Remember Yamato

On Christmas, my older daughter surprised me with a copy of one of the myriad Space Battleship Yamato soundtrack albums. She found the Japanese import at a convention this past year. A search of Tim Eldred’s amazing Yamato fan site, OurStarBlazers.com, revealed that it was the 1995 release of the Space Battleship Yamato: The New Voyage Symphonic album.

As I’ve mentioned before, I collect soundtracks and love to play them while I write. They can help me find a mood or a tone while I’m writing certain scenes. Sometimes they just help me escape the mundane worries of the world while I try to get into a creative headspace. The TV series Space Battleship Yamato debuted in October 1974 in Japan and featured one of the most epic scores ever to appear in a space opera TV series. Here in America, John Williams’s amazing soundtrack for Star Wars set a standard for space adventure music. I’ve heard it speculated that George Lucas was inspired to have Williams create such an epic score because he’d seen it done with great success in Japan. Whether that speculation is true or not, I still consider the Yamato soundtracks to be among the gold standard of science fiction music.

Even though I have been a fan of Space Battleship Yamato since I first saw it on American TV circa 1978 or so, I haven’t seen every episode of the translated series, Star Blazers, or every movie. It doesn’t help that the original movies only had limited release in the United States. When they were released on DVD, they came out at a price I couldn’t readily afford. Space Battleship Yamato is noted for having a rousing opening song performed by Isao Sasaki. In the album for Space Battleship Yamato: The New Voyage, there’s a new opening song, also performed by Isao Sasaki, called “Remember Yamato.” The song is so distinctive, that I realized The New Voyage was one of the stories I missed.

A search of Amazon revealed that The New Voyage was still available on DVD and it was at a price I could now afford, so I sent away for it and finally had a chance to watch it. I knew the events of the story because I had friends who had described it to me during my high school years. Still, this was the first time I’d seen this particular story for myself. It’s quite an iconic chapter in the Yamato storyline. In short, it tells the story of how the Captain Kodai of the Yamato teamed up with Lord Dessler of the Gamilon Empire to attempt to save the planet of Dessler’s greatest love from an evil empire strip-mining her planet. If we were to put this in Star Wars terms, it would be like Luke Skywalker teaming up with Lord Vader after the Empire’s defeat to go fight evil industrialists. I’d definitely pay to see that!

It turns out the special features on this particular disc were assembled by none other than Tim Eldred, whose website helped me identify the soundtrack album, which in turn led me on a quest to find the movie. One of the special features is a translation of creator Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s liner notes for the album! At the end of the notes, he says, “Please enjoy the sound of this space opera and revive the vast anime-universe in your heart. I also hope you will create your own wonderful images which surpass mine.”

I’m delighted that I have been able to create some of my own space opera adventures in novel form which have been inspired by the music of Space Battleship Yamato and I will forever be grateful to Mr. Nishizaki for his creation. You can explore my work at my website http://www.davidleesummers.com

Weighing Planets

At this month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the team developing the NEID spectrograph at Kitt Peak National Observatory announced the instrument’s first light and released a great, processed image of the first spectrum that illustrates much of what I’ve talked about when giving behind-scenes-glimpses of the work. This is a spectrum of 51 Pegasi, which happens to have been the first star discovered to have an exoplanet back in 1995.

Credit: Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson/Princeton University/Penn State/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/KPNO/AURA

The rainbow in the image above shows light from the star 51 Pegasi spread out by the spectrograph. To the left, you see the spectrum magnified so you can see more details. In particular, you see dark lines bisecting the rainbow in different places. These lines are caused when elements in the star’s atmosphere absorbs a little bit of the light. The dots above the lines come from a “calibration” image. They serve as a road map to tell you where you are in the spectrum. When a planet pulls the star toward us, those dark lines move a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum (to the left in the image above). When the planet goes behind the star, those lines move a little toward the red end of the spectrum (to the right, in the image above).

What’s cool about this kind of measurement is that how far the planet moves those lines is directly related to how massive the planet is. If you measure the line movement precisely, you can measure how much the planet weighs. If you then use another telescope and take images of the star and watch for the planet to cross in front of the star, you can measure how much the planet makes the star’s light decrease. That tells you the diameter of the planet. With the diameter and the mass, you can calculate the density, which tells you whether you’re looking at a gas giant, a rocky world, a water world, or an ice giant world.

What’s more, I was on-hand when that first image was taken. We celebrated by pulling out a bottle of sparkling cider and toasting the instrument’s success. Afterwards, we got back to work characterizing and testing the instrument’s behavior. As you can tell from the image below, we have lots of people in the control room on these commissioning nights!

This past week has been especially fun as a science fiction writer and long time fan. We’ve been starting our nights by observing the star Tau Ceti, which appears in many science fiction novels, movies, and TV series. Among the notable novels where Tau Ceti appears are such classics as Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Empire Star. In Star Trek, Tau Ceti is known as the home of the doomed cargo ship, Kobayashi Maru. The system is the home of the planet Sea of the Morningstar in Bodacious Space Pirates, a wonderful anime series.

In fact, the star itself is very similar to the sun. It has a similar spectral type and a mass about 0.78 times the mass of the sun. It has four candidate planets in orbit and it’s a little less than 12 light years away, so it seems conceivable these are planet humans could eventually visit. I even gave it a cameo in the new, upcoming edition of my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro.

Captain Pike's Discovery

By coincidence, actor Ethan Peck visited Kitt Peak National Observatory the week Star Trek: Discovery’s second season was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I enjoyed the first season enough, I had already planned to watch the second second when I could get it on disk. Meeting the actor who played Spock in the series provided even more motivation. When I finished my shift at the observatory, I stopped in Tucson and picked up a copy of the season on Blu-Ray. I finished watching the season earlier this week.

Season one ended on a cliffhanger. The Starship Discovery encountered a badly damaged Starship Enterprise. When the second season opens, Captain Christopher Pike beams over to the Discovery and announces that he’s been given temporary command so that he can investigate the appearance of seven mysterious red signals around the galaxy while the Enterprise continues to dock for repairs. We soon learn that Pike’s science officer, Mr. Spock, has committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Spock’s adopted sister, Michael Burnham, is the series protagonist and serves as Discovery’s science officer.

Soon after the season begins, Spock leaves the psychiatric hospital and goes on the run. He’s accused of killing his doctors and the Discovery goes after him. The ship is then stopped in its tracks by an ancient artificial intelligence at the end of its operational life. They end up downloading all of the AI’s data into their computers. At this point, Section 31, a covert operations division of Starfleet takes a strong interest both in the ancient data and in Spock. Saying much more about the plot will get into spoiler territory, but we do end up with a season of political intrigue and personal drama.

As a long-time Star Trek fan, the most satisfying aspect of this season was getting to know Captain Christopher Pike. Way back when there was only one Star Trek TV series, he appeared in one episode as the grievously wounded former captain of the Enterprise. During the episode called “The Menagerie,” Mr. Spock hijacks the ship to take his former captain to the mysterious world Talos IV. In the process we learn about the first time Pike visited Talos IV. During the episode we learn that Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is conflicted about command. He regrets ordering his crew into dangerous situations and considers a new career.

In the 2009, Star Trek film, we see Captain Pike again. This time he’s played by Bruce Greenwood. The movie portrays Pike as something of a cool father figure. Anson Mount, who plays Captain Pike in Star Trek: Discovery, bridges these two portrayals and shows us a captain who cares deeply about his crew and is willing to sacrifice himself for others. Ethan Peck does a great job of playing a young Lieutenant Spock dealing with inner demons. In the process, we get a good sense of why he was loyal enough to Captain Pike to risk a court martial to help his mentor in the original series. We also see how Spock and Burnham influenced each other growing up and we see a fun brother/sister dynamic between the two characters.

The second season of Discovery includes a lot of action, which I enjoyed and I was glad to get to know the series’ regular characters better. The season-long arc format continues to suit Star Trek. That said, aside from our encounter with the ancient AI, we don’t seem to “explore new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations” as much as we did in the original series or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. That said, the season’s end did set us up to go “where no one has gone before.” At the end of the season, we got a nice taste of Captain Pike’s Enterprise. I think it would be a lot of fun if we saw a spin-off series that gave us more of Captain Pike and Mr. Spock’s adventures before the more famous five-year mission.

JoJo Rabbit

I first saw the preview for the movie JoJo Rabbit a few weeks ago when it first came out. I thought it looked like an intriguing political satire, and a breath of fresh air at a time when it seems most movies are either romantic comedies, horror films, or superhero adventures. What’s more, the film was written and directed by Taika Waititi who also directed the movies What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok, two films I enjoyed a great deal. The only problem is that the movie came out at a time when I was busy with travel and work and I couldn’t break away to see it.

A few days ago, our local theater held a giveaway for some JoJo Rabbit merchandise. As it turns out, my wife won. My younger daughter models the shirt, hat and pin she won in the photo. The theater also extended the movie’s run, something that seems almost unheard of these days. Given both of these events, we decided to go see the movie in the theater while we could.

JoJo Rabbit is a satire about a boy named JoJo who lives in World War II-era Germany and goes to Nazi youth camp. Hitler is his imaginary friend. All goes pretty well until JoJo is told to kill a rabbit to show his loyalty to the cause. JoJo can’t and he runs away to cries of “JoJo Rabbit.” His imaginary friend turns up and gives him a pep-talk, telling him it’s okay to be the rabbit. He then returns to the others and, in order to prove himself, participates in a hand grenade exercise, only to injure himself seriously. After recovering, he goes home and is given a job passing out Nazi propaganda. Again, all seems well for JoJo until he discovers that his mother is harboring a Jewish girl in the walls of the family house.

One thing people frequently misunderstand about satire is that it’s not necessarily about being funny. Instead, satire attempts to call out how ridiculous something is. In the process, it often is funny, but it can also be tragic. JoJo Rabbit has elements of both comedy and tragedy. It follows a long line of satires about Nazi Germany from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to assorted World War II-era cartoons to Mel Brooks and The Producers. I also think of the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, which ran in reruns when I was a kid. Those comparisons noted, JoJo Rabbit is less a satire of Nazi Germany and more a satire of a world where politicians foster hate and how, if you’re not going to be one of their attack dogs, they are happy for you to “be the rabbit” and just accept what’s happening.

To me, satire succeeds if it gets you to consider the subject. The movie did get us talking afterward and in that way it succeeded. One thing we’ve noted is how easy it’s become for death to be suggested as a punishment for almost anything, including just being an annoyance. I’m still somewhat horrified at a reviewer who suggested characters of mine should have thrown another out an airlock, something which has almost become a casual science fiction trope. In my fiction, I like to imagine characters who don’t necessarily give into their baser instincts on a whim, even when they’re pirates or vampires. At the moment, much of what we hear is rhetoric and talk. I hope it stays that way, though I fear the rhetoric and talk makes it easier for someone in power to act on base instincts and not only get away with it, but be cheered on. For now, I’m grateful we still live in a country where a movie like JoJo Rabbit can exist.

Paint Your Wagon

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how my parents loved Westerns on television and at the movies. I’ve also discussed how the classic show The Wild Wild West taught me there was a type of western that I could fall in love with to. However, I may not have been open to even trying The Wild Wild West if it weren’t for another show, and that’s the 1970 movie of Paint Your Wagon starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw the movie, but I was in elementary school and I know my family had recently traveled through Gold Rush country in Northern California. I had been captivated by the forests and mountains of Northern California and this movie captured that and told a story that made me laugh as well. I even enjoyed many of the songs, especially Lee Marvin’s rendition of “Wandrin’ Star” which has always felt like something of an anthem in my own life. The movie Paint Your Wagon doesn’t get a lot of love from musical fans. Now, I’m not one of those people who says that singing should be left to professionals. I think music belongs to everyone and we work a little too hard to keep it away from people who just want to sing on their own and lift their spirits. Even so, I have to admit, Clint Eastwood’s rendition of “I Talk to the Trees” can be a challenge to listen to. The movie was also an almost complete rewrite of the original Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical. Many new songs were written by Alan Jay Lerner and the music was largely re-scoured by Andre Previn.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to play the part of Angus in Lerner and Lowe’s Brigadoon. I had great fun, but thought it would be fun to see my school stage Paint Your Wagon. After all, we went to a mining school and it was a musical about miners. One of the themes of the story is about how few women there are in the camp, an issue we shared on campus back in the day. Never mind that the musical features a very male-heavy cast and even at a campus with a large male to female ratio, it was a challenge to get enough male science students out to try out for parts in any musical. Still, that’s about the point when I first got really curious what the Broadway musical was like and how it differed from the movie.

A couple of years later, I found a CD of the original musical’s soundtrack. It included many familiar songs plus several I hadn’t heard before. I gathered Ben Rumson had a daughter in the musical, which he didn’t in the movie. Also, she was in love with a Latino miner who didn’t appear in the movie. The album from the 50’s was truncated just enough for it to be difficult to glean the musical’s entire plot.

A few weeks ago, I learned about a revival of the musical performed in New York in 2015 starring Keith Carradine. What’s more, I discovered they released a more complete and higher fidelity soundtrack than the original from 1952. So, I gave it a try. There were more songs and I got a better sense of the musical. Over the years I’d learned the musical isn’t performed very often. That said, I did decide to see if the script was available. It turns out Alan Jay Lerner published the book with the script in 1952 and I was able to find a good used copy on line.

I can see why the musical never quite achieved the “classic” status other Lerner and Lowe musicals such as Brigadoon, Camelot, or My Fair Lady. It’s a pretty straight-ahead tale of the rise and fall of a mining camp. Jennifer Rumson falls in love with Julio Valveras on first sight. They only get about one scene and a partial of another scene in the first act. He’s gone for most of the second act as well. It’s not exactly a romance for the ages. We also have a plot about Jennifer’s dad, Ben, marrying a Mormon woman. That part was largely preserved in the movie. Still, I could see it being fun to see and perform, even if it isn’t one of the great musicals.

What really struck me was that certain parts of the musical echoed themes I’ve explored in my own work. The story of miners in a new land echoes themes in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There’s a great line about being Latino in America during the 1800s that echoes themes I explore in my Clockwork Legion novels. Julio says, “One time all this was part of Mexico. I’m a citizen. Suddenly a few years ago they start fighting in some place called Texas. I’m a foreigner.”

You can help support this blog and my rewrite of The Pirates of Sufiro by donating at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion.

The Addams Family

This has been a busy month for me, but despite that, I made some time to see this year’s animated adaptation of The Addams Family. I first got to know about Charles Addams’s famous family during my college years. The 1964-66 series with John Astin and Carolyn Jones ran in reruns at a time I could catch it during a break between classes. I soon learned that the library at New Mexico Tech had a couple of the collections of original Charles Addams cartoons from The New Yorker Magazine. I loved the originals so much, I photocopied a handful and put them up as posters in my dorm room.

Like most cartoons from The New Yorker, the cartoons Addams drew were single panels. Not all of them featured his famous family, but they were frequent subjects starting back in the 1930s. A favorite cartoon I remember saving included carolers at the door of the Addams mansion while the family stood on the rooftop, gleefully ready to dump a cauldron of boiling oil. Another depicted the family’s mother looking out at a snowy winter scene and saying to her family, “Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.” A third depicted the children in animal carriers, brought home in the hands of a deliveryman and the mother calling out, “It’s the children, darling, back from camp.”

I deliberately didn’t use the names of the characters in the descriptions, because cartoonist Charles Addams didn’t give them names until the 1964 series was in development. The series added many elements people now consider staples of the family. In particular the dad’s, Gomez’s, wild attraction for the mom, Morticia, especially when she spoke French. Ted Cassidy gave voice to the cartoon’s mute butler, Lurch, with his mournful and deep, “You rang,” when answering the door. Jackie Coogan brought a frenetic energy to weird Uncle Fester, who could make bulbs light up by putting them in his mouth.

I was delighted when the 1991 film came out. Barry Sonnenfeld’s film recalled several of the jokes from the original Addams cartoons, and included some callbacks to the TV series. Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston were wonderful successors to John Astin and Carolyn Jones. They brought their own interpretations to the roles, but kept the sex appeal. The real delight was Christina Ricci bringing young Wednesday Addams to Gothic life. One of my favorite scenes in the movie does a great job of capturing Charles Addams’s macabre sense of humor. A Girl Scout asks Wednesday and her brother, Pugsley, whether the lemonade they’re selling is made from real lemons. She then tries to sell them cookies and they ask her if they’re made from real Girl Scouts. Of course, what I really appreciated about this movie is that reprints and new collections of Charles Addams’s cartoons were made available and I built up my personal collection of books as much as possible in that era.

Now we come to the 2019 movie. What I loved about this movie was that the character designs do a lovely job of hearkening back to Addams’s original cartoons. I liked the origin story for the family presented at the beginning of the movie and I really liked the fact that the son of the Addams family, Pugsley, finally had a chance to be featured without sacrificing a good story arc for his sister, Wednesday. That said, the movie feels a little tame for my taste, closer kin to “safe” Halloween kids fare such as the Hotel Transylvania franchise than a true successor to the wickedly wonderful world Charles Addams created. Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem showing my kids the original comics, the 1960s series, or the 1990s movies. The gags are all built in the anticipation of the horror that happened out of view or the horror about to happen. Today, when anime has gone more mainstream, when we have series like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network exists, I’m baffled that Hollywood still feels compelled to make cartoons as safe and tame as possible, doing absolutely nothing that could be deemed risque or daring. Yes, Pugsley does play with explosives, but they always feel like cartoon explosives where no one really gets hurt. As a result, this Addams Family comes off as just a little weird, without the piquant hints of danger or sexiness their other incarnations have.

I’m glad I saw the movie and I don’t have any problem recommending it for a home video night. That said, if you really want to get to know the Addams Family, get to your favorite library or bookstore and seek out the original Charles Addams cartoons. Those are family albums well worth perusing.

Peter and Wendy

I suspect I’m like most people in that I am most familiar with the story of Peter Pan as told in the 1953 Disney film. The film is based on a 1904 play of the same name by J.M. Barrie. The play’s author novelized the play as Peter and Wendy in 1911. As it turns out, the first motion picture novelizations appeared around this time. The upshot is that Peter and Wendy is probably one of the most enduring novelizations ever written.

To be honest, Peter Pan is not my favorite Disney film. Peter always seemed like a bit of a jerk and while Hollywood in general was not known for its cultural sensitivity in the 1950s, the song “What Made the Red Man Red” is a low point in racist portrayals of Native Americans. Still, there’s a lot I feel like I ought to like about Peter Pan. It’s the story of kids who don’t want to lose their imagination by growing up, which is a theme that appeals to me a lot as a writer of imaginative fiction. Also, Captain Hook and his crew are among the most iconic pirates in fiction, which should appeal to me as a writer of pirate fiction. Of course, the Disney film does have its good points. I love its portrayal of Tinker Bell and I feel the movie actually improved a bit on Barrie by changing the location of the Neverland from “first to the right and straight on till morning” to “first star to the right and straight on till morning.”

So, I sought out Peter and Wendy. It’s probably no surprise that I liked the book more than the movie, even if the movie was made by Walt Disney. The Native Americans in the book are still stereotypes, but it’s easier to see how they were connected to the Native Americans of the period’s dime novels and would be the ones kids would see in their imaginations. The pirates were wicked and wonderful. Mr. and Mrs. Darling show a lot of love and concern for their children. The biggest surprise, though, was the relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy Darling.

In the novel, Wendy shows affection for Peter, but Peter doesn’t quite understand that affection and doesn’t how to return it. Peter describes himself as “gay and innocent and heartless.” Although I’m no expert on J.M. Barrie, this takes on an interesting added dimension when I read that he was likely asexual. A lot about Peter Pan and his relationship with Wendy feels like the author trying to come to terms with a kind of relationship he didn’t completely understand.

My favorite element of the story is the emphasis on holding onto the imagination and the importance of storytelling. After all, the reason Peter brings Wendy to the Neverland is so she can serve as a storyteller to the Lost Boys. Ultimately, it’s Wendy the storyteller who brings the Lost Boys back from the Neverland to grow to adulthood under the care of her parents. In this way, Peter and Wendy reminds us that we shouldn’t forsake our imaginations and the stories of our youth because they can be a way to help us understand and process the reality around us.

I encourage you to join me on adventures to lands near and far. You’ll likely even find a few pirates along the way. You can learn more about my fiction at http://www.davidleesummers.com.