Forbidden Planet

While re-reading some of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes stories over the last couple of weeks, I found myself thinking about the 1956 MGM film, Forbidden Planet. Much of that would seem to come from the fact that both involve space opera largely concerned with military vessels. Also, the earliest Grimes short story I know, “Chance Encounter” is from 1959 and the earliest Grimes novel, Into the Alternate Universe, is from 1964. The stories are from an era just after the movie.

Based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet tells the story of a spaceship crew on a rescue mission to Altair 4. They arrive to discover only one survivor from the original expedition along with his daughter who was born after the expedition landed and an amazingly cool robot named Robby. When the expedition’s sole survivor, Dr. Morbius, refuses to return to Earth, Captain Adams of the C-57D must cannibalize parts of the ship to make a long range transmitter to request further instructions. While the ship is helpless, a creature breaks into the ship and sabotages the transmitting gear. We ultimately learn that Dr. Morbius discovered the remnants of an ancient civilization on Altair 4 who had advanced far beyond humankind. The good doctor doesn’t feel humans are ready for such advanced knowledge. In the meantime, the captain and his first officer are busy trying to seduce Morbius’s daughter.

This was one of the first movies I ever bought on DVD. My copy was a transfer from an old film print with lots of scratches and hotspots. Even so, I remember my oldest daughter was captivated by the film and watched it as regularly as many kids her age would watch Disney Princess movies. In many ways, it kind of reminds me of a Disney Princess movie with Altaira Morbius serving as the princess. She even has a (mostly) happily ever after ending.

Because I had been pondering the film, I recently upgraded to a BluRay copy. My new copy is much cleaner and it amazed me how well the film holds up. It was filmed in the 1950s, but had great effects work, augmented by Disney animation. Given my love of retro-futurism, I didn’t really mind that the 1950s were reflected in the design of the C-57D or Dr. Morbius’s house on Altair 4. The two big things that really make the movie feel dated are that the C-57D is crewed by a bunch of white dudes and that Altaira Morbius exists largely as a creature to be seduced and won by a hero from the space vessel. Again, this doesn’t feel all that different from a lot of Disney Princess films.

One of the things I love about science fiction is that it’s very good at looking back with love at the works that inspire us and trying to figure out how to make them better. The John Grimes books feel like a step up from Forbidden Planet. In Chandler’s novels, we find strong women and more balanced spaceship crews and let those elements shape the stories accordingly. That said, Chandler’s novels do retain a certain amount of sexism in how he describes women. Often they seem all too content to play second fiddle to the men in the stories.

Ten years ago, I was one of the editors of the Full-Throttle Space Tales anthology series. These were anthologies that explored the space opera themes loved by the talented authors who wrote for them. Of course, we all endeavored to improve on elements we found needed some work from earlier generations of authors. In the future, I’m sure other authors will look at our works and find ways to improve the genre further.

Although the original Full-Throttle Space Tales books are out of print, the editors got together and collected the best tales from the series and assembled them into a volume called Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. The book is available from WordFire Press and your favorite online retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I hope you’ll take a moment and join us on some thrilling adventures through the darkest reaches of space.

Commodore John Grimes

I remember going to the public library when I was in elementary school and discovering that many of the people who wrote Star Trek episodes also had novels on the science fiction shelves. I discovered many great writers that way including Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and Norman Spinrad. At one point in high school, a friend asked me if I read any science fiction written by people who didn’t write for Star Trek. I admitted there weren’t many. A few days later he gave me a book by A. Bertram Chandler. It was really two books, an Ace Double that combined Chandler’s novels The Road to the Rim and The Hard Way Up. Both were science fiction stories featuring Chandler’s hero, John Grimes.

Bertram Chandler was born in England and worked as a sailor aboard merchant ships. When World War II broke out, he joined the British Navy. During the war, he was stationed for a time in New York, where he met editor John W. Campbell Jr. of Astounding Stories Magazine. Campbell encouraged Chandler to write science fiction stories for him. After the war, Chandler immigrated to Australia and served in the merchant navy.

Chandler’s science fiction, especially the stories featuring John Grimes, are strongly influenced by his own life experiences. The upshot is that John Grimes is very reminiscent of C.S. Forrester’s famous hero Horatio Hornblower, except that the stories are set in the distant future instead of being set during the Napoleonic wars. Of course, another character I’d heard described as a Hornblower in space was none other than Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that I found the John Grimes stories appealing.

That said, there was a big difference Kirk and Grimes. Captain Kirk rarely made a bad decision. Every now and then a red shirted security officer would die and he would mourn for a moment on screen before solving the mystery or defeating the villain. Grimes sometimes screwed up. Sometimes he did the right thing and people took advantage of him. Grimes often did things that had life-altering consequences. He started out as an officer for Earth, got booted out of the service, became a privateer, and ultimately made a new life out to galaxy’s rim. This less-than-perfect hero appealed to me and I liked the people he met in his adventures.

I took a lot of lessons from Chandler’s John Grimes stories when I sat down to write space opera. I created a world that wasn’t too perfect for my characters to inhabit. I created a captain with a moral compass, but who could be pushed into extreme action by his circumstances. I saw a universe where most of the wealthy moved to other worlds leaving Earth somewhat destitute, relying on privateers to fight for economic superiority. This is the world of Captain Ellison Firebrandt and his ship, the Legacy. The first novel I wrote featuring Captain Firebrandt was The Pirates of Sufiro. However, a little over a decade after publishing that first novel, I started exploring the character before he was stranded on the planet Sufiro. As time marched on, Firebrandt’s Legacy was born.

With all of this background, you can imagine that I was thrilled when Robert E. Vardeman, who wrote one of my favorite Star Trek novels, The Klingon Gambit, said, “Commodore John Grimes move over. Captain Ellison Firebrandt is coming at ftl to take away your claim to best space opera. Firebrandt’s Legacy by David Lee Summers combines explosive space battles with political intrigue, conniving alien races and the human need to love and belong and serve. The Firebrandt universe is complex and wrapped up in astronomy with careful thought about human expansion and out of this world cosmic science. Join the privateer and his crew on their journey of adventure.”

If you want to take Bob’s advice, you can pre-order Firebrandt’s Legacy right now! The ebook will be released on Monday, January 28. The print edition should appear about the same time. Here are the places where you can pre-order the book: