Shogun

Looking back on it, 1980 was a very influential year for me. It was the year Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired, which helped me consider a career in astronomy. It was the year I started high school. It was the year my father passed away. While it seems something of a blip compared to those other things, it was also the year the mini-series Shōgun ran on television. The series was based on James Clavell’s novel of the same name. It told the story of a Dutch ship piloted by an Englishman, John Blackthorne, that lands on Japan’s shores circa 1600. Blackthorne soon gets swept up in a power struggle between a daimyo named Toranaga and other daimyos close to the Emperor regent. I recently had the chance to read the novel that inspired the series. The miniseries was my first introduction to Japanese history and the samurai. It also made me consider the difficulties of sailing off in a frail ship on a mission of discovery around the world.

As a kid who grew up watching Star Trek, I was captivated that on the sailing ship Erasmus, the crew deferred to the ship’s pilot as much or more than they did to the captain. My dad explained to me that it was because the pilot was the guy who was going to get these guys home safely. When I read the novel, I was reminded that Blackthorne was not only a pilot but a trained shipbuilder. I first conceived of my novel The Solar Sea just three years after I saw the miniseries. Even in its earliest days, I wanted a story that didn’t look like a Star Trek retread. One of the ways I did that was to introduce a character called Pilot, who designed the solar sail and then took it out into the solar system. He would essentially share authority with the ship’s captain. My Pilot ended up being a very different character from the virile Blackthorne in Shōgun and I used the power sharing idea to introduce some mystery and conflict into the story. You can learn more about The Solar Sea at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

The miniseries also left me with a fascination for Japanese history and culture, which I would come back and explore in my third Clockwork Legion novel The Brazen Shark.  Much of my Clockwork Legion series is set in the southwestern United States in the 1800s. Of course, here in the United States, we developed a whole mythology about that time and place. We have an image of the cowboy and the Wild West that’s more the product of authors like Louis L’Amour and directors like John Ford than from history. When researching The Brazen Shark, I learned that a similar situation developed in Japan. In the years from the Meiji Restoration through World War II, an almost mythic, idealized version of the samurai was created in the popular imagination. One of the interesting characteristics of the novel, is that I felt like I was reading that Japanese mythic, idealized vision of the samurai filtered through an American writer’s vision. Because of that, I wouldn’t use Shōgun as a historical reference, but more as a window into a cultural picture that grew up later. You can learn more about The Brazen Shark by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html

It was not only fascinating to read the novel as someone interested in history, but as a writer. Clavell does not stick with a limited point of view at all. Instead he hops from the head of one character to another at will, to the point that I almost had a hard time following when we’d left one character’s point of view and entered another’s. The novel was written in 1975 and it was a huge seller, which reminds me that things like “the correct way” to do point of view are sometimes a more a matter of fashion than anything else. It also reminds me that a book doesn’t have to be “perfect” by an arbitrary, contemporary standard to be good. It was different from what I’m used to and I’d argue not as good as the limited point of view books I see now, but it still works.

I’ve seen several reviews that take the novel Shōgun to task for its ending. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the ending actually worked for me. Throughout, Toranaga is essentially portrayed as a consummate chess player. To him, it’s all about getting all the pieces in the right place. If he succeeds, he will win the day. If he fails, or misread his opponent, he will fail. Karma, neh?

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The Brazen Shark Available for Pre-Order

Brazen Shark-300x450 I am proud to announce that the ebook edition of my ninth novel, The Brazen Shark, is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com! The Brazen Shark is the third novel of the Clockwork Legion series which began in Owl Dance and continues in Lightning Wolves. In this latest chapter, pirate captain, inventor, and entrepreneur Onofre Cisneros sweeps his friends Fatemeh and Ramon Morales off to Hawaii for their honeymoon. Once there, a British agent makes Cisneros an offer he can’t refuse and the captain must travel to Japan. Wanting to see more of the world, Ramon and Fatemeh ask to accompany the captain only to find themselves embroiled in a plot by samurai who steal a Russian airship, hoping to overthrow the Japanese emperor. I hope you’ll join me for this thrilling ride!

Back when the first Star Trek movie came out, Pocket Books acquired the rights to release the tie-in novels. I read each new one ravenously and one of my favorite authors was Robert E. Vardeman. In the years since, I’ve discovered Bob’s other series and my respect for his work has grown. He’s written more than fifty science fiction and fantasy novels and he writes amazing historical westerns under the pen name Karl Lassiter. He’s combined his love of science fiction and history in his steampunk novella Gateway to Rust and Ruin and you can find his story “The Transmogrification Ray” in Steampunk’d edited by Jean Rabe and Martin Greenberg. I was honored when Bob agreed to read The Brazen Shark. This is what he says: “Airships battling! Samurai fomenting war with Russia! Historical characters and powerfully drawn fictional ones mixing it up with political intrigues make David Lee Summers’ The Brazen Shark a steampunk novel not to be missed. Put it at the top of your reading list. Now!”

In the last few months, well-meaning folks have asked if it matters when they buy my book, or in what format. For the most part, the money to me is about the same no matter how you buy it, but this is one of those times it does matter. When you pre-order a book it sends a message to my publisher, Amazon, and really the entire industry if the sales rank goes high enough, that this is a book that matters to you. So, if you were going to buy the ebook and you’re a fan of the series, I hope you will pre-order the book. It’s only about the cost of a grande or venti mocha at Starbucks, and it’ll last longer!

Here are the links to all the books in the series:

And, if you want any of these autographed, I can! There’s a cool, free service called Authorgraph and you can find all my novels there. If you request an autograph through them, they will send me an email and I’ll send you a personalized PDF inscription you can store on your ereader. How cool is that! Request an Authorgraph today!

Now, I know a number of you out there don’t do ebooks and that’s cool. I love print, too! Never fear, the print edition is on its way. A little owl told a friend of mine that it might even be out a little before the February 1 ebook release. I’ll be sure to announce here when the print edition is available.

Gun Frontier

First off, Happy Halloween! I’m in Tucson, Arizona at the TusCon Science Fiction convention this weekend. There are lots of great panels and good people. If you’re in town and free, I hope you’ll drop by. There are details at the link above.

Gun Frontier

This month, I’ve been watching Leiji Matsumoto’s anime series Gun Frontier. It may not seem your usual Halloween fare, but it’s been an interesting way to wind down after days of working on my steampunk novel, The Brazen Shark, which is now back with the editor. I’ll have to admit, the first time I watched an episode of Gun Frontier, I wasn’t impressed. I came across the series in an article about Matsumoto’s famous Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Matsumoto is famous for recycling his characters into different situations to create new shows. In this case, he told a story about Harlock and his best friend, Tochiro, in the old west. This sounded like it would be right up my alley. What I got was a show, that to be honest, was rather crude with offensive humor and nonsensical situations.

So, why did I go back? I realized that Matsumoto was actually doing something in Gun Frontier very similar to what I’m doing in The Brazen Shark. In my novel, I imagine my characters from the western United States visiting Meiji-era Japan. In Gun Frontier, Tochiro is a samurai who has come to the western United States looking for settlers from Japan along with his long lost sister. I had the chance to see what it was like to view the Wild West of my ancestors through the lens of a Japanese writer and artist.

What I found after I watched several episodes was a rather interesting example of an acid western. The term “acid western” was coined fairly recently by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to describe the Johnny Depp western Dead Man. Acid westerns are said to have a hallucinogenic quality with aspects derived from 1960s counterculture, which often includes a more contemporary score. In the traditional western, the west is often viewed as an optimistic place. In the acid western, the west is often seen as an almost nightmarish place. Other examples of acid westerns include Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Gun Frontier shows us a bizarre west. In one town, everyone can do what they want, no matter the consequences. This includes one gentleman perched on a toilet in the middle of the street. In another episode, the town has imposed a limit on the height of the people who can enter. Each of our primary characters has a superpower of sorts. This Harlock is a former sea captain, good with his guns. Tochiro can’t see worth a darn, but he’s an amazing swordsman. They travel with a woman named Sinonora, who uses her sex appeal like a weapon and wastes little time getting out of her clothes in many episodes. The score is Japanese pop, similar to many other anime series of the early 2000s.

I gather the Gun Frontier manga was actually the first time the characters of Harlock and Tochiro appeared in print. It was published in 1972, six years before we would meet Harlock as a space pirate, but only two years after the release of El Topo and a year before the release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It was prime time for the acid western.

What kept the series together and kept me watching was the ongoing quest and the hope that Tochiro would be reunited with his sister. Also, the Harlock and Tochiro of this series are still fundamentally the same characters as their space pirate counterparts and there are some nice scenes where they imagine themselves traveling the stars. Because I enjoyed the characters, I found Gun Frontier more enjoyable than its contemporary acid westerns. I also found it fascinating to see Matsumoto’s portrayal of the west, which looked more like Sergio Leone’s than John Ford’s.

Gun Frontier is crude, nonsensical, sometimes homophobic, but interesting. It’s clearly not a western for everyone but fans of acid westerns and Matsumoto will likely be transported back in time, if not to the old west, at least to the west as it was envisioned in the 1970s.

Red Sun

On April 12, the Tucson Steampunk Society’s book club invited me to discuss my western steampunk novel Lightning Wolves at their monthly meeting. Red_sun_movieposter Many of the book club members pointed to Masuda Hoshi as one of their favorite characters. He’s a former samurai who left Japan to farm green chilies in New Mexico and was inspired by such real life Japanese farmers as Kuniji Tashiro and John Nakayama. Unlike the real life Japanese farmers (as far as I know), Hoshi is hired by the army to track down an outlaw who steals a lightning gun which was being developed to fight the Russian invasion of 1877.

A couple of the book club members suggested I might like the 1972 Western movie Red Sun starring Charles Bronson as an outlaw named Link Stuart who teams up with the samurai Kuroda Jubie, played by Toshiro Mifune, to recover a stolen, golden katana meant as a gift for President Grant. The film was directed by Terence Young, noted for directing several James Bond films including Dr. No and Thunderball.

The movie was a lot of fun, particularly since I’m a fan of both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Although the samurai of the former and the gunmen of the latter aren’t exactly analogs of one another, Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo and Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly share similar traits. So it was great to see them on screen together and playing off each other. The two clearly had a great time.

Red Sun does perpetuate a couple of historical misunderstandings. Perhaps most jarring to me, the movie implied samurai were unfamiliar with firearms. In fact, firearms go all the way back to the 13th century in Japan, and their use became widespread in the 16th when European firearms were introduced.

Also of interest, they referred to the emperor as “the Mikado.” I’m sure fans of Gilbert and Sullivan will recognize the title. It turns out it’s a bit mysterious how the word “Mikado” came into the English language. In fact, the word does not mean “Emperor” as they say in the movie. It refers to the gates of the Imperial Palace. I can easily imagine this mix-up happening between two people not entirely familiar with each others’ languages.

Although not related to samurai or Japanese culture, I was disappointed by the portrayal of the Comanches in the movie. In essence, they’re just like the Orcs of fantasy—agents of chaos, there to cause trouble when trouble needs causing. I would have liked at least a superficial reason for their raids in the movie, but that’s perhaps asking a lot of a 1972 Western.

Despite those issues, the movie has great costuming, wonderful location work, and, as I’ve mentioned already, the interplay between Bronson and Mifune is wonderful to watch.

Speaking of samurai, I’m nearly finished polishing The Brazen Shark, sequel to Lightning Wolves. If all goes as expected, the book will be sent to the publisher before the week is out.


Red Sun Movie Poster” licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of the movie Red Sun. Fair use via Wikipedia.

Women Samurai

This weekend, I’m at the ConDor Science Fiction convention in San Diego, California. Once I get home, I’ll be entering the home stretch on my novel The Brazen Shark, which is the third of my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels. One of the characters I’ve introduced in this novel is Imagawa Masako, a woman samurai who resists the Japanese imperial restoration.

Although somewhat rare, there were several notable women samurai. Typically referred to as “onna-bugeisha,” women warriors came from the bushi class, same as samurai. If a woman showed interest and ability as a warrior, she would be trained just as a man. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that more women were encouraged to become warriors in times of war than in peacetime.

Tomoe Gozen

One notable samurai was Tomoe Gozen who would have lived between about 1157 and 1247. In the “Tale of the Heike” it was written, “Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”

There’s some question whether Tomoe was a real historical figure or not. However, many other characters from the “Tales of the Heiki” are known to have existed. What’s more, there are other documented women who became samurai such as Lady Hangaku and Hōjō Masako, who lent her given name to my samurai character.

Nakano Takeko

Once Japan became unified under the Tokagawa regime, fewer women were encouraged to become samurai, but there still are notable examples even as late as the nineteenth century. One example is Nakano Takebo. She fought in the Boshin War, which was part of the samurai struggle against the Meiji Restoration. She specialized in the naginata, the Japanese version of the polearm, and led a corps of onna-bugeisha. She died during a charge against Imperial Japanese forces. Today during the Aiza Autumn festival, girls wear hakama—the pants worn over kimonos—and white headbands in her honor.

While you’re waiting for The Brazen Shark, be sure to read Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves to get caught up on the story so far!