Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Thursday, 21 October 2021

Dune: Part One

The year 10,191 of the Imperial Calendar. The power of the interstellar Imperium is based on the spice melange, which extends life, expands consciousness and, through the powers it grants the Navigators of the Spacing Guild, allows for interstellar travel and commerce. The spice is found only on one planet in known space: Arrakis, the desert world also called Dune. After eighty years of brutal occupation by House Harkonnen, the noble Atreides family has been tasked to take possession of Arrakis and mine the spice. Duke Leto Atreides seeks an alliance with the native Fremen to facilitate mining, but he is also aware that the Emperor fears his growing popularity and power. Meanwhile, Leto's son Paul is having unusual dreams and becoming aware that his very birth may have been orchestrated as part of a darker plot...

Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, having shifted some twenty million copies since its publication in 1965. Frank Herbert's novel is a strange beast for such a perennial bestseller, a cold and remote story of feuding houses, Byzantine politics and prescient visions swirling around a hallucinogenic substance which can shift the course of worlds. It lacks the warmth and heart of, say, The Lord of the Rings or even the comradeship and passions which break up the backstabbing and Machiavellian intrigue of Game of Thrones, but its intelligence and complexity have resonated strongly across the decades.

Denis Villeneuve has created the third version of Dune to hit the screens, following David Lynch's overstuffed 1984 film and John Harrison's painfully under-budgeted 2000 mini-series. Like those directors, he's run into the problem of Dune being too long for a single film and too short to turn into a TV series unless you also adapt adapt the increasingly obtuse and decreasingly popular sequels, which Harrison did with some success in 2003's Children of Dune mini-series. Villeneuve's solution is a gamble: breaking the film into two parts but only being able to shoot the first half, with the second contingent on the first part's success. A curious gamble by both director and the studio when the likes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Matrix sequels show the benefits in time and money of making the different parts in one go.

Dune: Part One (a distinction only found in the movie's title sequence and not on any of the marketing materials) takes advantage of its luxurious running time to build its world of feuding noble houses and a cynical take on the Hero's Journey, where the native Fremen of Arrakis have legends of the coming of a saviour and hero, unaware that they've been deliberately seeded into their culture in past centuries by the conniving Bene Gesserit sisterhood. This cynicism has put off casual audiences in the past even as it excites those bored of yet another retelling of yet another Frodo Skywalker who saves the world, and this film does a good job of balancing the comforting predictability of the story whilst also offering the view that such stories have become stale. Paul's visions grow increasingly apocalyptic as the film continues and he becomes more concerned that the future he is hurtling towards may be a nightmare, but one he is increasingly powerless to avert.

Villeneuve's previous movies, particularly his previous SF masterpieces Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, have stood him in good stead for delivering a film of thunderous visual power, where almost every single frame could be framed and hung on the wall as a work of art. But Dune risks over-indulgence. Villeneuve's past films have been tempered by the need to tell and conclude a story in a reasonable timeframe, whilst Dune is allowed to sprawl. Yes, Zendaya in white silk staring moodily across the desert is a cool image, but we probably could have done with a few less shots of that and maybe a few more moments expanding on characters like Thufir Hawat or Dr. Yueh, who in this film come across as under-developed. A particular delight of Lynch's Dune was Brad Dourif's eloquently batty Piter De Vries, but David Dastmalchian's take on the character is so anonymous he might as well have not even turned up (his sole saving grace being a brief side-quest that gives us a tantalising glimpse of the Imperial prison planet of Salusa Secundus).

The film also takes an odd counter-approach to Lynch's 1984 attempt. Lynch's movie was overstuffed, trying to ram too many characters into its run-time. Villeneuve strips the story almost bare here, with no sign of Emperor Shaddam IV, his daughter Irulan, his confidante Count Fenring, Baron Harkonnen's young nephew and heir apparent Feyd-Rautha, and no voice given to the Spacing Guild. Oddly, Villeneuve's greater run-time across two pictures would have allowed him to include and set up their stories much better, but instead they're MIA altogether and, apart from the Emperor, not even mentioned.

The score is haunting and powerful, even if, as with many Hans Zimmer scores, the sound mix feels off. Several key moments of dialogue are buried under the music and the sheer loudness of the soundtrack is something to behold. In almost forty years of going to the cinema, I've never left one with my ears ringing as much as after this one.

But there is much that Villeneuve does right. The imagery is fantastic and evocative. The actors who are here do career-best work, with Timothée Chalamet overcoming doubts about his casting to convince absolutely as Paul Atreides and Zendaya making the most of limited screen time as Chani. Javier Bardem's chilled-but-lethal vibe as Stilgar is also tremendously entertaining and might be the film's standout performance, and Rebecca Ferguson, Dave Bautista, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin all deliver excellent performances. There is no doubt whatsoever why so many hundreds of thousands of men and women would follow Oscar Isaac's magnificent beard into battle. Jason Momoa also overcomes fears of his bro-dude vibe not being a good fit for Duncan Idaho, with his Duncan becoming a charismatic and sympathetic character.

The vfx are outstanding, given time to breathe and not overwhelm the rest of the picture. The worms are more enigmatic, strange and lethal than prior depictions. The action sequences are, mostly, excellent (save some clumsy fight scenes which may leave the audience wondering if the reputation of the Sardaukar has been a bit oversold), and, finally, a book-accurate depiction of ornithopters will leave many Dune fans with massive smiles on their faces. The CGI kangaroo-mice are cool as hell.

Dune: Part One (****) is a qualified success, delivering an overwhelming cinematic spectacle that taps Frank Herbert's novel and strips away ancillary material that distracts from the core narrative. The atmosphere and tone are sumptuous, and the clearer stakes make the story easier to get a handle on. But secondary characters are under-developed and, in a few cases, not developed at all. The film also doesn't climax, instead just pausing (albeit on a fairly iconic image from the books). A fairer assessment of Villeneuve's project may hinge on its second half being made. In the meantime, Dune: Part One is on general release worldwide and is streaming now on HBO Max in the United States.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

PlayStation mega-franchise GOD OF WAR coming to PC

Sony have confirmed that one of their signature PlayStation franchises, God of War, is making the jump to the PC format, with the latest game in the series hitting PC as soon as January.

The God of War franchise began in 2005 with the eponymous debut game on PlayStation 2. It was followed by God of War II (2007), also on PlayStation 2, and God of War III (2010) on PlayStation 3. After a host of spin-off and mobile games, the second era of the franchise began in 2018 with a soft reboot/semi-sequel on PlayStation 4, also called God of War. The series follows a Spartan warrior named Kratos who becomes the tool and servant of the Greek god Ares, something he bitterly comes to regret. The original trilogy was set in the Greek period , whilst the second era is set in the Norse time period.

The franchise has sold over 50 million copies to date (20 million of those of the latest God of War alone) and has been highly critically acclaimed. The next game in the series, God of War: Ragnarok, is due for release in 2022, though I'd expect to wait a while for a PC version of that.

This is the latest in a slew of games that have been ported from PlayStation to PC, following on from the success of Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone, with Uncharted 4 also on its way. This is arguably the most significant such move so far, as the God of War franchise is seen as one of Sony's biggest and most exclusive series, arguably behind only the likes of Gran Turismo and The Last of Us.

The move has been necessitated by the growing cost of developing video games, with remuneration from a sole platform now being seen as more difficult to achieve than it was in the past. Porting exclusives to PC allows for a new revenue stream several years after the game's original release, whilst the time period involved (so far all the ported games have had to wait at least two years) still makes the argument for getting a PlayStation compelling. PC owners will be particularly happy, since all Xbox releases are now automatically coming out on PC as well, making the platform the only place where you can freely mix and match games from two of the three console giants (Nintendo are, so far, resistant to doing something similar).

God of War will launch on PC on 14 January 2022.

Ted Lasso: Season 1

Ted Lasso is an experienced American college football coach who is unexpectedly hired by the new owner of British football team FC Richmond, Rebecca Welton, to run the club after she inherits it from her ex-husband in a divorce settlement. Lasso's inexperience with football - or soccer - is initially a handicap, but his empathetic nature soon wins over most of the team and Rebecca. But Lasso's folksy advice and tactical instincts fail to win over star player Jamie Tartt, who eschews team play in favour of making himself the centre of attention, and sets about undermining Lasso's plans.

A bunch of cynical Brits are going through a tough time during their lives and careers. Many of them are in hard places, contemplating divorce, business failure or irrelevance. Suddenly, a folksy American shows up and via homespun wisdom, pithy sayings and the power of belief, these hard hearts are melted and all is well in the world.

Sounds horrible, doesn't it? Fortunately, Ted Lasso isn't that show, but it sounds so close to it that many potential viewers may have been put off (being on the smallest and newest of the global streaming services doesn't help either). Strong word of mouth and, now, eight Emmy Awards, may convince the doubters to tune in, because Ted Lasso is a show that threads the needle of being warm-hearted and positive without turning into a saccharine overdose, though it walks the line mighty fine.

The show is helped by a warm and winning central performance by Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses) as the eponymous Lasso. Lasso would be an insufferable character if Sudeikis didn't imbue him with such wit and charm, not to mention playing the character's more troubled side. Lasso's relentless positivity and work ethic seems to have helped tank his own marriage, and his apparent inability to fix his own problems whilst having a good handle on everyone else's issues is causing him tension and anxiety, adding an interesting edge to the character.

The rest of the main cast is likewise excellent, particularly Hannah Waddingham (Game of Thrones) as quasi-antagonist Rebecca, Jeremy Swift (Downton Abbey) as Leslie and the spectacularly sweary Brett Goldstein (who also writes for the show) as former superstar player Roy Kent. Goldstein is arguably the breakout find of the show, notable for his Roy Keane-influenced hardman image clashing with a much softer side he tries to hide from people. Phil Dunster is just the right note of insufferable as the handsome and formidably talented Jamie Tartt, whose combative nature makes him a secondary antagonist for much of the season. Rounding out the main cast is Brendan Hunt as the taciturn Coach Beard; Nick Mohammed as Nate, a kitman turned sharp-tongued assistant coach; and Juno Temple as Jamie's girlfriend Keeley, whose initial, typical WAG image hides a much smarter, resourceful and tougher character. The show also has a formidable supporting cast, including the rest of the football team (featuring notable breakout performances by Toheeb Jimoh as Sam, Kola Bokinni as Isaac and Cristo Fernandez as Dani "Football is Life" Rojas) and the mighty Tony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as Rupert, Rebecca's ex-husband-turned-nemesis. Frankly any show which has Tony Head being an insufferable, rage-inducing prat is automatically worth watching in my book.

The show walks a very fine tightrope between Mister Rogers' Neighborhood-style folksy charm and a more cynical view of human nature. The show does lean heavily into feel-good stories which occasionally threaten to overload the audience's patience, but it shows remarkable judgement in knowing when it's going too "nice" and instead pulls back with some more cynical humour or deals the team a well-judged reversal of fortune. The team also has highs and lows through the season which feel surprisingly familiar for an English football team, with good spells suddenly ended when they come up against a far superior team. Ted Lasso is not by any means a realistic depiction of life in a Premier League team, but it does get the football right better than any show before it. Given football's status as the world's most popular sport, it's startling how few shows - drama or comedy - have really tried to engage with it previously, and there's a hint of annoying in British reviews of the series that it took an American creator (albeit with a partially British writing team) to finally crack it.

The first season of Ted Lasso (****½) cracks along with great pacing and just enough charm to overcome its cheesier moments, whilst hinting at greater character depth. Overrated? Somewhat. Some of the story turns are a bit implausible, even in the show's own warm-hearted reality, and some of the characters like Sam and Dani, despite outstanding performances, veer towards stereotypes. Jamie's abrupt mid-season departure also feels random, though it is explored a bit better in the second season. Overall, a solid, amusing show with a great cast. The series is available now on Apple TV+ worldwide.

Only Murders in the Building: Season 1

A fire alarm sounds in the Arconia apartment building in Manhattan. Three residents find themselves sharing a table at a nearby restaurant: semi-retired actor Charles-Haden Savage, Broadway director Oliver Putnam and Mabel Mora, a young woman renovating her aunt's apartment. The three bond over a shared fascination with true crime podcasts. When they discover that one of their neighbours was murdered during the fire alarm and the police seem undermotivated to investigate, they decide to look into it themselves...and host a podcast along the way.

A lot of TV shows, even in this modern age where it feels like everything has to be an instant hit, take a while to find their feet, usually stumbling through trial and error in early episodes until they find a consistent level of quality. The rarest of things in TV is a show that arrives absolutely fully-formed and is a compelling watch right out of the gate. Excepting mini-series like Watchmen, the last show to have achieved that feat may have been the fantastic first season of Fargo six years ago.

However, that may have now been matched by the first season of Only Murders in the Building, a perfectly-executed show which knows exactly what type of story it wants to tell and the tone it needs to hit to get there, and simply does it.

The show combines three outstanding leading talents: American comedy god Steve Martin, his frequent collaborator and 1980s legend Martin Short (I still feel that Innerspace is underrated), and singer and actress Selena Gomez. Martin plays against type as an insular, restrained actor who had a hit cop show in the early 1990s but has never been able to replicate its success, and has trouble opening up to other people. Short's Putnam is a flamboyant theatre director who struggles with dealing with everyday practicalities. Gomez's Mabel is a young woman with her whole life ahead of her who is nevertheless troubled by things that happened ten years earlier. Each character is both an observer of the murder mystery, with ideas on how to solve it, but also to some degree a participant; Mabel used to be friends with the victim, something she is reluctant to tell her new friends about; Putnam's long-term business associate agrees to bankroll their podcast but becomes a suspect; and one of Savage's new friends attracts the ire of the killer after helping the trio explore new ideas.

Each one of the ten episodes is structured like a podcast episode, complete with a dramatic voiceover explaining what's going on and what the stakes are. Typically each episode revolves around a new suspect and the trio find reasons to discount them or keep them under suspicion. This structure and each episode's brisk pacing (the episodes are only around 30 minutes long) makes for economical storytelling, without a wasted moment or filler.

The show also manages to balance a truly impressive cast. As well as the three superstar leads and Oscar-nominee Amy Ryan in a supporting role, the show features impressive turns from Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon (as himself), Jane Lynch, Nathan Lane, and, in a near-non-sequitur tangent which is nevertheless hilarious, Sting (as himself).

The show's success hinges on its old-fashioned comedy stylings, with occasional elements of farce and theatrical storytelling, melded with the way it employs modern technology, with consideration of the technical requirements needed to make a good podcast and the way character conversations often unfold through text messages. The show even feels confident enough to engage in some experimentation: the seventh episode, The Boy from 6B, unfolds almost completely without dialogue, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Hush, except that Only Murders in the Building even more commits to the bit (the Buffy episode had dialogue at the start and end of the episode, but Only Murders only has a single audible word). The show ably mixes the old and the new to create something that feels consistently fresh.

A good murder mystery sets up the crime, explores the life of the victim and establishes a number of suspects who could be the killer. Feature films have to contend with limited time to do all of this before having to resolve the case, but a TV show has the luxury to breathe and spend a lot of time on set-up before revealing the solution, and wondering if the audience has gotten there ahead of them. Only Murders in the Building is a very good murder mystery, with some witty writing, smart plotting and outstanding performances, let down perhaps only by the cliffhanger ending leading into the (fortunately greenlit and shooting) second season.

The first season of Murders in the Building (*****) is available now on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ in the rest of the world.

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.