Thursday, 29 November 2007

The Wertzone is a Year Old!

When I started this blog a year ago, my first thought was merely to provide another outlet for my Amazon.co.uk reviews. I was pleasently surprised to quite quickly (within about four months) be getting advance reading copies from publishers (thanks to Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist for that!) and getting good feedback from readers. I'm particularly happy with the thanks I received from Polish readers for pushing Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish to Western audiences. I'm also pleased to have been able to update the blog fairly regularly despite a personal life that could be called 'hectic' this year, incorporating a 500-mile house move to another country and two changes of occupation. 2008 I hope will be more settled and allow me to develop the blog and site more thoroughly, although I also hope to attend at least one of the major SF&F cons in 2008 as well (Worldcon or World Fantasy) and provide some interesting commentary on that experience.

Many thanks to readers regular and otherwise for providing feedback, either here on the blog or by email or on other forums I frequent. It is all much appreciated.

Battlestar Galactica: Razor

With Battlestar Galactica's fourth season delayed until April and its full run likely to be interrupted by a year-long break due to the ongoing Writer's Strike, the Sci-Fi Channel has seen fit to deliver us an extra treat, namely a special episode or TV movie delving deeper into the show's backstory.

Razor takes place at the end of the second season, shortly after the events of the episode The Captain's Hand. Lee Adama is now commander of the battlestar Pegasus, but as an outsider he finds himself not entirely trusted by his new crew. Lee decides to appoint a former favourite of Admiral Cain's, Lt. Kendra Shaw, to the position of XO, in an attempt to 'build bridges' with his new subordinates. Interestingly, the plot doesn't dwell on this idea. We know the fate of the Pegasus and Lee's command of her from other episodes and seeing him do a 'winning the respect of the crew' plotline would have been redundant. Instead we see much of the story through Kendra's eyes. Lengthy flashbacks take us back to the day of the original Cylon attack on the Colonies and we see Kendra rising through the ranks and observing Cain's gradual moral erosion as the tensions of command take hold. A present day storyline, which is little more than a subplot, sees the Pegasus crew stumble across a bunch of obsolete Cylons from the First Cylon War and have to eliminate them.

Razor straddles two stools. On the one hand, it is a balls-to-the-wall action story with huge, epic CGI battle sequences and lots of emotional intensity which is designed to appeal to newcomers as well as established fans. On the other, it features a lot of fan-pleasing asides and references to the original series. This is a somewhat odd idea (going for newbies and hardcore fans at the same time) but just about works, with the new character of Kendra providing a worthwhile 'in' to this story and universe for new viewers but at the same time allowing established fans to see stuff they've wanted to see since the series began. Kudos for the writers for managing not to make a total hash of this.

The TV movie lives or dies on the performance of actress Stephanie Chaves-Jacobson as Kendra Shaw and thankfully she delivers a competent performance. She tended to mumble a fair bit, however, which resulted in much rewinding of scenes to make out what she was saying. The actress has a great rapport with Katee Sackhoff and Michelle Forbes, and in these scenes she is extremely good. The other actors are as trusty and reliable as ever, although some have very little screen-time (Athena and Tigh get a single scene each, President Roslin three short scenes and Dr. Baltar is totally absent).

Overall, Razor (****) is an enjoyable slice of Battlestar Galactica and just about fills in the yawning gap between Seasons 3 and 4 (which will have been an endurance-testing 13 months long). Some elements misfire a bit (the "By your command," moment, although amusing, totally breaks the fourth wall) and the resolution's dependence on yet more BSG mysticism is mildly exasperating, but overall the TV movie fulfils its remit of being both entertaining and restoring faith in the show after a patchy third year.

Razor will be released on DVD in the United States on 4 December, and in the UK on 26 December. The DVD edition will be extended by some 15 minutes and will feature a lengthy flashback to the First Cylon War (complete with another huge battle sequence) as well as other new scenes.

Forthcoming: Battlestar Galactica returns with its fourth season premiere, He That Believath in Me, in early April 2008.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Swiftly by Adam Roberts

I am moving again, so I'll be offline for a while. So here's some reviews to be going on with:

The year is 1848. 122 years earlier a mariner returned to England speaking of fantastical lands he claimed to have discovered in remote corners of the globe. Whilst dismissed as a madman, some took note of what he was saying and the Royal Navy sent ships to investigate. The lands of Lilliput and Blefuscu were conquered, its dimunitive inhabitants enslaved and put to work as servants and engineers, whilst Brobdingnag was bombarded and its giant inhabitants subjected to genocide (out of fear they discover gunpowder and attack England). The flying island of Laputa was captured and subjected to examination, whilst the English army now employs a regiment of sentient horses.

The English are now poised to take Paris and become the dominant power in Europe, but the tide of the war is already turning, with the few surviving Brobdingnagians now in the employ of the French. In England itself, Abraham Bates is championing the rights of the Lilliputian slaves, whilst a young woman named Eleanor Burton dreams of escaping her hideous marriage and being allowed to pursue her dreams of science.


Swiftly is an impressive book. Roberts has clearly carefully read Gulliver's Travels and in this sequel he uses some of the same diction and language of Jonathan Swift, whilst simultaneously pursuing some of the same themes and ideas (there is a lenghthy digression related to faeces, which is highly reminiscent of Swift's own use of dubious imagery in the original). It's certainly a 'killer concept' (although other sequels to the book exist) and the action unfolds in a manner that the reader is probably not expecting at all.

Whilst the book is engaging and certainly contains a lot of humour, there is a fair amount of ambiguity to the tale, particularly the climatic events outside York, with the reader forced to draw their own conclusions to what is going on and how events unfold after the narrative. Those who hate ambiguity in their fiction may find the book not to their taste because of this, whilst those who like stories which require them to use their brains somewhat will find it much more to their liking.

Swiftly (***½) is a book I suspect will divide readers, but I found it intellectually stimulating and a rather different take on the story and world than I was expecting, which is a good thing. Some may find the longeurs in the book distracting and the pacing variable, which means the story doesn't flow as well as it should. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading despite these minor weaknesses. The book will be published in hardcover on 20 March 2008 in the UK by Gollancz. No US publisher is yet listed, but an earlier edition of the story can be found as a novella in a collection of stories published by Night Shade Books in 2004.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Happy Birthday, Doctor Who

Doctor Who, the longest-running SFTV show in the world, turns 44 today. Launched on BBC-1 on 23 November 1963, the series was not an immediate hit, its opening episode delayed and overshadowed by news coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy a day earlier. Designed as an adventure series with an educational slant (mixing SF tales of aliens and monsters with historical adventures), the show took off massively with its second serial, which introduced the Daleks. It became a mainstay of BBC-1's Saturday night schedule and was soon attracting regular audiences of 10 million plus. The series survived numerous complete changes of cast and crew, thanks to the titular main character's ability to 'regenerate' into a new form whenever the old one was badly injured (or when the previous actor wanted to leave).


In 1989, after seven Doctors, thirty other regular characters, 26 consecutive seasons, 158 serials and over 700 episodes, the series was indefinitely 'rested' by the BBC. There was a one-off TV movie in 1996, co-produced by the BBC, Universal and Fox, which was successful in the UK but less so in the USA and failed to result in a regular series. Finally, in 2005, Doctor Who finally returned to Saturday nights on BBC-1 and was a smash hit, winning huge ratings and becoming a popular part of the USA's Sci-Fi Channel line-up as well. The 'new' Doctor Who returns for its fourth season around Easter 2008.

Sadly, this event coincides with news that the very first producer of Doctor Who, Verity Lambert, recently passed away at the age 71. A tremendously respected British television producer, Lambert won the job on Doctor Who at a very young age (27) and was the only female producer at the BBC at the time. She worked on the show for its first three seasons and then moved on to other popular British series, including Adam Adamant Lives!, Rumpole of the Bailey, Minder and Jonathan Creek. In 1985 she founded Cinema Verity, a production company with a number of film and television credits to its name. She was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2002 for services to film and television production. Earlier this year, the Doctor Who episode Human Nature paid tribute to her by giving the Doctor (whilst temporarily transformed into a human) memories of a mother named Verity. Many condolences to her family and many thanks to her for creating such a huge body of work that was enjoyed by countless millions for many decades. SFX has a tribute to her here.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Dreamsongs, Volume II by George RR Martin

Following on from my earlier review of Dreamsongs, Volume I, this entry covers the second volume of Geore R.R. Martin's collection of short fiction. Whilst Volume I covered GRRM's work from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Volume II focuses more closely on his work as a scriptwriter and editor (on the popular Wild Cards series of superhero anthologies) and includes what for many people will be the primary draw of the collection, a novella set in the world of GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire novels.


As with Volume I (as this is one huge book broken in two for US publication), Volume II is divided into sections, namely four sections containing stories and a bibliography of GRRM's published work.

The first section focuses on one of GRRM's several signature characters, namely Haviland Tuf, the vegetarian, bald and somewhat eccentric master of the ancient seedship The Ark, who proclaims himself the last of the long-extinct Ecological Engineers. Tuf was designed to be the hero (if that's the right word) of a series of stories set in GRRM's Thousand Worlds mileu, and these stories were collected into the popular 'fix-up' novel Tuf Voyaging. Two stories are presented here. A Beast for Norn (1975, published 1976) is the earliest Tuf story and was revised for its appearance in Tuf Voyaging, so it's the original version that appears here. It's not a particularly original tale and the well-worn SF reader will see the 'moral' coming from halfway through the story, but it's still exceptionally amusing to watch unfold. Guardians (1981) is much stronger, with Tuf a more sophisticated, well-developed character by this time and the story more intriguing, as the colonists on a remote ocean world are being attacked by increasingly savage creatures and Tuf has to find out where they are coming from and how to defeat them.

Around the time that Tuf Voyaging appeared, GRRM was invited to submit scripts for The New Twilight Zone, the resurrected mid-80s version of the classic Rod Serling anthology series. After some rather hectic re-jigging of the credits (including Harlan Ellison storming off the show after one of his scripts was messed around with by the studio) GRRM landed the job of script editor and worked on several episodes of the short-lived show. The Road Less Travelled (1986) was GRRM's only original contribution (the rest being adaptions or developments of other people's ideas), a somwhat curious tale which combines GRRM's trademark melancholy and musings on missed opportunities with a more optimistic ending. This script was filmed by Wes Craven and is reputedly a superb episode, but when it aired it had been butchered with nearly a third of its original material edited out, and due to legal reasons it cannot apparently be released or seen even today. A shame as the script is very interesting indeed. Also included is GRRM's pilot script for Doorways (1991), an alternate-reality show about a girl who passes from world to world and inadvertantly drags a native of our world along for the ride. This was also filmed, but again the filmed version is difficult to find and reportedly not as strong as the original script as several elements had been radically changed. The script included is very atmospheric and disturbing, and the reader may or may note the similarities to another series which aired a few years later called Sliders (purely coincidental, no doubt).

The next section takes us to the world that made George R.R. Martin an SF&F household name long before A Song of Ice and Fire took off. In 1987 GRRM and several close friends and collaborators began work on the Wild Cards universe, which postulates the existence of superheroes following the release over New York City in 1946 of an alien virus. 90% of those affected by the virus die; 9% become 'Jokers', horribly disfigured by the illness; and 1% become 'Aces', superheroes wielding incredible abilities. The Wild Cards series of anthologies became one of the biggest 'shared world' phenomenons of the 1980s, rivalled only by the Thieves' World series, eventually reaching fifteen volumes before petering out. However, the series was resurrected seven years later and several new volumes appeared, with the eighteenth and latest, Inside Straight, due out in the next couple of months in the USA. GRRM presents two of his Wild Cards stories here: Shell Games (1987) introduces another GRRM signature character, the Great and Powerful Turtle, and the role he plays in restoring the self-respect of Dr. Tachyon, the alien genius who created the Wild Card virus in the first place. From the Journal of Xavier Desmond (1988) is the framing story from the fourth volume in the series, Aces Abroad, and is a more familiar story of melancholy and musings, but is nevertheless exceptionally well-written as a dying Joker gets to see some of the world before he passes, and finds much that is worthwhile and beautiful in the world, but also sees some of its darkness as well.

The final section is called 'The Heart in Conflict', based on Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner's statement that, "the human heart in conflict with itself alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about." This appears to be GRRM's philosophy and lends itself to his 'furniture rule', that a story is just a story and is an SF tale or a Fantasy or a Western purely due to the 'furniture': a guy riding into a frontier town to settle a score or anothe man riding into a castle to challenge the wizard who wronged him or another person flying his spaceship in pursuit of an alien who has a grudge against him. The stories that follow seem to particularly respond to this, defying easy genre categorization or limitations: Under Siege (1984) is a 'remix' of GRRM's much earlier historical story, The Fortress (printed in Dreamsongs, Volume I), this time with added time travel and the suggestion that pinning the hopes of the world on one small group of people might not actually be a good or healthy thing to do. The Skin Trade (1988) is somewhere between a horror story and a thriller, featuring werewolves and private detectives and rich old men harbouring secrets. It won GRRM a World Fantasy Award and deservedly so. Unsound Variations (1982) focuses on GRRM's history as a chess tournament organiser and those not particularly interested in the game may find this tale of obsession a bit odd, but GRRM captures the game as a fictional device quite well and the melding of chess with quantum theory is well done. The Glass Flower (1986) marks GRRM's last visit (for now) to his Thousand Worlds and brings in Kleronomas, one of the signature legendary characters of that setting. The story is rather downbeat and to be honest I found it even depressing. There is a tremendous depth of character in the story, however.

The Hedge Knight (1998) is a prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, taking place eighty-nine years prior to the events of A Game of Thrones. At this time the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are still unified under the rule of the Targaryen kings and seeing the realm at peace and shorn of the political machinations of court is interesting and somewhat refreshing. The protagonist is Dunk, a hedge knight who risks everything he has to ride in the great tourney at Ashford Meadow, but instead finds himself caught in the grip of history with a squire named Egg joining him for the ride. The first of a planned series of 'Dunk & Egg' stories is nothing short of a masterpiece in itself, expertly timed with terrific character-building and a depth of detail to the setting that is remarkable. If it wasn't for the A Knight's Tale movie a few years later, I imagine that Hollywood would have snapped this up by now. A sequel followed in 2003, The Sworn Sword, although it appeared too late to make it into this collection (the original version of which was published in 2003). A third Dunk & Egg tale will appear late next year (or early the next), in the Warriors anthology edited by GRRM and Gardner Dozois.

The final story is the Nebula Award-winning Portraits of His Children (1986), which is an obvious story to end on but still a fine piece of work. The story comes across as a modern take on Dickens, with an author visited by his creations and haunted by the decisions he made about their fictional lives. It doesn't take too huge an imagination to cast George in this light, enjoying a beer and a lively discussion with Tyrion or comparing notes on living in Brooklyn with the Turtle.

Dreamsongs, Volume II (*****) lives up to the promise of the first volume and is an essential read for any GRRM fan. The book will be published on 27 November in the United States in hardcover. The one-volume UK edition is out now in hardcover and trade paperback.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Update

The next book review will be Dreamsongs, Volume II by George RR Martin, which I hope to finish in the next few days.

The planned Tower of Reading currently consists of:

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston.
Swiftly by Adam Roberts (a sequel to Gulliver's Travels).
The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick (hot new debut from Gollancz).
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott.
Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley.
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson.
The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian W. Aldiss (re-read).

Although there's one or two ARCs on the way which could rise to the top of the list quite handily.

On the TV front, Battlestar Galactica: Razor airs this week in the USA and Heroes continues through its highly variable second season, although the first signs of a more permanant return to its Season 1 quality are appearing.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Halo: Combat Evolved

Having enjoyed putting together the C&C3 review yesterday I've decided not to rest on my laurels and immediately proceed with another PC games review. At some point I will actually review truly classic games that everyone should play immediately if they have not done so previously (Freespace 2, Hostile Waters, Planescape: Torment etc etc), but frankly it's more fun to look at those games which everyone has heard of but which actually aren't all that. Hence:


Halo was first unveiled circa 1999 as a major first-person shooter from the makers of the classic Marathon series on the Apple Mac and the Myth series of strategy games on the PC. Halo promised to combine a solid SF setting (basically an Orbital from Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, althouh lazy reviewers referenced the more obvious titular construct from Larry Niven's Ringworld books) with equally-good vehicular and personal combat all set against a solid storyline. However, a bump appeared in the road during development, namely a large, misshapen, three-times-too-big bump called the Microsoft X-Box. Before you could say "Killer App!" Halo had been gagged and dragged screaming off to the land of Console Exclusive Releases, leaving PC players feeling vaguely cheesed off, but the developers immensely richer. Anyhow, Halo came out for the X-Box, made a tremendous wad of cash, got lots of people to buy the thing and was praised by all and sundry as the Best Thing Ever, with even the usually-more-difficult-to-excite-than-Al-Gore Edge magazine getting unseemingly excited and awarding it maximum points, which felt rather wrong, a bit like Barry Norman giving a five-star review to Debbie Does Dallas.

Meanwhile, the PC community had basically forgotten that their promised classic had been carted off to the land of mass appreciation, mainly because Half-Life 2 had just been announced, Doom 3 was on the way and something called Far Cry was looking a bit tasty as well. When Halo therefore arrived on PC at the end of 2003 like an overeager puppy anxious to please its new owners, it was rather cruelly ignored and reviews were less than stellar. No doubt some of this can be put down to PC owners generally believing that console games are unchallenging sacks of crud and console conversions are very disappointing (although if the game in question is developed by BioWare, this rule no longer applies), but most of it can be put down to the fact that Halo is in fact a bit (but not totally) crap.

Things get off to a solid if unoriginal approach when your spaceship detects a huge alien artefact in space and your captain decides to check it out. Your ship then gets borded by what appears to be a bunch of gibbering monkeys wearing brightly-coloured spacesuits, giggling like lunatics and running around like a bunch of five-year-olds on acid. These turn out to be the primary recurring footsoldiers of the Covenant. They are the worst enemy ever conceived for a first-person shooter. Shooting them is satisfying, but would be more so if your collection of weapons weren't entirely inspired by the Super-Soaker 5000. Things obviously go pear-shaped and you end up stuck alone on the huge alien construction, at least for about ten minutes until you meet up with some of your mates and engage in squad-based combat with the Covenant.

This takes up the first third of the game and is actually enjoyable. There's some nice non-linearity to the game, combat is generally okay and Halo's approach to grenades is, if massively overstated, nonetheless a welcome innovation in the staid FPS genre. Much respect to the vehicles. If there is one thing Halo gets right, it's the vehicles and vehicle combat, which are fun throughout the game. Also, whilst the gibbering Covenant monkey grunts remain infuriating, more challenging opponents turn up who are more interesting to fight.

You may suspect a huge "BUT" is coming and you would be correct. About a third of the way through the development of the game Bungie apparently checked in on the gametesters and realised that people were having fun fighting in outdoor environments with vehicles and alongside NPC allies and against a reasonably decent opposition. Bungie apparently decided that it would make perfect sense to therefore kill all of the NPC allies, take out the vehicles, set the second two-thirds of the game almost entirely indoors on the same map just repeated over and over and replace the Covenant with The Flood, the Flood being basically the headcrab zombies from Half-Life with the added bonus that they sometimes explode when standing right next to you and they never appear in numbers of less than four trillion. I can only assume that Bungie had a moment of rebellion against their evil corporate overlords at Microsoft and tried to sabotage their own game, but it didn't work because it came too late in the day and all the previews had enthusiastically widdled on about the great part of the game and not even mentioned the large chunk of it that sucked donkey legs.

Towards the end of the game, around the time you've slaughtered your sixty quadrillionth Flood creature and passed through the same room eighty times, things do get vaguely interesting again and you experience an enjoyable jeep ride along the spine of an exploding starship. However, given that the game ends three seconds after this, this turns out not to be the return-to-form you were hoping for but rather a rather cruel way of the developers telling you they could have made the whole game as fantastic as that, but chose not to because they were too busy spending their development budget on beer and pizza.

Of course, Halo (**) wasn't a total write-off. As I said, the first third of the game is still fun, the multiplayer is okay (if nothing special by PC standards) and it did give us the superb Red vs Blue Internet comedy series, which is a Good Thing. However, it doesn't really make up for the fact that nearly two-thirds of the game is unplayable by all but the terminally stubborn and the ending is so blatantly sequel-incurring that they may as well have just demanded your credit card number before running the final cut scene.

Halo is available for the X-Box (USA, UK) and the PC (USA, UK) and has been out for ages, so should be quite cheap on both systems. There are sequels which are apparently far superior, but given that the PC port of Halo 2 was apparently a total disaster, I am not in any hurry to play them.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

I've been promising to add game reviews to the blog since it started, partially because I feel that modern computer games are on the cusp of becoming a valid and worthwhile artform in their own right but mainly because I play a lot of games and would like to use them as basic review fodder to pad out the blog and make it look like I'm taking the job seriously.

With this in mind I thought it would be a great idea to focus on one of the narrative-heavy, character-based SF&F games like Anachronox or Planescape: Torment and ponder their artistic merit. Then I remembered I haven't played those games in years and they both take days of non-stop playing to get through, so I thought sod that, I'd choose something more lightweight and with more explosions. Thus:

The Command and Conquer franchise is one of the biggest-selling PC game series of all time, shifting upwards of 10 million copies. The original game was published in 1995 and was one of the first real-time strategy games, a genre which contends that realism is overrated in wargames and being able to construct a tank factory in ten seconds flat and be churning dozens of tanks out directly onto the battlefield three seconds later is more fun. Ironically, the original Command and Conquer is one of the slower-paced games in the genre, with a difficulty level somewhere on the wrong side of frustrating and a unit selection that can helpfully be called 'retarded', meaning you just end up churning out fifty heavy tanks and hoping for the best. A bit embarrassed by this, the original game designers brought out an alternate-reality take on the series called Red Alert which ironically became far more popular than the original game, partially because of the chic retro-Cold War vibe and sassy unit selection but perhaps mainly because it was very self-critical and camper than a night out at Butlins in the company of Graham Norton and Frankie Howard on helium.

Of course, the analytical reader may have hit on the idea of combining Red Alert's faster-paced gameplay with C&C's more hardcore SF trappings to produce a much more interesting game, in which case well done, because you were eleven years faster than the guys at Westwood and EA. Command and Conquer's sequel, Tiberian Sun, was even more grim, po-faced and slower-paced than its progenitor (with even James Earl Jones' cameo not enough to save it), whilst Red Alert 2 took the camp overload of the original and pushed it beyond the capacity of the rational human mind to absorb. Luckily, at this point the original development team imploded and EA forced the survivors to work in their digital sweat-shops for several months churning out Lord of the Rings tie-in games of variable quality until they promised to get with the programme and actually produce a game that is decent.

Hence, Tiberium Wars, the third Command and Conquer game (not counting expansion packs). This time the story picks up in the mid-21st Century with Earth overrun by tiberium, a crystalline compound that came from outer space on a meteor and has now infested the planet, rendering most of it uninhabitable and forcing the survivors into high-tech cities defended by the Global Defence Initiative (GDI). A group of religious fanatics, the Brotherhood of Nod, have come to believe that tiberium holds the key to immortality and basically, erm, wage war on GDI so they can have access to more tiberium, even though it covers most of the planet's surface and GDI aren't really interested in stopping them outside the cities. The plot isn't exactly watertight. Anyway, after ten years of peace the Brotherhood of Nod mounts a surprise attack against GDI, overrunning many of their defences and putting them on the back foot. Oddly, because it's happened twice before, the Brotherhood are surprised when a confident new commander (i.e. you) arises amongst GDI's ranks and kicks their backsides across the planet.

The game's plot is communicated via fully-acted cut scenes and briefings which EA have cleverly filmed using actors who are likely to get the average SF&F film or TV fan jumping up and down and going, "Hey! That's whatshis face from, erm, that show!" As such, Grace Park and Tricia Helfer pop up from Battlestar Galactica, Billy Dee 'Lando' Williams drops in from Star Wars, Josh Holloway from Lost gets a look-in and Michael 'Needs a New Conservatory' Ironside phones it in. Long-term fans of the series are probably more excited by the return of Michael Kucan as Kane, one of most recognisable villains in gaming history. The narrative cut-scenes are reasonably well-written and, as with previous games in the series, there does seem to be a genuine attempt to suggest that Nod have a genuine philosophical motivation behind them rather than being a bunch of lunatic religious nutcases implausibly armed with high-tech weaponry. As usual this falls flat on its face around the time Kane tells you (in the Nod campaign) to start nuking everything in sight. That said, individual elements in the GDI are painted much greyer than before and some of the orders you receive in the GDI campaign are frankly disturbing.

The gameplay is the traditional, "Build base, build army, crush enemy" format we have seen fifty times before. However, for a C&C game the pacing has been ramped up to levels that can be called 'bonkers'. You can go from building you first structure to churning out Mammoth tanks (ludicrously overpowered GDI war machines which have great anti-ground, anti-air and probably anti-dandruff weapons and frankly mean you never need to build anything else) in about three minutes, which seems indecently quick. Since the enemy AI is fairly decent and equally fast off the mark you can quickly get overrun unless you keep up with the faster style of gameplay. Mission objectives range from killing the enemy to destroying the enemy to blowing the enemy up and occasionally avoiding the enemy to do something else and then killing and destroying them by blowing them up. C&C3's narrative may have some nice twists and turns but individual missions generally resolve into different ways of churning the landscape up with high-powered weaponry. Frankly, if you've been at work for eight hours and want to relieve some tension whilst kidding yourself that you are the Patton Reborn, this is probably not too much of a problem.

There is a late-stage 'twist' in the game that would be more shocking if it wasn't spoiled on the back of the box and hadn't been built up in the previous two games as well, but there you go. More frustrating is the fact that the game doesn't so much reach a climax as simply stop, almost in mid-sentence. There are so many plotlines left unresolved at the end of the game that the player is left with a vaguely uneasy feeling in their wallet, and sure enough the news that at least one or two expansion packs and a potential full sequel are on the way is likely to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. However, this is muted by the fact that Command and Conquer 3, for all its lack of subtlety or originality, succeeds in its aim to produce a simple, easy-to-play and fast-paced wargame which eschews a lot of modern gaming developments in favour of just blowing stuff up in a satisfying manner. Given that the game has exceptional production values, good acting, a solid storyline, three well-balanced sides and is of very reasonable length, this is enough to ensure that the player gets his or her entertainment value from the title. The game is also designed to work well on older hardware, meaning that your PC doesn't need to have been engineered in God's own branch of PC World to run it.

Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (***½) has been out for nearly a year, so I suspect you'll find it discounted in the Christmas sales. It's out now on the PC in the USA and UK, and also on the X-Box 360 in the USA and UK. The first expansion, Kane's Wrath, will be released in the Spring of 2008.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Dreamsongs, Volume I by George RR Martin

I have been reading George RR Martin's short story collection Dreamsongs for the last two weeks and it is a huge book, 1,185 pages long in hardcover and trade in the UK edition. The US edition has been split in two volumes, and as I have now reached the point in the UK edition where the US version is split, it made sense to review the first half by itself.

This book, originally published in 2003 by Subterrenean Press as GRRM: A RRetrospective, collects together GRRM's short fiction from the 1970s up until the late 1990s. Volume I covers the 1970s period of his work and includes some of his best-known stories, including Nightflyers, Sandkings, A Song for Lya, The Ice Dragon and The Way of Cross and Dragon.

Dreamsongs, Volume I is divided into five sections, each containing several short stories with a commentary by Martin at the start of each section. The sections are roughly chronological, but are also arranged by theme. GRRM's commentaries are biographical in nature, describing what in his life was driving him to write his stories at those times, and are fascinating reading in themselves. Regular readers of his work can pick up on elements and names that would later find their way into his novels or his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

The first story, Only Kids are Afriad of the Dark (1965), was written for a comic book fanzine when the author was just 17 and is obviously a bit rough compared to GRRM's later work. Nevertheless, it is fun and colourful, pitting superhero Dr. Weird against the demon prince Saagael with the safety of the world at stake. The Fortress (1968) is a purely historical work and shows a tremendous improvement on the earlier story, even though it was written only three years later (and never published prior to this collection, at least not in this form). The story is about the inexplicable surrender of Sveaborg to the Russians by the Swedes in 1808 and is a compelling account of a minor footnote in military history. And Death His Legacy (1968), a political piece from the same year, is rather more obvious in what the story is about and where it goes, but is nonetheless readable.

The Hero (1968, published 1971) was GRRM's first professional sale and it's easy to see why. The first story in his 'Thousand Worlds' mileu, it is a compelling little tale of war, heroism and what it means to be a soldier. The Exit to Santa Breta (1969, published 1971) is an effective story which is a hybrid of SF and horror (a popular piece of genre-bending with GRRM). The Second Kind of Loneliness (1971) is the first undisputed classic in the book, a tale of solitude and delusion set at the fringes of the Solar System. With Morning Comes Mistfall (1971) is equally good, and can be read as a critique of the need to know, rather than just accept and wonder.



The next batch of stories represents some of GRRM's SF output of the early 1970s, mostly set in his Thousand Worlds setting. A Song for Lya (1973) is one of his best-known SF stories, which starts out as a simple mystery and turns into a fascinating commentary on religion and the human need for company and comfort. It deservedly won George his first Hugo Award. The Tower of Ashes (1974) is less accomplished and perhaps even predictable in its final twists, but nevertheless the story holds the reader's attention and like Lya and the later Meathouse Man it clearly comes from a personal well of emotion that is quite intense. And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1974, published 1975) is more impressive, pitting a technologically primitive people against invaders wielding advanced technology and singularly fails to go all Ewok on us, building to an impressively subversive ending. The Stone City (1973, published 1977) is a remarkable story, taking us out on a journey into the depths of the Galaxy in a haunting way. It is one of GRRM's underrated masterpieces. Bitterblooms (1977) is a very different work that functions on several levels and builds to an eerie if somewhat traditional ending. The Way of Cross and Dragon (1979) is a truly great story, based on a killer premise (Judas is made a saint by a breakaway religious sect in defiance of the Catholic Church) with a terrific ending and one of GRRM's best-ever lines:

The truth will set us free. But freedom is cold and empty and frightening, and lies can often be warm and beautiful.

The next batch of stories shows GRRM's talent for fantasy and shows that he was active in this genre long before A Song of Ice and Fire. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr (1976) is a great story, featuring the girl who travels between worlds and on each world faces a different threat that stops her from travelling onwards. Some of GRRM's most striking imagery is represented in this story. The Ice Dragon (1979) is even better, featuring GRRM's first real attempt at a work set in an epic fantasy world, but told from the smallest possible point-of-view. There are many future hints of A Song of Ice and Fire in this work, and GRRM is to be commended for not retrospectively shoehorning this story into Westeros (which could be done fairly easily). In the Lost Lands (1979) is a terrific, evil fairy tale which is great fun to read with a satisfying ending.

The final batch in this first volume is based on GRRM's love of genre-bending. Ten years ago Peter F. Hamilton won great kudos for mixing SF and horror in his seminal Night's Dawn Trilogy, but GRRM was at it twenty years earlier. Meathouse Man (1974, published 1976) is a somewhat painful read for anyone who's ever felt that they didn't get relationships or how to handle them (that will be all of us at some point or another then), but for what is often described as the darkest thing GRRM ever wrote there are rays of hope shooting through the story. It is a very powerful work. Remembering Melody (1979, published 1981) is a shorter, sharper work, a piece of psychological horror that works very well. Sandkings (1979), which netted GRRM another Hugo, was probably his most well-known individual story until A Song of Ice and Fire. An SF tale, a morality play, a horror story and a psychological profile all mixed into one, it is easy to see why the story is so well-regarded, although I would argue that there are stronger stories in this collection alone. Nevertheless, it is terrific. Nightflyers (1980) is another great story, a haunted spaceship tale set in the depths of interstellar space with a crew suspicious of one another and their unseen, unknown captain. However, the ending is mildly dissatisfying and one ponders if there could have been a stronger resolution to the story. The Monkey Treatment (1981) is a much-needed dose of sunshine in an otherwise somewhat dark collection, although it is still a satisfyingly bitter and twisted thing of a tale. Nevertheless, the ending is unusually optimistic, although it will leave the reader with an insatiable desire to eat pizza. The Pear-Shaped Man (1987) won GRRM his Bram Stoker Award and is another deeply disturbing tale of psychological horror and breakdown, with a genuinely satisfying twist ending.

Dreamsongs, Volume I (*****) is an overwhelmingly impressive short story collection. With the exception of the first story, none of these tales feels old or dated, and Sandkings, Nightflyers, The Stone City, Meathouse Man, The Way of Cross and Dragon and The Ice Dragon are up there with the very best short SF fiction I have read.

Dreamsongs, Volume I is published by Bantam in the USA and is available in hardcover. Volume II will be published on 27 November.

The one-volume edition of Dreamsongs is published in Gollancz in the UK and is available in hardcover and trade paperback. The mass-market paperback version will be split in two and the first volume will be available in the spring.

The second volume features GRRM's short fiction and screenplays from the 1980s and 1990s, including his TV pilot Doorways and some of his Haviland Tuf series, along with selected stories from his contributions to the lengthy Wild Cards series and several of his other popular short fiction, including Portraits of His Children and the prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, The Hedge Knight, which is a classic story in its own right. I will be reviewing it as soon as time allows.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Update

First off, a warm welcome back to William 'Stego' Lexner, who for personal reasons had to discontinue blogging back in May. His excellent blog, I Hope I Didn't Just Give Away the Ending, is now back online again and well worth a look.

For myself, I continue reading GRRM's Dreamsongs. It is a huge book and I'm about halfway through. I may pause at the point the American edition is broken in half and review the two halves individually for clarity. It is, however, a remarkable work.

Starting a week ago, the Writers Guild of America went on strike in the United States, bringing television and film production to a standstill once they had used up their completed scripts. Essentially the dispute boils down to the American film companies refusing to give their writers increased compensation from DVD sales (the writers are still covered by a deal brought in for VHS in 1988) or indeed any kind of compensation at all for 'new media', such as iTunes downloads or streaming video over the Internet. A number of SF&F TV shows are adversely affected:

Battlestar Galactica: Ten episodes of the fourth and final season (plus the Razor TV movie airing in a week or so in the USA) are now in the can, with another 2-3 written. Even before the strike the Sci-Fi Channel had been making noises about splitting the final season in half and showing the first ten episodes in 2008 (likely starting in April) and the second ten in 2009. This is now much more likely to be the case.

Heroes: Eleven episodes are complete. Season 2 was designed to be two 'chapters' in the Heroes storyline in any case. When and how the second eleven episodes are made or aired depends on the duration of the strike.

Lost: Eight episodes of the fourth season are complete with an unknown further number written (hopes that all sixteen had been completed were dashed when Lost writers joined the picket lines). ABC are debating about delaying the entire season (which was supposed to start airing in February 2008) so all sixteen episodes can be shown together. However, this could potentially delay the show until the autumn of 2008, given that the strike is not expected to end until the early summer at the best.

A Song of Ice and Fire: George RR Martin's epic fantasy series has been optioned by HBO. A pilot episode has been writte and HBO were investigating the option to make the show thoroughly when the strike began. It is likely this project will be on indefinite hiatus until the strike ends.