Review: City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian Poster

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Sometimes a good thing is worth waiting for. Fifty years after the debut of the French space adventure comic series Valérian and Laureline, these intrepid heroes have reached the big screen. Valerian is the creation of writer Pierre Christian and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières. The series has won numerous awards but few people know it in the English-speaking world. Though I haven’t yet read this long running series (it would give Doctor Who a run for its money) judging by the movie, it must be pretty impressive.

Valerian follows the 28th Century adventures of government agent Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner and love interest, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne.) The story’s exotic settings include the giant multi-species space station Alpha and the paradise world of Mul. The film is visually stunning and replete with the usual CGI spectacle. The action is non-stop but well paced, not needlessly frenetic like, for example, J.J. Abram’s recent Star Trek and Star Wars movies.

Though “City of a Thousand Planets” is not the most inspired title, I’m at a loss to think of a better one, except perhaps “Series that Spawned a Thousand Imitators.” As I watched the move, I was struck by the number of elements I’d seen in other sci-fi TV shows and movies, including Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, The Fifth Element, and Babylon Five. Since the Valerian comic series has been around longer than most of them (and almost as long as Star Trek,) we can guess who was plagiarizing whom. The Millenium Falcon, to name just one example, looks an awful lot like Major Valerian’s spaceship.

Overall, the movie was quite enjoyable but no masterpiece. It couldn’t live up to its amazing trailer, which features a pastiche of the movie’s most spectacular images set to the Beatles song “Because.”

The story is interesting, though not terribly original. I correctly predicted many of its plot turns, which is always disappointing. The main characters are likable though their acting is a bit flat at times. In fact, my favorite performance was by pop singer Rihanna as Bubble the shape-shifter. In particular, I found DeHaan’s youthful appearance jarring. He barely looks old enough to drive a car, let alone pilot a spaceship. The movie’s lowest points revolve around the romantic banter between him and Delevingne, which was at times painfully cliché. The action scenes made up for that.

Flaws aside, Valerian is still a must-see for any science fiction buff, especially Star Wars aficionados who loved the originals. I’d rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

Cool Summer Reading


When I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, winter was the best time for reading a good book. Here in Arizona, however, the summer is the miserable season. This June has been a particularly hot one, with the temperature hitting 120. So when you’re lounging around in your air-conditioned house, what’s good to read? You’re in luck because Arlys and I are offering our e-book Professor Ione D. and the Epicurean Incident for FREE on Amazon this coming July and August. And if you happen to be attending Westercon 70 at the Tempe Mission Palms, come see us on our steampunk-related author panels on 11 AM Sunday and 5 PM Monday.


An Auspicious Announcement


Just your average steampunk couple

This coming weekend, Arlys and I will be appearing on two steampunk-related panels at Westercon 70 at the Mission Palms Resort in Tempe, Arizona. To celebrate, we are offering a special promotion for our new e-book, Professor Ione D. and the Epicurean Incident. This is the newest our series of steampunk adventures featuring our feisty heroine as she attends the First Epicurean Exhibition in London. This e-book will be available for download absolutely FREE on Sunday and Monday, July 2nd and 3rd. We make only one request: if you enjoy this book, please leave a review on Amazon. Even a sentence or two would be great. It would help us generate publicity and we would very much appreciate it. (Link)

Panels featuring Yours Truly are as follows:

“The Future of Steampunk in Writing,” with David Lee Summers
Sunday 11 AM -12 noon
David Lee Summers has written over a dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, including the “Clockwork Legion” series of Western-themed steampunk.

“Steampunk before it was Steampunk,” with Katherine Stewart.
A discussion of “proto-steampunk” in books and media before the term was coined.
Monday 5-6 PM

We hope to see you there!


Ione D: Birth of a Steampunk Heroine

Professor Ione D

Angelique Endres as Professor Ione D.

Ione D began with an effort by my then-girlfriend Arlys to promote my new steampunk novel, Fidelio’s Automata. She conceived of the character as a young Victorian-era girl who would travel to places mentioned in the book and write about aspects of the local culture, especially the cuisine. Her “Ione D” Facebook posts featured photos of the meals she prepared featuring Cuban, French, Western, and Native American dishes. The name was an homage to her parents, Ione being her mother’s middle name and Dee being her father’s. To create a face for the character, Arlys photographed her daughter Arlys Angelique in steampunk regalia of her own design.

I found the character to be so charming that I decided we would write a novel to give Ione D her own adventures. First was the matter of backstory: Ione would be the daughter of a US ambassador living in London, which would allow her to be a world traveler at an early age. Her mother is French and provides the impetus for her interest in cooking. Then there was the matter of the surname, which Arlys had envisioned as the initial “D” only. I discovered that there is a Welsh river which is called Dee by the English and Dfrdwy (differ-dwee) by the Welsh. Although most Welsh people have English family names, we decided that Ione’s Welsh-American father would be an exception, and take his difficult-to-pronounce name from that river.

I had always intended to list Arlys as my co-author, since she created the character, and gave her veto power over the character’s actions. To my delight she embraced an equal role in the writing, tirelessly editing and rewriting the manuscripts. Though the story lines and settings are mostly of my creation, Arlys has written a significant portion of the dialog, and she’s conceived many of the scenes that appear in the Ione D books. Without her participation, these stories would not be half as good as they are. She keeps me from going off into boring explanations and exposition and provides the woman’s perspective that we need to successfully write a first-person female character.

Epicurean Incident was my idea for the first book, but it proved to be more challenging than I’d expected. First of all, it is based on a cooking contest, something that’s largely outside my area of expertise. We re-wrote the original draft several times. In the interim, I stumbled upon a sci-fi folk tale competition and decided to write a short story in which Ione encountered magical artifacts in ancient ruins. By the time I was halfway done with this, I realized I’d misunderstood the contest parameters, and that what we had written didn’t fit them at all. That didn’t matter, because Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel, a novella featuring the adventures of a 19-year old Ione in Guatemala, had captured our heart. It became the first published Ione D book, predating Epicurean Incident, which is set in 1901, when Ione (born 7/7/1877) is 24 years old and the youngest female college professor in America.

Once Mayan Marvel was finished, we returned to the matter of finishing Epicurean Incident. One factor that helped us was watching the popular anime Food Wars, which features teenagers competing for dominance in an elite cooking school in Japan. It convinced us that a story line involving cooking could have an audience. We also decided to make it a murder mystery, which provided an additional challenge. The original story was too linear, containing none of the misdirections that a mystery novel requires. We needed to learn to think a bit more deviously.

Now that Epicurean Incident is completed and posted to Amazon’s Kindle Direct, we can’t help but look forward to Ione’s next adventure, this time on the island of Crete. Ione is intelligent, spunky, and kind, but not infallible. She does not hesitate to speak her mind, but she is often indecisive in matters of love.

Search “Vaughn Treude” on Ione’s new adventure should be available shortly. It’s a great read for young adult and other age groups.


Starchild of a Hipper God

Review, Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot

Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) a.k.a. Trash Panda

Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another Marvel Comics series that has been made into a popular movie franchise. Like the first, it features Chris Pratt as Earth-born star pilot Peter Quill and Zoe Saldana (is she in every sci-fi action movie?) as his green-skinned kick-ass love interest. It’s a lot like the first installment of Guardians, lots of fun and non-stop humor. There are the same classic cliché space opera characters in the same over-the-top action sequences. The biggest change is that the walking tree alien Groot is now Baby Groot, who can be insufferably cute at times.

It’s not quite as cool as the original, though sequels seldom are. The uber-powerful alien-as-god plot has been done before, notably in the Star Trek franchise, and Kurt Russell does a bang-up job as Ego, Quill’s long-lost father. The animation is spectacular, but these days, that’s to be expected. The only drawback is that it will be difficult to top that in the inevitable next movie.

The best thing about Guardians is that there is no overt political message unless the monomaniacal Ego is supposed to remind us of the “Hitler of the week” – there are so many to choose from! The gold-skinned Sovereigns, probably the film’s most original concept, seem to be a good swipe at the self-righteous elitist-type, whoever you conceive them to be.

As usual, the best characters are the (ostensibly) bad ones, and my biggest complaint is that my favorite one gets killed off at the end. This is the occasion for one of the most over-the-top schmaltzy space funeral scenes ever.

I was never bored, even during the tearjerker part, and the only time I said “WTF” to myself was the scene in which Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) creates a detonator with an “immediate destruct” button that Baby Groot MUST NOT PUSH. It’s a very funny scene with a really weak premise.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie and would recommend it to sci-fi and comic book fans. On the other hand, there’s nothing outstanding that makes it a “must see.” It stands out mainly against a background of the boring hyper-focus-grouped junk that the studios are churning out. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

For adventures of the terrestrial kind check out Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel, now available in paperback!

The Great Glass House


London’s Crystal Palace, 1854

The Crystal Palace was one of the signature landmarks of Victorian London. It was built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, which showcased many of the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. After the Exhibition ended it was moved to a park on Sydenham Hill and remained there until it was destroyed by fire in 1936.


The famous dinosaurs!

Besides the Palace, the park featured the famous Hawkins dinosaur statues, which were among the first scholarly recreations of those prehistoric creatures. Of course, many of their conceptions were spectacularly wrong. Unlike the Palace, these statues remain and were extensively restored in 2002.

At the time, the Crystal Palace was the largest glass-walled structure in the world. It must have been a beautiful sight illuminated from within on a foggy London night. Photographs of its interior show it was big enough to enclose living trees. This reminded me of visits to Biosphere 2 in southern Arizona, another large glass structure, and I wondered how the two compared. According to Wikipedia, the Crystal Palace had 772,784 square feet on the ground floor alone. I didn’t take the time to find accurate specs for the biosphere, but an article I found on the design site Curbed estimates it as 2.5 times the size of a football field. If that includes the end zones, that would be 142,000, or less than one-fifth the size of the Palace. That would make the Victorian edifice impressive even by today’s standards.


Arizona’s teeny-tiny Biosphere 2

Therefore, the Crystal Palace seemed like the perfect place for Arlys and I to use as the backdrop for our fictional First Royal Epicurean Exhibition in our upcoming Ione D novel. It makes the perfect backdrop for old-fashioned intrigue and mayhem. Too bad it’s not around anymore! Watch this site for updates and previews of future Ione D and other steampunk adventures, including a sequel to my 2015 novel Fidelio’s Automata.

Photographs from Wikimedia commons.


The Glory of Retro Design


A vintage cover: The Rover Boys On Land and Sea, by Arthur M. Winfield, 1903.

While doing a web search for steampunk art, I came upon a site which displayed a number of pre-made covers for sale to independent authors. I can’t criticize their quality, as they featured high-res photos of attractive models in top hats, goggles, and bustiers. As good-looking as these designs were, they were too modern. They didn’t seem appropriate for a genre that celebrates the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. That kind of cover says 21st Century, not the Victorian era. That’s why I favor custom covers, in an attempt to simulate the look of an old-fashioned leather-bound volume. I contracted out the designs for the covers of my first two books, but for Ione D, I tackled the job myself. Though I’m no artist, I’m good at the Gimp (the Linux equivalent of Photoshop), so thank Cthullu for my collection of antique books whose copyrights have passed into the public domain. For Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel, I adapted a 1918 German-language Artsongbook which I inherited from my grandfather. The attached image is we’d call a “young adult” novel, published in 1903, which I plan to use as the model for the cover of Professor Ione D. and the Epicurean Incident. Watch this site for updates and previews of future Ione D and Fidelio releases.

Steampunk Fashion Extravaganza


Brittney Reed as Professor Ione D’s childhood friend, Mrs. Emma Farrington

My co-author Arlys once again proved her creativity and fashion sense in a steampunk photo shoot held at our house this weekend. In the above photo, Brittney Reed portrays Ione D’s best friend, Emma Farrington, from the upcoming second book in the series. Titled Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident, the story revolves around Ione’s visit to the First Royal Epicurean Exhibition in post-Victorian London. A number of mysterious mishaps arouse the suspicions of our intrepid heroines. Are nefarious parties conspiring to disrupt King Edward’s culinary initiative, or is it just bad luck?


Arlys’ character-based photography sessions have been a fun and imaginative way to create graphics for our book covers and publicity releases, as well as provide guidelines for our artists’ illustrations. Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident is tentatively scheduled for publication next Victoria Day, May 24, 2017. Watch this site for updates and previews.



Coming Soon: a New Ione D Adventure

Ione D in Steampunk Hat

Arlys Endres as Professor Ione D

While we prepare the Mayan Marvel paperback for production, my multi-talented co-author Arlys has been preparing for the second book in the series, Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident. Its publication is tentatively scheduled for Queen Victoria’s 198th birthday, May 24, 2017. Here we see our model Arlys Endres playing the globe-trotting young Professor, Ione Dyfrdwy. This time, we’re getting a jump on getting the illustrations for the novel ready ahead of time. We’ll be keeping you informed of our progress.


Spike Jonze’s “Her” – Sex with Siri and the Singularity for SJW’s

The movie Her, directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer program, was released in 2013. The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Somehow I missed seeing it until this week. Though it’s not a new release, as a life-long software engineer, I felt compelled to comment.

I’m conflicted about the idea of a sentient computer program. Knowing how complicated and error prone software can be, it seems unlikely at best. Possible, yes, since the brain is a biological computer. Yet I don’t believe this will happen in the near future, as the movie portrays it.

The biggest problem for me was not the concept, but its implementation. I really don’t understand why people liked Her so much. My theory is that, like that other 2013 release, Twelve Years a Slave, it was a movie people felt obliged to like. Except that Slave was dramatic and compelling, Her was slow, ponderous, and mawkishly emotional.

The first problem was the protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombley. He’s the ultimate gamma male, a pathetic loser who apologizes to everyone. Appropriately enough, his job is writing heartfelt letters for other people a la Cyrano de Bergerac. To help provide order to his foundering life, Theodore purchases an “operating system” (actually an artificial intelligence) called OS-1, for which he chooses a female voice and personality. It begins as an advanced analog of Siri or Alexa but, sensing its owner’s loneliness, it names itself Samantha and adopts a flirtatious persona. It’s not surprising that the pathetic Theodore falls for Samantha, but “she” soon falls for him as well, like a modern Galatea to his Pygmalion. With no Aphprodite to bring her to life, Samatha communicates with Theodore and experiences the world through his cell phone.

As the “relationship” progresses, Theodore tells friends and coworkers about “her.” Everyone accepts this bizarre situation without question – except, to her credit, Theodore’s ex-wife. The movie seems to prophesy the current transgender mania, with its inherent contempt for social convention and the limitations of the physical body.

Voice actor Scarlett Johannson does a competent job as Samantha, who is fun-loving, curious, and affectionate. In one scene, she and Theodore have verbal sex, whereupon the screen goes blank for a moment. I thought my disc player had broken, but then realized that Jonze probably meant for the audience to imagine the event. The obvious solution, virtual reality, is mentioned as a way to play video games but nothing more. Samantha could have at least had an appearance for Theodore to fixate on. VR sex would have been more realistic than the ludicrous scene in which they enlist a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to play Samantha’s role in their assignation. No doubt because of the movie’s relentless political correctness, the surrogate is not paid (which would imply prostitution) but a volunteer. Rather than enjoying the experience, the hapless Theodore feels awkward and guilty about cheating on his “girlfriend,” and the surrogate leaves in tears.

The final insult to our intelligence is how the movie ends. In a nod to the sci-fi concept of “the Singularity,” Samantha hooks up with other OS-based personalities who then collectively “evolve” to a point where they no longer want to deal with humans. Thus they bid farewell to their reality-bound companions and disappear. Nobody worries about what these super-intelligent beings are plotting – will they control the world or destroy humanity? No, we only see the emotional consequences for poor Theodore. In a more realistic scenario, he and his fellow jilted OS owners would have sued the software company that produced such defective products into bankruptcy.

In summary, Her might be enjoyable for those with a taste for unconventional romance, but I found it dull and disappointing. If you want a serious look at the potential of artificial intelligence in the near future, look elsewhere.

If you enjoy stories about computers, you’ll like my novel Centrifugal Force, available on Amazon.