Revisiting Contact

When I visited the VLA a little over a week ago with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help but note they had copies of both the novel Contact by Carl Sagan and the Robert Zemeckis film based on the novel on prominent display in the gift shop. This is perhaps not surprising given that a large portion of the novel is set at the VLA and a large portion of the movie was filmed there as well. My wife and I decided to pick up a copy of the movie on DVD to replace our aging VHS copy.

It’s been years since I watched the film, even longer since I read the novel, but it was fun to go back and see it again. One element that was fun was the behind-the-scenes look at both Arecebo Radio Observatory and the Very Large Array. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes look I wanted to give people with The Astronomer’s Crypt and also, to some degree, with The Solar Sea. While I’ve never visited Arecebo, I have worked at the VLA and recognized the control room and other places in the control building. It was great to see those places again. One thing I noticed, though, was that in the movie, the astronomers themselves operated the telescopes. In real life, specialists who know the instrumentation actually operate the telescope. Scientists might be in the room analyzing data as it comes in, but even that is somewhat rare. For the most part, I chalk this up to streamlining the storytelling and keeping the number of on-screen characters to a manageable number.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie more on this viewing than I remembered. I like how the movie focuses on the human reaction to alien contact more than the science fictional elements of the actual alien encounter. We see a wide variety of reactions from the general public, to religious figures, to politicians. While we see some paranoia, most of the extreme reactions come from … well, extremists. The acting is fine with Jodie Foster turning in a believable performance as astronomer Eleanor Arroway. I also especially enjoyed seeing Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, one of Ellie’s chief critics and ultimately her rival to meet the aliens. Another fun appearance was John Hurt from Alien and Doctor Who as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden who funds Ellie’s experiments.

As I recall, the movie is a generally faithful adaptation of the novel. I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t include one element of the novel I really disliked. I’m not certain how necessary it is to give a spoiler warning for a novel that’s over thirty years old, but just in case, I’ll cover this element in the next paragraph. Skip over it if you haven’t read the book and don’t want the spoiler!

In the novel, Ellie has a stepfather named John Staughton. He’s a university professor who raises her after Ted Arroway dies. It’s ultimately revealed that Arroway is not really Ellie’s father, but that Staughton was her biological father all along. To me, this felt like academic elitism of the worst order. When I read it, it seemed as though Carl Sagan was saying that brilliant Dr. Eleanor Arroway couldn’t really be the daughter of an ordinary working man, but required the genetics of an actual PhD scientist in order to be as smart as she was. Of course, this impression could be unintentional, and it could have resulted from an editor’s suggestion at some point in the revision process to add more drama to the story. That said, it was bad enough, it almost proved a showstopper for me when I read the novel.

One element of the movie that was both fun, yet dates the film was the addition of scenes with President Bill Clinton. On one hand, it adds a certain credibility to the film, but it also sets it indelibly in the past. Of course, that will happen with almost any near-future science fiction and it’s perhaps better to fix it in time than let the older tech in the control rooms and older cars on the streets be the main “tells.”

Ultimately, I think both the novel and film are great in that they provide a look into the mind of Carl Sagan, who long served as an important spokesman for science and astronomy. Like Urania by Camille Flammarion, Contact provides insights into Carl Sagan that his non-fiction alone couldn’t provide. We get to see more of his hopes and fears and even though many of us never got to meet him, we still have the opportunity to know him better.

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Sailing the Solar Sea

The Planetary Society was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in 1980 as a voice in support of planetary exploration. I was in high school at the time and joined soon after it was founded. I remember an article in the society’s magazine The Planetary Report that discussed solar sails as vehicles for planetary exploration. The idea immediately grabbed me and I had an idea for a book about astronauts who traveled aboard a solar sail and made a sort of grand tour of the solar system much as NASA’s Voyager space craft was doing at the time. The novel was to be called Sailors on the Solar Sea. It took over twenty-five years for me to see a draft through to completion and the novel was finally published in 2009 with a shortened title: The Solar Sea. Now in 2018, I’m pleased to announce the release of the second, updated edition.

In the novel, 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. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

I started the novel soon after my mom bought me my first typewriter. It was a Smith-Corona electric and man that thing was nice. I remember sitting down for a couple of hours every weekend and savoring the hum of the typewriter and the tap-tapping as the ball hit the ribbon. I carefully saved those pages for many years. Jonathan Jefferson goes all the way back to the beginning. Natalie Freeman started as Nathaniel Freeman. I remember finding those early pages sometime in the early 1990s and feeling like there wasn’t enough of a plot to preserve, so I tossed the whole thing out. Around 2000, I made another attempt at the novel. I think I only succeeded in hammering out four chapters. That’s when Myra Lee and the whales came into the story. I grew up in Southern California and visited Marineland as a kid. My first job in astronomy was on Nantucket Island. Long before Captain Kirk saved the whales in Star Trek IV, I’ve been captivated by the idea of whale intelligence.

In 2007, Jacqueline Druga-Johnston, who was then the owner of LBF Books, challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month. I looked at what I had written before and didn’t like the direction I had been going with The Solar Sea, tossed that draft aside, and made a third go at it. In 2007, my youngest daughter was just getting ready to start Kindergarten. I wrote the novel in the evenings after the kids went to bed. I succeeded in writing 50,000 words in a month and felt satisfied that I had, essentially, a complete story. I took the next three months and revised the novel, adding about 13,000 more words and then submitted it to LBF for publication. The novel was published in early 2009. In the subsequent years, LBF was acquired by Lachesis Publishing.

The novel is set in the near future, less than a hundred years hence. Despite that, the novel has mostly aged well and not become too dated, though there were a couple of places where I saw time rapidly encroaching on the novel. Also, in the years since the novel’s release, I’ve continued to learn more about solar sails and realized I could do better. Lachesis, for their own business reasons, didn’t want to invest in a new edition, so when the contract came up for renewal in 2017, I requested a reversion of the rights. The upshot is that I’m proud to announce the release of the newest edition this week.

Although the new edition has been re-edited, I haven’t introduced any new plot points. Readers of the first edition should recognize it as the same novel with just a few updates to the science and technology. One nice new feature is that I worked with artist Laura Givens to create diagrams of the Solar Sail Aristarchus for the book.

Print copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Ebook copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Returning to the VLA

One of the reasons I decided to attend the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology was its proximity to the Very Large Array, which at the time, was the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope. In my senior year at Tech, I got my dream job, and spent the year working at the VLA. This past weekend, My wife and I took our daughter out to visit my old stomping grounds.

The VLA was an awesome place to work. As you can see from the photo above, the scenery is dramatic. It’s an alto plano in central New Mexico. In fact, the VLA is at higher altitude than Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. I went out to the VLA site every Friday of my senior year to work. What exciting, groundbreaking science did I do with the world’s largest radio telescope? I observed clouds. Yes, clouds on Earth.

Here’s the thing, at the time the National Radio Astronomy Observatory was looking to build something called the Millimeter Array or MMA. Millimeter Array may not sound very spectacular when you’re talking about the Very Large Array, but the name referred to the frequency of light the telescope would observe. My job was to support the site survey work for the MMA. In other words, we were trying to find the very best place in the world to build the MMA. The reason for observing clouds is because while radio waves can travel through clouds, clouds can cause something called phase instability. With a big telescope like the VLA or the MMA, you can have clouds over one part of the array and not the other. The ideal site is phase stable, meaning you don’t get a lot of variation in the cloud cover across the site.

As it turns out, the MMA was never built. Instead, in 1997, the MMA project in the United States joined forces with the European Southern Observatory’s Large Southern Observatory project. The new project was called ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. In 2003, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan joined the project. So, my work at the VLA observing clouds was an early step in the development of ALMA, which is now on the air. You can read about it here: http://www.almaobservatory.org/en/home/

One fun display they had set up at the VLA now was a radio receiver. This actually was one of the radio receivers used when the VLA received data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft at Neptune. I actually watched that data come in at the Array Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. On our visit, my daughter and I got to use the receiver to detect radio waves from the sun.

As it turns out, the VLA plays an important role in my novel The Solar Sea. The second edition will be released on the first day of spring. You can learn more and preorder it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/.

A Look Ahead at 2018

Happy New Year! I hope your 2018 is off to a terrific start.

In my last post, I looked back at some of the highlights of my writing and publishing life from 2017. However, one of the truths of the publishing world is that books take time to write, edit, and publish. The upshot is that many of 2017’s books don’t actually represent work done in 2017. It’s this post, where I look ahead to 2018 that actually represents a lot of the actual work I’ve been doing the past few months.

I spent the last days of 2018 revising book four of my Clockwork Legion steampunk series, Owl Riders. Just a couple of days ago, my editor wrote to tell me he was happy with the latest draft and would give the book a copy edit and then turn it in to Sky Warrior Publishing. While I don’t have a formal release date, the tentative plan is for the novel to come out this spring. Set in 1885, Ramon Morales leaves his home and job in New Orleans to broker peace between the Apaches and white settlers in Southern Arizona. While he’s away, Fatemeh Morales’s past catches up with her and and her one-time betrothed kidnaps her to take her back to Persia.

Now that Owl Riders is moving into the final stages of production, I have my sights set on a couple of science fiction projects. One of those is finishing my collection of space pirate stories, Firebrandt’s Legacy. For now, the project is live on Patreon where you can read the first story for free. For just $1.00 per month, you can see each story as they’re edited into their final form for the book. I say “for now” because Patreon recently announced a change to their fee structure and I know many authors and artists who have expressed their concerns about it. I’m also concerned, but have decided to wait and see how it actually impacts me and those who support me before taking action.

That said, we do have some exciting things planned for this project. Actor Eric Schumacher in Tucson is helping me produce a full-cast audiobook edition of the first Firebrandt’s Legacy story, “For a Job Well Done.” I can’t say much about the audiobook yet, but I’m really excited about some of the talent involved. Once this is finished, we’ll move on to the rest of the book and there will be opportunities for you to help and get some great rewards, so stay tuned!

In addition to Firebrandt’s Legacy, I’ll be releasing a new edition of my novel, The Solar Sea, which tells the story of humanity’s first voyage through the solar system in a solar sail spacecraft. I already have a fantastic cover by Laura Givens and will show that off soon as I finalize plans for the re-release.

If all goes according to plan, these projects will be released, or at least in their final stages, by the middle of the year. What about the second half of the year, you ask? Well, I would like to move on to the second book in my Wilderness of the Dead series, and I’m considering reading for another anthology.

I also have several events planned. I’ll be at Arizona’s Wild Wild West Con and the Tucson Festival of Books this March. I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in April. In May, I plan to do a signing at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans.

In the world of astronomy, the DESI spectrograph will be installed at the Mayall 4-meter telescope. This instrument will be used to map the dark energy distribution of the universe. The NEID spectrograph will be installed at the WIYN telescope and that will be used to support NASA’s extrasolar planetary research.

All in all, 2018 promises to be an exciting year. Of course, I hope it’s exciting in good ways. I hope the world at large finds a little more sanity and our leaders seek peace and work for a world that’s better for all, and not just a select few. As a mid-term election year, I hope the people of the United States will hold the leaders accountable for their actions. In short, I hope we leave this planet better at the end of 2018 than we find it at the beginning. All best wishes for the year ahead.

Enterprise Cut-Away Model

Last Christmas, my family presented me with a wonderful cut-away model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the classic Star Trek series. This is actually something I wanted long before the model actually existed. I was a fan of the original Star Trek from a very young age. The very first model I ever helped my dad build was a model of the Enterprise from the show. The one in the photo below is the new one, but it looks very much like that original I helped with.

I remember when the Universal Studio Tours started up in Southern California and my aunt and uncle went. When they came back, I asked them how it was. My aunt told me all about how they learned how movies and TV shows were made. I asked her if they had a model that showed the inside of the Starship Enterprise, because at that young age, I equated the imagined reality of the show with how the show was made. In order to placate me, my aunt assured me that such a model must exist. I was disappointed when I went to Universal Studios with my parents a few weeks later to discover such a model did not exist after all.

Flash forward some forty years and I saw just such a model in a Hastings store in Albuquerque. After doing some research, I specifically requested a version of the model produced during 1996, during the show’s thirtieth anniversary. My understanding was that the mount was more steady and the pieces fit together better than the later edition of the model. My wife found the one she gave me on eBay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to dive right into building the model. I had a novel to finish this year, plus I worked on the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt. However, once both of those projects were complete, I finally built the model and was pleased with how it came out. In the photos of the exterior, you’ll see some seams, but those are simply the places where the model comes apart to reveal the interior.

When I was a child, I confused the idea of what the fictional ship would look like with the sets a TV show would be filmed on. However, as I became a professional writer, I found detailed visualizing and understanding of how a fictional ship works is very handy for selling it as a real machine in my writing. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time understanding the deck layouts of the ships in my Space Pirates’ Legacy universe and how the solar sail Aristarchus works in my novel The Solar Sea. Given that perspective, it was fun to return to one of my first science fiction loves to see how the creators of Star Trek envisioned the interior of the Enterprise.

The photo above shows the completed interior. One thing that was disappointing in the 30th Anniversary edition of the model was that it included a very limited decal set. It did not include the interior decals for the secondary hull decks you see above and many of the exterior decals were the wrong size for the model scale. I discovered that Round-2, the company that owns AMT who produced the model, had improved the decal set. What’s more, they sell decal sets for their models. So, I simply bought the decal set for the later model and used those instead of the decals that came with the model.

This year, I came full circle on the idea of visualizing spaces for a novel and learning how to realize them for film. While writing The Astronomer’s Crypt I kept a chart of my fictional 5-meter telescope at Carson Peak Observatory. While similar to the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak where I work, there were key differences and those differences made it easy to get confused. When we filmed the book trailer, I had hopes we could use the control room at the 4-meter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get permission, so we dressed an office space to look like a control room, which really isn’t that much of a stretch. We had to put together shooting locations that weren’t adjacent to one another and make it look like they were. If you haven’t seen the results, you can check out the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ.

Saying Goodbye to a Website

I have to confess, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the idea that an author is “a brand.” Part of this is discomfort with the fact that many Americans seem obsessed with celebrities for no other reason than they’re celebrities. I’ve always believed recognition is something that must be earned because of one’s skills and accomplishments. What’s more, given my background in the sciences, judging good writing feels very subjective. Another aspect of my discomfort with author branding is the fact that I write in several different speculative subgenres including horror, science fiction, and steampunk. While I know and respect many authors who change pseudonym with each genre they write, I’ve never felt comfortable doing that. I feel like I’m hiding behind the name of someone I’m not.

I mention all this to explain why I created a website especially for my novel The Solar Sea when it was released nearly ten years ago. I wrote the novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004 and I succeeded in part because the novel captures much of my passion about exploring the solar system and the possible use of solar sailing as a technology. I wrote this as a novel that could be enjoyed by people of all ages and I thought a website that provided some additional background would be fun and would also satisfy my publisher’s desire for me to find new and innovative ways to market the novel.

As it turns out, the web and the way people look for information about novels has evolved since 2008. Few people seem to seek out websites about specific books. Instead, they go to online book retailers, review sites, and yes, author websites and blogs. I have both of those latter items, but I maintained the TheSolarSea.com because, quite simply, the website was promoted in the print and ebook editions of the novel itself and it seemed like bad form to advertise a website that no longer existed.

Earlier this year, Lachesis Publishing returned the publishing rights to The Solar Sea to me. In 2018, I plan to release a new edition of the novel from Hadrosaur Productions. I’ve decided to take this opportunity to retire the website. This is a little sad because the website includes a page about solar sailing, a reader’s guide, and some cool supplemental illustrations by cover artist Laura Givens. Here’s her illustration of the Aristarchus Bridge:

I do plan to move much of this information over to my page about the book: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html. In fact, I’ve already copied over my page with information about solar sails. I’ll copy the reader’s guide once the new edition nears completion.

In the meantime, this is a great opportunity to grab the original edition of the novel for only half price. If you’re with me at TusCon this weekend, I have my last copies in the dealer’s room. Otherwise, you can grab a copy at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#solarsea. Just a note, I only have three copies left as of this writing.

The Solar Sea on Clearance

This past week, I’ve been reading the fine steampunk adventure Arabella on Mars by David D. Levine. It’s a fine novel that won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for best young adult novel. One of this fantasy novel’s conceits is that it imagines an atmosphere in interplanetary space that allows ships to sail between planets in the 1800s.

When I read the novel, I couldn’t help but think that while sailing between the planets without an atmosphere would have been beyond nineteenth century technology, it’s not beyond our current technology. In fact, I wrote a futuristic science fiction novel about such a journey called The Solar Sea. Solar sails don’t work by harnessing wind, or even the so-called solar wind, but they move by light pressure. About three years ago, I wrote a post that goes into some detail about how it works. You can read more here: https://davidleesummers.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/solar-sailing/

In my novel, I imagine a future where humans got as far as building lunar factories, but the will to go farther out into space died. While I know there’s still a strong interest in exploring space, I fear many of the people who control this country’s money don’t see the value in investing real money in all aspects of space exploration. As an example, the Trump administration routinely touts it’s support of space exploration, yet proposed significant cuts to astronomy funding in its initial budget.

I sometimes wonder if it will take a major discovery to give us the impetus to push out into space again as we did in the 1960s and 1970s. In the novel, a technician from the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico discovers powerful particles orbiting Saturn’s moon, Titan, which could be a new energy source. When the discovery is announced, whales around the world changed their songs.

This chain of events encourages the owner of the powerful Quinn Corporation to build a solar sail to find the source of these particles in Titan’s orbit. He gathers the best and brightest team to pilot his craft: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist specializing in whale communication; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. All together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

Earlier this year, my publisher and I decided to take The Solar Sea out of print. There were several reasons for this. Partly, science and technology have caught up with the novel and I thought I worthwhile to revise it to make it more accurate. Partly the ebook was created ages ago and wasn’t up to the standards of newer ebooks, so I want to address this aspect as well. Once I finish work on my steampunk novel Owl Riders, I will turn my attention to some of my out of print titles.

In the meantime, I have a few copies of the first edition of The Solar Sea left in my stock and I’m even offering them at half off the cover price. You can order copies at http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#solarsea. I would be delighted to sign any copies you buy. Just email me at hadrosaur [at] zianet [dot] com (replacing the info between the brackets with the relevant characters) and let me know that you would like it signed. If you would like them personalized, just tell me so and let me know who to sign the book to.