Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


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.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Epic vs. Valve: The Battle for PC Gaming

For the past fifteen years, the PC gaming market has been dominated by one retailer above all others: Steam. An online sales, downloading and gaming service, Steam is run by Valve Corporation and has utterly dominated the market since launch, fending off several competitors along the way. But that has now changed, with Fortnite developers Epic Games launching a rival service that means to do nothing less than smash Valve's monopoly forever.

The Epic Store launcher.

Steam was launched in late 2003 as a system for updating Valve's online games, titles like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic, keeping players all in sync with one another and allowing new maps and patches to be rolled out quickly and efficiently. In 2004 the service transitioned to a store, selling new games. It was mostly ignored until the November 2004 release of Half-Life 2, arguably the most eagerly-anticipated video game in history up until that time. It was the sequel to Half-Life, the 1998 game that rewrote the first person shooter rulebook and established Valve as a force to be reckoned with in the PC gaming scene.

Half-Life 2 launched with the required use of Steam. You could buy Half-Life 2 in stores, but to install it you had to also install Steam and sign up to the online service. In 2004, when not every gamer was online and certainly most gamers did not expect to have to sign up to an online service to play a single-player-only game (Half-Life 2's multiplayer mode wasn't patched in until months later), this idea was hugely controversial. Gaming communities rebelled, some gamers tried to report Valve for breaches of the law (no such claim was ever upheld) and so on. But Half-Life 2 was anticipated in a manner almost no other game in history was, and the sheer juggernaut force of the game's hype and its overwhelmingly positive critical reception saw gamers swallow their pride and buy the game in their millions. In many cases, they used the service to buy and download the game at midnight on release day, and were playing hours before their friends could get to the shops to pick up their copies.

After Half-Life 2 showed that online PC sales were viable, other publishers signed up to the service and more and more games appeared there. Valve had been either lucky or prescient, as 2004 arguably marked the last highwater for PC gaming in the 2000s. The 2005 release of the X-Box 360, followed a few months later by the release of the PlayStation 3, saw a huge crash in PC gaming sales. Within just a couple of years, the number of big titles being developed for PC dropped significantly. 2007-08 was arguably the nadir of PC gaming history, with few big titles coming out, almost no PC exclusives doing well (The Witcher, from CDProjket, being an honourable exception) and the platform being almost dead on its feet.

Remarkably, though, Steam had continued to grow in popularity and success. Valve jumped on the rise of indie gaming, adding lots of popular, low-budget titles to the platform. Valve also pushed their big sales hard. They won back support from big publishers through various tactics designed to promote sales. Rockstar Games had released the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV after a long delay, but noted that although initial sales had not been as high as the console versions, the "long tail" of the game was significant, with sales picking up years later every time the game was put in a sale, making it far more profitable in the long run on the PC platform. By the start of the 2010s the platform had recovered most of its losses, bolstered by the arrival of Kickstarter as a platform for funding niche, mid-tier games. By the end of 2018, Steam had 150 million accounts (30 million more than Netflix) and dominated the PC gaming market with a share of between 18 and 20% (but 75% of the online market). According to some reports, Microsoft has offered over $20 billion to buy the service and the company behind it outright, but Valve's owner, Gabe Newell (who worked for Microsoft in the 1990s, quitting to co-found Valve), had rejected such overtures out of hand.

Understandably, other services have tried to compete with Steam. CDProjekt launched GoG (Good Old Games) as a rival service which focuses on getting older games updated to work on modern hardware. Their main selling point is not using an form of DRM (Digital Rights Management), which they feel hinders the customer experience. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts, UbiSoft and Blizzard-Activision launched rival services to exclusively launch their games, respectively Origin, UPlay and BattleNet (although many UPlay games are also available on Steam). With relatively small game catalogues and niche target audiences, these services have existed alongside Steam, rather than trying to compete directly with it.

This has now changed thanks to a company whose pedigree in PC gaming is even older than Valve's: Epic Games.

Founded in 1991, Epic Games spent the 1990s releasing a large number of low- and mid-budged action games before releasing their first 3D shooter in 1999, Unreal. Unreal was followed by both sequels and the immensely successful multiplayer spinoff series, Unreal Tournament. In 2006 launched a new single-player focused series on console, Gears of War, which was immensely successful. They also made immense amounts of money by licensing their Unreal Engine to other companies and publishers. In 2017 they redeployed the Unreal Engine to make a new, fun and lighthearted co-op shooter called Fortnite: Save the World, and its multiplayer spin-off, Fortnite: Battle Royale. Better known just as Fortnite, the game has become the biggest global success story since Minecraft, with Epic Games making significant profits from the game's downloadable extras and content.

Late last year, Epic Games launched the Epic Store, which they proudly proclaimed was going to take the fight directly to Valve. At first gamers chuckled and moved on: many companies had vowed to do the same thing and all had failed. But then Epic Games started doing something that no other would-be Steam-killer had done before: actively seeking out PC gaming developers and offering them staggering sums of money for a 12-month exclusivity period on PC. In addition, Epic Games offered to take only a 12% cut of the sales of games, as opposed to Valve's huge 30%. Developers, watching profit margins drop steadily over the years due to an inability to keep development costs down and also an inability to raise prices accordingly due to market saturation, started signing up enthusiastically.

The first casualty was Metro: Exodus. The third game in a popular first-person shooter series, following on from Metro 2033 (2010) and Metro: Last Light (2013), Metro: Exodus's Ukrainian developers were offered a huge sum of money for a 12-month exclusivity period. They agreed. Fans of the series and more casual gamers railed angrily against the development, citing it was bad form for a company to wall off a game behind a new service, especially a new service that did not have the ease of use or many of the most basic features of Steam. They were also suspicious of Tencent, a Chinese company accused of spying on customers, which had acquired a 40% stake in Epic in 2012. Despite these complaints, Metro: Exodus sold exceptionally well on release, outselling Metro: Last Light more than two-and-a-half times on launch day.

Last week Epic flexed its muscles by locking in Phoenix Point to an exclusivity period. Phoenix Point is the eagerly-awaited new turn-based tactics game from X-COM creator Julian Gollop and his company Snapshot Games. Using an approach similar to Firaxis's recent XCOM games, the game goes for a more simulated-based approach and has been praised for its gameplay decisions. For a tiny company like Snapshot the deal was apparently "impossible to resist," as the money offered could keep the company going for "years." For fans, the anger was much more palpable this time around and also more readily supported: Phoenix Point had been crowdfunded with the explicit promise that the game would be available on Steam and GoG on release day, and that was now not going to happen. Possibly the most eagerly-awaited PC game of 2019 became reviled overnight, with an absolute flood of refund requests pouring in.

But this has not stopped Epic's onslaught. In the last few days they have announced a blizzard of new acquisitions and deals. Obsidian Entertainment's The Outer Worlds, another of the most eagerly-awaited games of 2019, has joined the exclusivity deal (or, more accurately, publisher Take Two signed up for them). Quantic Dream, known for their moody console games with jaw-dropping graphics, were offered a deal so lucrative that they have gone back and dusted down all of their previous games going back to 2010 for release through Epic (comprising Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls and Detroit: Become Human). Remedy Entertainment's promising Control has also signed up, along with RTS Industries of Titan and The Sinking City. The full list is extensive and surprising, encompassing many mid-range upcoming PC games, which are the bread and butter of the platform.

This is nothing less than a full-scale assault on Valve's control of the PC gaming business. Whether it can be sustained is unclear, but it represents the biggest challenge to Steam's supremacy in over a decade. Valve will have to respond and in some respects it already has, promising to fix long-standing problems like people gaming the review system and offensive zero-budget, zero-effort games being shovelled onto the platform. The real test, I think, will come when a real AAA big-hitter that should be on Steam goes Epic Store exclusive. Take Two putting some games exclusively on Epic has to be a major concern. It's an open industry secret that Take Two and Rockstar Games are prepping a PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2, 2018's biggest game on console, for release likely in 2020. If they decided to make that game an Epic exclusive, it would be a huge and fundamental blow to Steam's position in the marketplace.

This battle could determine how PC games are bought, sold and played in the 2020s, so is hugely significant. But it may also be futile, as waiting in the wings is Google's Stadia system, which may offer a completely different, more Netflix-esque approach altogether. How this pans out will be very interesting, and no doubt contentious.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

FARSCAPE turns 20, hits Amazon Prime Video

Cult SF series Farscape is celebrating its 20th anniversary through a major re-release on streaming platform Amazon Prime Video.

Launching on 19 March 1999 as a US-Australian co-production, Farscape ran for 88 regular episodes and two two-hour specials, concluding in October 2004. The show focuses on John Crichton, an American astronaut who is accidentally transported across the galaxy by a wormhole. He is found by the crew of a living ship called Moya, a collection of misfits and renegades where he feels at home. Vague attempts to return home are complicated by his growing camaraderie with his newfound friends and his own mental health (Crichton develops PTSD-like symptoms as a result of his misadventures).

As the story progresses, it becomes more serialised and epic, culminating with the team becoming central in a massive interstellar war between two major powers.

The show was notable at the time for its use of serialised storytelling, a device it had inherited from Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but was also a lot more humorous. Although certainly not a comedy (unlike its absurdist Canadian contemporary, Lexx), it was a show that knew when to kick back and have fun as well as when to ramp up the dramatic tension. After a lukewarm first season, the show won immense critical acclaim in later years for its storytelling, effects, acting and the exceptional prosthetic makeup and puppetry.

All four seasons of Farscape and the concluding Peacekeeper Wars mini-series (listed at the end of Season 4) can be found now on Amazon Prime Video in most territories.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Narnia fanfic inexplicably gets media excited

News broke today that a man has written some Chronicles of Narnia fanfic and, for some reason, this was deemed worthy of inclusion in numerous newspaper and online articles.

From a Guardian article last year.

Fanfic, short for "fanfiction," is the form where fans of a fictional work take it upon themselves to write stories in the same setting and featuring the same characters. These works are, by definition, unauthorised and the writers cannot sell or make money from these stories without engaging in copyright violation.

The attitude of authors to fanfic based on their works varies immensely: George R.R. Martin disapproves, but generally doesn't make too much of a fuss as long as fanfic is not sent to him. J.K. Rowling is somewhat more supportive of the concept. Some authors are a lot more enthusiastic and even host fanfic on their website, although this becomes legally dubious if the author later makes story decisions in the "official" material that echoes the fanfic.

In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia, the situation is both less and more clear: C.S. Lewis died in 1963, so is not around to make any judgements of his own on the matter. The Lewis Estate has resisted anyone writing "official" new Narnia material, but has been happy to authorise various adaptations for television and film, with Netflix being the latest studio to pick up the rights and begin development work of a new version of the story. Curiously, around the time the first Narnia feature film was released in 2005, the Estate did suggest that new books would be released as well, but nothing ever materialised.

The fanfic in question is called The Stone Table and takes place between the events of The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, explaining what happened to the rulers of Narnia and the castle of Cair Paravel prior to the events of the latter novel. This is a fertile area for exploration - and the title and premise feel potentially like Lewis inventions - and indeed this period has been discussed many times by Narnia fans over the years.

Francis Spufford - who has previously published exactly one novel (Golden Hill, in 2016, which won the Costa Book Award) - wrote the fanfic for his daughter, who had complained that her father had not written any books she felt like she could read (Spufford has mostly written non-fiction on adult subjects). Spufford spent three years working on the fanfic, which is apparently novel-length, which is not an inconsiderable time period for one fic.

Oddly, Spufford has declined to post the work through any of the established fanfic communities, instead only releasing the first couple of chapters at the urging of friends who have read the full book. Distinguished SF author Adam Roberts has acclaimed the book as being excellent and a worthy addition to the Narnia canon, which is a nice compliment. However, given that the only person who can make that determination is near sixty years dead, it's not particularly germane.

Spufford has apparently now reached out to the Lewis Estate to see if the book can see print in some fashion with their approval. If not, he'll apparently wait the fifteen years until the books leave copyright and publish then, which feels like an odd choice to make when there are plenty of fanfic communities who would be happy to release the book and critique it immediately, for free.

Or, of course, he could follow in the footsteps of the great fanfic trailblazer and innovator E.L. James, change a few names to create a new setting and cash in straight away.

Filming starts on the new DUNE movie

Shooting began yesterday on the new film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, the biggest-selling work in science fiction history.

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is directing the first of what he hopes will be two movies to adapt the first of the six canonical novels in the Dune series. Dune has been previously adapted twice, for film by David Lynch in 1984 and for television by the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) in 2000.

The announced cast of Dune is as follows:

  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
  • Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides
  • Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho
  • Chen Chang as Dr. Wellington Yueh
  • Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
  • Javier Bardem as Stilgar
  • Zendaya as Chani
  • Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
  • Dave Bautista as Rabban
  • Dave Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson (role not confirmed yet)
Several key roles remain to be filled, including Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, the mentat Thufir Hawat, the Shadout Mapes, Liet Kynes, Count Hasimir Fenring, and the Emperor Shaddam IV, along (possibly) with Princess Irulan.

In addition to Villeneuve directing, it has been confirmed that Hans Zimmer will be scoring the movie. Greig Fraser (Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty) is director of photography and Patrice Vermette (Arrival, Sicario) is the production designer.

The movie is currently scheduled to hit cinemas on 20 November 2020.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

SF&F Questions: What works are part of the Middle-earth canon?

There are few words that strike fear deeper into the hearts of long-established fantasy fans and critics when someone starts asking about “the Middle-earth canon” and “what books are canon?” It’s a simple question, but the answer is long, complex and confusing.

What is a Canon?

In this sense, a canon is the definitive “official” version of what happened in a particular story, world or narrative created by an author. In very simplistic terms, the Harry Potter canon, for example, consists of the seven novels written by J.K. Rowling and other elements that she either wrote or approved of, such as the Pottermore website, spin-off books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Cursed Child stage play. Fanfiction is clearly non-canon and the films represent a separate canon, as they are an adaptation of the book canon rather than a formal addition to it.

The definition of canon can also change. For example, when George Lucas created the film Star Wars in 1977 and then its sequels, he held that only the films were canon and nothing else was: the spin-off novels and comic books written by third parties were not canon and he would not be bound by their events and in most cases did not read them. However, by the late 1980s he had come to believe a single Star Wars canon was more desirable and he hired people to ensure consistency and continuity between all officially-authorised Star Wars products, including novels, video games and comic books. This scheme became known as the “Star Wars Expanded Universe,” with the idea being that if someone just wanted to watch the films that was fine, but if they wanted to delve deeper into the setting, they could find a huge amount of official, canonical material, information and new stories. When Lucas wrote the Star Wars prequel movie trilogy in 1999-2005, he used planets, races, terms, concepts and characters created in prior Expanded Universe work in the films. However, when Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney in 2012, Disney decided that maintaining the Expanded Universe and keeping it coherent with the new films they were planning was impossible, and they declared that none of the material outside of the films and the animated series were canon (to the fury of many fans).

The definition can also be argued. Frank Herbert published his hugely popular Dune series of science fiction novels between 1965 and 1986 before dying unexpectedly. He left behind a very small number of notes and outlines for a possible continuation of the series, leading to his son co-writing and publishing an enormous number of additional books in the setting. The canonical status of these latter books has been hotly debated, especially since it became clear that the depth and detail of Frank Herbert’s notes had been grossly exaggerated.

Tolkien’s Works

In most cases determining which works are canon and which are not is relatively easy, especially if the author is still alive to simply answer questions on this topic. In the case of J.R.R. Tolkien, this is of course sadly impossible, as he passed away in 1973. The complexities of the determining the Tolkien canon are considerably complicated by the fact that Tolkien only published two major (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and two minor (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On) Middle-earth works whilst he was alive. After his death, his third son and literary executor Christopher sifted through his files to arrange the publication of The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980), The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017), The Fall of Gondolin (2018), and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series (1983-96). However, the publication of the latter series, which effectively presented some 5,000 Tolkien manuscript pages written over fifty-six years, meant that readers could make their own decisions over Christopher’s choices in assembling The Silmarillion and in some cases found them wanting, particularly regarding those papers and notes which came to light only after The Silmarillion’s publication, which in some cases Christopher acknowledged would have resulted in changes to the book if he’d known about them beforehand.

For this reason, a simple determination of the Middle-earth canon is extremely difficult and debatable. This is further complicated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own willingness to adjust even published books to reflect later decisions. Most famously, he rewrote the chapter in The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins confronts Gollum and finds the One Ring from its original, light-hearted style and tone to better reflect the darker and more sinister atmosphere of Lord of the Rings, and this appeared in a second edition of the book published in 1951. Certainly, some of the changes to The Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien was considering in the closing years of his life would have resulted in inconsistencies and incompatibilities with the published Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, suggesting that he may have produced third editions of both novels with revisions to take account of these developments. Thus, the reliance on a “fixed text” that canon usually relies on is absent in the matter of Middle-earth.

This has led to a controversial status for The Silmarillion as published. We know J.R.R. Tolkien was planning extensive, sweeping changes to the book at the time of his death, but these changes were not fully conceptualised or outlined. In the editing of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien therefore defaulted to the incomplete version of the story his father had developed from c. 1930 to the publication of Lord of the Rings, incorporating some elements from later on but also having to go right back to the original Book of Lost Tales idea (developed by Tolkien from 1917 to c. 1924) since that is the only place where he sketched out the end of the story in any kind of detail, despite the major differences in tone and style to his later writings. The result, it has been complained is a hodgepodge of drafts, ideas and stories and certainly does not reflect J.R.R. Tolkien’s plans for the book at the time of his death. Christopher Tolkien’s point, well-taken, is that it was impossible to create a book compatible with his father’s intentions in 1973, so he defaulted to the most completed and “best-case” narrative he could develop. The debate will no doubt rage on eternally.

So, what is the Middle-earth canon?

Returning to the original question, the Middle-earth canon can be broken down into the following groups:

Primary Canon
These are books published and revised by J.R.R. Tolkien in his lifetime. Despite Tolkien’s willingness to revise and issue new versions of the texts, we can nonetheless declare these as primary canon.
  • The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937, revised 1951)
  • The Lord of the Rings (1954-55, revised 1965)
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)
  • The Road Goes Ever On (1967, with Donald Swann)
It should be noted that although The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (a poetry collection) and The Road Goes Ever On (a musical score inspired by Middle-earth) both contain canonical new information, they are relatively minor works.

Secondary Canon
These are books consisting of material written by J.R.R. Tolkien but not published until after his death, usually edited by his son Christopher. This is material which is coherent and readable as stand-alone works, but some readers may raise concerns based on information from other sources:

  • The Silmarillion (1977)
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980)

Tertiary Canon 
This is material which was written and created by Tolkien, but was not completed by him or brought to a satisfactory state where it can be reconciled with either primary or secondary canon. However, in isolated moments this material may be argued to be canonical where it does not conflict with established material.
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume I: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1 (1983)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume II: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (1984)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume III: The Lays of Beleriand (1985)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume V: The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VI: The Shadow of the Past (1988)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VII: The Treason of Isengard (1989)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VIII: The War of the Ring (1990)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IX: Sauron Defeated (1992)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: Morgoth’s Ring (1993)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: The War of the Jewels (1994)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996)
  • The Children of Húrin (2007)
  • Beren and Lúthien (2017)
  • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. SF&F Questions are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there before being published on the Wertzone.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

The classic DUNE boardgame is being reissued

Gale Force Nine Games have confirmed they are reprinting the original Dune board game released in 1979 by Avalon Hill. Out of print since the early 1980s, the game has been lauded for its tight mechanics and rich theme, a forerunner of the modern board game scene from the same designers as the long-lived Cosmic Encounter.

Gale Force Nine have picked up the gaming rights to Dune and are working with other publishers on content: Modiphius Entertainment are also producing a Dune pen-and-paper roleplaying game and Gale Force are also working on a tabletop miniatures game.

Regarded as a classic of the board game medium, Fantasy Flight Games mounted a campaign to reprint the game a decade ago but were unable to win the rights, instead issuing a clone called Rex: The Last Days of an Empire, set in their own Twilight Imperium universe.

No release date has been set, but Gale Force may be eyeing a mid-2020 release date ahead of the release of Denis Villeneuve's new Dune film, which starts shooting imminently.


If you're a boardgamer or a wargamer, you've almost certainly encountered the name Richard Borg before. A veteran games designer of several decades' standing, Borg hit the big time around the turn of the century with his Command and Colours rule system, most successfully in the WW2 variant, Memoir '44, one of the most popular and biggest-selling 2-player board games of all time.

There are numerous other versions of the game, including ones set in the American Revolutionary War (Tricorne), the American Civil War (BattleCry), the Napoleonic Wars (Command & Colours: Napoleonics), World War I (The Great War) and a fantasy version, BattleLore, which in turn has spawned a Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones spin-off, Battles of Westeros, which is fantastic (but did not involve Borg at all).

One of the most logical directions to take the rules system is upwards, into space, and the latest game in the series is now sneaking onto store shelves in the USA, and is already on wide release in Australia. It should be hitting UK shelves over the next two weeks or so.

Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare pitches the Commonwealth against the Confederation for control of known space, in pitched battles involving battlecruisers, dreadnoughts, flagships, carriers, space stations and fighters. Lots of fighters. Most Command and Colours games are heavily based around terrain, which is less of a thing in Red Alert although there are tokens to represent planets, gas clouds and, in a first for the series, moving terrain tokens for things like comets and asteroids.

Command and Colours' immense success has been down to the fact it always looks fantastic - colourful maps dotted with excellent miniatures or block counters - but is very easy to learn to play. Scenario maps allow you to set up a battle map in minutes. Each map is divided into three sectors, a central one and two flanks. Each player has a hand of cards and on each turn a player may play one card. This card will say something like "Advance right flank" or "Advance 3 units of your choice". There are also special tactics cards which do things like boost your attacking or defensive power. Each ship has its own attack strength and its own abilities and differing amount of hits it can sustain. And that's pretty much it.

The simplicity of the rules combined with the tremendous tactical depth afforded by the rules has made the Command and Colours system thoroughly addictive and compelling, and it looks like Red Alert has hit the same spot.

The game is being released, unusually, with the core box and six expansions in one go. Alongside the core set, the following expansions are available to expand the roster of ships in each fleet and the amount of space phenomena that can be encountered:

  • Vice Admiral Flagship
  • Carrier Starship
  • Dreadnought Starship
  • Logistics Ships and Space Platform
  • Meteor Storm
  • Space Rift

Further expansions are planned which will add at least two additional factions and also allow for planetary assaults and landings.

Once I get my hands on the game, I'll readers know how it plays and if it's worth picking up, but so far it looks very cool, and I suspect enterprising gamers will already be working out how to substitute the existing ships for miniatures from their favourite SF setting (such as Star Wars, Babylon 5 or Mass Effect).

Friday, 15 March 2019

Thanks to George R.R. Martin (and the Hugos)

I should have mentioned this earlier (as today is the last day for Hugo nominations), but I have a very British aversion to self-promotion. Anyway, I have to extend my thanks to George R.R. Martin for recommending people to vote for myself for Best Fan Writer at the 2019 Hugo Awards.

In terms of eligibility, I'm eligible for Best Fan Writer and the Wertzone is eligible for Best Fanzine (a bit of a misnomer, as it has now become dominated by online blogs). I don't have any other works that are eligible. In terms of past history, I've been longlisted twice and my History of Epic Fantasy article series was longlisted in 2016, but I've never made it onto the shortlist.

Whatever the situation, I will be at WorldCon in Dublin in August, and at the EuroCon/TitanCon in Belfast (where GRRM is Guest of Honour) the following week.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

The world of Umayma is still rocked by the ongoing war between the nations of Nasheen and Chenja. Former bel dame assassin turned freelance mercenary Nyx is still profiting on the sidelines of the war, slowly gathering a team of trusted associates to more effectively take on contracts, and hoping she doesn't get them killed in the process.

Apocalypse Nyx is a collection of five short stories (a couple approaching novella size) set in the world of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy. The stories take place before the trilogy (God's War, Infidel, Rapture) and serve several functions, including being an origin story for several of Nyx's associates. Interestingly Nyx herself doesn't get such backstory, perhaps as the novels told that story well enough or because Hurley is holding onto that story for another time.

Instead, we get the stories of how Khos and Anneke join the team, how the team operates together, why Rhys stayed with them for so long and the sort of small jobs that keep the team ticking over between the more epic events of the novels. It has to be said that these are all splendid. Like the trilogy, these stories feel like a pint of science fiction mixed with a pint of fantasy and washed down with absinthe. The stories brim with attitude and verve, even moreso since Hurley can set up and resolve the story in a few dozen pages rather than across hundreds.

There aren't too many problems as such, although those who enjoy short story collections for variations in tone may be disappointed: the collection retains the same bloody-minded attitude as the novels, with a fair amount of violence, mayhem and adult content. The short length of the stories does allow for a sharper focus though, and the stakes are correspondingly a lot lower. It's interesting to see how readily Nyx hits the self-destruct button when the team are tasked with a simple data retrieval mission, perhaps explaining how she reacts when the fate of the nation/world are at stake in the trilogy.

The most successful story is the last one, "Paint It Red", where Nyx is offered the chance to join another team of mercenaries. The idea of not being in charge and not having responsibility appeals to Nyx, but soon she discovers the price of working for a team whose morality is a lot more compromised than her own. The reader realises that Nyx, for all her myriad faults, has a sense of fairness and honour that sets her apart from others of her kind, and makes her ultimately a protagonist worth rooting for.

Apocalypse Nyx (****½) is a fine collection of razor-sharp, bloody-minded tales from one of the most interesting voices in modern genre fiction. It is available now in the UK and USA.