Monday, 29 June 2009

HARM by Brian W. Aldiss

Paul Ali, a young British writer with Muslim parents but who calls himself a secularist, has written and published a comic novel in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse. The book attracted some minor attention and made him a very small amount of money. One passage, in which the protagonists joke about what would happen if the Prime Minister was assassinated, has attracted the attention of the Hostile Activities Research Ministry. After learning that Ali visited Saudi Arabia on holiday recently, HARM arrests Ali as a suspected terrorist and sets about finding the truth from any means necessary.

As Ali is interrogated, he escapes from the degradation and torture by constructing a fantasy world, Stygia, where in the distant future humans have sent a colonisation ship from Earth. The passengers were molecularly disassembled for transit, but their reconstitution did not go as planned and now the people are confused, or brain-damaged, or have problems with language. In this world Ali is Fremant, a bodyguard for the colony's deranged leader, Astaroth. As Astaroth prosecutes a genocidal war against the native inhabitants, the Dogovers, Fremant's loyalties are torn. There is upheaval in Stygia, war and revolution are coming, and what happens in the real world and in Ali's mind starts to reflect more and more on one another.

Brian Aldiss may be in his 80s now, but HARM (published in 2007) shows that his formidable powers as a writer have not diminished with age. In this novel Aldiss is clearly angry over what Britain and her allies did and became in the 'war on terror', but pulls himself back from a kneejerk polemical attack on the policies of the Bush-Blair axis. Instead he analyses the situation through the lens of SF, making the point that the brutal and oppressive measures that had been adopted were the result of fear and ignorance, an urgent need to distill complex issues down to a hopelessly naive black-and-white, us-and-them situation. At the same time, he also points out the reality of the threats that do exist and threaten us, and in the end offers no neat or pat answers because they simply do not exist.

All of this may make HARM sound like a tiresome political treatise rather than as a novel, but nothing could be further from the truth. Aldiss' engagement with the issues does not detract from the story, which is a dizzying multi-stranded narrative occupying two different levels of reality and how the state of Ali's mind in the 'real' world impacts on that of Fremant on Stygia. Aldiss' formidable powers of SF worldbuilding are again on display here, with the hostile insects and fauna of Stygia recalling the grotesque genius of Hothouse, whilst descriptions of the journey through space from Earth echo elements in Non-Stop. But HARM is its own, dizzyingly intelligent book.

The novel concludes with both an author's note and a fascinating interview between the author and his publisher in which analyses his motives in writing the book and where it sits compared to some of his other novels.

HARM (****½) is firey, smart and compelling (I read the book in one sitting), urgent in tone and convincing in argument. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Earth-Thunder by Patrick Tilley

The epic Battle of the Trading Post and the bloody Battle of Twin Forks have changed the political balance of power in post-apocalypse North America. The Plainfolk are now determined to work together to prepare for the coming of their messiah, the Talisman, whilst the Iron Masters are wracked by internal disputes. Aware that the Iron Masters will not simply accept the loss of so many of their troops in recent battles, Cadillac and Roz decide to travel into Ne-Issan to secure peace and encourage the beginnings of a new civil conflict within the country. Meanwhile, Steve's attempts to keep a foot in both the Plainfolk and Federation camps continue as his star rises and he is made a member of the ruling First Family. But the higher he climbs, the greater the distance to fall...

When the captive Clearwater goes into labour at the precise moment Mount Saint Helens explodes with tremendous force, the First Family realises the Talisman Prophecy's fulfilment is at hand and the future of their war to take control of the surface world is about to be decided.

Earth-Thunder is the sixth and concluding volume of The Amtrak Wars. Patrick Tilley envisaged a twelve-volume epic divided into two sub-series spanning decades of history. However, after completing the sixth book he felt burnt-out and wanted to take a break. Life seems to have gotten in the way, and he has not released a new book since, despite occasional rumblings that a seventh book, called Ghost Rider, would appear. Whilst regrettable, it does mean that The Amtrak Wars has, for an SF/fantasy series, a surprisingly dark and grim ending (although not completely shorn of hope) which avoids cliche.

There's a nice reversal of roles in this book as Roz joins Cadillac on the surface and Steve has to return to the Federation, where he scales the ladder of promotion and success and has to navigate between different factions within the First Family with different visions of how the Federation is to move forwards. Whilst an interesting diversion it's not entirely successful. Part of the fun of the series is seeing Steve on the front line surviving by his wits. Having him back at base trying to learn Japanese and getting dubious offers from conflicting factions in the government is less compelling. This is made up for by Roz and Cadillac's journey into Ne-Issan, playing off the factions against one another in a morally dubious story of murder, skulduggery and intrigue. It's good stuff.

Where the novel succeeds is the final part of the book. With the series coming to an end Tilley - hardly a squeamish author at the best of times - has no problem with gunning down major characters and a real sense of the story spinning out of control comes to the fore, culminating in a surprising climax. There is then an epilogue (unless you have the 1998 edition, which removed it) which clarifies some of the events which took place in the two years following the end of the series which does give a much better sense of conclusion and finality to the story. Perhaps not ideal, but certainly better than getting no answers at all.

Earth-Thunder (***½) brings The Amtrak Wars to a reasonable, if surprisingly bleak, conclusion. Second-hand copies of the book are available via but not on (not for less than $40 anyway).

The Revelation Space books by chronology

With the news circulating about Alastair Reynolds' major new publishing deal, I've noticed that there's been a fair bit of interest circulating on forums by people who haven't tried reading him before and want to know where to start.

For the stand-alones, it's pretty straightforward. The novels Century Rain, Pushing Ice, House of Suns and the forthcoming Terminal World are all set in their own universes with no link to each other or to his main series. The short story collection Zima Blue also consists of stand-alone stories or stories that are linked to one another, but nothing outside the collection. Out of all of these I would strongly recommend Pushing Ice as a solid starting point for its 'Big Dumb Object' SF style and its use of relativistic science, with some excellent characters and a solid story also present. Century Rain, whilst slightly weaker, does showcase Reynolds' interest in out-of-the-box thinking and his interest in noir thrillers.

The reading order for Reynolds' Revelation Space universe stories is altogether more complex, with the novels overlapping with the short stories (collected in Galactic North) and the two novellas (collected in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days).

This is the chronological order for the short stories, novels and novellas:

'Great Wall of Mars' *
'Glacial' *
'A Spy in Europa' *
'Weather' *
The Prefect
'Dilation Sleep' *
'Diamond Dogs' **
'Turquoise Days' **
'Grafenwalder's Bestiary' *
'Nightingale' *
Chasm City
Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap
'Galactic North' *

* Story in Galactic North
** Novella in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days

Whether this is the best reading order for the books or not is debatable. I think it mostly works, although The Prefect may have more impact if read after the trilogy (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap) when the reader is more familiar with the Conjoiner and Ultra factions. Also 'Weather' contains the answer to a major mystery from the trilogy about the Conjoiner lighthugger drives and may benefit from being read later on.

What I would say is that 'Great Wall of Mars' and 'Glacial' should definitely be read before the trilogy, as they introduce characters who otherwise show up out of nowhere in Redemption Ark, and 'Galactic North' (the story) should be read after everything else as it explains the (somewhat puzzling) ending to Absolution Gap and puts something of a full stop on the whole series and story. Chasm City can be read before or after the trilogy, but benefits much more from being read before as some of its characters play a role in Revelation Space.

Life on Mars: Season 2

Sam Tyler is still stuck in 1973, unsure if he has somehow really travelled backwards in time or if he is merely stuck in a coma in 2006 and is fantasising everything that is happening to him. However, now he has been there for a few weeks he is getting more used to life in the 1970s and is starting to downplay the unusual auditory and visual hallucinations he continues to suffer from. But, just as things seem to be settling down, questions about Sam's previous 1970s life in 'Hyde' before relocating to Manchester arise, and set in chain a sequence of events which could lead Sam home...wherever that is.

Life on Mars' second season was the last, due to a combination of the producers not wishing to over-exploit the concept and lead actor John Simm's well-known reluctance to be typecast in a long-running television series. It was a bold decision for a series that had become a big hit on British television and done the seemingly impossible by getting audiences fired up over a cop show.

The second season offers up pretty much more of the same as the first season: Sam and Gene butt heads over their different approaches to policing, but they have, grudgingly, accepted that each has skills the other does not, and when they combine their approaches it often leads to good results. Sam and Annie continue to not quite get it together in the tradition of all great TV will-they, won't-they romances, and Sam continues to be haunted by hallucinations of his life in 2006 which relate to his current situation in 1973. The show also moves onto slightly more contentious ground in Season 2 by covering the more controversial subject of IRA terrorism in one episode whilst continuing to examine the extent of corruption and heavy-handed methods in the 1970s police force.

"You great, soft, sissy, girly, nancy, French, bender, Man United-supporting poof!"
- Gene Hunt's appraisal of Sam Tyler

In my review of Season 1, I mentioned that the show's continuous use of Sam's odd mental state occasionally gets a little exasperating, as sometimes you'd quite like to just see Sam and Gene butt heads and then solve the crime without Sam freaking out every twenty minutes. The producers play on this in two episodes in particular in the second season, one in which Sam doesn't have any odd experiences and starts getting worried about the lack of them, and another in which Sam reacts very badly to whatever is happening to him in the present and has to sit most of the investigation out. This latter episode, which is by far the most 'freak-out' intensive of the series, also perversely is one of the very best episodes, with flashbacks showing how they operated before he arrived (and giving rise to the unusual sight of scenes not featuring Sam, which feels odd as he is in every other single scene of every other episode of the whole series).

Of course, as good as the individual episodes are (and they are pretty damn good), the one episode that everyone will be left talking about is the very last one. British SF is awash with series-ending episodes that leave the audience reeling and talking about them for years or decades afterwards: Blake's 7, Sapphire and Steel and The Prisoner being the most notable (Quantum Leap's befuddling finale is probably the USA's closest equivalent). Life on Mars joins their august ranks with a finale that takes the viewer on a crazy existential rollercoaster ride as we finally get an answer for what is going on with Sam, but that answer is in turn supplanted by another, contradictory one in a manner that would make Christopher Priest proud. Which is the truth and which do we believe? The finale operates on multiple levels of reality with the viewer not quite able to trust what is going on. There is a very clear 'obvious' possible answer for what is going on, but just as with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, that 'obvious' answer still leaves other, key questions unanswered.

Taken in isolation, Life on Mars' finale is very strong indeed. However, the news that a sequel/spin-off series was forthcoming which would shed more light on events did dilute the strength of that finale a bit, and Ashes to Ashes' plot developments have indeed plunged much of what we thought we knew from Life on Mars' finale into doubt. But further examination of that series is for another review.

The second season of Life on Mars (****½) is thoroughly entertaining, funny, thought-provoking and just the right side of ambiguous. It draws a line under the series and sets up the sequel series quite nicely. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and will be released in the USA on DVD in November.

Friday, 26 June 2009

New Daniel Abraham series on the way

With the publication of The Price of Spring, the final volume of Daniel Abraham's magnificent Long Price Quartet sequence (the most underrated fantasy series of modern times), due in just a few weeks, the author recently spoke on the forum about his planned new five-volume series, The Dagger and the Coin.

"Now It Can Be Told.

Bad news first: The new project didn't get picked up by Tor. That's a bummer, because I really liked working with those guys, and I'll miss them. But the economy's in the crapper, and apparently they're being very bottom-line conscious, and the Long Price books -- despite great reviews and all -- didn't move as many copies as they had hoped. I'm not happy about it, but I respect that it's business.

Good news next: My agent shopped the new proposal around, and we got a fair amount of interest from other publishers, with the upshot that Orbit (my UK publisher) bought world rights to the new series in what the trade papers are calling "a good deal." One thing I thought was particularly interesting: there's a clause in it that dock's a fair percentage of my advance if I don't turn the books in on time. So just be aware that the guys at Orbit have got all y'all's back.

But the new project -- The Dagger and the Coin -- starts up next year. It's a very different project from the Long Price books. I'm not using the same jump between books I did with Long Price. The magic system's totally different (and I love the hell out of it). The pace is faster. I'm very conscious of the influences I'm cultivating going into it -- Walter Tevis, Alexandre Dumas, Tolkien, J. Michael Straczynski, Joss Whedon, GRRM, Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, Dorothy Dunnett, Tim Parks -- and I'm trying to take the things that I love about each one of them and make a stew out of it. It's set right at the friction point between the medieval period and the renaissance, so we've got knights and kings, but we also have merchant houses and finance. There's some magic of the understated magic. There's political intrigue. There's a girl who was raised as the ward of a Medici-style bank, there's a high nobleman who's gotten himself and his family in over his head, there's an emotionally scarred mercenary captain straight out of Dumas.

The point of it all is to make a book that reads to me now the way that the Belgariad did when I was 16. I'm going to be swimming in everything I think is cool for the next year. I'm *really* looking forward to it."

Exciting news. The Price of Spring is published on 21 July in the USA and in the UK, along with An Autumn War, as part of Seasons of War, the second Long Price omnibus from Orbit on 3 September.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Life on Mars: Season 1

In 2006, 37-year-old Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a Detective Chief Inspector with the Greater Manchester police force, investigating a spate of murders of young women. His frustration with the lack of progress in the case spills over into his personal life when he suspends his girlfriend and fellow officer Maya from the case, fearing their personal issues are interfering with their working relationship. Furious, Maya follows upon a new lead and goes missing. Fearing she has been kidnapped as well, a distraught and distracted Sam is hit by a car near a motorway overpass. When he wakes up the overpass has gone, his clothes and car have changed, his iPod (playing David Bowie's greatest hits) has been replaced by an eight-track and the year is apparently now 1973.

An extremely confused Sam discovers he is now a Detective Inspector with the same police force, now serving under DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). He is unable to work out if he has gone mad, suffering a coma-induced delusion or has somehow really travelled back in time. As he tries to figure out what is going on, he discovers uncanny parallels between the case the team is following in 1973 and his own investigation in 2006 and realises he may be able to save Maya by changing history, but if all of this is in his mind, how can that be?

Life on Mars was a huge smash hit for the BBC when it aired as two seasons in 2006 and 2007. Its spin-off/sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, has maintained this success with that show's third and final season due to air next year. A US remake, which resets the action to New York City, was well-received earlier this year but low ratings saw it canned after half a season (although they got a - pretty ludicrous - explanation for their mystery in the final episode). This is 'high concept' TV, where the writers can sum up the idea in one sentence and the TV exec's immediate reaction is "We have to make this." The original thought was to make a straight 1970s cop show, but this ran into difficulties since any realistic show would not paint the police of the time - sometimes racist, misogynistic and hopelessly corrupt - in the best light. By having a modern, by-the-book, politically correct copper joining a 1970s team they created a very strong opportunity for drama and social commentary which, by and large, works well.

"I think you've forgotten who you're talking to."
"An overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding."
"You make that sound like a bad thing."

- Gene Hunt & Sam Tyler, Life on Mars

The show is bolstered by its two leads, John Simm and Philip Glenister as the confused Sam Tyler and the magnificent Gene Hunt, an old-school dinosaur of a copper who believes that hunches and leaning on informants is a more reliable method of nailing crooks than forensic evidence and psychological profiling. These two actors first worked together in the mighty State of Play and are here reunited to stellar effect. Both actors - among Britain's best actors around at the moment - bring their A-game to this show. Glenister has a particularly tough job as Gene Hunt could become a figure of fun and caricature very easily, but he keeps the character rooted in reality. The writing is also fair, suggesting that whilst Hunt's methods for catching crooks are inept by modern standards, the lack of bureaucracy and paperwork does have benefits, with Hunt's methods sometimes working when Tyler's methodical plans fail to produce results. In fact, the episodes usually work best when Tyler and Hunt's different approaches work in tandem together.

The supporting cast is also very strong. Liz White is superb as Annie, the only person in 1973 whom Sam confides his predicament in, whilst Dean Andrews as thuggish copper Ray is also great in a role that could have been very two-dimensional. He is very much Sam's enemy on the team, but Gene recognises his limitations (which fuels his vendetta towards Sam even more), which culminates in the penultimate (and best) episode of the season. Marshall Lancaster does a great job as Chris, a younger copper torn between Gene's old-school policing and what he sees as the more efficient and fairer ideas introduced by Sam, although he has arguably the least to do of the main cast in the first season.

As the season continues, the episodes are generally divided between whatever the crime of the week is and what is going on in Sam's head (Sam suffers auditory and visual hallucinations which gradually convince him he is really in a coma in 2006) and how these impact on one another. This is a difficult balancing act to juggle, and sometimes you do wish they could just drop the weird stuff going on with Sam to just have a 'chalk and cheese' buddy cop show episode once in a while. At the same time, Sam's own internal journey is fascinating as the writers seem to confound the audience every time they think they know the rules. At least twice Sam seems to do something in 1973 which effects his present in 2006, and at one stage has what appears to be memories of one of his colleagues from his own POV as a four-year-old, which leaves the question of what is really going on very much up in the air. At this stage of the game things are left very ambiguous though. Some characters seem to know more about Sam's predicament than they are letting on, but others react to Sam's apparently insane outbursts in a more realistic and appropriate manner. What is going on? Well, we've still got a while to find out (the final episode of Ashes to Ashes promises to explain everything about both series), but the journey is a hell of a lot of fun, accompanied by a phenomenally good soundtrack.

Life on Mars, Season 1 (****½) is part social commentary, part drama, part comedy and always extremely entertaining, excellently-acted and well-written. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD).

Terry Goodkind's retirement from fantasy turns out to be a bit misleading

Publisher's Weekly has posted the first review of Terry Goodkind's new novel The Law of Nines. After Goodkind completed his long-running epic fantasy series, The Sword of Truth, in 2007 with Confessor, he announced that he was moving on from fantasy to write mainstream novels which would continue to explore his 'important human themes' with stories set in the real world. He blew out Tor Books, his long- suffering standing publishers to join forces with a mainstream publisher for a large sum of money.

Their definition of 'stunningly original' seems unusually elastic.

At some point the mainstream idea seems to have gone out the window, though, as the review informs us that:
Bestseller Goodkind (Confessor) ventures into thriller territory with results sure to please fans of his fantasy fiction. In the opening pages, Alex Rahl, the book’s unwitting hero, saves the beautiful Jax from being run down on the street in Orden, Neb., by a plumbing truck flying a pirate flag. Jax, who turns out to be from an alternate reality where evildoers are attempting to seize control of her civilization, has traveled to Nebraska to seek Alex’s help in saving her people. In Jax’s world, magic takes the place of technology, but on earth she’s stripped of her powers and forced to fight armed with only her trusty dagger. The author takes his time setting all this up, but once the story gets rolling, it’s a gripping ride as the bad guys whoosh in between their world, which remains unseen, and ours. Fantasy and thriller readers alike will find themselves swept along to the final confrontation and looking forward to the next installment.

Yup, it's a sequel to The Sword of Truth set many centuries/millennia later in the real world (where the bad guys of that series were banished at the end of Confessor). Who'd have thought it?

The Law of Nines is published in both the UK and USA in September 2009. And be warned: "Trouble will find you".


Several months after the events of the Firefly TV series, the Alliance loses its patience with the repeated failure of its military forces to locate Simon and River Tam, and dispatch an Operative of the Parliament to carry out the mission. The Operative is a skilled, exceptionally smart and incredibly ruthless individual with no morality and no allusions about himself or the job that needs to be done. He discovers that Simon and River are on board the Serenity and uses every resource at his disposal to capture them, whilst Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew do everything in their power to stop him. In the crossfire, the Alliance's darkest secret is exposed and Mal discovers he has a chance to really hurt his wartime enemies, a chance he doesn't intend to miss out on.

In 2002 Joss Whedon created a new science fiction TV series, Firefly. It was critically-acclaimed, but the studio messed around with it, putting the episodes out in the wrong order and their advertising and marketing for the series wasn't the best. It floundered and the network, panicking at the impressive budget for each episode, cancelled it after just fourteen episodes. In the normal course of things, that would be that.

Except it wasn't. The DVD box set was a huge seller almost from the word go. Foreign broadcasters were enthusiastic, and the show picked up some strong audiences overseas and in re-runs, particularly on various iterations of the Sci-Fi Channel. A strong and devoted fanbase, dubbing themselves 'Browncoats' after a military force in the TV series, kept the fire burning and spread the word. When Universal Studios expressed an interest in working with Joss Whedon on an original, relatively low-budget movie, he suggested doing a Firefly movie. They agreed to go for it, and Serenity, named after the ship in the TV series, was the result. Made on a budget of $30 million, it was released in 2005 and was a very modest success, not enough to get a sequel but enough to make its money back (especially when combined with its strong DVD sales) and win some acclaim. More importantly to the Firefly fanbase, it provides the story and the series with a sense of closure altogether missing from the TV series' finale.

That said, the movie has a number of problems stemming from its highly anomalous position as a movie that needs to attract the widest possible audience whilst at the same time being spun off from a pretty obscure TV show, and not only that but also a movie involved with closing off not just large story threads but also some minor ones from the show as well (such as the oft-thwarted Kaylee/Simon romance, Shepherd Book's background, Inara's conflict of interest issues between her job and her feelings for Mal etc). The result is a movie that is undeniably entertaining and fun, but also falls down between the two stools on occasion.

Serenity gets a lot of things right. The actors slip back into their roles effortlessly and Nathan Fillion in particular makes a strong big-screen impression. On the newcomer front, up-and-comer Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the Operative, a particularly interesting and nuanced villain with an unusual level of self-awareness. The special effects are considerably more spectacular, as you might expect, and the action set-pieces much more impressive. However, the set for Serenity itself doesn't feel quite right. In fact, it looks less impressive in the movie than it does on TV (despite a brilliant opening tracking shot that takes in the whole interior of the ship in one go), particularly the main hanger bay. Considering they had more money to spend on the movie set than on the TV one (they had to rebuild it from scratch), this is a bit weird.

However, the biggest issue is with the writing. Not the individual scenes, which are often very strong with Whedon's trademark clever references and wordplay, but more the aforementioned conflict between having to service newcomers to the series and franchise, and also tell a story that is interesting to the established fans and resolves plot threads left dangling from the series. There are some clever ideas to achieve this, such as opening with River's escape from the institution and then jumping forwards past the events of the TV show to the 'present', but they are outstretched by a lot of clunky expositionary dialogue. There is no reason why Mal would suddenly start referencing events from eight months ago to Simon (who already knows all about what he is saying), and even non-fans of the show (such as myself at the time the film came out) can pick up on this stuff not quite feeling right. At the same time, other elements are dropped in with no explanation, like who Inara is. When the Operative shows up on her planet the new viewer is left nonplussed until Kaylee fills us in (via a video diary) a few scenes later.

For fans of the show, there are also a lot of discontinuities. Minor stuff like River's escape not quite adding up with Simon's account in the series can be dismissed as as dramatic/cinematic conceit, but Jayne's sudden return to belligerently opposing their presence on the ship seems to undo the well-charted, changing relationship between the three of them over the course of the first season. Whedon tries to make this work by playing up the 'revelation' of River's true capabilities, but considering we were seeing these starting to emerge in the show and Jayne seemed to have no major issues with them at that time (especially after she saved everyone's ass in Objects in Space), it seems a bit odd.

These 'issues' (and their mileage will vary per fan and viewer) are mostly constrained to the first third or so of the movie. Once Whedon starts kicking over the apple carts and moving the story forward, the pace picks up relentlessly, the action kicks in and he falls into his more natural, flowing dialogue rhythm which is always fun to follow. He also enjoys kicking fun at movie conventions, such as Mal shooting an unarmed man who tries to appeal to his sense of honour, and in the climatic moments of the film major characters get hurt and even die. Whedon even fixes an unintended problem with the original series - that they never got round to having a Zoe-centric episode - by giving Zoe some good lines and evolving her role as Mal's friend a bit more and giving her an emotionally powerful final act in the film.

Serenity (****) works as both a solid SF movie for someone who's never watched Firefly, and a reasonable conclusion to the series for the fans (though carefully leaving doors open for the story to be picked up again in the future). When it tries to do both simultaneously it falters, but once it gets over that it becomes involving and entertaining. The movie is available on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Unfortunately, barring future miracles it looks like this really was the end for Firefly. Whedon went on to make Dollhouse, whilst Firefly's cast moved on to many different projects (Summer Glau most recently in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, whilst Morena Baccarin is appearing in the V remake). It wasn't a bad note to bow out on.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Multi-million dollar deal for Brandon Sanderson

Hot on the heels of the news of Alastair Reynolds' payday is the news that Brandon Sanderson's new four-book contract with Tor Books may be in the region of an eye-watering $2.5 million. The contract covers the first four volumes of Sanderson's Way of Kings series (which he estimates may reach ten volumes) and is apparently separate from his recent deals for the final three Wheel of Time books.

I can't find a secondary source confirming that news, but if true that is really impressive going, and a strong sign of Tor's faith in him after the release of just four books (the fifth, Warbreaker, came out last week).

Sanderson has a busy schedule ahead, with The Gathering Storm due at the end of this year, his next Alcatraz book also due in October, followed by the next Wheel of Time book and the first Way of Kings novel due at the end of 2010.

EDIT: Ah, the deal isn't for $2.5 million but when all bonuses and secondary rights sales are taken into account, it could actually exceed that amount. The per-book advances are still significant six-figure sums though. Congratulations are still due to Brandon for this impressive deal though!

New Robin Hobb novel available now

Robin Hobb's new novel, The Dragon Keeper, Book 1 of the Rain Wilds Chronicles duology, is now available in the UK (or at least it was in my local bookshop today). This was one novel divided in half due to length, with Book 2 to follow next year.

American fans have an eye-wateringly long wait though as the book is not due to be published in the USA until 26 January 2010. In this case, fans who do not want to wait may find an online trip to the Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping) of interest.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Million-pound deal for Alastair Reynolds

SF author Alastair Reynolds has signed a £1 million ($1,634,500-odd) contract to stay with Gollancz for his next ten novels, to be published over the next ten years. This is one of the biggest SF contract deals I've heard of, maybe the biggest since Arthur C. Clarke's staggering deal in 1997 for 3001: The Final Odyssey. Given the state of publishing in general and SF in particular, this deal is a colossal show of faith by Gollancz and its parent company, Orion, in Reynolds' work.

Well-deserved, as Alastair Reynolds is definitely one of the most interesting, innovative and constantly entertaining SF writers out there, and also appropriate as the news comes in the tenth year since his first novel, Revelation Space, was published. His next novel, Terminal World, will be published by Gollancz in October.

After-thoughts on the Gemmell Awards

Now the tiredness of attending the Gemmell Awards has faded away somewhat, it's interesting to reflect on what the first awards got right and what areas need improvement. The awards have generated some interesting commentary so far about what issues people think should be discussed.

First and foremost, the basic idea for the awards is very sound. The awards which are meant to incorporate all of speculative fiction, both SF and Fantasy, have tended to be very SF-centric, such as the Hugos, whilst there are many purely SF-focused awards (the Arthur C. Clarke, the Philip K. Dick etc). Fantasy is left with the World Fantasy Award and not a lot else. However, given that Fantasy outsells SF by a ratio of three-to-one in the UK, with a similar ratio apparently the case in the USA, it does seem odd that Fantasy hasn't got more awards of its own. So there was definitely a gap in the market for such an event.

However, at the same time there seems a slight fuzziness in the definition of the award. 'For works in the spirit of David Gemmell' is a bit lacking in substance, mainly as people will argue long and hard over what Gemmell's key defining points actually were (aside from 'badassery', as mentioned by one announcer at the awards). There's also the fact, rather under-reported during discussions of the award, that Gemmell himself wrote a variety of stories. As well as traditional heroic fantasy (Legend), he also wrote alternate history (the Macedonian duology), post-apocalyptic science fiction with fantasy underpinnings (the excellent Jon Shannow trilogy) and straight-up historical fiction (the Troy Trilogy), a diversity that was reflected more in the longlist (although that had its own issues, even bringing in some SF works) than in the shortlist. I think simply acknowledging the award is for Fantasy and making sure SF is ineligible is enough. Neither the Arthur C. Clarke nor the Philip K. Dick awards 'demand' that the winners are close to the patrons in style, and it seems silly to limit the Gemmell in that manner.

On the publicity front, the award initially generated a lot of online discussion, but it is interesting that this tailed off after the switch from a juried to an internet vote format, with the suggestion that since any author could now organise bloc-voting to get his book to win, its value was notably diminished. The fact that only 500 of the 10,000 votes came from the UK (allegedly) and that an author still mostly unknown in the UK and USA won will no doubt feed these conspiracy theories, although in this case it seems redundant. Sapkowski has outsold everyone on the list put together and his fanbase (which, thanks to his later historical novels, extends way beyond the traditional SF&F fanbase) is widespread enough to have gained him the win anyway. It will be interesting to see if next year - when Sapkowski doesn't have an eligible entry - the numbers drop off dramatically or not (although given that Robert Jordan could and very likely will be posthumously nominated for The Gathering Storm, probably not).

However, the lack of blog entries and forum discussions may also be down to the narrowness of the field. The SF award nominees are usually very different in character, writing style and can be very different sub-genres (a cyberpunk book can go up against an alternate history and a space opera, for example). Books that are ‘in the spirit of David Gemmell’ (assuming for argument's sake that currently means 'badass heroic fantasy things a bit like Legend,') are going to be, by definition, somewhat similar to one another, and I’ve seen the complaint that there’s not much to argue about between the nominated authors. You can certainly say you think Abercrombie is a better author than Weeks and Sanderson, for example, but in terms of general content and ideas, they are ploughing in the same field. I think broadening the definition more, as discussed earlier, could help generate more discussion of the nominees. However, I also expect discussion to grow simply as the award beds in and people get more used to it being around.

So the award has gotten off to a flying start and it'll be really interesting to see where it goes next. I think ensuring that no SF gets on the longlist at all will be a good start, and an argument could be made for more categories. Very interesting to see how it goes next year.

Author Profile: Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is an American science fiction writer, born in 1952 in Illinois but resident for most of his life in California. His books are noted for a strong utopian or optimistic streak running through them and he a fascination with the environment and how society reacts to various crises. He has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel twice, the Nebula Award for Best Novel once, the World Fantasy Award once and the Locus Award six times.

Robinson is best-known for his three core trilogies, Orange County (recently rejacketed with the awkward title 'Three Californias'), Mars and Science in the Capital, and a number of stand-alone works. The Orange County Trilogy, comprising The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge, is an interesting work as it is set in three distinct, parallel future timelines, namely a post-apocalyptic landscape (where the USSR has beaten the USA in a nuclear war that didn't totally end civilisation), a dystopia and a utopia. Throughout these three books Robinson engages his interest in sociology and the environment, analysing how the three different Californian cultures and governments react to the situations they find themselves in. Pacific Edge is particularly notable for its portrait of a self-sustaining, non-polluting, high-tech nation where technology has been harnessed for the betterment of mankind, an unusually optimistic view of the future at the time. The book also features a manned mission to Mars and the people's reaction to it watching from home, which may have been a hint as to where he was planning to take his next work.

Robinson followed this up with what is widely considered his masterwork, the Mars Trilogy. Spanning two hundred years, the trilogy consists of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, the titles referring to the planet at different stages of colonisation and terraforming. The first novel sees the arrival of the 'First Hundred' colonists in 2027 and their building of a permanent Mars base. As the years pass additional settlers arrive and as Earth's resources dwindle, interest in exploiting Mars' resources increases. Tensions rise between the native Martian settlers and the controlling forces of the United Nations, culminating in a bloody revolution. The subsequent novels see the terraforming of the planet in full swing, the rise of native Martian myths and religions and the development of a new human society isolated from the problems of the homeworld. The Mars Trilogy is vast, breathtakingly ambitious and packed to the gills with interesting scientific speculation and ideas. The first novel contains much of the 'drama' in the series, with the latter two books sometimes being criticised for reading more like extended textbooks on the possible colonisation of Mars and it is hard to argue with that, but they're still a fascinating read. Arthur C. Clarke once said, the idea that Robinson created this trilogy is impossible to believe, as instead it reads like a real history that Robinson experienced and has travelled back in time to share with us.

Robinson's interest in exploring the same story from different angles was revisited with Antarctica (in which many of the ideas from the Mars Trilogy are revisited on a smaller scale) and The Martians (a collection of short stories and essays related to the trilogy, some of them occurring in parallel and different timelines). In 2002 he released a well-received stand-alone novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, which was based around the high concept that, in a parallel timeline, the Black Death actually killed 100% of the European population, so when Tamerlane's armies reached Europe they found the continent open to easy occupation. The novel then spans the next thousand years of history as the focus shifts to Asia and India, with the Industrial Revolution beginning in Samarkand and China leading the settlement of the North American continent. Key characters are reincarnated again and again across multiple decades and lifetimes, allowing us to follow the very development of this different world. The results are, as usual with Robinson, fascinating.

Robinson's most recent work, which I have not picked up yet, is The Science in the Capital Trilogy, which charts the development of global warming and how scientific evidence is politicised for various purposes. Al Gore is a big fan of the trilogy, but it does seem to have divided Robinson's fans.

His new work, which I'm hoping to read in the near future, is Galileo's Dream, a retelling of Galileo's life but with the addition of the scientist being visited by visions of the world three thousand years in the future, and what effect this has on his ideas and his struggles with the Church.

Robinson is a consistently interesting science fiction writer, who has a fascination with the work and world of scientists and and with not just the science and drama inherent in technological development, but also its impact on the environment, politics and human sociology. Robinson is, refreshingly, an optimist who seems to think that the human race can survive and flourish, but not if it continues to be shackled to the attitudes and prejudices of the past. He is a key author in the modern science fiction field.


Stand-alone Books
Icehenge (1984)
The Memory of Whiteness (1985)
The Planet on the Table (1986, collection)
Escape from Kathmandu (1989, collection)
A Short, Sharp Shock (1990)
Remaking History (1991, collection)
Antarctica (1997)
Vinland the Dream (2001, collection)
The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
Galileo's Dream (2009)

The Orange County Trilogy
The Wild Shore (1984)
The Gold Coast (1988)
Pacific Edge (1990)

The Mars Trilogy
Red Mars (1991)
Green Mars (1992)
Blue Mars (1996)
The Martians (1999, companion volume)

The Science in the Capital Trilogy
Forty Signs of Rain (2004)
Fifty Degrees Below (2005)
Sixty Days and Counting (2007)

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Wertzone Classics: Firefly

In AD 2517, long after an ecologically-devastated Earth had to be abandoned, humanity has settled the 34 Tauri-2020 star system (colloquially known as 'The Verse'), consisting of five stars and numerous planets, moons, gas giants, brown dwarf protostars and their own attendant worlds. Well over 200 inhabitable bodies are located within this system, allowing the descendants of the refugees from the Solar system (led by the Americans and Chinese, whose cultures and languages amalgamated on the century-long trip from Earth) to spread across a vast area. Advanced technology has allowed the terraforming of even small moons into Earth-like worlds with tolerable atmospheres and gravity. However, this vast effort drained the resources of the central Core Worlds, leading to the expansion of the Sino-American Alliance to the border worlds. Feeling exploited and dominated by the Alliance, the outer worlds attempted to break away in a bitter conflict known as the Unification Wars. At the decisive Battle of Serenity Valley on Hera, the Alliance won and the independents were crushed.

Years later, a veteran of the conflict, Malcolm Reynolds, finds himself the owner of a Firefly-class transport ship he has named Serenity in memory of the conflict. Fuelled by a strong dislike of the Alliance, he works both sides of the law in an attempt to keep his freedom and to keep flying. His crew include his second-in-command and war buddy Zoe, her husband and pilot Wash, hired muscle Jayne, engineer Kaylee and Inara, a Companion (effectively a courtesan) whose presence on the ship lends it a certain respectability. When a job goes wrong, Mal reluctantly takes on some passengers on Persephone, including a doctor named Simon and a Shepherd (preacher) named Book. But when it is discovered that Simon is on the run from the Alliance with his stowaway sister River, Mal's life and that of his crew gets a whole lot more complicated.

Firefly was the third television series to be created by Joss Whedon, who had previously developed Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and its spin-off, Angel (1999-2004). Whedon had expressed a desire to explore the genres of science fiction and Westerns, and had also become interested in the rise to global superpower status of China and how China's interactions with the USA would shape future generations. Whedon had also voiced his appreciation of the British science fiction series Blake's 7 (1978-81), which also featured a disparate group of characters living on the wrong side of the law on a spaceship, and several British SF magazines and critics picked up on some superficial similarities between the two shows (although they are very different in atmosphere and tone).

The result was a very interesting series, a hybrid of space opera and a Western with Whedon focusing on what he does best: the creation of a core cast of exceptionally well-defined, three-dimensional characters, often extremely flawed but nevertheless interesting with strong bonds between them. Considering Whedon had done this twice before, it remains remarkable that he was able, once again, to create nine regular characters, each of them fascinating in their own right, and then to match them with the perfect actors for the roles. In fact, Whedon was at the height of his powers of writing television at this point: whilst Buffy took a good season and a half to get really interesting and Angel was helped by inheriting some of its cast and production team from its parent show, Firefly is excellent right from the off, with none of the traditional growing pains that typically accompany new shows (and are especially notable in Whedon's latest project, Dollhouse).

"That sounds like science fiction."
"You live in a spaceship, dear."
- Wash & Zoe, Objects in Space

The world that is depicted in Firefly is fascinating, with the space opera and Western elements coexisting alongside one another quite nicely. There was some precedent in this (most notably the Tatooine sections of the Star Wars movies), but Firefly took it to a whole new level, with Serenity at one point literally carrying a cargo of livestock to another planet. Extensive location filming in desert locations near Los Angeles used for Westerns back in the 1950s and 1960s helps further the atmosphere, and the unusual mix of high technology and the realities of survival on dangerous planets makes for something very interesting indeed. Some elements of the worldbuilding don't quite fall into place during the series itself - a lot of the information about the shape of the 'Verse and its many worlds only emerged long after the show was cancelled - but certainly they were still in the groundwork-laying stage when the show ended, with more to come later on. For example, although briefly mentioned, we never see the capital worlds of Sihnon or Londinium. This does follow Whedon's preferred method of making stuff up as he goes along and then codifying later on (as happened on both Buffy and Angel with their complex mythologies only coming into sharper focus towards their respective conclusions).

But that element is really secondary to the characters, and, as genius as some of the characters on his earlier shows are, with Firefly Whedon really knocks it out out of the park. Even Jayne, arguably the most straightforward character (described by Adam Baldwin as, "Sex, muscle, humour, thuggery: Jayne,"), has some fairly complex characterisation going on in several episodes. On the surface the characters have fairly obvious roles to play, with Kaylee as the heart of the ship/crew and Book as its conscience, but they are generally steered away from cliche and the obvious writing choices to go in a more interesting direction. The actors are uniformally brilliant, with Nathan Fillion deserving special praise for his role as Mal Reynolds, a hero who tries very hard not to be a hero but keeps getting dragged back into the role against his preferences. Summer Glau also has a very tough job as the damaged River but pulls it off with aplomb.

River Tam - she can kill you with her brain.

Another trademark Whedon tactic is to wrongfoot the audience with where they think the show is going. His shows are noted for these moments (such as Illyria's introduction in the final season of Angel or Angel's transformation in the second season of Buffy) and whilst Firefly didn't quite last long enough to do that in a major way, it still has some really impressive moments of tonal variation. Out of Gas, which tells three stories set in different timelines in just 45 minutes, is one such moment, whilst the final episode Objects in Space, which Whedon uses to explore various fairly complex philosophical ideas (seriously, watch this episode with the commentary on and Wikipedia on standby otherwise you will miss all the references), is even more of one.

Beyond these ideas, Firefly is also incredibly funny (at least one genuine laugh-out-loud moment is guaranteed per episode), endlessly quotable and visually impressive, with excellent visual effects from Zoic (who went on to use a lot of the lessons learned on this show on the new Battlestar Galactica) and some great action set-pieces. This was obviously an enormously expensive show to make, which contributed to its demise, but the money was clearly well-spent. Even seven years on, there are still some moments which leave you wondering how they managed to do that on just a TV budget. As well as the core cast there are also some excellent supporting turns, most notably Mark Sheppard (later Romo Lamkin on BSG) as Badger and Christina Hendricks as the redoubtable Saffron. There's also some fantastic set design, with the entire inhabitable space of the 200-foot-long Serenity realised on stage. Oh, and there's the music, not just the excellent title song written by Whedon, but some excellent incidental pieces mixing Western and Chinese instruments and of course the legendary ballad for Jayne, 'The Hero of Canton' ("This is what going mad feels like,").

When it comes to complaints, there aren't many (except for the fact it was cancelled, y'know, about seven years too early). Given the excellent attention paid to continuity elsewhere, Wash's sudden belligerence towards Mal and Zoe's war buddies relationship in War Stories comes out of nowhere and feels a bit out-of-character. Also, given the vastness of space, there's quite a few episodes that seem to rely on Serenity just 'accidentally' bumping into another ship, although I suppose that's a hazard of any space opera. Mal and his crew also get betrayed on a fairly ridiculous number of occasions (seriously, is it possible for two people in the 'Verse to agree to a deal and stick to it?), although towards the end of the run they do start noticing this and taking more sensible precautions. Erm, I'm struggling here. No, that's about it.

Firefly (*****) is just fourteen episodes long but accomplished more in those fourteen episodes than some shows have ever managed in two hundred. Thoroughly recommended. The show is available on DVD in the UK and USA right now, and also on Blu-Ray in the USA.

Though the show was cancelled, a sequel movie, Serenity, was made in 2005. I hope to review that in the next couple of days.

The Gemmell Awards 2009

Friday saw the inaugural David Gemmell Legend Award for fantasy being presented. The venue was the Magic Circle in London (minor fact: my great-grandfather worked for a time with Maskelyne & Devant, the two magicians who had a major formative role in the organisation) and there was a good turn-out (fantasy authors and particularly editors being vulnerable to the allure of free booze and canapes). Rumours that numbers were looking low until David Devereux promised to come along in a kilt, at which point they soared, cannot be substantiated at this time.

The event got underway with fantasy author (and friend of the late David Gemmell) James Barclay coming out on stage and booming out Druss' speech to the men before the battle at Dros Delnoch in Legend in an impressive and theatrical manner. Deborah J. Miller and Stan Nicholls were the main comperes for the evening and did a sterling job. Stan's wife came out to give an excellent tribute to David Gemmell, and then Mr. Barclay returned for the charity auction. Seeing people having to sit on their hands for fear of spending too much money was quite amusing, with the signed, mint-condition first edition of Legend (which went for £500) being the highlight of the evening. The featured charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, raised quite a lot of money on the night, which was great.

The awards were then announced, with each author getting a miniature replica of Druss' war axe, Snaga, as modelled here by Mr. J. Abercrombie.

Joe was the only author in attendance, the other writers not being present due to the excuse of living on other landmasses (Australia, in Juliet Marillier's case).

The winning book was Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski, originally published in Poland in 1994 but with the English translation only being published last year. This is the first book in his five-volume series of novels featuring the character of Geralt, the Witcher (also the hero of a recent bestselling computer roleplaying game), following on from two earlier short story collections, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny.

Sapkowski's win may seem a little left-field (the favourites were Abercrombie and Brent Weeks for his Night Angel trilogy), but makes sense. Although new in English translation, his books have been published in Europe for almost twenty years, and in places like Spain, Germany, Russia and of course Poland he is mentioned in the same breath as authors such as George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan. I'd also wager that he is the biggest-selling author on the list by some margin, probably bigger than the others all put together. For a genre often completely dominated by discussions of English-language authors, seeing a European author win the first Gemmell Award was quite refreshing.

Joe took the news magnanimously, possibly because Sapkowski doesn't have a book coming out in English this year to compete with Best Served Cold at next year's awards :-)

Anyway, a good time was had by all and it was a great start to an even I suspect is going to get larger and more influential with each passing year. This year alone there were over ten thousand votes (or about fourteen times as many people who voted for the Hugo Awards last year).

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Death-Bringer by Patrick Tilley

Steve Brickman and his reluctant ally Cadillac face a major problem. Clearwater has been taken captive aboard the Federation wagon-train Red River, and they need to find a way to break her and Steve's sister Roz out with only the warriors from Clan M'Call to help. But as they struggle with that issue, Mr. Snow faces the biggest challenge of his life. Enraged with the destruction of the Heron Pool and the loss of their assault force on Lake Michigan, the Yama-Shita have sent five warships to the trading post at Lake Superior for the annual exchange of goods and servants. Allied to the treacherous D'Troit Mutes, their orders are to destroy the M'Calls and their She-Kargo allies once and for all. The stage is set for the biggest military confrontation since the War of a Thousand Suns.

In my review of the previous book in the series, I noted that every epic fantasy series seems to have a 'scene-setting' book where the characters are just getting to where they need to be for the next slice of the action. It is also true that every series has a balls-to-the-wall, balloon-going-up volume where all the ant-hills are kicked over and all hell breaks loose (and many metaphors are mixed). Death-Bringer is that book. As with the previous volumes in the series, there is a lot of scheming, political intrigue, and truly impressive layers of deception as Steve continues his attempts to keep a foot in both the Tracker and Mute camps, involving some fancy foot-work. In fact, Steve and his intellectual nemesis, Karlstrom, may be the most impressive schemers I've encountered in a fantasy book with the possible exception of Littlefinger, Walder Frey and Tyrion Lannister.

Death-Bringer eases off the scheming to finally bring some widespread carnage to the table with two huge battle sequences. The Mute clans finally choose their sides and engage in a massive conflict on the south-western shores of Lake Superior, egged on by the Iron Masters, in this series' equivalent to the Battle of the Blackwater or the Pelennor Fields. Shortly afterwards, the M'Calls get to dish out some payback by launching a full-blown assault on Red River. Tilley proves to be an excellent writer of action sequences, fulfilling the promise shown in earlier novels, and there is some catharsis in all the plotting of the previous three volumes finally reaching a head. The ending is murky and definitely not neat - there's one more volume to go - but the sense of a climax to numerous complex and sometimes confusing plot threads is most welcome.

There are some weaknesses. As with the other books in the series, it's not high art and the layers of deception are so complex it's easy to get confused over who knows what and what people are supposed to know versus what the actual truth of the situation is, but then a lot of the characters express the same concerns. There's also a slight sense of contrivance at the end where the author needed to get one character into another location and the way he handled it was a bit artificial. Oh yeah, and the title is one of the corniest I've ever come across.

Death-Bringer (****) is one of the strongest books in the series, with a fine sense of pacing and action, with some truly excellent plot twists and revelations. As with the other books in the series, it is currently not in print, but second-hand editions should be available in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


In an example of good timing, Patrick Tilley has just set up a new website and fan network here.

Meanwhile, China Mieville seems to have relaxed his Tolkien-sceptic stance in his old age and has written an article focusing on the 'cool stuff' in Middle-earth here. As he says, and it cannot be argued against too strongly, "Tolk gives good monster."

Currently Reading: Death-Bringer by Patrick Tilley
Currently Playing: Third Age: Total War, Company of Heroes
Currently Watching: Firefly (re-watch), Iran and the West (re-watch)

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Blood River by Patrick Tilley

In Ne-Issan, the balance of power has shifted dangerously after the exposure of the Yama-Shita's treachery and the death of its ruling lord. The family has been brutally oppressed at the order of the Shogun, and the family burns for vengeance, most notably against those Mutes and Trackers responsible for destroying their project at the Heron Pool.

Meanwhile, these individuals - Steve, Cadillac, Clearwater, Jodi Kazan and Dave Kelso - are now fleeing for their lives out of Ne-Issan on Federation Skyriders, but a lack of fuel forces them down near the southern shores of Lake Michigan, still many hundreds of miles from the M'Call home turf in Wyoming. Their attempts to escape are challenged by a wily Mute wordsmith, an ambitious Ne-Issan foreign agent and the Federation, who have sent the Lady from Louisiana to 'aid' Steve's attempts to escape. Steve, still playing both sides against the middle, is still trying to keep a foot in both camps but Cadillac is about to make maintaining that pretence very difficult indeed...

Blood River is the most transitional of the Amtrak Wars books. It seems that every multi-book series needs a volume which doesn't have much of an internal plot but instead is taken up getting the characters to where they are needed for the next big story movement, and Blood River does that. It also does it quite well, with a real sense of urgency as our heroes are hounded by both the Federation and the Iron Masters and Brickman's Machiavellian plotting reaches new heights, but is challenged by Cadillac and Clearwater calling him on his bullshit and trying to get him to finally choose a side, culminating in the most shocking moment in the series to date. As I've said in previous reviews of the series, Clearwater has been a bit bland and not very well-drawn compared to the other principle characters in the series, but here she really steps up and shows in more detail a cunning and ruthless streak only previously hinted at.

Elsewhere, there are weaknesses. Steve and co. spend a lot of time dealing with simple problems of travel and survival which, whilst well-written, do take time away from the core storylines of the series. There are also a few dubious deus ex machina moments when our heroes get out of tight spots with hitherto-unrevealed Mute magic powers or other abilities, although this is not unprecedented in the series (or any fantasy series involving magic, really).

Blood River (***) is a solid and enjoyable continuation of the series with some weaknesses balanced out by Tilley's trademark relentless pace. The book is no longer in print but second-hand copies are available in the UK and USA.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Fire by Kristin Cashore

To the east of the great mountains lies the kingdom of the Dells, torn and divided with major lords rebelling against the king and the people still scarred by the activities of king's late father and his powerful advisor, Cansrel. Both are long dead, but Cansrel's daughter, named Fire for her hair, is still alive and a figure of hate and envy.

In the Dells many creatures exist with special properties. Known as 'monsters', these creatures are identified by their unusual colours and strange abilities, many of them related to mental powers. Fire is the only human of this type alive, with the ability to affect people's minds and know their intentions. The temptation to abuse this power as her father did is something that Fire fights against, but when she is called upon by the king and his brother to use those abilities to defend the kingdom from its enemies, she has little choice but to obey.

Fire is the second novel from American author Kristin Cashore, following on from Graceling. Fire is set thirty-odd years earlier in the lands to the east of the kingdoms featured in that book, and can thus be read with no prior knowledge of the earlier work.

Like Graceling before it, Fire is a relatively 'light' work focused on the one central character of Fire and a number of supporting characters. The tone is different to the earlier novel, and there is more in the way of political intrigue and military action. It is a better book, mainly because the author has grown and is more confident in her writing, and also because the supporting cast is stronger and more interesting. The central character of Fire is well-drawn and psychologically complex with a number of conflicting desires and ideas which are explored in convincing detail. However, her reaction to several crises involves her bursting into tears and running to the stables to talk to her horse, which struck me as a bit winsome. Luckily, another element from Graceling that was slightly tiresome - the central romance - is present in less force in Fire and when it does intrude upon proceedings, it is much better-supported and adds to the portrait of an interesting central protagonist. Another element from the first book that a lot of people seemed to dislike - the names (which I didn't mind as they were very Vancian, which is always good) - is also much-reduced, although I did think that the character named 'Archer' perhaps should have just used his real name. A sequence in which Archer discussed having to track down another archer seemed unduly confusing even paying close attention to where the word was capitalised.

One of the biggest successes of the novel is in its portrait of Leck, a young boy with unusual powers who later grows up to be the main villain of Graceling. Here we see Leck in his youth and the author succeeds in making him utterly loathsome without over-using him. Definitely one of the most interesting fantasy villains to appear recently. Hopefully we will learn more about him in the forthcoming third book set in this world, Bitterblue.

Fire (***½) is an entertaining and breezy read. Those after a more meaty and violent fantasy experience may be disappointed, but as a lighter work this does the job quite nicely. It will be published in the UK by Gollancz on 17 September and in the USA by Dial on 5 October. The author's website is here.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Update and Reminders

Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire gets its UK premiere tonight at 9pm on BBC-2. Apparently each episode will have 8-10 minutes of extra material that the US version had to cut to make room for adverts, so I may tune in to see if this stuff improves the existing episodes, which were very meh.

Best Served Cold, Nights of Villjamur and The Strain are now all on sale in the UK, whilst Retribution Falls arrives next week.

Currently Reading: Fire by Kristin Cashore
Currently Playing: Bridge Commander, Third Age: Total War, Company of Heroes multiplayer

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Wertzone Classics: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A group of researchers and scientists at the civilian research facility Regula I have created an amazing piece of technology, the Genesis Device. This device can instantly terraform any lifeless world into a terrestrial, habitable one in a matter of hours. The Federation has sponsored the development of this device, assigning the USS Reliant to assist the team in locating a dead planet to use in the initial testing. The Reliant's survey of Ceti Alpha VI runs into problems when Khan Noonian Singh, arch-enemy of James T. Kirk, is unexpectedly encountered on the planet. Soon, the Reliant is under his control and he is on his way to Regula I to take control of the Genesis Device and turn it into the ultimate weapon...

Meanwhile, the USS Enterprise under Captain Spock is on a training mission with a fresh crew of cadets. Admiral Kirk is on board to oversee the training cruise. When a garbled distress call is received from Regula I, Kirk assumes command and is soon forced into a desperate battle against Khan and the Reliant.

The Wrath of Khan has the reputation of being not just the best Star Trek movie, but also one of the best SF movies of its age. Unfortunately, in recent years it has perhaps become better known for the numerous parodies of a certain seminal William Shatner moment roughly halfway through the film, although in-context it works a lot better.

There are several factors which combine to make The Wrath of Khan such a good movie. First off, it has an extremely well-drawn villain played by a good actor. Khan having previously appeared in the classic Star Trek series (in the first season episode Space Seed) gave him a decent backstory and rationale for wanting vengeance against Kirk without getting bogged down in continuity. It was many years after I first saw the movie as a kid before I saw the episode, and really all you need to know is that Kirk dumped Khan on a planet as a gesture of supposed mercy which ended up killing Khan's wife and several of his shipmates. Ricardo Montalban plays Khan with a certain theatrical malevolence which treads a razor's edge between high camp and genuine evil. He also gets some ripe lines which he manages to dignify through totally believing in them. Seriously, who else could pull off, "Revenge is a dish best served cold, and it is very space"?

The second factor is that the script plays to the strengths of the individual actors and gives most of the Enterprise crew their own stories to follow (although Nichelle Nichols' Uhura and George Takei's Sulu are not as well-served as others) . Chekov, notably under-used in the actual series, turns up as the first officer of the Reliant who is captured by Khan early on and eventually ends up back on the Enterprise. There is an interesting and tragic subplot for Scotty, who gets his nephew a job as a trainee in the Enterprise's engineering department, whilst McCoy spends most of the movie trying to pull Kirk out of his brooding depression at turning 49. There's also the new character of Saavik, Spock's protege who is angling for her own command. Effectively played by Kirstie Alley, Saavik serves as a viewpoint character for those viewers unfamiliar with the series. Oddly, a line referencing the fact that Saavik is actually half-Romulan, half-Vulcan was cut from the movie (and not restored in any one of the half-dozen or so different cuts and edits of the movie released over the years), whilst a later joke by McCoy referring to this fact is left in, somewhat confusingly. Spock only seems to have a minor subplot at the start referring to Kirk's guilt when he takes command of the ship from him, only to disappear in the middle third of the movie whilst Kirk, Saavik and McCoy travel to Regula. Of course, this was only to set up the unexpected ending (more on which in a moment).

The movie was also made on a crushingly small budget of $8 million (later raised to $11 after positive studio reaction to dailies), less than one-quarter of that assigned to its forebear, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The producers, director and special effects crew had to work with their backs to the wall with only a limited number of sets, miniatures and effects shot available. Some shots from the preceding movie were re-used, whilst two-thirds of the movie took place on the same set, the Enterprise bridge which was redressed to serve as as the bridge of the Reliant. This saved enough money so that the final, iconic battle sequence - the Enterprise and Reliant playing cat-and-mouse in the Mutara Nebula - could be rendered as impressively as possible. The battle scenes in the movie are also superb, with the ships acting less like oversized fighters (a common complaint levelled against later movies and TV episodes) and more like the lumbering battleships they're supposed to be, dishing out and taking enormous amounts of punishment. The battle is also tremendously visceral, with decks collapsing and crewmen getting crushed, burned or subjected to lethal radiation in a manner that hadn't been seen previously on Trek (and led to the movie getting a hitherto unthinkable '15' certificate in the UK). Additionally, there's a small piece of history in the movie in the Genesis Device training movie, which is the first-ever 100% computer-generated sequence in the history of film (or so it is claimed anyway).

Particularly worthy of mention is James Horner's score, which re-uses a few elements from his earlier movies (particularly Battle for the Planets) but mostly consists of new material. His new overture, used for flybys of the Enterprise and the main title theme, is instantly classic.

Of course, what really got people talking when the movie was released was the jaw-dropping ending, which in the pre-Internet age had successfully been kept secret in a manner unlikely to be replicated today. It's still an emotionally powerful moment played by the actors in a convincing and almost poetic manner (the oft-mocked Shatner is on top form throughout this movie and its sequel). In fact, despite the sometimes hokey dialogue as related above, the movie has a number of iconic lines and quotes (mostly from A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick) which help give the movie a thematically satisfying through-line. This is a movie about not just revenge, but age, finding your right place in the world and the fact that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or indeed, the one). There's also satisfying attention paid to not copping out on the story. The writers couldn't conceive of a way that Khan and Kirk could meet without Kirk being killed, so they simply don't meet. And whilst victory is eventually won, it is only at a hard cost.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (*****) is a great film because it doesn't go overboard on the gimmicks or macguffins (the Genesis Device - which doesn't really do much - aside) and simply has two enemies on two equally-matched ships slugging it out and one winning through the use of his wits. With strong thematic underpinnings, endlessly quotable dialogue, a score to die for, great effects and some solid acting, the movie overcomes a few cheesy lines, a couple of continuity gaffes (Chekov never met Khan in Space Seed and didn't appear until the following season) and some 80s hairstyles to retain its place as not just the best Star Trek movie, but an entertaining and breathlessly exciting SF movie in its own right.

The movie has just been reissued on DVD in the UK and also released for the first time on Blu-Ray. In the USA the movie is only currently available as part of a boxed set also featuring the other five original-cast movies, on Blu-Ray (UK, USA). Oddly, this collection is not available on DVD in the USA, with only a 'trilogy collection' containing the second, third and fourth movies available, whilst the full box set is available on DVD in the UK. Exactly why Paramount have done this, or not included any of the excellent special features from the 2002 DVD release, I have no idea.