Revisiting Excalibur

As the year began, Lachesis Publishing decided to put the ebook of Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order on sale for 99 cents through January 21. Because of that, I’ve been thinking back to some of the inspiration for the novel.

I’ve long been a fan of Arthurian lore. In many ways, that fandom began back during my university days soon after watching John Boorman’s film Excalibur. After the film, I remember hot debate about how closely the film followed the “true” legend of King Arthur. I found myself wondering what exactly people meant by “the ‘true’ legend of King Arthur.” Soon after that, I was at a used bookstore in Albuquerque where I found a book with the historical and early literary texts that were the root of the Arthur legend. This opened up a whole new world to me and told me that the Arthur story is far more nuanced than I originally thought.

What most people think of as the “true” story of Arthur is based on the novel Le Morte d’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Mallory in 1485. It includes many of the familiar elements of the story including Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to become king, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s also written approximately a thousand years after the historical Arthur would have lived. It’s built up from numerous folk tales Mallory would have known and put together into a single narrative. In fact, the sword in the stone, Lancelot, and the Holy Grail don’t appear in the earliest Arthur narratives.

As it turns out, the earliest Arthurian history from a Welsh monk named Nennius can be summed up as: “Arthur was a warlord who won many battles against the Saxons, until he finally defeated them at Badon Hill.” Even this version of the story wasn’t written until almost three or four hundred years after Arthur would have lived. Since that time, numerous folk tales developed. Many are reminiscent in tone to the tall tales of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan from the American frontier. I’ve read speculation that Lancelot started as the star of his own set of French Celtic folk tales and was then grafted onto the Arthur stories. Others say he has antecedents in minor characters from the earlier Celtic stories of Arthur.

This past week, I watched Excalibur for the first time in about twenty years. Admittedly, it’s been about fifteen years or so since I last read Le Morte d’Arthur, but it struck me that the movie did a tolerably good job following the plot of Mallory’s novel. Many have criticized the movie for its depiction of Arthur and his knights in bright, shiny armor. However, it struck me that this is a valid interpretation of Mallory, in much the same way as it would be valid to present a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with characters in Elizabethan garb. One can make a case it’s the way it would have been visualized by audiences at the time of the novel’s release.

Back when I wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order, one of the characters mentioned that the vampire Drake was, “a British peer, a Dragon serving King Ambrosius.” The character goes on to explain “Ambrosius was King of the Britons before King Arthur. This was all around the year 480 A.D.” When I decided to write Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order which tells Drake’s origin story, I thought it would be fun to explore what I’d learned about Arthurian history and lore.

As an author, I put together some of my favorite ideas and pet theories of what the “true” King Arthur story was like. I knew people would expect to see Lancelot so I created a reason for him to be there, yet “erased” from history. It was a fun exercise and we also travel to other points in history as well. We go to ancient Greece and to England just after the Norman invasion. The novel ends in Mallory’s time in Eastern Europe where a certain famous nobleman often associated with vampires is coming to power. You can pick up Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order as an ebook at the following retailers. But hurry, the 99 cent special ends this weekend!

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The Orville

Last week, I watched the first season of Seth MacFarlane’s new series, The Orville, with my daughter who’s home from college. Marketed as a science fiction comedy in the vein of Galaxy Quest, I find that the show is, in many ways, a true successor to Star Trek.

The premise of the show is that Captain Ed Mercer, played by MacFarlane, has just been given command of a mid-size exploratory vessel. To his chagrin, his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki serves as his first officer. Other members of the crew include Lt. Commander Bortus, the Klingon-like second officer from the Planet Moclan, Lt. Alara Kitan, the hyper-strong but young security chief from the planet Xelaya, and Lt. Gordon Malloy, Ed’s wisecracking friend who serves as the ship’s helmsman.

The first couple of episodes focused more on the humor, but as the show progressed it became decidedly more like classic Star Trek exploring themes of gender, religion, and the role of social media in society. It’s even taken on some interesting science fictional ideas such as what exploring other dimensions would mean, our interactions with life forms both more advanced and more primitive, and time travel.

Overall, the show’s exploration of science fiction themes works. This is perhaps no surprise since there’s a strong overlap of production staff not only with some of the Star Trek series, but with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. Although the show keeps its humor low-key, it’s still an integral part of the presentation. It keeps the show light and avoids it taking itself too seriously. That said, my most serious complaint about the show is that its humor is tied very strongly to 21st century pop-culture references. In a show set in the 24th century that is pretty decent at its science fiction, it feels a little jarring. It’s as though me and all my friends were experts in the 1600s and only read books and watched plays from that era. Okay, as an avowed Steampunk there is, perhaps, some feeling of truth in this portrayal, but I think you get what I mean!

I find I don’t always agree with the positions Seth MacFarlane and the producers present in the show, but that’s fine. He presents them in a thoughtful way that doesn’t put me off, which allows me to evaluate my own positions. In fact, he doesn’t always give us easy answers at the end of an episode or imply that what the crew did was the best choice. In this way, The Orville really does what science fiction does best: help us look at our own time with a critical eye.

As it turns out, I don’t have cable. I gave it up as an unneeded luxury back in 2001. I decided to buy the first season of The Orville on iTunes after watching those episodes that were available for free on Fox’s website. I will note that I still haven’t watched Star Trek: Discovery. Here’s the key difference: Fox allowed me to sample some episodes for free (albeit with commercials), and then gave me a means to subscribe to the series for a reasonable cost. CBS All Access, where Discovery runs will only allow me to subscribe to the channel and won’t even let me sample the series without a subscription that includes a whole lot of content I really don’t want. That’s why I gave up cable back in 2001!

I’m currently on Patreon raising funds for my collection of space pirate stories, Firebrandt’s Legacy. Like The Orville, I endeavor to mix some light-hearted humor with good science fiction to provide an entertaining mix. You can read the first story in the collection with absolutely no commitment right here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/chapter-one-for-14391922. If you like what you read, you can subscribe for any amount you like at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. In exchange for your patronage, you get to see each story in the collection as it’s written or reedited. I share behind the scenes information about the stories, and I’ll give you a “thank you” in the finished book.

Enterprise Cut-Away Model

Last Christmas, my family presented me with a wonderful cut-away model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the classic Star Trek series. This is actually something I wanted long before the model actually existed. I was a fan of the original Star Trek from a very young age. The very first model I ever helped my dad build was a model of the Enterprise from the show. The one in the photo below is the new one, but it looks very much like that original I helped with.

I remember when the Universal Studio Tours started up in Southern California and my aunt and uncle went. When they came back, I asked them how it was. My aunt told me all about how they learned how movies and TV shows were made. I asked her if they had a model that showed the inside of the Starship Enterprise, because at that young age, I equated the imagined reality of the show with how the show was made. In order to placate me, my aunt assured me that such a model must exist. I was disappointed when I went to Universal Studios with my parents a few weeks later to discover such a model did not exist after all.

Flash forward some forty years and I saw just such a model in a Hastings store in Albuquerque. After doing some research, I specifically requested a version of the model produced during 1996, during the show’s thirtieth anniversary. My understanding was that the mount was more steady and the pieces fit together better than the later edition of the model. My wife found the one she gave me on eBay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to dive right into building the model. I had a novel to finish this year, plus I worked on the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt. However, once both of those projects were complete, I finally built the model and was pleased with how it came out. In the photos of the exterior, you’ll see some seams, but those are simply the places where the model comes apart to reveal the interior.

When I was a child, I confused the idea of what the fictional ship would look like with the sets a TV show would be filmed on. However, as I became a professional writer, I found detailed visualizing and understanding of how a fictional ship works is very handy for selling it as a real machine in my writing. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time understanding the deck layouts of the ships in my Space Pirates’ Legacy universe and how the solar sail Aristarchus works in my novel The Solar Sea. Given that perspective, it was fun to return to one of my first science fiction loves to see how the creators of Star Trek envisioned the interior of the Enterprise.

The photo above shows the completed interior. One thing that was disappointing in the 30th Anniversary edition of the model was that it included a very limited decal set. It did not include the interior decals for the secondary hull decks you see above and many of the exterior decals were the wrong size for the model scale. I discovered that Round-2, the company that owns AMT who produced the model, had improved the decal set. What’s more, they sell decal sets for their models. So, I simply bought the decal set for the later model and used those instead of the decals that came with the model.

This year, I came full circle on the idea of visualizing spaces for a novel and learning how to realize them for film. While writing The Astronomer’s Crypt I kept a chart of my fictional 5-meter telescope at Carson Peak Observatory. While similar to the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak where I work, there were key differences and those differences made it easy to get confused. When we filmed the book trailer, I had hopes we could use the control room at the 4-meter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get permission, so we dressed an office space to look like a control room, which really isn’t that much of a stretch. We had to put together shooting locations that weren’t adjacent to one another and make it look like they were. If you haven’t seen the results, you can check out the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ.

The Astronomer’s Crypt: Get Out!

I’m proud to announce the release of the book trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. As you’ll see, we took a somewhat different approach from the usual book trailer and dramatized a scene from the novel, making it almost a short film in its own right. Enjoy!

It’s been a thrilling experience working with such a talented team to bring this scene from the novel to life. Our goal was to take the idea of the book trailer to a new level and give you a real sample of what the book is like.

Eric Schumacher, my co-executive producer and director who plays Mike, is an experienced actor and filmmaker living in Tucson. He’s appeared in the Fox series Legends & Lies: The Real West and the movie Tombstone Rashomon. He pulled together the talent who made this sound and look good. Sara Mirasola who played Claire has been in the films Date of the Dead and Thirst. I’m the voice of Professor Burroughs on the phone.

We had a terrific debut for the trailer at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona last week. Eric was on hand along with Assistant Director Elisa Cota-Francis and Cinematographer R.S. Francis. As Eric explained during the discussion, the assistant director isn’t the person who gets the director coffee, instead they’re the on-set supervisor. R.S., or Bobby as I know him, not only shot the film, but handled the special effects in the trailer as well.

After the trailer played, reader Lisa Garland said, “The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I knew I was creeped out.”

If you dare to open The Astronomer’s Crypt, you can find copies at:

In the Heart of the Sea

An all too frequent lament I hear these days is that Hollywood is too obsessed with superhero blockbuster movies and remakes. They can’t seem to make anything original. A couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to discover a recent historical film called In the Heart of the Sea directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13 among others) and starring such bankable stars as Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Holland (Spiderman Homecoming), and Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer). The movie tells the story of the Essex, an early nineteenth century Nantucket whaler whose story went on to inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. What was surprising to me was that I’d heard nothing about this film until I saw a preview for it in front of a superhero movie I was watching with my kids.

I am a big fan of Herman Melville’s magnum opus. I first read the novel in high school and had a difficult time understanding it. I was also disappointed to discover that the version I bought was an abridged version. After I met Ray Bradbury in 1983 and learned he’d written the screenplay for the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck, I vowed to give the novel another try. I sought out a copy of the unabridged novel and dived in. I read it in college and loved not just the main story, but all the diversions Melville took to tell us about aspects of whaling. I felt they helped me understand the plot much better.

Not long after I read the novel, I ended up taking a job on Nantucket, working at a small observatory. I got to visit the whaling museum there and experience the town that gave rise to an important part of early nineteenth century Americana. It’s fair to say Moby-Dick worked its way into my very bones. Parts of which strongly influenced my novels Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth.

In fact, my first professional sale was a retelling of Moby-Dick in which the crew of an airship hunts dragons for the fuel that allows them to breath fire. It was published in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 2001 and is now available in a standalone reprint edition at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Perhaps after all this, it comes as no surprise that I loved In the Heart of the Sea. It told the story of men hunting whales from little wooden boats, using hand-thrown harpoons. In the story, we already see that whales are becoming over-hunted and hard to find. This drives the crew of the Essex to attempt to hunt whales out on the open ocean where they find one angry whale that has grown large and isn’t going to put up with this hunting nonsense any longer.

I found it a powerful movie, well told. It was both exciting and thoughtful, which seems a rare combination in movies these days. It endeavored to be faithful to history. Sadly, the big name blockbuster stars didn’t really shine in this film, and it would seem they didn’t draw much of an audience, either. Reviewer Matthew Lickona of the San Diego Reader said the movie had “a strange decency and politeness for a film that strives to depict, in epic form, man’s dark and visceral struggle with the world and himself.” The thing is, that’s actually one of the things I find compelling about history is that often times people found ways to be polite and decent in the heart of darkness.

If you like good, historical fiction, I would recommend In the Heart of the Sea. It’s not an amazing film, but it is a good one, and a good change of pace from yet another superhero film. It gives me hope that I might find a few more good films out there, lurking under the surface.

TusCon 44

Next weekend, I’ll be at TusCon 44 which is being held from November 10-12 at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona. Timothy Zahn is the Author Guest of Honor, Theresa Mather is the Artist Guest of Honor, Melinda M. Snodgrass is the Media Guest of Honor, Geoff Notkin is the Toastmaster, Madame Askew is the Mistress of Chaos, Hal and Dee Astell are the Fan Guests of Honor. For more information about the convention visit http://www.tusconscificon.com

This year, all of my panels are on Saturday, November 11, but as you’ll see, it’s a busy schedule! I will be at TusCon all weekend and Hadrosaur Productions will be in the dealer’s room. Here’s my event schedule:

Saturday, November 11

  • 12pm-1pm – Autographing – Canyon Theater Foyer. I’ll be signing autographs alongside Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Marsheilla Rockwell, Rick Cook, and Dr. David Williams.

  • 2pm-3pm – The Astronomer’s Crypt: Making a Book and a Trailer – Panel Room 2 (Pima B). Filmmaker Eric Schumacher and I will debut our short film which presents a scene from my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Our goal with this project is to make something that goes beyond the ordinary book trailer and actually brings you inside the world of the book. We’ll discuss how we made the trailer and, if you’re an author, we’ll show you how we can help you get more eyes on your book.
  • 4pm-5pm – Publishing in 2017 – The Options, the Opportunities, the Pitfalls – Ballroom (Sabino). There’s the big press, the small press, the self press, the no press. What to do what to do? On the panel with me are Ron Collins, Julie Verley, Cynthia Ward, Beth Meacham, and Catherine Wells.
  • 5pm-6pm – The Snowball Effect: How to pick up steam on the way to making a low-budget film – Panel Room 1 (Pima A). I’ll join director Marty Ketola, actor Eric Schumacher, and actor Geoff Notkin to discuss the making of the indie film Revenge of Zoe in which screenwriter Billy Shaw must face his inner demons while convincing comic book store owners John and Pete to help him write a sequel to his greatest work; a movie about comic book super heroine Fren-Zee.
  • 7pm-8pm – Why Do Adults Like Young Adult Fiction? – Ballroom (Sabino). What are adults finding in the “kids” shelves that they’re not find in the rest of the bookstore? On the panel with me are Linda Addison, Mary Fan, Jim Doty, Jill Knowles, and Beth Meacham.

Also, I’m planning my annual shared birthday celebration with fellow longtime TusCon dealer Marty Massoglia on Saturday night after all the panels. Check with us at the convention for details. We might even go back in time on Friday night to TusCon 43 to have the party we missed last year!

That Punk, Popeye

About a week and a half ago, I learned that the soundtrack album from the 1980 movie Popeye had been re-released with tracks not included on the original album. I loved this movie when it came out and I bought the soundtrack on vinyl. The movie was one of the few bright spots I remember in the weeks immediately following my father’s death. Listening to the songs over again sent me to my DVD of the movie for a rewatch. As always, I enjoyed this lighthearted Robert Altman romp with its funky island setting and a set crowded with extras who feel like fully realized characters. What struck me this time around were how many steampunk sensibilities appeared in the film.

I’m sure some of the steampunk “feel” of the film is the result of screenwriter Jules Feiffer’s attempt to write a story heavily inspired by E.C. Segar’s original comic strip, Thimble Theatre. The strip, born soon after World War I and very much in the steam era, will celebrate its centennial in 2019. Popeye was introduced as a supporting character ten years after the strip began and soon supplanted most of the regular cast. At the time Popeye was introduced, the strip generally was about the characters going on some zany quest or another in search of riches or to help someone. In the movie, Popeye arrives on a quest to find his lost father—a powerful theme for me at the time. Quests are certainly the narrative basis of a lot of steampunk, though they are by no means exclusive to steampunk.

The first thing that struck me about the film is how much of it is concerned with manners and etiquette. Olive Oyl’s father, Cole, is always asking for an apology for some perceived slight. There’s an early dinner scene where Popeye struggles to be polite among a cacophony of voices and flailing arms and limbs, only to be left with nothing to eat for his trouble. Of course Popeye has always been a defender of the weak and those unable to protect themselves. It’s even in his theme song: “Keep good behavior, that’s your one life saver with Popeye the Sailor Man!”

As I mentioned at the outset, the movie is set in a funky village outside of time. The village, built for the movie, reminds me of Nantucket, except that it’s clinging to rocks of Malta. There are no vehicles except for the rotting ships in the harbor and the tax man’s bicycle. The whole thing feels like it’s set at the time of the original comic, late in the steam era. In fact, there’s even kind of a builder sensibility evident in Poopdeck Pappy’s boat at the end. The whole thing looks like a steamboat cobbled together from odds and ends in someone’s garage. It’s not beautiful, but it might just get a few admiring nods at a seaside steampunk convention because it floats and it works!

The circus is important to many in the steampunk community. After all, it was an important nineteenth century entertainment. Many of the steampunk events I’ve attended have a real love of circus performers. Abney Park even released an album called The Circus at the End of the World. One of the things that’s striking about Popeye is all the circus performers working as extras, showing off their talents in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The whole movie has a very steampunk-feeling circus atmosphere.

I’d be hard pressed to call Popeye a steampunk film, but Robin Williams’ Popeye is a misfit with a good heart who could easily walk into many steampunk stories I know and feel surprisingly right at home. Some steampunk characters would probably look askance at him in his dingy sailor suit and corncob pipe, but he’d scowl and just tell them, “I yam what I yam!”