Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.




Friday, 18 September 2020

Tatiana Maslany cast as She-Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Tatiana Maslany, the Canadian Emmy-award winning star of the excellent SF clone drama Orphan Black, has been cast in the role of Jennifer Walters, better-known as She-Hulk. She will play the role in a Disney+ live-action series alongside Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

Jennifer Walters debuted in The Savage She-Hulk #1, published in 1980. Walters, a lawyer by trade is the cousin of Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk, and inherits his powers after being given an emergency blood transfusion by him after an accident. She-Hulk is notable for retaining much of her human levels of intelligence and control even after "hulking out". The character has been a member of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Defenders and SHIELD at different times and her legal expertise has proven useful when various fellow heroes have gotten in trouble with the law.

She-Hulk is the latest in a series of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV series which will air on Disney+. It will be part of the second batch of MCU TV shows, following on from the first batch consisting of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki and What If...? Other shows in the second wave will include Hawkeye. Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight. She-Hulk is expected to premiere in 2022.

RIP Terry Goodkind

According to his official Facebook page, the fantasy author Terry Goodkind passed away yesterday at the age of 72.

Born in Nebraska in 1948, Goodkind had little initial interest in writing due to dyslexia, with which he had little support through education. He instead worked as a woodworker, artist and house-builder. It was whilst building his own house on an island off the coast in Maine in 1993 that he conceived of an idea for a fantasy novel which became Wizards' First Rule, the first volume in The Sword of Truth series. The book was published in 1994 by Tor Books with a huge marketing push, as they believed it could replicate the success of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence.

The Sword of Truth never achieved either the critical or commercial success of The Wheel of Time, but it did become Tor's second-biggest-selling series of the late 1990s. The series concluded in 2007 after eleven volumes, having sold over 25 million copies. Goodkind attempted to shift gears to write a contemporary fantasy, The Law of Nines, for a different publisher but the novel did poorly and plans for further books in the series were shelved. Goodkind returned to the Sword of Truth world to pen a series of prequel and sequel novels. In total Goodkind published twenty-two novels in his lifetime.

The Sword of Truth was adapted for television by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. Renamed Legend of the Seeker, two seasons of the show were produced in 2008-10.

Goodkind was a controversial figure in the fantasy field, a form of notoriety he seems to have enjoyed. He was an avid follower of Objectivism and its creator Ayn Rand, whom he frequently named as his favourite author. He is the biggest-selling and most popular Objectivist author since Rand herself, and his novels frequently featured lengthy asides where the characters debated Objectivist philosophy. Goodkind also didn't hide his political preferences in his books, in one novel casting thinly-veiled caricatures of Hilary and Bill Clinton as the main villains and showing disdain for pacifists and peace protesters. Several of his novels also featured non-sequitur essay-length discussions of the evils of socialism and communism.

His books initially attracted praise for their action and focus, but this rapidly died away as the series took on a distinctly repetitive and lecturing tone. Goodkind was dismissive of reviewers and, oddly, the entire SFF genre, repeatedly stating that his books were not fantasy because they dealt with "important human themes" and he regarded them as philosophical works. Goodkind's conception of the novels as weighty thematic tomes and the more general reader conception of them as ultraviolent and decidedly kinky pulp fiction were at such variance that it became a source of considerable humour on some fantasy websites; something Goodkind seems to have, oddly, encouraged, perhaps believing there was no such thing as bad publicity.

Goodkind did also experience more negative forms of controversy: he posted a medical report of his own health widely interpreted as mocking a dying Robert Jordan at the time (Jordan profoundly disliked Goodkind and his books, considering them to be sailing a bit too close to the wind of his own work), and in 2018 publicly mocked the cover art produced for one of his novels (leading to a rare apology). He wasn't always combative in his dealings with other authors, and occasionally praised other works of fantasy, noting that he was fan of the Game of Thrones TV series.

Outside of his writing, Goodkind was an amateur racing driver and continued artistic pursuits outside of his work. No cause of death was given. He is survived by his wife, Jeri.

It's fair to say that Terry Goodkind was a controversial figure in the SFF field but one who did bring a different perspective to the genre and seemed to genuinely relish his notoriety.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Tad Williams breaks own record to deliver the longest epic fantasy novel of all time (before editing)

Tad Williams has broken his own record to deliver the longest epic fantasy novel of all time, at least before the editing process is completed.

Williams' 1993 novel To Green Angel Tower, the concluding volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is 520,000 words in length, or around 60,000 words longer than even the complete Lord of the Rings. In fact, the only even vaguely SFF novels longer than To Green Angel Tower are firmly in other subgenres: Varney the Vampire, Atlas Shrugged, Jerusalem and Infinite Jest. To Green Angel Tower is as long as the first two books in the trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell) combined and is often only available in two volumes.

Fittingly, Williams' new, record-breaking novel is the concluding volume to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn's sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard. The Navigator's Children currently clocks in at "bigger" than To Green Angel Tower.

The novel is being "prodigiously cut" and may end up coming in shorter than the published To Green Angel Tower, but whether that happens or not remains to be seen.

The Navigator's Children is currently tentatively scheduled for release in late 2021, and will be preceded by a short novel called Brothers of the Wind (previously known as The Shadow of Things to Come), which focuses on the backstory of the Storm King, Ineluki, and his brother Hakatri.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

FINAL FANTASY XVI surprised announced by Square for 2021

Square have surprise-announced Final Fantasy XVI, the latest game in the long-running Japanese RPG series.

Square released Final Fantasy XV in 2016 to a mostly positive reception, so the fact they are making a new game shouldn't be too surprising. However, in the interim this year they released the first part of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project, leading some to believe that XVI wouldn't appear until after the entire release was complete. Instead, it appears that Square have leveraged their enormous manpower to get FFXVI in production at the same time.

Final Fantasy XVI looks like a back-to-basics approach, with a focus on magical crystals and a medieval world and setting rather than the blend of SF and fantasy, technology and magic that has informed the last several games in the series. The game is due for release in 2021 on PlayStation 5 and PC.

LEVIATHAN FALLS will be the final book of THE EXPANSE

Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham - the two halves of the gestalt author-entity known as James S.A. Corey - have confirmed that the ninth and final volume of The Expanse will hit bookshelves in 2021, ten years after the release of the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes. Fittingly, the last book will be called Leviathan Falls.

The other books in the series are Caliban's War (2012), Abaddon's Gate (2013), Cibola Burn (2014), Nemesis Games (2015), Babylon's Ashes (2016), Persepolis Rising (2017) and Tiamat's Wrath (2019). A series of short stories and novellas has also accompanied the main series. A further novella will be released alongside Leviathan Falls, with plans for a collection of all the novellas and short stories after the main series wraps. Their next project will be a trilogy, possibly a more distant-future, epic story in the vein of Dune.

In 2015 the books were adapted as a television series, The Expanse, initially on SyFy but now on Amazon Prime. The fifth season of the TV show, which wrapped production back in February, is expected to hit screens before the end of the year.

Warner Brothers turn down BABYLON 5 model starship collection

This broke in January, so isn't new news, but had flown under my radar until now. Back in January, the team at Eaglemoss who handle their starship model collections - Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens and others - confirmed that they had been in communications with Warner Brothers about starting a Babylon 5 collection, only to be rebuffed.

Apparently Warner Brothers' response was that Babylon 5 is currently an inactive franchise. However, this doesn't mean that they're not interested in generating licences, it's just that to do so Warners would have to assemble a licencing team for the property and those people would have to know about the show so as to be able to exert quality control over any tie-in products. This might not be worth it for one project which had no guarantee of long-term success (the head of Eaglemoss expands on this in the episode "Ship Shape" here at 1 hour and 1 minute).

The same excuse was used some years ago when Big Finish Audio, who make Doctor Who and Blake's 7 audio dramas, approached Warner Brothers to make full-cast audio plays with some of the original actors from Babylon 5 and were turned down. 

Understandable from a business perspective, but disappointing. Eaglemoss's models are pretty good value for money and reasonably good in quality; not as great as the best model kits, of course, but then you're paying triple the price and you have to assemble and paint them yourselves. The currently have 312 ships in their Star Trek collection, spanning all eras of the show (from The Original Series through Picard, with Lower Decks on the horizon and even catering for things like ships from Star Trek Online). They currently have 20 models in their Battlestar Galactica collection, spanning both the original 1978 show and the 2003-09 reboot (note that their BSG collection has a buy one, get one half-price currently going on for today only), with more planned, despite a relatively small number of ships being available in that franchise. They've even managed to put together ten ships to form an Aliens/Predator collection, with more figurines and statues available.

Babylon 5 has many dozens of ships that could make it into such a collection, including the titular Babylon 5 station, the Starfury fighter and capital ships such as the Omega-class destroyer, Sharlin-class warcruiser and Primus-class battlecruiser. Babylon 5 models have been available in the past, such as a Starfury fighter and a B5 station released by Revell in the late 1990s and a line of metal miniatures from the Babylon 5 Wars game from Agents of Gaming and Mongoose Publishing's A Call to Arms miniatures wargame in the early 2000s. There was also a line of small Micro Machines toys released in the late 1990s. However, based on the quality of their Star Trek and BSG lines, an Eaglemoss line would be superior in size and quality.

Warner Brothers have continued to treat Babylon 5 in a lukewarm fashion recently, resisting calls to release an upscaled version of the show for Blu-Ray, whilst sending mixed messages on the chances of a reboot or more comprehensive remaster. Babylon 5 is a relatively obscure property compared to Star Trek or Star Wars, but it has made WB over half a billion dollars in profit since its inception in 1993, which is nothing to sneeze at, and the show retains a loyal fanbase who'd snap up such a collection eagerly.

Monday, 14 September 2020

New STAR WARS short film focuses on an X-wing vs. TIE interceptor duel

Lucasfilm and Electronic Arts have joined forces to release Hunted, a seven-minute short film focusing on a dogfight between an X-wing and TIE interceptor duel in the months after the Battle of Endor.

The short film, which incorporates CG assets developed for the film Rogue One, is part of the marketing build-up for the release of Star Wars: Squadrons, a new starfighter-focused video game for PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4. A spiritual successor to the classic X-Wing line of 1990s video games (X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance), Squadrons pitches two rival squadrons in the Galactic Civil War against one another. The game includes singleplayer campaigns for each faction (although EA remain coy about how long they are) and a number of multiplayer modes.

The film focuses on Varko Grey, one of the ace Imperial pilots who appears in the game. Presumably, we may seen another film about the New Republic side of the conflict, if not several more, in the lead-up to the game's release.

Lucasfilm's direct involvement in the short is interesting. X-wings and TIE fighters are iconic parts of the franchise, of course, and as well as the 1990s video games there was a best-selling novel line by Michael J. Stackpole and Aaron Allston focusing on the pilots. The X-Wing miniatures game from Fantasy Flight has also been hugely successful and recently entered a second edition. Lucasfilm could do worse than to consider a live-action show based around pilots on one or both sides of the conflict. 

Star Wars: Squadrons will be released on 2 October this year.

Writer of THE WATCH forgets to thank Sir Terry Pratchett as production wraps

The writer of The Watch, BBC America's increasingly controversial "loose adaptation" of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, has apparently forgotten about the late author and his estate whilst extending his thanks to people involved in the making of the television series. In fact, the writer fails to mention the Discworld book series, or that his TV show is based on novels, at all. He instead names himself as the "creator" of the story in a remarkable display of hubris.

The apparent snub was picked up on by Sir Terry's daughter and literary executor Rhianna Pratchett on Twitter. Needless to say, the response from the enormous, global Discworld fandom has not been kind.

Sir Terry Pratchett wrote 41 Discworld novels between 1983 and his premature death from early-onset Alzheimer's in 2015. At the time of his death, the Discworld novels had sold almost 90 million copies, making it the joint best-selling post-Tolkien secondary world fantasy series (with near sales parity with Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire). The series is a cultural institution in the UK, where Pratchett was a perennial bestseller. Sir Terry was also lauded for his work for charities and bringing greater awareness of issues such as the endangerment of orangutan populations and Alzheimer's research. He was one of the few writers in the "national treasure" category. He also has a growing fanbase in the United States (who were late but increasingly enthusiastic attendees of the Pratchett party).

Six of the Discworld novels have been adapted for the screen: Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music were adapted to animation by Cosgrove Hall in 1997, whilst Sky adapted HogfatherThe Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Going Postal between 2006 and 2010. Development of The Watch began in 2011, with the original idea being to develop a TV-focused sequel to the Discworld novels set in the city of Ankh-Morpork and revolving around the City Watch (starting with Guards! Guards!), rather than adapting the books directly. This version of the series was in development with the BBC for several years before the BBC divested it to BBC America around the time of Sir Terry's death.

BBC America hired a new writer (Simon Allen, best known for The Musketeers) threw out all the work that had been done already, apparently chose not to involve Sir Terry's family (including his daughter, Rhianna, a talented writer in her own right who had been closely involved in the prior project) and completely reconceptualised the project, including throwing out major characters, turning the setting into a "cyberpunk" city (nonsensically; I think they meant steampunk) and "sexing up" other characters by making them younger, thinner and better-looking. The Pratchett fanbase responded negatively to the early publicity images of the show and this discontent grew as it became clear that the Pratchett Estate was unhappy with how things had gone.

Snubbing the creator and writer of the original stories in this manner will likely increase the discontent and negative publicity the show has engendered so far.

The Watch is currently scheduled to air on BBC America in January 2021. A UK broadcaster has not yet been announced.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Streams of Silver by R.A. Salvatore

Having successfully saved Icewind Dale from the invading army of the sorcerer Akar Kessell - albeit at a high cost - Bruenor Battlehammer, Drizzt Do'Urden, Wulfgar and Regis embark on a new quest. This time their goal is Mithril Hall, the long-lost homeland of Bruenor. Unfortunately, Bruenor was only a child when the hall fell and has no memory of its location. The companions set out for the cities of Luskan and Silverymoon, hoping they will find clues to the Hall's whereabouts. But danger stalks the party, for the assassin Artemis Entreri is on their tail, seeking the halfling Regis, whilst the mages of Luskan are anxious for news of the Crystal Shard and are determined to recover it.

Streams of Silver (1989) is the middle volume of the Icewind Dale Trilogy but mercifully escapes "middle book syndrome" by virtue of Salvatore not planning a trilogy in the first place. The Crystal Shard had to stand well enough alone so that if it bombed, readers would not be left on too much of a cliffhanger for a sequel that would never come. Fortunately, the book did very well and two sequels were commissioned, which are more tightly connected together (the "standalone+duology" school of trilogies, which has an honourable precedent in the original Star Wars trilogy).

Streams of Silver is a less tightly-plotted book than The Crystal Shard and less epic in terms of having large armies clashing, but it's much more of a traditional Dungeons & Dragons adventure. We have our party, who even now get a cool name (The Companions of the Hall™) and they have a quest which takes them across the Savage North of the Forgotten Realms. Many, many later books would also focus on this region but it's interesting to see it in a nascent state here with a lot of the worldbuilding still in a fairly embryonic stage, to the point where Salvatore overlooks the existence of the later very high-profile city of Neverwinter, which is amusing, and Alustriel Silverhand, one of the infamous Seven Sisters, only has two sisters at this juncture. We get a nicely varied story as well, taking in political-magical intrigue in the city of Luskan, a semi-comic interlude in the whimsical wizard hamlet of Longsaddle, a more desperate long-running battle across the troll-infested Evermoors, an angsty stay in the city of Silverymoon (a bastion of peace and enlightenment where Drizzt hopes for respite, only to be turned away because of his dark elven heritage) and a final descent into Mithril Hall, presumably thoroughly checked by TSR's legal team to stave off the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate suing them into the next universe.

An interesting parallel storyline emerges where the assassin Artemis Entreri is hot on our heroes' trail and assembles an "evil party" to bring parity to their encounter, complete with its own wizard, tracker, magical construct and a reluctant guide in the form of Catti-brie, Bruenor's adopted daughter now turned hostage. Given that Catti-brie was barely even in the first book, it's good to see her have some character development in this volume.

There's a lot more female characters in general, including several among the villains, which remedies one of the oddities of the first book. There's a fair bit of action, although not quite as breathlessly over-the-top as in the first book (sadly Drizzt and Wulfgar don't get to take out two dozen giants single-handed, which was stretching credibility just a bit), and Salvatore's writing calms down. No more excited exclamation marks after every other sentence! His prose can still veer towards the cheesy (especially whenever he decides Drizzt needs to be introspective and ponder on the unfairness of the world), but it's easily accessible and straightforward. There's still more enthusiasm than skill here, but it's surprising how much fun that can be.

The novel is very much still in the "Big Mac with extra fries" mode of fantasy literature, but it does make some clumsy nods towards engaging with a big theme when it comes to racism. Drizzt is a dark elf or drow, whose people were cursed and outcast from the rest of elven civilisation ten thousand years ago after betraying the other elven peoples during the Crown Wars. As a result, Drizzt encounters extreme hostility from pretty much everyone he meets. Later Forgotten Realms fiction would cast this event as a grand tragedy, with many tens of thousands of innocent and "good" dark elves punished for the crimes of their evil brethren, with many drow fighting for redemption under the banner of the goddess Eilistraee. At this early stage in the setting's history, though, the worldbuilding is more that all the drow are evil all the time (apart from a small number who are merely totally amoral instead), and Drizzt is the only exception in the whole world. On that basis it's hard to make Drizzt's story about racism work when virtually all the other drow we meet are inherently evil (shades of Dragon Age trying to make a story about bigotry against its mages because the run the risk of being overwhelmed by evil forces, despite the fact that almost every single mage we meet does go insane and get possessed by a demon at one point or another). Later books, which introduce more nuance to the setting, do deal with the issue more successfully.

Streams of Silver (***½) is a reasonable follow-up to The Crystal Shard. Salvatore has improved as a writer, although this is still very much at the enjoyable pulp end of the literary spectrum, and makes a couple of nods at larger themes around racism, homelands and belonging in this book, which are not altogether successful. He does deliver a readable, action-packed story which moves with verve through an interesting setting. With the success of this novel a bit more assured, there's a cliffhanger ending leading into the concluding book in the trilogy, The Halfling's Gem. Streams of Silver is available now in the UK and USA.