Tesla: Man Out of Time

My brother sent me an early birthday present this year, a copy of Margaret Cheney’s biography of Nikola Tesla called Tesla: Man Out of Time. Nikola Tesla is something of a steampunk icon and his work has fascinated me ever since I saw my first Tesla coil at the Griffith Park Observatory on a family outing when I was a child. I would actually take a crack at building a Tesla coil as an electronics club project in college. The two experiences helped to inspire my story “A Specter in the Light,” which appears in the anthology DeadSteam. The title is a link and will take you to the Amazon page where you can get your own copy of the anthology. I’ve even written a story where I imagine Tesla’s research in Colorado Springs led him to learn more about Mars than is widely known. That story appeared in the All-Martian Spectacular issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine, which appears to be out of print.

In the real world, Tesla was interested in the propagation of electromagnetic waves. He’s directly responsible for all of our buildings being wired with AC plugs. His patents also led directly to the invention of radio. He pioneered the development of remote control vehicles for defensive purposes. In particular, he experimented on remote-control ships and submarines, but one can easily see how these anticipate the remote-control military aircraft of today. He provided light to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which helped expand the acceptance of electric lighting.

Tesla was also a charismatic visionary who had more ideas than he could possibly test. Because of this, he attracted such luminaries to his circle as Mark Twain and science fiction pioneer, Hugo Gernsback. In her biography, Cheney fills in details of Tesla’s youth in Serbia, his education around Europe, and his immigration to the United States where he briefly worked for Thomas Edison, but found a longtime ally in George Westinghouse. She paints a picture of Tesla as a dapper man who always wore fine clothes and was meticulous in his appearance. She also discusses his love of pigeons, which he fed regularly and kept at his rooms in New York.

Cheney’s book filled in many details I didn’t know about Tesla, such as how he lived much of his adult life in New York City hotel rooms and his friendship with the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine. Cheney also discusses Tesla’s love of Serbian poetry. I’ve long been fascinated by his brief foray to Colorado Springs where he conducted large-scale experiments he couldn’t conduct in the city and she gives good information about that time period. What’s more, the book pointed out an amusing connection with Tesla and my own writing I hadn’t know about. In my first steampunk story, “The Slayers,” I created a character named Rado, who was meant as a tribute to Ray Douglas Bradbury. However, Tesla had a friend who was a professor at New York University known as Dr. Rado.

As it turns out, not all of Tesla’s ideas seem like good ones. As an astronomer, I found his notion of charging the entire sky so it’s never dark at night to be particularly horrifying. Admittedly, Tesla was thinking about nighttime urban safety, but I’ve long felt that humans need the night and the stars to be able to dream of better futures, including the kind of future Tesla wanted to build.

If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla, I recommend Marget Cheney’s Tesla: A Man Out of Time. There’s a lot of good information and it was a breezy, compelling read.

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.

Lovely Angels

I’m a fan of stories featuring strong women. While I recognize that physical strength or proficiency with weapons is not the only way to be a strong person, my love of action stories does mean I enjoy a story with women who fall into this category. While in Bisbee, Arizona’s wonderful Meridian Books and Comics a few weeks ago, my wife’s eyes happened to fall on the book, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair.

I immediately recognized the title and the women on the cover from an anime series of the mid-1980s. What I didn’t realize is that the anime series was inspired by a series of novels by Haruka Takachiho. The book my wife found was an English translation of the first two novels published in 2007 by Dark Horse Books. For those not familiar with the books or the anime series, the “Dirty Pair” are Kei and Yuri, two young interplanetary agents in the distant future who investigate crimes for the World Welfare Works Association or WWWA. They’re essentially female James Bond types who travel in their own space ship with their pet Mugi, which is essentially an intelligent, alien cat. Their code name is “the lovely angels” but because they’re famous for leaving death and destruction in their wake, they’ve come to be known as “the dirty pair.”

Unlike many anime series, each episode of Dirty Pair is a self-contained adventure. Kei and Yuri often find one mystery that leads to a bigger mystery or find that a tactical situation has gone out of control and they must go in guns blazing while wearing their battle bikinis. At least the novels explain that their outfits do include a transparent polymer that protects them while giving them the appearance of lots of exposed skin.

What I love about the series and the books is that Kei and Yuri are strong, well defined characters. Kei is more hot-tempered and impulsive while Yuri is more thoughtful. It’s fun to see their camaraderie and how the situations regularly blow up for them to cause damage worthy of a contemporary superhero film. What I find a little annoying is that at times it feels like Kei and Yuri are Betty and Veronica from Archie comics each competing for the next cute boy, even in the midst of worlds blowing up around them.

One key difference between the novels and the anime series is that in the novels, Kei and Yuri have clairvoyant powers. If they concentrate and then hold hands, they can get a precognitive clue to the mystery they’re trying to solve. The only time I know this appears in the anime is in the movie, Affair on Nolandia. Of some note, this movie seems to be one of the least popular Dirty Pair stories, but it does feel like it takes most of its beats from the books.

The first Dirty Pair novels were serialized in 1979 in the Japanese magazine SF Magajin. This means Kei and Yuri started kicking butt the same year as Ripley in the American Alien franchise.

The Dirty Pair novels are fun if you’re a fan of the anime and curious about the story’s history. The anime is fun if you like diverting science fiction stories with plenty of gun battles and explosions. Just don’t go in expecting a lot of depth. You can find strong women who will tell more thoughtful stories in other places.

If you want to explore some of the strong women characters in my stories, you might enjoy meeting Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Crimson in my Clockwork Legion Series. You might also enjoy meeting Suki Mori, Fire Ellis, and Kirsten Smart in my Space Pirates Legacy Series or Marcella DuBois, Jane Heckman, and Mercy Rodriguez from my Scarlet Order Vampire Series.

Vintage Justice

Reading is an essential part of any writer’s life. However, sometimes, I really do feel pressed for time to read. When that happens, my attention often goes to comic books. The best comics tell really good, tight stories and are presented with artwork I really admire. Lately, I’ve been spending time exploring the adventures of the Justice Society of America.

For those not familiar with the JSA, they were the original comic book super hero team, invented during World War II. The lineup included original versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom, along with heroes I’ve spoken about before like Sandman. Other members familiar to modern readers of DC comics include Dr. Fate, the Spectre, and Hawkman. Thanks to digital comics, it’s fairly easy to find their early adventures. In those stories, the Justice Society largely stays in the United States and roots out Nazi sympathizers and other criminals who want to undermine the war effort. Each hero usually receives their own assignment and we follow that hero’s story for a few pages, then move on to the story of another hero. At the end, they would come together to wrap up the case.

DC Comics has brought back the JSA in various forms over the years. Most recently at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer presented a JSA composed of elder heroes training a new generation. These stories are a lot of fun and we get to see children and grandchildren of those original heroes. Still, my favorite stories are those actually told in the original time period. I think there’s a lot of room for these kinds of stories, especially after I read the excellent run of Sandman Mystery Theatre. I was excited recently to find the graphic novel JSA: The Liberty Files originally published in 2004, that imagined early members of the society taking a more active role in the war effort.

JSA: The Liberty Files is one of DC’s so-called Elseworld stories. They ask what if the heroes existed in a different time and place than they did in the main continuity of the universe. Of course, continuity in comic books is relative since many heroes rarely seem to age beyond their thirties! The first story in The Liberty Files imagines Batman teaming up with Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite to track down a real Nazi Super-Man. Hourman is scientist Rex Tyler who developed a pill that gives him super powers for just one hour a day. Dr. Mid-Nite is Dr. Charles McNider, a doctor who can’t see well in regular light but has excellent night vision. Both Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite were early members of the classic JSA.

In the second story, Batman, Hourman, and a more familiar Superman along with some other JSA members must determine who is killing American agents in Berlin. I like the dark, realistic artwork in these stories. I think they allow for a little more exploration of the characters, though I was a little disappointed to see Batman and Superman take the limelight away from the lesser known JSA members. There were also some points where I felt the JSA members could have avoided disaster if they’d been a little smarter. And really, the best superheroes do rely more on their intellect and how they apply their powers than relying on the powers themselves.

I know there are a few other modern JSA stories told in vintage style available and I do plan to look those up in the coming months. I find these appealing in much the way I enjoy steampunk and other retro-futuristic stories. In many ways, a steampunk world is like a good superhero world. It’s one where heroes use their intellect to apply science or magic to solve a problem. Like an “Elseworlds” story, steampunk is an alternate universe that asks what would have happened if different conditions were met than those which happened in the world as we know it.

You can explore my Clockwork Legion Steampunk World by reading the following books, maybe you’ll find your next favorite “superhero.”

Fan Fiction?

I’ve often heard the Japanese word doujinshi translated as “fan fiction.” So, I found it interesting to discover that Seven Seas Entertainment licensed two collections of Dance in the Vampire Bund doujinshi and translated them into English. Perhaps a better translation of the word doujinshi is “stories from a specific interest group published for that group.” As it turns out, the Vampire Bund doujinshi consist of manga drawn by Nozumu Tamaki, creator of Dance in the Vampire Bund along with stories he supervised created by friends. The originals were self-published by Tamaki and sold at the semi-annual Comic Market (or Comiket) conventions in Japan.

To me, it says a lot about a writer’s world building when the world is rich enough to support stories beyond those told in a given book or series. The first fan fiction I ever encountered was set in the Star Trek universe and my earliest stories were Star Trek stories. Even at a young age, I wanted to see what happened on other starships besides the Enterprise, or what people outside of Starfleet did. Since then, Pocket Books has published entire books using those ideas and Paramount has even done entire series on similar premises.

Dance in the Vampire Bund is a series that appeals to be because it presents a rich world where vampires have made themselves public and the queen of the vampires, Mina Tepes, has set up a home for vampire kind near Tokyo. The story is full of the political machinations among the vampire houses and the mysteries of the origins of the vampire kind. The two doujinshi published by Seven Seas entertainment are called Dance in the Vampire Bund: Forgotten Tales, consisting mostly of manga by Nozumu Tamaki, and Dance in the Vampire Bund: Secret Chronicles, consisting mostly of short stories and novellas introducing characters who live in this world, but aren’t necessarily involved in the main story line.

Many of the Vampire Bund doujinshi’s manga show the main characters in quiet moments between the main action of the series. The short stories introduce many great characters such as Dr. Saji, a vampire dentist who solves mysteries and Lazaro Spallanzani who fancies himself a vampire gourmet who wants to make blood more interesting and palatable to the vampires. We also get stories that explore important events in the history of the vampire bund.

The books also include behind the scene trivia and information about inspirations. I noticed that Mr. Tamaki uses titles from a number of vampire novels and stories and I’ve long been curious whether his more recent “Scarlet Order” series was somehow named for my own Scarlet Order series. Thanks to the power of Twitter (which is explored in a humorous chapter in the doujinshi) and some Japanese help from my daughter, I was able to ask him. As it turns out, he didn’t name his books after mine, but we had much the same idea, using “Scarlet Order” as a metaphor for the bloody order of vampires. I did find it cool to reach across the ocean and communicate with an artist whose work I admire.

I find this idea of collaborators exploring a fictional world in depth fascinating. In many ways, these doujinshi read like “shared world” anthologies here in the United States, which can be fun. I’ve even written in a couple of shared worlds. My novella Revolution of Air and Rust is set in Bob Vardeman’s Empires of Steam and Rust steampunk world, plus I have a story in J Alan Erwine’s Taurin Tales, set on a world he created. I love seeing what happens when artists interpret my characters for book covers or magazine illustrations. These vampire bund doujinshi take the idea of the shared world anthology and expand it further. It would be fun to see more officially translated doujinshi and it would be fun to see more expanded worlds explored by writers and artists alike in the English-speaking world.

The Stories They Tell

I recently had a chance to see the movie The Kid which was directed by Vincent D’Onofrio and stars stars Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett and Dane DeHaan as Billy the Kid. The movie is actually focused on a boy, Rio (played by Jake Schur), and his sister, Sara (played by D’Onofrio’s daughter, Leila George) who have an abusive father. One night, the father goes into a rage and starts beating their mother. Unable to stand it any longer, Rio shoots his father, but it’s too late. Rio and Sara’s mother is already gone. What’s more, their uncle (played by Chris Pratt) is as bad or worse than the father and he plans no good for his niece and nephew because of what they did to his brother.

The kids escape their uncle only to take refuge in a shack that Billy the Kid and his associates use as a hideout. Billy and Rio take a liking to each other just as newly minted Sheriff Pat Garrett arrives to take the gang in. There’s a shootout, during which Charlie Bowdre is killed. Pat takes Billy’s gang into custody, then discovers Rio and Sara. They make up a story about meeting their parents in Santa Fe. Pat doesn’t quite believe them, but offers to take them anyway. At this point, the movie essentially follows the historical story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, while Rio tries to decide which of the two to trust with his secret. Later in the film, the stakes are upped when the uncle captures Sara. Then Rio must make a decision about who can be trusted to help rescue his sister.

I first heard this movie was in production soon after watching the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I was curious what other movies Dane DeHaan had been in and when I saw he would be playing Billy the Kid and Ethan Hawke (who had a bit part in Valerian) would be Pat Garrett, I knew I had to see this movie. It struck me that DeHaan had the potential to be a great Billy and he didn’t disappoint. Despite the Valerian connections, the movie almost crosses over more with the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven, in which Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke all had starring roles. Despite these connections and despite watching for it, the movie managed to come and go from theaters without my notice.

Overall, the movie used historical characters and events the way I try to in my steampunk and weird western stories. They became a way to ground the story in a historical reality and give it a sense of authenticity. For the most part, the history actually seemed quite good. The major events Billy the Kid’s last days played out as I know the story from Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. I only had two historical quibbles. First, they kept referring to New Mexico as a state. New Mexico wouldn’t become a state until 31 years after Billy’s death. Also, Santa Fe looked too much like a western boom town and not the longtime settlement it was.

The line that resonated most with me was one spoken by Pat Garrett near the end of the film. “It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters the story they tell when you’re gone.” It echoes why characters like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are so fascinating. We have images and we have countless depictions, but we still want to get to know the truth of those characters. Sometimes we find new truths when we see them through the eyes of contemporaries as was imagined in The Kid. I think they did a great job of portraying Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as humans, neither totally good nor bad, but products of their circumstances. Sometimes we find truths when we put these characters into new situations as I do in the Clockwork Legion novels.

You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion novels by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion