Lavender Castle

I enjoy listening to the Gerry Anderson podcast hosted by Gerry’s son, Jamie Anderson, along with Richard James and Chris Dale. the podcast discusses the television shows Gerry Anderson produced over a nearly 50-year career in television and includes such well known shows as Thunderbirds and Space: 1999. Chris Dale’s segment on the show is called “The Randomiser” and in it, he watches a random episode from a random Gerry Anderson show. In an episode a few weeks ago, he discussed a show called Lavender Castle, which I’d not heard of before.

Now, when I first heard the title, I pictured something very different from Gerry Anderson’s usual oeuvre of action shows, often with a science fictional element. To me, the title brought to mind princesses, ponies, and an idyllic fantasy land possibly under threat from a comical villain. While listing to the Randomiser, it became clear this was something different. I finally decided I needed to learn more about this show.

Lavender Castle tells the story of the crew of a space vessel called the Paradox, commanded by Captain Thrice, an elf-like grandfatherly being with an eye on his nose in addition to the two on either side. He’s accompanied by a sentient walking stick and a Scottish-accented engineer named Isembard. The Paradox is built like an English cottage with a thatch roof. In the first episode, they land aboard a pirate ship called the Cutting Snark, which floats in a magical glowing river between planets. There they rescue several would-be slaves and recruit them for their crew. The other crew members are a dog-like hero named Roger, a medical student named Lyca, who has butterfly wings, a robot called Sir Squeakalot, and Sproggle, a lovable, lizard-like goofball.

The mission of the Paradox is to prevent a villain named Dr. Agon and his minions from destroying the titular Lavender Castle, which is the source of light and goodness in the universe. Dr. Agon flies through the universe in a monstrous ship called the Dark Station and has an elephant-like landing craft called the Mammoth. Agon’s primary minion is a pterodactyl-like creature called Trump, and I’m especially amused that they all consider the name a horrible insult. Occasionally teaming up with Dr. Agon is the pirate Short Fred Ledd.

The character designs and premise are the brainchild of British illustrator Rodney Matthews, who I wasn’t familiar with. While his style is very much its own, it reminded me of Brian Froud’s illustration work, which inspired movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The series ran for 26 10-minute episodes in 1999. Many of the episodes were scripted by Gerry Anderson himself. The show features a mix of stop motion and computer animation.

Given that the entire series has a run time of about four and a half hours, it’s an easy show to binge watch. I love stop motion animation and this was nicely done, especially for something that was produced on a television budget in the 1990s. They pack a lot of story into each 10-minute episode and I didn’t feel like I ran into too much repetitive material. Because the episodes are so short, we never get much back story for the characters.

I’ve always hated reviews that say something to the effect, “this show will bore adults, but it’s great for children.” Although children are very much the target audience, I found myself thoroughly enchanted by the show. My only complaints, particularly since this is a children’s show, are that almost all the characters are male and the characters can merrily breathe in space. Admittedly that latter point is something of a nitpick since these are clearly fantasy creatures existing in more of a magical realm than a scientific one, but I think a nod could have been given to the real world without slowing things down too much or sounding like a science lesson.

Several episodes are really top-notch. Favorites include: “Dueling Banjos” in which Captain Thrice must have a banjo duel with a crawfish-like swamp creature to get fuel for the Paradox; “Galactic Park” where the crew is lured to a theme park, but it proves to be an elaborate trap by Dr. Agon; and “Interface” where the Paradox responds to a distress call, only to be knocked out by sleeping gas and attacked by a giant mechanical spider. In that episode, Sir Squeakalot must find a way to save the crew by himself.

The entire series can currently be found on YouTube, but less because it’s legal to be there and more because no one is really enforcing the rights. The show was financed by Carrington Productions Incorporated, which was ultimately absorbed by Entertainment Rights Incorporated. Entertainment Rights was eventually purchased by Dreamworks Classics. I gather Anderson Entertainment is currently working on the rights issues with hopes of eventually producing a home video release and perhaps even some tie-in media. I hope they’re successful because this would be an amazing series to watch remastered on Blu-ray. While it may be little more than wishful thinking at this stage, I enjoyed this show so much, I would love to pitch a story for tie-in media if the opportunity ever arose.

While we’re waiting for a home video release of Lavender Castle, you can check out some of my whimsical and sometimes scary retrofuturistic fiction by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Battlestar Galactica

In the summer of 1978, I went with my parents to Ports O’ Call Village in San Pedro California. This was a shopping mall with curio shops and restaurants done up in the style of a New England fishing village. Eleven-year-old me was mostly bored by these excursions, but I perked up when we went into a hobby shop with some models that reminded me of Star Wars, which was still a relatively new thing. It turned out these were models for a new show called Battlestar Galactica, scheduled to debut that fall on television. They depicted a Colonial Viper and a Cylon Raider. My parents wouldn’t let me buy the models, but I did watch for the show and was captivated by its 24 episodes featuring Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch, and Dirk Benedict.

As it turns out, Battlestar Galactica would only bear some superficial resemblance to Star Wars through the space dogfights and robots that somewhat resembled chromium-plated Darth Vaders. Still, in those days before on-demand video, it was the closest thing I could get to reliving George Lucas’s 1977 film. As I’m sure most people reading this blog know, Battlestar Galactica tells the story of a group of robots called cylons who destroyed twelve worlds occupied by humans. The last living humans then went in search of a mysterious thirteenth colony called Earth, while pursued by the cylons. I did like the idea of a group of humans searching for the lost colony of Earth and I liked many of the characters. I also liked the almost mystical elements the show had, with angelic and demonic beings cropping up from time to time. That said, even eleven-year-old me had a hard time believing that noisy cylons with all their whirring sounds could sneak up on anyone and I wondered how the viper pilots were supposed to see with those lights around their helmets. Wouldn’t those reflect off the glass of their canopies and keep you from seeing the enemies?

In 2004, Ron Moore, known for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, would bring Battlestar Galactica back. This time, Edward James Olmos would play Commander Adama of the Galactica, most of the cylons we saw on screen looked human, and people wore contemporary neckties and spoke into analog phones. I liked this gritty new look. Unfortunately, the show came out at a time soon after I’d eschewed cable, so I only saw episodes here and there. Still, I liked the way this new show explored contemporary issues through a science fictional lens, gone were the helmet lights I didn’t like, and the human-like cylons seemed a bit scarier than the robots, precisely because you were never quite sure who exactly was and wasn’t a cylon.

Sitting at home during the 2020 pandemic, I finally had an excuse to start watching the 2004 Battlestar Galactica from beginning to end. I finally made it to the end a little over a week ago. Overall, I liked this new take. I liked the fact that it told a complete story and I like the nuts-and-bolts reality of it. I hesitate to say too much about the ending for anyone like me who has waited a while to watch the entire show. Still, most of it worked for me. Elements of it had a deus ex machina feel, but as I noted earlier, angelic and demonic forces have been part of the show since the original incarnation. I did feel those elements were there throughout the new version, though they could have been just a little stronger to better support the ending.

To me, both shows felt like they wanted to tell a story like a novel, but both were confined to the realities of episodic television. What’s more, from the special features on the 2004 Battlestar Galactica Blu-rays, it was clear they weren’t writing from an over-arcing outline. At best, they seemed to plot out a general direction from half-season to half-season. It mostly worked, but at times, it felt like the writers came up with more good ideas than they could satisfactorily resolve.

The original series always felt like it made a promise it never kept. It promised the Battlestar Galactica would find Earth. It kind of did in the Galactica 1980 series, but that 10-episode series never really lived up to the original. This time, I feel like the humans finally did find their way to Earth, and while I had some quibbles with some plot elements that could have been better resolved, I still thought it was a ride worth taking.

What Lies Inside?

I enjoy collecting action figures and statues based on some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy universes. I especially like ones that take inspiration from sources other than movies or TV. One manufacturer I especially liked was Eaglemoss, which made spaceship models based not only on the Star Trek television series, but also occasionally from novels and video games. Eaglemoss also made figures from comic books and other science fiction franchises. I was saddened to hear that they went out of business at the end of this past summer. Shortly after they went out of business, I learned they had made some figures based on the Doctor Who audio adventures from Big Finish Productions. I have loved these audio stories, and I decided to see if I could get a set before they disappeared into the hands of collectors forever. I lucked out and found a nice set featuring Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor and Nicola Walker as his companion Liv Chenka. Paul McGann did play the Doctor in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, but Big Finish designed a new look for the Doctor as he appears on the audio book covers, also Liv has never appeared on screen. Even the Dalek’s paint scheme is unique to the audio book covers.

I’ve long appreciated that Big Finish productions have given us a nice run of Paul McGann as the Doctor. He’s only appeared on screen three times in the role. First in the TV movie, where he was introduced. Second in a TV short called “Night of the Doctor” where we learned how his incarnation met its end. Most recently, he appeared in the episode called “Power of the Doctor” where Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor meets the “spirits” of several earlier incarnations. It always felt like a shame he didn’t have more stories. While I have listened to several Big Finish audio productions featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor, I hadn’t yet listened to any featuring Liv, nor have I listened to any after the eighth Doctor started sporting his leather jacket look as shown in the action figure. That said, I did listen to the pivotal stories “Lucie Miller” and “To the Death,” which effectively show us how the Doctor went from a more breezy, lighthearted personality to a more reserved, careful personality, reflected in the change of outfit. So, I decided I should rectify that. The hard part was deciding where to start. Right after “To the Death,” Big Finish produced several epic-length episodes featuring the eighth Doctor that span several volumes each. I wasn’t quite ready to commit that much time to a story. That said, this year, Big Finish has released two sets of more episodic adventures featuring Paul McGann. The first was “What Lies Inside?”

“What Lies Inside?” is, itself, composed of two different stories. The first is “Paradox of the Daleks.” As this story starts, it looks like it’s going to be a very traditional story of the Doctor facing his old nemesis the daleks. The Doctor, Liv, and Helen Sinclair arrive on a space station where the inhabitants are conducting experiments on time travel. It turns out, the daleks have also invaded, preparing to establish a temporal beachhead in some war they’re fighting. As the Doctor tries to foil the daleks’ plans, one of the space station’s inhabitants tricks Liv and Helen into hiding in a time capsule. The capsule sends them back in time to before they all arrived and sets a chain of events into action. On the whole, the story reminded me of Back to the Future, but where the stakes could be the universe itself!

The second story was “The Dalby Spook.” In this story, the Doctor, Helen, and Liv visit the Isle of Man in 1933. They go to see a stage psychic perform and encounter the real-life skeptic Harry Price. It turns out that Price is on the island to investigate reports of an invisible, talking mongoose said to haunt the Irving family home. I was delighted to learn that Harry Price’s investigation of Gef the Talking Mongoose really happened. I love it when real events are given a science fictional or fantastic twist and this story doesn’t disappoint. The Doctor, Liv, and Helen soon learn that something sinister is indeed going on around the Irving home, but it may not be as simple as young Voirrey Irving trying to get people to believe in an imaginary friend. She may be in real danger and Helen and Liv have to convince the Doctor to help.

While I’m disappointed that Eaglemoss has gone out of business, I’m happy that events came together to get me to listen to more Big Finish Doctor Who adventures. You can learn about their full range of adventures at https://bigfinish.com

Of course, if you like audiobooks, don’t miss the audiobook adaptations of my novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves. You can find them at:

Revisiting Dune

Back in October, at MileHiCon, I picked up a copy of the Dune graphic novel scripted by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. As I prepared to revisit the world of the first novel, I realized it had been some thirty-eight years since I’d read the novel. The first time I read the novel was during the summer of 1984 around the same time as David Lynch’s movie adaptation came out. Since adapting a chapter of my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires into comic book format, I’ve been interested in seeing how other novel adaptations are handled. So, I decided to reread Dune and then read the graphic novel. Because Dune has recently been adapted to the big screen again, I also decided to see how the new movie compared to the book.

The novel Dune is divided into three parts titled “Dune,” “Muad’Dib,” and “The Prophet.” The graphic novel is a faithful adaptation of part 1, which takes us roughly through a third of the novel. The character and machine designs were developed by the artists Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín. They used their own interpretation and didn’t base the art on designs used for either of the movies or the SyFy Channel’s miniseries. I found most of the characters – including our young protagonist Paul Atreides, along with his parents Duke Leto and the Lady Jessica, and Baron Harkonnen – were a good match for the way I pictured those characters when I read. Overall, I liked the way they visualized machines such as the spice harvesters on the planet Arrakis. They imagined quite bird-like ornithopters in their novel, which seemed almost closer to how I picture my steampunk ornithopters in the Clockwork Legion series than how I pictured the more high tech versions of Dune. Still, it proved a valid interpretation. I was impressed by how closely the graphic novel stuck to the novel’s plot. I didn’t notice any cut scenes. Of course, description was pared down and the art was allowed to show the settings and action while the characters spoke their dialog. I haven’t checked to see if the dialogue was word-for-word, but certainly the most memorable lines were repeated in the graphic novel. I likely will add volume 2, “Muad’Dib” to my collection as well.

Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 movie adaptation of Dune is also “part 1.” In this case, the movie includes all of “Dune” and most of “Muad’Dib.” By my reckoning the movie covers a little over sixty percent of the novel, ending around the close of Chapter 33. The movie adds some scenes not in the novel, such as the scene where a contingent arrives from the emperor to notify Duke Leto that he’s been granted stewardship of the planet Arrakis. The scene cleverly shows us many important story elements without them needing to be explained, such as the importance of the Duke’s signet ring and the political power wielded by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. The movie also does a nice job casting characters who, for the most part, resemble characters as I imagine them. In particular, I really liked Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban. I especially liked Stephen McKinley Henderson as the Mentat Thufir Hawat, because he reminded me of my uncle. Like Hawat, my uncle had a distinguished military career and while he was very loving to me, I always detected that there was a fierce commander underneath. As for the tech, I really liked the movie’s depiction of the ornithopters. These machines captured almost exactly what I pictured when I read the book. Given that the movie didn’t try to cover the entire novel and that the graphic novel did a very good job of including scenes of political intrigue, I was a little disappointed that many scenes from the novel were cut from the movie. Overall, the movie did a good job of telling the novel’s story, but it felt like it favored action over the complex machinations of many parties shown in the novel.

Overall, I enjoyed both the graphic novel adaptation and the movie, but I’m especially glad the two gave me an excuse to reread Frank Herbert’s classic novel. If you want to read my comic adaptation of a chapter from Dragon’s Fall, visit http://davidleesummers.com/Tales-of-the-Scarlet-Order.html to learn how to get a copy for yourself. If you want to see a scene from my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt adapted for the screen for free, visit http://davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Vesper

A little over a week ago, I won two tickets to a movie at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla, New Mexico. This felt like something of a big deal, since neither my wife nor I had been to a movie theater since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Fountain Theatre is a small venue run by the Mesilla Valley Film Society and is known for showing foreign and indie releases. It’s called the Fountain Theatre because the building was purchased by Albert Fountain Jr. in 1905. Back in those days, the theater put on plays, light opera, and vaudeville performances. The Fountain family sold the building to Vincent Guerra in 1929 and that’s when they began to show movies. Guerra had to relinquish the building back to the Fountain family in 1938. The Mesilla Valley Film Society began renting the building in 1989 as a venue to show foreign, alternative, and indie films.

The film my wife and I won tickets for was Vesper. Directed by Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper, it’s a French-Lithuanian-Belgian film set in a post-apocalyptic world where people had attempted to avert disaster by growing genetically modified crops. Things went horribly wrong and most animal life died and the planet is dominated by dangerous plants. Society’s elite live in citadels and trade viable food seeds with the stragglers in the wider world for items they need. The film’s title character, played by Rafiella Chapman, lives in an old house with her father who had been injured in battle. He can see and hear through a floating drone that accompanies Vesper out into the world. On one of Vesper’s trips, she finds Carmellia, played by Rosy McEwen, who survived an aircraft crash. Vesper brings her back to the house and nurses her back to health. Carmellia heals surprisingly quickly.

Vesper’s uncle Jonas, played by Eddie Marsan, lives on a nearby homestead with a number of children. He harvests blood to trade with the citadels in exchange for seeds. We soon learn that Jonas is not an uncle to be relied on. He’s mercenary and has less-than-platonic interest in his niece. When he finds Carmellia’s wrecked aircraft, he quickly kills Carmellia’s father and scavenges the craft instead of calling the citadels for help. It’s a dark world and there’s no obvious path to making it better. Aspects of the story reminded me of a more rural take on Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita. Of course, our title character is Vesper, and like a twilight prayer, she might hold hope for a better future. Overall, this was a great film to lure me back out to the theater. You can learn more about the movie and find places to stream it at: https://www.vespermovie.com/

In general, I’m delighted to see that the Mesilla Valley Film Society is still operating and showing great films. If the theater’s 1905 owner, Albert Fountain Jr. sounds familiar to my readers, he should. His father, Albert Jennings Fountain appears as a character in my novel The Brazen Shark, where he serves as defense attorney to Billy McCarty and Luther Duncan. Also, Albert Fountain and his son Henry are the title characters in my story “Fountains of Blood” which appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. As always, you can learn more about my writing by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

The Final Odyssey

Today finds me at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona where you’ll find me on panels and selling books in the dealer’s room. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. This is my last convention of the year. One of the things I like about science fiction conventions is the opportunity to celebrate our favorite books, so I thought this was a good opportunity to delve into the final novel of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series.

I think the most difficult scene for me to watch in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the scene where astronaut Frank Poole, played by Gary Lockwood, must go outside the spaceship Discovery to repair the communication antenna. In that scene, the computer HAL sends a space pod at Poole, knocking him away from the ship and dislodging his air supply. Dave Bowman, played by Keir Dullea, valiantly hops into another pod to try to rescue him. Meanwhile, we see Poole frantically trying to reattach his air hose in silence. The scene is tragic and sad, especially when we realize that Bowman is too late and that Poole has likely died as a result of HAL’s attack. Still, Bowman retrieves Poole’s body, but must let it go when HAL won’t let him back into the ship.

After a brief prelude introducing us to the creators of the infamous monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the novel 3001: The Final Odyssey opens aboard the comet-chasing space vessel Goliath. The ship is diverted from its mission to capture and send a water-filled comet into the inner solar system to intercept a small two-meter-long object which has been detected near them. It turns out, the object is none other than the body of Frank Poole, adrift for a thousand years. In the very next chapter, Poole wakes up. It turns out, his death was so quick and he was so well preserved in his space suit that using the technology of a thousand years in the future, doctors could revive Poole. The next part of the story becomes something of a Rip Van Winkle tale as Poole, essentially a man from our time, gets to explore the world as it will be one thousand years in the future.

Poole finds himself in something of a Utopia, where humans have built a gigantic ring around the Earth, connected to the planet by space elevators. While humanity hasn’t left the confines of the solar system, they have colonized many of its worlds, including Jupiter’s large moon, Ganymede. Venus is in the process of being terraformed. Crime has become a treatable mental illness and even a few dinosaurs have been brought back. Because this is Arthur C. Clarke, he backs up his ideas with enough science and engineering to make them at least sound plausible. Because this is the final book in the Space Odyssey series, you know the mysterious monoliths aren’t yet finished with humans or the lifeforms they’ve decided to prod on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Even though the book is now fifteen years old, I hesitate to say much more, lest I spoil the ending, but I will say that Clarke does reveal more about the nature of the monoliths, what happened to Dave Bowman and Hal, but keeps the makers of the monoliths somewhat enigmatic.

Overall, I like the fact that Clarke gave us a more satisfying conclusion to Frank Poole’s story, especially after spending so much time with the fate of Dave Bowman in the previous volumes. One of my favorite moments in the book has to do with Poole being a Star Trek fan who got to meet Leonard Nimoy and Patrick Stewart. Of course, in real life, before 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gary Lockwood played Gary Mitchell, navigator of the USS Enterprise in the second pilot of Star Trek. So, he did meet Leonard Nimoy! Another nice feature of this novel is that he concludes with an extended afterward discussing the science and engineering he based the novel’s ideas on.

It was also fun to compare Clarke’s vision of the future to the future I imagine in my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. Like Clarke’s novel, mine is set a thousand years in the future. My future isn’t a utopian one and it struck me after reading Tales of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, which is set a full 10,000 years in the future, that my vision is somewhere between the two. The one thing we all have in common is that we’ve all been inspired by real scientific ideas. You can learn more about my Space Pirates’ Legacy series at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#pirate_legacy

TusCon 49

This coming weekend, from November 11-13, I’ll be at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona. It’ll be held at the Tucson Sheraton Hotel and Suites. The author guest of honor is Mary Fan. She’s the author of several science fiction and fantasy novels and stories, including Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon, Starswept, and Artificial Absolutes. She is also the co-editor of the Brave New Girls anthology series. The artist guest of honor is Alan M. Clark, who has illustrated the writing of such authors as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Joe R. Lansdale, Stephen King, George Orwell, Manly Wade Wellman, and Greg Bear. His awards include the World Fantasy Award, four Chesley Awards, the Deathrealm Award, and the International Horror Guild Critic’s Award for Best Artist. Weston Ochse returns as TusCon’s toastmaster. The American Library Association calls him “one of the major horror authors of the 21st Century.” His work has won the Bram Stoker Award, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and won four New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. You can get all the details at: https://www.tusconscificon.com

I’ll be on the following panels at TusCon 49:

Saturday, November 12

10am – Panel Room 1 – Should Art be Triggering. You can’t change the world without disturbing people. But some kinds of disturbing people is just being mean. Where is the line between making art and being a jerk? On the panel with me are Chaz Kemp, Earl H Billick, Mona Ventress, T.M. Williams, Patrick Hare, and Tamsin L. Silver

2pm – Autograph Area – Autographing. I’ll be in the autograph area from 2pm to 3pm in case you’ve had a busy convention and haven’t been able to make it into the dealer’s room.

Sunday, November 13

2pm – Ballroom – Using the Past to Inform the Future: Writing Fresh Fiction from Existing Source Material. Art is innately additive, especially in our “property” oriented world. How do you reinvent rather than recycle. On the panel with me are Weston Ochse, Patrick Hare, John Hornor Jacobs, and Tamsin L Silver


Of course when I’m not on a panel, you can find me in the dealer’s room at the Hadrosaur Productions table. Also in the dealer’s room will be such vendors as author Adam Gaffen along with Chaz Kemp and Tamsin L. Silver, who share panels with me. So make sure to make time to come into the dealer’s room to find some great books, toys, art, and more!

Sometimes, a Short Story is Just What’s Needed

Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is one of the bestselling science fiction novels of all time and rapidly established itself as a classic in the field. It certainly influenced me. The ornithopters used to flit about the surface of Arrakis influenced the ornithopters I used in my steampunk fiction. I used to pour over the glossary in the novel, fascinated by all the words and phrases Herbert invented. They led me to create planets with names like Rd’dyggia and Sufiro and weapons like heplers. As time went by, my wife and I collected all of Herbert’s original Dune novels in hard cover. I was even fortunate enough to pick up a signed copy of Heretics of Dune soon after release. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to meet Frank Herbert. I hadn’t realized he was in town at my local bookstore until I arrived about an hour after he left.

Over the years of going to science fiction conventions, I have been fortunate enough to get to know Kevin J. Anderson. We both have stories in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop. What’s more, Anderson has been collaborating with Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, on numerous novels in the expanded Dune universe. I’ve long been intrigued by the expanded universe, but I was never quite sure where to begin. Right after I saw Kevin J. Anderson at MileHiCon, I came across the collection Tales of Dune, published by Anderson’s WordFire press. This volume contains eight standalone short stories from the expanded Dune universe written by Anderson and Brian Herbert.

Since I had only read Frank Herbert’s original Dune, I wasn’t certain how well I would follow the stories in this collection, but decided to take a chance. As noted in the introduction, some of these stories had been published in magazines and others had been published in standalone booklets to entice readers to explore the expanded universe. In light of that, I thought it was worth a try. As it turns out, the stories did indeed stand alone. Each story introduced its characters and situations well and resolved them in the space of the story. As noted in the introduction, “Sometimes a short story is exactly what you need” and this collection was just what I needed to get a taste of the expanded Dune universe.

It probably did help that I was familiar with the first novel in the series. Because of that, I knew about such factions as House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Navigators Guild and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. I also knew about the Butlerian Jihad where humanity had overthrown the oppression of artificial intelligence, or thinking machines as they’re known in the world of Dune. The stories in this collection range much of Dune’s future history. The first stories are set during the Butlerian Jihad. Later stories are set around the time of the novel Dune, then the collection finishes with stories set concurrent or just after the last of Frank Herbert’s original novels. The book even includes a timeline to help you know when the stories take place relative to the other novels of the series. Overall, I found Tales of Dune an enjoyable, quick read and I now want to sample the novels in the expanded universe. You can learn more about Tales of Dune here: https://wordfirepress.com/books/tales-dune-expanded-edition/

Not only have Kevin J. Anderson and I had short stories that have appeared side-by-side in an anthology, but Kevin’s WordFire Press is the publisher of the anthology Maximum Velocity that I co-edited with Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. It contains 18 fun, high-octane science fiction stories featuring everything from pirates to marines, horrors and battles all in space. Sometimes, when you’re looking for a great read, a short story is just what you need. You can learn more about Maximum Velocity here: https://wordfirepress.com/books/maximum-velocity/

Otherlands

I was around six-years-old when I came face-to-face with my first dinosaur. It was in the book aisle of the grocery store where my family shopped, in the pages of the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs. My mom bought the book for me and I poured over the pages of the book, fascinated by the large, lumbering brontosaurus, the fearsome allosaurus, the triceratops with its three horns and the duckbilled trachodon, munching away on leaves in a swamp. I learned how to pronounce those long dinosaur names my mom stumbled over and I went on to check out even more books with pictures of dinosaurs from the library.

My love of dinosaurs stayed with me even as Voyager’s encounters with the planets lured me into a career in astronomy. Through astronomy, I came to learn that Earth has only existed for a short time in the vast history of the universe. Reading about dinosaurs as a kid, I knew that humans existed only a short time compared dinosaurs and other creatures lived before the dinosaurs and also between the dinosaurs and us. While working on my physics degree, I took a course in geology and got to know the geological eras and learn a little more about the life that lived in those times through the fossils they left behind. During the field-mapping exercise I did as part of my geology class, I even found the fossil imprint of a Cretaceous-era leaf. During this time, I became keenly aware of how fragile life can be and how there have been several mass extinctions. I learned, among other things that the mass extinction that gave rise to the dinosaurs was far more extensive than the one that doomed them.

I was fortunate to marry an amazing person who shares my love of nature and of dinosaurs. One of our most memorable vacations was a trek to Dinosaur National Monument in Northern Utah, where numerous dinosaur fossils were buried in a flood millions of years ago.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday

It’s from this perspective that a friend recommended the book Otherlands by Thomas Halliday. Halliday takes a fascinating approach with his book. He steps backward from the present day through the geological eras. He picks a place where the fossil record is well developed, and tells you what it would be like to be in that place if you arrived there on a day in that time. He introduces us to giant penguins and feathered, nearly silent dinosaurs. He shows us eras where plants dominated the landscape and we learn about trilobites scuttling along the sea floor with multifaceted eyes focused at different distances. I was fascinated to realize that in terms of number of species dinosaurs, in the form of birds, still dominate the planet today. Of course, humans dominate the planet in the sense of shaping it to accommodate our needs and whims. Halliday does point out we’re not the first species to impact the planet and its climate, we just may be the first one to make conscious decisions about how we impact the climate. The whole thing paints a picture of just how small a place we humans take up in the whole history of the Earth. If you’re fascinated by paleontology, dinosaurs, and the creatures who lived in other eras, this is a book well worth reading.

I can probably trace my fascination of not only dinosaurs but books to that copy of the How and Why Wonderbook of Dinosaurs. That funky duck-billed trachodon has always stuck with me. I came to learn that it’s a type of hadrosaur and some hadrosaurs like parasaurolophus and tsintaosaurus have single growths on their heads, resembling unicorn horns. When my wife and I founded a science fiction and fantasy small press, we looked to the hadrosaur as a visual metaphor because it was at once a creature of science and fantasy. I encourage you to look up Otherlands, but I hope you’ll also drop by hadrosaur.com and learn about the books we publish. No doubt you’ll find something to stir your imagination!

ParaNorman

ParaNorman

The stop-motion animated film ParaNorman celebrated its tenth anniversary around the same time as my wife and I attended Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As it turns out, someone placed a DVD copy of the movie on the convention’s freebie table and my wife picked it up. Somehow, we missed this movie when it was released. It was produced by Laika, the same studio that adapted Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and made Kubo and the Two Strings, both films that have a valued place in our collection. We figured it would be worth watching. In the worst case scenario, we could turn the DVD into our local used bookstore for trade credit.

As it turns out, I spent the first twenty minutes or so of the movie wondering if I would indeed be turning in for trade credit. There was nothing wrong with the film and, as I’ve come to expect from Laika, the animation was brilliant, but the tropes felt just a little too familiar. We had an outcast kid who’s bullied at school. His only friend is the overweight kid with allergies. His dad doesn’t understand him and he has a weird uncle. Still, Norman’s ability to speak with ghosts and the fact that he seemed to live in a little New England town, which seemed a little too obsessed with a legendary witch in its past made me want to see what would happen.

The movie turned a corner for me when the weird uncle dies and makes Norman promise to maintain a ritual, which is supposed to keep the witch’s ghost at bay. Norman proceeds with the plan and discovers the ritual involves reading from a book of fairy tales. What’s more, he doesn’t subdue the ghost, but raises a batch of zombies, who set out for town while the witch’s ghost begins stirring things up. The mystery of what was happening suddenly became much more interesting. Along the way to solving the mystery, we also find that the bully isn’t a simple antagonist. I don’t want to spoil things, but the writing revealed new layers to the character without resorting to the simplistic “misunderstood bad guy” trope. When Norman finally learns the truth behind the witch’s ghost, we meet a character both scarier and more sympathetic than I was expecting.

Western animation tends to be marketed to children and it’s clear the producers of ParaNorman were aware they would have many children in their audience. What I appreciated was that they respected the intelligence of both the kids and the adults in the audience. In a movie where people can become ghosts after they die, the movie gave us no pat answers about what happens when the ghosts “move on.” The parents do their best, but they don’t always do what’s best. They had sly references to both famous horror films and Scooby-Doo. They allowed themselves to engage in some dark humor without feeling like they did anything inappropriate for kids. They also invited us to understand the characters without always insisting that we like those characters. In the end, ParaNorman found its way onto my shelf next to Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. My only regret is that I hadn’t discovered the film sooner.