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.

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Chasing Legends

Back in September, I mentioned that Leiji Matsumoto’s Harlock Saga inspired me to watch the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. My wife and I treated the viewing a little like many people approach football games. We stocked up on snacks and for each opera, just settled in for an evening’s entertainment.

When we finished the complete cycle, I found myself curious about the legends that inspired it. Much of this was because the legend itself has fascinating mythical elements such as the Norse gods, magical sword, dragon slaying, and a jilted Valkyrie lover. Another aspect was that I saw a handful of parallels between the saga and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the Ring Cycle is tainted by Richard Wagner’s antisemitism and I wanted to get to know the legend without those disturbing overtones.

I soon learned that early in his academic career, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his own version of the lays that would ultimately give rise to the Ring Cycle. I soon ordered a copy of the book in hopes that the discussion would give me some insights into Norse mythology, some of how Tolkien was inspired by the story, and perhaps even what Tolkien found particularly appealing about the story.

The book includes Tolkien’s versions of the lays along with extensive commentary by his son, Christopher Tolkien. An appendix endeavors to place the story into historical context. There are several notes that show how aspects of the lays and the Norse language influenced The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the book never really answered why Tolkien found Norse legend especially appealing, other than to mention that it was part of his academic interest.

Perhaps the aspect of the poems I found most interesting was learning that after Siegfried’s (or Sigurd’s) betrayal and death, Gutrune (or Gudrún) went on to marry none other than Attila the Hun. What’s interesting about this for me is that it places the Siegfied story into a particular place in history and that place is about a generation or two before the rise of King Arthur in Britain, a story that has influenced my own writing.

As discussed in the book, it’s unclear how much of Gudrún’s story was intended as history and how much is taking a popular story and melding it with history. According to the most accurate histories we have, we know Attila married a Germanic woman shortly before his death, so their may be some truths in the legend. The timing of the story also made me wonder whether pressure from the Huns drove the Saxons into Britain helping to give rise to the conflicts that ultimately gave us the King Arthur legend.

Perhaps more interesting to me than this idle speculation is just the fact that Tolkien actually went through the process of retelling the Norse lays that he found so fascinating. It reminds me of what I did when I retold the Arthurian Culhwch and Olwen story. For me, it was an exercise in getting my head around a fascinating story and getting to know it better. Now, Tolkien was much more an expert at Norse legend in his youth than I will ever be in Arthurian lore, and he started with the Norse texts whereas I worked with translations. Still, it was fun to see that we approached the problem of understanding these old stories in a similar way.

If you’re curious about my version of Culhwch and Olwen, I recorded it as an audiobook. You can pick up copies from Amazon or directly from Hadrosaur Productions. In short Arthur’s cousin Culhwch entreats the king to help him win the hand of Olwen. Olwen’s father agrees to let the couple marry if Arthur is successful in a dangerous quest for … grooming supplies!

As for my own interest in Arthurian legend, I’ll just say that the more I looked into it, the more I discovered it was something of a puzzle lost in history. The more I looked, the more I was interested in the history behind the legend. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolkien felt much the same way about the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

Leijiverse Discoveries

As a fan of Leiji Matsumoto’s work, I was pleased to discover a new manga from him plus an anime that I hadn’t seen before. The anime was the 2012 six-episode series Ozma which is available to stream at Crunchyroll. The manga is Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage.

Ozma tells a story of humanity struggling to survive on a future Earth that has become a desert world. Sam Coyne is a young crewman aboard the Bardanos, a ship of the sand that scavenges the world for useful items. While searching for Ozma, the mysterious sand whale, he rescues a girl named Maya, who is being chased by the Theseus Army and takes her back to his ship. Captain Bainas of the Bardanos puts Maya under her protection. As the story proceeds, we learn that there are two factions on this future Earth: the Ideal Children who are carefully genetically engineered and live for a long time by transferring their thoughts into new, grown bodies and the Natura, who propagate as most humans have over time. The Ideal Children were hunting Maya, while she, like Sam, was seeking Ozma.

My first reaction to Ozma was that it could be summed up as Leiji Matsumoto’s Dune. That turns out not to be exactly right, but there are a few similarities. The strongest elements of this anime are the cool retrofuture look of the show along with some of the Bardanos crew. I especially liked Captain Bainas, who reminded me of a more accessible Emeraldas, and Dr. Luna who seemed like a female Dr. Zero. Also, there are some great battle scenes between the Bardanos and the Theseus Army. My sense after getting to the end of this three-hour short series was that with some judicious cutting and little rewriting, this would make an awesome two-hour movie. In particular, the series needed to work on the character of Sam, show us more of his relationship with the Captain and with his childhood friend, Mimay. Also, the ending could be strengthened with a little more information.

On looking up more information, it’s a little unclear how much Leiji Matsumoto was actually involved in this anime. I gather it was based on an unpublished manga from the 1980s, but I haven’t found out whether he had much involvement in the development of the anime or not. Call this worth a watch if you’re a Matsumoto fan and have a little spare time.

On the other end of the Leijiverse spectrum is the manga Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage. When I first saw this announced, I didn’t expect much. It sounded like a simple retelling of the Mazone story from the 1978 Captain Harlock series done by a new artist. I pretty much planned to give this a pass, but a coffee coupon sent me in to my local Barnes and Noble store where I happened to see it on the shelf. A brief browse convinced me to buy the first issue and I’m glad I did.

The first thing I noticed was that Kouiti Shimaboshi’s art really did Leiji Matsumoto proud. The characters look like updated versions of the classic characters from the Leijiverse. What’s more, Matsumoto and Shimaboshi pulled the best elements from some forty years of the Harlock “canon” and combined them in this story. I recognized elements not only from the original, but Harlock Saga, Endless Odyssey, Queen Emeraldas, and even the Harlock: Space Pirate movie. In the original, the prime minister felt like a broad satire. In this, the character came off as a razor-sharp critique of modern politicians. I liked seeing Chief Ilita from Endless Odyssey as Harlock’s main military opponent. He always struck me as the most dangerous of Harlock’s foes, mostly because he actually was an honorable and competent man. So far, we haven’t seen any sign of Harlock’s adopted daughter Mayu, so it’ll be interesting to see if they work her into this story. My only complaint was that the volume proved to be quite short. I definitely will give volume 2 a look and will see where they go with this.

In this last week, I’ve thought a little about my own Captain Firebrandt and how much Captain Harlock may have influenced him. The first anime I saw featuring Captain Harlock was Galaxy Express 999 when it played on the SciFi channel somewhere circa 1993, about five years after I created Captain Firebrandt in 1988. I suspect Harlock’s appearance in Galaxy Express 999 is one thing that gave me the nudge to write a novel about Captain Firebrandt and explore the character more. After that point, the next time I saw Captain Harlock was in 2015, soon after watching Space Battleship Yamato 2199 and learning about Harlock’s relationship to the original series.

I think a Harlock/Firebrandt crossover story would be fun to do, but doubt it could happen any time soon, unless I did it as fan fiction for my own enjoyment. If you want to see the latest adventures of Captain Ellison Firebrandt, please consider supporting my Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Star Trek Revisited

This past week, I started a rewatch of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my youngest daughter. The fact that this rewatch coincides with the show’s thirtieth anniversary and this weekend’s premier of Star Trek: Discovery is mostly coincidental. I suspect the part that isn’t coincidence has to do with all the ads I’ve been seeing for Star Trek: Discovery. They’ve certainly put Star Trek on my mind.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted, I was in my senior year at University. I remembered being glued to the television on Saturday afternoon when each new episode aired on syndicated television. Back in those days, I was so much a fan of the original series that I could quote lines verbatim. I typically could identify the episode within the first minute. In the early days, I didn’t feel The Next Generation was quite as good as the best episodes of the original series, but it was never as bad as the worst episodes, either. Most importantly, it felt like Star Trek.

It would probably come as a surprise to friends who knew me in those days that Star Trek: The Next Generation was the last Star Trek series I watched in its entirety. I have seen and enjoyed episodes of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, but as I began my astronomy and writing careers, television became less of a priority in my life and I just didn’t make time to follow those series.

One of the things I really like in Star Trek: The Next Generation is the way characters will do everything they can to find a mutually agreeable solution before resorting to violence. In many ways, this approach helped to shape Ramon and Fatemeh in my steampunk novels. Of course, Star Trek gave a lot of lip service to the “prime directive”—the policy of not interfering with cultures more primitive than them. In many ways, my alien traveler character Legion explores the bad, and even some good, that might happen from violating such a directive. Legion sparks off global conflict, but he also opens people’s minds, allowing them to see the benefits of technology and to see other peoples’ perspectives.

One aspect of Star Trek: The Next Generation that particularly struck me this time around was the idea of a “post-atomic horror” in the middle of the twenty-first century. When I first watched the series in the post-Reagan years of the 1980s, that seemed extremely pessimistic. As the years went by, I had reason to hope that the idea would disappear just as much as the original series’ Eugenics Wars of the 1990s did. It’s been very disheartening to see the specter of nuclear conflict raise its ugly head again in the last few months. I sincerely hope that world leaders can find a path to negotiate rather than let this science fictional prediction come to pass.

Before I wrap things up, I’ll turn briefly to Star Trek: Discovery. To be honest, I haven’t decided whether I’m going to watch, at least initially. A lot of what I’ve seen looks good and it looks like a show I would enjoy. I’m particularly encouraged to see that Michelle Yeoh, one of my favorite actresses, is part of the series. The big question for me is whether I want to sign up for CBS All Access to watch. The cost itself isn’t a big problem. More to the point for me is how little I watch television these days. For me, I’d be signing into the network to watch just one show. I may wait for a few episodes to come available, then try the “one-week free” option and then see how I like the show.

Before I go, I did want to share a couple of nice appearances this week at The Curious Adventures of Messrs Smith and Skarry Blog. I was interviewed about multicultural steampunk: https://smithandskarry.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/soup-of-the-day-with-steampunk-author-david-lee-summers/

Also, my novel The Brazen Shark received a very nice review, which you can read at: https://smithandskarry.wordpress.com/2017/09/22/morning-cuppa-the-brazen-shark-steampunk-fiction/

I’ll leave you with the Vulcan wish, “Live Long and Prosper” and its reply, “Peace and Long Life.”

The Mechanics of the Heart

A little over a week ago, my family gathered around to watch the movie Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The trailer led me to believe we’d see a steampunk romance with something of a Tim Burton-influence. What we got was a rather surreal French film full of compelling visuals and an interesting soundtrack that reminded me of some of my favorite steampunk musical artists such as Abney Park, the Nathaniel Johnstone Band, Vernian Process, and Unwoman. In many ways, I fell in love with it, even though the film never quite achieved its full potential.

In addition to the music and the stunning visuals, I loved that the film’s mad scientist was a woman and that pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès appeared as a major character. Much of the film’s second half is set at a circus populated by loveable characters who would be at home in a Tim Burton film.

Although there’s a lot to like in this film, I was underwhelmed by the romantic plot. In it, boy falls in love with girl on first sight, girl disappears, boy meets rival for girl’s affections and endures years of abuse at said rival’s hand, boy finally learns where girl is and goes after her, boy can’t get courage to reveal to girl that he is the boy of her dreams. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. The ending is sufficiently unexpected to redeem this plot somewhat. Still, the women in the film generally exist as romantic interests or nurturing figures. To top it all off, the film has a somewhat rushed and flat-feeling English dub and the DVD we watched had no option to watch in French with subtitles. Since watching, I’ve looked and can’t seem to find the French version available on a Region 1 DVD at all, which is both something of a mystery and a shame. It’s not like many North American DVDs don’t include French-language tracks!

After watching the film, we watched the special features which teased us with information about a book and an album. It turns out the movie is based on a concept album called La Mécanique du Cœur by the band Dionysos which was turned into a book by the band’s lead singer, Mathias Malzieu. In something of a plot twist, I discovered that while I couldn’t find the English-language soundtrack album on iTunes, I could buy the French soundtrack and the original French album. The title translates as “The Mechanics of the Heart” and in many ways, that proves to be a much better title for the work.

Once I realized that Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart was basically intended to be a steampunk and Gothic-flavored rock operetta, it made much more sense to me. Overall, the piece is more a metaphor for the fragility and unpredictability of the human heart than a coming-of-age romantic tale. Also, I’d argue not all the scenes should be taken literally. For example there’s a scene where Jack the Ripper mysteriously appears. This confused me during my initial viewing, but after pouring over the lyrics, I realize that Jack the Protagonist is having a moment of fear that his obsession could turn him into Jack the Ripper. Indeed, not your usual light animated fare. Steampunks in particular will likely find the beautiful, imaginative artwork inspiring.

Parents of young children may want to preview the film to decide if it’s suitable for their family. Some moments, such as the aforementioned Jack the Ripper scene, may well be unsuitable for younger children. Also, parents should note, the original album does contain rather explicit lyrics in English, most of which were toned down considerably or removed for the movie.

Despite my reservations, it was exciting to see what French artists are doing in the steampunk realm. The images and music from this movie are still swirling around in my thoughts. The original album has already become part of my collection and I’ve decided I need to make the movie a part of my permanent collection. It’s solid musical poetry that could have achieved true greatness if the narrative elements were as solid as the imagery and the metaphors.

Update: 7/18/2017: My DVD copy of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart arrived and I’m pleased to report that it not only has the English dub, but it include the original French language track, along with optional English subtitles. I’m guessing the English-only copies are the ones for rental, but copies made for retail sale have both languages, even though they aren’t advertised as such.

Flash Gordon Zeitgeist

Earlier this year, at Wild Wild West Con, I had the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones who played the title character in the campy 1980 film Flash Gordon. At the time, I bought a beautiful poster based on the movie illustrated by comic book legend Alex Ross. The poster was quite nice and made me curious what other Flash Gordon illustrations Alex Ross had done. That led me to discover the comic Flash Gordon Zeitgeist, which was published in 2013 by Dynamite Entertainment. Alex Ross served as art director and illustrated many of the covers. The series was written by Eric Trautmann and the interior art was by Daniel Indro.

This version of the Flash Gordon story endeavors to combine the best parts of the 1980 movie and the 1979 animated film Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. This version is set in 1934 as World War II is getting off the ground. The Earth is being subjected to natural disasters and Dr. Zarkov believes he’s found the source. Yale-educated Polo player Flash Gordon is on a mission to find the good doctor. A plane accident strands him and cartographer Dale Arden on Zarkov’s doorstep. From there the story proceeds in a familiar direction. Zarkov, Gordon, and Arden climb aboard his rocket ship and blast off to the planet Mongo to face all manner of strange creatures along with Ming the Merciless.

In this version, as with the 1979 cartoon version, Ming is using Hitler as a puppet to aid his conquest of the Earth. A new element is that a faction from Mongo has traveled to Earth and is working to stop Hitler.

There are several elements I quite like in this version of Flash Gordon. I liked the historical setting and the whole connection to World War II. In this version, Mongo is in a different universe and Ming’s plans are being executed using beams that allow him to connect his universe to ours. There’s a nice sequence where Flash goes through some of his early gladiatorial contests on Mongo and reflects back on his athletic and academic career, seeing this as a next step in his life. Flash has never been a particularly deep character, but this little extra piece of character building was a nice touch. We get some good background on Dr. Zarkov. The machinations of General Klytus and Princess Aura were fun to watch as they worked to unseat Ming from the throne and gain it for themselves.

I did feel this version suffered from some uneven pacing. That said, I’ve always imagined that pacing comic books must be a real challenge because of the protracted release schedule. Even so, some plot lines seemed to resolve very quickly, while others were given time to breathe and develop. As happens too often in versions of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden doesn’t get much to do. Making her a cartographer was a great and interesting choice. She also has an awesome ending to her story arc in this version, but in between, she mostly serves as the eyes for Dr. Zarkov. Dale Arden deserved better, but at this point, I think the best written version of Dale is in the 1980 movie where she actually gets to do (a little) more than fawn over Flash.

Comparing all these different versions of Flash Gordon has actually been a rather interesting exercise. Alex Raymond’s original comic strip was arguably one of the earliest, popular space operas and studying what works and doesn’t work in different versions helps me think about my updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series which I hope to start working on later this year. That series was always intended to have a certain “retro-future” appeal, heroes who were larger than life, and both men and women with more than a little sex appeal.

If you want to check out Flash Gordon Zeitgeist while waiting for the updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series, a graphic novel edition is available in print. Ebook editions are available through Amazon and Comixology. Unfortunately, the 1979 animated Flash Gordon was never released on video, but I found it on YouTube, just search for “Flash Gordon Filmation” and you should find it.

Seven Samurai … In Space!

I’m a big fan of both Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai and John Sturges’s American remake with gunfighters instead of swordsmen, The Magnificent Seven. Here at the Web Journal, I’ve discussed both the anime series Samurai 7 and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. However, I’ve never discussed the first version of Seven Samurai I remember seeing—Roger Corman’s 1980 film Battle Beyond the Stars. This cheezy, but fun film is arguably a classic of the “space cowboy” genre.

The movie stars Richard Thomas as Shad from the planet Akir. Thomas is most famous as John Boy from the the critically acclaimed TV series The Waltons. The planet’s name is a clear nod to Akira Kurosawa. The peaceful world has been threatened by the villainous Sador, played by John Saxon. Shad must go out and recruit fighters to help him. In this version, the seven are: Gelt, a mercenary played by Robert Vaughn who like his character in the original Magnificent Seven must always watch his back; Cowboy played by George Peppard, a literal space cowboy who is also a gun runner; Nanelia played by Darlanne Fluegel, a technician who provides the Akira with sensors; Cayman, a reptilian captain who has a vendetta against Sador played by Morgan Woodward, who I fondly remember as Captain Tracy of the Exeter in the original Star Trek; Nestor, five members of a race of clones—their leader is played by Earl Boen; St. Exmin, a Valkerie played by Sybil Danning; and Kelvin, a pair of beings who communicate through heat. The seven of Battle Beyond the Stars actually provide a nice preview of the diverse cast we would get in the 2016 Magnificent Seven. One thing that was especially gratifying in this version is that it’s the only one to date that includes women among the seven.

Of some note, Battle Beyond the Stars features one of the first film scores by James Horner. As it turns out, the 2016 Magnificent Seven would feature Horner’s final film score. That said, Horner’s score from Battle Beyond the Stars reminds me more of his score for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan than his score for The Magnificent Seven.

If you’ve seen any version of The Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai, there will be few plot surprises in Battle Beyond the Stars. Like most remakes, the fun is in the details. Even though the effects are clearly low budget, there are several interesting space ships including Shad’s ship, Nell, who is a sentient AI. Nell proves to be a great character in her own right—something of a smart-ass, but genuinely helpful. Befitting the low budget, this film doesn’t take itself as seriously as its more earnest cousins. The actors clearly deliver their lines with tongues fully in cheek.

Have I missed a remake of Seven Samurai? If there’s one you know of that I haven’t mentioned in this post, let me know in the comments!

As I said at the outset, I believe this would have been the first version of Seven Samurai I actually saw. I believe I first saw this in 1985 at college, about five years after the original release. It’s clearly one of the films that gave rise to my love of space cowboys—a theme Steve Howell and I explored on planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope in the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys. In the book, Steve even does his own space-based retelling of a western classic: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. If you’d like to check out our anthology of space cowboy stories, visit: http://www.davidleesummers/Keplers-Cowboys.html