Folks, please welcome David Lee Summers to the blog once again. He’s previously gifted me with a bit of his time in this other interview. Today we chat about fairy tales, Star Wars, Cherie Priest’s works, awkward fan moments, and question over the correct use of the term ‘parsec’. I had quite a bit of fun in reading through David’s answers and I expect you’ll be as entertained as I am.
Myths and beliefs that we would consider fiction or fantasy in modern literature once upon a time shaped history (think of all the hunts for unicorns & dragons). Do you see modern fantasy fiction affecting human cultures today and how?
One of my favorite poetry collections is Jean Hull Herman‘s Jerry Springer as Bulfinch or Mythology Modernized. Throughout her collection, Ms. Herman recounts stories of Greek myth and recounts similar episodes from the Jerry Springer Show. It all goes to show that we not only project our hopes and aspirations into our myths, we also reflect who we are as human beings on our myths and sometimes we don’t always come off in the best light.
No matter what genre a writer tackles, they’re going to react to those things around them. Now a science fiction writer might either add some wish fulfillment and create the world she hopes will come about, or she might create the world she fears. The same is true for fantasy. We’ll raise up our better selves in the form of heroes and noble creatures while also dashing ourselves through villains and monsters. In answer to your question, I think modern fantasy fiction simply gives us a lens by which to view the modern world and attempt to make the best choices as human beings. A century from now, people will look at our fantasy in much the same way as we look at Grimm’s Fairy Tales, as a window into past times.
The fantastical beasts of fiction I would most like to encounter would be any Maurice Sendak‘s wild things of Where the Wild Things Are. They look vicious, but really, all they want to do is play and I could be their king by simply being fierce at them.
Although I love dragons and gryphons and would love to see one from a safe distance, I’d probably also want to avoid them at all costs because I’m not sure there would be a safe distance.
What book should be made into a game (card, PC, board, etc.) and why? Is there a specific character who you would want to play in this game?
I would love to see a PC game based on Cherie Priest‘s Clockwork Century novels. It would be fun to see a lot of the different locations and situations visualized. It could be done as a quest game with different objectives. I’d love to campaign through her alternate Seattle underground, or aboard the speeding train of Dreadnaught, or through the streets and swamps of her steampunked New Orleans from Ganymede. For my part, I would like to play the part of airship pirate captain Andan Cly, but there are plenty of great characters that a player could choose to be in this world.
One of the go-to books in my personal library is The Atlas of Past Times. It was a book I found on remainder on a shelf outside a bookstore, but I find it a great quick reference when I’m checking where boundaries were at a given point in history or who was in charge of what, which can then point me to other historical reference materials. This is very useful if I’m working on a historical story, alternate or otherwise. It also reminds me about how fast boundaries have changed in human history.
In general, I think the most useful books for building cultures are collections of folk tales. I’ve used Grimm’s Fairy Tales, American Indian Myths and Legends by Erdoes and Ortiz, and Vampire in Europe by Montague Summers. There are also a lot of good projects where people have collected folktales on the web. These tell you a lot about people’s hopes and fears, their morality, and their taboos. Reading folk tales along with books from other times and places can open your mind and help you consider what future or fantastic cultures might be like.
NASA has many great online resources not only for their discoveries, but the spacecraft and vehicles that made them. This can be helpful when you’re thinking about how vehicles work in space. Plus, they often give you references for places to look for more information.
The way I approach any story at the beginning is to think about what building blocks I need for the story. Will I need to know about a certain region of the world? Do I want to build a culture that’s analogous to a culture that has existed? Sometimes I have books that will help answer those questions in my library. If not, I’ll go to the online card catalog for the local library and see what kinds of books they have on those subjects.
Paradise Lost by John Milton is one I’ve always wanted to sit down and work my way through because it inspired so much of the modern lore about angels and demons—things people think are Biblical but aren’t. I’d also love to read the Iliad and the Odyssey all the way through. I’ve read large chunks of the latter, but it’s been a long time. On a somewhat lighter note, I’ve been looking for a good translation of Jules Verne‘s ‘Round the Moon, the sequel to From the Earth to the Moon. Verne ends the first book on a cliffhanger, with his crew going to the moon, but we don’t find out what happens until the second book and I haven’t tracked down a copy yet!
From your own writings, are there any characters you would like to cosplay? Have others dressed up as characters from your books?
In fact the outfit I often wear to steampunk events is inspired by the clothes I describe for the inventor, Professor Maravilla in Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves. It’s a cravat, brightly colored waistcoat, and tailcoat. The bounty hunter, Larissa Crimson, was created by my daughter as her steampunk persona for events. As it turns out, she appears as Larissa on the cover of Lightning Wolves.
So far, I haven’t encountered anyone outside my family dressed up as a character from my books, but I’d be absolutely delighted if they did. They’d get a free book and I’d have to take a picture with them!
I would start with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. After all, she pretty much invented both modern science fiction and horror with Frankenstein. Next would be Arthur Conan Doyle. It would be great to meet the man behind Sherlock Holmes and see if I could get him to recount stories of some of his famous hoaxes. Another British author of the period who would be fun to have at this table would be D.H. Lawrence, to discuss both poetry and his perspective on northern New Mexico at the time my grandparents were doing their best to make a life there. Leigh Brackett would have to be on the list for both her role in early pulp science fiction, but for a Hollywood writing career that ranged from working with Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, to John Wayne in Rio Bravo, and finishing with the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. With Leigh Brackett there, I would have to invite Ray Bradbury. Even though I got to meet him before he died, there are so many more things we could talk about and discuss now than when I met him in the early days of my career.
Who knows what they would order if left to their own devices, but with three people from England and two of them from the late Victorian period, I’d be inclined to invite them over to a sumptuous holiday meal of turkey and all the trimmings. If I were preparing it, it would be a smoked turkey with mole sauce on the side. I’d make sure there was plenty of wine and beer available. The one time I was with Ray Bradbury that he ordered something, it was a Heineken.
The hard part of this question is that a college semester is only going to have limited time and you can’t read all the greatest, best, or the most influential works. My inclination would be to use Frankenstein to discuss science fiction’s beginning as cautionary, morality tale. I would move on to Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon to discuss the rise of science fiction as an optimistic genre. Starship Troopers would probably serve as classic military, hero-driven science fiction and as a jumping off point for the role of politics in science fiction. Dune would probably come next to show a continuation of the heroic saga, but subverted by the sensitivity of ecology and drug culture at the time it was produced. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester would probably come in there, too, to show how heroic science fiction could be completely subverted, allowing for the rise of cyberpunk and other genres. A novel like Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl would serve to show the return to science fiction as cautionary tale, the introduction of steampunk and a jumping off place for a discussion of the future.
Lots of other books would certainly be mentioned, if not substituted for these. Certainly Ray Bradbury’s novels and stories would be discussed. Lois McMaster Bujold and the Miles Vorsagian novels would be good examples of character and plot almost becoming primary to any particular science fictional element. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could come in as part of a discussion on the role of humor in science fiction. So many books so little time!
It was more cool than awkward, but last year at Phoenix Comicon, a fellow bought a copy of Revolution of Air and Rust. He was nice enough, but said he’d read it over and let me know what he thought. The next day, he came back to the table with one of his friends and he immediately bought Owl Dance and told his friend, he absolutely had to buy Revolution of Air and Rust. “That’s one of the best things I’ve read.” That just made my day.
As for awkward fanboy moments on my part, I went to see Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan on the day of release with friends of mine from across town. We were all in high school at the time. They introduced me to their friend Jan Bixby. We were having a great time in line talking Star Trek, science fiction, and generally geeking out when an older man built like a bantam rooster with hair that looked like it put combs in their place walked up and had a few words with Jan. One of my friends pulled him aside and introduced me to him. “This is Jan’s dad, Jerome.” I shook his hand, then said something like “Pleased to meet you, sir”, then he went on his way. A beat or two later, I put it together. Jan Bixby’s dad was Jerome Bixby, the author of such original Star Trek episodes as “Mirror, Mirror” and “Requiem for Methuselah” plus the great, great horror story “It’s a Good Life” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode starring Billy Mumy. I think I was speechless and muttering incoherent syllables for a while afterward. One of my friends had to point out in typical high school fashion, “Yeah, but he’s just Jan’s dad.”
One argument that seems to crop up from time to time is whether or not soft science fiction has any value influencing scientists. For example, someone might point to the infamous line from Star Wars where Han Solo says the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” In the context of the movie, it’s clear he’s referring to parsecs as a unit of time, when in fact, they’re a distance that was initially based on the size of an arcsecond of angle on the sky. The claim is often made that not only is this bad science, it’s going to lead kids away from the sciences and we’re going to raise a generation of idiots. Therefore, this kind of terrible science needs to be eliminated from science fiction at all costs.
However, most astronomers I’ve known have gone into science precisely because soft science fiction got them thinking about the adventure of space at an early age. Carl Sagan famously fell in love with Mars because of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who got almost everything wrong about Mars. I’ve known generations of scientists who got interested in science because of both Star Wars and Star Trek. In my case, I remember hearing Han Solo’s line from Star Wars and wondering what a parsec was. Was it anything real? When I looked it up, I found out they got it wrong. So what? I still loved the adventure of Star Wars, but I have to admit, I felt a little bit superior to the writers of Episode IV. A whole new world opened up to me and I started looking up even more stuff.
So my side of the argument usually runs something like this: Science fiction influences scientists not because it’s right but because it’s fun. Sure as writers, we should do our best to get it right, but it’s the fun that makes people care. I’ve yet to meet anyone who stopped having an interest in science because George Lucas didn’t know what a parsec was.
Places to Find David Lee Summers