Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


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.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Rosamund Pike cast as Moiraine in WHEEL OF TIME TV series

It's been officially confirmed (after several days of rumours) that Rosamund Pike has been cast in the role of Moiraine Damodred in Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series.

Pike is a veteran British actress who started her career with A Rather English Marriage (1998). She came to Hollywood attention by playing Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002), Pierce Brosnan's final James Bond movie, and Jane Bennett in Pride & Prejudice (2005). Subsequent movies have included Doom, An Education, Wrath of the Titans, Jack Reacher and The World's End. She currently plays Lady Penelope in the rebooted Thunderbirds Are Go (2015-present).

In 2014 she achieved her biggest breakthrough by playing the role of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, alongside Ben Affleck. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for the same role.

In The Wheel of Time, Moiraine Damodred is an Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah. As an Aes Sedai, she can channel the One Power, a source of tremendous sorcerous power. As a member of the Blue Ajah, she specialises in intrigue, politics and causes. Twenty years before the events of the series, Moiraine learned a vital piece of information which has set her on a hunt across the continent known as the Westlands, accompanied by the Malkieri warrior Lan Mandragoran. The events of The Wheel of Time begin when Moiraine learns what she is looking for can be found in the Two Rivers, a remote part of the kingdom of Andor. Moiraine then becomes a guide and mentor for a group of young people she encounters in the course of her mission.

The Wheel of Time TV series is now in pre-production with production based in Prague in the Czech Republic (which is also expected to at least partly stand in for the city of Caemlyn). The team have recently been working on both casting and location scouting (most recently in Denmark, possibly for the Two Rivers). Filming is set to being in September for transmission in late 2020 or early 2021.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Warmaster by Dan Abnett

The Tanith First have completed a near-impossible strike mission to the remote enemy outpost of Salvation's Reach. As well as stealing a vast amount of intelligence material from the enemy, their attack has triggered an internal conflict within the Chaos armies between Sek and Gaur, allowing the Crusade to reach new levels of success. But a warp mistranslation on the way home throws the First into a dire new battle, as Gaunt and his team have to face a desperate Sek in battle on the forge world of Urdesh, and face a renewed threat from within the Crusade's own leadership.

The Warmaster is the fourteenth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series and the penultimate volume in the "Victory" arc. It was also released after an unprecedented five-year publishing gap in the series, the result of internal realignments within the Black Library and Games Workshop.

As a result, the book takes a little while to rev up to speed, with a somewhat disjointed narrative that attempts a lot of ideas - the Ghosts being shipwrecked in deep space, visited by Chaos horrors and suddenly in the thick of urban warfare and political intrigue on Urdesh - before the story comes together.

When it does, the results are impressive. We are fourteen books into this series now and we've never even met the guy in charge of the entire operation, and in fact (as Abnett's Sabbat Worlds Crusade companion book makes clear) the Ghosts have been operating on the fringes of the main war effort. Their actions have occasionally been decisive and even affected the main course of the war here and there, but only to a small degree. That revelation gives a real sense of scale to the war - in which tens of thousands of Imperial starships are carrying hundreds of millions of Imperial Guard troops, millions of support vehicles, thousands of Space Marines and hundreds, if not thousands, of skyscraper-sized Titans into battle across dozens of star systems simultaneously - which is remarkable. The Warmaster does a good job of pivoting the action, so suddenly the Ghosts and Gaunt are right in the middle of the key decisions being made for the entire war effort.

Abnett's key gifts are characterisation - finding ways of differentiating the two dozen or so characters of import within the Ghosts, plus various recurring side-characters - and action. He makes you care about the characters and their stakes. Like Bernard Cornwell before him (as tired as the "Sharpe/Uhtred in Space" comparisons are, they remain somewhat apt), he paints these soldiers as individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses and quirks, and makes you care about what happens to them (even the cowards and malcontents). That continues through The Warmaster, with an astonishing array of subplots being furthered in a remarkably constrained page count.

The Warmaster (****) does a good job of bringing together plot threads from the previous books in the series and making it feel like the war has reached a decisive turning point. The temptation to carry on this series forever must be strong, but in this book it does feel like the end of the Crusade is starting to lurch into view. On the minus side, aside from the slightly choppy opening, the ending to the book does feel a bit perfunctory for a Gaunt's Ghosts novel, although the reasons for this become clearer in the following book (Anarch), which is less of a successor and more of a direct continuation of this novel. No five-year wait this time for the next part of the story, fortunately. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Several centuries ago, Earth was verging on becoming completely uninhabitable. The survivors fled the planet in a fleet of thirty enormous space arks, the Exodus Fleet, whilst others sought survival in primitive colony domes on Luna, Mars and Titan. Years later, humanity was contacted by the alien alliance known as the Galactic Commons and welcomed as a member, but rather than abandon the Exodus Fleet for a planet, most of its complement remained behind. The remarkable spaceborn civilisation continues to survive in deep space...until a terrible accident makes it clear how tenuous their existence is.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series, following on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It only shares a setting in common with those earlier books and a very tenuous character connection (far moreso than the previous novel), so can be read completely independently of those books.

What it does share is Chambers' enjoyable, laidback writing style, her attention to detail and gift for crafting interesting characters with some depth. Unfortunately, it also shares her tendency to focus on extremely "nice" characters and neglect any kind of over-arcing narrative. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - SF novels which eschew explosions and people running around lots in favour of worldbuilding and atmosphere are all too few - but it does feel like this time we've been invited back to visit the Galactic Commons, only for there not being very much going on when we arrive.

A Closed and Common Orbit worked because of the very tight character focus on just two protagonists and how it explored two timelines in tandem. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet worked because of its exploration of the whole crew of a small ship and how they come together to overcome a series of challenges. Record of a Spaceborn Few doesn't really have the same kind of engine driving it. Instead, it feels like a series of interlocking short stories as we flip between six characters in different parts of the Exodus Fleet. There's a human who's arrived on the Fleet from one of the colony worlds and tries to fit in; a corpse disposal specialist who has a huge amount of respect for the importance of the job in the community; an ageing archivist; an alien visitor keen to learn more about the Fleet; a teenage boy trying to escape the society; and a mother and worker trying to make the best of life in the fleet for her family.

Individually these are interesting stories, which are brought together by a surprising event towards the end of the novel, but beyond that there isn't much connecting them together. The whole point of a Wayfarers novel at this point is reading a slow-paced, well-characterised book lacking the blood and lasers of more familiar space opera, but this one feels so laidback it is bordering on falling asleep, and the book never really comes alive because of it.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (***) is readable and has some interesting characters, but it lacks much of a kind of narrative drive. As an exercise in worldbuilding and establishing more information about the Galactic Commons, it's very good (helped by an appendix), but as a novel it lacks cohesion and tension. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Unknown Pleasures at 40

Joy Division's debut album, Unknown Pleasures, turns 40 tomorrow. One of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time, the record has withstood the test of time like few others.

The band began life in 1976 when former school friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook attended a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester. The band only played for half an hour, but Sumner and Hook left and promptly bought instruments (Sumner an electric guitar and Hooky a cheap bass) and taught themselves to play. Within weeks they were putting together their first, halting compositions. They advertised for a singer and drummer and recruited charismatic, enigmatic frontman Ian Curtis and the relentless, machine-like Stephen Morris, completing their lineup. They started performing under the moniker Stiff Kittens, but soon came to dislike the name, so switched their name to Warsaw, under which they made their live debut in May 1977.

The band had befriended local superstars the Buzzcocks early on, which proved a boon when the Buzzcocks invited them to support them in local gigs and on tour. It wasn't long before music journalists started paying attention to Warsaw and gave them favourable write-ups in the press. This attracted the attention of London-based group Warsaw Pakt, who angrily demanded that they change their name. Exasperated, the band started looking for a new name and seized gratefully on a suggestion of Ian's: Joy Division. Ian, a history buff, had fished it out of a book on the Third Reich, with the name coming from the nickname from a group of Jewish women sold into prostitution for the edification of Nazi officers; needless to say, this connection soon became controversial, with the band being accused of fascism and attracting a neo-Nazi element (the latter was true, resulting in several violent clashes at gigs).

The band recorded their debut EP in late 1977, An Ideal for Living, which attracted rave reviews but also brought renewed criticism as the cover art depicted a member of the Hitler Youth. Stephen Morris, who vehemently hated the coverage, said that the band had a contrarian streak where they got annoyed with the Nazi criticism, so kept doing it to annoy people even more (later on the band recanted, although not before naming their next incarnation "New Order").

Throughout 1978 the band write and toured incessantly, building up a collection of songs for their live performances and constantly adjusting them based on audience feedback. This year was crucial for their development, as it saw them take on an experienced manager (Rob Gretton) and sign to the nascent Factory Records, TV presenter Anthony Wilson's publishing company. Wilson also featured Joy Division on his TV programmes. Music press coverage grew and became outright laudatory, with John Peel pushing the band hard on his BBC radio programmes.

The result was a frenzy of anticipation for the band's debut album. Recording it proved slightly stressful: Wilson assigned maverick, visionary producer Martin Hannett to produce the album. He'd already worked with the band on some songs for A Factory Sample (a collection of songs from Factory's line-up), but for the album he went Full Hannett on them. According to legend, he once had Stephen Morris take apart his drum kit and reassemble it with parts from a toilet; during another recording session he told him to take the drums up to the roof and record them in the open air. Hannett had a massive array of digital delay devices, drum machines and synthesisers which he insisted on using, which the band initially felt was slightly weird. Bernard Sumner was particularly impressed with the technical wizardry Hannett was displaying and became intrigued by the use of synthesisers (Sumner built his own synthesiser from scratch a few months later).

Hannett's peculiarities aside, the band were also pushed for time, as Factory had only paid enough money for the studio for three weekend sessions. As a result the entire album had to be recorded in just six days. To make matters worse, the band's time estimate for their songs proved overly generous, forcing Hooky and Morris to lock themselves in a room and bash out "Candidate" and "From Safety to Where" in short order ("Candidate" ended up being longer than planned, so "From Safety to Where" was booted from the album).

Eventually, after a great deal of stress, the record was completed. The band initially were bewildered by it. Live, they played the songs loud and aggressively, but Hannett had stripped the songs down and added a strange sparseness, as well as overdubbing parts with keyboards (on a couple of occasions, without telling the band first). Curtis was unsure about how his voice sounded, declaring that he sounded like Bowie, whom he hated (Curtis had actually been a Bowie fan, but Bowie wasn't particularly trendy at that moment in time). The band were somewhat unhappy with the record, but Wilson and the rest of the Factory team loved it. Designer Peter Saville created a cover which is arguably more iconic than the record: a visual depiction of the x-ray pulses from pulsar CP1919 (spotted by Sumner in a book on radio astronomy). When the album was released on 15 June 1979, it was an immediate critical success, acclaim which only continued to grow over the following months.

The band didn't release any singles from the record, at all, which severely damaged its commercial chances. Instead, they let the entire album stand by itself. This bolstered their critical integrity, but did mean for lean sales; the album sold roughly 15,000 copies in its first few months on sale and didn't trouble the UK Album Chart. However, the release of non-album single "Transmission" in September saw the album start selling in greater quantities. Word of mouth about the band, who were continuing to tour full-tilt in the meantime and begin working on songs for a follow-up, spread like wildfire. They recorded their second album Closer in London in March 1980, along with the single-only releases "Atmosphere" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which was already starting to tear up their gigs and remains their best-known and best-loved song.

The band seemed poised for greatness, but Ian Curtis's life was falling apart at the same time. His marriage was collapsing at the same time he was trying to start a new relationship and he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. The frequency and intensity of his epileptic fits had worsened to the point where it made his future in the band doubtful. On 18 May 1980 he committed suicide at his home in Macclesfield. His shocked bandmates eventually rallied as New Order and began a new career that was every bit as remarkable as their incarnation as Joy Division. Unknown Pleasures finally got its first single in late 1980 when "She's Lost Control" was paired with "Atmosphere" as a double A-side release. The album also finally cracked the UK Album Chart when publicity in the wake of Curtis's suicide pushed the band into higher levels of public awareness.

At 40, Unknown Pleasures still sounds alien, odd and slightly ethereal, a result of Hannett's far-ahead-of-its-time production making the record sound much more recent. Its sparseness, initially derided by the band (until Hooky, grudgingly, admitted twenty years later that it was genius), gives the record a feeling of alienation at odds with its punk contemporaries, and makes it more timeless. But the production can only do so much. It's the four songwriters who take centre stage, with Hooky's pounding, melodic bass lines not only supporting punchy lead guitar riffs from Sumner but taking the lead on several songs (such as "Disorder," where the bass is often mistaken for the guitar, and the high-fret playing of "She's Lost Control"). Ian Curtis's deep, slightly off-kilter vocals go through a battery of strange treatments, a lot of them Curtis's own ideas; on stage he'd plug his microphone into a synthesiser to create odd effects for his vocals, like the multiple layering on "She's Lost Control." Morris's rhythmic, pounding drums, executed with beyond-robot efficiency, make it impossible to tell when he's playing and when a drum machine kicks in. It's a remarkable achievement, bearing in mind three years later these guys didn't know how to play any instrument, and a year earlier they were still blasting out fast-moving 2-minute punk songs.

To this day the argument will rage whether Unknown Pleasures or Closer is the stronger album, but it is clear that the two-punch release of the two records barely a year apart represents a musical achievement to rival any other, and Joy Division will endure for many decades to come.

At the moment the Joy Division YouTube page is releasing brand new music videos for each of the ten tracks on the record. The rest should be released over the coming days.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Salvation's Reach by Dan Abnett

The Tanith First and Only, the Ghosts, have been newly-reinforced by fresh troops from Belladon and Verghast and are preparing for their most audacious operation yet. Using intelligence gained at great cost from a Chaos prisoner, the Imperium has located Salvation Reach, a top-secret research facility for the Sons of Sek, their most tenacious foe in the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The Ghosts and several powerful allies having to mount a spaceborne assault on the facility, a single surgical strike which may decide the fate of the entire Crusade.

Salvation's Reach is the thirteenth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series (and the second in the "Victory" arc) and marks a new phase in the massive conflict known as the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The Ghosts aren't taking on an enemy head-on, but are instead manufacturing division in the enemy's ranks, trying to turn the Blood Pact and the Sons of Sek against one another so the Crusade can take advantage of the division and secure victory. It's a difficult, ugly mission and one that most Imperium forces wouldn't be able to handle, but for the clandestine Ghosts it's a task more suited to their talents.

The previous book in the series, Blood Pact, was good but atypical for the series, focusing more on a much smaller-scale conflict. Salvation's Reach is a return to mass engagements, but in a different context, with the Ghosts have to take part in hostile boarding action on a space habitat hidden deep inside an asteroid. Along the way they have to take part in an absolutely massive space battle (which will have Battlefleet Gothic fans cheering), deal with a shapeshifting Chaos assassin and negotiate - delicately - with the three Space Marines assigned to help them with the mission.

The action side of things is, as usual, well-handled with the requisite fighting, brave last stands and tactical discussions all being quite good. However, the heart and soul of the series has been Abnett's handling of the characters, from Ibram Gaunt all the way down to the lowliest, greenest new recruit in the Ghosts' ranks. The character arcs are uniformly handled superbly, with several slow-burning story arcs extending across the series coming to startling climaxes in this book (with several callbacks to Necropolis, still arguably the best book in the series and certainly so far the most important). Several beloved characters bite the dust, but more impressive is the way character relationships are developed. The best scene in the book is where a stoic and merciless Space Marine solves one trooper's long-standing medical problem in one swift action and restores his life and military career (previously thought over) to him, without ever breaking character or the tone of the series.

On the negative side of things, there's a few cliches I could have done without (such as hitherto unknown family members showing up unexpectedly), but otherwise Salvation's Reach (****½) is a gripping, excellently-executed science fantasy war novel with a brilliant line in characterisation. It is available now (alongside Blood Pact) in The Victory: Part 1 omnibus (UK, USA).

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Lovelace, the former AI of the Wayfarer, has been given her own body and is now living undercover as a human on a remote settlement. She is adapting to life as a human by her friend Pepper, who as a former genetically-engineered slave knows a thing or two about having to overcome your past to achieve a greater future. But Pepper also owes someone a debt, one that will take her across the galaxy as a way of fulfilling it.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the second volume of the Wayfarers series, following on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It's not a sequel as such, picking up only on a single dangling plot thread from that book and expanding on several very minor characters, and can be read as a stand-alone novel.

The book is about many things, including friendship, humanity and what it means to be a person. There are human, AI and alien perspectives on this thorny question and on the ethical dilemmas involved. The story unfolds in two distinct threads, a current-day story about Lovelace adjusting to life as her new cover personality, Sidra, and an extensive flashback to Pepper's life as a slave and how she escaped. The story therefore unrolls in two directions simultaneously, backwards and forwards, until the two meet up satisfyingly near the end.

Like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, this is book is much more concerned with character, relationships and moral quandaries than it is in shooty action. There are a few tense moments and sequences, but the characters are rarely in physical jeopardy. This is a book much more concerned with the characters, their backstories and their motivations and how that impacts on important moral and ethical decisions they have to make going forwards. Both characters having two names - Lovelace/Sidra and Jane/Pepper - is also a nice clue that the characters are going on journeys as their identities shift to deal with the new worlds they find themselves in.

One advantage A Closed and Common Orbit has over its predecessor is that it is primarily and tightly focused on just two characters rather than half a dozen. This means that both characters get a huge amount of development and we become deeply immersed in their lives.

The weakness is that A Closed and Common Orbit is also very much a relaxed, chill novel without much in the way of drama. The decision to move away from space opera cliches like laser gun battles and explosions is laudable, but there are moments where you do feel like it could use a few more stakes. The few tense and dangerous moments that do occur take place in Pepper's flashback, where you already know she's going to be just fine.

A Closed and Common Orbit (****) confirms Becky Chambers' place as the natural heir to Lois McMaster Bujold in writing interesting, innovative science fiction which examines moral and ethical concerns and how they impact on characters, but those looking for action and dramatic events are best-served elsewhere. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Tatiana Maslany teases new ORPHAN BLACK announcement for Thursday

Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany has teased a major new announcement related to the show to be made this Thursday (13 June).

Orphan Black ran for five seasons from 2013 to 2017 and told the story of a group of clones, all played by Maslany, who were trying to figure out where they came from. The show attracted critical acclaim for the way Maslany differentiated the four core clone characters (Sarah, Alison, Cosima and Helena) and another half-dozen or so minor clones from one another, and for how the show featured the clones in the same scene. Maslany won an Emmy Award for Best Actress (Drama) in 2016 for her multiple performances.

The show did attract some criticism for the corporate/government espionage/conspiracy storyline, which grew quite convoluted and stretched before it was finally resolved. The creators have teased a spin-off show for some time, but the suggestion was that this would not be related to the main series and would not feature Maslany.

It's unclear what this announcement could allude to, but it could be confirmation of the spin-off series or maybe a stand-alone TV movie featuring Maslany reprising some of the clone roles.

PHOENIX POINT gets release date

Phoenix Point, the new game from the original creator of X-COM, has a finalised release date and it's pleasingly soon: 3 September 2019.

Phoenix Point is the second game from Snapshot Games, the studio set up by legendary British designer Julian Gollop to revisit some of his previous titles. Following the success of Chaos Reborn (2015) (a remake of Gollop's 1985 game, Chaos: The Battle of Wizards), Gollop launched Phoenix Point with a crowdfunding campaign in 2017.

Phoenix Point uses a similar structure to Gollop's 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defence), but draws on elements from X-COM: Apocalypse (1997) and the recent XCOM series from Firaxis Games, which began with X-COM: Enemy Unknown (2012). A strategic metagame is played via a global view, in which mode new technologies can be researched, targets selected and equipment upgraded. Once a possible mission is identified, the player can send a crack squad of soldiers to the location in question, at which point the game turns into a turn-based tactical wargame.

Unlike XCOM's near-future pulp SF setting, Phoenix Point is a post-apocalyptic game set several decades into the future, after most of civilisation is wiped out by a mysterious mist that has risen from the oceans, bringing mutated and horrifying creatures with it. The Phoenix Project is an organisation devoted to restoring order to the world. To do this, the organisation must deal with several rival human factions, including the cult-like Disciples of Anu, the militaristic New Jericho and the high-technology Synedrion, aligning with some and perhaps eliminating others, whilst also working to contain the threat from the sea.

Phoenix Point is launching on PC and X-Box One. The game attracted some controversy when it was revealed that the game would be exclusive to the Epic Games Store for one year after release. It will, however, also be available on the X-Box Game Pass, which will also allow access for PC gamers.

LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS renewed for second season at Netflix

Animated SF anthology show Love, Death and Robots has been renewed for a second season at Netflix.

The first season, produced by David Fincher, dropped earlier this year and featured 18 short films in a variety of animation styles from numerous different animation houses. Apart from two originals, all of the films were adaptations of short stories from well-known SFF authors, including John Scalzi, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken Liu, Joe Lansdale, Marko Kloos, Michael Swanwick and Alastair Reynolds.

The second season will also have a new art director in the form of Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Plans for the second season are being kept under wraps, but hopefully it will involve more female writers. With authors like Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin, Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie and Naomi Novik being among the most prominent of the current generation of SFF authors (not to mention Lois McMaster Bujold still producing strong work), the first season focusing on older work by male authors felt a bit strange.

Given the long production lead time of the first season, it is unlikely we will see the second season before 2021.