Sunday, 27 December 2009

Space Battles!

Let's face it: space battles are inherently cool. io9 have a nostalgic look at some of the better space battles of yesteryear, with a focus on DS9, Babylon 5, Farscape and the various StarGates, whilst their sister site Gizmodo runs a parallel article on the physics of how 'real' space battles would work, with reference to those SF works that do a good job of depicting realistic space combat (Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy with its space battles relying on orbital trajectories and unmanned combat drones gets a shout-out). Some interesting stuff there, though interestingly both are light on references to the new Battlestar Galactica, despite its (sometimes faltering) attempts to use real physics and its use of kinetic weapons rather than lasers.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Wertzone Awards for Best SF&F Novel in 2009

I did noticeably better with new releases this year, reading twenty to last year's fourteen.

The Wertzone Award for Best SF&F Novels in 2009

1. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
A stand-alone quasi follow-up to The First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold is a tale of revenge, murder, assassination, war and generally pleasant stuff, with Abercrombie somehow outstripping the first trilogy in terms of mayhem. Definitely the best novel released this year whose title appears to have been inspired by a line of dialogue in The Wrath of Khan.

2. Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
Look, it's a steampunk version of Firefly with robots and pirates. What else do you want from a novel? Okay, there aren't any ninjas in it. Maybe in the sequel?

3. The City and The City by China Mieville
I must admit, this one's grown on me a lot since my initial read. A detective thriller set in a weirded-out city on the edge of Europe, where the people must live within the strict but apparently arbitrary rules enforced by an inarguable force of nature. A clever detective story wrapped around a compelling fantastical idea, delivered with Mieville's trademark engrossing prose.

4. The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
A series resurrection the likes of which hasn't been seen for a long time, Sanderson begins pulling the complex narrative ties of The Wheel of Time sequence into a coherent and logical finale, whilst simultaneously giving us one of the most satisfying battles in the series and also a self-contained, incredibly dark story depicting the battle for Rand al'Thor's soul. Unexpectedly powerful stuff.

5. Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Linked by a framing device depicting the final spluttering out of the Sun, this collection of short stories, both self-contained and some expanding on elements of Jack Vance's original novels, is a fine achievement with some fantastic works by the likes of Tad Williams, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons and Martin himself.

6. The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker
Scott Bakker returns to the world of Earwa for the first volume in The Aspect-Emperor, the sequel series to his epic Prince of Nothing trilogy. A much darker tone to proceedings, the introduction of an insane new protagonist and the launching of a vast, dark war which makes the crusade of the first trilogy look like a walk in the park combine with the most disturbing Moria tribute you'll ever read to form something quite powerful.

7. Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts' Russia-set SF novel has a brilliant premise: Stalin commissions a bunch of Russian SF authors to conjure up a new threat to keep the Russian people united once the US is destroyed in the Cold War, and they create a story about aliens invading Earth by first blowing up an orbital shuttle just after launch and then destroying a nuclear power station in the Ukraine as a show of might. The project is abandoned, but in 1986 the events written forty years earlier start to come true. Excellent prose, some splendid SF imagery and a wicked sense of humour combine to make a superior novel.

8. Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton
Mark Charan Newton's debut is a mix of the traditional secondary world fantasy, 'icepunk' and the New Weird, with a host of unusual characters caught up in events beyond their control (as is traditional).

9. Triumff: Her Majesty's Hero by Dan Abnett
Warhammer 40,000 mainstay Abnett's first creator-owned, stand-alone novel is a rollicking good adventure set in an alt-history where Elizabeth I married the King of Spain and her empire then rediscovered magic. Elements of historical fiction combine with steampunk and some quite splendidly awful puns to create a fast-paced and funny novel starring a genre equivalent to Harry Flashman.

10. The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel
French author Pierre Pevel delivers a dragon-infused take on Dumas, with Cardinal Richelieu assembling a badass bunch of soldiers (a sort of French Dirty Dozen) to take on the shapeshifting dragons of the Spanish court who are determined to bring down France. Rooftop duels on the skylines of Paris and perfectly-pitched court intrigue make for an atmospheric and rich novel.

11. Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson mixes hard SF with vigorously-researched historical fiction as Galileo Galilei pursues his scientific discoveries, despite the growing disapproval of the Pope, only to wind up being visited by curious time-travellers from three millennia in the future anxious that he avoids his destined fate...

12. The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Movie director Del Toro makes his first foray into novels with this high-concept action thriller which sees an insane vampire lord decide to break the oldest law of his people (anxious to preserve their food supply) and begins an exponential spread of vampirism in New York City.A fast-paced, page-turning read.

13. Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson
The ninth and sort-of-penultimate Malazan novel recovers from the pacing problems of the previous book in the series and sees an unusual number of storylines from the series being brought to a conclusion, culminating in an impressive massive battle sequence. Some great dialogue and Erikson's trademark interesting ideas hold up the reader's interest through the book's immense length.

14. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
A deeply atmospheric debut from Carrie Ryan set in a small settlement sealed off from the rest of the world by fences and gates, beyond which the hordes of the Unconsecrated roam. Zombies, romance (not with the zombies, thankfully) and some interesting worldbuilding questions make for an intriguing novel.

15. Fire by Kristin Cashore
The sequel to Graceling sees improved characterisation and politicking as the 'monstrous' Fire becomes the best hope for her home kingdom's survival, despite the persecution she faces from her own allies.

16. Eagle Rising by David Devereux
The extremely badass special operative 'Jack', essentially a Jack Bauer version of Harry Dresden, sets out to fight neo-Nazis employing supernatural forces for their own dastardly ends. Dark, amusing and fun.

17. The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas
Or Temeraire if it actually had dragons in it, rather than flying talking sky ponies. Several allied kingdoms are threatened by war, political intrigue abounds and the dragon steeds of the lords are in danger of rebelling. Great stuff from this debut novel.

18. Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry
A Middle-Eastern terrorist group launches a new terrorist campaign against the United States by deploying a bio-weapon that turns all it touches into zombies. The impossibly chisel-jawed hero Joe Ledger is deployed to fight off the zombie hordes and save America from zombification! Absolutely daft stuff, but oddly enjoyable.

19. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
A sort-of attempt to do an adult-oriented Harry Potter by way of a Narnia tribute which ends up getting a bit confused and falling over a lot. The story is okay, the writing occasionally very good, but a book that ultimately fails to work as well as was intended.

20. God of Clocks by Alan Campbell
After two very fine opening novels in The Deepgate Codex, the trilogy comes off the rails in this final volume which, having set up an insanely powerful enemy and a very challenging situation for our heroes to overcome, chickens out of actually answering these problems and resorts to some deus ex machina and time travel to sort everything out. There's still some good writing and good ideas, but overall the book feels like a massive cop-out.

The Wertzone 2009 Award for Special Achievements in Farcical KGB Interrogation Sequences

Sadly, the Farcical KGB Interrogation Sequence seems to be a dying art these days and competition for this award was light. Nevertheless, Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia can hold its head up high for delivering a comical but nevertheless mildly threatening questioning scene featuring a KGB agent and much ranting-based hilarity.

The Wertzone 2009 Award for Cruel and Unusual Treatment of Your Primary Cast

Joe Abercrombie takes this prize for his continued splendid tradition of creating characters and tormenting them with surgical precision in Best Served Cold. One day Abercrombie will undercut our expectations with a book that ends with no-one dying, being permanently physically and mentally scarred or turning out to having been an morally bankrupt Machiavellian quasi-villain all along. But not with this book.

So there we go. Not the best year in recent memory but not the worst either, with some very good books coming out. Hopefully, 2010 will be even better!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Merry Christmas people!

Christmas Day again? Guess that means it's time for a big lunch, the Doctor Who Christmas special on the telly and a few mince pies once again.

I've been avoiding doing the 'Best of' lists for the year and decade so far, but I'll get onto those after Christmas, along with the final Arc-TV article and some more reviews. This has been a strong year for the blog, and hopefully 2010 will be even better!

Thursday, 24 December 2009


In the year 2154, the human race has journeyed to the nearby star system of Alpha Centauri. There, on the jungle moon of Pandora, they have discovered 'unobtanium', a mineral which is of immense (if somewhat vague) value to humanity. The native Na'vi race are somewhat unwilling to let the invading humans to strip-mine their planet, and an escalating conflict is the result. To try to broker the peace, a science team has created a series of genetically-engineered Na'vi bodies called avatars. Driven remotely by humans in VR tanks, the colonists hope to be able to negotiate effectively with the aliens.

Jake Sully arrives on Pandora to work as an avatar-driver, replacing his twin brother who was supposed to ship out but was killed just before departure. Sully is a paraplegic ex-marine who rapidly finds himself enjoying his life as an avatar, since it allows him to walk again. During a mission into the jungle, Sully becomes separated from the rest of his team and meets up with a local native tribe, who (after some initial culture clash misunderstandings) take him under their wing and train him in their ways. Whilst Sully gets to know the Na'vi better he finds himself being pumped for information of possibly military value by the colony's military commander, Colonel Quaritch, whilst Dr. Augustine uses his position to gain fresh scientific knowledge on the Na'vi. Eventually, when the colonists decide that the negotiations are not proceeding to plan and they need to take military action to secure the unobtanium, Sully finds his loyalties being severely tested.

Avatar is director James Cameron's follow-up to Titanic. Fourteen years in the writing and over four years in production, Avatar mixes live-action footage with cutting-edge, state-of-the-art 3D and the very latest developments in CGI. Visually, the film is stunning, with the attention to detail and vibrant colour schemes of the jungle scenes being nothing short of jaw-dropping. The CG characters don't quite blow the viewer away in their level of realism as much as say Gollum in The Lord of the Rings did, but Avatar does represent a significant evolution from even that impressive technical achievement.

The film is a sumptuous visual banquet built around an extremely familiar story. How much you enjoy Avatar will likely depend on your experience of previous traditional archetype action movies. Younger viewers will likely thoroughly enjoy the whole package, whilst older viewers may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of movies, books and video games that Avatar seems to liberally borrow from to construct its story. Star Wars, Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai are obvious touchstones, as are Cameron's own movies, with elements of Titanic, Aliens and The Abyss all on display. The battle mechs used by the company for security seem to have been airlifted in from The Matrix Revolutions, whilst a stirring pre-battle speech seems to have been cut-and-pasted in from the script for Braveheart. Game players may find the underlying premise highly familiar from several of the Final Fantasy games (VII in particular). Fans of books will also spot strong similarities to the Poul Anderson novella Call Me Joe, whilst the French SF comic AquaBlue shares strong storyline and concept ideas with the movie.

In short, you've probably read, played or seen this story several dozen times before.

However familiar the story, it is quite well-executed in this instance. Some story elements are underdeveloped, and 'unobtanium' sounds like a placeholder in the script that was accidentally left in, but the actors perform their roles more than adequately, with the performance-capture work doing a great job of converting the great jobs by Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana (the movie's stand-out performance by a mile) into their 3D equivalents. Sam Worthington is adequate as the lead, but is not as charismatic or expressive as might be wished. He does convincingly handle the action sequences, however. Michelle Rodriguez is basically playing Vasquez from Aliens but does a great job as well, delivering an enthusiastic performance, whilst Stephen Lang redefines 'badass' as the chief villain, Colonel Quaritch, a character so ludicrously hardcore it goes way beyond parody and almost becomes Art.

Cameron's love of gadgets, vehicles and technology is also on full display here, without quite tipping into the disturbing fetishistic realm of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer, thankfully. Cameron also delivers some good action sequences, with the climatic massive battle being well-choreographed and easy to follow, unlike some recent CGI extravaganzas which were way too over-the-top and chaotic (such as Revenge of the Sith and Transformers II).

On the downside, the movie's premise - white guy investigates foreign culture and ends up leading them into battle against oppression - is a little bit tedious. It would have been nice to perhaps see an inversion of the cliche (a native Na'vi who meets the humans, bonds with them but discovers they are a threat and has to fight against them?) rather than it being tiresomely trotted out once again. Also, whilst the film has some finality there are perhaps a few too many plot threads left unresolved for the inevitable sequels.

Overall, Avatar (***½) is an entertaining, impressive spectacle which is definitely worth seeing in the cinema. There are some great performances, some central SF ideas nicely explored (the organic USB leads are an intriguing idea and Pandora's ecosystem is vividly depicted) and no-one does big-budget conflict as well as Cameron. After twelve years, he's still got the touch to deliver something rousingly enjoyable. The movie is a little bit too familiar in places and it would have been nice if the script and dialogue had had half as much attention paid on them as the CGI, but the movie still has far more genuine heart than some other recent big blockbusters. It even has a romance more convincing than the one in Titanic.

The movie is on general release worldwide right now, and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2010. The film is planned as the first in a trilogy, so expect more to follow.

Exclusive Video Interview with R.L. McSterlingthong

Dead Gentlemen Productions have hosted an exclusive video interview with the USA's premier fantasy author, R.L. McSterlingthong, author of the unforgettable Sins of the Hedgehog and the frankly jaw-dropping Gynomancer. McSterlingthong goes into detail about researching his paranormal SF epic Wolfstronaut and how he draws inspiration from, erm, his own novel The Pike of Mediocrity. Truly, an inspiration to all lovers of SF and fantasy everywhere.

More to come!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Wertzone Classics: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Fifteen years ago the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, was torn down from his seat of power and killed. Robert Baratheon ascended the Iron Throne, supported by the most powerful houses in the Seven Kingdoms, and has ruled ever since. When Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, dies, Robert asks his childhood friend Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and the North, to replace him. At court in the south, Eddard discovers the king he once knew is a stranger, the realm's ruling council is infested by schemers with their own agendas and he hears a whisper that Arryn was murdered to protect an old secret. As he attempts to learn the truth, he discovers his honesty and honour may be hindrances, and there are others who are far better versed at playing the game of thrones. As he seeks answers, Stark must choose his allies carefully, for the stakes in this game are the highest of all.

In the furthest north of the Seven Kingdoms stands the Wall, a vast fortification 700 feet tall and 300 miles long, built in an age when people still possessed the secrets of sorcery. Eddard Stark's bastard son Jon Snow, unwelcome at Winterfell in his father's absence, elects to join the brothers of the Night's Watch, who maintain and hold the Wall against the wildlings of the haunted forest beyond. As the great decade-long summer draws to a close and the winds of winter start to blow against the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, men of the Watch start to disappear and the dead begin to stir...

On the continent of Essos beyond the Narrow Sea, Viserys Targaryen, the last son of the Mad King, weds his sister Daenerys to the warlord of a Dothraki khal, forty thousand fierce bloodriders who are unrelenting and savage in battle. Determined to avenge the murder of his family and the theft of his birthright, he lays claim to the Iron Throne...

First published in 1996, A Game of Thrones, the first volume in A Song of Ice and Fire, has become one of the defining works of the fantasy genre, arguably the most defining work in the epic subgenre since The Lord of the Rings was published forty years earlier. Almost every epic fantasy written in the last decade has been written in its shadow, many newer authors cite it as a major influence and it has become a key touchstone of the genre.

It has been ten years since I first read the book and six since my last reread, and I must admit to some concern that the book wouldn't perhaps stand up as well on this latest read-through. Would five years of seeing people arguing about Jon Snow's parentage on the Westeros message board leave me apathetic when reading the story again? Fortunately, it did not.

A Game of Thrones is well-named for it is constructed as a game with different factions and different sides, with the first book introducing us to two of those sides (the Starks and Lannisters). The meticulous construction of the plot, the intertwining of different conspiracies and schemes and the successful depiction of the 'intoxicatingly complex' politics of the realm (to quote another review) - with the reader invited to decide who is in the wrong and who is in the right - are several reasons for the book's success, but the main reason is the characters. Eddard Stark, proud and honourable and too honest for his own good; his wife Catelyn, steadfast, clever and intelligent but blinded by anger over her husband's bastard son; the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, blessed by birth into a great house but cursed with deformities and a raging anger against his distant father; Daenerys, a young girl whose life and destiny are in the hands of her ambitious brother and her new husband and who must learn what it means to be a Targaryen; and Jon Snow, a young man who must find his own place in the world when it becomes clear he cannot share in the honours of his father's house. Together with a veritable galaxy of strong supporting characters - King Robert, Littlefinger, Varys, Lord Renly, Roose Bolton and more - they define this story and this world.

Prior to A Game of Thrones, with a few memorable exceptions, epic fantasy seemed to be defined by events and places and battles and the furniture of the setting, the writers often forgetting the lesson of Tolkien that these things are secondary and of no importance without protagonists to become invested in. This novel brought the characters back to the front and centre of the genre. Understanding the characters, who they are and what they want and what they are prepared to do to get it, is key to understanding the world of Westeros, its political landscape and the wider conflict that develops. The characters are treated as real people with all the flaws and problems that come with them, confounding some readers used to novels which never move beyond first impressions. For example, Catelyn Stark is an intelligent, strong and politically savvy figure, a reliable support to her husband and sons, but because the first time we meet her she lays into Jon Snow with some venom and hatred, these other qualities are sometimes overlooked.

A Game of Thrones is also a fundamentally adult book. This is a harsh, cold and unsympathetic world where life is cheap, promises count for little, honour and chivalry only exist on the tourney field and sons and daughters are bought and sold in marriages solely to enhance the power and prestige of their houses. Based on the historical truths of the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years War and the surrounding medieval period, Martin doesn't skimp on the violence or sex, although it isn't really gratuitous either. Tyrion learns some important truths about himself on the battlefield, whilst Daenerys discovers how to use her sexuality to exercise her own power and influence over her new husband. And, something that some later epic fantasy writers seem to have forgotten to include, there are also plenty of rays of sunlight in the gloom to show us that for all its faults, Westeros and its people are indeed worthy of salvation.

The book is certainly not without flaws. The rotating-POV structure can lead to frustration, as you are just settling into one character's storyline and are then wrenched halfway across the continent to another character and by the time you get back to the first one it's moved on by several weeks or months. The worldbuilding, although highly intriguing, also feels a little sketchy at this point (something Martin addresses in spades in the sequels and prequel novellas), although individual locations like the Red Keep, Winterfell and the Wall come to life quite nicely and there is a sense of a vast history lying behind events and locations. The book also feels like it moves a little too quickly at times, with sometimes weeks passing between chapters, armies covering hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye and so forth. On one level this is a good thing: if A Game of Thrones was told in the same level of detail as say A Storm of Swords or A Feast for Crows, it would be considerably longer. On another, some of the more subtle nuances of character and plot from the later volumes are skimmed over here, whilst the series' central theme of power is more hinted at than fully indulged (which has to wait until more factions and more players enter the game).

These complaints are pretty minimal, however. A Game of Thrones (*****) is a seminal and important work of modern epic fantasy, arguably unmatched since its publication as the opening volume of a fantasy sequence (although Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before has come closest). The book is available now in the UK and USA.

David Wingrove's CHUNG KUO series to return?

Between 1989 and 1999, British SF novelist and critic David Wingrove published eight volumes in his critically-acclaimed Chung Kuo series. Set two centuries in the future, the series depicted the planet dominated by vast continent-spanning cities consisting of hundreds of levels. Earth and its colonies were controlled by the Chinese, whose government had established hegemony over all of the human race and erased vast chunks of history in favour of their own propaganda. As the series unfolded, it depicted cracks appearing in this monolithic empire and the descent into all-out war.

Originally envisaged as a nine-volume series, Wingrove ran into problems in the writing of the eighth book, The Marriage of the Living Dark, such as not being paid properly for it and being told by the publishers they were not interested in a ninth book, as sales of the series were going down. Wingrove had to collapse the story intended to spread across two volumes into one. The final volume was in print only briefly, is now difficult to find and has been harshly criticised ever since the original release, a perspective Wingrove has agreed on.

Word began to spread a couple of years back that there might be some movement on the series, and Wingrove had reportedly been working on new material set in the Chung Kuo universe. It now appears, that after several false starts, the series will indeed be relaunched in a big way by the small publisher Corvus-Atlantic (mentioned on the very last page), starting at the end of 2010.

The first seven books have been broken into two volumes apiece (the very large existing books apparently not being economical for the smaller publisher to release), whilst the disappointing Marriage of the Living Dark has had 300,000 words added to it (effectively doubling its size) and then been broken into four smaller volumes. There will also be a new final novel (title unknown), transforming the core Chung Kuo series into a massive nineteen-volume saga. In addition, a new prequel novel, Son of Heaven, has been written to kick off the series and Wingrove is now working on a new, stand-alone novel set in the same universe, Dawn in the Stone City.

The existing volumes of the series are:
  1. The Middle Kingdom (1989)
  2. The Broken Wheel (1990)
  3. The White Mountain (1992)
  4. The Stone Within (1993)
  5. Beneath the Tree of Heaven (1994)
  6. White Moon, Red Dragon (1995)
  7. Days of Bitter Strength (1997)
  8. The Marriage of the Living Dark (1999)
Interesting to see if this comes off. The series was a mainstay at the local library, but for some reason they never had Book 1 and I was never motivated enough to try to find it. If the series does get relaunched, I'll have to check it out.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Merlin: Season 2

Following the defeat of the sorceress Nimueh, life in Camelot has returned to normal for young Merlin, manservant to Prince Arthur. Meanwhile, King Uther's ward, Morgana, is suffering from nightmarish dreams and visions. When it appears that only outlawed magic can give her the peace she seeks, Morgana is forced to rethink her allegiances. The Great Dragon, imprisoned beneath Camelot for twenty years, now demands that Merlin fulfil his oath to free him from his chains, but Merlin is no longer sure if he can trust the creature as he once did. The arrival of a skilled female warrior signals a transformation at Camelot as treason is unleashed and the castle is threatened with destruction from within and without.

Merlin's first season was a fairly likable show, if quite lightweight. As a family show airing at 6pm on a Saturday night and aimed squarely at the Doctor Who audience (and thus having to be suitable for all ages), it was never going to really depict the darkness and mythical power of the Arthurian legends in full force, annoying historical and legendarium 'purists', whilst other viewers felt that even given the show's limitations it wasn't really being as original and interesting as it could be (the show repeatedly pulling punches that, for example, Doctor Who wouldn't hesitate to follow to their end).

This problem is both alleviated and exasperated by the second season. The producers long ago claimed to have a planned five-season story arc, and if this is true the second season should be when more of this grand plan comes into view. In a traditional five-act story, the second is the 'rising action' following the first season's introduction of the characters and premise. To some extent this is true of the second season of Merlin. More of the show's backstory is explored, and by the end of the season it does feel like the premise has been shaken up somewhat and more of the overall shape of the series is becoming clear. At the same time, the show repeatedly continues to pull its punches and not follow through on much-needed story and character developments. By this point Merlin should be a much more proactive force in the story instead of continuing to just react to things happening around him, and the introduction of a new villainess to replace Nimueh from the first season is initially impressive but rapidly becomes slightly tedious when it turns out she's simply Nimueh Mk. II, looking magnificently evil whilst staring into scrying devices and carrying out magical plots to destroy Camelot only to be defeated and walk away muttering darkly. Fortunately, Emilia Fox is a vastly superior actress to Michelle Ryan and the writers take her story at the end of the season in a very different direction, meaning it isn't quite as dull as it could have been.

The season's biggest problem is that it once again falls too easily back on cliche. Uther is bewitched by a beautiful woman for nefarious purposes. Arthur is bewitched by a beautiful woman for nefarious purposes. Various magical creatures get loose and attack the castle and defeat Arthur and all his knights only for Merlin to dispatch them with magic. Arthur spends a surprisingly convenient amount of time unconscious or asleep whenever Merlin needs to unleash some magic, usually arriving or waking up just after Merlin's done his stuff.

Angel Courby as Guinevere has a bit more to do this season as she is given her own storyline as the Arthur/Guinevere relationship starts to get going. Surprisingly, Katie McGrath has significantly less screen-time than last year. When she is the focus of the episode, she does good work and Morgana's character does develop a lot, but she's also not in several episodes at all and in several more has nothing to do except complain about headaches. Given that she was one of the best actors in Season 1, it's surprising that she falls so much into the background in Season 2, despite her increased importance to the overall storyline.

On the plus side, the series picks up a lot in its second half (similarly to last year, actually) with a powerful confrontation between Morgana and Uther and another between Arthur and his father showing how these young actors have developed, with both McGrath and Bradley James going toe-to-toe with Anthony Stewart Head in a convincing manner. Colin Morgan is also more accomplished as Merlin this year, and handles the dramatic scenes better than last. Richard Wilson continues to give able support, and Head's depiction of an Uther slightly losing his composure and conviction in the latter part of the series is superb. John Hurt as the voice of the dragon also delivers an excellent vocal performance as the dragon's mentor-like relationship to Merlin disintegrates and they become increasingly suspicious and manipulative of one another.

After some ropey episodes including one where a shape-changed troll snogs Uther (as bad as it sounds), the season comes to a genuinely exciting three-part conclusion. Joseph Mawle (soon to be seen as Benjen Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones) joins the cast as a charismatic warlock and leader of a band of sorcerers (including Mordred, returning after his appearance in Season 1) opposed to Uther's rule who wins over Morgana to his cause. Morgause (Emilia Fox) then unleashes a plot that comes close to destroying Camelot. In order to defeat the plot Merlin has to carry out a number of heinous and morally dubious acts which saves the castle but results in the deaths of many innocents. In the final, unexpectedly epic (and CGI-laden) episode Merlin tries to make amends, only to suffer a personal tragedy in the process.

This last run of episodes isn't quite as much of a game-changer as it initially appears to be (I foresee some falling back on the established format next season), it does get the pieces moving towards their traditional places in the legend. The actors and writers up their game significantly, and an undercurrent of darkness and moral ambiguity not really seen before becomes more apparent. Whilst the second season isn't as much of a step forward as might be desired, it is nevertheless an improvement over the first season.

Merlin: Season 2 (***½) is available on DVD in the UK in two volumes. A third season has been commissioned and will start airing at the end of 2010.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Creator of ALIEN passes away

Dan O'Bannon, Hollywood scriptwriter behind movies such as Dark Star, Alien, Blue Thunder, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead, has sadly passed away at the age of 63 after a short illness. He also worked in the special effects field and developed some of the special effects in both Dark Star and Star Wars: A New Hope before turning to full-time scriptwriting in the late 1970s.

It was O'Bannon's disappointment with an alien in Dark Star that was quite blatantly a beach ball that made him decide he wanted to do a film with an alien creature that looked 'real'. Whilst working in Paris on an ultimately unsuccessful version of Dune, he met artist H.R. Giger and was inspired by several of his designs. O'Bannon began developing a script called Star Beast along with scriptwriter Ronald Shusett, who developed the idea of the alien laying eggs in human hosts which then burst out through the chest. The film almost fell through due to the studio's lack of confidence until Star Wars' unprecedented success abruptly changed the studio's mind. Several directors were attached to the project, including Roger Corman, before Ridley Scott was asked to take on the role. O'Bannon pushed for Giger to be made designer, a cause championed by Scott, and they won over 20th Century Fox's reluctance.

The result, released in 1979, was and remains one of the classic science fiction movies, horrific but compelling. It gave birth to a franchise, although O'Bannon did not return for any of the sequels (but was credited on all of them for their use of the aliens and the character of Ripley, whom he co-created). At the time of his death O'Bannon was rumoured to have been in discussions with Ridley Scott for a planned prequel to the original Alien movie, due for release in 2011-12.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Tobey Maguire up for THE HOBBIT?

With pre-production of The Hobbit now well underway and filming planned for early 2010, casting rumours are starting to circulate in earnest. Sir Ian McKellen recently claimed to be the only returning castmember from the trilogy, but Andy Serkis and Hugo Weaving had both previously indicated they should be returning as Gollum and Elrond, respectively.


The casting of Bilbo Baggins is currently the biggest question over the topic, with Daniel Radcliffe ruling himself out due to fantasy burn-out. Soon-to-be-former Doctor Who star David Tennant has been heavily rumoured, but current favourite is probably Scottish actor James McAvoy (who also gets Radcliffe's backing).

A new name has now entered the ring, with the Latino Review claiming that Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire might be a contender. According to their sources, Maguire is in talks with the film's producers. Apparently he is very keen to work with director Guillermo Del Toro on a project.

What is likely to be a key consideration over whether this happens or not is timing. Spider-Man 4 begins shooting in March 2010, which is tight given that The Hobbit's start date (not set in stone yet) has been mooted for between April and June 2010. It's possible that Maguire's involvement could be a good reason for a later start date to be picked, and indeed just recently there was some talk about filming being held back to the summer, so this could all come together nicely.

The Hobbit is currently planned to film for a year and should be released in two parts, with the first part being released in December 2011 on the tenth anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan

Gabry lives a quiet life in the lighthouse overlooking the town of Vice. Many years ago her mother came out of the Forest of Hands and Teeth and made a new life here for herself and her young daughter. But a rash decision triggers unforeseen circumstances, and as Gabry's life disintegrates she realises she must flee her home just as her mother did long ago.

The Dead-Tossed Waves is the follow-up to Carrie Ryan's enjoyable debut novel from last year, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, taking place more than a decade after the end of that book. It can be read satisfyingly either as a sequel or a stand-alone, although the backstory is more easily understood if you have read the first book.

There are strong similarities between the two volumes. In the first book, a young woman flees her home as it is overrun by the Unconsecrated (zombies, basically) and escapes with a band of friends through the undead-infested forest, surviving only thanks to walled-off and protected paths through the wilderness. In the second book her teenage daughter faces a similar situation, although the opening sequence in the home town is significantly longer and more complex.

The novel also reveals much more of the history of the apocalypse and how the world survived it. Many questions from the first book are answered, and it is revealed that a sense of civilisation has indeed survived. The first book's sometimes overwhelming sense of isolation and mystery (akin to the atmosphere of the film The Village) is therefore missing, replaced by a somewhat more traditional form of post-apocalyptic worldbuilding. A sequence set on a crumbling overpass bridge with the ruins of civilisation strewn about it is reminiscent of the Fallout games (although at no point does the main character construct a steam-powered, railway sleeper-firing hand-cannon) or, more appropriately, The Road, though with more teenage angst.

Ryan continues to give us good zombie. The Unconsecrated are a constant, threatening force and Ryan cleverly expands the mythology about them and shows us they have many interesting capabilities not previously revealed. They're a constant, threatening force and not diminished (yet) by over-familiarity.

The characters are mostly well-sketched, but there are some weak elements here. Gabry eventually becomes a rootable heroine, but spends much of the opening of the book as a pretty passive figure. Even long after she becomes an active protagonist driving the action, she still frets over being so weak and helpless and not living up to her mother's badass-zombie-fighting reputation (her mum spends every a couple of hours every night battling off the zombie hordes washing up on the beach with the tide), which is understandable at the start but a little bit wearying after she's dispatched her third or fourth zombie of the book and swum through undead-infested waters to rescue her injured boyfriend from certain undeath twice before breakfast. She needs a bit more validation and positive reinforcement, I think. Also, being a first-person narrative, the other characters tend to be a bit more remote and distant and it's not always easy to get a handle on their motivations (aside from Mary, whom we know from the first book). Gabry's also inherited her mother's tendency to ponder and fret over her love life at inopportune zombie-related moments.

However, the story has enough of a good momentum to overcome these issues, the prose is solid rising to occasionally disturbing (Ryan does gruesome very well), and the pacing is good. It will probably surprise no-one to learn there is a cliffhanger ending, with a third book due next year.

The Dead-Tossed Waves (***½) is an effective follow-up to the first novel, enjoyable and disturbing by turns. The novel will be published on 8 April 2010 in the UK and 9 March 2010 in the USA.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Arc of Truth: Part 3

Part 1.
Part 2.

In 1993, two science fiction TV shows began airing. Both shows were set on space stations in the future. Both shows involved a large cast of diverse characters, human and alien. Both shows - eventually - depicted chaos and hardship as wars erupted between various factions. Both shows employed cutting-edge special effects and epic storylines. Both shows were pretty damn good. And, perhaps most surprisingly, both shows ran their allotted lifespans and ended their runs successfully.

The first show was Babylon 5, created by veteran TV scriptwriter and producer J. Michael Straczynski and produced by Warner Brothers. The second was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, created by Star Trek: The Next Generation writer-producers Michael Pillar and Rick Berman and produced by Paramount as a spin-off of The Next Generation, then in its sixth and penultimate season. They took radically different approaches to the idea of the long-form story arc, but oddly ended up in a similar place.

J. Michael Straczynski (or, as he prefers to be known, JMS) created Babylon 5 after trying to develop two separate concepts: one was an epic, galaxy-spanning space war featuring intricate politics and huge space battles, inspired by the Lensman and Foundation novels; the other was a small-scale, character-driven drama located aboard a space station, focusing on realism and character development. Whilst developing these ideas, JMS was hit by inspiration: unify the two stories and use the space station and the characters on it as the 'window' onto the world of the larger, more epic storyline. He eagerly developed a large ten-year story arc spanning two separate shows (later, and somewhat more realistically, paring it down to one five-year show), won the support of veteran TV producer Douglas Netter and spent the next several years trying to sell the idea. Eventually Warner Brothers took a chance on the project.

The development of Deep Space Nine almost killed Babylon 5 at birth, but Warner Brothers chose to press on with it. Straczynski, for his part, was suspicious of Paramount, as he had presented Paramount with the Babylon 5 proposal some years earlier (including detailed storyline information down to the presence of a shapeshifting alien on the station, something he had to drop from Babylon 5 to eliminate the appearance of stealing the other show's ideas), but eventually decided there was nothing he could do and moved on.

Babylon 5 ran for five seasons from 1994 to 1998 (with the pilot airing by itself in early 1993). It won a loyal audience following, won several major awards (including two Hugos) and picked up a lot of critical acclaim. It was lauded for its intricate, pre-planned storyline, its epic scope, its razor-sharp characterisation and its elegant final episode. It was also applauded for being made well on a modest budget and introducing the use of CGI to TV SF. It was also, at times, criticised for dubious dialogue and a long run of poor episodes in the final season. Broadly, however, it was very well received.

Deep Space Nine ran for seven seasons from 1993 and 1999 and gained larger audiences than Babylon 5, although it never won over as many viewers as The Next Generation. It took longer for the show to 'get going', as it were, but by its third season the show was enjoying a consistently high run of quality episodes. Some Babylon 5 fans mockingly noted that the show seemed to be treading in Babylon 5's footsteps by introducing CGI space effects, large-scale space battles and political and storyline developments only after B5 had done them first. However, the reverse was also true at times: the introduction of the White Star - an experimental warship - in B5's third season followed the introduction of the Defiant - an experimental warship - in DS9 a year earlier.

When DS9 ended it had also become warmly critically received. Although there were some thematic similarities to B5, the show had ended up in a somewhat different place and with a different focus. DS9 had also become extremely consistent in episode quality (arguably more 'reliable' in weekly episode quality than B5 over the course of its lifespan) and was also much funnier (despite his sometimes awesome skills with dialogue, a JMS comedy episode is a painful thing to watch). The oddest thing about DS9, though, is that if you sit down and watch all 178 episodes in relatively close order (as I did a couple of years back when I was working abroad for a while), its storyline is extremely cohesive, appears to be pre-planned and the ending is tied-in well to where the story began.

This cuts to the core of what makes a story arc work or not work. Deep Space Nine had achieved the impossible in being a show which winged it and played it by ear, but somehow ended up working. Virtually every single other arc-based show which tried this fell flat on its face: The X-Files eventually collapsed into a confused morass of UFOs, black oil and shapeshifters, crushed by the weight of its own mythology, whilst Battlestar Galactica spectacularly self-destructed in its final season with its unresolved mysteries, under-developed storylines and unwise use of half-assed ideas combining to bring the show to an underwhelming conclusion.

The reason Deep Space Nine works so well is that the story is not based on mysteries. If it had been, it would have probably run into the problems experienced by BSG a few years later. However, with the series' main storylines all being forward-moving plots not based on an intricate 'mythology', the playing-it-by-ear approach actually worked very well. The show remained fresh and interesting, with the producers having the freedom to adapt to changing circumstances. Even apparent deviations from the overall series arc, such as the bringing in of the Klingons in force in the fourth season, work well in the overall scheme of things. The only moments where the series wobbles are a series of 'surprise' revelations about Sisko's personal history in the final season, which scream of "Unconvincing retcon!" and are distinctly unconvincing. Nevertheless, Deep Space Nine succeeded in being a great story arc show with a definite beginning, middle and end, despite none of it being planned ahead of time.

Babylon 5 is the stronger series in the sense that having the arc planned out ahead of time allowed much more intricate use of foreshadowing and forward planning. However, this also bit the show on its ass a few times. Having the storyline pre-planned meant some spectacular hoop-jumping had to be performed whenever something unforeseen happened. The abrupt departure of actress Andrea Thompson at the end of Season 2 saw her storyline transferred to another character in a manner that initially seemed clever but later on appeared to be somewhat artificial (when you realised both characters had near-identical superpowers and overall story arcs). The departure of lead actor Michael O'Hare at the end of Season 1 was initially handled well, but his return in Season 3 to resolve his storyline led to the most brain-meltingly complicated two-part story in the history of SF TV, in which his entire story had to be retconned, rewritten and completely changed whilst remaining in the confines of a series of visions experienced by the characters in the first season. It is a Herculean miracle of writing that it makes any sense at all, but it does show that, whilst pre-planning is fantastic, it does have a few drawbacks.

During the time the two shows were on air, several other shows ran which made interesting use of the story arc. The X-Files started off brilliantly in 1993 and by its second season had become a cross-Atlantic phenomenon, its stars on the covers of every major magazine and ratings going through the roof. It was a less insane version of Twin Peaks for the masses, with sharp dialogue and strong direction giving rise to some fantastic episodes based on horror and mystery. The show's story arc, in which lead character Fox Mulder tries to find his missing sister and the true nature of a clandestine government conspiracy involving UFOs whilst being 'investigated' by his partner Dana Scully, was initially compelling, with strong 'mythology' episodes moving the storyline forward at regular intervals. However, as the show continued its sheer success meant that the studio didn't want the mysteries resolved any time soon, so creator Chris Carter kept spinning the show's storylines out further and further. The myth-arc became more and more complex, with shapeshifting alien bounty-hunters, black oil, experiments to turn humans into aliens, the genetic engineering of 'super-soldiers' and yet other elements being crammed into the story. Viewers stopped following the story and grew more bored with the mythology, to the point where the 'myth' episodes were less popular than the stand-alones (in sharp contrast to Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine's corresponding 'arc episodes'). The X-Files was cancelled after nine seasons with the central storyline unresolved and the audience not really caring any more.

In 1995, Steven Bocho, the creator of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and LA Law, developed a new project. He had hit on the idea of doing a show about a legal case which unfolded over several months. A common criticism of TV drama series had been that they were inherently unrealistic, often featuring a crime, the arrest of an alleged perpetrator, bail proceedings, a legal investigation, a full trial and verdict all within the space of 45 minutes. Bocho concurred, but by the mid-1990s had come to believe that viewers were now ready for a more challenging approach by allowing one complex case to develop over the course of a full season. Murder One was the result. In the first episode a Hollywood actor is accused of the murder of a young girl, and he calls on the help of attorney Ted Hoffman and his team. Hoffman and his associates spend the next twenty-odd episodes investigating the case, eventually exonerating their client. The series attracted plaudits for the idea, its execution and its greater realism and accuracy, with the long-brewing storyline allowing greater character and story development. However, the show failed to win a mass audience and ratings soon dropped, with viewers complaining about missing an episode and not being able to catch up again easily. Murder One was cancelled after a second, less impressive season based around shorter cases solved in a few episodes each.

Similar complaints led to the cancellation of two other arc-heavy series. Dark Skies, created by Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman, ran for a single season in 1996-97 but is notable for being the first post-Babylon 5 show to have a pre-planned story arc. Using the tagline, "History as we know it is a lie," the show's backstory saw aliens launching a clandestine takeover of the Earth in the 1960s, opposed by an American government agency of dubious morality called Majestic-12. The show was designed so that each season would span a decade or more, with Season 2 planned to span the 1970s, Season 3 the 1980s and Season 4 climaxing in 'real-time' with the first day of the new millennium, when the alien invasion would become public knowledge. The remaining season and a half would depict the public fight against the aliens. The show cleverly played on X-Files imagery without ripping off the other show, with a richly-depicted 1960s background and a much less enigmatic storyline taking the show in a different direction. Dark Skies failed to attract a major audience and it was cancelled after one season, although it did provide a boost to the careers of Eric Close (later to star on Without a Trace) and Jeri Ryan (who went almost straight from working on Dark Skies to appearing on Star Trek: Voyager as Seven-of-Nine).

Meanwhile, musician Shaun Cassidy had developed a sideline in writing television and in 1995 launched a show called American Gothic, starring Gary Cole as the apparently satanic sheriff of a small town who binds people to him by agreeing to solve their problems in return for them owing him a 'favour', which usually involves a painful sacrifice of some kind. The show's dark atmosphere and its surprisingly bleak tone (the 'good guys' win very few victories against the evil Sheriff Buck) saw it cancelled after one season, despite the development of a strong, arc-based storyline. Ten years later, Cassidy did it all over again with a new show called Invasion, which was similarly critically lauded, lasted one season, and was promptly cancelled.

The glut of serialised series which began in the mid-1990s only to be quickly cancelled can probably be explained by the greater difficulties in allowing newcomers to get quickly up to speed with the storylines. In the mid-1990s this was a difficult process, with the Internet not in widespread use, no facility for downloading (legally or otherwise) TV episodes quickly and often many months elapsing between the end of a season and it appearing on VHS, not to mention that collecting a series on VHS (with only two episodes per tape being the norm) was extremely expensive and space-consuming. Thus, the break-out of heavily serialised TV series was held off for a time when a more user-friendly medium would appear to allow the rapid and relatively cheap catching up on missed episodes.

Babylon 5
, made relatively cheaply and with strong VHS sales, was a notable exception to this tendency, whilst The X-Files's lack of major story developments, frustrating to regular viewers, also helped win over the casual audience despite its backstory.

Meanwhile, other answers to the serialised-storytelling 'problem' were being explored by two rather different TV showrunners.

The first was a guy called Larry David, who had co-created a sitcom based (very loosely) on the life of his friend Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld was a massive success, the biggest American sitcom of the decade (although it's almost unknown here in the UK), all the more amazingly due to its relentlessly bleak and cynical tone: a key show guideline was, "No hugging, no learning." The show started using ongoing story elements early on, since David found the idea of people's lives being neatly encapsulated in 25-minute segments where no-one refers to what happened the previous week to be utterly ludicrous. Hence, main characters sometimes dated recurring other characters for several weeks rather than just for one episode and that was it, whilst character relationships would develop and change over time.

In the fourth season David and Seinfeld took this to the next level and thoroughly blew the audience's minds by introducing them to a meta-narrative: the (fictional) characters of Seinfeld and George (who is based on Larry David's real-life persona) develop and propose to NBC a sitcom based on the (fictional) Seinfeld's career as a stand-up comedian. The fictional show used many of the same gags, ideas and catchphrases as the real show (which in turn were derived from Seinfeld and David's real-life experiences). Over the course of the fourth season the show-within-a-show was developed, eventually culminating in a pilot being shot and then the show being turned down. It was a fantastic idea and was very successful. For the seventh season they decided to do it again, with George proposing to his girlfriend in the first episode and then spending the remainder of the season trying to get out of the wedding, culminating in a shock ending to the season. In both cases, the idea was straightforward: not having a series-spanning arc, but merely just one spanning a season. It's easier for an audience to follow and if you miss out on too many episodes you can usually just jump back in at the start of the next season.

Taking this idea to its logical conclusion was Joss Whedon. Having previously written or co-written a number of successful movies (such as Toy Story), Whedon's show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, based on an earlier, cult movie, began airing in 1997 to immediate success. The show featured a female 'vampire slayer', a teenage girl named Buffy who was the 'chosen one', the only person in the world capable of standing up against the vampires and demons who threatened mankind. Driven by smart, funny dialogue and some winning performances by the main cast, Buffy was a big hit. A strong element of the success of the 12-episode first season was its story arc: Buffy arrives at a new school, discovers it's been built over a portal into hell, and gradually acquires a circle of friends to help her stand against the forces of evil. In the first season a vampire called 'The Master' is trying to open the Hellmouth and plunge the world into darkness, and seems to be protected by a prophecy that states he will kill the Slayer. This story arc is resolved satisfyingly at the end of Season 1 with the Master defeated and the prophecy circumvented (kind of).

For the longer, 22-episode second season, Whedon decided to do this again, introducing British vampires Spike and Drusilla as a new, recurring foe. However, aware that pacing the storyline across 22 episodes would be trickier, he introduced his trademark 'mid-season twist', with the arrival of a much bigger, more threatening enemy at the mid-season point to shake things up as they threatened to get stale. Once again, this threat was defeated at the end of the season, although the ramifications to Buffy's character and confidence were significant, and echoed into the third season.This set-up, with each season featuring a 'Big Bad' that had to be defeated and the presence of a mid-season twist in the story, was largely followed throughout each of the show's seven seasons, mostly successfully. An exception was the fifth season, in which the mid-season twist wasn't the emergence of a new foe but instead a personal tragedy that makes Buffy's life much harder, whilst in the sixth season the 'Big Bad' was actually rather pathetic and unthreatening, and only existed to trigger the release of the real 'Big Bad' in the season finale.

Whedon's formula - pre-planned story arcs, but only planned in detail one season ahead - was successful and it worked quite well, although the clockwork-like rise of a new major enemy every yeard did get a little predictable. Buffy was also helped by the fact that its VHS releases were done by season (rather than just two episodes per tape), allowing fans to 'binge' on numerous episodes in a day and catch up with previous seasons quickly. The show was also helped by the arrival of the DVD format during its run, and the show quickly embraced the new format.

With Buffy a success, Whedon developed a spin-off, Angel, that debuted in 1999. Cleverly, Whedon decided not to repeat the 'Big Bad' formula of Buffy and instead introduced a constant enemy, a demonic law firm called Wolfram & Hart which became Angel's enemy in the first episode and remained a constant threatening force in the background for the show's entire run. The show's dominant story arcs also crossed seasons, with a major storyline begun halfway through Season 2 continuing to the end of Season 3, for example, and its consequences set up the apocalyptic fourth season (which saw Angel and Wolfram & Hart reluctantly join forces against a far greater, mutual threat). Angel was also a hit, winning audiences larger than Buffy's on quite a few occasions, but with Buffy ending after seven seasons in 2003 it was decided to also end Angel (after five) the following year.

Whedon's success in these two shows encouraged him to develop a new show set in a new universe that would feature a slow-burning, long-form story arc that would gradually unfold over several years. It would feature Whedon's strongest characters, some of his best writing and several of the finest episodes to come out of any of his shows. It was called Firefly, it was insanely ambitious and it was mercilessly killed by the network after fourteen episodes. Due to sheer willpower (and some industry contacts), Whedon successfuly got a modestly successful feature film made, Serenity, which wrapped up some of the storylines left dangling by the series. Once again, the problems of creating a heavily arc-dependent series only for it to end prematurely had become clear.

By now it was the early 2000s and the advent of DVD and the massive booming in popularity of the Internet had placed the arc show in a very different place to where it had been previously. Next time, I'll be looking at HBO, the new Battlestar Galactica, a TV show called Avatar (no relation to the movie), a TV series about the world's most indestructible (and sleep-deprived) man and bringing the story up to date.

New French editions of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE

As related on, the French publishers J'ai Lu are reprinting the first four volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire. The books have hitherto only been available in French in three volumes apiece (four for A Storm of Swords), so this will be the first time they are available in one-volume editions.

Top row: A Game of Thrones (Castle Black), A Clash of Kings (Tyrion & King's Landing)
Bottom row: A Storm of Swords (a forest), A Feast for Crows (the Greyjoy castle, Pyke)

A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings will be published in January 2010, followed by A Storm of Swords in June and A Feast for Crows in September. The cover artist is Marc Simonetti. Higher-quality images can be found on his gallery. Images with the titles on can be seen here.

Friday, 11 December 2009

UFO movie will now be first in a trilogy

In a prior post I commented on plans to develop Gerry Anderson's classic 1970 TV series UFO as a movie. In a new interview, the director, Matthew Gratzner, has indicated their plans are now radically more ambitious for the project.

Skydiver, a possibly somewhat inefficient submarine-launched jet aircraft, but very modest by Anderson's normal standards of unnecessarily complicated vehicles.

The project is now envisaged as a trilogy. The first movie sounds like it will borrow heavily from a storyline in the series about pilot Paul Foster (Joshua Jackson, the only confirmed castmember so far) stumbling across the SHADO organisation and then joining it. The trilogy's storyline is under wraps but comments in the interview suggest it will broadly follow the series arc, in which SHADO gradually uncovers more information about the aliens and their technology and their goals, with a view to eventually defeating them (radical, I know).

Also encouraging is news that after relocating the action to the USA, the latest draft of the script has re-set it in the UK, with either Pinewood or Shepperton earmarked to stand in for SHADO's secret HQ underneath a film studio. The movie will also favour miniatures for the effects sequences, only going digital for sequences that would otherwise be impossible. After Moon recently doing something similar, could we be seeing the start of the long-prophesied CGI backlash? It sounds like important SHADO vehicles like Skydiver will still be used, but no word yet on the iconic Interceptors or the SHADO ground APCs.

No word on the casting of Commander Straker yet, although, as with the original series, he will still be an American. Gratzner states that he favours an international cast for the movie, and has resisted turning any of the male characters into women to increase the number of female roles in the story. However, several of the female characters, including Colonel Lake and Lt. Ellis, will likely have bigger roles than in the series. The director states that have favours Ali Larter (from Heroes) for the role Colonel Lake, which I must admit I'm not sold on. More amusingly, apparently there is an ongoing creative debate about whether the Moonbase technicians will keep their purple anti-static wigs. I suspect he might lose this one, but it's good to know they put up a fight.

And yes, Gerry Anderson will be involved as a consultant on the project. The first movie is expected to film next year to be a major 2011 release.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

Spearpoint is a city unlike any other. A vast spire dozens of leagues in height, the city and the world around it are divided into zones of different energy states. Different technology and energy sources work in each zone, and any person who spends long periods in another zone may be doomed to death without periodic drug treatments.

Dr. Quillon is a pathologist, performing post-mortems for the city's law-enforcement agencies in the relatively high-tech zone of Neon Heights. But when Quillon's past catches up with him he has to flee the city. Aided by a young woman named Meroka, a specialist in smuggling packages where they need to go, he finds the world beyond the city to be a strange and alien place. When an unprecedented zonal shift threatens to destroy Spearpoint altogether, Quillon finds himself torn between flight and finding a way of helping ensure the survival of his home.

Terminal World is the ninth novel (and twelfth book overall) by Welsh SF author Alastair Reynolds, best-known for his Revelation Space universe and stand-alone novels such as Pushing Ice and Century Rain. Shortly after this book was handed in, Gollancz gave Reynolds a massive £1 million ($1.6 million at the time) contract for ten new books over ten years. Based on the impressive quality of Terminal World I'm not surprised by this.

Reynolds' normal setting is far-future space opera, usually slanted with elements of gothic horror and film noir. Terminal World sees him doing something different. The novel seems to be more inspired by the New Weird, with some of the atmosphere of China Mieville's novels seeping through (most notably, and interestingly as it came out after Reynolds completed this book, The City and the City, although the lovingly-rendered city also invites comparisons with Perdido Street Station). There is also a strong steampunk flavouring to the novel. Some of the noir elements are still present, particularly in the earlier sections detailing the flight from the city, but the horror elements are restricted to a few creatures and one of the antagonists.

The characters are excellent, well-rounded and convincing. Quillon and Meroka are solid protagonists, people from different backgrounds allied together by circumstances. The other characters they encountered in their travels, such as Fray and Captain Curtana, are likewise well-handled. In my review of FlashForward I attributed that novel's old-fashioned style to its expositionary characters who exist purely to serve the plot. Here the characters are fleshed-out and believable in their own right.

Reynolds also seems to have developed a hitherto unsuspected superb aptitude for writing great battle sequences, with heavy autocannon-armed airships blasting away at one another, the repelling of boarding actions and so on. It's only a small part of the book, but it's great stuff.

At the core of Terminal World lies a huge mystery. Interestingly, it's a mystery that the central characters, Quillon and Meroka, have no real interest in. One of the side-characters does and spends some time discussing it, but at the end of the day he backs off from pursuing it, leaving the reader to digest all the small pieces of evidence that have built up over the course of the novel. What is Spearpoint and what was its original purpose? Why is this the 'Terminal World'? What is the secret of the mysterious Bane and the zones? What is the Eye of God? Enough information is presented for the reader to come to several different conclusions, but the author leaves some of these answers pleasingly ambiguous. There is certainly plenty of scope for a sequel or further books in the same setting.

Terminal World (*****) is superbly well-written with great characters and a fiendishly intriguing mystery. It is a mixture of old-school planetary romance, hard SF, the New Weird and steampunk, all tied up in one rich and enjoyable package. Reynolds tries something new here and it pays off, delivering one of his very best novels to date. Terminal World will be published in the UK on 15 March 2010 and in the USA on 1 June 2010. The absolutely gorgeous UK cover art can be seen in its full glory here. Reynolds' next work will be the 11K Trilogy, which explores humanity's development over eleven thousand years of future history.

Monday, 7 December 2009

FlashForward by Robert J. Sawyer

A group of scientists conduct a cutting-edge experiment at the CERN facility on the French-Swiss border. At the precise moment the experiment begins, every single human being in the world blacks out. For two minutes they experience a lucid vision of the world as it will be in 2030, twenty-one years from now, before returning to the present. In those two minutes thousands of people were killed as planes crashed on take-off or landing, people fell down stairs and cars crashed.

For the scientists, other questions are raised. One saw himself with a woman other than his fiance, and becomes intrigued by her identity. Another saw only blackness and discovers through others' visions that he was murdered, and becomes obsessed with preventing this event. But can time be altered, and can - or should - the experiment be repeated?

FlashForward is a science fiction novel by the Nebula and Hugo Award-winning Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer, originally published in 1999. It's a high-concept book which the blurb terrifyingly likens to Michael Crichton, although thankfully baselessly. It also serves as the basis for the current new American TV show of the same name, the arrival of which was the catalyst for the book's recent re-release.

This is a very old-school SF novel where the author has come up with an excellent premise and sets about exploring it and setting up an interesting storyline based around the mystery, somewhat at the expense of characterisation, which is where I'm guessing the Crichton comparisons come into play. Luckily, the book actually features some interesting and sympathetic characters rather than just author-insertion heroes and strawmen opponents, but the characters are not developed very far, serving as they do more as a simple POV on the unusual scientific phenomena and its ramifications. This isn't an overt criticism - in-depth character-building is simply not the book's goal - but it does make the book feel a lot older than its ten years would indicate.

Putting that to one side, the book is a pretty good SF story, fast-paced with lots of intriguing ideas. One slight problem is that it was written in 1999 and set ten years in the future, so it's set this very year but a lot of the ideas in it (such as the holographic Windows 2009) haven't come to pass, dating the book before it's out of its first decade. However, some of the ideas discussed in the book, particularly at the end, can actually explain this, so it's not a huge issue.

The exploration of the premise is mostly well-handled, although it takes a while for the author to address some of the questions the reader may be asking immediately after the incident takes place (it takes quite a while before someone thinks about checking CCTV footage taken during the incident, for example), and in some areas actually goes into areas which the reader may not have immediately considered (for example, what happened to animals during the event?). The result is an interesting puzzle which the author provides some possible, but not necessarily definitive, answers for during the unexpectedly epic climax.

FlashForward (***½) is a readable and effective old-school SF novel which comes up with a great idea, explores it intelligently, and doesn't outstay its welcome. Those looking for in-depth characters or themes should probably look elsewhere, but for a decent and easy SF read, this book does its job well. It is available now in the UK and USA.