Magic and Mayhem in the Old West

This past week, I had the pleasure of reading Incident at Whisper Falls by J. Stephen Thompson. It’s a short weird western novel that opens when an outlaw gang rides into the titular town and unleashes mayhem. Meanwhile a mysterious cardinal appears to a reverend and offers to answer the town’s prayers of getting rid of the outlaws. From there, we jump ahead a few years and meet McCray, a bounty hunter trailing a conman named Spenser Townshend, a so-called Mystik who uses magic to disguise himself and cheat at cards. McCray handily captures Townshend and the two ride off together like Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in 3:10 to Yuma. In this case, McCray hopes to hand Townshend to the marshal at Whisper Falls.

Instead of Whisper Falls, they find a town called Dignity about 20 miles to the east of where Whisper Falls is marked on McCray’s map. What’s more, anyone who seems to know anything about Whisper Falls seems disinclined to talk about it to the bounty hunter. McCray and Townshend continue to where Whisper Falls should be and find that magical forces have removed the town from our plane of existence entirely. What follows is a battle between the forces of good and evil that has elements of both classic westerns and dark fantasy.

We’re accustomed to classic high fantasy being set against a medieval backdrop, but this is really something borne of fantasy’s roots in fairy tales. In fact, when many familiar fairy tales were first told, the people telling them were just telling stories about the people and places around them, or things that might have happened in their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Another strong inspiration for modern fantasy tales are the heroic quests written by Renaissance writers who, in turn, had created idealized, romanticized versions of medieval knights and clerics to tell their moral tales.

Of course Renaissance writers weren’t the only ones to romanticize and idealize previous generations. The Japanese of the Meiji era created stories about idealized samurai. Here in America, we’ve created an idealized, mythic version of the Wild West. Add a little magic and a few monsters and these times and places become ideal settings for epic fantasy stories. Other great writers who’ve used a Wild West backdrop for their tales of epic fantasy include Stephen King in The Gunslinger and Jim Butcher in his story “A Fistful of Warlocks” from the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone.

Incident at Whisper Falls tells a satisfying, complete tale, but J. Stephen Thompson left several hooks for sequels to this first book of his Mystic America series. I look forward to seeing the further adventures of the bounty hunter McCray and his allies.

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Discovery

At long last, the first season of Star Trek: Discovery has been released on DVD, BluRay, and iTunes. As a result, I was finally able to watch the season. That said, I should note that nothing actually prevented me from subscribing to CBS All-Access to watch the show there before it came out on home media. In fact, a few weeks ago, I gave in and subscribed for the trial period just to check it out. What I learned was that even when I viewed CBS All-Access from the highest speed internet I had available, I still experienced pauses and video glitches that detracted from the viewing experience. Also, as I suspected, I didn’t find enough available on CBS All-Access to feel compelled to stick with the service. I decided I’m content to wait a year for the series to appear on home media.

As for the series itself, I enjoyed it … mostly. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up as a Star Trek fan. I would run home from school and anxiously turn on the TV to catch episodes of the original series. Star Trek was, in many ways, the series that’s responsible for the start of my writing career. This new incarnation of Star Trek is set about a decade before the original series and the first season tells the story of the Federation’s war with the Klingon Empire. The story is told from the point of view of Michael Burnham, who starts out as first officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou. In an attempt to stave off war, she commits an act of mutiny and ultimately ends up being recruited by Captain Lorca of the Starship Discovery to help in the war effort. It turns out that the Discovery has a special new type of drive that utilizes a biophysical network to transport it almost instantaneously from one place to another. Over the course of the series, we get to see plenty of Klingon politics, the return of original series villain Harry Mudd, and a return to the Mirror Universe where humans have formed a tyrannical empire.

I liked how the series used the Klingons to explore issues of cultural assimilation and appropriation. In the original series, Harry Mudd was something of a comic foil for Captain Kirk. In the new series Rain Wilson managed to give Mudd a decidedly dark and sinister twist. I thought the deeper exploration of the mirror universe was pretty cool. I enjoyed all the actors and was especially pleased to see the navigator and helmsman of Discovery both played by women. I felt the season-long story arc suited Star Trek. I also really liked the almost “lower decks” approach to the show where we see the action through the eyes of people who are not the most senior officers. What’s more, this series improved on Star Trek: The Next Generation where for all their high-minded talk of equality, the senior officers often took an almost elitist approach to their juniors.

My main problem with the series is the so-called spore drive. While I don’t have an intrinsic problem with the idea of a biophysical network that spans the universe and perhaps even bridges universes, I wasn’t so keen on the idea that it would provide an almost magical way of letting you move instantly between two quite distant points. Also, while I liked the season-long story arc, I felt it wrapped up just a little too neatly in the final episode and the solution relied on the Klingon homeworld being constructed in a way that seems inconsistent with our understanding of planetary geology.

Those issues noted, I liked it enough that I’ll almost certainly be back for season two … when it comes out on home media.

As I mentioned earlier, Star Trek was responsible for the start of my writing career. My first, albeit unpublished, novel was set between the end of the original series and the first movie. When I learned that it was unlikely that I could publish that novel because I was a young, untested writer, I created the starship Legacy and Captain Ellison Firebrandt. Because Firebrandt is a privateer, he ended up being quite a bit different than Captain Kirk. Monday is the official release day for my latest book set in this universe, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The ebook is available right now for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. I can’t quite control the release date for the print edition to the same degree as the ebook, but I expect it to be available by Monday. The Amazon link should indicate when it’s live.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

As the year starts, I have the rare treat of being able to visit the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club two months in a row. This month, I visited as a reader. The club’s selection is the fine novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I’ll visit next month because the selection is my own novel, Owl Riders. It’s always a pleasure to visit the club and speak to its members about my books. This rare double visit gets to happen because my work schedule at Kitt Peak had start dates the Monday following each of the meetings.

Set in 1883, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street tells the story of Thaniel Steppleton, a telegraph operator in Britain’s Home Office who returns from work one day to find a watch in his rooms. An alarm on the watch saves him from an Irish bomb planted at Scotland Yard. Curious about the origin of the watch, he goes in search of its maker, who he suspects may be tied to the bombing. The maker is a Japanese watchmaker named Keita Mori. Not only does Mori make watches, but he makes amazing automata such as birds and an octopus named Katsu with randomized gears that make him seem almost alive.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow, an Oxford student who anticipates the Michaelson-Morley experiment and also owns a Mori watch meets Thaniel at a party. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on academic women of her period, but she stands to inherit a house from her aunt if she can find someone to marry. She sets her sights on Thaniel.

The story takes many twists and turns and explores the nature of time, artificial intelligence, and precognition. What’s more, it’s well bounded by actual historical events. The bombing of Scotland Yard actually did happen, as did other significant events in the book. At the steampunk society book club meeting, the question was raised about whether this book was more steampunk or more historical fiction. Using my rough and ready description of steampunk as “Victorian inspired fantasia,” I call it very thoroughly steampunk in its exploration of scientific ideas and even “what ifs” through the lens of a Victorian reality.

Another interesting discussion we had at the book club was about whether or not the novel has an actual villain. Throughout the novel, we’re interested in figuring out who bombed Scotland Yard. Despite that, time itself and the time period are almost presented as greater antagonists than the actual bomber. We also discussed the characters and the characterization in the novel and we came to the insight that at this period of time, many of the people are almost treated as parts of a clockwork machine. All in all, it was a fascinating discussion.

As I say, next month, we’ll be discussing my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders at the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club. If you’re in Tucson, I encourage you to join us. The club meets on the second Sunday of each month at 3:30pm at Antigone Books, located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. The meeting to discuss Owl Riders will be on Sunday, February 10. If you can’t join us, The book club takes video of the meetings and they’re posted to the Society’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/. If you want to learn more about the novel and where to order, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

On the subject of schedules, I have been posting new content to this blog every Monday and Saturday. I’ve decided to make a change and start posting every Tuesday and Saturday. I’m doing this to give more even spacing of the posts each week. Also, because of her schedule, my daughter will start updating her blog every Monday. Even though our audiences aren’t identical, it does allow some more effective cross promotion. You can find my daughter’s blog about her crochet business at http://entropycreations.wordpress.com.

Squirrel Girl

A number of my birthday and Christmas presents in 2018 revolved around one of my favorite comic books, Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. For those who haven’t encountered the character, she’s a college-age woman with a big bushy tail, can speak to squirrels, and has the proportional strength of a squirrel. Her alter ego is Doreen Green, a university computer science student.

What first attracted me to the comic were the covers. Instead of the usual muscle-bound or hyper-sexualized heroes, the covers featured this rather ordinary looking girl with a squirrel-ear headband and a big tail. There was action in the covers, but it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It made me want to learn more. I dived in and quickly discovered that the writing delivered on the promise of the covers.

What makes Squirrel Girl interesting is that she’s not your garden variety hero with a dark origin trying to fight or solve mysteries in an increasingly grim reality. She often looks for solutions that work best for everyone involved. She tries to get to the root of why bad guys are doing bad things and helps them solve that problem. The result is that she tends to make more friends than enemies. Of course, some bad guys don’t want their problems solved. In that case, Squirrel Girl has no problem kicking their butts, often with the help of an army of New York City squirrels, but also with her college roommate Nancy and fellow superheroes Koi Boy and Chipmunk Hunk. And let’s not forget Brain Drain, a disembodied brain transplanted into a robot body who quotes existentialist literature and is always there to help our heroes.

As it turns out, the artist whose work captured my attention is Erica Henderson. When I see an artist whose work grabs my attention, I like to learn more about where their work has appeared. As I followed up on her other work, it suddenly dawned on me that Erica was the daughter of long-time Tales of the Talisman contributor C.J. Henderson and, in fact, I had published some of Erica’s art in volume II, issue 3 of the magazine! If you’d like a copy, back issues are available at: http://talesofthetalisman.com/bookstore-v2.html

As for the presents themselves, among them were the graphic novels that I showed up at the top of the post. Not only did I get books but my youngest daughter designed and sewed a Squirrel Girl plush for me. Now one of my favorite features of the comic book is the letters section. You see, not only does Doreen Green try to make friends, but the letters are positive and fun as well, especially when they encourage young fans in their creativity. When Verity made me the plush, I had to take a photo and send it in. As it turns out, they just published the photo and my letter in issue number 40. That was a real delight.

If you’re a comic book fan looking for something that’s light but thoughtful, fun but intelligent, I highly recommend checking out Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Uncanny Encounters

During my first year of graduate school, I joined a small acting troop that called itself the Socorro Little Theater and we put on a series of related one-act plays known collectively as The God’s Honest: An Evening of Lies by playwright Jules Tasca. The idea is that in each play, one or more characters is lying and through their lies some truth is revealed. The whole thing was done with minimalist sets that could be used in each of segments. Below, is a photo from the segment called “The Twin Mendaccios” where I play Clarence, a poor befuddled soul who isn’t sure which twin, Terry or Thomasina (both played by the same actress), that I’ve been to the movies with, had dinner with, or even slept with!

While performing in the play, the director, Carolyn Abbey, had me hard at work adapting my short story “A Matter for Madness” into a stage play that we hoped to perform. I’m sorry to say, the stage play was never produced, but the story did go on to be one of my first story sales. Also, the play’s protagonist, John Mark Ellis, would go on to be one of the heroes of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series and is featured prominently in the novel Heirs of the New Earth which is on sale for half price at http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#heirs.

It’s from this perspective that I turned my attention to the book Uncanny Encounters—Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan. The book collects eight short plays with distinctly science fictional or horror elements in the vein of The Twilight Zone. Some of the plays are very short. In fact, the shortest is only one page, but published in 2015, “The Most Terrifying Three Word Dystopian/Dark-Fantasy/Horror Story Ever Written” proves to be the most chillingly predictive piece of science fiction I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read the book or see the play to know what I mean!

As someone who fell in love with stagecraft many years ago, I’d enjoy watching or performing in any or all of the plays in this volume. That said, my two favorite pieces were “Corona Encounters” by Stephen D. Sullivan and “Be Mine” by Paul McComas. These were two of the longer plays in the volume and I suspect they grabbed me as much as they did because there was a little more time to explore the characters and watch them change as they reacted to the events. “Corona Encounters” tells the story of a UFO enthusiast who has calculated the time of the aliens’ return and the skeptical photographer she convinces to go out to the desert with her. It starts out as a lighthearted romp that takes a chilling turn. “Be Mine” is the story of a man who dabbles in Voodoo magic to win the heart of a woman who is in a relationship with another man. The problem is that once our hero wins the woman’s heart, he can’t stop using the magic.

If you’re an actor, director, producer looking for fresh material, I highly recommend taking a look at this volume. For that matter, if you’re a reader looking for a great read, this is worth putting on your list. It’s available at: https://www.amazon.com/Uncanny-Encounters-Sci-Fi-Screams-Horrific/dp/1499706014. Contact information for performance rights is in the book. Like The God’s Honest, these plays are designed to work with minimalist sets. So, even though they’re science fiction and horror, don’t let the potential cost scare you. These should be adaptable to companies working with even modest budgets.

If you want to learn more, you can hear an interview with Stephen and Paul at: https://narrativespecies.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/paul-mccomas-and-steven-sullivan-navigate-uncanny-encounters-rod-serling-used-to-tour-the-nation/

Star Trek: Phase II

A few days ago, I came across a listing on the Eaglemoss website for a replica of the Starship Enterprise based on the design that would have been used in the television series Star Trek: Phase II.  This series has fascinated me since I first heard about it right around the time I first heard about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In fact, the first poster for the movie I had seen featured the Phase II Enterprise. I decided I needed one for my collection.

I remember picking up a magazine sometime in 1978 announcing the forthcoming movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a young Star Trek fan, this was exciting news indeed. The article also mentioned a planned television series called Star Trek II was on hold.  Apparently the sets and models for Star Trek II would be upgraded and used for the new movie. The article, as I recall, expressed some hope that if the movie proved a success, Paramount would move ahead with the series. This was like a dream come true. A new Star Trek movie and series.

As time went on, I heard less and less about the new series. I didn’t really get the story about what happened until I read Susan Sackett’s The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture a year or so after the movie came out. Even then, that book only contained tantalizing hints. Essentially, it revealed that soon after the cancellation of the original series, Gene Roddenberry had been approached to develop some new version of the series. The first culmination was the animated series. After that, a movie was developed but the script was ultimately rejected. Finally a TV series—Star Trek II or Star Trek: Phase II—was given the green light for development. It reached the point that they had signed most of the original cast and they were about to begin shooting when suddenly Star Wars came out and Paramount decided to turn the pilot script into a movie.

Susan Sackett gave a little more detail than this broad outline in her book, but not much. I finally located a book that gave much more detail about how the series started and the circumstances that caused it to go from being a series to a move. This book was Star Trek: Phase II, The Lost Series by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who at the time they wrote the book were respected novelists who had done a couple of Star Trek novels, but would go on to be producers of Star Trek: Enterprise.

The book is really quite the treasure trove, and not just for the Star Trek fan curious about the Star Trek series that never happened. If you’re interested in developing stories for the screen, this book includes Alan Dean Foster’s treatment for the pilot episode, “In Thy Image” along with Harold Livingston’s complete first draft script. These would ultimately be modified to become Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, there’s also the complete screenplay for an episode called “The Child” which ultimately was rewritten as a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t have the best reputation, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie. Of course, it becomes clear from the Reeves-Stevens’ book that much of the problem stems from the fact that it is the pilot episode of a TV series. It’s not supposed to leave you sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s supposed to introduce you to characters and settings who will leave you sitting on the edge of your seat in future episodes. Susan Sackett’s book made clear that it was a pilot episode further watered down to be palatable to network executives and take as few chances as possible. That said, while I think Harold Livingston’s first draft script has better elements than the movie, the ending of the movie is much stronger than the one he first wrote.

Unfortunately, Star Trek: Phase II The Lost Series is now out of print. I had to buy a used copy. If you’re at all interested in Star Trek or writing for the screen, I highly recommend it for its candid look behind the scenes of the screenwriting process. I’m finding it very helpful in a project I’m working on, but can’t talk about yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to say more soon about that project, but in the meantime, this is a good excuse to once again share the short film whose screenplay I wrote. Enjoy!

If you like this clip, you can read the full story in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N5EH8QP/

The Greatest Showman

This weekend finds me at Gaslight Expo in San Diego. If you’re in Southern California, I hope you’ll consider dropping by this event at the Town and Country Hotel and check out all the great steampunk festivities. You can get more information at http://www.gaslightexpo.org

Recently, I had the opportunity to see the new musical The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman. I had been looking forward to this for some time. After all, there are few actors like Jackman who have the talent and the presence to be both believable action stars and great musical performers. What’s more, I’ve long been fascinated by P.T. Barnum. In many ways he defined showmanship. He had a complicated relationship with his performance company. It’s easy to dismiss Barnum as someone who exploited the “oddities” who worked for him (and anyone else, for that matter). Yet, if not for Barnum these people arguably would have had far worse lives in nineteenth century New York. What’s more, Barnum was a skeptic who called out people who preyed on others, such as William Mumler, who convinced many grieving people, he could capture the images of the dearly departed in photographs. Barnum showed it was simply a trick done with double exposures.

Overall, I enjoyed the show’s music. I thought the songs and dances were quite well done. Several times in the movie, I felt they were building up to a real confrontation between Barnum and his company, but it seems like the screenwriters sidestepped it and ultimately the company just seemed to rally around Barnum when he was at his lowest. Although I don’t really expect musical theater to be the most historically accurate medium, the musical strayed quite far from the true story. Among other things Barnum never had a partner at the American Museum, there never was a romantic scandal with Jenny Lind (although she did get tired of his constant exploitative marketing of her and left his company), and it took about 30 years from the time he opened his museum in New York until it burned down. The two daughters we saw in the movie would have had time to grow up in the time span portrayed.

When I first heard about The Greatest Showman, I was a little disappointed, though not altogether surprised that they didn’t simply adapt the much more historically accurate, albeit stylized, 1980 musical Barnum to the big screen. I haven’t heard a definitive reason this wasn’t done, though I can make some guesses. First and foremost, I imagine the music in Barnum probably didn’t seem hip enough for a modern movie musical. Even though it was released in 1980, the musical feels much like the musicals of the 50s and the 60s. I’m also guessing there were some rights issues. I gather the musical is still being performed and it just saw a recent revival in London. That said, Barnum makes the point that one could have made a more accurate movie musical than the one that was made.

Of course, one of the things that’s strongly emphasized to those of us who write speculative fiction is that we should do everything we can to allow the reader (or the viewer) to suspend their disbelief of the fantastical elements. For me, the history was less of an issue than the problem of the averted confrontation. That point actually is what made me look closely at the history. (That and not remembering that Barnum had a partner named Carlyle, which he didn’t.) With that in mind, I’ll close out today’s post by recommending two authors who get the history right to the point that they can sell you on a little humbug and pass off some razzmatazz.  They are David B. Riley and Laura Givens. I’ve had the honor of publishing them both together in a book called Legends of the Dragon Cowboys. In the book, you’ll meet Ling Fung, a wandering businessman encounters a Mayan god, crooked enterprises and Yeti, the Abominable Snowman. You’ll also meet Chin Song Ping, a scoundrel, gambler and trouble magnet who has no little P.T. Barnum in him. Why not check out a copy of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys today at: https://www.amazon.com/Legends-Dragon-Cowboys-David-Riley/dp/1885093837

The Midwest Book Review said, ” These two Western novellas are seasoned a dash of exotic adventure, featuring cowboy protagonists who hail from the Far East and pursue their dreams in the tough-as-nails frontier. Riveting from first page to last, Legends of the Dragon Cowboys is enthusiastically recommended for public library collections and connoisseurs of the genre!”