Sally Sprocket and Piston Pete

Sally Sprocket and Piston Pete

In October last year, I had the pleasure of meeting artist Alejandro Lee at the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California. He had a booth in the vendor hall where he was selling copies of his creator-owned graphic novel Sally Sprocket and Piston Pete: The First Adventure. I’m always delighted to explore cool-looking indie titles, so I decided to pick up a copy. I was surprised and delighted when he also threw in vinyl figures of the title characters as a bonus.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world with overtones of the Wild West. Pete is a robot built sometime in the past who has lost much of his memory, but is compelled by a strong need to fix anything that’s broken. Given that he lives in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world, there are a lot of broken things that need fixing. Early in the story, he stumbles upon the crash of an airship and finds a little girl, barely hanging onto life. He takes her back to his workshop and gives her a robotic body. Like him, she’s lost much of her memory, so he names her Sally Sprocket and she becomes his sidekick.

Pete also works to bring reliable power to the town of Kratera. He finds a capacitor that allows him to collect energy from one of the many fierce storms that rage across the hostile landscape. However, this puts him at odds with a mad scientist Morticus Angstrom IV, who also claims the capacitor. Both Pete and Morticus are vying for a highly coveted place in the Daedalus League, an elite academy of science. One of Pete’s supporters is Doc Governess, the chief physician of Kratera, manager of its orphanage, and who seems to know something of Pete’s mysterious background.

I love the artwork in Sally Sprocket and Piston Pete. For the most part, Lee works in a subtly sepia-tinted grayscale evocative of old photographs. Occasionally, he drops in vivid color for effect. The art style walks the line between cartoonish and realistic. While Lee’s style is uniquely his own, I’m reminded of Brian Kesinger’s steampunk work. I cared about the characters and the story engaged me. One of the challenges of comic writing is making sure that all your panels tell a complete story, but you don’t bog the story down with unnecessary details. I felt like there were a couple of places where Lee wasn’t as successful with this as he could have been. That said, I get the impression Alejandro Lee is a serious student of comic books and graphic novels and is improving his narrative skills as he progresses. I would absolutely pay full price for a sequel to see what happens next in the adventures of Sally and Pete.

If you would like to read Sally Sprocket and Piston Pete: The First Adventure, you can find the book on Etsy at: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ThePistonAndSprocket. The Vinyl figures are also available at their Etsy store. You can see Alejandro Lee’s amazing art and read some samples of the graphic novel at his DeviantArt site: https://www.deviantart.com/47ness

Space Precinct Audio Books

Stories about the police tend to make good television shows. There’s the potential for action, a good mystery, and real, interpersonal drama. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed several of these shows, including Barney Miller, Columbo, and Hill Street Blues. This drama also translates well into the past as we’ve seen in shows like Gunsmoke or any number of British historical mysteries. That said, police in the future seem less common. They do exist. Notable examples include Constable Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Mr. Garibaldi in Babylon 5, but aside from the occasional episode, the police work is rarely the focus. Some of that is no doubt the fact that science fiction shows tend to focus on frontiers beyond the purview of law enforcement, but what might a science fictional police show look like? As it turns out, Gerry Anderson, creator of Space: 1999 and Thunderbirds, actually did produce a police show set on an alien world called Space Precinct.

Space Precinct tells the story of Lieutenant Patrick Brogan and his partner Officer Jack Haldane who transfer from the New York City Police Department to the Demeter City Police Department on the planet Altor. The planet is a colony world settled predominantly by humans, Creons, and Tarns. A big focus of the show is Brogan’s family life with his wife Sally and two children. Overall, the stories featured a nice blend of action, humor, science fiction, and family drama. It could be a little campy at times, but that was part of the show’s charm. Sadly, the show is not currently available on region 1 DVD or region A Blu-Ray, though you can find some episodes on YouTube. Fortunately, Richard James, who played a Creon police officer named Orrin in the series, has penned two sets of stories set in the world of Space Precinct. Both of these are available as audio books, which you can pick up from Big Finish Productions at: https://www.bigfinish.com/hubs/v/space-precinct

The first of the audio books is based on the unfilmed introductory episode of the series. In the audio book called Demeter City, we meet Lieutenant Brogan while he’s still in New York City. Brogan and Officer Haldane are on the trail of some gun smugglers who seem to be operating from the planet Altor. In the meantime, Brogan’s family see advertisements encouraging visits to the same planet. Tired of life in their small apartment, they try to persuade the Lieutenant to at least take a vacation and visit the planet. Brogan decides to apply for a police exchange program to Altor both to pursue the criminal gun runners and satisfy his family. While on Altor, Brogan and Haldane begin to unravel a criminal network that seems to have its grip on the planet while Brogan’s family do their best to make a life in an orbital habitat. As the investigation continues, Brogan and Haldane discover the biggest threat to their investigation may be within the department itself. All in all, it was a solid story and well narrated by Richard James. However, having watched a few episodes of the series, I found it pretty easy to guess one of the villains. One thing I did like in this story was that it clarified that the 2040 you see on the badge in the opening credits is Lieutenant Brogan’s badge number and not necessarily the year the story is set.

The other Space Precinct audio book at Big Finish is a collection of short stories called Space Precinct: Revisited. There are four stories in this audio book. “Kernel Panic” is told from the point of view of the station’s robot, Slomo, and how he helps the officers thwart a notorious gangster who threatens the 88th Precinct. In “Everything Must Go,” hundreds of people gather for the grand opening of a new orbiting shopping mall – only to find themselves held hostage by a gang of Human Future activists. “Point Blank” tells the story of a politician gunned down. When the weapon is found, there’s no sign of fingerprints or DNA evidence. I really liked that Officers Orrin and Beezle who normally serve as comic relief had a major role in solving this case. Finally, following a routine drugs bust, Officer Castle starts to behave very strangely. After placing Officer Took in extreme danger, questions are asked concerning her conduct.

Each of these audio books have a run time of a little over two hours and I had fun listening to them and learning more about the world of Space Precinct.

Perry Rhodan Comics

Given my love of comics and my recent dive into the world of Germany’s Perry Rhodan space opera series, my birthday present from my wife this year was a complete digital set the Perry Rhodan comics published in 2015 by Cross-Cult Comics. The comic series is written by Kai Hirdt with art by Marco Castiello. The only catch is that these comics are only available in German. However, it provided a fun opportunity for me to dust off my German language skills and explore some Perry Rhodan as originally written. Cross-Cult’s Perry Rhodan series only ran for six issues and there are two three-issue story arcs. So far, I’ve read the first three-issue arc, titled “The Cartographers of Infinity.”

The comic is set in the year 3540, which places it well after the early Perry Rhodan adventures I’ve been reading in Perry Rhodan Neo, and before the ones in Perry Rhodan Lemuria. In the comics, Perry is leading a deep space expedition aboard the Starship Sol. The Sol is a massive starship 6.5 kilometers long, holding 10,000 crewmembers. Among the crew are some characters, who I believe are well known to regular Perry Rhodan readers. These include: Gucky, a “mouse beaver” who is a telepath and can teleport people and objects from point to point; Tolot, a massive warrior with four arms; Belayn Parcer, a space jet pilot; and Irmina Kotschistowa, a human mutant who can heal through touch.

In this story, the Sol is lost in space and the crew is trying to find their way home. Fortunately, they find a space observatory crewed by an insect-like race called the Skra’Bji. Unfortunately, it’s under attack by a group of aliens called the Umal Pact. The crew of the Sol drive off the attackers, but they can’t read the data and the only surviving Skra’Bji named Tr’Frel is seriously wounded. So, they take her to her homeworld to find a blood donor. Once there, they discover her world has been occupied. Meanwhile, Gucky has entered Tr’Frel’s thoughts and learned her history and supports her cause.

The story is solid space opera adventure with lots of action. My only script complaint was that we have a few pages where it seems like someone is shouting NICHTS! (NO!) every two or three panels. The artwork feels very much like what one would expect to find in an American comic. The only character I knew before reading this was Perry Rhodan himself and he looked like the square-jawed American astronaut I would have expected from the books. I enjoyed the characters. The focus is largely on Perry and Gucky, but Belayn and Tolot both get great moments to shine. I can see a lot of story potential for Irmina and she had some great lines, but because she heals through touch, she’s dressed in a skimpy outfit and the artist does indulge in “male gaze” more than once.

If, like me, you know some German and enjoy space opera comics, Cross-Cult’s Perry Rhodan series is a worthwhile introduction to the Perry Rhodan universe. Digital copies are available at Amazon.com for $4.99 each and a hardcover collection of the first three-issue story arc is also available. I had fun exercising my language skills. I spent a lot of the first issue using Google Translate to refresh my vocabulary but by about the middle of issue 2 I was mostly just using Google as a check on my comprehension.

As always, you can find my space opera stories at http://www.davidleesummers.com. Just look for The Solar Sea or the books in the Space Pirates’ Legacy series.

Perry Rhodan Lemuria

Two weeks ago, I shared my discovery of Perry Rhodan Neo. This is the German space opera series which the publisher J-Novel Club started translating into English and publishing in the United States this year. In effect, it’s a reboot of the original Perry Rhodan series, which contains over 3100 stories written between 1961 and the present day. I was curious whether any other Perry Rhodan stories had been translated into English after the Ace Books editions ceased publication circa 1978. I discovered a series of novels called Perry Rhodan Lemuria. This is a six-novel series that was published separately from the main Perry Rhodan serials, but fits within the original continuity. The first novel in the series was translated into English in 2005. The other five novels finally saw translation and publication as ebooks starting in 2015.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I first learned about Perry Rhodan because he inspired Bubonicon’s mascot Perry Rodent. I also have an interest in science fiction and fantasy published in other countries and languages. What’s more, I took several German language classes in high school and college. I’ve translated a few of the original Grimm Fairy Tales for my own interest, so it’s fun to look at modern science fiction from Germany.

Perry Rhodan Lemuria is set almost 3000 years after Perry Rhodan made first contact with aliens on the moon. He’s still alive thanks to a device called a cell activator, which gives him virtual immortality. In fact, one of the things I enjoy about these later Perry Rhodan books is how Rhodan takes immortality in stride. He doesn’t complain about living too long. Instead he enjoys the fact that he has time to see large swaths of human history and explore vast reaches of the universe. The Lemuria series opens with Perry aboard the prospecting vessel Palenque. He’s there to make peaceful inroads with a group of people called the Akonians. Meanwhile, the Palenque has sent out several of its exploration vessels and one is destroyed when a shuttle traveling near the speed of light collides with it. It turns out, the shuttle was stolen by a Lemurian named Venron, who has been aboard a generation ship. When Venron comes aboard the Palenque, it spurs Rhodan to seek out the ancient craft to learn more about it. Soon after they reach the craft, they discover the Akonians have also intercepted it.

In the Perry Rhodan storyline, it turns out the Lemurians are the progenitors of all the humanoid species around the galaxy. Not only that, but the Lemurians come from Earth itself. The idea is that a great space faring civilization rose to prominence on Earth, but it ultimately collapsed and vanished before humans again reached their potential and went out to the stars. Admittedly, having human-like aliens in your space opera helps to make them more relatable. Star Trek once suggested that many of the human-like species in the galaxy might share a common ancestor. That said, it does push my willing suspension of disbelief a little to suggest that such a common ancestor would come from Earth itself, but that’s never really a major plot point, at least in the first two volumes of Perry Rhodan Lemuria. Doing a little research, it seems the Lemurians have been part of the Perry Rhodan mythos since around 1966 and I would guess that changing their backstory wouldn’t be a simple matter. It will be interesting to see how and if Perry Rhodan Neo deals with the Lemurians.

Circumstances in the first novel send Perry and the crew of the Palenque after a second Lemurian ark in the second novel. That second ark ends up crash-landing on a planet. There, the idea of human-like aliens is turned on its head when the Lemurians and the crew of the Palenque encounter a group of energy beings who don’t seem happy about the human-like aliens on their planet.

Overall, the first two novels in this series have nicely woven plots, some interesting ideas, and characters I care about. The first novel seemed well translated, but the second one could have used some careful copyediting. I found several places where words were missing or sentences seemed a little too close to German word order for easy reading. The storyline has caught me well enough that I want to read more in this series and I was grateful to see an example of Perry Rhodan’s later adventures after he left the Earth and started exploring other worlds. I recommend it, especially if you’d like to get a taste of a very long running science fiction series published outside the United States.

Penny Dreadful – Season Three

Halloween kicked off this week. Like many people, I enjoy some spooky films or books to get into the spirit of the season. Last week, my wife and I decided to watch the final season of Showtime’s series, Penny Dreadful. Just as a head’s up, I will endeavor to be as spoiler free as I can about the final season itself, but I will likely include some spoilers from the first two seasons. Proceed with appropriate caution!

Penny Dreadful Season Three

Penny Dreadful’s third season picks up where the second season left off. Sir Malcolm has gone to Africa to take the body of a loyal companion back to his people. He soon meets an Apache named Kaetenay, played by Wes Studi, who informs him that their mutual friend, Ethan Chandler is in trouble. Meanwhile, Ethan Chandler has turned himself into the authorities because he killed numerous people in his werewolf form. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s Creature has gone to the North Pole aboard a ship. Back in London, Dorian Gray and Lilly, a woman resurrected by Dr. Frankenstein, seem to be happily-ever-aftering while the series’ protagonist, Vanessa Ives has been left alone and is one again going mad. Fortunately, Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle drops by and refers her to a good psychologist, Dr. Florence Seward, played by Patti LuPone, who played Joan Clayton in season two.

Over the course of the first episode, Dr. Jekyll, played by Shazad Latif, pays a call on his old classmate, Dr. Frankenstein and asks for assistance in his work at Bethlam Hospital. We also learn that the king of all vampires, Dracula has arrived in London and has an interest in Vanessa Ives. All of these characters in different locations and all of these plotlines are a lot to wrap up in nine episodes. If anything, I’d say that proves to be the final seasons greatest weakness. In particular Ethan goes through many twists and turns as he travels in America, meets a witch, and confronts his father and his past. I felt like we breezed through that storyline so fast that we didn’t have a chance to understand why Ethan made some of the choices he did and for a series that seems concerned with matters of good and evil, I was somewhat confused about which he actually turned out to be. The brief season also makes the ending feel abrupt and unsatisfying. There’s an interesting thread in the season about women and how their right to be individuals can put them at odds with societal expectations determined largely by men. I didn’t really feel like this thread was resolved in a satisfying way. It seemed to me that one or two more episodes may have gone a long way to giving the series a more complete feel.

Despite that issue, there were several elements I enjoyed in the final season. The characters of Kaetenay and Dr. Seward were fascinating and well acted. I particularly enjoyed the final season’s portrayal of Dracula. The writers and actor took a nuanced approach to the character. He could come across as genuinely charming and vulnerable, yet he was also decidedly creepy. Frankenstein’s Creature also went through a sad and well performed story arc as he regains his memories and seeks his long-lost family. The final season also seemed to feature a bit less gore and fewer jump scares than earlier seasons.

Overall, I was glad to have watched the entire Penny Dreadful series. There were some great moments that will stick with me. Even though I would have liked better resolution to some elements, pondering those will likely lead me to some story ideas. Of course, you can see my own take on vampires in my Scarlet Order vampire series. The links below will take you to the books:

If you’re a fan of comics, don’t miss the chapter I adapted from Dragon’s Fall with Bram Meehan and Michael Ellis.

Perry Rhodan Neo

The line might be a marketing cliché but in this case, it might literally be true that Perry Rhodan is the most famous space hero you’ve never heard of. Perry Rhodan is the protagonist in a long-running series of space adventure stories published in Germany. The series started in 1961 and continues to this day. There are over 3100 Perry Rhodan novellas. I can’t think of anything quite like that in the United States. The closest equivalents I can think of are some long-running comic book series or Harlequin romances. Neither one quite hits the mark since comic books aren’t the same length as novellas and Harlequin romances aren’t a single, continuous narrative.

Rhodan is not unheard of in the United States. Forrest J. Ackerman acquired the rights to translate the stories into English and publish them in the United States. Ace Books published the series from 1969 until 1977. I first discovered Perry Rhodan by attending the Bubonicon science fiction in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Given that the convention is named for the Bubonic Plague, the mascot was named Perry Rodent as a nod to Rhodan, whose adventures were in print in the U.S. when the convention first started.

Perry Rhodan is a NASA astronaut who goes to the moon and discovers two aliens aboard a space vessel. Realizing this is an opportunity to start a new era, he brings them to Earth and hatches a plan for world peace. He’s aided by a group of human mutants who have manifested special talents. As the series progresses, Rhodan leads humanity outward to explore space. With the help of alien science, he’s able to extend his life and becomes virtually immortal. In effect, the series has elements of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and X-Men all rolled into one — and it predates all of those!

This brings us to Perry Rhodan Neo. Launched on Perry Rhodan’s 50th anniversary, this new series goes back to the beginning and re-imagines the series. The original starts in 1971. The new series pushes the events forward to 2030. It ramps up the action, feels a little grittier and a little sexier. In a long-running series like Perry Rhodan, plot points tend to evolve organically as different writers introduce them over time and as different editors shape the direction of the series. Neo starts folding in some of the longer running plot points early on to make a more unified story. While the original series hasn’t been seen in translation since 1977, I was excited to discover that Neo is being translated and has started appearing in the United States this year, the 60th anniversary of Perry Rhodan.

Perry Rhodan Neo is being published in the United States by J-Novel Club, a publisher best known for translating and publishing Japanese light novels. In fact, the covers for the translated editions are taken from the Japanese editions, which is why they have a distinctly manga-like appearance. The covers above are for the first two novellas, Stardust and Utopia Terrania. On the left we see Perry Rhodan and on the right we see the Arkonide captain, Thora da Zoltral. Each ebook contains two novellas.

Back in 2012, the Bubonicon chair asked me to write a Perry Rodent story for the program guide. Although it wasn’t required, I thought it would be fun to capture the flavor of the Rhodan novels, so I read the first few. They were fun, pulp adventure, but they felt dated and it wasn’t all that difficult to step away from the series and move onto other things. Even though Neo tells much the same story, I found it much harder to put down. The storytelling was fun. The action whipped along. I haven’t read these in the original German, but the translations seem well executed. I see that the first eight-novella arc of Perry Rhodan Neo is complete in English and that J-Novel Club will be continuing into the second story arc. I’m looking forward to reading more of these stories and learning more about a character I’d heard of, but don’t know well enough.

If you’d like to read my Perry Rodent story, I published that here on the Web Journal at: https://davidleesummers.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/perry-and-the-apocalypse/

You can find Perry Rhodan Neo at your favorite ebook retailer or buy them directly at J-Novel Club: https://j-novel.club/series/perry-rhodan-neo

The Valley of Gwangi

Last month, Robert E. Vardeman mentioned that he’s a fan of the Ray Harryhausen film The Valley of Gwangi in a post on his Patreon site. A couple of weeks later, when I was on a panel discussing Weird Westerns with Jeff Mariotte at the virtual CoKoCon, the film came up again. Although I had been aware of the film and had seen clips, I’d never watched the whole thing before, so I took this as a sign that I should finally sit down and watch it.

Cowboys and dinosaurs meet in The Valley of Gwangi

The film starts off looking like it’ll be a pretty ordinary western. T.J. Breckinridge runs a struggling rodeo on tour through Mexico in the early 20th century. Her former boyfriend, Tuck Kirby, wants to buy her out, but she doesn’t want to sell. T.J. has an ace up her sleeve. Gypsies brought her a tiny horse from Forbidden Valley and she expects it will be a great attraction. A paleontologist named Horace Bromley, recognizes the animal as no ordinary horse. He declares it’s the prehistoric horse, Eohippus. The leader of the gypsies say the little horse is cursed and convince Bromley to capture the horse and return it to Forbidden Valley. Bromley, of course, is interested to see what other creatures might live there. To get the horse, the gypsies have to knock out one of T.J.’s men, Carlos.

Tuck sees the gypsies leaving and discovers they’ve taken the Eohippus. He sets out after them. Unfortunately, Carlos saw Tuck and thinks he’s responsible for the theft. T.J., Carlos, and several of the rodeo riders set out after Tuck. They all soon arrive just outside the Forbidden Valley. After sorting out what’s going on, Tuck nearly recaptures the Eohippus, only to have it disappear into a cave in the cliff face. T.J., Tuck, Horace, and the rodeo riders set out after it. It turns out the Eohippus didn’t go into a cave, but entered a passageway leading to the Forbidden Valley. The rodeo men clear out some rocks and soon our band goes riding into the valley.

Once in the valley, our heroes discover that Eohippus isn’t the only prehistoric creature living there. They’re soon attacked by a pteranodon. After dealing with the flying creature, they encounter a small plant eating dinosaur. The rodeo riders decide it would make an even better attraction than Eohippus, so they chase it, only to have the dinosaur snapped up in the jaws of Gwangi, an Allosaurus. From this point on, the movie becomes full-on cowboys versus beautiful Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs. Our rodeo riders take refuge in a cave that foreshadows the Land of the Lost TV series I watched as a kid. Eventually, the cowboys capture Gwangi and take him back to town. In a finale reminiscent of King Kong, Gwangi breaks free and rampages through the town where he corners T.J. and Tuck in a cathedral.

All in all, the movie is great fun and a terrific example of a Weird Western story. As always, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters are a marvel to behold. There’s a scene where the rodeo riders attempt to lasso Gwangi and Harryhausen seamlessly blended the live-action and stop-motion photography. The only real problem with the effects happened because the film’s post-production was rushed and Harryhausen was never allowed to color correct his footage. As a result, the dinosaurs have a tendency to change colors from purple to gray to green from scene to scene. While I’m not generally a fan of tinkering with old movies, I wouldn’t mind seeing a color-corrected special edition of this film where the dinosaurs are each a consistent color.

You can find Robert E. Vardeman’s Patreon at: https://www.patreon.com/robertevardeman

As a friendly reminder, this blog is supported and kept ad-free in part by my Patreon, which is at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Tank Girl

In my last post, I discussed the panel “Bad-Ass Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy” that happened at this year’s virtual CoKoCon. Among the people on the panel with me were five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author Linda D. Addison and Jenn Czep, the talented author of such books as Cloud to Cloud and Blackstrap’s Ecstacy: A Corsair Captain’s Log. Both mentioned Tank Girl as one of their favorite bad-ass women in speculative fiction. When authors of this caliber recommend something, I listen. I remember Tank Girl appearing on the shelves of comic shops I visited back in the early 1990s and I remember when the 1995 movie came out, but I hadn’t actually read the comic or seen the movie. Among other things, that was the period of my life when I was just getting started with my astronomy career and my first child was born in 1995. So, I decided to learn more about Tank Girl.

Tank Girl in comics and at the movies

Tank Girl started in 1988 as a comic created by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, which appeared in Britain’s Deadline Magazine. Set in the near future, the action takes place in a post-Apocalyptic Australia. The title character not only drives a tank, but lives in it as well. Her boyfriend is a sentient kangaroo named Booga. Her closest friends are women called Jet Girl and Sub Girl. You can, no doubt, figure out their vehicles of choice. The stories are generally ribald adventures. One of my favorites involves Tank Girl being fed up with the bad beer foisted on her by some large corporation and decides to find and steal some good beer. She convinces Jet Girl and Sub Girl to go with her. They succeed only to wind up teetering on the edge of a cliff in the tank, in danger of falling over due to the weight of the beer cans. Of course Tank Girl and her friends decide to dispose of the beer by drinking it! The best way I can describe the Tank Girl comic is Mad Max meets Loony Tunes.

In the 1990s, MGM was scouting for a hip property to develop into a movie and they bought the rights to Tank Girl and gave it a pretty good budget. As the story goes, once they started seeing the movie, they got scared and insisted that it should have a tighter plot and that the crude humor should be scaled back. As such, the movie’s a classic case of a great comic watered down by studio interference. Despite that, the quirky charm of the Tank Girl character still comes through. Lori Petty who plays the title character bears an uncanny resemblance to her cartoon counterpart. Also, the sentient kangaroos were well realized as practical on-screen effects. What’s more, the soundtrack, supervised by Courtney Love, is excellent and features songs by Devo, Joan Jett, and Ice-T, who also played one of the kangaroos.

Tank Girl is a no-holds-barred, irreverent character. She’ll poke fun at almost everything and if she doesn’t like you she’ll straight-up maim you or kill you. I can see why she’s a favorite of authors like Jenn Czep and Linda Addison. When I think of characters like this, I tend to think of characters like Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters or Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China. Men tend to get these wise-cracking, streetwise roles, so it was refreshing to see a woman in that kind of a part. There have been rumors that Margot Robbie would like to film a new Tank Girl movie. Hopefully she can make a version that captures even more of the comic’s unflagging spirit.

The Magnificent Five

As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts, I’ve been listening to the Gerry Anderson Podcast, which distributes new episodes to various podcast platforms on Mondays. Recently, they introduced an audio book and novel by co-host Richard James called Five Star Five: John Lovell and the Zargon Threat. The audio book is available from Big Finish Productions and I downloaded it so the family could listen while taking my youngest child back to college a couple of weeks ago. Five Star Five was the name of a movie project Gerry Anderson was developing after Space: 1999 and I’ve often heard it called his answer to Star Wars. A script had been completed, studio space had been secured, and work on pre-production began when the project was abruptly halted because one of the major investors pulled out of the project. Unfortunately, the project was never finished.

That’s where Richard James comes in. He took the script and turned it into a novel this year, so the rest of us could finally learn more about Five Star Five. The premise is that the evil Zargon Empire plans to take over the peaceful planet Kestra. On Kestra, Colonel Zana seeks a champion to help save them from the threat. So far, this does sound a bit like Star Wars. The person she hopes to recruit is John Lovell, a freelance freighter pilot who reminded me a little of Han Solo, right down to his hirsute co-pilot Clarence. As it turns out, Clarence is a talking chimpanzee. At first I thought the character would put me off, but it turned out elements of the character hearkened back to both Planet of the Apes and Rocket Racoon from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Once Lovell is maneuvered into helping the Kestrans, the story becomes less Star Wars and more The Magnificent Seven as Lovell goes out to recruit a team to help him defeat the Zargon invaders. His team includes a powerful, but sensitive robot, a mystic, and a kid who communicates telepathically with his robot dog.

Unlike other Big Finish productions I’ve listened to, this one is an audio book with Robbie Stevens serving as the sole narrator. Music and sound effects are provided by Benji Clifford. Stevens’ narration is so well done and his voices for the characters so well thought out, I almost felt like I was listening to a full-cast audio drama. I do highly recommend the audio edition. The total runtime of the audio is 5 hours and 19 minutes, so it does feel more in-depth than a movie, but the action never slows down.

John Lovell and the Zargon Threat also felt very much like a first adventure in a series. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gerry Anderson would have produced more movies in the series if the first had proven a success. I suspect the movie Gerry Anderson would have produced circa 1979 would have have rivaled both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises in effects quality. What’s more, I thought this was a more engaging take on the idea of “The Magnificent Seven in Space” than 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars. It would be fun if the folks at Anderson Entertainment decided to give us more Five Star Five adventures.

Peacekeeping in Oz

The final Oz novel by L. Frank Baum, Glinda of Oz, opens with Ozma and Dorothy deciding to pay a visit to the sorceress Glinda the Good. While there, Dorothy takes a peek at Glinda’s book that provides news of everything happening everywhere in the world. We learn that the book does not provide detailed accounts, but limits itself to the headlines and a brief summary, which does seem to foreshadow the news results from modern search engines. While browsing through the book, Dorothy learns that two of Oz’s peoples, the Skeezers and the Flatheads are preparing to go to war. Ozma promptly decides to put a stop to this nonsense. After a stop by the Emerald City to put the Scarecrow in charge during her absence, Ozma and Dorothy leave on a peacekeeping mission.

Dorothy and Ozma’s first destination is the mountain home of the Flatheads. As the name implies, these people all have flattened heads. In fact, their heads are flattened just above their eyebrows, which leaves no room for brains. So, they carry their brains around in cans. The Supreme Dictator of the Flatheads claims to be the smartest of the bunch because he has more than one can of brains, all because he took brains from others of his kind. It turns out, the Supreme Dictator is none too happy with Ozma’s interference and plans to imprison her. Thanks to some quick thinking on Ozma’s part, the two princesses escape and make their way to the island home of the Skeezers.

The Skeezers’ island has a great, glass dome and can be lowered into the lake. Queen Cu-ee-oh of the Skeezers isn’t much happier about Ozma’s interference and promptly arrests Oz’s monarch and her companion. She then lowers the island below the lake’s surface and commences to launch a submarine assault on the invading Flathead army. During the melee, Queen Cu-ee-oh is transformed into a diamond swan and forgets all the magic she knew to raise and lower the island. Dorothy and Ozma end up trapped and Ozma has no way to untangle the magic that lowered the island into the lake.

Fortunately, Glinda—remember this is a book about Glinda—sees in her big book that Dorothy and Ozma have been taken prisoner. She travels to the Emerald City and meets with the Scarecrow and Ozma’s advisors. They assemble a rescue party that consists of almost every major Oz character to date. This final book of Baum’s has some interesting perspectives on the limitation of magic in Oz and shows that it can’t simply fix every problem one might encounter.

Glinda of Oz was written at the tail end of World War I and was published in 1920, about a year after Baum’s passing. It’s clear he had things he wanted to say about the nature of war and war machines that can’t always be controlled by those who create them. The domed underwater city foreshadows many similar cities in later science fiction and fantasy novels. Although there’s a large rescue party at the end, it isn’t unwieldy. You get nice moments from the characters that make you glad to get to spend a little more time with them.

Although Glinda of Oz is the last of Baum’s Oz novels, it would not be the last Oz novel by a long shot. Baum’s publisher hired a writer named Ruth Plumly Thompson to take over the series. Between her and other authors such as illustrator John R. Neill, the canonical Oz series would continue until it reached forty novels.

Still, the real delight of the Oz series is that it was a series where both girls and boys could go on adventures. What’s more, both young and old could go on adventures. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em weren’t left behind on that Kansas farm while Dorothy had all the fun in a magical country. Those of us who write science fiction and fantasy do well to pay attention to Baum’s lessons. Over these posts exploring his novels, we’ve learned that Baum wasn’t perfect, but he left a series of novels that are still well worth reading. I hope this series has encouraged you to take a look at Baum’s Oz novels. If you have a favorite, I’d love to hear about it.