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.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS goes out to publishers

J. Michael Straczynski has submitted the manuscript for his completed version of the late Harlan Ellison's anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, to a literary agency. The book is now being shopped to various publishers.

The follow-up to the award-winning Dangerous Visions (1969) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), the book has been in the planning stages since 1973, with Ellison regularly announcing target dates for completion and publication. At one point the book was said to number some 150 stories, requiring multiple volumes to come out. Ellison continued to regularly claim he was working on the book into the 1990s, and sometimes later still.

Following Ellison's death in June 2018, his friend and occasional collaborator literary executor J. Michael Straczynski began working to bring the book to publication. He pruned a lot of stories that had not held up, or whose return had been requested by their authors or their estates, and decided to add several new stories by contemporary authors to give the anthology a modern feel. The final word count of the anthology is a surprisingly modest 112,000.

The Last Dangerous Visions is being handled by the Janklow & Nesbit Agency, with rights to the earlier Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions included to complete a uniform edition. Contributors to the book include Edward Bryant, Stephen Robinette, Max Brooks, DM Rowles, Dan Simmons, Cecil Castelluci, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Deman, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan Fast, Howard Fast, Robert Sheckley, Adrian Tchaikovsky and James S.A. Corey.

In a post on his Facebook page, Straczynski also notes that other, very high-profile modern SFF authors had been offered to take part but had chosen not to do so.

Monday, 18 October 2021

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Jevick of Tyom has grown up on an isolated island. He is given a tutor from the far-off empire of Olondria, who teaches him to read and fills his head with stories of that distant land. Circumstances lead Jevick to Bain, Olondria's cultured capital, where he fills his days with parties and books, but he is also haunted by an encounter with a dying girl from his own land. Soon civil war threatens the country and Jevick embarks on a journey to rid himself of his spiritual discomfort, unaware of the events that will be set in motion.

First published in 2013, A Stranger in Olondria is the debut novel by the poet Sofia Samatar. An unusual book, the novel is not a traditional epic or secondary world fantasy, despite a vividly composed world with well thought-out histories, customs and geography, but a tone and mood piece hinging on themes such as learning, regret, language and the essence of story.

The novel's writing reminded me in turn of Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula K. Le Guin, but with a unique atmosphere that is the author's own. There are very occasional bursts of action (a brief brawl, a confused flight through the countryside) but the book reveals its story and intentions through dialogue, thoughts and smaller short stories which are inset through the narrative. Jevick's function is sometimes less that of a protagonist than a sounding board or sponge, soaking up other characters' stories. He does have his own character arc though: Jevick's status as an outsider to Olondria gives him a fresh perspective on the empire and its complex royal and religious politics, but also makes him a pawn in the game between the two sides, one of whom imprisons him for insanity and the other liberates him as a symbol of resistance.

The book is also a love letter to the idea of reading stories and collecting books, which will no doubt warm the hearts of almost all book readers. Jevick's early distrust of books, which do not exist on his home island and where people do not read, gives way to almost drowning in the stories and ideas he finds on the pages of his tutor's collection. Later in the book he embarks on teaching his own community to read, and sharing the joy that comes from his experiences with them.

The novel's quiet, thoughtful prose is erudite and at times beautiful. Characterisation is strong, I always had an excellent sense of Jevick's motivations and, through his eyes, those of the characters he meets. I did feel his initial relationship with Jissavet was a bit too slight given their later closeness, and the pacing is sometimes uneven. In particular, much of the last quarter or so of the book is given over to Jissavet's backstory which is intriguing and powerful, but feels almost like a self-contained novella within the book's larger narrative. Jevick's story feels somewhat rushed to a conclusion in the handful of pages left after Jissavet's story concludes. It may also be that Samatar is less successful than the likes of Le Guin and Kay in weaving beautiful prose and thoughtful themes around a central plot and advancing all well simultaneously.

For that, A Stranger in Olondria is (****½) is still an accomplished novel. More of a mood piece than a plot-driven book, it has a haunting quality that will stick with the reader long after it is finished. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The author has a further novel set in the same world, The Winged Histories.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

Y: THE LAST MAN TV series dropped by FX

In a surprising move, FX has decided not to proceed with a second season of Y: The Last Man, its adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan's much-lauded comic book series. The decision is especially startling as it was taken when only seven of the ten episodes had aired in the United States, and six worldwide. Typically such decisions would only be taken or announced once the whole season was available, so as not to put people off watching the rest of the season.

Vaughan's Y: The Last Man comic book series, co-created and drawn by Pia Guerra, ran from 2002 to 2008 and was a marked early success in the post-apocalyptic comic genre (Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead debuted a year later). The comic posits a world where every single mammal with a Y chromosome (even sperm) has instantly dropped dead or become unviable, apart from two: the titular Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. The two find themselves at the mercy of the surviving female population, some of whom want to clone them, others who want to use their genetic material to create a cure, and a nihilistic cult which wants to kill him and end any hope of survival for the human race. The comic was applauded for its unpredictable story turns.

There were several attempts to bring the show to the screen before FX landed the rights in 2015. Development was repeatedly stymied by changes in personnel and disputes between the studio and various showrunners on the tone of the show. A pilot was filmed in 2018, which created a mixed reaction at the network. Eliza Clark finally landed the showrunner gig in 2019 and was able to steer the first season into production. However, the production period for the show then ran into problems and delays resulting from the COVID pandemic before finally concluding in July 2021, three years after shooting on the pilot began. The show began airing last month after a further change, a last-minute move from FX itself to American streaming service Hulu.

The show has received fairly mixed reviews, with a common consensus being that the opening episodes are too grim and humourless before the show is allowed to breathe in later episodes. Other criticisms include the writing for protagonist Yorick Brown, which makes him very unlikeable for large chunks of the season, and a scattergun narrative that careens between three storylines (Yorick on the move, his sister who has fallen in with a cult and his mother's precarious position as the President of the United States) with some severe pacing issues. Some critics also noted that the show's grimdark tone is not necessarily the best fit for the world in general right now, and that also some of the show's thunder and power has been stolen by several other post-apocalyptic shows, including The Walking Dead and its two spin-offs, as well as the recent mini-series version of The Stand. However, critical appreciation for the series has grown over the course of the season, with special praise reserved for Ashley Romans' powerful performance as Agent 355.

The actual reasons for the cancellation are unclear - FX has not commented so far - but it might be that the show's initial release has simply not delivered the required viewing figures on Hulu and, worldwide, Disney+. The delays have meant that the show is very expensive and it needed to be a massive hit right out of the gate.

For my part, the show started sluggishly but has picked up momentum over the course of the season and the story has become more interesting. Certainly the source material, if adapted well, has the potential to take the show on a wild ride which should avoid comparisons with other post-apocalyptic series.

Showrunner Eliza Clark has noted that they have the opportunity to take the project elsewhere, and it may be possible to save the show on another network or streaming service. The show has picked up a few high-profile fans, with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk revealing he's a fan on Twitter.

UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter has the inside scoop on why the show was cancelled. There was a hard deadline of 15 October when FX had to decide to spend $3 million on renewing the cast contracts or not, and they decided they would not do that without a renewal decision. Since they did not have enough viewing figure data to make the call, they decided not to renew. It also sounds like FX may have become somewhat disillusioned with the project given its six-year gestation period and frequent changes of showrunner and actors.

However, FX are reportedly keen to help the show find a new home and it sounds like discussions are underway for Y: The Last Man to move to potentially HBO Max, which might be a better fit for it. This is unusual given that FX is part of the Disney family and the show could perhaps move somewhere else within its empire, but a sign of good faith that FX has in the production team. Given that the cast contracts have now been terminated and the cast could start getting other offers soon, such a transition would have to happen pretty quickly.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

SAGA comic series to resume in January 2022

The comic book series Saga is to resume in January 2022. The series, written by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples, went on hiatus in 2018. The hiatus was originally meant to be for a year or so, but was extended by the COVID pandemic and the creators getting involved in other projects. However, Vaughn confirmed they were hard at work back on the series last year.

Saga began in 2012 and rapidly garnered both critical and commercial acclaim, becoming one of the biggest-selling comic book series of the decade in both monthly release and later collections (totalling more than 7 million sales). The series went on hiatus after issue #54, the planned exact halfway point of the entire story, on an absolutely massive cliffhanger.

The series begins with two soldiers from different sides in an interstellar war, Marko and Alana, meeting and falling in love. They have a child, Hazel, who might be a symbol of hope and peace, and for that reason people on both sides want her and her parents dead. Various bounty hunters are assigned to the task, which is made more complicated by both Marko and Alana's formidable skills and by the battery of weird and wonderful allies they build up whilst on the run.

Saga #55 will be a double-length, 44-page special and will hit shelves on 26 January.

Happy 42nd Birthday to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (novel)

Douglas Adams's novel, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, turns 42 today.

Published on 12 October 1979, the novel was based on Adams's radio series of the same name which had aired eighteen months earlier on the BBC. With the radio series a huge success, Adams was convinced to turn the series into a novel. Adams only adapted the first four parts of the radio series into the book, saving the rest for the sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (published a year later), although, as was his wont, Adams made major plot and character changes between the different versions of the story. The same held true of the excellent BBC mini-series (which aired in 1981), the video game (1984) and feature film (2005).

The novel sold extremely well, shifting 250,000 copies in its first three months on sale. Unusually for a British comedic SF novel, the book was a hit in the United States as well and sales of the novel passed a million in 1984. Total sales of the novel are now believed to be in the neighbourhood of 20 million. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the two biggest-selling individual SF novels* of all time, a position it has swapped fairly regularly with Dune in the last few years, although a recent boost in sales for Dune (driven by the new movie adaptation) have almost certainly moved it back into first place and Hitch-Hiker's into second.

As with most versions of the story, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel opens with Earth being demolished by the officious and callous Vogons to make room for a hyperspace by-pass. Ford Prefect, a field researcher for the eponymous book who has been conducting research on Earth for fifteen years, elects to rescue his best friend Arthur Dent from certain death and they flee into deep space. After an improbable meeting with Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox (the part-time Galactic President who's now on the run after stealing a hyper-advanced starship for no rational reason), they find themselves caught up in a wild, ancient conspiracy involving god-like computers, dolphins, mice, an alien fjord-designer and, of course, the number 42, which holds the key to the secrets of life, the universe, and everything. Or it would, if anyone knew what the hell the question was.

Sadly, Douglas Adams passed away in 2001 at the far-too-young age of 49 and is not here to celebrate the milestone his famous novel has achieved. However, I am certain that, demolition of the Earth by bad poetry-reciting aliens allowing, the novel will still be going strong in another 42 years from now.

* Sales estimates of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy are complicated due to the fact that it is a very short novel, so for most of its existence it has been published in handy omnibus formats with various of its sequels; the biggest-selling edition of the book is believed to be a 1985 omnibus edition that packaged it with its three immediate sequels: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) and So Long and Thanks For All the Fish (1984). After 1992, this was supplanted by a five-volume omnibus that added Mostly Harmless (1992), the final book in the series. In recent years, the series has seen new five-volume editions put on sale. However, Dune has a similar estimate problem due to the extreme popularity of a hardcover omnibus that contains the first three books in its series which has been in print since the late 1970s.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Sony to acquire SFF-focused production company Bad Wolf

Sony Pictures Television is to acquire independent production company Bad Wolf, noted for its slate of SFF programming.

Bad Wolf was founded in 2015 by ex-BBC Drama head Jane Tranter and former Doctor Who producer Julie Gardner, and took its name from a story arc on Doctor Who. Headquartered in Cardiff, Wales, the company's first project was The Night Of for HBO and the BBC, which was a massive international success. A Discovery of Witches for Sky, based on the Deborah Harkness fantasy trilogy. They have since added Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials as a project for HBO and the BBC, and are currently shooting the third and concluding season. It is possible they might consider adapting the Book of Dust sequel/prequel project, and have incorporated elements from that trilogy in the existing TV series.

Bad Wolf will partner with the BBC in 2023 to produce the fourteenth season of the rebooted Doctor Who, and potentially further seasons beyond that. As well as Gardner being a former producer on the show, Jane Tranter was the person who formally commissioned the Doctor Who revival during her time at the BBC. Their former producing partner Russell T. Davies is returning to helm at least one season and the 60th anniversary celebrations, but may stay on beyond that.

Bad Wolf's other projects include Beddgelert, Industry and I Hate Suzie, the latter of which which will re-team the production company with former Doctor Who star Billie Piper. They are also developing a series based on Bernard Cornwell's acclaimed Warlord Chronicles trilogy, a more realistic take on the Arthurian legend.

Sony's acquisition of the company will give Sony a strong production partner based in the UK, which is rapidly becoming a boom location for shooting. Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon is currently shooting in the UK, and production of Netflix's The Witcher transferred to the UK from Eastern Europe for its second and subsequent seasons. Amazon is also in pre-production for Anansi Boys, Season 2 of Good Omens and Season 2 of its Lord of the Rings Second Age project, all rumoured to shoot in Scotland. Sony have reportedly committed to keeping Bad Wolf's headquarters in Cardiff and maintaining the UK as its primary production base.

Sony acquiring Bad Wolf does not mean they have acquired Doctor Who, of course. Bad Wolf are producing the show to-order for the BBC, which retains ownership, all related copyrights and trademarks. Bad Wolf will be producing the show on behalf of the BBC in a deal which the BBC can amend as required. However, it is likely that the deal gives Bad Wolf (and hence Sony) a slice of overseas profits, which may allow them to invest more heavily in the show; Doctor Who has famously been on a very tight (and stretched beyond breaking point) budget since the BBC effectively froze its production budgets after the financial crisis of 2008. 

Saturday, 9 October 2021

The Orville: Season 1

2419. The Planetary Union is exploring the galaxy, but it has three thousand ships and not enough experienced captains. Despite some doubts over his fitness for command, the admiralty place Captain Ed Mercer in command of the mid-size exploration and scientific cruiser Orville. Mercer's idiosyncratic crew slowly gel and turn into an effective team as they take on various threats, including being trapped in two-dimensional space and repeated confrontations with the villainous Krill.

The Orville is something of an odd show. It's a very, very earnest retread of early Star Trek: The Next Generation, getting as physically close to that show as it can without being sued into oblivion by CBS/Paramount. Concepts, characters, worldbuilding elements, technology and even individual story and character arcs feel so close to Star Trek that at times it gets a bit bemusing, and the presence of former Star Trek writers (Brannon Braga), directors (Jonathan Frakes, James L. Conway, Robert Duncan McNeill) and actors (DS9's Penny Johnson Jerald as a regular, Voyager's Robert Picardo in a recurring role) makes it clear that showrunner Seth MacFarlane is less playing homage to Star Trek then pretty much just remaking it.

This makes The Orville often feel like Star Trek: The Next Generation circa Season 2, with earnest moralising, sticky ethical conundrums and character interplay that sometimes works very well and sometimes is pretty poor. The show has to overcome several key weaknesses, including creator-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane's limited range (he is the weakest link in the cast) and the decision to front-line the show's most morally complex, issue-led episode About a Girl and then make a major hash of it. After the first three episodes, viewers would be forgiven for checking out.

However, the show then begins a long improvement drive. The fourth episode, If the Stars Should Appear, features the Orville encountering a massive generation ship and getting into the kind of interesting, high-concept based stories that TNG would have excelled at if it had the budget. Majority Rule overcomes a key weakness of the show - many of these stories or at least premises have been tackled before on 700-ish episodes of Star Trek - with an enthusiastic cast and just the right dose of humour. New Dimensions, in which the ship visits a two-dimensional universe, is a particularly good example of how the show can tackle Star Trek ideas with modern production values at a point when the actual Star Trek shows seem more interesting in tackling epic, darker storylines which the franchise is arguably not well-suited for.

The cast gels together quite nicely, Adrianne Palicki delivering on the underused potential she showed on Agents of SHIELD, and Deep Space Nine veteran Penny Johnson Jerald brings all her experience of dealing with weird aliens into play. Halston Sage is more enthusiastic than skilled as Lt. Alara Kitan, but develops into a much stronger player over the course of the first season and gets an excellent showcase episode near the end of the season. J. Lee is severely underused as Lt. LaMarr, but does get a better, more interesting role towards the end of the season (in a bemusing retread - intended or not - of what happened to La Forge on TNG). The show's MVP emerges as Isaac, the ship's alien mechanoid science officer who considers all other species inferior; Mark Jackson embodies Isaac with a terrific vocal performance and the character overcomes cliches by not wanting to become human, although he is fascinated by biological organisms' chaotic behaviour. 

The show also makes good use of MacFarlane's industry connections to deliver a very high class of guest star, with a brief appearance by Liam Neeson and proper, full-length guest roles for Charlize Theron and Rob Lowe, who all do terrific work. Rob Lowe's performance as a sexually voracious alien in truly ridiculous makeup is particularly entertaining.

The first season of The Orville (***½) never entirely overcomes its problems with tonal dissonance, non-sequitur toilet humour exploding through the wall of a dramatic scene with real stakes, and MacFarlane's somewhat clunky performance. But, after an initial burst of poor writing, it evolves into a reliably entertaining series which feels very comfortable in its role as a Next Generation cover band. It is available to watch worldwide on Disney+, and on Hulu in the United States.

Amazon announces release date and trailer for final season of THE EXPANSE

Amazon have dropped a trailer for the sixth and final season of The Expanse, which will begin airing on 8 December this year.

The sixth season of The Expanse draws on the sixth novel, Babylon's Ashes, as source material and sees the crew of the Rocinante joining forces with various factions to try to bring down Marco Inaros, still basking in the glow of his successful terror attacks on Earth in the previous season.

The TV version of The Expanse is ending early, with the final three novels in the series going un-adapted. It appears that the plan is to turn Babylon's Ashes into a conclusion for this version of the series, with a view to adapting the final three novels (Persepolis Rising, Tiamat's Wrath, Leviathan Falls) in a different format later on. The last three novels are set thirty years after the rest with a significantly different plot focus, which might be easier to handle as a spin-off series or series of TV movies.

The final novel in the Expanse book series, Leviathan Falls, will be released on 30 November this year.

Apple renews FOUNDATION for a second season

Apple TV has renewed its epic space opera series Foundation for a second season.

The show, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, is currently halfway through airing its first season on streaming service Apple TV+. Despite a mixed critical reception, the show has apparently picked up an impressive number of viewers, part of a boom in the success of the service alongside its hit football comedy show Ted Lasso (which just concluded its second season and has begun work on a third).

The show's first season adapts storylines from the first novel in the series, Foundation (1951), alongside some elements from prequel novels Prelude to Foundation (1989) and Forward the Foundation (1992). The second season will round off material from Foundation and will start drawing on the second book in the series, Foundation and Empire (1952), including the rise to power of master trader Hober Mallow and the depiction of the conflict between the Foundation and imperial general Bel Riose. It's likely that the series' most famous storyline, the conflict between the Foundation and the genetic mutant known as the Mule, will follow in a potential third season.

Foundation is currently releasing new episodes every Friday worldwide on Apple TV+.