Venus on Mars

Let’s Hear It For Good Ol’ Vesto!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on September 17, 2012

Modesty Becomes Vesto

One hundred years ago today, an unassuming junior astronomer at Lowell Observatory made a discovery that forever changed our understanding of the universe – yet hardly anyone recognizes the name Vesto Melvin Slipher. Who?

“We have hired a new observer, Mr. V.M., imported from Indiana,” Miss Lulu writes in her journal.

More people moving about day and night, passing each other in the hallways, always ready to interpret the comings and goings of others as eagerly as we observe and interpret the events we see on Mars.

Miss Lulu’s first mention of V.M. Slipher is as a slight annoyance, a vexing reason she must now be more discreet in finding and spending intimate moments with her boss Percival Lowell.

But over time Miss Lulu comes to admire Slipher’s quiet work. Ultimately, her own evolving notions about the universe are  inspired by his early work with the spectrograph and his discovery of “redshift” – the color of objects moving away from each other shifting toward the red end of the color spectrum. Until then, no one had observed this kind of dramatic movement through the heavens. No one had theorized the universe was actually expanding.

Miss Lulu writes in her journal:

I have come to believe that we live in an energetic universe. As humans, in particular the busy ones, rarely sit still for any extended period of time and often travel from one place to another to get on with their lives, neither do our celestial acquaintances, who turn and fidget constantly as they proceed with their own journeys through the universe.

Both Slipher and Miss Lulu had cause to take care in how they announced their findings – any deviation from Lowell’s established talking points (life on Mars and, later in his life, the obsessive search for what eventually became Pluto) could be met by swift dismissal. But even after Lowell died and Slipher became Observatory director, he was hesitant to promote his own cause (lessons learned well during his tenure as Lowell’s assistant).

Slipher eventually did present his findings at an astronomer’s conference – that’s how Edwin Hubble found out about them. (You can read more about this in Marcia Bartusiak’s excellent book, The Day We Found the Universe.)

Hubble took Slipher’s data and ran with it, announcing soon after his “Theory of an Expanding Universe,” which eventually led us backwards to envision The Big Bang. (Unlike Slipher, Hubble knew a little about PR and was not shy about promoting himself and his ideas – it turned out well for Hubble – he got a space telescope named after him.)

Slipher Rotunda at Lowell Observatory – A Shining Legacy

At Lowell Observatory, there’s a elegant domed building named after Slipher, and the spectrograph he used is in a glass display case inside, yet most of the portraits peering down from ornate frames are of Lowell, not Slipher. The first time I visited the Observatory, there was little mention of Slipher’s work. When I returned this summer, I was thrilled to see a new sign posted on the road leading up Mars Hill: Home of the Expanding Universe.

Slipher came to Lowell Observatory as a “temp” hire, but stayed for more than 50 years and his impact is still felt among astronomers and cosmologists.

I’m glad the Slipher – I mean Lowell – Observatory is observing this centennial, and that Slipher is finally getting this long overdue recognition.

Now if someone could just discover where all those stars, planets and galaxies speeding away from us are actually headed????? The universe wants to know…


Books in Place

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on September 7, 2012

Books as Decor

I’m staying for a few days in a historic inn: no TVs in the rooms, but books everywhere. Old books stacked on tables in the lobby, upright books lining shelves along the stairway, books nested in a basket by my bedside. I have yet to open any of them, but did take time this morning to look at some of the titles. Nothing notable, not even classics, which suggests the books have been placed here as decor, as part of the inn’s charming ambience, and not necessarily to be read.

In his 1964 essay “The Book as Object,” an incredibly prescient Michel Butor suggests that the book (back then there was only print) may have outlived its usefulness, deserving “no more than an indulgent smile” as we pass by the bookshelf where it rests. The problem, he suggests, lies in the very construction of the book itself, in its physical characteristics – lines, columns, pages, margins, typography, fonts. He assumes these characteristics to be fixed and unvariable, and in 1964 this was true. In the Admiral Benbow Inn, this is still true – I’m guessing some of the books around here haven’t moved from their places in years.

But what if, Butor muses, “in another dimension of space,” books may achieve “mobility” with regard to the text? He describes them as “reference points” embedded into the linear text, allowing the reader of a book to “explore it without having to endure it.” (This was about this time the term “hypertext” was coined and Butor’s musings were on their way to becoming accepted practice.)

The way I found my way to Butor’s essay proves we have arrived.

My friend Jim Mahoney recently sent me an email saying, here’s something you may be interested in reading, “about how movies on dvd are somewhat book-like, which brought you to mind as you are making books that are somewhat movie-like.”

I followed the link and read an article “Observations on Film Art” by Kristin Thomas and David Bordwell, which was certainly worth a read, but I was most taken by a specific reference made to “experimental novelist Michel Butor” and his notion that the book should be “an object to be manipulated at will” and that such manipulation “harbored the possibilities of innovative storytelling.”

Or course I Googled Butor, couldn’t find the text I wanted online, but did locate the book containing it by title. Next, in the SFSU library holdings online, I found the volume. I requested it using the new “book retrieval system” – a quick drive down Holloway Avenue and the well-worn book was in my hands.

The important aspect of this entire process was that until the librarian handed me Butor’s book, nothing remotely resembling a book was involved, and I didn’t even have to get out of my easy chair.

If books are to survive as useful objects, not just relics whose presence in a room adds a little class or invokes a nostalgic smile, they certainly must continue to evolve as more than their immutable physical parts.

Books that Won’t Behave

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 27, 2012

Not Your Grandparents’ Library

Thinking about how to present my novel in an actual library setting, as I will be doing on Wed., Oct. 3, in the new library at SFSU. Libraries, imposing structures filled with study shelving lined with orderly books maintained by quietly efficient librarians, seem like places where one should not misbehave. But this is a new library, equipped with “100% more computers,” its web page boasts, a building where the books and the words inside them are digital as often as not. And we all know what can happen once a book finds its way into digital form, don’t we?

I think “shapeshifting” pretty much covers it. Digital material, unlike analog material, is made up of discrete pieces, and those pieces can come apart, fly away, regroup and reinvent themselves. Digital texts, unlike their printed predecessors, do not always behave the way we expect them to, as anyone who has read an ebook knows. In a digital book, the pages “stream” forward; words and the letters that compose them can assume variable shapes and sizes; there is no absolute number of pages. (“Page count” means nothing in a digital book – the 350 pages of “Venus on Mars” quickly mushrooms to 942 when viewed as an ebook on my iPhone!)

Traditional print books, on the other hand, have pages that stay put. The pages are usually numbered, and one numbered page follows another. What is put on one page remains there. Writers, for the most part, compose this way, one word after another, line by line, paragraph following paragraph, thought connected to next logical thought, until the narrative is complete. Authors expect their readers to experience the book the way it was written, page by page, start to finish (although peeking ahead or looking back is permitted).

Words Written Every Which-a-way!

That’s why I was so intrigued, when I went to Lowell Observatory to research my novel Venus on Mars, by documents in Wrexie Louise Leonard’s files in which her “normal” handwriting left to right was superimposed with another layer of handwriting top to bottom, as if the page had been turned ninety degrees mid-writing. Why, I wondered (there was no need to conserve paper – Percival Lowell endowed his Observatory with abundant resources)?

The linearity of a printed book depends so much on its layout, its binding, its assembly – physical constructs that can be undone by age, condition of book, or perhaps, I mused, by sheer deviousness. This writer was deliberately writing in a style that obscured the content, made her words less clear, less accessible, her own method of hiding secrets as she constructed her handwritten journal:

I have taken unusual care in fashioning my private thoughts, my words spread in patterns on the pages of my book like the constellations across the night sky – an archer, a queen on her throne, the fish, the water bearer, the twins, the bears big and small – celestial scenes that are clearly visible to those able to see in the arrangement of stars something more.

Wrexie (“Miss Lulu” in my book) was writing in a nonlinear manner, before nonlinear was a “thing.” Nonlinear writing imposes another level of processing on the reader, and the more intricate the construction, the more the reader must work – and think – to grasp the meaning of the patterns themselves, as well as the text within them. But some readers will be less inclined to put forth the additional effort required – all according to Miss Lulu’s plan:

But disorder, as we all know, is the absolute way of our unwieldy universe, and its irresolute state shall be my salvation: my carefully arranged words will appear to most as a mere scattering of stars.

Pages Let Loose

Even printed books can misbehave, in the hands of an imaginative writer. My Venus on Mars event, I hope, will honor the tradition of such unruly authors, but will also celebrate the future of writing and reading: books constructed with links, books displaying patterns on multiple levels, books with benefits that extend well beyond the page, fitting for a brand new library inhabited by teeming texts that show themselves on computer screens, smart phones and tablets, offering insight and understanding as prizes awaiting readers who dare to grasp at flying pages and hold onto them.

Wednesday, October 3, at 4 p.m. in the new “Events Room” (room 121) of SFSU’s Leonard Library, is a fixed time and place. But what I hope to present there is not.

Books, I am pleased to announce, no longer behave – nor should they.

How Many Ways Can You Get To Mars?

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 21, 2012

So this blog is back!

I’ll be posting frequently – now it’s more about my book’s adventures in the world as I promote, distribute, market and occasionally perform with it.

Last week I saw that the Exploratorium (SF science museum) has a current exhibit, “Return to Mars.” I know what they’re referring to – Curiosity follows those earlier rovers with hopeful names, Spirit and Opportunity. Each is a physical presence on the red planet. Wheels on the ground. Instruments measuring everything from atmospheric content to soil acidity. Cameras capturing detailed closeups of Martian surface features.

I started thinking that there are so many other ways to visit Mars – and therefore to return to it, again and again.

Welcome to Mars – Google hopes you enjoy your visit!

Google Earth can take you there – here’s a video preview of what you’ll see upon arrival.

A few years back Wired ran this article about five ways to get there. For the record, they are chemical propulsion, antimatter propulsion, nuclear thermal propulsion, ion propulsion, and the one that sounds most pleasant (and least explosive), solar sail.

But now that we’re landing rovers on the red planet, a few Earthlings have found another way to visit the red planet. They’re the elite corps of rover drivers, fixated on the rover controls and charting the miniscule progress made each time they take the wheel. They are the first Earthlings, according to sci-fi writer William Gibson (in his essay Googling the Cyborg), to experience “Martian jet lag.” Moreover, he believes, they are as heroic as astronauts and should be feted as such:

That’s what you get when you operate one of those little Radio Shack wagon/probes from a comfortable seat back at an airbase in California. Literally. Those operators were the first humans to experience Martian jet lag.  In my sense of things, we should know their names: first humans on the Red Planet. Robbed of recognition by that same old school of human literalism. 

Because humans have achieved some degree “augmented reality,” reasons Gibson, if Mars happens to some sensory extension of yourself, Mars is happening to you. Monte Morin, writing in The LA Times, agrees:

Short of becoming an astronaut, it [driving a planetary rover] is the ultimate form of space exploration.

Mars rover driver Ashley Stroupe suits up for journey

So if  a dedicated crew of rover drivers are currently joy-riding around on Mars without getting out of their chairs,  perhaps there are other ways to get to the red planet that we have yet to envision.

In my book, Miss Lulu writes about her first look at Mars:

I put one eye to the eyepiece and see hovering right in front of me an enormous red disk, its polar caps splendidly trimmed in ermine. I’d anticipated seeing our planetary neighbor as if it were visiting our own neighborhood, but instead I have the distinct impression that I am the one who’s travelled – in a mere instant – part way across our Solar System. With one brief look, I’ve become a Martian, a quietly spectacular event.

I had this same feeling the first time I looked through a large telescope – an immediate feeling of proximity, as if I’d been propelled through the telescope and zapped clear across space.  It’s a visual shock, but a pleasantly thrilling one.  Armchair astronomy, unlike rocket propulsion, is safe, inexpensive, and immediately gratifying.

I think the ultimate way for us to become Martians, Saturnians, Neptunians, is just to see ourselves that way. We’re made out of the same celestial stuff, just packaged differently.

Writers, artists, visionaries have never had a problem traveling from this world to another.

We’re on Mars now, we’ve always been there and we always will be.

And once we’ve been there, our “return to Mars” – or to any other place in the universe – can come at any time.

What a Difference a Hat Makes

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 20, 2012

Just days before my book launch at Lowell Observatory, I learned that a certain higher-up there feared my book may be too controversial for the blessed Lowell family (who still haunts the place). I was devastated and nearly cancelled my trip, then had a second thought. I could put on a fancy hat and everything would be fine.

Miss Lulu’s hat resting on her beloved Percy’s grave.

Not only did a wear the hat, not only was everything hunky-dorey (way better than fine) – I also discovered I could channel my character Lulu.

Miss Lulu suffered huge setbacks in her life, but her wardrobe never suffered and her outer demeanor remained upbeat. “I am going away now to clear my head,” she wrote after the love of her life, Percival Lowell, unexpectedly married another woman. She had a fancy hat on when she wrote this, of course.

I think a fashionable hat must help keep the head clear. With such finery securely perched on top, there’s no way for troubling thoughts to enter one’s head.  A stylish hat can be the guardian for the soul, the first line of defense against negative vibes.

When I wore the hat I felt strong, resourceful. I could speak my mind without fear of repercussions.  I could see what I saw through the telescope, not what someone else wanted me to see.  I could chat up the very person who tried to nix my visit and feel superior, even when he suggested Miss Lulu (me!) had a weight problem.

“Not when she wore her corset,” I defended my character, myself.

“Well, all that fat had to go somewhere,” he persisted.

The boobs, that’s where it went – I gestured to my upper chest.  Small waist, big breasts. Win, win.

See what I mean? Invincible.

I stayed in character for most of my time at Lowell Observatory, inhabiting my character easily, comfortably. It probably helped that long ago I  (Jan, not Lulu) fell in love with an actual Lowell (who looked a lot like Percy), and he broke my heart.

Now my fancy hat fetish has spawned another benefit. My publicist wants me to develop a one-woman performance piece based on Miss Lulu. I can do this!

Details to come…

A Happy (Enough) Ending!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on April 6, 2012
Venus on Mars - front cover

Coming - for real - June 2!

I’m signing off on this blog so I can concentrate and focus my time and energy on my book, plans for its launch on June 2, and marketing/promotion.

I am working with Pedernales Publishing – exactly what I need – they’ve positioned solidly in-between traditional presses (who take your manuscript and do everything) and self-publishing places like Lulu and CreateSpace (who leave everything up to you).

Barbara, their design consultant, loves the cover with the Victorian woman stepping onto the surface of Mars – and she has provided so many good reasons why this should be the cover – so I’ve reworked the design, popping the title a little more, making the sky color slightly less putrid-looking.

And working with another small company, Falernian, to publicize and promote. We’ve decided to use QR codes inside – like expanded bar codes (but more customizable) – readers will be able to point a smart phone at the image and link to additional content (pics, text, sounds) that will enhance the reading experience.  Hoping this comes off as more than gimmicky.

I’ve set up a “Venus on Mars” Facebook page and will from here on post book news there.  Over and out.

Transit of Venus – Coming Soon!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on February 28, 2012

Enough dawdling. I still have a few, far-fetched options, but recently the harsh truth arrived, twice in the same day, when both Atticus and McSweeney’s passed on my “VoM” manuscript – the two small presses I actually thought might may want to work with me.

Venus is supposed to keep moving – that’s what the planet does, that’s what the character Venus does in my book. When Venus stalls out in one place, very bad things start happening (except for that guy in Amarillo, who f—ed her brains out). Similarly, I know I’m f—ed unless I keep going forward.

“Thanks, but I’ve got to get going now,” I tell him, heading for the door, not sure whether I’m running away from something or toward something else, not sure whether this is goodbye or hello. Either way, I reason, I have to keep moving. The present is nothing more than an uncomfortable moment, and it’s already over.

So a very small but dedicated publishing collective (Precambrian) is going to work with me to get my book finished and out there. I’ll have to do a lot of the work (creating publicity materials, making contacts and planning events), but after sitting still for over a year while waiting on someone else to do this for me, I’m more than anxious to jump up and get going (I’m so ready that I’m writing this standing up).

There goes Venus!

I’ve had a great idea: to launch the book on June 5, when a rare astronomical event, the Transit of Venus, will occur (it’s when Venus passes in front of the sun, and there won’t be another one this century). I’ve been invited to observe the Transit of Venus with fellow planetary writer Bill Sheehan, either at Mt. Wilson near Pasadena, or at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

This makes sense – my character Venus is in transit for most of my book – she’s actually on a road trip from New Orleans to Pasadena, but also experiencing consciousness-raising and life-altering events (i.e. inner transit).

Sooner or later we all show up and sooner or later we all have to leave – but not before some amount of unraveling occurs.

“Unraveling” refers to a separation, but also to a clarification – a solution arrived at by means of teasing the otherwise baffling elements into sensible parts. At last I’ve unraveled my publishing dilemma.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to work.

Persistence and Progress, Dusty and Etta

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on January 21, 2012

The new year arrived and still my manuscript isn’t a book. A moment of despair (OK more than a moment) when I realized this is exactly the same situation I was in last new year.

Wishin' and Hopin'

There was a brief mid-year frenzy of activity when I finally made contact with a respected literary editor who did not want to represent me but instead gave me many good ideas on how to pursue publication on my own, followed by my respectable burst of query letters, writing samples, bios, and keeping a careful log of whom I contacted and when.

The rest of the year spent like Dusty Springfield; meanwhile, one by one, drawing big black lines through each name when the rejection impersonal note/email arrived.

By December, only one was left, the nice folks at Atticus, for whom I still hold out hope, but they’re taking for-f——–ever to give me an answer.

And another, McSweeney’s, who had not replied except to say they’d received my manuscript – back in August. I’d tried sending follow-up emails, but they all bounced back. Their web site said they’d changed their submission process, but if you’d already submitted using the now-defunct process, your work would still be read. (These are the folks who say on their web site that the time it takes them to respond is “forever.”) Just be patient, they said. Wearing thin.

At Last

I heard from another writer that their editorship had changed and tried to find out name of the new editor, tried to get this writer I’d met to help me (since he claimed to know them), but he never answered my emails).

So in desperation I sent a message to their generic, customer service email, and the next day got a reply from a real, not rumored, associate editor. Just as I’d feared, my submission had been lost amid all the changes there (which were true). Send it directly to me, she said, and I will put it in the front of our reading queue.

Does this constitute progress? I’m saying yes, and if I’m right, my tune may change from “Wishin’ and Hopin'” to that passionately voiced song from the great talent we lost just yesterday: “At Last.”

Ephemereality is Almost a Word

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 18, 2011

Totality is Worth Waiting For!

I’ve morphed this blog into many contortions this past year, but lately it’s been about the uncertain route a book must travel toward publication, its eventual culmination a rare and ephemeral event whose essence I pondered while lying in bed last week watching the Earth’s shadow creep across the full moon just prior to sunrise – a total lunar eclipse so convenient I didn’t even have to get up for it.

Seeing something nearly 240,000 miles away, but unfolding right outside my bedroom window is a lot like the yearning to be published. The object of desire looks so close but is actually so very far away, and so many things have to fall into place for this experience to occur successfully: our location in the universe, in the solar system, on Earth. The timing of the full moon at night, and whether it’s happening at a time I actually want to be awake. The weather and visibility so easily compromised by clouds, wind, or the inherent activity of any atmosphere (in foggy San Francisco most astronomincal events are over before they even begin).

And yet it happened; the sky was clear, the timing was perfect and the eclipsed moon itself, glowing a soft red during totality, was surprisingly spectacular (I’ve been disappointed by many past lunar eclipses, but perhaps my expectations are too high).

Life rarely works out this well.

My manuscript is currently with Atticus Press, the nicest folks who’ve ever not given me an answer, and whether it’s an eventual yes or no, I want to give them a major shout-out for the modest amount of respect and attention they’ve been able to send my way. The fact that they asked to read my manuscript after I sent them a sample, the fact that they always reply to my emails, even if it’s just to say: not yet, please be patient.

There are so many good writers out there, so few books that actaully get published, so little money to be made in a diminished market that’s evolving in convoluted ways we can’t even fathom,  must less see clearly.

For the writer, it’s the prolonged torture of waiting. Even giving it the best spin possible, waiting for publication is an experience that remains ever-elusive. The strain of trying to see that far, that well, across such a well-trod yet perilous expanse is almost painful, but looking away is out of the question. Because I might lose my footing and destroy all the progress I’ve made up to this point. Because what’s happening out there is rare and ephemeral and must be experienced. Because any moment the sky may clear and I can reach out and grab the moon, pull it in through my bedroom window and hold it in my hands. Because I’ve chosen to experience the entirety of the event and it’s not over yet.

Nothing can take the place of an actual visual experience like the lunar eclipse I saw last week.

I will feel that way again when I see my book, when I can hold it in my hands, leaf through the pages or swipe through the e-version, and think  finally at last, the ephemeral has become real.


Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 8, 2011

Wolf Howling - No Moon Needed!

This artificial wolf, sculpted in mid-howl, sits right outside the entry to the Goldstone Deep Space Network in the Mojave Desert, where giant radio telescopes monitor distant signals from space.

Wolves don’t actually howl at the moon. They howl to communicate with other wolves, and the higher they hold their heads when they emit the sound, the stronger the signal and the more distance it will travel.

“It’s all about acoustics, since projecting their calls upward allows the sound to carry farther,” says Cristin Conger on the Animal Planet web site.

While researching my novel, I visited Goldstone. I saw the huge radio telescope dishes towering over the desert floor and observed the hushed activity in the darkened control rooms where deep-space signals are displayed on arrays of computer monitors surrounded by DSN employees hunkered down in front of them.

It was one of the revelations of my Goldstone visit that Voyager 1, launched way back in 1977, is still out there, phoning home.

When I read this week that Voyager 1 is about to leave the Solar System – a truly momentous occasion – I thought about how long it’s been out there (nearly 35 years), how incredibly far its signals actually travel (11 billion-with-a-b miles back to Earth), and how long it takes to make any measurable progress, even in what is considered our own cosmic neighborhood.

Voyager 1 passed Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980, completing its planned mission to fly by the gas giants and send data back to Earth. Since then it’s been headed toward interstellar space, and soon will send us radio-signal postcards telling us what it’s like in a place no Earth object has ever visited.

Deep Space Monitors

The folks at Goldstone will be first to receive these messages, their sensitive receivers and  powerful antennae tuned to capture Voyager’s radio transmissions, growing weaker with each passing moment – here’s real-time odometer for those who want specifics.

No one knows what interstellar space is like, a place so unknown we won’t even know when we get there because there’s no distinct boundary.

The first indication we have arrived will be confusion, according to Chief scientist Ed Stone of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Already the signals from the solar system are fading and the high-energy signals from interstellar space are increasing. Some call this a cosmic purgatory or a stagnation zone, but these labels seems limiting and sad. I think we are in a transitional area, a preparatory period for what lies ahead.

I think signals from interstellar space will be more like a cosmic wolf howl.

“It’s no surprise that we are captivated by the sound of a howl,” writes Lisa Matthews on the “Wolf Song of Alaska” web site,“ for as the mysterious song fills the vast expanses we are somehow reminded of, and are reconnected to, the wondrous aspects of nature that we may have forgotten about.”

Surely after the confusion is bound to come wonder, awe, and some new amount of understanding.