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.

Advertisements

My Adventures Without Coffee

Anyone who reads my books can probably guess that I love my coffee. Daniel the vampire astronomer cannot imagine being undead without coffee to warm the blood he consumes. Where would Ramon be without Fatemeh’s strong coffee to prime him for adventures in the wild west? Even my spacefaring adventurers make sure their ships are stocked with coffee.

As for me, I started drinking coffee during my senior year of college. I had housemates who made coffee, plus that was the year I worked at the Very Large Array radio telescope. Out there, the beverage choice was soda you could pay for or free coffee. As a college student, you can bet I took the free coffee. I hardly lived a caffeine-free existence before that. My mom always kept a pitcher of iced tea available. As a kid, if I wanted something to drink, it would be iced tea. As an almost nightly treat, she would let me have a Pepsi while I watched TV.

A few weeks ago, my doctor noted that I have an oddball heart rhythm. This is nothing new.  It was first diagnosed when I was in my 20s and as far as I knew, that was the way my heart rhythm has always been. Cardiologists have told me there’s little chance of it developing into anything worse. Despite that, my general practitioner was a bit worried. He immediately asked about my coffee consumption, and I told him I was a coffee drinker. He suggested I might want to give it up to see if it affected the heart rhythm. Given that the men in my family have a history of heart disease, I decided I should give it a shot and see what happened.

So, starting just before mid-November, I stopped drinking coffee. I also avoided caffeinated sodas and tea. I know I did consume some caffeine in chocolate and even in the occasional cup of green tea, but by my estimate, my caffeine consumption was the lowest it had been since I was a very small child. The first week without coffee wasn’t easy. The first day, I had a migraine-like headache. After that, I developed muscle aches in various parts of my body—my arms, back, legs, and hips all hurt at one time or another. This isn’t surprising given that caffeine does act as a vasodilator and giving it up would mean at least slight constriction of blood vessels. Despite that, I found I didn’t miss the coffee as much as I thought I would. It didn’t take me that much longer to “wake up” in the morning without it than it did with it. I really missed it on weekend mornings when I was most used to taking some leisurely time to read before starting my day. Also, after that first week, the pain finally vanished.

I didn’t get grumpy during my break from caffeine, but I did find myself feeling a little more prone to giving into my introvert tendencies and withdrawing to myself, especially during the first week when I was dealing with the pain. It’s hard to say whether this was a direct effect of stopping caffeine, or a side effect of the pain.

During this period, I looked into the effects of caffeine and learned that there, in fact, is little correlation between stopping caffeine use and correcting heart rhythm. Despite that, I personally have felt that I probably consumed a bit too much coffee on occasion and it seemed like it would be easier to return to moderate consumption if I started from “ground zero” so to speak. Sure enough, when I returned to my doctor this past week, he noticed essentially no change to my heart rhythm. I celebrated with a cup of coffee. Still, as I say, I hope this will be a first step in using a little more moderation in my coffee consumption.

Periodically a news story will come out about caffeine research. Sometimes the research indicates problems. Other times it indicates benefits. Most of it seems to agree caffeine, like most things in life, is best if done in moderation. Of course, any changes you make should be done in consultation with your doctor. I’m just a guy who tells thrilling tales of the imagination and studies distant galaxies, stars, and planets. Still, I found it empowering to know that I could give up caffeine with no problems if I desired.

If you want to read some of my coffee-inspired fiction, be sure to visit my website: http://www.davidleesummers.com.


Ten (plus) Years at Kitt Peak

David Lee Summers, Christian Soto, and Dick Joyce at the annual AURA service awards ceremony.

This month, I received my ten-year service award from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy for my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The awards were presented following an annual presentation on the state of the observatory. Other award recipients included my boss, Dick Joyce, whose been with Kitt Peak for 45 years and one of my fellow Observing Associates, Christian Soto, who is celebrating his five-year anniversary. The photo shows the three of us at the University of Arizona ballroom where the presentation was given.

As it turns out, I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for more than a decade. I was tempted away from graduate school in 1992 and worked at the observatory until 1995. During that time, I watched the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope’s construction and served as one of its first four operators. I left because my wife and I were expecting our first child and I wanted a job that allowed me to be home more of the time. So, I went to work helping to finish commissioning a 1-meter telescope run by New Mexico State University. In late 2007, a former co-worker from Kitt Peak called me up and said they needed experienced telescope operators and asked if I wanted to return. At that time, I was a full-time writer and editor and wasn’t sure I did want to, but I agreed to an interview. They offered me a job and after much soul-searching I decided to return. I started in February 2008. So, now that it’s October, that means I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for about fourteen years. Unfortunately, human resources said I was away too long for my previous seniority to count, but my boss has expressed an interest in rectifying that if possible. We’ll see if that happens.

I feel like I made a good decision in returning. One surprising fringe benefit was that I became a more productive writer even though I was working full time. I suspect there are a few reasons for that. First of all, it forced me to better organize my time. Also, it put me into a position where I was interacting with people face-to-face more regularly, which I think helped me to bring more depth and emotional realism to my writing. Of course, the story of my departure and my return directly inspired elements of my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt.

In the book, Mike Teter leaves the observatory because of a frightening experience. As it turns out, his experience was based on something that happened to me in my first tenure at Kitt Peak. It was a windy, stormy morning and I had gone up to make sure I’d serviced the instrumentation for the morning. The wind rattled the dome and there was an energy in the air. I had an unshakable feeling that something didn’t want me there and some kind of force was coming to remove me from the mountain. That frightening feeling went away after I’d had some sleep and I didn’t leave because of that incident, but I asked myself what if there really had been an evil force? What if it had manifested? Would I have been able to stay if my fears had actually materialized? I channeled that experience into the novel’s prologue. I know prologues often get a bad rap, but I made it a prologue not because it was “optional” but because it was an inciting incident that happened a few years before the main action of the novel.

If you’re in the mood for a scary read this Halloween week, you can read the entire prologue for free at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html. If you get to the end and find you’re hooked, I have information about how you can order a copy of the novel. Hope you have a spooktacular week!

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.

Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

CoKoCon 2018

This weekend finds me at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. Next weekend, I’ll be at CoKoCon in Phoenix, Arizona. CoKoCon is the combined CopperCon and Con Kopelli run in tandem by the Central Arizona Speculative Fiction Society and the Western Science Fiction Association. It’s being held at the Doubletree by Hilton Phoenix North. You can find more information at cokocon.org

The author guest of honor is Harry Turtledove. The local author guest of honor is Beth Cato. The artist guest of honor is Steve Rude. Cheshire Moon are the filk guests of honor and Eric Wile is the gaming guest of honor. Because of my observatory schedule, I can only attend two days of CoKoCon. So if you can attend, I hope to see you on Friday or Saturday. Even though I’m only able to be there on Friday and Saturday, I have a pretty full schedule as shown below.

Friday, August 31

  • 5-6pm – Canyon Room 4 – Discovering New Worlds. In a presentation that’s become something of a standby at Arizona conventions, I discuss what we know about planets outside the solar system. How many have we found? What are they like?
  • 6-7pm – Book Signing. I’ll be in the book signing area and available to sign books for you.

Saturday, September 1

  • 9:30-10:30am – Canyon Room 4 – Robots are from Mars, Dinosaurs are from Venus. A look at the astronomy and paleontology of the Victorian era, what people thought life on alien planets was like, what dinosaurs were like, and how they influenced the science fiction of the day.
  • 11am-noon – Canyon Room 3 – Punked. There was cyberpunk, then steampunk (although that’s debatable). Now there’s clockpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk and, most recently, solarpunk. We help you navigate these sub-sub-sub-genres and make sense of all these punks messing up history and the future. On the panel with me are Jenn Czep, Rhonda Parrish, and Cynthia Ward.
  • 2-3pm – Canyon Room 4 – Steampunk in the Round. What is it that makes steampunk a lasting trend? We’ll discuss the evolution of steampunk and ask how we might see it in a few years, the literary and media side of steampunk, the commercial side of Steampunk and the splinter divisions of steampunk. Q&A with audience. On the panel with me are Dirk Folmer, Kurt Khave, Christen Pike, and Gary Sollars.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Canyon Room 3 – More than Airships. It’s not just flying anachronisms; steampunk is an aesthetic. Beth Cato leads our panel of authors in examining the style and the tropes of this whimsical version of alternate hist
    ory. Joining Beth and me are Cynthia Ward and Ashley Carlson.
  • 5-6pm – Book Signing. I’ll be available to sign my books in the convention signing area before I have to leave for a work week at Kitt Peak National Observatory.
  • If you attend the convention, you can find my books in the dealer’s room at Duncan’s Books and More. I look forward to seeing you there!

Good Art by Bad People

It can be a real shock to learn that people you admire have done terrible things. Recently the news has been filled with stories of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults. Just a few years ago, the speculative fiction world was shaken by allegations of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse. It hurts and even feels like these people we’ve allowed into our hearts and homes through their work have betrayed us. This in turn raises a challenge. What do we do with the art created by such people?

Thee’s a good and thoughtful article at the Paris Review by Claire Dederer on this subject, with a special focus on the films of Woody Allen. You can read the article here: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/

I believe Ms. Dederer makes an important point in her article. None of us are perfect. We’ve all done stupid, mean, or hurtful things at one time or another. Hopefully most of us haven’t committed acts as terrible as those committed by Bill Cosby or Marion Zimmer Bradley, but all of us get caught up in our own selfish or thoughtless needs and desires at times. What’s more, this struggle against our worst natures is at the very root of what makes good art.

As an editor, I’ve read and published numerous submissions from prisoners. I’ve never been good about keeping detailed statistics on things like this, but my impression is that the acceptance rate among prisoners is about the same as the general population. Now, it’s rare for a prisoner to tell me why they’re serving time, but clearly they were convicted of a sufficiently serious crime to be incarcerated. Despite that, I have found in these works something worth sharing with a wider audience. I also feel like these people are paying their debt to society by serving time. Many of them are honestly trying to improve themselves by expressing their feelings through art. I feel the effort deserves reward.

Thinking about this subject has also helped me to understand my inherent problem with America’s celebrity worship. As a culture, we seem all too ready to give people power simply because they’re famous. People become afraid to speak up when a famous person does terrible things. Admittedly many famous people do hold real power. They’re heads of companies or manage staffs, but the fact that they’re famous makes people more afraid to speak up. People know they’ll be judged in the court of public opinion when they say a famous person did terrible things. In fact, certain celebrities are quite adept at turning their fans against accusers.

I think there is a real danger when society attempts to dictate what art is available for people to consume. Imagine the government telling you to throw out your video tapes of I Spy and burn your copies of The Mists of Avalon. Now imagine what else they’ll decide is not moral enough for you to consume. Another possible and more subtle consequence is that you could create a situation where the only artists available are the famous ones, which would only exacerbate the celebrity problem. Turning that around does offer something to consider when you feel betrayed by an artist. Always remember, there are many other artists out there eager to tell you stories, show you their movies, and paint amazing canvases.

Just remember, those artists are human and subject to temptation. Just like you.