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

Coming Soon – Straight Outta Tombstone

As of today, we’re just about six weeks from the release of Straight Outta Tombstone, a weird western anthology edited by David Boop. I’m excited about this anthology for several reasons. First of all, I was able to bring two of my favorite worlds together in one story. Larissa and Billy from the Clockwork Legion series encounter Marcella and Rosen from my Scarlet Order Vampire series during the historical Albert Fountain disappearance. What’s more, this story appears in an anthology including several people who I admire, many of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends, including Jim Butcher, Jody Lynn Nye, Phil Foglio, Robert E. Vardeman, Nicole Kurtz and more!

People who have read both the Clockwork Legion novels and the Scarlet Order novels may wonder how I can bring the two together. I only briefly mentioned vampires in Owl Dance, and more as a literary concept than a reality. Also, savvy readers will notice that I killed off one of the Clockwork Legion characters in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. The way I could make this work was to realize that the Scarlet Order novels are essentially a “secret history.” They’re set in the shadows of our world. However, the Clockwork Legion novels are set in a distinctly alternate history. So the Scarlet Order vampires you meet in my story “Fountains of Blood” are the ones who exist in my Clockwork Legion world!

I’m not the only author playing with a world of my creation in this book. Larry Correia explores the roots of his best-selling Monster Hunter International series in “Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers.” Jim Butcher reveals the origin of one of the Dresden Files’ most popular characters in “Fistful of Warlock.” Kevin J. Anderson’s Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I., finds himself in a showdown in “High Midnight.” Alan Dean Foster brings us a new Mad Amos Malone story in “The Treefold Problem.”

Here’s the complete table of contents:

  • Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers by Larry Correia
  • Trouble in an Hourglass by Jody Lynn Nye
  • The Buffalo Hunters by Sam Knight
  • The Sixth World by Robert E. Vardeman
  • Easy Money by Phil Foglio
  • The Wicked Wild by Nicole Givens Kurtz
  • Chance Corrigan and the Lord of the Underworld by Michael A. Stackpole
  • The Greatest Guns in the Galaxy by Bryan Thomas Schmidt & Ken Scholes
  • Dance of Bones by Maurice Broaddus
  • Dry Gulch Dragon by Sarah A. Hoyt
  • The Treefold Problem by Alan Dean Foster
  • Fountains of Blood by David Lee Summers
  • High Midnight by Kevin J. Anderson
  • Coyote by Naomi Brett Rourke
  • The Key by Peter J. Wacks
  • A Fistful of Warlocks by Jim Butcher

Hope you’ll join us for ride out to an old west far stranger and scarier than the one your granpappy told you about. This one includes soul-sucking ghosts, steam-powered demons and wayward aliens. The book will be released on July 4. You can preorder it right now at Amazon. You can also visit the book’s page at Baen Books, where you can get a sneak peak of the entire first half.

The Space Pirate’s Legacy

As of today, all rights for the so-called “Old Star/New Earth” series have been reverted to me from Lachesis Publishing. This includes my novels The Solar Sea, The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. For the time being, this means that ebook editions are no longer available and the only print copies available are copies retailers have in stock, or used copies.

It’s a little sad to see these titles go out of print, but in the long run, I think this will be for the best. Also, I should mention that Lachesis did offer to renew my contracts, but I’m the one who terminated them, not because I’m unhappy with Lachesis, but because I think the time has come for new editions of these books. In fact, I still have three titles with Lachesis: The Astronomer’s Crypt, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, and Vampires of the Scarlet Order. I still have a good relationship with them and nothing but respect and goodwill toward the company.

To better explain the reason I terminated my contracts, I should step back and give you some history. All four of these novels were originally acquired and published by LBF Books. Lachesis Publishing acquired LBF and Lachesis itself has gone through a couple of ownership changes since then.

When I sold The Pirates of Sufiro and Children of the Old Stars to LBF, they asked me for a series title. The obvious title to me at the time was “The Cluster series” because the series is about solving the mystery of the alien known as the “the Cluster.” The problem is that a series of that title already existed and I wanted to avoid confusion. So, in a rush to come up with something, I called it “The Old Star Saga” based on the title of the second book. I never was happy with the title but LBF’s editorial team didn’t question it, so it stuck.

Another issue was that I was not satisfied with the ebook editions generated soon after ebooks started taking off in popularity. The books were converted directly from the PDF files using optical character recognition software. The work was adequate for the time, but the process introduced numerous typos and formatting errors. I spoke to the current owners a while back about correcting these editions and they decided the errors weren’t serious enough to warrant the work needed to make corrections.

Finally, The Solar Sea was never intended to be part of this series. I wrote it as a standalone novel set in the same universe, but much earlier in time. Despite that, Lachesis marketed The Solar Sea as “Book 4,” which I think created some confusion.

So, by getting the rights to these books back, I hope to correct these issues. Over the coming months, I plan to re-edit the books and put out new editions through my company, Hadrosaur Productions. Since publishing the Old Star Saga, I’ve written numerous short stories featuring Captain Firebrandt of The Pirates of Sufiro. I want to put those stories together in a standalone book. To my mind, it makes sense that this new book should be “Book 1” of the rebranded series.

The revised series will be called “The Space Pirate’s Legacy Series” because it’s about Captain Firebrandt and his descendants. There’s also a play on the fact that Firebrandt’s ship is the Legacy. My goal in the re-edit will simply be to correct faults, update the science, improve the prose a bit, and clarify some things. If you already have the original editions, I don’t want you to feel you need to buy the updates unless you just want to! And of course, there will be a whole new book 1.

I want to take a moment and thank everyone who has read these books, written reviews, and shared them. Later this year, I’ll share ways you can help with the revised series. There will be opportunities to help shape the revisions, bonus perks and more pirate loot to come! I hope you’ll join me for this exciting voyage to the galaxy’s far side and back!

El Paso Comic Con 2017

Next weekend, I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. The event is being held from Friday, April 21 through Sunday, April 23 at the El Paso Convention Center. Special guests for the weekend include Alan Tudyk who played Wash in Firefly, Lou Ferrigno who played the Incredible Hulk in the 1980s, and Nicholas Brendon who played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There will be cosplay, vendors, and panels all weekend long. You can get more information about the event at: http://elpasocomiccon.com/

Through much of the event, you will be able to find me at booth A77 in the vendor hall. I will have all my books available for sale and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Also, on Sunday, April 23 at noon, I’ll join authors Gary Wilson, R.S. Dabney, and Natalie Wright for a special Q&A session in Juarez Panel Room 2. Be sure to bring all your questions for us!

In other news from this past week, I discovered a nice mention of the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen on Physics Today’s blog in an article about the state of exoplanet science fiction. Physics Today is the flagship publication of the American Institute of Physics. In the article, they discuss the stories written by Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and Steve Howell. In summary, they say “the stories represent a glimpse of where science fiction might go if real exoplanets are taken as inspiration.” You can read the entire article at: http://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.5.3049/full/. You can learn more about A Kepler’s Dozen and order a copy for yourself at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.html.

Of course, a follow-up collection is also out, called Kepler’s Cowboys which you can get here: http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

Research in Writing: Reality vs Perceptions

I don’t think any sensible person would question that a responsible writer should do their homework and research any facts that go into their writing, even if what they’re writing is fiction. However, over the years, I’ve learned that getting it right doesn’t always mean that the people reading the story will think you’ve gotten it right. The reason is that not all readers have done the homework and come to a story with a set of preconceived notions. If you violate those preconceived notions they may actually think you’ve made a mistake.

For example, I’m an astronomer who works with telescopes for a living. When I say that, I know a lot of people might picture this dude from a Bud Light commercial a few years back:

In fact, we don’t wear lab coats. We don’t spend all night standing at the back of a telescope. Telescopes have been using digital cameras, feeding pictures into computers since the 1980s. Even in the days when we did work at the telescope, you were more likely to find us wearing heavy coats and we’d be working in the dark all night long blasting loud music to try to keep ourselves awake. In fact, this is what the control room at the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak looks like:

And you’ll notice there’s not a lab coat in sight. Why would there be? It’s not like we’re working with dangerous chemicals or anything.

I play with this very idea a bit in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt when gangsters from a Mexican cartel show up at the story’s observatory to track down a missing drug shipment. They come to the place with preconceived notions they gained from television, but learn that the real astronomers they meet aren’t much like what they believed.

I run into this dichotomy when writing weird westerns and steampunk. People think they know the history of the old west because stories like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the life of Billy the Kid have been told in numerous movies. Even I get caught off guard. A while back, I was watching Doctor Who’s version of the Gunfight at OK Corral and they introduced a character named Phin Clanton. From all the movies, I knew Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, but who the heck was Phin? Sure enough, I looked it up and Ike and Billy had a brother named Phineas who was not at the famous gunfight. In tribute to my newfound knowledge, I gave Phin a role in Lightning Wolves.

In the end, this raises something of a question. Is it better to write to the facts, as best as they can be known, or to write to people’s perceptions? My take on this is that you should absolutely do due diligence researching the facts. You’ll bring an air of authenticity to your work and you’ll likely be able to bring better and richer details to the table. However, you should also see if pop culture has addressed your topic and how it’s been portrayed. If the facts seem to contradict what you’re seeing in the more pop cultural references, you may want to find a way to address the dichotomy in your story. Otherwise, you might get a rejection from a well meaning editor or a poor review from a fan who thinks you got the facts wrong despite your hard work.

Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.

Aliens with Tentacles

I’m in the process of assembling a presentation for Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona that discusses the origins of terrifying aliens from space coming to invade the Earth. The presentation dovetails with the convention’s theme, “Cthulhu For President.” H.P. Lovecraft describes his most famous creation as, “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” During my research, I discovered that Cthulhu is part of a long line of terrifying monsters inspired by octopi and squids.

Personally, I’ve always found cephalopods fascinating and a little mysterious. Octopi often seem elusive when I visit aquariums and either hide or don’t give me very good photo ops. This is one of the best photos I’ve taken of an octopus at the Seattle Aquarium in 2008:

octopus

That said, when I invented the Alpha Centaurans for my novel The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave them tentacles to make them immediately distinct and “alien” as I was getting the action off the ground. When Captain Firebrandt from The Pirates of Sufiro returns in Kepler’s Cowboys, I wanted to give him a truly dangerous and frightening opponent in the water. The first thing that came to mind was a giant squid.

My octopus-inspired aliens and scary squid are really heirs to a science fiction trope that goes well back to the nineteenth century. For some reason, the Victorians found squids and octopi truly frightening. Camille Flammarion was, in many ways, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day. He wrote popular science books about astronomy and biology. He also wrote science fiction. In his book, Lumen, he imagines extraterrestrial beings from a star in the constellation Andromeda who live in water and must “keep their tentacles in unceasing motion.”

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells described the Martians as having pulsating bodies, a beak-like mouth, and lank, tentacular appendages. Although Jules Verne tended to steer away from aliens in his fiction, one can make a case that he capitalized on the Victorian terror regarding cephalopods when he had a giant squid attack the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

By all accounts, H.P. Lovecraft was an avid reader and would have been familiar with the works of Wells and Verne—and possibly Flammarion as well, who was widely translated and in circulation during Lovecraft’s youth. So, it’s really no surprise that in 1926 when Lovecraft created his most famous monster, he would invoke the image of the octopus to inspire terror in his readers.

When I created my tentacled alien for The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave it little conscious thought, but it’s clear I was being inspired by those early works as well. When I put Captain Firebrandt up against a giant squid, I knew Verne had inspired me. Whether conscious inspiration or not, it’s all enough to make me think twice the next time I order octopus sushi or calamari rings. I’d hate for our cephalopod overlords to be displeased!