Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Greasing the Wheel of Time for all it's worth

I posted a few days ago about the news leaked last week about A Memory of Light, the final novel in The Wheel of Time series. At the time some of the news I took seriously and some I considered to be inaccurate or misreported. Fortunately, I was proven right about the cover, which has now been revealed to have been a very rough mock-up created by Tor's art department, and will not be the image used on the final book, whilst the tradeback-only edition was a misreport by the Dutch website that broke the news.

The Gathering Storm, Book 12 in The Wheel of...hang on a sec, sorry I got confused. The four-year wait since the last Wheel of Time book has obviously corrupted my brain cells.

Unfortunately, everything else turned out to be accurate. Tor's official press release can be read here, editor Harriet MacDougall's comments are here and writer Brandon Sanderson has a lengthy and eye-opening essay on the situation here. So far, Orbit have not commented on the situation and the plans for UK publication of the book remain unclear.

The fanbase's reaction to the news has been mixed and although Brandon's very well-written piece has mollified opinions somewhat, it simultaneously revealed some very odd messages coming from Tor about their reasoning for the book to be split into three, rather the previously-proposed two.

The primary reason for the split is because Tor wanted to get a Wheel of Time book out in 2009: the previous volume Knife of Dreams, had been published in 2005. This is no doubt laudable on one level, as the previous biggest gap in the series had been three years, with two more common. Keeping the gap to a minimum is sensible. Tor's other excuse that if it had been more than four years than the series' profile and sales would have suffered can be immediately and summarily dismissed as utter nonsense. A Song of Ice and Fire's sales and profile grew substantially in the five year publishing gap between A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows. The gaps in Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series have reached decade-long proportions and new books in the series continue to be immediate bestsellers. It's been six years since The Da Vinci Code came out and Dan Brown's next book will likely still be an immediate hit.

As Sanderson explains in depth, if the two-volume solution had been pursued, than A Memory of Light Vol I would not have come out until the spring or summer of 2010, followed by the second half 12-18 months later. He also explains that this is because the punishing pace he has set himself for the last year and a half has left him creatively exhausted, and he also now needs to break off for a time to work on two of his own projects that are under contract to other publishers. That is fully understandable and I doubt many people would complain at this. Also, given the wait that has already elapsed for this book, I doubt many fans would have balked at learning there was another 3-6 months to wait for the first book. This is not a huge deal to the fans. In fact, splitting the book in three has entailed more work for Brandon, since each book needs additional material to make it as self-contained as possible (according to the author, 25,000 words had to be added to Volume I solely to make it as independent an entity as possible, and more will be required for Volume II), and could extend the overall size of the project to something close to 900,000 words, which is a truly vast amount (the eleven published volumes and the prequel combine to form 3.4 million words).

That the fans would wait an extra few months for the two-volume option is obviously a given, but Tor continued to issue bizarre reasons why the book had to be split in three. They lamented that booksellers with their limited shelf space would be unhappy with a big, thick fantasy book and this wasn't the 1990s any more when such books were common. They also claimed that printing and binding would make such sized books economically unviable, which is a claim that had me blinking at its self-evident absurdity.

Tor is the publisher of all the previous Wheel of Time books in the USA. The two-volume solution for A Memory of Light had each book coming in at between 350,000 and 400,000 words. Those are big books, no doubt about it, but not unreasonably so. In fact, the previous longest books in the Wheel of Time series itself were The Shadow Rising (at 393,823 words) and Lord of Chaos (at 389,264), and each just about scraped over the 1,000 page mark in mass-market paperback (the normal cut-off point for most publishers is somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 pages in mmpb for large-selling authors). So this size of book is not unprecedented in this series, let alone the genre or for the publisher.

The 1990s: when books could be published that were so huge you could use them to beat elephants to death. But apparently not any more. This book is still in print, by the way, and has sold between 3 and 4 million copies since it came out.

Tor claim that it isn't ten years ago anymore and publishing such-sized books is difficult. Well, those earlier Wheel of Time books remain in print. Let's assume that older books are cheaper to keep in print than newer ones (replenishing backstock requires much smaller and therefore cheaper print runs than publishing a new book from scratch) and that just because Tor can keep pumping out new copies of The Shadow Rising regularly, that doesn't mean they can publish a new book of the same size (which would require a much vaster print run). Except of course they provably can. Steven Erikson's eighth Malazan novel, Toll the Hounds, will be published in mass-market paperback on 4 August this year. The book will be 1,280 pages long in mmpb (for those counting, that is almost 300 pages longer than The Shadow Rising). I'm not sure of the word count, but it clearly tops 400,000 words with change left over (unless Tor are using some whacked-out typeface and margin sizes). Erikson is a traditionally low-selling author who's now making some headway, but still the most generous description I've seen of his status is 'midlist'. His American sales are a barely appreciable fraction of Jordan's, yet Tor curiously seem able to keep his books in print in both hardcover and brick-sized mass-market paperbacks, and are still doing so in this current 'difficult economic climate' (a great buzz-phrase being used by many companies to justify steps that involve milking the customer for every penny they can).

So, the problem clearly is not the two-volume option's anticipated size, nor is it printing and binding practices. Tor themselves are printing books considerably larger than the books in the two-volume option as one novel with no problem, at this current time and for release this year.

This of course also by extension dismisses the bookshelf argument. Bookstores are complaining about big books taking up shelf space they could be spent on other, smaller, better-selling and more profitable books. This is especially notable in SF, where I am informed the US bookstores have seen significant section shrinkage in recent years. Again, all of that would be fine if it wasn't for the fact that Tor themselves are publishing 1,300-page paperbacks and presumably selling them to stores (if the stores weren't ordering them, the books wouldn't be selling and Tor would presumably be dropping the series or splitting the books, which they are not) at this time. In addition, the Wheel of Time series is one of the most recognisable and marketable franchises in the entire SF&F genre, a guaranteed seller with no less than four #1 New York Times bestsellers to its name. No, bookstores would clearly stock and sell this book, especially as the penultimate book in the series would be extremely marketable as well and could lead to improved sales of the prior eleven novels before it.

Apparently Tor can't afford to publish this book and stores will not stock it if they do. But they are publishing it and stores will be stocking it. This is truly an impenetrable paradox.

So it isn't the bookstores, it isn't binding technology and it isn't the profitability of the volumes. So why is the book really being split in three?

At this point we have to switch to supposition, which readily provides two answers. The first is purely financial. The best time to bring a book out is October-November, just before the Christmas rush (but not during it, at which time it would get swamped and lost). Bringing out one book for Christmas 2009, 2010 and 2011 is clearly a better and far more profitable option than bringing out one in summer 2010 and another a year later. Tor are not doing badly at the moment, but we have seen apparently watertight companies toppling like dominoes in this recession and it would be essential to our field to keep the USA's biggest SF&F publisher going. Tor shoring up their finances in this manner and giving them a healthy balance sheet for the 2009 financial year could be extremely important to them and to the wider genre. From the POV of someone working for Tor, this course of action is even understandable and a safe bet to take.

More convincing still is the creative argument. Brandon Sanderon's first estimate was that this book would be 200,000 words. He almost immediately raised that to 400,000, and very quickly put it up to 600,000 and then 650 and then 700 and now 800,000 words. There is no reason to think that, even with the best will in the world, the book might not still expand further. With two 400,000-word volumes, there isn't much room to maneuver if the author decides he needs another 50,000 words to do justice to the story. By expanding the novel to three volumes, the author suddenly gains a fairly substantial amount of leg room if he needs the second and third volumes to be bigger than previously thought, and if he doesn't then 250,000 words is still a very substantial novel (Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold is about that long, for example).

The problem, and the reason why a lot of fans are angry with this decision, is that these answers and explanations were not offered by Tor. Instead, they attempted to hide behind marketing-speak and unconvincing spin, and to do that to the fanbase of their flagship series (Tor is sometimes called the house that The Wheel of Time built, and the success of that series has subsidised them taking a chance on many other first-time authors over the years) is pretty low.

Whatever the reasoning, the situation is at least set and we know what is going on. The Wheel of Time Book 12, A Memory of Light Volume I: The Gathering Storm (try saying it whilst drunk) will be published by Tor in the United States in November 2009. I suspect that Orbit will follow suit in the UK, although they haven't issued any statements yet.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Wire on the BBC: An Introduction

The Wire - possibly the single most critically lauded TV drama this century - makes its UK terrestial debut airing at 11.30 on Monday 30 March on BBC-2. The entire series - all 60 episodes - will air across just over three months, with one episode per weekday night (likely to be disrupted for public holidays and sporting events). The series will be available via the BBC iPlayer as well.

The BBC had previously resisted calls to screen the series, suggesting that the amount of violence, drug use and adult language in the series would push it into a late-night slot that would not garner high ratings. However, it is believed that the advent of the iPlayer, which allows episodes to be downloaded within seven days of their transmission and then watched within a further 28 days, has reduced such problems. It is also possible that better relations between the BBC and HBO (who also co-funding a certain epic fantasy project to start shooting in the autumn) have also inspired this move and, if successful, may clear the way for some of HBO's other shows to be screened by the BBC (most notably Deadwood).

Enough of the technicalities, The Wire has a reputation for being difficult to get into and overly-complex. I think that is overstated (and the very first scene is hilarious and should grab most viewers' attention), but the first episode can throw you for a loop since it starts in the middle of an already in-progress criminal case. For this reason here is a bit of a swotter's guide to help set the viewer up for the first episode.

The Case
At the start of the first episode, a murder case is underway in Baltimore, Maryland. The defendant is a young black man named D'Angelo Barksdale, who is charged with shooting dead a man named Pooh Blanchard in the lobby of 221 West Fremont, a high-rise on the poor, mostly black west side of Baltimore. The Baltimore police department is spending a lot of time arresting and harassing the street-level drug dealers in the area, but there is no major investigation going on into the actual high-players and gang leaders involved in the trade. Homicide detective Jimmy McNulty believes D'Angelo is a mid-level player in the drugs gang led by his uncle, Avon, who seems to be gaining more power and control over the city and has beaten several murder charges through intimidation and elimination of witnesss. McNulty sees an opportunity to take the fight to the leaders of the drug trade, and follows developments in the D'Angelo case closely.

The Police* & Law Enforcement
*Sometimes referred to by fans as 'po-leece' in accordance with the Baltimore accent.

Jimmy McNulty
McNulty is the nominal 'main' police character who sets the events of the whole series in motion with an indiscreet chat with a judge leading to his department being turned upside down. McNulty is forthright, opinionated and exceptionally arrogant in his confidence that he can beat any criminal, no matter how smart they are. He is also a womaniser and is fond of alcohol. McNulty has a dangerous independent streak and is not the best team-player in the world, although he is fiercely loyal to his friends and his homicide partner, Bunk.

Cedric Daniels
Lt. Daniels was once a promising officer on a fast-track career until some indiscretions by his colleagues at unit based on the eastern side of the city caused him some problems. His career has stalled for a while, leaving him as second-in-command of the narcotics department and questioning the future of his career. Nevertheless, Daniels is a loyal, tenacious and extremely professional police officer with a severe lack of patience for incompetence and an inventive streak for thinking outside the box when needed. His idealism sometimes clashes with his career ambitions.

William Rawls
Rawls is the police major in charge of the homicide department. Rawls is under constant pressure to deliver arrests and convictions to help clean up the city's shockingly bad crime clearance statistics, and is not tremendously interested in long-running, in-depth and expensive investigations that would only turn up a few convictions. He is Jimmy McNulty's nemesis and loathes him with a spectacular passion. Rawls' ability to come up with long speeches detailing McNulty's failures and his fantasies over demoting, sacking or occasionally even killing him is utterly inexhaustible. That said he's not entirely cheery with most of his other officers either, although he does seem to be inexplicably tolerant of his second-in-command, the corpulent and sarcastic Sgt. Jay Landsman, possibly because his ability to unleash abuse on his detectives is almost as impressive.

William 'The Bunk' Moreland
Jimmy's homicide partner, the Bunk is an experienced and seasoned police detective who came from the streets himself, and has a great deal of insight into how life works there. He enjoys a good drink and is often wingman to McNulty's own drunken misadventures and womanising attempts. However, the Bunk is more centered, more professional and enjoys a long-term, stable relationship with his wife. The Bunk is considered a natural homicide detective and isn't pulled into the drugs investigation that grows over the course of the first season, although his murder investigations frequently overlap with those of the narcotics division.

Kima Griggs, Ellis Carver & Thomas 'Herc' Hauk
These are rank-and-file narcotics detectives working under Daniels. Although relatively young, Carver and Herc are old-school police who believe in coercive techniques, random shake-downs and intimidation, and have little patience for long, tedious investigations. Kima is the junior member of their team, but her less confrontational method of investigation often produces better results, to their irritation.

Lester Freamon & Roland 'Prez' Pryzbylewski
Freamon was once a very promising police detective whose unflinching idealism and unwavering commitment to justice without regard for police politics has landed him in the pawnshop unit for thirteen years (and four months). Freamon is a quiet, apparently solitary man who makes dollhouse furniture as a hobby, even during casework, as a way of focusing the mind. On the other hand, 'Prez' is a highly incompetent officer (famed for once shooting up his own patrol car in a panic and then calling it in as a fake drive-by) regarded as unsuitable for investigative work who remains on the force solely due to the fact that his father-in-law is the commander of the police in the south-eastern district of the city. Both these characters debut in the second episode.

Rhonda Pearlman, Judge Daniel Phelan & Maurice Levy
The legal wing of the cast. Rhonda is the Assistant State's Attorney assigned to the narcotics cases in Baltimore. Her job is to run political cover and handle the legal paperwork for the cases involving prosecutions of drugs figures in the city. She is also involved in a casual affair with Jimmy McNulty. Daniel Phelan (not pictured) is a courthouse judge increasingly furious with the lack of progress being made in eliminating the city's drug trade, which leads him into contact with the similarly frustrated McNulty. Maurice Levy, on the other hand, is the super-slick lawyer representing the Barksdale Organisation, whose ability to get people off the hook and plea-bargaining skills are legendary.

The Street

D'Angelo 'D' Barksdale

D'Angelo is our main 'POV' character on the street side of the story in the first season. A mid-level dealer in his uncle Avon's drugs gang, D'Angelo is respected for his organisational skills but doesn't have the reputation for violence that others have. Other members of the gang suspect his position is down to his family connections. D'Angelo's interest in 'the game' often seems to be down to family loyalty and an intellectual interest (at one memorable point he likens the drugs trade to a game of chess) rather than an innate criminal nature.

Avon Barksdale & Stringer Bell
The brains of the drugs gang. Childhood friends Avon and Stringer make a formidable team. Avon has the street smarts and respect that comes from being street 'royalty' (his family have been players in Baltimore's crimeworld for decades), whilst Stringer is more naturally intelligent and thinks outside the box. Stringer's actions have seen a 'firewall' of legal red tape, cover businesses and legit enterprises being erected around Avon and his drugs money, and between Stringer and Levy's ideas, they've kept Avon out of jail. Stringer is also fascinated by business and economics, and tries to apply economic theory to the drugs game with surprisingly positive results.

Wee-Bay Brice
Wee-Bay is the Barksdale gang's chief enforcer and an old friend of Avon and Stringer's. Utterly ruthless and totally loyal, Wee-Bay is a formidable figure in the organisation. He is often given the toughest, dirtiest jobs to do for the gang, and does them without complaint.

Bodie, Poot & Wallace
These are three young drug dealers working out of the low-rise housing projects for the Barksdale Organisation. They are the lowest-ranking members of the organisation (apart from the 'hoppers', the little kids they employ to act as lookouts for the police) and provide a 'ground-eye' POV on the drug war as it escalates throughout the season. As the story progresses they catch the attention of the higher levels of the organisation, with varying results. Of the three, Bodie has the street-smarts, Poot is mostly concerned with chasing women and the youngest, Wallace (not pictured) is most concerned with his troublesome home life.

Omar Little
Omar is the leader of a 'stick-up' crew who rob drugs and money from the city's drugs gangs. Omar is driven by a unique personal code of honour which prohibits him from robbing those not involved in 'the game', and sometimes help them financially with his stolen wares. Omar enjoys a high level of respect and fear on the street, although the Barksdale Organisation is anxious to eliminate him and ensure that everyone knows of his homosexuality, although that doesn't really change anyone's opinion. Unlike virtually every other criminal in the entire series, who all sport small pistols and handguns that are easy to conceal, Omar wields a massive double-barrelled shotgun and is not reluctant to use it, either. Omar is President Obama's favourite TV character.

Reginald 'Bubbles' Cousins
'Bubbles' is an apparent down-and-out who (not very competently) forges money to fund his heroin habit. Whilst an amiable and apparently harmless figure who is frequently high on drugs, Bubbles has a formidable amount of knowledge and trivia on what's going on in the streets and, although not an obviously angry person, Bubbles can severely hold a grudge if he or his friends are hurt or abused by others. With the possible exception of McNulty and maybe Daniels, Bubbles arguably has the clearest 'story arc' spanning the first and last episodes of the entire series.

If you haven't seen The Wire before, I hope this helps set the scene. This is challenging, intelligent and gripping television the likes of which is very rarely seen these days (and arguably at a level not matched by the BBC since State of Play). Enjoy!

Charlie Brooker's assessment of The Wire.
The Wire Wiki
MSN Entertainment's own spotter's guide to the show

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Over the past decade, The Dresden Files has turned into one of the big success stories of the urban fantasy genre. Set in modern-day Chicago, it follows the fortunes of Harry Dresden, a wizard-for-hire who offers his services to those in need (and who preferably can pay him). Mixing up elements of the supernatural with a detective story format, the series has proven successful on both sides of the Atlantic with ten further books in the series published and a short-lived TV adaption proving a cult hit a couple of years back. Storm Front is the first novel in the series.

The perpetually cash-strapped Harry Dresden is given some financial relief when two cases land on his desk at the same time. A woman is searching for her husband, who has gone missing after becoming fascinated by the use of magic. Meanwhile, the police have called on Dresden's aid after two people are found dead in an apartment, their hearts apparently remotely exploded by magical means. It isn't long before Dresden is up to his neck in trouble, as the two cases start overlapping with the interests of the Mafia and Dresden's own unorthodox approach soon lands him in trouble with the guardians of magic, the White Council.

Storm Front is a decent debut novel. The plot clips along at a fair old pace, and as a mystery it's fairly well plotted and laid out. The characters are strong, with Harry making for an engaging protagonist and his circle of friends, allies and enemies all being an interesting bunch. There isn't a lot of 'weight' to the novel, and it feels a bit on the slight side, but there's much fun to be had here.

However, I wasn't too impressed by the Luddite diatribe we get no less than three pages in, in which all of the evils of the world are blamed on technology and progress. Yeah, it makes sense for Dresden to have those views as a wizard who can't use technology (his magical field causes computers and other electrically-powered items to fritz out around him), but it was a bit too preachy too early in the book and left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. Luckily this was forgotten within a few chapters as the story picked up and really got going. There are some other problems, though. The 'mystery' is completely solvable by the reader within the first fifty pages (you may be even be able to work it out from the plot synopsis on the back of the book), so waiting for Harry to catch up to where you are can be a bit mildly frustrating. The book is also inconsistent in its worldbuilding: after spending the first chapter or so telling us that no-one believes in magic and most of Harry's callers are pranksters thinking he's a nutter, we then learn that the police keep him on a retainer to investigate crimes and even average people on the street know not to look a wizard in the eye for too long, which seems self-contradicting. There's also the nagging feeling that you've seen this story before, with a few names and roles swapped around, on Angel. But, despite these problems (all of them hallmarks of a first time writer), the book is still reasonably fun to read. Butcher has an easy, approachable and undemanding prose style and after Dresden spends most of the book being passive and reactive to events, watching him go all Takeshi Kovacs at the end is a treat.

Storm Front (***) is a fun and breezy novel that is more of a light snack than a full meal, but still an enjoyable way of passing the time. I'll be checking out the remaining books in the series in the near future. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and Roc in the USA. A special limited edition from Subterranean Press came out a while ago and you may still be able to track down some copies online.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Some Major WHEEL OF TIME News

It just goes to show how quickly news can develop on the Internet.

Rand al'Thor busts some moves on the eve of the apocalypse, for some reason.

The final Wheel of Time novel, A Memory of Light, has been split into at least two but possibly three volumes (i.e. if the recession gets worse it'll be three). The first sub-volume, given the hilarious generic title The Gathering Storm, will be released in November 2009. But sub-volumes II and III (if it goes that far) will only follow at 12-month intervals. According to the website to break the news, Tor will be releasing the book in tradeback rather than hardcover, which sounds insane to me.

EDIT: Rereading the press release, I think they mean there will be a tradeback as well as a hardcover. This is still noteworthy as Tor haven't issued a volume in this series in tradeback in some considerable time.

EDIT2: Some fans seem to be clinging to the hope this is a hoax. I hope so too, but given that Barnes & Noble and Amazon.ca now both list the book under the new title (not the cover though), I really doubt it. The cover and the three-volume thing could be fake and indeed I hope it is.

EDIT3: Dragonmount have confirmed a formal announcement will follow in the next couple of days on this issue.

Brandon Sanderson's comments (via DarthAndrea on Dragonmount, many thanks!):

"I wish I could say something official, but it's just not my place. Harriet rightly gets to release information like that. I did just fire off an email to Harriet and Tor, suggesting that they respond to this and speed up their timetable for a press release.

As for that cover, that strikes me as a rough mock-up rather than the final version. For instance, I'm surprised it mentions this as a sequel to Crossroads of Twilight, rather than Knife of Dreams. (At least, I think that's what the image says. The text is kind of hard to read.)
That's just one of the things that strikes me as odd about the cover. I can't say more yet, I'm afraid.

The short of it is I doubt this is a hoax, but I also doubt that everything you see here is official. Some things are getting garbled as they get passed from ear to ear. Keep an eye out for more news, hopefully Thursday or Friday. Feel free to pass this along."

Sanderson also has a blog entry on the matter here.

In a later blog entry, Sanderson reports that he has received word from Harriet that she has not seen, approved or signed off on any cover art at all, and the cover art released must be a very rough mock-up released by accident. Sanderson also now reports that the official press release will follow early next week. Tor considered releasing it early, but had already timed the release with other news outlets, so it cannot now be changed.

At this time the only information that can be verified is that the book has been split and the first part will most likely be called The Gathering Storm (and that can change right up until the book physically enters mass-printing). The covert art and the number of volumes the book has been split into remains unconfirmed.

Additional information from Tor directly:

"There is no cover for the next Wheel of Time book available yet. The formal Wheel of Time update has been scheduled to release two weeks before JordanCon, with personal words from Harriet McDougal and Tom Doherty. This is going to be an exciting year, so we appreciate your patience and enthusiasm!

Check out Dragonmount and Tor.com on Monday morning."

There you have it.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

News and Updates

Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls: A Tale of the Ketty Jay takes off from your local bookstore in June, but if you want to get a leg-up on the story and characters, the captain of the ship is posting a blog here about events leading up to the start of the novel.

Steven Erikson has - more or less - finished the penultimate Malazan novel, Dust of Dreams. A preview chapter will be included with the paperback of Toll the Hounds but can already be read here. Blogger kcf has also provided an image of the cover:

Tor are due to issue a press release in the next week or so about A Memory of Light. Going by Brandon Sanderson's blog entries, I heavily suspect the release will be news that the book is going to be split in two with the first volume published in November 2009, but we'll see. Clarification of the news (whatever it is) should be given at JordanCon in South Carolina on the weekend of 18 April, where Brandon, Tor head honcho Tom Doherty and Robert Jordan's widow and editor Harriet will be in attendance. In the meantime, you can check out this interview with the artist working on The Eye of the World comic book, which will launch in the next couple of months.

Breaking News: A Swedish website is reporting that A Memory of Light is going to be split into three volumes released at 12-month intervals, with the first volume given the title The Gathering Storm. I'm hoping this is the Swedish translation, which would probably require more words thus splitting the books further but since Volume I is due in November 2009 that seems unlikely. If this is true, expect the fanbase to explode in rage over it very soon.

The third Dunk 'n' Egg Song of Ice and Fire prequel novella, The Mystery Knight, will now appear in the anthology Warriors, due in March 2010 from Tor. The third and final (for now) new Wild Cards book, Suicide Kings, will just precede it in December 2009, also from Tor.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Gamers & The Gamers: Dorkness Rising

Dead Gentlemen Productions started life as a bunch of friends goofing around and making zero-budget movies for their own amusement. However, after the success of their first project, Demon Hunters, in 1999 they got slightly more ambitious for their second, The Gamers, which was released in 2002. The Gamers gained a sort-of sequel, Dorkness Rising, released last year, which was a quantum leap forward in quality.

Both films are based around fantasy roleplaying games and use the device of where we see the same actors sitting around the table and then acting out the actions of their characters in the game world. The Gamers has the players sent on a quest to dispatch their recurring nemesis, the Shadow, who has captured the Princess of the kingdom. As the party's adventure continues, more and more roleplaying tropes are explored: one member of the party accidentally killing another, the replacement character simply joining the party without any in-story explanation, another player not present due to having a girlfriend resulting in his character erratically appearing and disappearing and so on. There are some exceptionally funny moments here, such as the dangers unleashed when the game designers fail to specify what weapons can and cannot be used for sneak attacks, and the intelligent use of a wizard spell to maximise the enemy's vulnerabilities to another player's special weapon. There's also an ongoing subplot in which the neighbour trying to revise for an exam constantly interrupts the group to complain about the noise. Events culminate in the final showdown and a twist ending.

The Gamers (***) is fun. It was made with limited resources and many of the key roles are not filled by actors but clearly the production team and their friends. This actually adds to the amateurish charm of the film. The writing, directing and editing are strong, especially given the team's budgetary constraints, and anyone who's played a tabletop roleplaying game will recognise a lot of the ideas used in the piece. Overall, a funny and entertaining 45-minute film.

Great movie, team, but seriously, you need a better DVD cover.

By the time the team came to make the sequel, their fortunes had increased. The success of their first two films plus another one in the interim (Demon Hunters: Dead Camper Lake) had led to them being able to put substantially more resources into The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. This time the movie is 90 minutes long and features much larger numbers of actors and extras, as well as considerably more impressive effects, costumes, make-up, sets and locations. Also, whilst references in the first movie to the actual game they were playing were deliberately kept generic, this movie is sponsored by several major companies, allowing real gaming products to be used.

This time around the plot is more involved. The dungeon master, Lodge, is trying to write an adventure for official publication, but his party keeps getting killed whilst running it. Power gamer Cass is determined to beat the game no matter what, and the party decides they need two more members to be strong enough to beat the game. Cass' ex, Joanna, joins the group and immediately brings about a change in gameplay, as she is more focused on developing her character then min-maxing her skills. Unable to attract other players (due to the group's 'reputation'), Lodge has an NPC paladin join the party (portrayed as being played by himself during the in-game sequences). The other two players, Gary and Leo, emboldened by the change in group dynamics, decide to play outside their comfort zones, the former by playing a female sorceress and the latter by playing a bard (which attracts howls of derision for the perceived weakness of the bard character class).

The campaign gets underway. The party is charged with locating a magical mask that has been stolen by an evil necromancer. Progress is hampered when Lodge and Joanna's favoured tactic of investigating the situation through dialogue and roleplay is interrupted by Gary vapourising everyone in sight with magic and Leo using his high charisma score to sleep with every woman he comes across, whilst Cass attempts to 'roleplay' his monk by making up totally inane 'wise sayings' on the spot:

"He who stumbles around in darkness with a stick is blind. But he who sticks out in darkness is...flourescent."

Unlike the first movie, the game in the sequel spans several sessions and there are sections inbetween showing how the change in gaming style is spilling over into the characters' real lives. There's also a hilariously random sequence in which the structural conceit of the film (showing the real-life game and events within the game) is applied to a pirates-and-ninjas board game with interesting results. The writer/director keeps a firm lid on things getting too emo or dramatic however, with the focus remaining firmly on the comedy and the characters. The movie's highlight is probably a sequence near the end featuring a very unique kind of 'undead' creature which may rank among the funniest things I have ever seen on screen (and gives the film a single extra-half star below).

The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (****½) is a radical improvement on the original, with stronger production values, a more ambitious script and the presence of more professional actors sustaining the longer running length very well.

Both movies are hard to get hold of in the UK, although excerpts are available on YouTube's Dead Gentlemen channel. In the USA you can get hold of them on DVD via Paizo Publishing's website. A trailer for the second movie can be found here. More information can be found on Dead Gentlemen's homepage here.

Wertzone Classics: Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

"Go tell the Spartans, strange passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
- inscription on the monument to the fallen at Thermopylae, by the poet Simonides

480 BC. The Persian Empire's invasion of Greece proceeds apace. Their army marches down the east coast meeting little resistance until they reach a narrow pass between Mount Kallidromos and the Malian Gulf, called the Hot Gates, or Gates of Fire. Here, the armies of Greece have sent a small force to delay their advance. Four thousand Greeks in all, with three hundred elite warriors of Sparta forming their core, to stand against the uncountable multitudes in service to the Persian King Xerxes. For the better part of a week, the Greeks delay the Persian advance, giving time for Athens to be evacuated and for other armies from across the Peloponnese to muster. The Persians finally exhaust more than 20,000 lives to kill less than a fifth of that number.

After the battle, advancing on Athens, Xerxes is troubled by the supreme valour of his foe, and guilt-stricken at his own orders to desecrate the corpse of Leonidas, King of Sparta and leader of the Greek coalition. He receives word that a single auxiliary in the service of Sparta has been pulled from the stack of corpses at the site of the final confrontation. Eager to learn more of his enemy, Xerxes orders that this man, Xeones, be treated and healed so he might tell his story. The captive haltingly recounts the tale of his life, how his home city of Astakos was sacked by the Argives, how the Spartans later sacked Argos in turn, and how this led to him voluntarily swearing allegiance to the Spartan cause. Xeones tells of Sparta and its military code, of its king Leonidas, of its great warriors, and of its women, whose bravery and fortitude give the Spartans their backbone. The Persians destroy Athens but suffer a naval reversal at Salamis which threatens the campaign. As they prepare to confront the remaining Greek armies at Plataea, Xerxes gradually learns the true nature of his enemy.

To anyone who hated the graphic novel and movie 300, Gates of Fire provides the antidote. If you liked 300, then Gates of Fire provides a much more accurate account (if slightly less mythic) of the same events. Of the two works, Gates of Fire is the vastly superior. Steven Pressfield is a superb writer, structuring the novel as a report from the Persian historian to his king, but at the same time telling the story of a simple Greek soldier, Xeones, whose fate becomes intermingled with that of the mighty. Pressfield's portrait of Sparta is unflinchingly brutal. This is a harsh, almost fascistic society in which the weak and crippled are killed and only the strong and fit survive. But moments of kindness and humility show that even this supreme race of warriors is still human. Pressfield is also careful to pay tribute to Sparta's allies, who often receive short shrift in recountings of the battle. The bravery and capability of the Thespians is in particular recounted, and even the Persians are humanised. Xerxes himself is a king carrying out his father Darius' planned invasion, but at times seems torn by indecision and inexperience.

Pressfield's mastery of character is impressive, with even the most positive of characters shown to have a dark side, and the darkest have their moments of charity and bravery. The book addresses the themes of honour and how a man may master his fear, but just when the testosterone threatens to overwhelm the narrative he cuts away to the women of Sparta, showing how their role and station in Spartan life is essential and without them, the Spartan men could not achieve what they must in battle.

Gates of Fire (*****) is an impeccably-researched and gloriously compelling account of war, love and honour in the struggle that secured the future of Greek - and thus European - civilisation. The novel is available now in the UK* and USA.

* Amazon.co.uk, ludicrously, doesn't have a listing for the book, so I have linked to the Book Depository website instead.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Galacticawatch 10: Season 4, Episode 20

After five and a half years it's a bit odd to be saying goodbye to Battlestar Galactica. I remember there being much scepticism over the news that the series was being 'reimagined', although the creators and actors had excellent form, but somehow it worked out better than anyone could have expected. Two seasons of almost non-stop excellence followed, and if the two subsequent seasons have been patchy, at least the show still occasionally pulled out the stops and produced some of the finest SF episodes on television in recent memory.

This episode doesn't air in some territories until later this week so beware MAJOR SPOILERS.

The final episode picks up where we left off the previous week. Adama has decided that the dying Galactica should launch a full-scale assault on the Colony to recover Hera and coincidentally destroy Cavil and his faction of Cylons forever and prevent them from pursuing the remnants of humanity across the Galaxy any more, but this (somewhat more convincing) fact is curiously still left unmentioned. With the giganormous Colony (which by my estimates is wider than the Death Star) massively outgunning the battlestar, the crew plug in the Hybridised Anders into the ship's systems, with the notion that Anders can jam the Colony's systems and prevent them from firing on the ship (similar to how he forced the Cylons to retreat from the Battle of the Ionian Nebula in the Season 4 premiere). Meanwhile, boarding teams will storm the Colony from two different directions in an attempt to rescue Hera.

The first 60-odd minutes of the finale is reasonably exciting. The CGI isn't quite up to the show's best (probably still the assault on the resurrection ship back in Season 2) and its chaotic insanity lacks the dramatic clarity of say the Battle of New Caprica, but it's still pretty jaw-dropping stuff that goes on for quite some time. Galactica ramming the Colony, Lee's boarding party (consisting of dozens of rebel Centurions as well!) storming the fortress and some intense corridor firefights result in some pretty satisfying fireworks, but at the same time there are some nice character moments. Roslin thanking Cottle for treating her for the past five years was a nice touch, and Cottle's gruff demeanour fracturing only slightly strengthened his character. Those reviewers demanding a Cottle, MD spinoff have my support, that's for sure. Six and Baltar reconcile in the heat of battle and Baltar convincingly manages to win the respect of the crew that he has been denied for so long. Meanwhile, there's a curious irony to Roslin spending some of her dying hours tending the wounded in Galactica's sickbay.

One of Battlestar's under-appreciated aspects is taking minor, secondary characters and turning them into more interesting figures, and even in the chaos of the finale it still manages to do that with Ishay (Cottle's nurse, played by Jamie Bamber's real-life wife), Cottle, Lt. Hoshi, Hot Dog and the Raptor team of Racetrack 'n' Skulls all getting some nice moments. However, the absence of other secondary characters of previous importance like Captain Kelly, Figurski, Connor and most notably Seelix is a shame. Ronald D. Moore also seems to acknowledge that the Cylon Simon was very under-developed over the course of the series and gives him more dialogue in this episode than almost all of his other appearances put together (which seem to mostly consist of Star Wars references, but nice effort anyway, I guess). It's unfortunate that Leoben and Doral, who had major roles in the premiere mini-series, don't get much of a send-off here, and the absence of a resolution to the Leoben/Starbuck relationship is a major missed opportunity, especially as a brief Leoben flashback provides a key revelation at an important moment.

The battle ramps up with the fanboy-pleasing sight of some hefty Centurion-on-Centurion violence and the return of the old First Cylon War-era Cylons to the mix as well. Boomer's story gets some decent closure and the rescue is a success. Back on Galactica we also get an explanation - sort of - for the Opera House visions that some characters have been having since the end of Season 1, whilst the significance of the Final Five is finally made clear when an opportunity for a lasting peace breaks out. RDM realises he's in danger of turning this into the Deep Space Nine finale and cleverly pulls out the story point of Tory murdering Cally seventeen episodes back to frak up the negotiations at a key moment. At this point some problems start to creep in.

Cavil chooses to commit suicide, which seems logical: he doesn't want to be killed by humans, he doesn't want to be captured by them and interrogated, and he loathes his own existence as a humanoid being. With the recovery of resurrection technology now completely impossible, he gives up and blows his own head off. The problem is that we are not really given any sense of this, just a simple "FRAK!" - BOOM! That unexpected abruptness is on the one hand right for the show and the character, but given Cavil's revelation as the series' 'main villain' just five episodes ago, it does feel a bit of a letdown he didn't have a bigger exit.

A few seconds later Racetrack's heavily-damaged Raptor manages to randomly launch its nukes and knock the Colony out of orbit. This is a bit of a cheesy plot device, but much could have been done to reduce its corniness: the earlier shot of Skulls arming the nukes could also have shown a timer being programmed for the missile launch. Also, they could have shown the Raptor locking on with its missiles and not having to be directly facing the Colony when it fired (the missiles would have turned round and homed in on the target regardless). They also seem to forget that last week a fully-powered and undamaged Raptor was sucked towards the black hole within minutes of its arrival, whilst this critically-damaged Raptor somehow maintained a relative distance for a much longer period of time. Like most minor, petty annoyances in television, it's one of those things that could have been fixed if any more than about three minutes' thought had been assigned to it.

Anyway, the Colony starts getting sucked down the black hole and Kara inputs coordinates into the jump computer, using the numbers she'd previously assigned to the notes of the song her dad taught her when younger. Galactica jumps just before the Colony is destroyed (although the actual destruction happens off-screen, confusing some viewers who'd assumed that the Colony, presumably still with lots of hostile Centurions and humanoid Cylons on board, survived). Coming out the other side, Galactica finally suffers her systematic hull failure. The ship's load-bearing members snap and it becomes a barely-inhabitable, barely-powered hulk in space. Luckily, Kara's coordinates have borne the ship into orbit around a strangely familiar blue-green planet. The rest of the Fleet is gathered and the decision is taken to settle on the planet, where primitive tribal humans are already found to exist. The Centurions are given the rebel basestar and they set out to explore the universe by themselves.

The rest of the episode is what has not to much split the fanbase as shattered it. The Colonials agree to settle on the new planet. Adama suggests they name it 'Earth', since for four years they pursued the dream of Earth only to find it a shattered, nuked-out wasteland. This planet is the real home they have been hoping for all along. Roslin dies peacefully in a Raptor whilst looking over hordes of flamingoes (a sentence I never expected to be typing) and Adama decides to build that cabin they talked about long ago, over a joint on New Caprica. That stuff is all fine and is a good endpoint for the characters. Similarly, Athena, Helo and Hera settling down as a family is great as well, providing closure for Athena and Helo's long exile on irradiated Caprica at the start of the series. Six and Baltar are reconciled and Baltar goes back to his farming roots, which is a nice callback to the humble origins he scornfully rejected later on. Tyrol becoming tired of life and people and going off settle in Scotland is a little bit weirder, but given that he has been repeatedly shafted over the course of the series, it is almost understandable. Ellen and Saul end up together again as well, which is as it should be.

Elsewhere, issues start to creep in. The initial plan is to settle on the planet and build a city, as they planned but didn't quite pull off on New Caprica. Possibly due to that (someone could have mentioned that failure as a reason they didn't do the same this time around), but Lee's idea is for the people to scatter into smaller groups and settle all around the planet instead. He also spouts some rather dubious stuff about the need to spiritually cleanse themselves by getting rid of their ships and technology (although Adama gets to keep a Raptor, obviously). Erm, what? The ships are stripped of supplies, so they obviously aren't going totally back to basics (I'm assuming they took as much medicine, food and books as they could carry) but it's still a very bizarre decision to take. Then Anders pilots the Galactica, along with some of the other ships in the Fleet (but not all of them; there are about 60-70 surviving ships in the Fleet and only about a dozen are destroyed at the end), into the Sun. Galactica was dying anyway, so fair enough, but throughout the episode we saw definite signs of improvement in Anders' condition, at different points responding directly to things being said by Tyrol and Starbuck, so the sudden requirement for him to die comes out of nowhere. Again, a single line from Cottle about his condition being irreversible would have solved this problem.

Anyway, that brings us to the fate of Starbuck, and the revelation of the 'head-people', two things we were specifically promised would be explained. Ronald D. Moore shot himself in the foot here, first by promising those things would be explained when they are not. If he'd said, "No," to both questions that would be fair enough (annoying, but at least no promises would have been made and then broken). He also made a huge mistake by ruling out Daniel - the seventh Cylon of the original models - as being Starbuck's father. The finale doesn't address that or mention Daniel at all. If RDM hadn't ruled out that possibility, a lot of the people now moaning over the finale would have concluded that was the explanation, which was extremely heavily alluded to (apparently mistakenly) by Someone to Watch Over Me and No Exit, and been a lot more satisfied. That then makes Starbuck just vanishing into thin air somewhat more palatable. Basically, Starbuck turns out to be Gandalf the White, sent back to finish her work after a premature death, and then called back home when her task is completed. That's a great mythic idea and could have been really well-handled, if the writers had thought it through a lot better. The prophecy of the First Hybrid in Razor doesn't entirely track with the resolution of Starbuck's story, and no explanation is given for Starbuck having three Vipers (one which exploded in the atmosphere of a gas giant, after which it would have been crushed by pressure; a second one that was semi-intact but crash-landed on the 13th Tribe's Earth; and the new one she flew back to Galactica). I'm still unclear if Starbuck flew to Real Earth or the 13th Tribe's Earth at the end of Season 3 either: the pictures she took showed Real Earth, but her transponder was found on 13th Tribe Earth. It's very confusing, especially when you start throwing in the constellations from the Tomb of Athena on Kobol and comparing them to the constellations at Real Earth but then Gaeta said the constellations matched at 13th Tribe Earth as well.

It is these elements that ultimately leave a hollow taste in the mouth. The creative team didn't have a plan, and deliberately introduced complex, mythological ideas and concepts that needed some forethought to be developed satisfyingly without any idea of how to resolve them. Instead, the writers and producers didn't bother and the clues they seeded along the way turned out to be random, or mistakes that needed retconning, or fake-outs.

The final scene of the series takes place 150,000 years after the Colonials settle on the real Earth, and show Head-Baltar and Head-Six in New York City. The remains of the oldest 'common ancestor' for modern humanity have been found in Tanzania, and dialogue between the two reveals that this was Hera. This at least was a reasonable resolution, since Hera's importance to the show and to the survival of humanity and Cylons alike has been a key plot point since her conception in Season 1. Without her, it is possible that all three strains of life (Cylon, human and the primitive Earthlings) would have died out altogether. The two 'head' characters discuss how God's plan has worked out ("You know it doesn't like being called that!") and then walk off along Times Square whilst the Jimi Hendrix version of 'All Along the Watchtower' kicks in over TV footage of new developments in robotics technology.

On one level this is kind of appropriate, although we didn't need a full minute of shots of various crazy Japanese robots, which is a bit like using a piledriver to crack a nut. We get it. Creating robots and AI and treating it badly is not a good idea. However, the failure to get any kind of closure or conclusion for the head characters is frustrating as well. They were, it turns out, literally 'angels' sent by 'God' to save the day, as was (in a different form) Starbuck. Well. Okay. Right. Was God one of the Lords of Kobol? A hyper-advanced quantum AI built into the fabric of the Universe? An ultra-futuristic posthuman with cognitative powers not bound by mere temporal physics? A Pah-Wraith? Dirk Benedict (don't laugh, this was seriously considered at one point)? I suppose the idea is that it's left up to the audience and any explanation the writers could come up with would be derided no matter what it was, but to my mind just saying, "God did it," is just as much of a cop-out as "God is a computer,". On one level I like the idea of the answer being what you want it to be. On the other, that seems lame: isn't this stuff what the writers get paid to think of? I'm going back and forth between the two poles at the moment.

Judging the flaws in the BSG finale, it is easy to come to the conclusion it was a totally poor end to the story. It wasn't. The Fleet found a final home, Hera's importance in the grand scheme of things was confirmed, the hostile Cylons were defeated and destroyed once and for all, Roslin met her long ago-promised destiny and a tangible link between our world and the show's was established. The actors were on top form, the thematic bookends to Boomer, Starbuck and Roslin's stories provided by the flashbacks was strong and the action story was pretty impressive. The forward-moving story of the series ended in a somewhat decent place, and emotionally the finale hit most of the right buttons. But the lack of answers given for elements we were explicitly promised answers for, and the sense of the writers simply not being able to come up with pay-offs equal to the mysteries they had created and simply walking away from those elements of the story with nothing resolved feels a bit cheap.

BSG was (mostly) a very good series that won 'proper' SF a level of respect and mainstream acclaim the genre hasn't seen before, and hopefully future SF series will build on that foundation. There is also a warning here about trying to create a serialised story with no pre-planning and biting off more than you can chew, which I hope future SF TV shows will also heed.

Daybreak, Part 2 (****, yes, despite the problems) was a flawed ending to a flawed show that nevertheless was frequently entertaining and thought-provoking, and showed a new and different approach to science fiction storytelling on television. It wasn't the best SF finale ever (Deep Space Nine's, Babylon 5's and even the nihilistic Blake's 7's were all much better conceived and executed), but it wasn't the total car-crashing-into-a-flaming-gas-station disaster I've seen it described as elsewhere.

And the question for next year is, can Lost deliver a finale that is both emotionally satisfying and also closes all the mysteries and answers all the questions? Guess we'll find out in about fourteen months.

Forthcoming: A new BSG TV movie, The Plan, will air later this year, possibly in November. This will answer a number of lingering questions from the series, although probably none of the big mysteries from the finale. Those still wondering who Shelly Godfrey was (the Six that infiltrated the Fleet and caused big problems for Baltar in a Season 1 episode), how Ellen got off Picon during the Cylon attack or how Caprica Six and Boomer convinced the other Cylons to 'give peace a chance' at the end of Season 2 will get their questions answered, however.

Caprica, the BSG prequel series, begins airing in early 2010, but the pilot movie will be available on DVD in the USA next month. No UK release date has been set so far.

Galacticawatch 9: Season 4, Episodes 16-19

The clock is ticking. The punishment that the already-50-years-old Galactica has sustained over the last four years has caught up with her and the ship is suffering minor hull breaches, fractures in the load-bearing beams and is starting down the slope that will lead to total structural failure. Meanwhile, the revelation of the Final Five's past has meant that they now have a greater understanding of the Cycle of Time and what it means, but not what that means for their own future.

Deadlock sees Ellen Tigh and Boomer return to Galactica. Naturally Ellen's return is an excellent opportunity for the remaining members of the Final Five to get the answers they couldn't get from Anders the prior week before he passed out. Except they don't, for reasons never adequately explained. Also, remember how Tigh killed Ellen in Exodus Part II? You do? Excellent! The writers, however, do not, and that fact isn't even addressed. Also remember how Caprica-Six turned out to be pregnant? Apparently the writers did that because it was 'interesting' rather than because they had any idea on how to resolve it, so this episode arbitrarily kills off the unborn baby. In a subplot that redefines the meaning of the word 'random', Baltar convinces Adama to give heavy weaponry to his harem and employ them as an auxiliary security force.

Deadlock is pretty much a total disaster of an episode. It's not just inconsistent with the previous episode, it renders it totally nonsensical. At the end of No Exit Tory is muttering about not getting a chance to ask Anders about his song which switched them on ('All Along the Watchtower'), whilst Tyrol was bemused to hear about the 'head-beings' that the Final Five had apparently seen whilst on Earth. Do either of them ask Ellen about these matters instead? No. Not even remotely. The episode instead descends into mawkish soap opera relationship shenanigans which really don't work at all. Michael Hogan deserves some kind of award for heroic acting in the face of an incoherent and nonsensical script (despite everything, he totally sells the loss of his child at the end of the episode and his performance is 100% responsible for the extra star this episode gets below).

Someone to Watch Over Me is a far superior and more interesting episode, which considering it consists largely of Starbuck re-learning how to play the piano may sound insane. However, it's written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, responsible for many of the series' high points, and for my money the only writers to really 'get' Starbuck. This episode is a thematic sequel to the earlier Maelstrom, but those hoping for an explanation of how Starbuck came back from the dead are in for a disappointment (and the answer this episode is apparently leaning towards giving turns out to be an unintended red herring). Instead, Starbuck spends the episode developing a curious bond with a new piano player in the bar, even going as far as confessing her discovery of her own corpse on Earth. As Starbuck struggles to remember a melody from childhood it falls to the somewhat-neglected Hera, the child of Athena and Helo, to provide the missing piece and, sure enough, the song turns out to be hugely significant, finally providing a major clue as to what Hera's much-discussed role in events is. Of course, the crew only realise this just as Boomer is freed from prison (after playing Tyrol like a chump), kidnapping Hera and gets off the ship. Whoops. This is a pretty strong episode sold by a great performance by Sackhoff with an exciting climax that recalls the strongest moments of the series to date.

Islanded in a Stream of Stars is a quieter episode, mainly dealing with the emotional fall-out from Hera's abduction and the Fleet's abortive attempts to locate the Colony, Cavil's base of operations. On a plot level, the episode is somewhat static, but instead we are really shown how Galactica is dying and in its death throes it is tearing Adama's heart out along with it. This is well-played (although it gives us another 'Adama breakdown' scene, which is getting a bit old) and the final scene with Adama and Tigh is excellent. Elsewhere, Baltar learns Starbuck's secret and shares it with the entire Fleet, but Starbuck finds the response and the support surprisingly positive. Anders is hooked up to the Cylon datastream to try to reboot his mind, but instead it turns him into a Hybrid, which is a surprising turn of events. Overall, the episode is reasonably watchable but there is a distinct sense here that money is being saved for the big finale.

That finale kicks off with the first part of Daybreak. As a stand-alone episode, it is odd and doesn't really work, but as the first third of a longer story it is more effective. Unexpectedly, we are taken back (complete with some absolutely stunning CGI cityscapes) to Caprica two or three years before the Cylon attack and get to meet Roslin just before she lost most of her family in a car crash, and the first meeting of Lee and Kara and also Baltar and Caprica-Six. There's some great character moments here, such as meeting Baltar's father and seeing more of his background, but the timing feels a little bit odd. A season or two back this material would have been fascinating, but coming at the end of the series it feels a bit out of place.

In the present, the crew are preparing to abandon Galactica but Adama is dissatisfied at the way the ship is going to be left to die alone in space. When he learns that photos of the fallen are being left in the hallway of remembrance because the people who put them up are themselves now dead, he snaps and decides that going after Hera, and in the process giving Cavil a bloody nose and sending Galactica out in a blaze of glory is the way to go. Somewhat bizarrely he doesn't really sell the (considerable) military benefits of the operation to his crew, instead asking them to just come along because Hera's a nice kid. Unsurprisingly he doesn't get a huge number of volunteers. Hey Adama, you suck at PR. Never go into politics. Anyway, he does just about manage to scrape together the barely viable number of crewmen needed by pardoning a bunch of the former mutineers and the mission is on! Thanks to Anders' new Hybridness they track the Colony to the accretion disk of a black hole and learn there is no other way in or out of the local system except just dropping right on top of the Colony and opening fire. So plans are formulated, gruff and stoic looks are exchanged and the 'to be continued caption' drops inevitable into place.

Wowsers. I'll be discussing the (massively) controversial final episode in its own review in a day or two, so stay tuned for that.

416: Deadlock (**)
417: Someone to Watch Over Me (****½)
418: Islanded in a Stream of Stars (***½)
419: Daybreak, Part 1 (***½)

Forthcoming: The Plan (late 2009), Caprica (April 2009 on DVD, early 2010 on TV).

Friday, 20 March 2009

Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss

Hothouse is a 'fixup' novel originally published in 1962, comprising five novelettes originally published in 1961 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The combined novelettes were jointly awarded the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction (and not Best Novel as sometimes claimed: that went to Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land that year). In those pre-modern telecommunications days, the first the author knew of the achievement was when the award turned up on his doorstep.

Hothouse, for a long time published under the title The Long Afternoon of the Earth, is set in an vastly distant future when the Sun has begun to swell to its nova stage. The Earth has become tidal-locked, with one face always pointing towards the Sun, and the Moon has drifted out of orbit around the Earth into a co-orbiting position around the Sun, where it has become tethered to the Earth in vast cobwebs spun by mile-long spider-like entities. As the eons have passed, most forms of animal life on Earth have perished, allowing the plants to become dominant. A vast banyan tree now covers most of the Indian subcontinent, with a few surviving tribes of humans (now shrunk to a small size by evolutionary needs) running around its city-sized branches in constant fear of the mythical 'ground'.

The book follows the fortunes of one such tribe when the adults decide the time has come to ascend via the strands to the Moon, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The actions of the wilful man-child Gren sees the group splintered, and Gren's encounter with an intelligent but parasitic entity known as the morel leads him and his mate on a long, curious journey through the landscape of the dying world.

Hothouse fits firmly into the 'Dying Earth' subgenre of SF&F, preceded by Vance's Dying Earth books and followed by Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Hothouse is deliberately not a hard SF novel - orbital dynamics would prevent the Earth and Moon being permanently tethered together - but a sort of picturesque travelogue through a bizarre and often grotesque land of fat 'tummy-belly' men, giant stalkers, sentient mosses and flying predators. In terms of atmosphere it is stunning and Aldiss' inventiveness does not let up, with every other page seemingly bringing new creatures, new races and new ideas to the reader.

As Neil Gaiman's introduction says, it is not a conventional or modern novel. Characterisation is not the focus of the book and although Gren is an interestingly-drawn protagonist, the actions and thought-processes of the post-human characters are so far removed from our own that they are not always easy to relate to. But Aldiss' lesson in this book, as much as there is one, is that life, even in some distant, alien and unfathomable way, will still find a means to survive and propagate.

Hothouse (****½) is a demented, dark fairy tale of survival at the end of time, and is weird, baffling but sometimes brilliant work of the imagination. It is available now in the Penguin Modern Classics range in the UK and in the IDW New Classics of the Fantastic range in the USA.

The 2009 Hugo Award Nominations

Every year this award gets more eye-openingly bemusing and seems to drift even further from the tastes of the general SF&F-reading public. It wasn't helped by 2008 not being the best year for the genre, but still, SF fans should really have been able to come up with something better than this.

Best Novel
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

A bit of a lukewarm list, with the Hugo's blatant anti-fantasy bias in the face of the continued decline of quality SF becoming more tiresome. The absence of Terry Pratchett's Nation and Daniel Abraham's An Autumn War is naturally ludicrous, but Stephenson and Doctorow were always going to get nominated (even though Little Brother is a bit of a misfire, although enjoyable to read). The seemingly automatic inclusion of Charles Stross every year regardless is starting to get a little bit silly though, especially given the continued absences of the other British SF powerhouses of the moment, Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan. The Temporal Void, House of Suns and The Steel Remains would all have been worthy inclusions on the list, but suffered from the traditional split publication problem (all three came out in the UK in 2008 and 2009 in the USA).

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Iron Man

The massively overrated Dark Knight will no doubt walk off with this (although better than the so-bad-it's-brilliant Iron Man, for which Robert Downey Jr. deserves a special award for single-handedly preventing the movie from being totally unwatchable), although a nod to the far more SFnal WALL-E is possible.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Lost: The Constant
Battlestar Galactica: Revelations
Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog
Doctor Who: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
Doctor Who: Turn Left

A better selection that other recent years, where the most SF shows on TV (Battlestar Galactica and increasingly Lost) have gone totally ignored. In a logical universe this would be a closely-fought battle to the death between BSG's best episode in ages, Lost's best episode ever and Doctor Horrible (proof that, Dollhouse not withstanding, Joss Whedon can still be one of the funniest and cleverest writers in television). In reality we know that Doctor Who will win. Even more irritatingly, whilst last year the genuinely best episode of new Who won, this year the best episode of the season (Midnight) was ignored in favour of the illogical and bitty Silence in the Library two-parter. Turn Left isn't too bad and proves that Catherine Tate can actually act, but it's a long way from batting at the same level as the other shows nominated.

Best Editor, Long Form
Lou Anders
Ginjer Buchanan
David G. Hartwell
Beth Meacham
Patrick Nielsen Hayden

It's understandable this is award is usually an Americans-only club, but it would be nice if one year some of the excellent British or international editors got a look-in.