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:

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End Game and New Beginnings

I’m currently working on the final chapters of my collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. This book collects space pirate stories that have appeared in numerous anthologies over the years alongside several new stories. The whole collection is an arc of related stories, so the book may be read as an episodic novel. I’ve been sharing the new and revised stories with my Patreon subscribers since September 2017.

Based on my current outline, I have about three stories to go to bring events up to the beginning of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro and to bring the collection up to the length I want. I will release the first story of the final three to my Patreon subscribers on Thursday, July 26.

My approach to Patreon has been pretty simple. I only have one tier and it only costs $1.00 per month to subscribe. Of course, patrons are welcome to pay more per month if they feel sufficiently moved by my work to support me at a higher level. My first goal is to use this money to pay the costs associated with publishing Firebrandt’s Legacy. My second goal is to print new editions of the other related books including The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. Patreon support has already helped me publish the new edition of The Solar Sea, which is a prequel to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series that tells the story of how humans became a space faring society. I shared a free download of the ebook with all my Patreon subscribers. Patreon support also helps support this blog and helps support my travel to conventions where I give both writing and science presentations.

For the duration of Firebrandt’s Legacy, I have been posting at least one new or revised story to the site per month along with a “Behind the Scenes” look at where the story first appeared (if it had been previously published) and what influenced me to write the story. Of course, I plan to share a free download of the complete ebook to all my Patreon subscribers when it’s complete.

Now that I’m about to finish Firebrandt’s Legacy, I’m thinking about the best way to share my progress revising The Pirates of Sufiro for a new edition. I expect that I’ll be heavily revising this novel for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that this was my very first novel and I’ve learned a lot since I first published it. I’ve also received a lot of feedback on the novel over the years and plan to take those comments into account. Sharing “reedited chapters” may not sound like much value to anyone who has already read the book and people may wonder why they should subscribe instead of just buying a cheap used copy of the book.

My current plan is that when I start The Pirates of Sufiro, instead of doing the “Behind the Scenes” segments, I’ll share the chapter as it appeared in the most recent edition, perhaps along with some notes about the inspirations and the origins of the ideas. I’ll wait a couple of weeks, then present the revised chapter, so people can see what I’m doing with this edit. In both cases, I’m delighted for people to comment on what I’m doing as the project progresses.

To prepare for this transition, I’ve recorded a brief intro video and posted it to my Patreon site. Also, I have made two of the Firebrandt’s Legacy stories/chapters available for anyone to read whether or not they’re a patron. They’re the first chapter, “For a Job Well Done”, and Chapter Twelve, “Calamari Rodeo.” I encourage you to drop over to the site, watch the intro video and read the two free stories. If you like these characters, please sign on as a patron. My Patreon site is: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

One last thing before signing off. Speaking of used copies of The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth, Hadrosaur Productions is running an auction at eBay for the last complete set of the LBF/Hadrosaur editions of the Old Star Saga in their stock. Drop by and place a bid at eBay!

Valerian and Laureline

While learning more about the movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec directed by Luc Besson and the comic of the same name by Jacques Tardi, I stumbled across another French comic which was recently adapted by Besson. The comic is Valérian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. The movie, called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, completely slipped under my radar. Because I love a good space opera, I immediately set out to see the movie and read some issues of the comic.

The comic started its run in November 1967. To put it in context, the original Star Trek was still on the air in the United States and Patrick Troughton was playing the title character of Doctor Who in England. It’s pure pulp action Sci Fi, reminding me most of Buck Rogers with a touch of Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure. The artwork, particularly in the first two installments, looks like it’s inspired by Mad Magazine and there is a definite satirical edge to the stories. The characters of Valérian and Laureline also remind me a little of Jamie and Zoe, the Doctor’s traveling companions at the time, but with some of their personality traits mixed up. Laureline, like Jamie McCrimmon, is from the past and doesn’t always want to follow the rules. Valérian, like Zoe, thinks highly of himself, and seems to need rescuing from time to time. I’m not convinced these similarities are deliberate. I suspect there’s an element of the zeitgeist of the period in these passing resemblances.

Fans of Valérian and Laureline are also fast to point out many similarities between the French comic and Star Wars which would come out a decade later. I gather George Lucas has acknowledged the French comic’s influence on the look of his world.

Jumping ahead to the movie, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a gem. It captured the spirit of the comic very well and I thought presented a dandy and cohesive story with some cool science fictional ideas that made valid commentary on what can happen when indigenous peoples find themselves caught between two civilizations at war. Valerian and Laureline themselves are introduced during a special ops mission at a market that exists in a different dimension from our own. I loved the way that concept was portrayed on screen.

I enjoyed the performances of Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. They’re not your usual Hollywood romantic couple. In fact, they seemed just a little uncomfortable with this whole romance thing, but it worked for me because that’s the way romance often works in real life. It’s figuring out how you each work, and not having the writer put phrases in your mouth that the other party has to be a moron to misunderstand and pout about until they make up. The film also features a truly outstanding performance by Rihanna as an alien called Bubble. I also loved the cameos by Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer.

As a bonus, I’ve discovered that about ten years ago, Valerian and Laureline was turned into a French-Japanese co-produced anime. From what I’ve seen so far, the anime’s story diverges from the comic’s, but it still looks fun. I definitely need to watch a few more episodes.

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good space opera. If you want to see my serialized space opera story, please drop by my Patreon site. You can read the first story of my Firebrandt’s Legacy for free. If you pledge just one dollar, you can read nine more stories right now. If you remain a patron, you’ll get each new story as its released. Stop by and check out Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

The Orville

Last week, I watched the first season of Seth MacFarlane’s new series, The Orville, with my daughter who’s home from college. Marketed as a science fiction comedy in the vein of Galaxy Quest, I find that the show is, in many ways, a true successor to Star Trek.

The premise of the show is that Captain Ed Mercer, played by MacFarlane, has just been given command of a mid-size exploratory vessel. To his chagrin, his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki serves as his first officer. Other members of the crew include Lt. Commander Bortus, the Klingon-like second officer from the Planet Moclan, Lt. Alara Kitan, the hyper-strong but young security chief from the planet Xelaya, and Lt. Gordon Malloy, Ed’s wisecracking friend who serves as the ship’s helmsman.

The first couple of episodes focused more on the humor, but as the show progressed it became decidedly more like classic Star Trek exploring themes of gender, religion, and the role of social media in society. It’s even taken on some interesting science fictional ideas such as what exploring other dimensions would mean, our interactions with life forms both more advanced and more primitive, and time travel.

Overall, the show’s exploration of science fiction themes works. This is perhaps no surprise since there’s a strong overlap of production staff not only with some of the Star Trek series, but with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. Although the show keeps its humor low-key, it’s still an integral part of the presentation. It keeps the show light and avoids it taking itself too seriously. That said, my most serious complaint about the show is that its humor is tied very strongly to 21st century pop-culture references. In a show set in the 24th century that is pretty decent at its science fiction, it feels a little jarring. It’s as though me and all my friends were experts in the 1600s and only read books and watched plays from that era. Okay, as an avowed Steampunk there is, perhaps, some feeling of truth in this portrayal, but I think you get what I mean!

I find I don’t always agree with the positions Seth MacFarlane and the producers present in the show, but that’s fine. He presents them in a thoughtful way that doesn’t put me off, which allows me to evaluate my own positions. In fact, he doesn’t always give us easy answers at the end of an episode or imply that what the crew did was the best choice. In this way, The Orville really does what science fiction does best: help us look at our own time with a critical eye.

As it turns out, I don’t have cable. I gave it up as an unneeded luxury back in 2001. I decided to buy the first season of The Orville on iTunes after watching those episodes that were available for free on Fox’s website. I will note that I still haven’t watched Star Trek: Discovery. Here’s the key difference: Fox allowed me to sample some episodes for free (albeit with commercials), and then gave me a means to subscribe to the series for a reasonable cost. CBS All Access, where Discovery runs will only allow me to subscribe to the channel and won’t even let me sample the series without a subscription that includes a whole lot of content I really don’t want. That’s why I gave up cable back in 2001!

I’m currently on Patreon raising funds for my collection of space pirate stories, Firebrandt’s Legacy. Like The Orville, I endeavor to mix some light-hearted humor with good science fiction to provide an entertaining mix. You can read the first story in the collection with absolutely no commitment right here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/chapter-one-for-14391922. If you like what you read, you can subscribe for any amount you like at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. In exchange for your patronage, you get to see each story in the collection as it’s written or reedited. I share behind the scenes information about the stories, and I’ll give you a “thank you” in the finished book.

What’s Opera, Harlock?

Like many Americans of my age, my education in opera came from the wonderful 1957 Bugs Bunny short, “What’s Opera, Doc?” In the short, Bugs and Elmer Fudd satirize pieces from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen among other operas.

It turns out, Bugs and Elmer aren’t the only characters from animation to take on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In 1999, Leiji Matsumoto made an adaptation of Das Rheingold featuring Captain Harlock and the crew of the Arcadia called Harlock Saga. In this case, they don’t sing, but act out a loose, science fictional adaptation of the opera. I gather Matsumoto took the idea further in print and there are manga adaptations of Die Walküre and Siegfried as well as Der Rheingold.

In a way, bringing a character like Harlock into an opera closes a loop of sorts. Of course, Captain Harlock is a classic “space opera” character. So, what does “space opera” have to do with plain ol’ opera? To answer that, one has to go back to the original genre opera—the “horse opera.” The term “horse opera” goes all the way back to wild west shows of the nineteenth century. In that case, there’s a good chance that the term was a reference to the big spectacle that those shows represented.

By the time we get to the early twentieth century, the term “horse opera” began to be applied to movies we’d just call Westerns today. In fact, early Western star William Hart was called “the Caruso of the horse opera” in 1917. The term then migrated to western stories broadcast on the radio. When romance stories started on the radio, many sponsored by soap companies, they picked up the moniker “soap opera.” The term “space opera” started being applied to science fiction stories soon after that.

Today, when we speak of space opera, we tend to think of science fiction stories told on a grand scale, featuring larger-than-life characters, engaging in epic quests. In that sense, space opera is much the same kind of spectacle as, well, opera.

Lest one speak poorly of cartoons, I’ll note that “What’s Opera, Doc” and Harlock Saga have inspired my wife and I to finally watch Der Ring des Niberlungen. It’s definitely big and epic like a space opera. It’s also got its share of illicit romance, not unlike a soap opera. Of course, there’s the great music. Hours and hours of it. Der Ring des Niberlungen runs to some fifteen hours.

While I’m on the subject of space opera, today marks the relaunch of my space opera saga, now christened “The Space Pirates’ Legacy.” Click on the button below to visit my Patreon page and see the awesome cover Laura Givens created for the first book in the series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you become a Patron (and you can do so for just $1 a month), you’ll be able to read the book’s first story today. It first appeared in the collection Space Pirates, but I’ve given it a thorough edit to better line up with later stories in the book. My goal is that patrons will get to read at least one new story a month. If I get enough patrons, I’ll make sure they all get a copy of the complete book upon release. Click the button and get all the details right now.

Clearing the Decks

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of my first novel’s release. Looking back, The Pirates of Sufiro was an ambitious idea for a novel. It’s a generational tale about space pirates stranded on a distant world and those who came along afterward who joined and opposed them. The novel went on to spawn two sequels, Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth. I cut my teeth as a writer on those books and feel like my skills grew as I wrote them.

As I mentioned in a post back in May, the publishing rights for all three novels have reverted to me. There are parts of these novels I love and parts I’d love an opportunity to revise. I plan to start that journey next week and I’ll say more about that at the end of the post. In the meantime, I’m clearing out copies of the most recent editions of the novels. Why would you pick these up if I’m creating new editions? For one thing, these editions feature illustrations by Laura Givens which cannot appear in the new editions. If Laura creates illustrations for the new editions, they will be different. It’s a great price—I’m offering these at half off the cover price. Also, I’m happy to sign the books. Just drop an email to me at hadrosaur[at]zianet[dot]com when you order and let me know you’d like the books signed and to whom.

The Pirates of Sufiro is the story of a planet and its people—of Ellison Firebrandt the pirate captain living in exile; of Espedie Raton, the con-man looking to make a fresh start for himself and his wife on a new world; of Peter Stone, the ruthless bank executive who discovers a fortune and will do anything to keep it; and of the lawman, Edmund Ray Swan who travels to Sufiro seeking the quiet life but finds a dark secret. It is the story of privateers, farmers, miners, entrepreneurs, and soldiers—all caught up in dramatic events and violent conflicts that will shape the destiny of our galaxy. You can order The Pirates of Sufiro at half price by visiting: http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#pirates

In Children of the Old Stars, the Cluster is a vast alien machine that destroys starships indiscriminately in its quest for something or someone. Commander John Mark Ellis, disgraced and booted out of the service when he fails to save a merchant ship, believes the key to stopping the Cluster is communication. His mother, Suki Firebrandt Ellis is a historian who believes the very leaders of the galaxy are withholding information about the Cluster. Clyde McClintlock believes the Cluster is God incarnate, seeking retribution. G’Liat is an alien warrior whose own starship was destroyed by the Cluster. All together, they set out to solve the mystery of the Cluster before it finds the object of its quest. You can order Children of the Old Stars at half price by visiting: http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#children

In Heirs of the New Earth, the Earth has gone silent. John Mark Ellis and the crew of the Sanson are sent to investigate. When they arrive, they find vast alien machines known as Clusters in orbit. Fearing the worst, they land and discover that the once overcrowded, polluted Earth has become a paradise of sorts. The problem is over half the population is dead or missing and the planet’s leaders don’t seem to care. As Ellis works to unravel the mystery, sudden gravitational shifts from the galaxy’s center indicate something even worse is in the offing. Can Ellis save the galaxy from the heirs of the new Earth? You can order Heirs of the New Earth at half price by visiting: http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#heirs

Now onto the next chapter in this grand adventure. About ten years after I released The Pirates of Sufiro, I started writing stories about the good captain’s adventures before he was stranded on Sufiro. I’m in the process of collecting all those stories into a book called Firebrandt’s Legacy. On Monday, I invite you to drop by my brand, spanking new Patreon page at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers to see the awesome cover for the new book. Patrons will be able to read the first story on Monday. Even though several of the stories have already been published, they’re each getting a brand new edit and there will be new, unpublished tales along the way. I hope you’ll join me for this exciting, swashbuckling journey!

Flash Gordon Zeitgeist

Earlier this year, at Wild Wild West Con, I had the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones who played the title character in the campy 1980 film Flash Gordon. At the time, I bought a beautiful poster based on the movie illustrated by comic book legend Alex Ross. The poster was quite nice and made me curious what other Flash Gordon illustrations Alex Ross had done. That led me to discover the comic Flash Gordon Zeitgeist, which was published in 2013 by Dynamite Entertainment. Alex Ross served as art director and illustrated many of the covers. The series was written by Eric Trautmann and the interior art was by Daniel Indro.

This version of the Flash Gordon story endeavors to combine the best parts of the 1980 movie and the 1979 animated film Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. This version is set in 1934 as World War II is getting off the ground. The Earth is being subjected to natural disasters and Dr. Zarkov believes he’s found the source. Yale-educated Polo player Flash Gordon is on a mission to find the good doctor. A plane accident strands him and cartographer Dale Arden on Zarkov’s doorstep. From there the story proceeds in a familiar direction. Zarkov, Gordon, and Arden climb aboard his rocket ship and blast off to the planet Mongo to face all manner of strange creatures along with Ming the Merciless.

In this version, as with the 1979 cartoon version, Ming is using Hitler as a puppet to aid his conquest of the Earth. A new element is that a faction from Mongo has traveled to Earth and is working to stop Hitler.

There are several elements I quite like in this version of Flash Gordon. I liked the historical setting and the whole connection to World War II. In this version, Mongo is in a different universe and Ming’s plans are being executed using beams that allow him to connect his universe to ours. There’s a nice sequence where Flash goes through some of his early gladiatorial contests on Mongo and reflects back on his athletic and academic career, seeing this as a next step in his life. Flash has never been a particularly deep character, but this little extra piece of character building was a nice touch. We get some good background on Dr. Zarkov. The machinations of General Klytus and Princess Aura were fun to watch as they worked to unseat Ming from the throne and gain it for themselves.

I did feel this version suffered from some uneven pacing. That said, I’ve always imagined that pacing comic books must be a real challenge because of the protracted release schedule. Even so, some plot lines seemed to resolve very quickly, while others were given time to breathe and develop. As happens too often in versions of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden doesn’t get much to do. Making her a cartographer was a great and interesting choice. She also has an awesome ending to her story arc in this version, but in between, she mostly serves as the eyes for Dr. Zarkov. Dale Arden deserved better, but at this point, I think the best written version of Dale is in the 1980 movie where she actually gets to do (a little) more than fawn over Flash.

Comparing all these different versions of Flash Gordon has actually been a rather interesting exercise. Alex Raymond’s original comic strip was arguably one of the earliest, popular space operas and studying what works and doesn’t work in different versions helps me think about my updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series which I hope to start working on later this year. That series was always intended to have a certain “retro-future” appeal, heroes who were larger than life, and both men and women with more than a little sex appeal.

If you want to check out Flash Gordon Zeitgeist while waiting for the updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series, a graphic novel edition is available in print. Ebook editions are available through Amazon and Comixology. Unfortunately, the 1979 animated Flash Gordon was never released on video, but I found it on YouTube, just search for “Flash Gordon Filmation” and you should find it.