The Stories They Tell

I recently had a chance to see the movie The Kid which was directed by Vincent D’Onofrio and stars stars Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett and Dane DeHaan as Billy the Kid. The movie is actually focused on a boy, Rio (played by Jake Schur), and his sister, Sara (played by D’Onofrio’s daughter, Leila George) who have an abusive father. One night, the father goes into a rage and starts beating their mother. Unable to stand it any longer, Rio shoots his father, but it’s too late. Rio and Sara’s mother is already gone. What’s more, their uncle (played by Chris Pratt) is as bad or worse than the father and he plans no good for his niece and nephew because of what they did to his brother.

The kids escape their uncle only to take refuge in a shack that Billy the Kid and his associates use as a hideout. Billy and Rio take a liking to each other just as newly minted Sheriff Pat Garrett arrives to take the gang in. There’s a shootout, during which Charlie Bowdre is killed. Pat takes Billy’s gang into custody, then discovers Rio and Sara. They make up a story about meeting their parents in Santa Fe. Pat doesn’t quite believe them, but offers to take them anyway. At this point, the movie essentially follows the historical story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, while Rio tries to decide which of the two to trust with his secret. Later in the film, the stakes are upped when the uncle captures Sara. Then Rio must make a decision about who can be trusted to help rescue his sister.

I first heard this movie was in production soon after watching the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I was curious what other movies Dane DeHaan had been in and when I saw he would be playing Billy the Kid and Ethan Hawke (who had a bit part in Valerian) would be Pat Garrett, I knew I had to see this movie. It struck me that DeHaan had the potential to be a great Billy and he didn’t disappoint. Despite the Valerian connections, the movie almost crosses over more with the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven, in which Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke all had starring roles. Despite these connections and despite watching for it, the movie managed to come and go from theaters without my notice.

Overall, the movie used historical characters and events the way I try to in my steampunk and weird western stories. They became a way to ground the story in a historical reality and give it a sense of authenticity. For the most part, the history actually seemed quite good. The major events Billy the Kid’s last days played out as I know the story from Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. I only had two historical quibbles. First, they kept referring to New Mexico as a state. New Mexico wouldn’t become a state until 31 years after Billy’s death. Also, Santa Fe looked too much like a western boom town and not the longtime settlement it was.

The line that resonated most with me was one spoken by Pat Garrett near the end of the film. “It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters the story they tell when you’re gone.” It echoes why characters like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are so fascinating. We have images and we have countless depictions, but we still want to get to know the truth of those characters. Sometimes we find new truths when we see them through the eyes of contemporaries as was imagined in The Kid. I think they did a great job of portraying Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as humans, neither totally good nor bad, but products of their circumstances. Sometimes we find truths when we put these characters into new situations as I do in the Clockwork Legion novels.

You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion novels by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

When Cultures Meet

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

Morning meeting in the Mayall Control Room

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

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

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

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

Shogun

Looking back on it, 1980 was a very influential year for me. It was the year Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired, which helped me consider a career in astronomy. It was the year I started high school. It was the year my father passed away. While it seems something of a blip compared to those other things, it was also the year the mini-series Shōgun ran on television. The series was based on James Clavell’s novel of the same name. It told the story of a Dutch ship piloted by an Englishman, John Blackthorne, that lands on Japan’s shores circa 1600. Blackthorne soon gets swept up in a power struggle between a daimyo named Toranaga and other daimyos close to the Emperor regent. I recently had the chance to read the novel that inspired the series. The miniseries was my first introduction to Japanese history and the samurai. It also made me consider the difficulties of sailing off in a frail ship on a mission of discovery around the world.

As a kid who grew up watching Star Trek, I was captivated that on the sailing ship Erasmus, the crew deferred to the ship’s pilot as much or more than they did to the captain. My dad explained to me that it was because the pilot was the guy who was going to get these guys home safely. When I read the novel, I was reminded that Blackthorne was not only a pilot but a trained shipbuilder. I first conceived of my novel The Solar Sea just three years after I saw the miniseries. Even in its earliest days, I wanted a story that didn’t look like a Star Trek retread. One of the ways I did that was to introduce a character called Pilot, who designed the solar sail and then took it out into the solar system. He would essentially share authority with the ship’s captain. My Pilot ended up being a very different character from the virile Blackthorne in Shōgun and I used the power sharing idea to introduce some mystery and conflict into the story. You can learn more about The Solar Sea at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

The miniseries also left me with a fascination for Japanese history and culture, which I would come back and explore in my third Clockwork Legion novel The Brazen Shark.  Much of my Clockwork Legion series is set in the southwestern United States in the 1800s. Of course, here in the United States, we developed a whole mythology about that time and place. We have an image of the cowboy and the Wild West that’s more the product of authors like Louis L’Amour and directors like John Ford than from history. When researching The Brazen Shark, I learned that a similar situation developed in Japan. In the years from the Meiji Restoration through World War II, an almost mythic, idealized version of the samurai was created in the popular imagination. One of the interesting characteristics of the novel, is that I felt like I was reading that Japanese mythic, idealized vision of the samurai filtered through an American writer’s vision. Because of that, I wouldn’t use Shōgun as a historical reference, but more as a window into a cultural picture that grew up later. You can learn more about The Brazen Shark by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html

It was not only fascinating to read the novel as someone interested in history, but as a writer. Clavell does not stick with a limited point of view at all. Instead he hops from the head of one character to another at will, to the point that I almost had a hard time following when we’d left one character’s point of view and entered another’s. The novel was written in 1975 and it was a huge seller, which reminds me that things like “the correct way” to do point of view are sometimes a more a matter of fashion than anything else. It also reminds me that a book doesn’t have to be “perfect” by an arbitrary, contemporary standard to be good. It was different from what I’m used to and I’d argue not as good as the limited point of view books I see now, but it still works.

I’ve seen several reviews that take the novel Shōgun to task for its ending. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the ending actually worked for me. Throughout, Toranaga is essentially portrayed as a consummate chess player. To him, it’s all about getting all the pieces in the right place. If he succeeds, he will win the day. If he fails, or misread his opponent, he will fail. Karma, neh?

Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Que tal?

This past Friday, I was interviewed live on Las Cruces Community Radio Station, KTAL-LP 101.5FM, by Lynn Moorer for her show “Book Talk.” The station’s call letters were picked deliberately to evoke the Spanish phrase, “Que tal?” which means “What’s happening?” I mention this at the outset not just because it’s fun trivia, but because language ended up being a big theme of the interview. Unfortunately, the interview wasn’t recorded, so I can’t share a link with you, but I can share some highlights from the conversation.

The interview focused on my novel, The Brazen Shark, book three of my Clockwork Legion series. Like all of my series novels, I endeavor to make them stand alone and Lynn indicated she had no problem diving in. She was extremely well organized, with pages of notes and questions, plus her copy of the book had numerous passages marked. She did note that she hasn’t read much science fiction or alternate history. That aspect proved more of a challenge for her, but she clearly followed the book’s story and was captivated by its themes.

In the interview, Lynn asked me to give a broad description of the book. I described it as the story of a honeymoon gone quite wrong in 1877, Ramon and Fatemeh Morales have just been married and their friend, Captain Cisneros has taken them on a vacation to Hawaii. When business calls the captain to Japan, they decide to accompany him rather than staying behind. Once they get to Japan, they find themselves embroiled in a plot by samurai to steal a Russian airship and foment war between Japan and Russia.

It was clear from the interview that Lynn was especially fascinated by the character of Legion. Legion started life as an organic being who uploaded his consciousness into a computer. Over the years, that computer evolved and upgraded itself until it became a swarm of discrete elements that can travel at will through space. In the interview, we discussed how Legion saw humans as younger versions of himself. When we meet Legion in the first novel, Owl Dance, he’s not especially emotional. He embarks on an experiment to unify humanity. By The Brazen Shark, his time among humans has awaken his emotions and he feels a certain tenderness toward us and he realizes that there’s a danger that interference may have harmed us as a species.

Lynn also liked the idea that Legion could understand people’s thoughts and translate them for other people. In effect, Legion acts as a real-time translator, breaking down the barriers between people. As I pointed out in the interview, I see language as a window into culture, so Legion’s observations help the reader understand the disparate cultures in the novel as well as helping the characters understand each other.

Another aspect of the book Lynn highlighted was the role of women in the novel. Imagawa, Ipokash, and Fatemeh all have talents that arguably exceed their closest male counterparts. I did this deliberately when I wrote the novel. The late nineteenth century was a time when women stood up for their rights. It was the era of women’s suffrage and the era of women taking prominent roles in academia. I wanted strong, but believable women to be a hallmark of the novel.

The novel is available locally in Las Cruces at COAS Books on Main Street. It’s also available through Amazon.

Gamera

I think it’s fair to say that I grew up watching a lot of media from Japan. A lot was anime such as Tetsujin 28, Mach Go, Go, Go, and Gatchaman, perhaps better known here in the United States as Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Battle of the Planets respectively. However, I can’t overlook the role of giant monsters, or kaiju. Godzilla is clearly the most famous, but when I was a kid, my hero was Gamera.

I was thrilled to find Blu-ray copies of Gamera’s first eight films a few weeks ago. I’ve slowly been working my way through them. I’ve run into some people who think Gamera is part of the menagerie who battled Godzilla during his ongoing reign as King of Monsters. In fact, Gamera was the property of an altogether different movie studio. Godzilla’s stories were filmed at Toho Studios. Gamera was competitor Daiei’s entry into the kaiju arena.

For those not familiar with Gamera, he’s a giant fire-breathing turtle with tusks awakened from arctic ice during a dogfight between US and Soviet forces. Although he goes on a rampage for energy in the first film, he seems to have a soft spot for humans, and children in particular. In later films of the series, he’s revealed to be something of a guardian for humanity, protecting them from other monsters. The first eight films take place during Japan’s Shōwa period—the reign of Emperor Hirohito.

To be perfectly honest, the first eight Gamera films are far from great cinema. There’s a good reason several of them were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, I’ve long had the sense that the people behind the film series knew their limitations and had fun with them. At one point Gamera defeats a shark monster called Zigra, then plays a couple of bars of his own theme song on its back. Afterwards, he does a little dance. Another great moment comes in Gamera Super Monster when Gamera is ordered to go on a rampage by aliens and knocks over a sandwich board advertising a Godzilla film. Scenes like these make me think the Shōwa Gamera films have more in common with the 1960’s televised Batman than with films like Manos: The Hands of Fate filmed just down the road in El Paso, Texas.

As it turns out, Gamera was reimagined for a trilogy of really good films in the 1990s. These Heisei-era Gamera films gave a solid backstory to the titular turtle. He still attempts to protect mankind as a whole, but he’s still a giant monster and is prone to mass destruction. Not everyone likes Gamera in these films. The Heisei-era Gamera films also presented some cool glimpses into life in many different parts of Japan. I highly recommend Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and its two sequels.

My love of these films is a small part of what makes me the writer I am today. As a kid, I was drawn to the action and good-natured humor of these films. If it weren’t for these films, I probably wouldn’t have sought out more serious Japanese films like those of Akira Kurosawa, which gave me a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture and storytelling. Writing what we know is, among other things, writing what interests us. So watching Gamera films as a kid, was a first step toward writing my novel The Brazen Shark about samurai resisting cultural change in an alternate, steampunk Japan.

If you’d like to learn more about The Brazen Shark and my inspirations for the novel, I’ll be interviewed on the radio this Friday, July 13 on KTAL Community Radio from 12:30 to 1:00pm Mountain Daylight Time. My friends in Las Cruces can listen on the radio on 101.5 FM. For my friends outside the area, you can listen at: https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html

Branigan Library Book Talk on Wednesday

On Wednesday, June 13 at 1:30pm, the Friends of the Branigan Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico have invited me to present a Book Talk about my Clockwork Legion novels. I’ll be presenting at the library’s main branch at the corner of Picacho and Main Streets.

I’m proud to have called the Mesilla Valley my home for the last 23 years. It’s a real honor to give a presentation and reading in my home town. Garnering an interest in history from family trips as a child, I brought my interests together in the Clockwork Legion novels. The Clockwork Legion series includes four novels: Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, The Brazen Shark, and Owl Riders. In the Clockwork Legion novels I combine science fiction and history to imagine a world that wasn’t, but could have been, weaving stories reminiscent of those told by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

The Clockwork Legion novels follow the adventures of Ramon Morales, a former sheriff of Socorro, and Fatemeh Karimi, a healer from Persia. During their adventures together, they meet inventors, outcasts, misfits, and even pirates who they gather together when the Russians use airships to invade the Civil War-ravaged United States in 1877.

The third novel in the series, The Brazen Shark, was voted Best Steampunk Novel in the 2017 Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. The fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, was just released. I’m an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a former vice president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. My poems have been nominated for the Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

In my presentation, I plan to talk about the history of steampunk and weird western stories. I also plan to talk about how I got started writing steampunk and weird westerns in general as well as how the Clockwork Legion novels in particular came about. I’ll give a couple of readings and I will have books available for sale at the talk. I gather refreshments will be served as well. If you’re in Las Cruces, I hope you’ll join me for this fun Book Talk. I look forward to meeting you.

If you want to learn more about the books before the talk, visit: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion