Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Narnia fanfic inexplicably gets media excited

News broke today that a man has written some Chronicles of Narnia fanfic and, for some reason, this was deemed worthy of inclusion in numerous newspaper and online articles.

From a Guardian article last year.

Fanfic, short for "fanfiction," is the form where fans of a fictional work take it upon themselves to write stories in the same setting and featuring the same characters. These works are, by definition, unauthorised and the writers cannot sell or make money from these stories without engaging in copyright violation.

The attitude of authors to fanfic based on their works varies immensely: George R.R. Martin disapproves, but generally doesn't make too much of a fuss as long as fanfic is not sent to him. J.K. Rowling is somewhat more supportive of the concept. Some authors are a lot more enthusiastic and even host fanfic on their website, although this becomes legally dubious if the author later makes story decisions in the "official" material that echoes the fanfic.

In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia, the situation is both less and more clear: C.S. Lewis died in 1963, so is not around to make any judgements of his own on the matter. The Lewis Estate has resisted anyone writing "official" new Narnia material, but has been happy to authorise various adaptations for television and film, with Netflix being the latest studio to pick up the rights and begin development work of a new version of the story. Curiously, around the time the first Narnia feature film was released in 2005, the Estate did suggest that new books would be released as well, but nothing ever materialised.

The fanfic in question is called The Stone Table and takes place between the events of The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, explaining what happened to the rulers of Narnia and the castle of Cair Paravel prior to the events of the latter novel. This is a fertile area for exploration - and the title and premise feel potentially like Lewis inventions - and indeed this period has been discussed many times by Narnia fans over the years.

Francis Spufford - who has previously published exactly one novel (Golden Hill, in 2016, which won the Costa Book Award) - wrote the fanfic for his daughter, who had complained that her father had not written any books she felt like she could read (Spufford has mostly written non-fiction on adult subjects). Spufford spent three years working on the fanfic, which is apparently novel-length, which is not an inconsiderable time period for one fic.

Oddly, Spufford has declined to post the work through any of the established fanfic communities, instead only releasing the first couple of chapters at the urging of friends who have read the full book. Distinguished SF author Adam Roberts has acclaimed the book as being excellent and a worthy addition to the Narnia canon, which is a nice compliment. However, given that the only person who can make that determination is near sixty years dead, it's not particularly germane.

Spufford has apparently now reached out to the Lewis Estate to see if the book can see print in some fashion with their approval. If not, he'll apparently wait the fifteen years until the books leave copyright and publish then, which feels like an odd choice to make when there are plenty of fanfic communities who would be happy to release the book and critique it immediately, for free.

Or, of course, he could follow in the footsteps of the great fanfic trailblazer and innovator E.L. James, change a few names to create a new setting and cash in straight away.

Filming starts on the new DUNE movie

Shooting began yesterday on the new film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, the biggest-selling work in science fiction history.

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is directing the first of what he hopes will be two movies to adapt the first of the six canonical novels in the Dune series. Dune has been previously adapted twice, for film by David Lynch in 1984 and for television by the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) in 2000.

The announced cast of Dune is as follows:

  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
  • Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides
  • Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho
  • Chen Chang as Dr. Wellington Yueh
  • Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
  • Javier Bardem as Stilgar
  • Zendaya as Chani
  • Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
  • Dave Bautista as Rabban
  • Dave Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson (role not confirmed yet)
Several key roles remain to be filled, including Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, the mentat Thufir Hawat, the Shadout Mapes, Liet Kynes, Count Hasimir Fenring, and the Emperor Shaddam IV, along (possibly) with Princess Irulan.

In addition to Villeneuve directing, it has been confirmed that Hans Zimmer will be scoring the movie. Greig Fraser (Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty) is director of photography and Patrice Vermette (Arrival, Sicario) is the production designer.

The movie is currently scheduled to hit cinemas on 20 November 2020.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

SF&F Questions: What works are part of the Middle-earth canon?

There are few words that strike fear deeper into the hearts of long-established fantasy fans and critics when someone starts asking about “the Middle-earth canon” and “what books are canon?” It’s a simple question, but the answer is long, complex and confusing.

What is a Canon?

In this sense, a canon is the definitive “official” version of what happened in a particular story, world or narrative created by an author. In very simplistic terms, the Harry Potter canon, for example, consists of the seven novels written by J.K. Rowling and other elements that she either wrote or approved of, such as the Pottermore website, spin-off books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Cursed Child stage play. Fanfiction is clearly non-canon and the films represent a separate canon, as they are an adaptation of the book canon rather than a formal addition to it.

The definition of canon can also change. For example, when George Lucas created the film Star Wars in 1977 and then its sequels, he held that only the films were canon and nothing else was: the spin-off novels and comic books written by third parties were not canon and he would not be bound by their events and in most cases did not read them. However, by the late 1980s he had come to believe a single Star Wars canon was more desirable and he hired people to ensure consistency and continuity between all officially-authorised Star Wars products, including novels, video games and comic books. This scheme became known as the “Star Wars Expanded Universe,” with the idea being that if someone just wanted to watch the films that was fine, but if they wanted to delve deeper into the setting, they could find a huge amount of official, canonical material, information and new stories. When Lucas wrote the Star Wars prequel movie trilogy in 1999-2005, he used planets, races, terms, concepts and characters created in prior Expanded Universe work in the films. However, when Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney in 2012, Disney decided that maintaining the Expanded Universe and keeping it coherent with the new films they were planning was impossible, and they declared that none of the material outside of the films and the animated series were canon (to the fury of many fans).

The definition can also be argued. Frank Herbert published his hugely popular Dune series of science fiction novels between 1965 and 1986 before dying unexpectedly. He left behind a very small number of notes and outlines for a possible continuation of the series, leading to his son co-writing and publishing an enormous number of additional books in the setting. The canonical status of these latter books has been hotly debated, especially since it became clear that the depth and detail of Frank Herbert’s notes had been grossly exaggerated.

Tolkien’s Works

In most cases determining which works are canon and which are not is relatively easy, especially if the author is still alive to simply answer questions on this topic. In the case of J.R.R. Tolkien, this is of course sadly impossible, as he passed away in 1973. The complexities of the determining the Tolkien canon are considerably complicated by the fact that Tolkien only published two major (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and two minor (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On) Middle-earth works whilst he was alive. After his death, his third son and literary executor Christopher sifted through his files to arrange the publication of The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980), The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017), The Fall of Gondolin (2018), and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series (1983-96). However, the publication of the latter series, which effectively presented some 5,000 Tolkien manuscript pages written over fifty-six years, meant that readers could make their own decisions over Christopher’s choices in assembling The Silmarillion and in some cases found them wanting, particularly regarding those papers and notes which came to light only after The Silmarillion’s publication, which in some cases Christopher acknowledged would have resulted in changes to the book if he’d known about them beforehand.

For this reason, a simple determination of the Middle-earth canon is extremely difficult and debatable. This is further complicated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own willingness to adjust even published books to reflect later decisions. Most famously, he rewrote the chapter in The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins confronts Gollum and finds the One Ring from its original, light-hearted style and tone to better reflect the darker and more sinister atmosphere of Lord of the Rings, and this appeared in a second edition of the book published in 1951. Certainly, some of the changes to The Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien was considering in the closing years of his life would have resulted in inconsistencies and incompatibilities with the published Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, suggesting that he may have produced third editions of both novels with revisions to take account of these developments. Thus, the reliance on a “fixed text” that canon usually relies on is absent in the matter of Middle-earth.

This has led to a controversial status for The Silmarillion as published. We know J.R.R. Tolkien was planning extensive, sweeping changes to the book at the time of his death, but these changes were not fully conceptualised or outlined. In the editing of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien therefore defaulted to the incomplete version of the story his father had developed from c. 1930 to the publication of Lord of the Rings, incorporating some elements from later on but also having to go right back to the original Book of Lost Tales idea (developed by Tolkien from 1917 to c. 1924) since that is the only place where he sketched out the end of the story in any kind of detail, despite the major differences in tone and style to his later writings. The result, it has been complained is a hodgepodge of drafts, ideas and stories and certainly does not reflect J.R.R. Tolkien’s plans for the book at the time of his death. Christopher Tolkien’s point, well-taken, is that it was impossible to create a book compatible with his father’s intentions in 1973, so he defaulted to the most completed and “best-case” narrative he could develop. The debate will no doubt rage on eternally.

So, what is the Middle-earth canon?

Returning to the original question, the Middle-earth canon can be broken down into the following groups:

Primary Canon
These are books published and revised by J.R.R. Tolkien in his lifetime. Despite Tolkien’s willingness to revise and issue new versions of the texts, we can nonetheless declare these as primary canon.
  • The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937, revised 1951)
  • The Lord of the Rings (1954-55, revised 1965)
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)
  • The Road Goes Ever On (1967, with Donald Swann)
It should be noted that although The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (a poetry collection) and The Road Goes Ever On (a musical score inspired by Middle-earth) both contain canonical new information, they are relatively minor works.

Secondary Canon
These are books consisting of material written by J.R.R. Tolkien but not published until after his death, usually edited by his son Christopher. This is material which is coherent and readable as stand-alone works, but some readers may raise concerns based on information from other sources:

  • The Silmarillion (1977)
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980)

Tertiary Canon 
This is material which was written and created by Tolkien, but was not completed by him or brought to a satisfactory state where it can be reconciled with either primary or secondary canon. However, in isolated moments this material may be argued to be canonical where it does not conflict with established material.
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume I: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1 (1983)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume II: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (1984)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume III: The Lays of Beleriand (1985)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume V: The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VI: The Shadow of the Past (1988)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VII: The Treason of Isengard (1989)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VIII: The War of the Ring (1990)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IX: Sauron Defeated (1992)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: Morgoth’s Ring (1993)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: The War of the Jewels (1994)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996)
  • The Children of Húrin (2007)
  • Beren and Lúthien (2017)
  • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. SF&F Questions are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there before being published on the Wertzone.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

The classic DUNE boardgame is being reissued

Gale Force Nine Games have confirmed they are reprinting the original Dune board game released in 1979 by Avalon Hill. Out of print since the early 1980s, the game has been lauded for its tight mechanics and rich theme, a forerunner of the modern board game scene from the same designers as the long-lived Cosmic Encounter.

Gale Force Nine have picked up the gaming rights to Dune and are working with other publishers on content: Modiphius Entertainment are also producing a Dune pen-and-paper roleplaying game and Gale Force are also working on a tabletop miniatures game.

Regarded as a classic of the board game medium, Fantasy Flight Games mounted a campaign to reprint the game a decade ago but were unable to win the rights, instead issuing a clone called Rex: The Last Days of an Empire, set in their own Twilight Imperium universe.

No release date has been set, but Gale Force may be eyeing a mid-2020 release date ahead of the release of Denis Villeneuve's new Dune film, which starts shooting imminently.


If you're a boardgamer or a wargamer, you've almost certainly encountered the name Richard Borg before. A veteran games designer of several decades' standing, Borg hit the big time around the turn of the century with his Command and Colours rule system, most successfully in the WW2 variant, Memoir '44, one of the most popular and biggest-selling 2-player board games of all time.

There are numerous other versions of the game, including ones set in the American Revolutionary War (Tricorne), the American Civil War (BattleCry), the Napoleonic Wars (Command & Colours: Napoleonics), World War I (The Great War) and a fantasy version, BattleLore, which in turn has spawned a Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones spin-off, Battles of Westeros, which is fantastic (but did not involve Borg at all).

One of the most logical directions to take the rules system is upwards, into space, and the latest game in the series is now sneaking onto store shelves in the USA, and is already on wide release in Australia. It should be hitting UK shelves over the next two weeks or so.

Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare pitches the Commonwealth against the Confederation for control of known space, in pitched battles involving battlecruisers, dreadnoughts, flagships, carriers, space stations and fighters. Lots of fighters. Most Command and Colours games are heavily based around terrain, which is less of a thing in Red Alert although there are tokens to represent planets, gas clouds and, in a first for the series, moving terrain tokens for things like comets and asteroids.

Command and Colours' immense success has been down to the fact it always looks fantastic - colourful maps dotted with excellent miniatures or block counters - but is very easy to learn to play. Scenario maps allow you to set up a battle map in minutes. Each map is divided into three sectors, a central one and two flanks. Each player has a hand of cards and on each turn a player may play one card. This card will say something like "Advance right flank" or "Advance 3 units of your choice". There are also special tactics cards which do things like boost your attacking or defensive power. Each ship has its own attack strength and its own abilities and differing amount of hits it can sustain. And that's pretty much it.

The simplicity of the rules combined with the tremendous tactical depth afforded by the rules has made the Command and Colours system thoroughly addictive and compelling, and it looks like Red Alert has hit the same spot.

The game is being released, unusually, with the core box and six expansions in one go. Alongside the core set, the following expansions are available to expand the roster of ships in each fleet and the amount of space phenomena that can be encountered:

  • Vice Admiral Flagship
  • Carrier Starship
  • Dreadnought Starship
  • Logistics Ships and Space Platform
  • Meteor Storm
  • Space Rift

Further expansions are planned which will add at least two additional factions and also allow for planetary assaults and landings.

Once I get my hands on the game, I'll readers know how it plays and if it's worth picking up, but so far it looks very cool, and I suspect enterprising gamers will already be working out how to substitute the existing ships for miniatures from their favourite SF setting (such as Star Wars, Babylon 5 or Mass Effect).

Friday, 15 March 2019

Thanks to George R.R. Martin (and the Hugos)

I should have mentioned this earlier (as today is the last day for Hugo nominations), but I have a very British aversion to self-promotion. Anyway, I have to extend my thanks to George R.R. Martin for recommending people to vote for myself for Best Fan Writer at the 2019 Hugo Awards.

In terms of eligibility, I'm eligible for Best Fan Writer and the Wertzone is eligible for Best Fanzine (a bit of a misnomer, as it has now become dominated by online blogs). I don't have any other works that are eligible. In terms of past history, I've been longlisted twice and my History of Epic Fantasy article series was longlisted in 2016, but I've never made it onto the shortlist.

Whatever the situation, I will be at WorldCon in Dublin in August, and at the EuroCon/TitanCon in Belfast (where GRRM is Guest of Honour) the following week.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

The world of Umayma is still rocked by the ongoing war between the nations of Nasheen and Chenja. Former bel dame assassin turned freelance mercenary Nyx is still profiting on the sidelines of the war, slowly gathering a team of trusted associates to more effectively take on contracts, and hoping she doesn't get them killed in the process.

Apocalypse Nyx is a collection of five short stories (a couple approaching novella size) set in the world of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy. The stories take place before the trilogy (God's War, Infidel, Rapture) and serve several functions, including being an origin story for several of Nyx's associates. Interestingly Nyx herself doesn't get such backstory, perhaps as the novels told that story well enough or because Hurley is holding onto that story for another time.

Instead, we get the stories of how Khos and Anneke join the team, how the team operates together, why Rhys stayed with them for so long and the sort of small jobs that keep the team ticking over between the more epic events of the novels. It has to be said that these are all splendid. Like the trilogy, these stories feel like a pint of science fiction mixed with a pint of fantasy and washed down with absinthe. The stories brim with attitude and verve, even moreso since Hurley can set up and resolve the story in a few dozen pages rather than across hundreds.

There aren't too many problems as such, although those who enjoy short story collections for variations in tone may be disappointed: the collection retains the same bloody-minded attitude as the novels, with a fair amount of violence, mayhem and adult content. The short length of the stories does allow for a sharper focus though, and the stakes are correspondingly a lot lower. It's interesting to see how readily Nyx hits the self-destruct button when the team are tasked with a simple data retrieval mission, perhaps explaining how she reacts when the fate of the nation/world are at stake in the trilogy.

The most successful story is the last one, "Paint It Red", where Nyx is offered the chance to join another team of mercenaries. The idea of not being in charge and not having responsibility appeals to Nyx, but soon she discovers the price of working for a team whose morality is a lot more compromised than her own. The reader realises that Nyx, for all her myriad faults, has a sense of fairness and honour that sets her apart from others of her kind, and makes her ultimately a protagonist worth rooting for.

Apocalypse Nyx (****½) is a fine collection of razor-sharp, bloody-minded tales from one of the most interesting voices in modern genre fiction. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Netflix's LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS brings some of SFF's biggest names to the screen

Tomorrow (Friday 15 March), Netflix are releasing a new series called Love, Death and Robots. An anthology series, it showcases eighteen short (5-15 minute) SF films about the title concepts, based on short fiction by some of SFF's biggest names, as well as some films by concept artists.

Executive produced by David Fincher, the anthology series features the following stories with the confirmed writers so far:

Sonnie's Edge by Peter F. Hamilton (set in the universe of The Night's Dawn Trilogy)
Three Robots by John Scalzi
The Witness by Alberto Mieglo
Sucker of Souls
When the Yogurt Took Over by John Scalzi
Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds
Good Hunting
The Dump
Helping Hand
Fish Night by Joe Lansdale
Lucky 13
Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds
Blind Spot
Ice Age
Alternate Histories by John Scalzi
Secret War

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The entire HALO collection (almost) is finally coming to PC

In a surprising move, Microsoft have confirmed that their hithero mostly-X-Box-exclusive Halo video game series is coming to PC.

The original Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) had a well-received PC port, but Halo 2 (2004)'s PC port was poor and badly reviewed. Subsequent games were not released on PC at all.

The Halo: Master Chief Collection is now coming to PC. This will include revamped and upgraded versions of Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2, but, for the first time, Halo 3 (2007), Halo 3: ODST (2009), Halo: Reach (2010) and Halo 4 (2012). The spin-off Halo Wars strategy series and Halo 5: Guardians (2015), the most recent game in the main series, are not included.

Microsoft plan to release the games this year, although they will be releasing each title individually so they can test and optimise each game through a releasing and testing period. Microsoft will be releasing the game via their own online store but, surprisingly, also through Steam.