, famous for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. I drive through the Dragoon Mountains where Apache warriors made camp. All of these locations feature in Lightning Wolves. I look forward to giving the book a listen during a couple of my upcoming commutes through the region. Here we have a look at one of the real-world settings in the novel.

As it turns out, I’m revisiting a lot of these same locations in the novel I’m currently writing. I left a few plot threads dangling at the end of Lightning Wolves which didn’t get resolved in The Brazen Shark because pirate captain Onofre Cisneros took my protagonists Ramon and Fatemeh first to Hawaii and then to Japan. Also, it seemed like it would be fun to leave those dangling plot threads alone for a few years worth of story time and see how they develop. The result is that Southern Arizona is in quite a mess by the opening of Owl Riders and you know Ramon and Fatemeh will be right in the middle of it, presuming other aspects of their life don’t get in the way.

The audiobook is narrated by Edward Mittelstedt who did a terrific job on Owl Dance. What’s more, Lightning Wolves was a top ten finisher in the best steampunk novel category of the 2014 Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. My daughter Autumn created Larissa, the young inventor mentioned in the story’s description. She served as the model for Larissa on the book’s cover.

You can listen to a sample and buy a copy of the Lightning Wolves audiobook at: https://www.audible.com/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Lightning-Wolves-Audiobook/B0716QC53Y

Roughing It

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been plugging away on the rough draft of my eleventh novel, Owl Riders. The novel will be the fourth in my Clockwork Legion series, which includes Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, and The Brazen Shark.

I haven’t said much about the new novel as I’m writing it, partly since it’s novel four, it’s tricky to discuss it without giving spoilers for the first three novels. However, what I will say is that I hope this novel closes up some loose ends from the first three novels while possibly serving as the first book of a second trilogy featuring these characters. Whether that last part happens will depend on demand.

Those who follow this blog, know that I’ve also been busy with several other tasks, which have included the release and promotion of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt and the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys, plus, of course, I’ve been shepherding the anthology Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales toward completion. Of course, on top of these are visits to conventions and, oh yeah! I have an actual “day” job operating telescopes!

Ideally, I like to luxuriate in the drafting process. I’m the kind of author who likes to spend time in a scene, really immersing myself in it. I write fast, so in the past I’ve often done things like think about a scene for two or three days, then furiously write four or five thousand words in a sitting. Afterwards, I would go back and reread what I’ve written, making corrections and generally trying to make sure I haven’t left out parts or repeated parts. My hope is that when I’m done with this, I’ll have a rough draft that won’t need all that much work to turn into a published novel. Yeah, right.

My beta readers and my editors always find stuff I missed. It’s partly because of time and partly because of this realization that I’ve been taking more of a NaNoWriMo approach to this novel. For those who don’t know what that is, NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month and the formal event happens in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. To do this, you just draft and don’t look back at what you’ve written, just keep plunging forward.

In fact, my novels, The Solar Sea and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order started as NaNoWriMo novels, when I was challenged to participate by my publisher.

The best strategy I found to complete NaNoWriMo was to set myself a daily word count goal and stick to it. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing with Owl Riders. On an ideal day, I wake up, have breakfast, check my mail for important messages, go for a two-mile walk, write 1000 words, have lunch, go for another walk, write another 1000 words, go for a final walk, then get on with the other business of the day. I find that during the walks, I can spend time visualizing the scenes as I prefer, plus it gets me up and moving around, so I can avoid a repeat of the thrombosis scare I had earlier this year.

As I say, this is an ideal routine. Because of the nature of my “day” job operating telescopes from sunset to sunrise, I can’t easily write on those days. Also, if I have a time-critical item on of my other projects, I’ll give myself a break and only require myself to complete 1000 words, rather than 2000 words in a day. As it is, I’m making steady progress. I know I’ll have to go back over the whole thing with a fine tooth comb and make sure the whole book works together. I’m sure there are wordy places I’ll cut and places where I’ll need to add detail, but I’d do that even if I took my time drafting the manuscript.

While waiting around to see how well I succeed, you can read the first three Clockwork Legion novels. All the links above will take you to my pages describing the books which include links to retailers where you can purchase the book. Also, all three of the original Clockwork Legion novels are available in a single budget edition from Kobo and Barnes and Noble.