Exploring Strange New Worlds

A little over two weeks ago, I was a panelist and vendor at El Paso Comic Con. I had a great time at the convention. Tamsin Silver and I hosted three writing panels. On two of the panels, we asked another attending author, Alan Morgan, to join us. The panels were the best-attended writing panels I’ve seen at El Paso Comic Con. We spoke about “Researching Your Fiction,” “Getting to Know the Characters in Your Head” and “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera.” The first two panels were focused very much on the process of writing. We discussed how research is important whether you’re writing historical fiction, space opera, or even fantasy set in a world of your own creation. At the very least you need to know how things work so you can describe them realistically. The character panel focused on how we can pull from people all around us to create characters. Alan brought a great perspective to both of these because he writes games as well as fiction. The final panel, “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera” essentially brought the themes of the other two panels together by considering how the process of creating all speculative genres share common elements.

It was appropriate to discuss space opera at the convention, since one of the featured guests was none other than William Shatner. My wife and I got to meet him briefly for a photo op. Unfortunately, these photo ops don’t give much opportunity to interact, but we did exchange pleasantries and I have heard Shatner speak on other occasions.

William Shatner, David Lee Summers, and Kumie Wise

Now I will confess, I did Photoshop this image slightly. Since everyone was unmasked for the photo, they placed us a few feet from Mr. Shatner. I simply closed up the gap to give the photo a more friendly feel. One thing that was fun about meeting Shatner when we did was that it came just before the debut of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds which features a character first portrayed by none other than William Shatner.

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed my reluctance to subscribe to streaming services. However, I’ve been looking forward to Strange New Worlds for a while and I decided I didn’t want to wait for the video release. Overall, I enjoyed the first episode and I look forward to seeing how it plays out. For those who haven’t seen it, this new Star Trek is set aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise roughly six years before Captain Kirk takes command. The Enterprise is commanded by Captain Christopher Pike played by Anson Mount. His First Officer is Una Chin-Riley played by Rebecca Romijn and his science officer is Mr. Spock, played by Ethan Peck.

Ethan Peck and David Lee Summers at WIYN

The episode opens when a starship approaches a planet to make first contact. We then cut to a scene in Montana where Captain Pike is on leave between missions while the Enterprise is undergoing refit. Admiral Robert April turns up and informs him that the first contact mission went awry. What’s more, that mission was being commanded by Una. So, the Enterprise must leave on its mission early to find out what happened. Robert April is a character we first met in the animated Star Trek series where he was introduced as the captain of the Enterprise before Pike. I won’t say much more at this point because I don’t want to risk spoilers. One of the things I did find interesting about the episode was that it posited the idea of the warp drive being weaponized. Tying this back into the discussion of the El Paso Comic Con panels, one thing that came up back in the 1990s when I was first researching engines and plausible methods of faster-than-light travel, was how often new power sources can be weaponized, which led to the dual concepts of Quinnium weapons and the Erdon-Quinn drive in The Pirates of Sufiro. You can see the results my research along with an array of colorful characters by reading the novel, which is available at: http://davidleesummers.com/pirates_of_sufiro.html

Another fun element of the new Star Trek series was getting to see more of Ethan Peck’s work. As I’ve mentioned before, he visited the WIYN telescope on my birthday in 2019 as we were commissioning the NEID Spectrograph, which actually looks for strange new worlds around other stars. I am glad to be part of a team that’s paving the way for a Star Trek-like future and I think it’s very cool that one of the actors in the series has actually seen some real exploration of strange new worlds.

El Paso Comic Con 2022

This weekend, April 22-24, I will be a participant and a vendor at El Paso Comic Con. This year, El Paso Comic Con is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Featured guests at the convention include William Shatner, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, and anime voice actors Mike McFarland, Monica Rial, and Austin Tindle. Comic book artists Renee Witterstaetter, Michael Golden and Sam de la Rosa will also be on hand. The convention will be held at the El Paso Convention Center in downtown El Paso, Texas. You can get all the details at https://www.elpasocomiccon.com

I will be exhibiting the books I’ve written, edited, or have stories in at booth A15 in the exhibitor hall. Author Tamsin Silver will be joining me at my booth. I have two new books I was proud to edit and publish since last fall’s El Paso Comic Con. One is The Way-Out Wild West by Lyn McConchie. The other is Hybrid: Forced Vengeance by Greg Ballan. I also have the new editions of my first three Clockwork Legion novels Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, and The Brazen Shark. Of course, since this is a comic con, I will have plenty of copies of my comic Guinevere and the Stranger on hand. I’m always happy to sign books you buy from me.

Tamsin and I will also be presenting some panels discussing our writing experiences at the convention. It’s possible we’ll add some other attending authors to our panel lineup as well. Here’s our schedule:

Saturday, April 23

1:00-1:45pm in the El Paso Panel Room. Researching Your Fiction. Fiction is making stuff up, but it still involves knowledge of the tools the characters use, the settings they visit, and the types of people they’ll meet in those settings. Tamsin and I will discuss how to do the research that makes your fiction feel realistic to readers.

3:00-3:45pm in the El Paso Panel Room. Getting to Know the Characters in Your Head. Tamsin and I will discuss how to breathe life into characters you’re writing no matter how far from your own experience they may be.

Sunday, April 24

4:00-4:45pm in the El Paso Panel Room. From Weird Westerns to Space Opera. Tamsin and I talk about their experience writing westerns, horror, science fiction and fantasy and how they’re the same and different.

William Shatner in Space

Earlier this week, William Shatner took a ride into space aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos, best known as the founder of Amazon. The rocket launched from outside Van Horn, Texas, a town about two and a half hours to the southeast of my home in New Mexico. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I thought it was great that Shatner, who brought the role of Captain Kirk to life, had the opportunity to go into space for real. What’s more, at 90 years old, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. I’ve long thought, I hope to be doing as well as William Shatner when I’m 90!

Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, and Chris Boshuizen in Space. Image courtesy Blue Origin

As a kid, when I first became aware of Star Trek, the last Apollo missions were still flying. I remember thinking that Star Trek was just another document of a real mission into space. My parents soon explained to me that it was all just make-believe, but in a way that excited me just as much. That made me pay attention to the opening credits and notice those writers who made up Star Trek’s vision of exploring space. In the end Star Trek’s captivating writing helped to launch my careers in both astronomy and writing. So, it should come as no surprise that I watched Shatner’s journey from the moment he entered the rocket until he landed again in west Texas near the launch site.

Some have criticized Jeff Bezos for investing his personal wealth in space flight rather than causes to help the planet. He’s argued that developing space flight is one way to help the planet. I think he has a point. Developing space technology has a long track record of creating other technologies that help us on the Earth. I also believe there’s no reason we can’t work on solutions to problems on Earth while developing space technology. We have no shortage of people. Among the challenges are training and directing them to places where they can do the most good.

This all noted, I don’t feel I can let Bezos completely off the hook. According to Yahoo Finance, Bezos’s income is somewhere in the ballpark of 110 billion dollars per year and he invests 1 billion of that in Blue Origin. To put his income in perspective, you only have to multiply minimum wage by a single digit to get to my income. You have to multiply minimum wage by six digits to get to Bezos’s income. Over a million people could be employed at better-than-minimum wage with his income alone.

There are plenty of reports that suggest working conditions for front-line workers at Amazon are not great. As an author I do business with Amazon. In the last year and a half, I’ve received several packages in poor condition. They look as though they were rushed out the door without care and some books have arrived in unsellable condition. This makes sense if workers are being rushed to get things out the door without concern for quality of service. I’ve also had to call Amazon at times to resolve issues. Most of the time, their representatives are very helpful, but I’ve had at least two instances where I asked them something that clearly went “off script.” They promised to call me back and simply didn’t. Again this smacks of putting perceived efficiency ahead of customer service.

Given what’s reported of Jeff Bezos’s salary and what that must imply for Amazon’s total profits, there must be room for Amazon to improve salaries, make conditions better for front-line workers, and improve service. Star Trek suggested that humans would be ready for space exploration when we learned to appreciate our own diversity and treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity. Sometimes making the planet better starts with how corporate executives and upper management treat and pay the people who are making them the money that allow them to invest in cool things like space exploration and who make it possible for someone like William Shatner to visit the final frontier.

Vampires on the UnXplained

Another great coincidence unfolded this past weekend when the A&E Network aired an episode of its series The UnXplained which discussed vampire and werewolf legends. The coincidence goes beyond this happening as I’m creating new editions of my vampires novels. I made a special point to watch the show because Marita Woywod Crandle was interviewed. I know Marita from doing signings in her shop, Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. What’s more, Marita honored me by providing a cover quote for the new edition of Dragon’s Fall. Marita is not only the owner of a wonderful New Orleans boutique but an author whose work I admire. I loved her New Orleans Vampires – History and Legend and I really look forward to her forthcoming book about the infamous Carter Brothers of New Orleans.

Another aspect of the coincidence is that the show is hosted by William Shatner. Until it was postponed due to the Corona-19 pandemic, I was scheduled to speak at El Paso Comic Con this past weekend, where William Shatner was scheduled to be one of the featured celebrity guests. So, I ended up seeing William Shatner speak, even though the convention didn’t happen!

I enjoyed the show itself. As with most shows of this type, it didn’t delve very deeply into any of the legends discussed and given that this was a subject I’ve researched, there was little I didn’t know. What I found the most interesting was how much their summation of vampire and werewolf legends tracked themes I explore in both Dragon’s Fall and Vampires of the Scarlet Order. They discussed the appeal of immortality and the dark romanticism of some vampire stories. They made an interesting connection between vampires and werewolves in that both types of stories explore elements of our animal selves. Marita also talked about how vampires have almost become heroic figures and protectors. Humans may be prey, but a vampire can be a good steward of those it feeds upon.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the show to me was a story Ryan Skinner told about an experience he had on Utah’s Skinwalker Ranch. He tells a story about seeing balls of light over a field that moved around and changed size. Suddenly one of the balls of light exploded and there was a wolf very near to them. One of the aspects of my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order is that my vampires are tied to ancient and powerful technology indistinguishable from magic and this technology can allow vampires to cross dimensional planes if they know how to tap it. Whether you believe Mr. Skinner’s story or not, it struck me how much it sounded like a scene that could happen in my vampire universe.

Toward the show’s end, author David Skaal summed up one of the reasons vampires do compel me by citing the idea that vampires can’t see their own reflections. As he says, if a vampire did see their reflection, it would be you.

If you missed the episode in first run, it’s available through various streaming services. I downloaded a copy of the episode via iTunes. Times right now are tough on small businesses. I do encourage you to support those you can. Boutique du Vampyre’s storefront in New Orleans is closed, but their mail order business continues. You can get signed copies of my vampire novel from them as well as Marita’s book. If you can’t decide what you want, you can order a vampire mystery box filled with goodies from the boutique. Here are a few links to get you started: