Monday, 31 May 2010

Guillermo Del Toro departs THE HOBBIT

Guillermo Del Toro has left the two-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit due to the lengthy delays on the project. The films were supposed to start shooting several months ago for release in December 2012 and 2013 but the ongoing sale of MGM (who hold the rights to The Hobbit and were producing the films in cooperation with New Line, who financed the Lord of the Rings trilogy) has held up the project indefinitely, although producer Peter Jackson continues to hope shooting will start before the end of the year.

Producer Peter Jackson and ex-director Guillermo Del Toro.

Del Toro had committed to the films as a three-year project before shooting his next solo movie. Previous delays had already stretched this out and with further delays likely to extend this to six years, Del Toro decided he couldn't delay his other commitments (including Hellboy 3 and a potential adaptation of Dan Simmons' Drood) further. However, Del Toro will remain in New Zealand for several more months to help with the script rewrites and addition pre-production requirements (I suspect strongly he will receive a production credit on the film for these reasons). Peter Jackson and New Line are already lining up potential replacements.

The obvious solution - that Jackson himself direct - appears to be out of the question as Jackson is booked to direct the second Tintin film either next year or in early 2012, during the proposed shooting schedule of The Hobbit.

Update: Jackson has hinted that he might consider directing if no other director can be found. He has also suggested that The Hobbit's importance to the Wellington area's economy means that he will do everything possible to stop it from being cancelled or put on hold. However, Jackson has at least two other films lined up during the filming period (presumably including the second Tintin movie and one other, unannounced project) and he is uncertain whether he would be able to get out of his contract to direct The Hobbit. Jackson's manager suggests that the possibility of Jackson directing is slight-to-nonexistent due to these commitments.

Possible replacements: Sam Raimi's name was flung around before it became clear that he was working on Spider-Man 4. With SM4 cancelled, Raimi could be back in the frame, despite him carrying out work on the proposed World of WarCraft movie. Personally, I don't think Raimi has made a great film since his Evil Dead days, with only Spider-Man 2 being watchably entertaining, so I'd definitely want him not to be involved.

The other, altogether more positive, possibility is Neill Blomkamp, who owes Jackson a favour for his production credits on District 9. Blomkamp is developing a new film and had been linked with Dune before Paramount decided to fast-track the latter with a different production team. Depending on Blomkamp's schedule, he may be a viable choice for The Hobbit.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

2010 review stats so far

Following some interesting observations on Twitter, I did some stat-checking of my reviews this year based around how many books I have have reviewed from what publishers. The list turned out as:

Gollancz/Orion: 7
HarperCollins Voyager: 5
Orbit UK: 5
Pan Macmillan/Tor UK: 3
Black Library: 3
Panther: 1
Tor USA: 1
David Fickling Books: 1
Quercus: 1
Penguin: 1

So that's 28 in total, 13 of which are 2010 releases. The conclusion I'm drawing so far is that 2010 is the best year for SF&F releases in some considerable time, and we're not even halfway through it yet.

Next up on the to-read pile: Helliconia Summer by Brian W. Aldiss, to be followed by City of Ruins by Mark Newton, Helliconia Winter and The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Jean le Flambeur gets up one morning and has to kill himself before his other self can kill him. Just another day in the Dilemma Prison. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, to take part in crime and also to expose the secrets of his past, which have been lost on that planet lit by a moon-turned-singularity where time is a currency and memories are a treasure. Meanwhile, investigator Isidore Beautrelet, called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, becomes embroiled in shadowy conspiracies and finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man name le Flambeur...


The Quantum Thief is the debut novel by Finnish author (but Scottish-resident) Hannu Rajaniemi and has been heavily trailed as 'the' big SF debut novel of the year. These accounts are correct. The Quantum Thief is a crazy joyride through Mars several centuries hence, a world of marching cities, people communicating by sharing memories and a race of hyper-advanced humans who originated as MMORPG guild members. It's the sort of book you'd get if Scott Lynch and Greg Egan teamed up, with the character and black humour approach of the former mixed in with the hardcore physics of the latter. It's at the harder end of hard SF, but is reasonably approachable by those without a degree in quantum entanglement, even if some sort of glossary to distinguish the tzaddiks from the Sobornosts might have been handy for the first few chapters. The opening feels like you're being machine-gunned with concepts and ideas, but once you manage to pause for breath and sort everything out, the story falls into place quite nicely.

Despite the hard scientific concepts being flung around, the book is character-focused with Jean, Mieli and Isidore as the primary protagonists. They are all well-drawn with some depth to them, impressive given that in their world memories and personality traits aren't always what they first appear. The story unfolds briskly (whilst the final layout means that the book will come in at 400 pages, the ARC is a modest 260 pages in length) with barely a pause for breath, the plot is gripping, the ideas complex but thought-provoking, and there are all the requisite shocking revelations and intriguing plot twists you could wish for. The only negative that comes to mind is a late-book revelation that feels like it could be somewhat cheesy, but in execution is actually perfectly acceptable.

The Quantum Thief is (*****) is a bravura debut novel, a confident and accomplished work that reinvigorates the genre. It is easily the best SF debut since Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon. The novel will be published in the UK on 30 September 2010 and in the USA by Tor Books in May 2011.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Cover art for limited edition of Hamilton's NEUTRONIUM ALCHEMIST

Courtesy of Walker of Worlds, the cover art for the Subterranean Press limited edition of The Neutronium Alchemist, the second volume of Peter F. Hamilton's classic Night's Dawn Trilogy.


According to Sub Press, The Naked God will follow, along with a fourth volume combining the excellent short story collection A Second Chance at Eden with the companion volume, The Confederation Handbook. They are also talking to Hamilton about another project, which I'd hazard a guess was most likely limited editions of the Commonwealth Saga and Void Trilogy.

Cool Malazan World Map

'Sadist' at the Cartographer's Guild has produced the following splendid map of the Malazan world from Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont's Malazan novels.


Whilst excellent in quality, the map is somewhat outdated following additional information given by Steven to the Malazanempire admins about the layout of the Malazan world. See this discussion thread on Malazanempire for detailed information.

New Brandon Sanderson interview

Pat has posted an interview with Brandon Sanderson that myself, Larry and Ken also participated in last year, from shortly after The Gathering Storm's publication.


Brandon also addresses some questions about Towers of Midnight and criticisms over his handling of Mat in The Gathering Storm. Many thanks to Pat for inviting me to participate.

NEUROMANCER and MASS EFFECT head for the big screen

Director Vincenzo Natali is developing a movie based on William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. It's early days for the project, but the director sounds confident that time has caught up with the novel and that it is now possible to write a faithful adaptation.


Meanwhile, Legendary Pictures have picked up the movie rights to the Mass Effect series of computer roleplaying games. BioWare are working on a trilogy of games set in the SF universe (which depicts humanity as the junior member of an alliance of various races facing the threat of the alien Reapers in 2183) and released Mass Effect 2 earlier this year to critical acclaim.


Interesting to see if either of these projects make it to the movie screen in good shape.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes: Season 3

Having been in a coma for several days (but two years by her internal clock), Alex Drake has awoken back in 2008. However, she finds herself unable to let go of the world she experienced in her coma and visions of her friends eventually draw her back into that world. It is now 1983, Margaret Thatcher is fighting for re-election and Gene Hunt and his department are being investigated by internal investigations over the incident where Alex was shot. The main investigator, Jim Keats, is determined to bring down Gene Hunt after him wriggling off the hook for several past misdemeanours and tries to enlist Alex as his ally. However, other coppers are now starting to have strange visions and Alex finds herself becoming obsessed with one question: what happened to Sam Tyler? And what must she do to return to the real world and her daughter for good?


Ashes to Ashes
' third season brings to an end not just the three-year story of this series, but also resolves outstanding questions and mysteries from its parent show, Life on Mars, as well. It's a big task to put on the show's shoulders, giving this season a sense of expectation and resolution only exceeded by the weight of expectation viewers have put onto the final season of Lost (in a quirk of fate, the series finales for the two shows aired within forty-eight hours of one another).

To start with, Ashes falters. Alex is returned to her coma and the world within it very easily, some might say way too easily and conveniently, in the first episode. However, soon we're back with Gene and the gang investigating crimes, which is good, but now with the added menace of Jim Keats looking over their shoulders, sometimes helping, more often egging on Gene to fail so he can bring him down. This element is interesting, with Daniel Mays turning in a great performance as Keats, but it is mishandled. The Keats storyline interferes with and slows down some storylines and feels like a tacked-on fifth wheel in others. Similarly, the Keats storyline also rips apart the dynamic at the heart of the show, with Keats trying to get each of Hunt's team to turn against him, resulting in lots of angry confrontations and a sense of distrust and suspicion hanging over the series. Given how hard-won Alex and Gene's mutual trust and respect was in the first season, resulting in their excellent and devastatingly effective partnership in exposing corruption in the police the second, this feels like dumping the characters back to square one for no real reason. Life on Mars' episode dealing with Ray's horrendous mistake was better, for handling the same story far more concisely without betraying prior character development.

There's also the mythological elements of the series, with characters other than Alex having strange visions of things they cannot explain. Whilst it adds a tremendously creepy element of foreshadowing to the series, it does again interfere with the episode-by-episode storylines. Some of these, such as Gene's bull-in-a-china-shop approach exposing an undercover operation or Gene having to work alongside his old nemesis Lytton from Manchester, are packed with promise, but never develop sufficiently due to time having to be found for the myth-arc and stuff with Keats' storyline.

Farewell to the 'guv and to the Quattro

Luckily, if the series falters over the longer stretch, it does eventually end in style. The penultimate episode welds together the myth-arc element with the episode's own story (about ANC radicals fighting apartheid in London) very efficiently and is much more interesting to watch.

Then there's the finale, which sees actors, writers and the director firing on all cylinders. The great revelations about Gene Hunt's past and Sam Tyler's fate make sense, whilst other revelations, perhaps less expected, are equally convincing. The ending is emotional without being over-wrought, perhaps because there are real elements of tragedy and grimness to the resolution. It's not a neat ending with a nice tied bow to everything, and some revelations are bit of a blow to the gut. But it tracks, makes sense, is thematically satisfying (which is more than can be said for Lost's, but more on that later) and Gene's final words on screen are a great way of sending the series out pretty much where it came in, complete with great accompaniment from David Bowie. The post-credits clip from another famous British cop show is a nice touch as well.

The finale season of Ashes to Ashes (***½ for the season overall, ***** for the finale) is not the knockout, eight episodes of awesomeness that viewers were hoping for, but it is effectively dark and foreboding, setting up an excellent final episode. Gene Hunt and the team, you will be missed. The season will be released on DVD in the UK on 5 July 2010, and will appear in the US (on DVD and BBC America) next year.

Final American TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT artwork released

Behold!


And it sucks slightly less than the preview we were shown a month back! Still a vast improvement over Sweet's last few covers and us Brits are spared it altogether, so there is that bright side.

The book is currently due for publication in late October in the UK and US, assuming Brandon Sanderson can complete the final draft by mid-August.

Wertzone Classics: Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss

Yuli is a child of a hunter-gatherer family living under the light of two suns on the northern plains of Campannlat on the frigid, ice-wrapped planet of Helliconia. When his father is enslaved by the vicious phagors, Yuli is left alone. He finds his way to the subterranean city of Pannoval, where he prospers as a member of the priesthood. Tiring of torturing heretics and punishing renegades, he elects to flee the oppressive city with some like-minded allies, eventually founding the settlement of Oldorando some distance away.


Fifty years later, Yuli's descendants have conquered a larger town, renaming it Oldorando as well, and are prospering. Game is becoming more plentiful, the river is thawing and warmer winds are rising, even as the smaller sun, Freyr, grows larger in the sky. But with peace and plenty comes indolence and corruption, and the people of Oldorando find themselves bickering and feuding for power, even as a great crusade of phagors leaves their icy homes in the eastern mountains on a quest to slaughter as many humans as possible.

The great drama of life on Helliconia is observed from an orbiting Earth space station, the Avernus, the crew of which watch as Helliconia and its sun, Batalix, draw closer to the great white supergiant about which they revolve and the centuries-long winter comes to a violent end.

Helliconia Spring (originally published in 1982) is the first volume in Brian Aldiss' masterpiece, The Helliconia Trilogy. In this work, Aldiss has constructed the supreme achievement of science fiction worldbuilding: Helliconia, a planet located in a binary star system a thousand light-years distant from Earth. Batalix and Helliconia take 2,592 years to orbit Freyr in a highly elliptical orbit (Helliconia is three times further from Freyr at its most distant point than nearest), which results in seasons that last for centuries apiece. Helliconia's plants, animal and sentient lifeforms have all biologically adapted to this unusual arrangement (in a manner that prevents colonisation by Earthlings, who would be killed quickly by the planet's bacteria), but its civilisations have not adapted satisfactorily: humanity rises in the spring and becomes dominant in the summer before being toppled by the phagors in the autumn and enslaved in the winter. However, more evidence has survived of the previous cycle than normal, and this time around those humans who have discovered the truth have vowed to ensure that humanity will survive the next Great Winter triumphant over its ancestral enemy.


Helliconia Spring is a complex novel working on a literal storytelling level - the factional battles for control over Oldorando and Pannoval, the phagor crusade flooding across the continent and the search for truth and understanding of the Helliconian star system by Oldorando's scientists - and also on thematic ones, with Aldiss examining the struggles between religion and science, between those who thrive in peace and those who thrive in war and the duality of winter and summer, humanity and phagor, and though the religious ritual of pauk, between the living and the dead.

Having the orbital Earth platform is a good idea, as it gives us a literal scientific understanding of the Helliconia system which those on the surface are struggling to understand, even if it does feel a little removed from the storyline at this time. Amongst other criticisms are a lack of character closure: whilst the grand history of Helliconia and the thematic elements continue to be explored in Helliconia Summer, the story itself moves on several hundred years, leaving the main characters of this book long dead. But these are outweighed by the strengths: the effective and impressive prose, the fantastic descriptions of a near-frozen planet thawing into life with its millions of species of plant and animal life waking up under the two suns and the impressive melding of cold, impersonal scientific worldbuilding with a satisfying plot and vividly-described characters.

Helliconia Spring (*****) is a masterpiece of science fiction and features the single most impressive work of SF worldbuilding to date. The novel is available now in the USA. A new omnibus edition of the entire trilogy will be published by Gollancz as part of the SF Masterworks collection on 12 August 2010.

Monday, 24 May 2010

New cover art

James from Speculative Horizons has unveiled the new cover art by Benjamin Carre for the UK version of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. The book was completed late last year and is currently undergoing rewrites and edits for a Spring 2011 launch in both the UK and USA.


Meanwhile, courtesy of Dark Wolf, are the French covers for the first two books in Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series, King's Dragon and Prince of Dogs. The cover artist is Didier Graffet.


Some nice work there!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

GAME OF THRONES: Daenerys recasting completed

After some weeks of speculation following the departure of Tamzin Merchant from Game of Thrones, HBO have announced that Daenerys will now be played by British actress Emilia Clarke.


Clarke is a relative newcomer to the screen, with roles in a movie called Fossils and a role on the popular British daytime soap Doctors to her name, plus some ad work, as shown here. She also has more extensive theatre credits. According to George R.R. Martin, her audition was extremely impressive, and beat out several other strong actresses to the role.

Further casting announcements are anticipated in the near future, now that the recastings from the pilot are complete. Set construction is underway at the Paint Hall Studios in Belfast, and auditions have been held in several countries for a plethora of roles, ranging from major roles such as Littlefinger, Barristan Selmy and Renly Baratheon to smaller roles such as Osha and Drogo's Dothraki bloodriders. However, production requirements have seen a short filming delay of several weeks to late July 2010. Whether this affects the hoped-for transmission date of April/May 2011 remains to be seen.

UPDATE: Westeros.org has some clips of Emilia Clarke's appearance in Doctors here.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Cover art and update

This is the UK cover for Tad Williams' Shadowheart, the concluding volume of the Shadowmarch quartet, due in November (courtesy of Jussi at Westeros):


Nice.

Reading: Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss.
Reading Pile: I have Helliconia Summer and Winter by the same author standing by, along with City of Ruins by Mark Newton, The Dervish House by Ian McDonald and The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi as high prority reads.
Watching: Ashes to Ashes Season 3 and Lost Season 6.
Playing: Actually, nothing at the moment.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Plot Holes and Revelations and Big Finales

This article contains spoilers up to the penultimate episodes of both Lost and Ashes to Ashes.

For fans of genre TV, this weekend is a pretty big deal. On Friday the last-ever episode of Ashes to Ashes airs in the UK on BBC-1, ending a five-season storyline that began back in 2006 with the first season of Life on Mars and modern cop Sam Tyler finding himself in 1973 after suffering a traffic accident in the present. Then on Sunday in the USA, the final episode of Lost airs, concluding six seasons of convoluted, complex plotting that began back in 2004 with a commercial airliner crashing on a mysterious island in the South Pacific.

The cast of Ashes to Ashes in Season 2.

Unusually for genre shows, both of these series went on to become major mainstream hits. Mars and later Ashes frequently won their timeslot ratings against all-comers, whilst Lost pulled in more than 20 million viewers on several occasions. They have both also achieved some measure of critical acclaim. Certainly all of the UK TV magazines this week have been emblazoned with coverage of Ashes' final episode, whilst in the USA the equivalent mags are dotted with various Lost images. Conversely, the USA is barely aware of Ashes' existence (although the arrival of the series on BBC America has picked up some positive coverage in the last few weeks over there), whilst Lost jettisoned most of its UK audience when it moved from Channel 4 to the cable and satellite Sky service after its second season, and coverage of its finale (which airs next week in the UK) has been altogether more modest over here as a result.

The cast of Lost in their second season.

The two shows coming to an end marks an interesting moment for serialised, mystery-based TV shows. As mentioned in my Arc of Truth series of articles from last year, truly satisfying serialised shows have been somewhat few and far between, due to their lack of forward-planning and tendency to get cancelled halfway through, culminating in the highly divisive and flamewar-inducing finales to shows such as Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files. This is highlighted in those shows, like the two mentioned, which are based heavily around mysteries, secrets and dense mythologies. Shows which have more straightforward and linear story arcs, where any such mysteries are short-term and resolved in a season or two at the most, are notable for ending much more successfully, such as Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

With both shows having aired their penultimate episodes, it is interesting to see which way they go. Ashes to Ashes, for my money, has the greater potential to end successfully, simply because it's a much less dense show than Lost. It's more episodic, with the ongoing storylines relegated to subplots whilst a 'crime of the week' is pursued in the foreground. This approach has been somewhat inverted in the final season, but it means that the questions that need answering from three years of Ashes and two of Mars are nowhere near as numerous, and all seem to be tied into one central answer.

Sam Tyler, Gene Hunt and Annie Cartwright in Life on Mars.

Lost
, on the other hand, is far more sprawling and more epic, with more than twice as many episodes, a much larger cast and a much bigger storyline expanding across decades. There have already been many characters and storylines which have been abandoned or jettisoned, leaving unresolved plot threads dangling throughout the show's history. The potential for disappointment with Lost is considerably greater, although after the penultimate episode I am more hopeful that they can pull at least the major mysteries and plot threads together.

Gene Hunt and Jim Keats on Ashes to Ashes.

Both series have chosen to go down the 'dark and grand epic mythology' route for their conclusions. This route was more unexpected with Ashes, supposedly a chalk 'n' cheese crime drama about a modern policewoman having to work with a bunch of semi-sexist, emotionally retarded early 1980s coppers and clashing badly. Yet the latest season has played around strongly with the imagery of death, with Gene Hunt and new character Jim Keats both 'helping' dying people at the moment of their passing, or tugging other characters' loyalties between them like an angel and devil sitting on a person's shoulders whispering advice to them (or in Gene's case bellowing loudly). At the same time, other characters are seeing the world melt away around them, leaving only a cold, disturbing image of millions of stars behind before things snap back to normal (leading to some British viewers hyperventilating in panic that the producers are going down the same road as the patently ludicrous American version of Life on Mars). Certainly life, death, dreams and a battle between two powerful characters seem to have risen to the fore in Ashes, with perhaps the fate of the world that they inhabit at stake.

Jack and Locke, the final protagonist and antagonist of Lost.

Similarly, Lost's early seasons raised the prospect of it having a storyline involving the ruins of the DHARMA Initiative and a power struggle within the ranks of the native 'Other' inhabitants of the Island (between Ben Linus and Charles Widmore) with the survivors of Oceanic 815 caught up in the middle. Elements such as the disturbing smoke monster and visitations by dead people were more 'out there' but could perhaps have been given credible explanations. Instead, as this last season has developed we have discovered a complex set of 'rules' governing the behaviour of two antagonistic, long-lived beings, the (relatively) benign Jacob and the evil 'Man in Black' (the smoke monster in human form) who have manipulated events from the very start and indeed for two millennia before that to lead to an epic, mythological showdown between their avatars (now identified as Jack and Locke) with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

The smoke monster on Lost.

In both cases, the move to grand, epic themes has been well-handled, but it's a dangerous move which has the potential to backfire spectacularly. Battlestar Galactica started off as a tense, action-driven drama about the human race on the run for its life with some interesting subtexts about the War on Terror, political rights and civil rights in a time of war. Whilst it had some mystery elements (most notably the identity of the mysterious 'Head Six' that only Baltar could see and hear), the show was mostly based on the idea of a dynamic, forward-moving storyline. A few weeks into Season 3 it switched to asking deep questions about the nature of the 'Final Five' and the Cylon god, going on to bring in mythological concepts and elements (such as the 'Temple of Hopes' on the algae planet) and then brought a character back from the dead. Because the show had not been designed with this mythology in mind from the start, it handled it badly and dropped the ball in its final season and during the finale, leaving a good half or more of the fanbase severely disappointed.

Both Lost and Ashes have the advantage that their storylines have been preplanned, although to what extent remains contentious: the producers of Ashes have admitted that whilst they've known the ending since working on Mars, the character of Keats was created quite late in the day after writing on Season 3 had been underway for some time. The producers of Lost only mapped out the current story arc involving Jacob and the smoke monster in the middle of the third season. Still, in both cases this was far more than what BSG attempted, and should hopefully mean that the endings of both series track better.

This time next week, we'll know if either, both or neither of these shows joins the canon of truly satisfyingly ended genre shows, or if they fall at the last hurdle. Reviews of Season 3 of Ashes to Ashes and the final six episodes of Season 6 of Lost will follow next week.

Some minor news updates

Peter F. Hamilton's new short story collection, planned for release in mid-2011, now has the title of Manhattan in Reverse. Hamilton is collecting together his short fiction from the past decade, including some stories in his Commonwealth/Void setting, together with some new material. He has also started writing his new novel, Great North Road, a stand-alone unrelated to his existing universes, for publication in 2012.

China Mieville's new space opera novel also has a title, Embassytown, and a release date of May 2011.

Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God reprints are moving forwards for publication in August and September this year. The editor has put up the maps for the first omnibus, Hawkwood and the Kings, as a sneak preview on Paul's forum.

Steven Erikson's THE CRIPPLED GOD officially delayed to 2011

Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has had it confirmed by Steven Erikson's UK publisher that The Crippled God, the tenth novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence, has been officially delayed until January 2011. With Erikson not due to hand in the book until August, a fast turn-around to get the book out in the autumn has proved unfeasible. Dust of Dreams, the ninth book, launches in the UK in mass-market paperback next week.


However, based on previous information, Ian Cameron Esslemont's third Malazan novel, Stonewielder is still due for November/December this year, and should prove an effective stopgap until The Crippled God's release.

This news puts The Crippled God's release date very close to Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes (due on 20 January), and ensures that 2011 is going to be a big year for epic fantasy releases, with Lynch and Rothfuss both finally due to publish their next books and the potential final, last-ever Wheel of Time book due later in the year whilst Daniel Abraham launches his big new fantasy series.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Specieswatch: The Alien


Fictional Overview

The 'aliens' or 'xenomorphs' are a race of hostile creatures regarded as the most dangerous extraterrestrial lifeform encountered by the human race. The alien possesses a distinctive life-cycle in which a parasitic variant of the species, dubbed the 'facehugger', delivers an embryo into a host lifeform which gestates for several hours before emergence, a process which usually kills the host creature. After emergence the alien lifeform rapidly grows in size, strength and ferocity, increasing in size from several inches to more than seven feet in just a few hours. Aliens take on the characteristics of their hosts: human-gestated aliens tend to stand upright on two legs whilst those 'born' from dogs tend to be slightly smaller and run around on four legs.

Facehuggers originate from eggs laid by a 'queen', a considerably larger and more intelligent variant of the traditional alien form. Queens mature in hosts like standard aliens but take considerably longer to gestate, at least several days. It appears that facehuggers deliver queen embryos rather than standard ones in the clear absence of a queen in the surrounding area, although the precise mechanics of this are not understood. It has been theorised that normal aliens can become queens, or at least lay a queen-gestating egg, if they are removed from the vicinity of an extant queen.

The facehugger parasite inseminating a human host.

The aliens seem to only be interested in reproduction and survival, with no tolerance for other lifeforms. The sole exception is if aliens encounter lifeforms with another alien gestating within them (how they know this is unclear), which they will spare. Aliens have also been observed taking other lifeforms prisoner and holding them immobile for impregnation by facehuggers. Additional observations show that whilst normal aliens seem to work and operate on instinct, queens appear to be more intelligent and show awareness of enemies' abilities.

The extremely rapid gestation period of the aliens, their ability to impregnate other species regardless of how incompatible their DNA appears to be and their extreme hostility has led some to theorise that the aliens cannot be a naturally-evolving organism but a genetically-engineered weapon. Opponents of this theory have instead suggested that the aliens' as-yet unknown homeworld may be an incredibly hostile and harsh environment which has forced the aliens to evolve in this manner.

An alien queen.


Fictional History
The name and location of the aliens' homeworld is not known at this time.

The first recorded encounter between humanity and the alien took place in 2122 when the Weyland-Yutani Company, picking up a weak signal from the Zeta Reticuli system, diverted the ore-mining tug Nostromo to investigate. The crew discovered a large spacecraft of extraterrestrial origin crashed on the planet LV-426, apparently crewed by a race of large humanoids. The pilot was found to have been killed by having his chest exploded outwards. Thousands of eggs were also found on the ship. When executive officer Kane investigated, he was attacked by a facehugger which successfully attached itself to his face and impregnated him. The Nostromo left LV-426 with the impregnated Kane on board. The resulting alien creature ran amok and killed the entire crew apart from Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, who was able to blast it into space. The Nostromo was destroyed during this encounter.

Nostromo crewmen exploring a crashed alien vessel on LV-426 in 2122.

Ripley's escape shuttlecraft was recovered in 2179 after passing through the core systems. The Weyland-Yutani Company proved disbelieving of Ripley's account of the alien, but nevertheless contacted their operatives on LV-426 (which had been colonised in the interim and was now being terraformed) to investigate the coordinates of the crashed ship. Subsequently aliens overran the entire colony. A Colonial Marine squad, shipped in on the warship Sulaco and advised by Ripley, successfully destroyed the alien infestation by destroying the atmosphere processors, resulting in a vast thermonuclear blast. However, most of the squad was wiped out in the process, leaving only a few survivors. The remaining survivors were reduced to one, Ripley herself, when the Sulaco experienced an onboard fire and jettisoned the cryosleeping crew in an escape craft which crashed on Fiorina 161, the site of a penal colony. A single facehugger had survived on the escape craft and impregnated a dog on the colony. The resulting alien again wiped out most of the inhabitants before the inmates managed to kill it. During this incident Ripley discovered she had been impregnated with an alien queen and chose to commit suicide rather than let it be 'born' or captured and experimented on by the Company.

Ellen Ripley and Corporal Hicks preparing for combat on LV-426 in 2179.

Rumours that the alien may have appeared on Earth itself in the early 21st Century, more than a century before the Nostromo incident, engaged in battle with another extraterrestrial species of hunters have not been substantiated and are almost certainly fanciful fabrications.


Behind the Scenes

In an age long before internet spoilers, when it was relatively easy to keep the secrets of a film's plot from leaking, a huge number of cinema-goers were absolutely scared out of their seats by a certain scene in the 1979 film Alien. During a meal scene following a curious but not immediately threatening incident in which the character of Kane (played by John Hurt) had been accosted by an unusual alien parasite, his chest burst open and a horrific alien creature emerged. Audiences were duly shocked, but, quite blatantly, so were the actors. Contrary to myth, they knew what was going to happen (the production requirements of the scene ensured this, if nothing else) but they hadn't been told about the significant amounts of blood and gore flying around the set. The result remains one of the most visceral and horrific - and thus most iconic - scenes in SF cinema to date.

Ian Holm, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt on the set of Alien.

Alien is a collaborative movie, the result of interactions between writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, director Ridley Scott and designer H.R. Giger. O'Bannon's goal was to make a 'serious' version of his earlier movie Dark Star, but with a higher budget and more realistic alien creatures. The Alien script found a home at 20th Century Fox, but lay in development hell for several years until the success of Star Wars took everyone by surprise. Eager for another hit SF franchise, Fox greenlit Alien and brought Scott on board to direct. O'Bannon proposed Giger as the designer of the alien creature, having worked with him on Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted version of Dune, and Scott agreed, overcoming studio objections that his work was too strange for commercial purposes.

The resulting film was a huge success. Giger became much more well-known as a designer and artist whilst Scott became an in-demand director (and remains so) and Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) went on to have a successful movie career. A sequel was inevitable, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s when James Cameron, riding high on the success of The Terminator, was able to use his newly-found cachet to get the sequel made. Cameron wrote the script himself and did not employ any recurring personnel from the first movie aside from the actor of Sigourney Weaver and some of the same producers. Despite scepticism from fans and the studio (who only greenlit the project after The Terminator had made a significant profit), Aliens proved to be a much bigger success than the original film, mainly by going for a completely different approach and being marketed as a war film rather than a horror movie (Cameron feeling that Scott had already nailed this angle and deciding to emphasise 'terror' rather than the horror approach).

Sigourney Weaver and the principle cast of Aliens in a publicity shot.

Cameron, who was now pursuing The Abyss and Terminator 2, declined to return for a third film and the studio embarked on a very lengthy hunt for a writer and director for the third film. Several approaches were considered, including an even bigger-scaled war movie (cyberpunk author William Gibson delivered an extremely expensive script which had seven large battle sequences compared to Aliens' two) and an offbeat script set in a space monastery. Eventually the studio decided to return to Alien's small-scale, claustrophobic setting by having a single alien running amok in a prison. Director David Fincher found himself hamstrung by constant production notes and limitations, a low budget and a script that was being constantly rewritten during production. Alien 3 was heavily criticised for killing off the survivors from Aliens and its general tone, although as a stand-alone SF horror movie it is actually rather accomplished, suffering only in comparison to its forebears.

Despite its critical shortcomings, Fox decided to make a fourth film in the sequence and, after a similarly convoluted and painful period of development hell, Alien Resurrection emerged. Easily one of the worst SF movies of the 1990s, this film was a total disaster on the acting and design front (the 'newborn' alien idea, although not entirely without conceptual merit, was an awful piece of design and badly-executed), with the director rewriting Joss Whedon's script to the point of incoherence.

After the disaster of the latter two films, Fox wisely decided that they would only pursue additional, dedicated Aliens movies if Ridley Scott or James Cameron were involved. The two directors, who had become friends in the intervening years, pondered joining forces, with Cameron producing and Scott directing a fifth film depicting the oft-mooted idea of the aliens getting loose on Earth, arguably the last remaining obvious point to take the franchise. However, with Cameron in temporary retirement after Titanic and Scott's interest and ability to make original films receiving a shot in the arm after the success of Gladiator, the idea was shelved. Fox eventually decided to make the somewhat entertaining Aliens versus Predator in 2004 instead, but a further film, Requiem, was a total disaster which made Resurrection look like a word of rare and inspired genius.

Earlier this year, Ridley Scott confirmed he is developing a two-film 3D project that will be set before Alien and fill in the backstory of the xenomorphs. It will be very interesting to see what he comes up with, although there is the feeling that perhaps with only two genuine hits out of six films made to date in the franchise, perhaps Fox should consider resting it where it is.


Assessment
The alien is one of the most iconic creatures in the history of SF. This is partially down to the design, an absolute triumph of a nightmare made flesh by H.R. Giger, but also down to the creature's two-pronged threat. Firstly, it is a traditional monster capable of tearing humans apart and eating them, capable of silent movement at speed with tremendous skills of stealth and cunning, despite its lack of sentience. Secondly, and far more horrifically, is the creature's ability to expand its numbers by infesting humans and killing them from within. A monster stalking you in a dark corridor is disturbing enough, but there is always the hope of escape. A monster that is gestating within you and will kill you sooner or later is far more disturbing (and arguably the troubled Alien 3's greatest triumph is articulating this horror well).

Unfortunately, whilst the alien remains an impressive and threatening creature, over-exposure has lessened its impact somewhat, especially the later films' revelation of the ability to surgically remove implanted alien embryos before emergence to save the host. Whilst a logical development, it does impact on one of the creature's primary characteristics. There is also the far more obvious problem that of these six movies, two are all-time classics (Alien and Aliens), one is okay but severely hampered by production issues (Alien 3), one is a mindless popcorn flick which lacks depth despite some entertaining moments (AvP) and two are among the worst SF movies ever made (Resurrection and AvP2).

Still, if there is one person who has at least the potential to return the alien to its former glory, it is original director Ridley Scott. Unfortunately, news that the new films will be prequels, in 3D, likely involving large quantities of CGI and that there will be, somewhat unnecessarily, two of them is discouraging so far.


Appearances
The Aliens film series
Alien (1979)
Aliens (1986)
Alien 3 (1992)
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Alien Prequel Movie project (pre-production)

Spin-off films
Alien versus Predator (2004)
Alien versus Predator 2: Requiem (2007)

Wertzone Classics: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Six centuries ago, the world was destroyed in the Atomic Flame Deluge, leaving humanity scattered and broken and the world infested by radiation and mutations. One of the few surviving points of continuity to the old world is religion, with the Christian Faith surviving in the form of isolated monasteries and a 'new Rome' that has arisen in the east of North America. When a monk discovers relics dating back to before the nuclear war, a chain of events is set in motion that will reverberate down the centuries.


A Canticle for Leibowitz is a central text of the classic science fiction canon, originally published in 1960 and winning the 1961 Hugo Award as well as a slew of other awards down the years. Unusually for an SF novel, especially one published at that time, it has won significant acclaim from mainstream literary circles, impressed with its grappling of themes such as religion versus science and its assessment of the cyclical nature of humanity's ability and willingness to destroy itself. Whilst there has never been a filmed adaptation, the book's structure and some of its ideas directly inspired an episode of Babylon 5 called The Deconstruction of Fallen Stars which also addressed some of the same themes.

Leibowitz
shares a common premise with Asimov's Foundation sequence, with its band of educated men seeking to preserve the knowledge and wisdom of a prior age through the barbarian dark ages of ignorance and fear until civilisation arises again, although the book lacks an analogue to Asimov's psychohistory. The monks of Leibowitz also have themselves little idea of the worth of the knowledge they are protecting, with complex technical schematics stored alongside shopping lists and betting slips. Still, the information they are guarding eventually gives humanity enough clues to begin its rise to technological greatness once again.

Leibowitz is a 'fix-up' novel assembled out of three short stories, set 600, 1,200 and 1,800 years in the future respectively, with corresponding shifts in cast and the technological levels of humanity. Each of the three sections addresses different but related ideas, such as faith and belief in the first part, the seductive nature of technology and power in the second and the clash between religious morality and common morality in the last part. For a novel written in the late 1950s, this book touches on many topics that remain contentious today, such as euthanasia, abortion and the relationship of Church and State. Miller supports no sides, but uses his characters to make compelling arguments on both sides that provides much to think about. The book also has deliberately, even powerfully ambiguous moments (particularly revolving around a recurring character and events involving a mutated woman near the book's end) that introduce huge potential for debate and multiple layers of interpretation to the book.


Leibowitz's literary qualities are founded in excellent writing, strong characterisation (with only 120 pages or so for each part, Miller gives us several memorable and impressive characters per section) and an excellent sense of humour (often very black indeed). Unlike some of its contemporaries, Leibowitz has not aged or dated itself at all, and like Non-Stop, The Stars My Destination and Lord of Light remains a compelling, essential read from this era of SF.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (*****) a rich, funny, dramatic, dark and thought-provoking novel. It is available now in the USA. There is no current British edition (for the time being anyway) but the book is easily available on import or second-hand in the UK. Walter M. Miller sadly took his own life in 1996, but a successor volume, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was completed and published with the help of Terry Bisson.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk

Caim is a well-paid assassin. Josey is a rich nobleman's daughter. When their lives collide during a period of political and religious turmoil in the city of Othir, the fallen capital of the once-great Nimean Empire, events are set in motion which will see Othir destined to either reclaim its greatness, or fall into fire and shadow.


Shadow's Son is the debut novel by American author Jon Sprunk and also - you may be shocked by this - the opening volume in a trilogy. We're in familiar territory here: a Medieval European fantasy landscape, a young assassin protagonist and a female lead who tends to get kidnapped and require rescuing a lot. Those looking for something exciting and new are advised to keep moving on. Those looking for a traditional genre story, well-told, will find much to like here.

Shadow's Son is quite short (the review copy is 280 pages long; the final typeset edition is about 360) and is focused on a very small central cast (of both the 'heroes' and 'villains', rather than just the good guys). This results in a very tightly-focused novel with none of the page-filling sprawl usually associated with epic fantasy. There's political machinations, some talk of war on the horizon and rumours of a dark threat to the north (called, in the most obvious originality failure of the book, 'the Shadow'), but mostly this is the story of Caim and Josey and their enemies. This works very well, with Sprunk building up the tension and sense of danger in their storyline without too much cutting away to other storylines.

The book is well-written with some good characterisation. There are some intriguing flashes of inspiration here and there - Caim has a helper only he can see and hear, an interesting spin on the various 'head characters' from new BSG except Sprunk actually seems to have a clue what this character is - but it's Achilles heel is its lack of originality. Those who read a lot of epic fantasy may feel the book brings nothing new to the table, but at the same time it is an enjoyable, solid read. Sprunk is a good writer and a capable storyteller with a lot of potential for the future, and it will be interesting to see if the sequels are more capable of surprising the reader (and there are hints that the 'Shadow' might not be entirely evil and more of a complex race/force than first appears).

Shadow's Son (***½) will be published on 8 July 2010 in the UK by Gollancz and on 8 June 2010 in the USA by Pyr.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

HEROES is cancelled

Relax Joe Abercrombie fans, that's the NBC TV series Heroes which has been canned after four seasons.


Heroes debuted in 2006 and was touted as a Lost-beater, promising to resolve mysteries and story arcs within a few episodes rather than letting them drag on for years. A large cast of intriguing characters was introduced, given superpowers and shown learning how to cope with them whilst a sinister 'company' tracked them down and a power-stealing serial killer was on the loose, all against the backdrop of a prophesied cataclysm that will destroy New York City. The first season was tense, well-written, well-paced and concluded in a decent manner (although the finale was a bit of an anti-climax, with the budget not stretching to the big showdown fans had been waiting for).

Unfortunately, the series never seemed to know where to go next. Attempted format changes and new characters never really took off, whilst other characters vanished without a trace (remember Peter's Irish girlfriend, lost forever in a collapsed timeline?) and plot elements were introduced and then immediately forgotten about (Claire's resurrecting magic blood). The limits and details of characters' abilities changed episode by episode. The evil serial killer Sylar became the most popular of the show, leaving the producers having to come up with increasingly ridiculous storylines to keep him around (he's bad, he's good, he's bad again, he's a spirit living in another character's head). The show very rapidly became a parody of its former series, and for the past two seasons Heroes fans have actually been asking NBC to cancel it whilst it retained a shred of dignity.

NBC have pulled the plug, following disappointing and dropping ratings (the show shed 12 million viewers between its first episode and its Season 4 finale). However, the show was profitable in international sales and DVDs, and NBC are reportedly considering a TV or DVD movie to round off the remaining storylines. But Heroes as an ongoing TV series is no more.

A shame, because when it was good in its first season, Heroes was really good, but when it was bad it was one of the most excruciating things on TV. Unfortunately, the show spent most of its time in the latter mode than the former.

In related genre show news, ABC has renewed V for a second season whilst cancelling FlashForwards. NBC has renewed Chuck. HBO are widely expected to renew True Blood for a fourth season after Season 3 debuts next month.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Joe Abercrombie's THE HEROES moved forwards

Courtesy of Aidan at Dribble of Ink.

In a pleasant change from the norm, Joe Abercrombie's next novel, The Heroes, is being brought forwards. It will now be published on 20 January 2011 in the UK and 7 March 2011 in the USA (although the US version also moving forwards hasn't been ruled out yet).


Excellent news, and helpful since this creates some space between The Heroes and a potential glut of other books coming out in the spring of 2011.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

China Mieville on his next books and a return to Bas-Lag

There is a new interview with China Mieville here where he discusses some of his ideas, ambitions and plans for the future. He reports that his next novel is already completed and scheduled for release in early 2011 and, intriguingly, will be a space opera with aliens and spaceships. Mieville also rules out a return to Bas-Lag in the near future, although he has been kicking some ideas around.

Additional Richard Morgan update

Richard Morgan has issued a further update on the status of the sequel to The Steel Remains, clarifying an earlier update. After a period working on his computer game projects (such as Crysis 2), Morgan is now working on the book once more and has agreed to try to deliver the book this Autumn for publication in April 2011. Morgan feels this goal is achievable.


Interestingly, it now also sounds like that the book will be reverting to its working title of The Cold Commands.

If Morgan achieves his goal, it sounds like Gollancz could be releasing four of its biggest fantasy titles of 2011 within just a couple of months of one another. Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes, Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear and Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves are all pencilled in around the same time. Impressive if they they manage it.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Get PORTAL for free (for the next two weeks)

Valve Software are making their multi-award-winning game Portal available for free until 24 May for PC and Mac owners. This is to both celebrate the arrival of Valve's entire back-catalogue (including the Half-Life series and Team Fortress II) on the Mac OS platform, and begin generating publicity for the release of Portal 2 on PC, Mac, X-Box 360 and PS3 in the autumn.


Portal sees the player having to escape from a test facility using an experimental 'portal gun' to teleport around locations solving increasingly fiendish puzzles whilst being threatened by the facility's somewhat deranged AI, known as GLADOS. The game was an unexpected huge critical and commercial success when it was released as part of Valve's Orange Box compilation in late 2007. The game generated further success when its somewhat demented title song, 'Still Alive', became a big hit thanks to its inclusion in the Rock Band game.



For the price of £/$/€0.00 and with system requirements only somewhat more taxing than those needed to run Microsoft Word, this is a no-brainer really. Go get it people (if you can, as Valve's servers seem to be crumbling under the weight of demand).

Clarification: that is free in the sense that if you get it now it will be yours forevermore, not that it will vanish after May 24th. And yes, you will need to install Steam (for free) to use it.

Judge Dredd returning to the movies

Somewhat inevitably given the current raft of comic book movies and remakes doing the rounds, a new Judge Dredd movie is on the cards. A previous film was made in 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone which was a critical and commercial disappointment, though it has a certain guilty pleasure appeal and the production design was very impressive.


The new film will be scripted by Alex Garland, writer of the films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and will be directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Omagh and Endgame). Apparently it will be in 3D and will have a modest budget of around $50 million (which sounds ambitious, but there have been a slew of recent movies like Kick-Ass which have featured impressive sets, visual effects and action sequences on a relatively small budget). According to the linked article's sources, the script is truer to the comic book and retains the satirical edge and black humour notably missing from the Stallone film.

The character of Judge Dredd debuted in 1977 in the second-ever issue of 2000AD and has appeared in every issue since, as well as his own Judge Dredd Megazine and other spin-off titles. Dredd has been the subject of a number of computer games, novels, audio dramas and roleplaying games and has had cross-overs with numerous other comics characters, including several cross-dimensional run-ins with Batman. Dredd, his home town of Mega-City One (a vast conurbation covering most of the Eastern Seaboard of North America with over 400 million inhabitants) and his various enemies (most notably the Dark Judges) have become icons of the British comic industry and picked up a strong following abroad as well.

A properly-executed Judge Dredd movie could be very good indeed. The only problem is that a properly-executed Judge Dredd movie might not be tremendously commercial. But the creative talent behind it is good, so let's see how it goes.

Veteran by Gavin Smith

Three centuries from now, the human race has survived a nuclear war and expanded into space, colonising several nearby star systems. During their colonising efforts, humanity has come into contact with 'Them', a powerful and apparently ruthless alien race. War has raged ever since between the two races, a sixty-year cycle of blood and deadlock.


Jakob Douglas is a former British special forces operative dishonourably discharged from the service for organising a mutiny, but still held on the reserve list (thanks to politics). When it appears that an elite alien infiltration unit has breached Earth's defenses and crash-landed near Jakob's home town of Dundee, Jakob's commission is reactivated and he is sent after the creature, triggering a series of events that will have far-reaching consequences for humanity.

Veteran is the debut novel by British author Gavin Smith, and potentially the first in a series (the ending could go either way). This is a fast-paced, action-oriented but sociologically-aware post-apocalyptic, quasi-cyberpunk war story, strongly in the vein of Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books (Kovacs and Douglas could almost be old war buddies). Veteran, impressively, withstands the Morgan comparison quite well, even if Smith's infectious enthusiasm sometimes overrides his storytelling logic (Earth is simultaneously a technologically-advanced spacefaring world and also a Mad Max-style nuclear wasteland, which seems a bit contradictory). But the book is just so much fun that you don't really end up caring too much that the worldbuilding is a bit shaky in places.

Character-wise, this is a first-person story from Douglas' perspective, and he is a reasonable protagonist, even if the cynical, addictive-personality, ex-soldier with impressive resources is fairly cliche by this point. Douglas has some interesting psychological issues stemming from his background experiences, which are gradually revealed through strategically-placed flashbacks throughout the book, making him a more interesting lead. Some of the other characters are likewise fascinating, such as the psychotically angry embedded combat journalist Mudge; Balor, the egotistical pirate king of New York with a disturbing affinity for sharks; and Rannu, a badass but also ultra-cool elite Gurkha trooper. The female lead, Morag, is also intriguing, although Douglas' feelings of condescending protectiveness towards her does reduce her to something of a cypher in his eyes. This is at least deliberate, and resentment of this fuels Morag's later character development in the book.

On the weaker side, as well as the somewhat inconsistent worldbuilding there is a bit of a Joss Whedon thing going on with the cast of characters getting bigger and bigger as the book proceeds (Smith is ruthless enough to kill a few off, but not as many as you might think) and the focus occasionally dissipates, with some characters vanishing or being present but not contributing anything worthwhile for long periods. There are also a lot of scenes in the second half where the characters sit around debating the plot for long periods rather than getting on with things or giving the reader a bit more credit for being able to figure things out themselves. With another 100 pages or so shaved off the book, it would be much tighter and leaner.

That said, whilst the overall picture of the worldbuilding is confusing, the individual elements such as the Rigs (a city built out of abandoned oil rigs), Crawling Town (a mobile city of motorhomes, caravans and trucks) and the flooded, abandoned New York City are all vividly described, and there's a constant stream of exciting, well-choreographed battles (in the air, on the ground, inside space elevators, underwater, on the surface of asteroids and more) as well as effective reflections on human nature, the military complex and other issues. Smith, in probably his biggest deviation from the Morgan template, also has a wicked sense of humour and some sequences in the book are genuinely hilarious, whilst he has also nailed the team's snappy dialogue and banter quite well.

Veteran (****) is an accomplished and enjoyable debut SF novel. With some better pacing, Smith could easily rise to the big leagues of modern SF authors quite quickly, and I look forward to his next book. The novel will be published in the UK on 17 June and should be available on import from Amazon.com at the same time.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Farlander by Col Buchanan

Fifty years ago, the Holy Empire of Mann was born when a nihilistic urban cult conquered the city of Q'os. In the decades since then, it has overrun the shores of two continents, conquering all the lands of the Mideres Sea aside from the islands known as the Mercian Free Ports and the powerful Alhazii Caliphate to the east, the source of the Empire's gunpowder.


For ten years the Empire has besieged the Mercian city of Bar-Khos. Despite the Empire's military power, the walls of Bar-Khos have continued to defy them, but the city is overflowing with refugees and keeping the supply lines to the east open is becoming increasingly difficult. One refugee, Nico, is driven to thievery by starvation and poverty, but finds that his latest choice of target was rather ill-chosen...

Meanwhile, the son and heir of the Holy Matriarch of Mann has killed a woman protected by the Roshun, the vendetta assassins pledged to avenge the death of their clients. Despite the prince-priest's power and guards, the Roshun are pledged to vengeance, even if carrying out this task will plunge them into war with the greatest and most ruthless nation in the world.

Farlander is the first volume of The Heart of the World, a rollicking old-school epic fantasy with a few modern twists. Even the map recalls the 1980s output of Raymond E. Feist (i.e. when he was still good), whilst the political set-up, the religious fundamentalist 'evil empire' (though it is drawn in somewhat more depth than that) and the 'callow young apprentice assassin hero' are all somewhat familiar. However, as with Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself the author here succeeds in making you believe you're reading something very familiar indeed when the story suddenly spins on a dime and throws you off on a different course altogether. There's relatively little magic, its role in the story being replaced by various forms of technology (including possibly organic bio-tech in the form of the Roshun seals) such as cannons, gunpowder rifles and airships which are rationed from the mysterious Islands of Sky, which give rise to smoke-and-cordite battle sequences reminiscent of Buchanan's fellow Northern Irish fantasy author Paul Kearney.

Characterisation is strong, with Nico an engaging (if somewhat familiar) protagonist and Ash an effective older mentor character past his best but still capable of dispatching hordes of city guard extras when required (if there's a film, expect him to be played by Liam Neeson). Other characters are more interesting, such as Kira (the mother of the Mannian Patriarch), but are kept intriguingly off-screen, hopefully to play larger roles later on. Buchanan writes with an effectively ruthless but concise style (one benefit of rising paper prices is that what would once have been flabby 600-page fantasies are now kept to a lean 350 pages or so, which is welcome) which is still gripping.

Complaints are few. There are a few characters clearly present only because they play a role in future books, but have little to do here (although this early set-up may be preferable to them just showing up out of nowhere later on). The incongruous mix of gunpowder technology, mysticism (there's no magic, but a few prophetic dreams crop up) and swords-and-shields also probably needs a little more explanation than what we get in this first book, but these are mostly minor issues.

Farlander (****) is a solid, engaging opening novel in a new fantasy series which initially appears to be playing it safe before throwing the readers some pretty big curveballs in the closing acts which are refreshingly realistic and leave the story on an enticing cliffhanger. The book is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.