Sufiro Through the Years

2019 marks two important milestone anniversaries. 25 years ago, Kumie Wise, William Grother, and I formed Hadrosaur Productions. That same year saw the publication of my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, in audio form.

Hadrosaur Productions was founded to be a multimedia company, publishing books, producing audio books, and ultimately producing video projects. To prove the concept, I gathered a bunch of co-workers from Kitt Peak National Observatory and we recorded my first novel. I edited the audio recordings on primitive audio software and then had the master tapes duplicated. My wife and I took these around to science fiction conventions in Arizona and New Mexico and sold them at our first dealer’s tables. I have fond memories of these times since it was my introduction to fandom and response to this audio edition was generally positive. Looking back, fans liked seeing other fans get together and create something like this. As you can see the artwork is simple. It’s just a drawing of Captain Firebrandt, First Mate Roberts, and Suki ready to face life on the planet Sufiro. I drew the illustration. I also drew the Hadrosaur logo that would be the company logo for many years. As you’ll notice, I credited myself as “Dave L. Summers.” My name is common enough, I was looking for a way to set myself apart and I liked the way Dave L. Summers flowed off the tongue.

In 1995, I attended a writer’s conference at the University of Arizona where Ray Bradbury was the keynote speaker. An agent was also slated to attend and attendees were invited to send her their manuscripts. I sent mine and she agreed to represent it. The upshot is that she placed the book with a publisher and ultimately the mass market edition of The Pirates of Sufiro was released. As it turns out, Roberts never had a first name before this edition. The editor gave him the name Carter. I liked it well enough that I let it become canon. The cover of this edition features what appears to be simple stock art of a spaceship and a planet. The ship really doesn’t look like anything in the book, but I didn’t have a strong objection because it said “science fiction” and looked more professional than my line drawing. I’m also credited as “David L. Summers” here, the only time I used my name as I use it in scientific publications. Alas, my agent and my publisher both proved to be scam artists who worked to separate authors from their money. I never saw a dime from this edition other than from copies I sold myself and I ultimately had to go to court to get my publishing rights back. Still my experience wasn’t all bad. This edition did turn up on the shelves of the New Mexico State University Bookstore and Waldenbooks at the local mall and they even invited me to do a book signing. I also got a nice half-page write up about the book in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Print on demand publishing was starting to get off the ground about the time I got my rights back. At that point, I had also gotten acquainted with several artists through my work editing Hadrosaur Tales Magazine. I hired Jeff Ward to do a cover for a new edition I would publish through Xlibris. This is the first professional cover for the book where I had full control of what appeared. Prominent on the cover are the faces of Captain Firebrandt and his grandson, Commander John Mark Ellis. At the bottom of the image is Firebrandt’s daughter, Suki Carter Firebrandt. She stands in front of Ward’s version of the Firebrandt homestead. Jeff has since gone on to do covers for such venues as Apex Magazine and the SFWA Bulletin. This version would only be used for four years. At that point, another cover artist I knew and worked with, Nick Johns, introduced me to one of his other clients, LBF Books. This edition is also the first one to credit me with the name I have used for most of my writing career: David Lee Summers. At this point, search engines existed and I looked long and hard to see which version of my name was relatively unique and wouldn’t be confused with a plethora of other David Summerses. I ultimately decided on my full, legal name. To me it sounded like a name a writer would use.

In 2004, Jacqueline Druga of LBF Books read and loved my newest novel, Vampires of the Scarlet Order. She asked what else I had and I mentioned The Pirates of Sufiro and its sequel Children of the Old Stars. Jackie asked to read them. She loved them and offered me a contract. Around that same time, I met artist Laura Givens at MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado and she asked if I knew any publishers looking for cover art. I introduced her to Nick and Jackie and they soon started working together. One of Laura’s first covers for LBF would be her cover for The Pirates of Sufiro. We decided to take the idea I had for the Xlibris cover and expand it across the series. The Pirates of Sufiro would feature Captain Firebrandt on the planet next to the homestead. Suki Firebrandt would appear on the cover of Children of the Old Stars in a habitat dome on Titan. John Mark Ellis would appear on the cover of the as-yet unwritten Heirs of the New Earth. For this version, Laura created what I now consider to be the iconic Firebrandt. In many ways, he bears a strong resemblance to the version I had way back in my first crude drawing on the cassette tape version.

Laura’s cover has been canonical for over ten years. When I re-envisioned the series as a four-book series called the Space Pirates’ Legacy, Laura improved on her iconic image of Captain Firebrandt for the new Book One, Firebrandt’s Legacy. So, it was natural that I would ask Laura to create the cover for the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Pirates of Sufiro. She has done so and I have to say, the newest version is the best yet. Come back on Saturday as I unveil the newest cover for an all-new and improved visit to the planet Sufiro.

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Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.

Weeds

I’m not a big fan of winter or cold weather, but one thing I look forward to about this time of year is that the weeds in my yard typically die off and I don’t have to deal with them until the spring. Because of that January and February are often quite productive months for my writing and editing. This year, the weeds didn’t die off and I’ve been fighting them all through the winter.

As a writer who also operates telescopes at the National Observatory, I don’t have the kind of income that allows me to hire a gardener. So, this means I get to go out and deal with the weeds myself. Now, it’s not all bad. It gets me out from behind my desk to get some exercise and some sunshine. It also gives me some quiet time to think through plot lines and occasionally come up with blog posts about subjects like the hassles of dealing with weeds in the wintertime!

While weeding, I do find myself thinking that the process is not unlike writing and editing. When you write, you try to get everything you can down on paper. You try to make sure you explain why people do the things they do, what the setting is like, what the people are like, and who knows what about whom. It’s a little like letting a garden grow unchecked. Sure you’ll get blooms or vegetables, but they’ll be stunted by the weeds. As an editor, you’ve got to take out the weeds of the writing. That’s the stuff that isn’t really necessary to move the plot forward. You may move some of the plants you want around to make a better arrangement, or to make them healthier. In writing, that’s just presenting your information in the best order to reveal the information in a satisfying way to the reader.

This winter, I’m editing two terrific books by other authors plus I’m revising one of my own for re-release. I’ll have more news soon about the books I’m editing for others. Those are the supernatural adventure novel Armageddon’s Son by Greg Ballan and the weird western novella Fallen Angel by David B. Riley. The book I’m revising is The Pirates of Sufiro and I’m really excited about the progress I’m making. A lot of the credit there goes to my Patreon supporters. Because I’m answerable to them for the progress I’m making, it’s been motivating me to move forward with that project.

If you click the button above, it’ll take you to my Patreon site where you can browse the posts. Most of the content is just for those patrons who support me, but there is some free content. You can see the first chapter of The Pirates of Sufiro as it was in the most recent published edition and in the revision to see what sorts of edits I’m doing. A little over a week ago, I split one of the original chapters into two chapters because I felt I’d rushed the story in the original. The money I get from patrons helps to pay for cover art, layout and design. And who knows, if I get enough support, maybe I can afford to have someone help with the weeds!

Launching Firebrandt’s Legacy

I am proud to announce that my twelfth novel, Firebrandt’s Legacy, has officially launched! The title refers to Ellison Firebrandt, who fights the good fight for Earth. Under a letter of marque, he raids the ships of Earth’s opponents, slowing down their progress and ability to compete with the home system. On the planet Epsilon Indi 2, he rescues a woman named Suki Mori from a drug lord, only to find she isn’t so happy about living a pirate’s life. However, when the captain finds a new engine that will make him the most successful pirate of all, Suki is the only one who can make it work. Now Firebrandt must find a way to keep his crew fed and his ship supplied while relying on a woman who barely trusts him and while every government in the galaxy hunts him to get the engine back!

This novel represents a milestone in a long journey. I created the character of Ellison Firebrandt for a short story I wrote as part of a workshop back in 1989. Yes, Ellison Firebrandt is 30 years old this year. He went on to become a protagonist in my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, which was first published in audio form in 1995, then saw print publication in 1997. I revisited the character in 2008 when I edited the anthology Space Pirates for Flying Pen Press and decided to tell a story about the good captain before he was stranded on the planet Sufiro. Over the next few years, that one story became a handful which appeared in a number of great anthologies edited by such talented people as Jennifer Brozek, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Carol Hightshoe, and J Alan Erwine.

Carol Hightshoe was the first to suggest that I collect these tales. As I looked at what I had, I realized I didn’t really have enough for a book, so a little over a year ago, I created a Patreon account as a way of motivating myself to write more stories in this world. It was a tremendous success and the book is now complete. I’m now using the Patreon to both fund and serve as motivation for a complete rewrite of The Pirates of Sufiro. If you sign up for my Patreon site before the end of February, you can get the ebooks of Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Solar Sea as immediate bonuses, plus you can see Pirates rewritten as it happens. The link is: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Now, you might ask, if Firebrandt’s Legacy is a collection of short stories, why am I calling it a novel? One of my goals was to write the stories in such a way that there’s one continuous and satisfying story arc. Basically it’s a so-called “fix-up” novel. Yes, you can read it as short stories, but you can also read it as a single episodic novel.

Carol Hightshoe, who also writes the amazing Chaos Reigns series, says: “‘A privateer can be a force for good if he’s not too tempted to be a pirate.’ Meet Captain Ellison Firebrandt a privateer who walks that fine line – targeting enemy ships, rescuing damsels and protecting priceless relics. Swashbuckling adventures await all who come aboard Legacy.”

Firebrandt’s Legacy is available in print at Amazon.

It’s also available as an ebook at the following vendors:

Finally, if you’re a NetGalley, subscriber, you can get the book for the month of February at: https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/157799

The Hands of Fate

While reading the book of plays, Uncanny Encounters – Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan a few weeks ago, I was reminded that Sullivan had written a novelization of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate. The movie has been declared by people such as the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Elvira as the worst movie ever made. The movie fascinates me personally because it opens on El Paso’s Transmountain Highway and much of it is set in the familiar desert between El Paso and Las Cruces. It is a terrible movie and I’ve only survived my viewings by laughing along with hosts such as those I mentioned. So, I was very curious what Sullivan did with a novelization of such a movie.

I put the book on my Christmas list and lo and behold it arrived and I devoured it between Christmas and New Years. The novel takes a humorous, snarky tone and could really be seen as a companion to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. It’s very self aware and has fun with the movie’s problems. That said, the book made me aware that Sullivan had not written just one novelization, but two. The other, Manos: Talons of Fate, attempts to turn the campy film into a serious horror novel. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and I must say, Sullivan does a fine job of using the movie as a basis for a chilling, Lovecraftian tale.

According to the book Huh? by Hal C.F. Astell, Manos: The Hands of Fate was the result of a bet made in a coffee shop between fertilizer salesman and insurance agent Harold P. Warren and Stirling Silliphant, a writer for the TV series Route 66. Warren apparently played a bus driver in the series and he bet Silliphant that anyone could make a movie and see it released. In fact, he started plotting the movie on the spot. No doubt that very cynicism that just anyone could make a movie is part of why people are happy to have seen it turn out so bad. However, despite that issue, Harold Warren had the tenacity to see the project through and complete it, something many would-be writers never manage.

What fascinates me about Sullivan’s approach in this novel is that he doesn’t alter the plot very much at all. Instead, he delves deeper into the characters’ heads and lets us understand why they are doing what they are doing. He gives the scenes more detail and depth while letting them play out very much like they did on screen. He does add a few things that don’t happen on screen, but he keeps that to a minimum. The result is a wonderful demonstration of the thin line that exists between a story that works well and one that doesn’t work at all.

Sullivan’s exercise in writing two novelizations of Manos: The Hands of Fate also interests me because it’s not unlike what I’m currently doing at my Patreon site. I’m presenting chapters of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro as they appeared in the most recent print version and giving some brief analysis of what worked and didn’t work, then within a couple of weeks, I’m releasing an edited chapter. While I certainly hope the most recent edition of The Pirates of Sufiro doesn’t descend to the level of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate, it was my first novel and I don’t feel I did as good a job describing characters and situations as I could have. I also don’t feel like all the story’s “beats” hit where they needed to.

My goal with Pirates is much the same as Stephen Sullivan’s goal with his novel. I want to improve Pirates, but I don’t want to change it so far that it become unrecognizable. If someone picks up a different edition of one of the sequels, I still want them to be able to read with confidence that the same major events transpired in all editions of the novel. You can support me in this experiment at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Please drop by and browse the posts. While many posts are reserved for patrons, several are free so you can get a sense of the work I’m doing. I hope you like what you see.

Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

First Responder Training

This past week at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I renewed my first responder certification. As I mentioned in my Saturday blog post, observatories are in remote locations and bad things do happen. I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with much in the way of criminal activity at an observatory. I’m often asked if I have ever seen aliens at the observatory. My answer to that is that the law enforcement agency I’ve interacted most with at the observatory is the U.S. Border Patrol.

That said, things can be bad enough without people engaged in illegal activities. I have had to treat an astronomer who was stung by a scorpion. I also know of a time a person on the mountain suffered a heart attack, though did not go into cardiac arrest. As I approach the age my father suffered a fatal heart attack, I find myself grateful that many of my co-workers know CPR and have been trained in the use of Automated Electronic Defibrillators.

Even without worrying about heart conditions, I have also had more than my share of accidents. About a month before my oldest daughter was born, I was working on a telescope when I accidentally knocked a 15-pound weight off a ladder and it fell right into my jaw, puncturing my lower lip. Luckily I didn’t lose any teeth. More recently, an elevator became stuck. We were able to open the door and I jumped to the floor below to go find a ladder to get my fellow passengers out. I managed to sprain my knee in the process.

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, once we dial 911, it will take 45 minutes for the closest ambulance to make it to the observatory summit. Many observatories are even further from emergency response. Having a staff where many people have first responder training means we can help each other and help visitors during emergencies.

I strongly encourage you to get first responder training if it’s at all available. I have to admit, I don’t always remember all the lessons from the videos and practice sessions, but the training does give me the confidence to follow instructions from a 911 dispatcher when I call. I’ve also found that in those rare emergency situations, I’m surprised by how much I do remember.

Another aspect of first responder trainer that’s important to me is that it gives me experience I can draw on as a writer. Aspects of both Kitt Peak’s remote location and the training I’ve received as a first responder have gone into such novels as The Pirates of Sufiro. The novel is currently out of print, but I’m about to launch into a full rewrite in preparation of a fourth edition at my Patreon site. My Patreon site also helps to fund this blog and I currently have an initiative to raise enough money to upgrade this to an ad-free site. Drop over to my Patreon site and read two free stories of my new collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you sign on, you can read the rest of the collection for free, plus you can see how The Pirates of Sufiro develops in its new edition. I bet you’ll even see some examples of how I put my first responder training to use in my fiction writing. My Patreon site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.