The Threepenny Opera

About a week ago, I introduced my youngest daughter to one of my favorite musicals: The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It tells the story of Mack the Knife, a thief in Victorian London who marries Polly, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who controls the city’s beggars. Peachum goes to the police for help and discovers that Mack is protected by the Chief of Police. threepenny-opera-broadway Even so, the Chief of Police has a price and agrees to hunt Mack. Mack flees into the arms of his longtime lover, a prostitute named Jenny. This really only scratches the surface of the play’s story. A lot goes on in a very compact narrative.

The play was written in 1928 in Germany as Nazis and communists were vying for control of the Weimar Republic. Brecht was a communist and adapted an English play called The Beggar’s Opera into a critique of capitalism. Whenever a character in The Threepenny Opera has a choice, they will always take the one that will bring them the most money or the most personal pleasure, regardless of what it means for those around them. Being a little vague to avoid spoilers, the ending calls up a deliberate deus ex machina that encourages the audience to realize that real life would give no happy ending for characters that behave this way. It also challenges the audience to ask that if it related to the thieves, beggars, and the prostitutes of the story, they should be careful about treating them as sub-human worthy of no sympathy. I believe the lessons of the play are as valuable and relevant today in the United States as they were in 1928 Weimar Germany.

As it turns out, members of the German Communist Party were among Brecht’s harshest critics at the time the play was released. They wanted the play to include a depiction of the proletariat uprising against the bourgeoisie. I suspect it’s precisely because the play didn’t go this direction that it remains relevant today.

The play has been translated into English multiple times with varying degrees of success. The version represented by the poster at the top of the post was translated by Wallace Shawn, famous as Vizzini in The Princess Bride and starred Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny. Unfortunately, Shawn’s translation hasn’t been published, nor was there a cast recording of the show. Fortunately, plenty of other recordings exist including the Mannheim and Willet translation of the 1970s, which features Raul Julia as Mack.

As far as I know, the musical has only been made into a movie three times. mack_the_knife_poster Probably the most famous and widely available is the 1931 version. Among the high points, Kurt Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya reprises her role as the original Jenny in this early version. Unfortunately, this version drops many songs and changes the play’s ending. I’ve never seen the 1960’s version, but haven’t been able to find a recommendation from a fan. My personal favorite is the 1989 film Mack the Knife starring Raul Julia as Mack, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters (best known as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as Mrs. Peachum, and Roger Daltry as the street singer. This version is still quite flawed. It also drops songs, is very dark and muddy looking, and has several unnecessary dance numbers. Despite all that, it seems to capture the essence of the play better than the 1931 version. Sadly, the movie was only released on VHS and no DVD version has appeared.

As it turns out, my novel The Pirates of Sufiro takes some inspiration from The Threepenny Opera. Captain Firebrandt’s portrayal as the stylish pirate captain, owes a lot to Mack the Knife, who is called Captain Macheath to his face. Also, Firebrandt’s lover Suki is named for Sukey Tawdry, one of Mack’s lovers in the play. The Pirates of Sufiro is available for free at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My preferred edition of the ebook is available as a PDF directly from my publisher.

High Octane Racing

When I was a kid, cartoons about racing were a thing. Two cartoons of note were Speed Racer and Wacky Races. The former was the American translation of the anime Mach GoGoGo! which told the story of Go Mifune who entered races around the world in his car loaded up with gadgets, such as powerful pogo sticks that would propel the car over obstacles, rotary saws to just cut through obstacles, and special traction belts to allow the car to climb steep roads. Wacky Races was an American cartoon inspired by the 1965 film, The Great Race. It imagined a group of colorful characters racing around the world in equally colorful cars, often containing gadgets a bit like Go Mifune’s Mach 5. One of the racers, evil Dick Dastardly and his dog Muttley would routinely try to thwart the other racers who included the beautiful Penelope Pitstop and inventor Pat Pending.

This past summer, I discovered that DC comics started a comics line that featured ramped-up versions of classic Hanna-Barbara cartoons. I wrote about Wacky Raceland, based on Wacky Races and Scooby Apocalypse based on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? redline-poster In Wacky Raceland, the racers drive their AI-enhanced cars through a post-apocalyptic wasteland under the watchful eye of a disembodied announcer who has promised some kind of reward. We still have Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop. In this new version, Muttley is semi-intelligent because of his own AI enhancements. Professor Pat Pending seems to have a set of secrets connected to the apocalypse. I’ve been following and enjoying the comic and I gather it ends with issue six in about a week. When my daughter read the first issue, she said the story reminded her of a racing anime—no, not Mach GoGoGo!—but a newer one called Redline.

I finally had the chance to watch Redline this past week. It was actually a lot of fun. It’s about racers competing on different tracks around the galaxy. The hero is Sweet JP who races a vintage yellow Mustang with an enhanced engine that gets a burst of speed by dropping nitro pellets into the fuel tank. His rival and love interest is Sonashee, known as “Cherry Boy Hunter”. She has an amphibious car armed with missiles. The movie opens with a race known as the “Yellowline.” Sweet JP’s mechanic is in deep with the mob and just as it looks like Sweet JP is going to win the race, the mechanic sets off a bomb in Sweet JP’s car, causing him to crash. Sonashee zooms past him and wins.

The next race is the titular Redline which is scheduled to be held on a heavily militarized planet where the racers are not welcome. Because some of the racers who qualified don’t want to risk their necks, Sweet JP is offered a spot in the race. The anime features some neat cars, some interesting and rugged settings, and great aliens. More than once, I was reminded of the pod-racing scenes in Star Wars but the art and voice acting in the anime conveyed more thrills.

One thing that made the movie Redline interesting is that in this modern era of CGI animation, it’s all hand-drawn. The movie is really beautiful to watch. The art style reminded me more of the European comic art you might find in a magazine like Heavy Metal than most anime. To be honest, the story itself wasn’t much to talk about. It’s a simple love story tied to the story of a race. Sweet JP and Sonashee are attracted to each other but are rivals. Sweet JP’s friends are connected to the mob adding complications. It’s the kind of stuff you may have seen in lots of other stories about races and competitions.

Despite the familiarity, there are some interesting science fictional elements added late in the story. The militarized planet has some creepy bioweapons up its sleeve plus the holographic imagery of their control center is well realized. Many of the aliens in the movie are also interesting and use the freedom of animation to take us beyond humans in suits.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Wacky Raceland comic resolves, but I’m especially grateful that the comic gave me an excuse to go back to the racing cartoons of my youth and discover the movie Redline.

Acting Out a Scam

No one has ever accused me of being a financial analyst, but I once played one on the television series, Unsolved Mysteries. Here’s a somewhat blurry screenshot from the episode. I’m the tall, happy fellow in the yellow hard hat.

unsolved-mysteries

Back in my senior year at New Mexico Tech, while working on my physics degree, I had a few elective hours available and took a class in musical theater. We presented the Lerner and Loewe play, Brigadoon. The musical director was Mike Iaturo, who I gather played accordion on Broadway for Fiddler on the Roof. The play’s director was Carolyn Abbey. Carolyn’s husband, Mike, is the bearded fellow in the photo above.

After graduating, I remained at New Mexico Tech to work on my master’s degree in physics. I also joined a community theater group run by Carolyn and we put on a set of one-act plays collectively entitled The God’s Honest. Working on these plays was good experience for collaborating with editors and artists as a writer and publisher. I learned to listen, be flexible, and take criticism. The collaborative nature of plays taught me the freedom to change lines so they worked best for the scene as played. It helped me to avoid falling so much in love with my own words that I could never change them.

In the fall of 1989, Carolyn called me to say the television series Unsolved Mysteries was holding auditions in Socorro for a segment they would be filming. I went to the hotel where they were holding the auditions and stood in line for a while. The casting director looked me up and down asked if I had a suit and was willing to shave for the part. I answered “yes” to both questions and she called the next person. Since she didn’t ask me to do anything else, I was certain she wasn’t interested. The casting director surprised me a day later when she called up to say I’d been cast as one of the financial analysts who investigated a gold mine scam a few years before in New Mexico.

It was an interesting experience to see behind the scenes of the making of a television series. As I recall, I woke up at 5 in the morning, dressed in my suit and went to the hotel where I auditioned. I met the other actors and extras who were hired and they drove us to a mine just north of Socorro in the small town of Escondida. We were there until about 6pm. All of the extras playing financial analysts hung out together. From time to time, we were called out to play in a scene. When we were not acting, we had access to a trailer full of stuff to eat. As a graduate student, this was like a dream come true.

The segment featured Maurice “Ed” Barbara, who convinced people to invest in his fake cold mine near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Among the people he conned was famed attorney Melvin Belli, who played the Friendly Angel in the Star Trek episode, “And the Children Shall Lead.”

The episode finally aired on December 13, 1989. It was episode number 40, which was part of the second season. Here’s the part of the episode I was in. As you can see, twelve hours of filming was condensed down into about two minutes. I have to admit, it’s something of a thrill to have my actions narrated by Robert Stack.

I gather there was a follow up in episode 64, but unfortunately, I never saw that. If anyone has ever heard what happened to Ed Barbara, I’d be interested in hearing the end of the story. At the end of the episode, they said he had fled to Canada.

Hope my readers in the United States are having a good Thanksgiving weekend and staying away from scams on this busy shopping weekend!

Kepler’s Cowboys Cover Reveal

I have nearly finished selecting and editing stories and poems for Hadrosaur Productions’ new anthology, Kepler’s Cowboys. I hope to have the process wrapped up this week. In this anthology, the authors imagine the daring men, women, and even machines who will travel to the stars, explore, and settle planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. My co-editor on the project is Steve Howell, who is also project scientist for NASA’s K2 mission, which is the extended Kepler Space Telescope mission. Recently, artist Laura Givens turned in her cover for the book.

keplers-cowboys-display

Physicist Stephen Hawking has been in the news recently saying he believes humans only have about 1000 years left on Earth due to factors such as climate change, nuclear terrorism, and even the rise of artificial intelligence. Like Hawking, I believe humans need to move out into space in order to survive as a species. That said, there’s a part of me that worries his 1000-year estimate is optimistic.

Results from the Kepler Space Telescope suggest that almost every star we see has a planetary system around it. Earth-based telescopes and the recent K2 mission have been finding planets ever closer to Earth, many of which are in their stars’ habitable zones, meaning that liquid water can exist if all other conditions are right. This gives me hope that future generations can, indeed, push out into the stars and find new homes for humanity.

Kepler’s Cowboys follows our anthology A Kepler’s Dozen which presented tales of thirteen words discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. In the first anthology, we invited authors to participate and worked with them closely as they developed their stories. The new anthology has much more of a “wild west” feel, not only in the stories themselves, but in the sense that we opened it up to anyone who wanted to submit to tell whatever story they desired. We did this because there are, in fact, so many worlds out there that the number of possible futures is endless.

Even though we have allowed authors to submit whatever stories they wanted, Steve and I have still worked closely with the authors to make sure they present worlds that are within the realms of possibility as we know them. In fact, this has been part of the process I’ve enjoyed most. It’s been an aspect of editing that I missed in the last days before the Tales of the Talisman hiatus. I spent so much time reading and selecting stories, then creating issues of the magazine, that I never really had a chance to help authors with their story craft. I hope Kepler’s Cowboys captures some of the excitement that comes seeing what authors present when allowed to explore a theme and tell the stories they want, but also maintains a high level of quality and consistently good storytelling throughout.

I hope to announce a formal publication date for Kepler’s Cowboys soon, but we’re currently shooting for publication in February or March 2017. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out A Kepler’s Dozen.

Don Quixote

This past week, I finished one of the novels that’s been on my to-read list for a long time: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. don-quixote For those not familiar with the plot, Don Quixote tells the story of Alonso Quixano, a huge fan of tales about knights errant. He decides to cosplay a knight errant and convinces his tenant Sancho Panza to cosplay his squire and the two sally forth only to discover that no one has invented comic cons much less any other safe space to cosplay in seventeenth century Spain.

Two things prompted me to pick up Don Quixote when I did. First of all, I learned that we just passed the novel’s 400th anniversary and I felt this was a milestone that should be celebrated. What’s more, Don Quixote is very much a novel of a man reaching his 50s, facing mortality, and asking if he’s made everything he could of his life. As someone who has just reached his 50s, it seemed apropos.

For the most part, this novel, which is contemporary with Shakespeare’s plays, holds up remarkably well. Much or the humor still works, though occasionally it seems a little too cruel for my taste. I read the Penguin Classics translation by John Rutherford, which I found very readable.

The novel’s thematic arc reminds me a bit of the “Tooter Turtle” cartoons of the 1960s in which Mr. Wizard would send the titular turtle to another time and place to try on a new, more exciting life only to discover he wasn’t cut out for it after all and beg to come home. I have to admit, those cartoons always annoyed me a bit. Even as a kid, I recognized that one of the great things about life was the opportunity to experience new things and to challenge oneself. Yeah, sometimes things don’t work out so well, but other times you succeed splendidly.

Fortunately, Cervantes’s presentation is more nuanced than a Tooter Turtle cartoon. Cervantes himself was a veteran of the Battle of Lepanto (which, by the way, appears in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order). Afterwards, Cervantes was captured by pirates and sold as a slave. He finally returned to Spain five years later when he was ransomed by his parents. He tried his hand at writing plays and though they were produced, received little notice. He also worked as a tax collector and was jailed multiple times for irregularities in his accounts. Cervantes knew what it was to try and fail, then try again. The upshot is that Don Quixote is more cautionary about going into situations with open eyes and being careful about being overly nostalgic about the past.

A figure I’ve seen repeated quite a bit lately is that there are 4500 new books being published every day. In that environment, being a writer can feel like a quixotic exercise in its own right. However, even Don Quixote found an audience in the duke and duchess who took him in for a time. I hope you’ll take a moment to browse my selection of books and perhaps bring one home to entertain you for a few nights.

On Turning 50

Over the weekend, while at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday. It’s one of those points in life where I find myself looking back to see where I’ve been as well as looking forward to see where I’m going.

david-at-50

In my first fifty years, I’ve written and published nine novels, eighty-four short stories, and fifty-four poems. I’ve edited three anthologies, plus two magazines for ten years each. I contributed to the commissioning of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope and the NMSU 1-meter telescope. I’m co-discoverer of two variable stars and I helped take data that contributed to the discovery of dark energy. Most of all, I’m proud to be the father of two incredible young ladies, one in high school, the other in college, who have a wide range of talents in such areas as computer science and mathematics.

Looking ahead, my tenth novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, is nearing release. I have two anthologies in the publication queue: Kepler’s Cowboys and Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. I have four short stories accepted and awaiting publication. Beyond that, I’m in the early phases of writing a new novel and I have a “fix-up” novel a little over half completed. Plus I have story treatments for four more novels. Presuming no major funding shifts, I expect to be involved in commissioning two new instruments at Kitt Peak in the coming years.

As I reach fifty, I’m arguably in the best health I ever have been. The arthritis that plagued me for years is in remission and I regularly take long walks through my neighborhood. Nevertheless, one specter looms over me. My dad was only fifty-two when he died suddenly of a heart attack. In the plus column, my doctor is helping me watch my heart health and both of my brothers have now outlived my dad by over a decade. I have no immediate reason to fear for my imminent demise. Nevertheless, I find myself grieving for how truly short my dad’s life was cut and watching my health has taken on a new urgency.

In short, as I turn fifty, I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. My regrets are minimal. While there are some harsh words and rash actions I’d take back if I could and some friends I’ve lost touch with over the years, it’s hard to say I’d have a better life if I’d taken a different path. I have several exciting things to look forward to in the coming months and years, plus plans and goals for the years beyond that.

Thanks to my readers for sharing some of this fifty-year journey with me. I look forward to sharing the coming years with you as well.

Funding Science

This weekend finds me at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona where I’m speaking on panel discussions and giving a reading from my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. I’m glad to spend time with friends and have a little breath of fresh air after news of this week’s bitter and divisive election.

As I’ve stated in an earlier post, I hesitate to spend a lot of time on political subjects in this blog, but it’s been hard to escape political topics this week. That said, I thought I’d share one of the most interesting articles I read in the run-up to the election, partly because it hits close to my “day” job operating telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. This was Scientific American’s article grading the presidential candidates on science.

Unless something radical and unprecedented happens in the electoral college, we now know Donald Trump will be our next president. He received Scientific American’s lowest grade on science. I won’t give a blow by blow of everything he says in the article. I’ll leave you to read it if you’re interested, but I will take a quick look at two topics near and dear to me: Space and STEM education.

On the subject of Space, Trump is quoted as saying, “Space exploration has given so much to America, including tremendous pride in our scientific and engineering prowess. A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country.” He goes on to say, “Observation from space and exploring beyond our own space neighborhood should be priorities.” On the surface, I have no real problem with this.

The potential problem comes when Trump speaks further about priorities. As reported about a year ago in the Washington Post, when asked about space, Trump said: “Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” I think fixing potholes on Interstates—where it seems most federal money for this sort of thing would go—is an important thing, but it’s hard to imagine that it would cost so much as to leave little left over for science.

On the subject of STEM education, Trump says, “There are a host of STEM programs already in existence. What the federal government should do is to make sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone. This means we must allow market influences to bring better, higher quality educational circumstances to more children.” He then goes on to say, “The management of our public education institutions should be done at the state and local level, not at the Department of Education. Until more choices are provided in our cities, those who tout their concern about educational outcomes cannot be taken seriously.” It’s pretty clear from this that Trump believes the federal government should not provide more funding for STEM education. The problem here is that not all state and local governments have access to the kinds of corporate funding he imagines coming in to educate kids. What’s more, not all talented kids come from those places that might benefit from such corporate funding.

atlas-shrugged

With these things in mind, I’d like to leave you with some food for thought from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. During John Galt’s speech at the end of the novel, she writes: “You proclaim yourself unable to harness the forces of inanimate matter, yet propose to harness the minds of men who are able to achieve the feats you cannot equal. You proclaim that you cannot survive without us, yet propose to dictate the terms of our survival, asserting your right to rule us by force—and expect that we, who are not afraid of that physical nature which fills you with terror, will cower at the sight of any lout who has talked you into voting him a chance to command us.”

There’s no doubt, science and science education are important to the national interest. What’s more, scientists and science educators deserve to be fairly compensated and adequately funded. It’s not clear a Trump administration will prioritize spending on space or STEM education, which leaves it to the rest of us.

For my part, I’ve given talks at schools along with science fiction and comic conventions—work by the way, which is funded through sales of my books, not the federal government. I’ve encouraged the education of my daughters in all aspects of math, science, and technology. I’m also a member of The Planetary Society which has been doing great work at providing much-needed support for space science. I encourage you to get involved with STEM programs in your area, helping out where you can or even just attending public programs when they’re offered. If those aren’t available, there are exciting citizen science projects offered through Zooniverse.org.