The Airship Rustlers

This week, the poem “The Airship Rustlers” that I wrote with Kurt MacPhearson appeared in the the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s online magazine, Eye to the Telescope. You can read it at: http://eyetothetelescope.com/archives/040issue.html. The issue’s theme is “Weird West” and the editor is Gary Every, who I’ve been pleased to work with on a number of other occasions.

A while back, Kurt MacPhearson and I collaborated on a handful of poems and a short story. The way we worked on the poems was that one of us would write a verse or two of a poem, then email it to the other. Effectively, we played a game of literary hot potato, passing the poem back and forth until we came to a conclusion we liked. We also allowed each other to edit the poem as it stood, to make sure all the ideas worked together and to make sure it had a uniform voice.

As I recall, I started this particular poem. I would have been working on my Clockwork Legion novels at the time, very much entrenched in reading about airships and wild west lore. I was also inspired by the TV series Firefly and the episode where Captain Reynolds transports cattle from one planet to another aboard his space ship. Kurt gave the poem a somewhat darker tone than I originally imagined, but it fits how seriously people took cattle rustling in the wild west. In passing the poem back and forth, the poem’s narrative took some interesting turns and by the end, it’s not altogether clear the title refers to those people aboard the airship rustling cattle.

Not only did Kurt and I collaborate on poetry, we also tried our hand at a steampunk short story. Again, we played literary hot potato with the story. I introduced the brave Captain Penelope Todd of the airship Endeavor and immediately thrust the crew into a nasty storm from which there seemed to be no escape. Kurt took the idea and ran with it, sweeping the Endeavor and its hapless crew off to a strange new land called Halcyon along with the crew of a sea-going pirate ship. Kurt had Captain Todd taken prisoner with no apparent way of escape and left me to find a way out of the situation. That story was picked up for the anthology Gears and Levers 2, edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and you can get a copy at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00AYAF6X2/

Another interesting aspect of all this is that Gary Every, the editor of the Weird West issue of Eye to the Telescope, and I also played literary hot potato on a story for a while. It was all about exploring underground waterways on Mars. Unfortunately, life got in the way for both of us and we never finished the tale, but we did have fun and it took a lot of inspiration from stories of people on the Western frontier. Even though Gary and I never finished that story, I did publish a pair of his fantasy tales under the title Inca Butterflies. In the book, Incan Emperor, Huaina Capac, comes of age as Alejo Garcia and his band of mutineers arrive in America carrying a weapon far more devastating that cannons. Huaina Capac’s successor, Manco Inca, must lead his remaining people as bearded men from Europe swarm the countryside like butterflies sweeping the plains. Set in the last days of the Inca Empire, Inca Butterflies is a tale for all times. You can get the book at: https://hadrosaur.com/IncaButterflies.php

Music Through the Ages

Even if I hadn’t been working this year, I’m not the kind of person to stand in line for Black Friday deals. That said, I did take advantage of one Black Friday special this year and I’m glad I did. It was the download of Abney Park’s New Nostalgics and in retrospect, I would have been pleased with this album if I’d paid full price for it. This album is comprised entirely of songs from the early 20th century covered in modern style by the band Abney Park. There are songs about airships, burlesque halls, and how people who built the modern world often aren’t the ones who see its benefits. What makes the download really special is a 20-minute “documentary” by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Robert Brown, where he plays snippets of the old recordings of the songs and then follows that with how he updated them for a modern audience. You can pick up the album in the music downloads section at http://abneypark.com/market/

Music has always been an important part of my writing. Often, when I write, I like to have instrumental music on in the background that captures the mood of what I’m trying to create. In fact, one of the things I like about Abney Park is that they provide instrumental-only versions of many of their albums and I use those a lot when I’m writing steampunk or retrofuturistic fiction. I also like to collect soundtracks of favorite films or TV shows. Listening to those can be a great way for me to get into the proper mindset for a given scene, whether it be romance, action, or suspense.

While I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I’m in the process of writing, I love listening to songs from a period of time I’m going to write about as part of my research for historical fiction. It provides a valuable window into the things that brought joy and sadness to previous generations. You can often catch slang terms people might have used. If you catch an odd turn of phrase in an old song, it’s often worth looking it up to see if it had a broader meaning. Maybe it’s something you can use in your story. In setting a scene, I often like to describe the kinds of music people are listening to. Even if I don’t mention a particular song, I like to mention the kinds of instruments people heard.

That covers the past, but what about the future? While part of me loves it when a science fiction character espouses their love of David Bowie or Dolly Parton, part of me groans. While I hope these artists will still be known two or three centuries down the road, I’m pretty sure they won’t be mainstream. People in the future will be writing and singing their own songs. They’ll write about their own heroes, like Jayne in Firefly’s “The Hero of Canton” or the ballads sung about Edmund Swan in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There will be new musical forms and maybe even alien instruments. As a writer, you don’t necessarily have to write these songs, but you can add some color by mentioning them and talking about how they make the characters in your story feel.

With that, it’s time for me to go listen to some good music and find some inspiration. If you would like to see how I write about futuristic music, you can read The Pirates of Sufiro by subscribing to my Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

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

Space “Cowboys”

This weekend I’m at Bubonicon 48. If you’re in Albuquerque, I hope you’ll drop by and visit us at the Hadrosaur Productions table and check out some of the cool panels going on. In the run-up to Bubonicon this past week, Steve Howell and I have been working on Hadrosaur’s anthology Kepler’s Cowboys, which looks at the variety of planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and imagines the brave men and women who will either explore those worlds or will come to our world exploring.

One of the things that I’ve noticed while reading for this anthology is how literally many of the authors have taken the cowboy idea. Several of the submissions feature very literal cowboys in space, who practically wear spurs and big hats. That’s fine and I think a few of those will definitely make it into the anthology, but I do want to point out that’s not the only thing I want to see. In fact, I thought I’d spend a little time today introducing you to a few of my favorite space “cowboys.”

Faye Faye Vallentine is one of the bounty hunters in the anime Cowboy Bebop. Although I enjoy watching Faye’s story, I probably wouldn’t want to know her. In fact, she’s rather arrogant and lazy and she might well be addicted to both gambling and alcohol. However, she does (albeit grudgingly sometimes) show concern for the crew of the spaceship Bebop and the mystery of her past makes her vulnerable. By all appearances she became an ace pilot in about three years. Although much of the mystery of her past is resolved in the series, there are still lots more stories that could be told about her, both from before she joined the crew of the Bebop, and after the end of the series. I love it when it feels like we’re seeing a snippet of someone’s life in a story and don’t feel like that character was born the moment the story was created.

Jewell_Staite Kaylee Frye is the mechanic who keeps the spaceship Serenity flying in the televison series Firefly. The photo is from Phoenix Comicon a couple of years ago when my daughter and I had the chance to meet Jewell Staite, the actress who played Kaylee. Firefly, like Cowboy Bebop, is almost the definitive space cowboy series. In both cases, I could pick almost any character from the series as an example of someone who fits the archetype. I picked Kaylee because I like the fact that she’s a technical genius. Of all the members of Serenity’s crew, she’s probably the worst with a gun, but she’s loyal and has no problem telling it as she sees it.

Nichols My final entry is arguably two for the price of one, because not only would I consider Nyota Uhura a space cowboy, but Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played her in the original Star Trek is arguably a real-life space cowboy! The photo shows Nichols with my daughters at New Mexico Tech in 2008. To many, Uhura did little but “answer the phone” for Captain Kirk, but those people miss the fact that she not only worked communications on the Starship Enterprise but she could take over the science station when Spock wasn’t there and she could navigate the ship. In the animated episode “The Lorelei Signal,” Uhura took command and even rescued Kirk, Spock and McCoy. What’s more, she was a strong African-American woman on television at a time when most African-American women were relegated to roles in comedy or playing slaves in historical dramas. As for Nichelle Nichols, she not only played an explorer, she’s worked as a real-life space advocate and recruiter for NASA. She’s a powerful speaker and visionary and I’m honored that I’ve had the chance to meet her.

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, none of my cowboys are boys, nor do they have anything to do with cows. (Except perhaps for that one episode of Firefly where they hauled cattle, but that’s beside the point!) Although I don’t want fan fiction with these specific characters, I would love to see more stories with strong women like the ones depicted here. I’d also love to see more stories by women. Here’s what you need to know for submissions:

Harlock, Firebrandt, and Reynolds

During the holidays, while watching Space Battleship Yamato 2199 with my daughter, the subject of another anime icon came up—Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Harlock My daughter found some on-line references to the title character. Although I knew about him and had long ago seen him in the Galaxy Express 999 movie, my knowledge of the show was limited. After returning to college, she discovered that the original 1978 Captain Harlock series is at crunchyroll.com.

In the meantime, I had a deadline approaching for a short story. The idea that I developed seemed perfect for my own space pirate captain, Ellison Firebrandt. I spent a chunk of the last two weeks working on the story. Once I had a draft I liked, I set the story aside, as is standard practice for me before submitting it. During that time, I decided to watch a few episodes of Space Pirate Captain Harlock. The series was created by Leiji Matsumoto, the artist behind the original Space Battleship Yamato. In fact, Harlock was originally created to be a character in Yamato, but Matsumoto decided he didn’t want to give up creative control of the character, so reserved him for other projects.

As it turns out, Harlock and Firebrandt have a lot in common. Both will fight to protect Earth, even if both are often frustrated by what Earth has become. Firebrandt Both are seen as criminals, even though they are each guided by a moral compass. Both value their freedom and the freedom of those who serve under them. Many of the human colonies beyond Earth are wild, untamed places which sometimes have a distinct wild west feel.

This brings me to something else that’s a bit uncanny. While watching the 1978 Space Pirate Captain Harlock, I discovered the sequel/remake series Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey. Just to note, the good captain’s name is translated both as Harlock and Herlock, though it seems always to be pronounced like the former. MalReynoldsFirefly Endless Odyssey ran in 2002 and 2003, the same time as another series about space outlaws ran in the United States—Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Captain Malcolm Reynolds shares many noble and not-so-noble characteristics with Firebrandt and Harlock. Earth doesn’t really factor into the Firefly universe, but Reynolds does stand up for what he believes is right even though it routinely puts him on the wrong side of the law. Although he doesn’t call himself a pirate, he isn’t afraid to commit crime to make a living.

Endless Odyssey is a great, short series. I found the English-dubbed version on YouTube. It reminded me of Firefly many times, even down to the lonely guitar riffs. It was also very different, sometimes having an underground comic vibe. At times it even reminded me of the magazine and movie, Heavy Metal.

I gather there is little to no continuity among the different Harlock TV series. Harlock and his pirate crew are almost operatic figures, telling whatever story they need to. In fact, they were even called upon to retell the story of the opera Das Rheingold in Harlock Saga. I haven’t seen this series, but it’s definitely on my to-watch list. I suppose I see Captain Firebrandt, Roberts, Suki, and the crew of the Legacy in much the same way. They are reliable standbys and I can call upon them whenever I need to tell a good yarn. I just have to imagine what trouble they’ve gotten up to now. I do try to maintain some continuity, but especially among the short stories, I can’t promise that I haven’t shuffled it, at least a little.

Seeing that it’s Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but mention the romantic connections with these space pirates. Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds has his flirtatious relationship with the companion, Inara. Captain Ellison Firebrandt loves Suki Mori, a computer teacher he rescued from the dangerous world Prospero. Captain Harlock seems more aloof, though he clearly shared a bromance of sorts with his dear friend Tochiro. I also find myself wondering if his relationship with his blue-skinned adviser, Miime, is entirely platonic.

Speaking of “bromance” and much as I hate the term to describe a strong friendship between non-lovers, all three of these pirate stories have one of those. I’ve already mentioned the one in the Captain Harlock series. Firebrandt has a bromance with his first mate Roberts and it’s hard to describe Malcolm Reynolds’s relationship with Zoe Washburn as anything other than a bromance, despite their gender difference.

I’ve given you links to explore more about Captain Harlock. Fortunately, Browncoats have helped to assure that Firefly is readily available. If you’d like explore more about Captain Firebrandt, here’s a sampling of books in print where you can read his adventures:

And of course, when my latest Captain Firebrandt story sells, I’ll be sure to tell you about it right here. Happy Valentine’s Day!


Image notes: Captain Harlock image from Space Pirate Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey copyright Madhouse, Inc. Nathan Fillion as Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly copyright 20th Century Fox. Each image used under the fair use doctrine of US Copyright law in this article discussing the relevant series. Illustration of Captain Ellison Firebrandt by Laura Givens from the cover of The Pirates of Sufiro by David Lee Summers.