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.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Blogging Roundup: 2 June to 1 August 2020

The Wertzone


Atlas of Ice and Fire



Saturday, 1 August 2020

The Hugo Awards 2020: Or How Not to Run an Awards Ceremony

The 2020 Hugo Awards were presented last night at ConZealand, the first virtual WorldCon. Originally intended be held in New Zealand, the convention was moved online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. George R.R. Martin remotely MCed the Hugo Awards from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Both the WorldCon and the Hugo Awards represented an impressive technical achievement, with nominees and attendees taking part in events from across the globe, braving challenging time zone adjustments (the Hugo Awards started at midnight in the UK, even later in parts of Europe) to come together to represent the best of the genre.

Unfortunately, the tone and atmosphere of the wilds was, at times, at wild variance with the nominees and the winners. The Hugo Awards have evolved over the last decade to represent a more forward-thinking genre, overcoming controversies and attempts to subvert it. Seeing the award move away from constant rewarding of "the old standbys" towards genuinely rewarding more original and innovative SFF books by newer voices has been heartening. All of the nominees (well, apart maybe from me) this year had produced worthwhile and innovative work.

George R.R. Martin's hosting of the ceremony, however, focused almost exclusively on the ancient history of the award, citing winners and influential figures in the field dating back to the 1940s or even earlier. In his opening ceremony Martin noted that the virtual nature of the WorldCon this year would have brought more attention to it than previously from newcomers, and seemed determined to provide a potted history of the award and of the convention for their benefit. Not necessarily a bad idea and it would have been interesting to see this in the context of, perhaps, a historical documentary series or series of podcasts or some other format. Doing so during the award ceremony itself resulted at a schizophrenic feel to proceedings, as award recipients spoke about their work and their inspirations in 2020, only to cut to Martin and, later, Robert Silverberg discussing obscure WorldCon trivia from fifty or sixty years earlier about writers with no current relevance to the awards.

The situation was not helped by Martin mispronouncing several award recipients' names and even one of the nominated semiprozines. All nominees - including myself, with possibly literally the most straightforward name of all the nominees - were asked for a phonetic spelling of their name and those with unusual (from an American POV) names were also given the chance to provide a recording of the correct pronunciation, and all of this material was made available to ConZealand. It is unclear if ConZealand made this material available to Martin as well, although obviously they should have done so. Given that most of the names were voiced in pre-recorded inserts and the decision to switch to a virtual con was made many months ago, it is unclear why this was an issue.

The resulting, inevitable problem was the stupendous length of the ceremony. Over recent years the Hugo Awards have tended towards brevity and I was very happy that all three of the ceremonies I have attended (London 2014, Helsinki 2017 and Dublin 2019) were short and snappy, coming in at between two and two and a half hours. When older fans told me that back in the 1980s and 1990s, three and even four-hour ceremonies were not unknown, I was quite horrified. I know that GRRM was also a fan of the shorter, snappier Hugos, so it was surprising to see the length of the ceremony extend up towards the three hour thirty mark. My category was the fifth, which we didn't reach until 1 hour and 45 minutes into proceedings (I didn't win, with the multi-talented and insightful Bogi Takács instead taking the well-deserved Best Fan Writer prize). The timezone displacement was particularly punishing for us European fans, as the ceremony didn't start until midnight and carried on until well past 3am.

To say the handling of the award ceremony was flawed is an understatement: there was a tone deafness given recent changes in SFF fan culture and the makeup of the nominees (somewhat inexplicably, given that GRRM has championed some of those changes himself during previous Hugo controversies and has brought in new voices to the field through his anthology, Wild Cards and TV work), the ceremony went on around twice as long as was strictly necessary and there doesn't seem to be any excuse for making mistakes with people's names given the resources at hand.

I hope lessons are learned ahead of next year's ceremony.

UPDATE: George R.R. Martin has responded to some of the criticisms here. He notes that he was not passed on the phonetic recordings for nominees' names and that only a few written phonetic spellings were provided.

Of course, congratulations to all of the winners from last night's ceremony, all of them giving acceptance speeches of grace and dignity. A cut-down version of the award ceremony focusing on the acceptance speeches follows:

Best NovelA Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Best NovellaThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Best NoveletteEmergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin

Best Short Story: “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

Best SeriesThe Expanse by James S. A. Corey

Best Related Work: “2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech”, by Jeannette Ng

Best Graphic Story or ComicLaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long FormGood Omens, written by Neil Gaiman, directed by Douglas Mackinnon

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short FormThe Good Place: The Answer

Best Editor, Short Form: Ellen Datlow

Best Editor, Long Form: Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist: John Picacio

Best SemiprozineUncanny Magazine, editors-in-chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, nonfiction/managing editor Michi Trota, managing editor Chimedum Ohaegbu, podcast producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky

Best FanzineThe Book Smugglers, editors Ana Grilo and Thea James

Best FancastOur Opinions Are Correct, presented by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders

Best Fan WriterBogi Takács

Best Fan ArtistElise Matthesen

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult BookCatfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

Astounding Award for Best New Writer: R.F. Kuang

The 2021 Hugo Awards will be held, pandemic permitting, at the DisCon III WorldCon, which runs 25-29 August 2021 in Washington, DC.

Friday, 31 July 2020

THE DRAGON PRINCE wins an Emmy Award

The Dragon Prince has won the Daytime Emmy Award for Best Animated Series.

The Netflix animated show picked up the award for its third season, which aired last November. Showrunner Aaron Ehasz accepted the award on behalf of the creative team behind the series.

Netflix recently renewed The Dragon Prince for four more seasons to allow the full story of the saga to be told.

The series was always planned to be a seven-season project divided into three arcs, the first spanning the first three seasons and the latter two spanning two seasons each. With the first sequence complete and relatively working well as a stand-alone, and with Netflix infamously keen on cancelling shows after two or three seasons, fans had feared that the full story would not be told. These fears were increased by reports of a hostile working environment on the project last year by two ex-employees (claims that were contradicted by other employees), leading to fears of cancellation. However, Netflix appear satisfied by working conditions at Wonderstorm, allowing the project to continue.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

BABYLON 5 fan re-renders shots in HD using original models

A Babylon 5 fan has been conducting test-renders designed to show off what the show's CGI would look like in HD and  in a proper widescreen presentation.

A scene from Season 2, Episode 9, The Coming of Shadows

The television series Babylon 5 ran from 1993 to 1998 and won acclaim for its serialised storytelling, epic scope and its cutting-edge, computer-generated effects. Although well-received at the time, it’s clear this material has dated in the 25+ years since the show debuted, and fans have been clamouring for a HD remaster of the show for years.

The existing version of the show is problematic in that, although it presents all of the live-action footage in widescreen (Babylon 5 was one of the first TV shows specifically shot for widescreen presentation), the CG was not rendered in the same format due to a miscommunication between the effects team and the show’s producers. As a result, the existing DVD and streaming version of the show alternates between widescreen live-action and cropped CG and composite shots (where CG and live action is mixed), with the camera “zooming in” to the original 4:3 square image to make it appear in widescreen. This means that information is lost from the top and bottom of the screen, and is less than ideal. 

A scene from Season 2, Episode 15, And Now for a Word

Because the CG was natively rendered at 720x486, it also makes it impossible to have a proper HD (1920x1080) version of any CG material from the show without going back and re-rendering every single CG shot from the entire series, which is a lot of material; several episodes had more than 100 effects shots in 44 minutes, which is an absurd amount of material for the time (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had 480 effects shots in three hours, by comparison). Any modern HD remaster would also likely want to have more detailed models and effects.

Babylon 5 fan Tom Smith, who runs the popular B5 Scrolls website, has taken an interesting approach. Although they strictly shouldn’t have done so, many of the CG modellers and animators working on Babylon 5 at CG companies Foundation Imaging and Netter Digital made personal copies of the shots and models they’d worked on for the show (in some cases because they feared they’d be lost, in others for personal showreels). Smith has used these to recreate some of the exact same shots using the exact same models and, in some cases, the exact same scene files (which contain details on how the ships are moving and where the lighting is coming from). Because the models were extremely over-engineered by the standards of the time, they stand up surprisingly well when displayed at more than twice the resolution they were originally rendered for.

Because modern computing hardware is slightly more powerful than in 1994-98, the average desktop PC with a modern graphics card can render these scenes in minutes or even real time, rather than the hours to days of the original series. 

A series of shots from Season 3, Episode 10, Severed Dreams

This suggests a much more modest way of remastering the show is possible. By using the original models and scene files where they still exist, or recreating them where they do not, it should be possible to remaster all of the CG in the original show at a very modest cost compared to the millions or tens of millions it would cost to remaster all the CG at modern, high-quality standards.

Although fans could theoretically re-render every single solo-CG shot of the entire series, Warner Brothers would still need to get involved to provide the original film stock for composite and greenscreen shots. Warner Brothers have so far shown little appetite for remastering Babylon 5, despite repeated fan demand, so this seems unlikely to happen.

Still, it's very entertaining seeing how well these quarter-century CG shots still hold up.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Steven Erikson resumes work on delayed MALAZAN novel

Steven Erikson has resumed work on Walk in Shadow, the much-delayed concluding novel in the Kharkanas Trilogy, a prequel to his popular Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

Erikson published the first two books in the series - Forge of Darkness and Fall of Light - in 2012 and 2016. In October 2017 he announced an indefinite delay to Walk in Shadow after being advised that sales for the first two books in the series were disappointing. Instead, he began work on The God is Not Willing, the first novel in the Witness Trilogy, a direct sequel to the Malazan Book of the Fallen, picking up five years later and catching up on popular characters (most notably Karsa Orlong, although he won't actually appear in the first book).

He concluded work on The God is Not Willing several months ago but due to delays at the publisher, learned that the book will not be published until late 2021 or early 2022. After debating the issue, Erikson has now committed to finishing Walk in Shadow as soon as possible, for likely publication in 2022 or 2023, before resuming work on the second Witness book.

In his lengthy Facebook post, Erikson debates why the Kharkanas Trilogy has done more poorly than the main Malazan sequence, pondering his choice of prose style (which is even more ornate in Kharkanas and somewhat different to the main series), subject matter (a long-unfolding, gruelling tragedy) and the issue of "Malazan fatigue," noting that he perhaps should have delayed Forge of Darkness by a year or two.

From my position, I suspect Erikson mainly suffered from the four-year gap between the two books. That's really unremarkable by some standards, of course, but considering his previous pace of publishing (although not writing) ten huge novels in eleven years, it was relatively a huge gap in publication. There's also the issue of "completion syndrome," with some readers waiting for a whole series to be finished before starting it. There's also the issue that Fall of Light was published with relatively little fanfare and marketing, and fan reaction to the two books has been mixed.

Still, completing the trilogy will be a major achievement and hopefully Erikson can conclude the story in a way that satisfies his goals and his fans.

Malazan fans won't have to wait quite so long for their next fix, though. Ian Cameron Esslemont's next novel in the same world, The Jhistal, will be published on 17 November this year.

Netflix confirms a WITCHER spin-off series is in development

Netflix has confirmed it is working on a Witcher spin-off television series, in addition to the animated film Nightmare of the White Wolf which is currently in production.

The Witcher: Blood Origin is a six-part, live-action series set 1,500 years before the books and the existing TV series. It will depict the Conjunction of the Spheres, the ancient apocalypse which brought monsters, men and elves to the world of the Witcher in the first place. It also sounds like it may involve major timejumps, as it will also explore the creation of the first witchers some 1,200 years after the Conjunction, 300 years before Geralt's time.

It sounds like writer and producer Declan de Barra will take the lead on the project, with Witcher showrunner Lauren Hissrich serving in an oversight capacity. It is unclear if original Witcher creator Andrzej Sapkowski will be involved.

Meanwhile, Season 2 of The Witcher itself will resume production next month for transmission in mid-to-late 2021.

Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis

August, 2007. A meteorite falls on northern California. A whistleblower goes public with evidence that the US government has been in communication with an alien intelligence and flees to Germany. His daughter, embarrassed by his behaviour, tries to ignore the unwanted cult of celebrity and get on with things. Suddenly a second meteor falls on apparently the exact same sport as the first, a coincidence so remote as to be effectively impossible, and suddenly the implausible feels very real indeed.

Axiom's End is the debut novel by Lindsay Ellis, a popular video essayist and film critic known for her deep dives on the making of film and TV shows. She was nominated for a Hugo for her three-part series on Peter Jackson's deeply troubled Hobbit film project, and also posted an excellent analysis of the problems with Game of Thrones.

Fortunately, it turns out she's pretty handy in the realm of fiction as well. Axiom's End is a story about humanity encountering an alien race, only to find the aliens are almost impossible to communicate with due to the total absence of common frames of reference. Early parts of the book, where the existence of the aliens is unclear, are framed like an X-Files thriller where government agents are keeping tabs on a young woman because of what she thinks is her father's criminal activities. Cora gets first-hand evidence that the aliens are real and that pretty much everyone is in the dark about what's really going on, resulting in a satisfying story shift where she gains more power, knowledge and agency because of her own experiences (a nice inversion on the more traditional story where the protagonist is always playing catch-up with the plot but somehow ends out coming on top).

There's some pretty cool horror scenes early on, and a vein of humour running through the books which stays just on the right side of dated pop culture references (the alternate-past setting helps with that). Cora's conspiracy theorist father - Edward Snowden fused with Fox Mulder - starts off as an all-knowing sage drip-feeding the audience with hints of greater knowledge via excerpts from his blog, until you realise he doesn't really know anything either and is desperately trying to make himself seem more important than he really is (sort of a budget Melisandre in the story) whilst also falling way behind the curve of the story, which becomes increasingly amusing.

The second half of the story feels like it slightly undercuts its own premise. The aliens initially appear almost too different for humans to effectively communicate with them, but ultimately a method of communication does appear which ends up being about as good as Google Translate (i.e. mostly okay with the occasional clunker), which makes the story way more manageable, but some of the unique atmosphere of the story is lost. It is replaced by a more traditional story about people from completely different civilisations trying to overcome apparently insurmountable odds to establish a rapport. This is excellently handled, but it does feel that the story has switched directions from something a bit weirder (think China Mieville's Embassytown or Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life, later filmed as Arrival) to something a little more traditional (maybe Starman with a slightly less attractive and indeed non-humanoid Jeff Bridges).

There are still a lot of interesting plot twists and the weirdness of the aliens is maintained through their technology and weapons; when two of the aliens come into conflict, Ellis successfully portrays the idea of humans interfering as being akin to a gnat trying to stop a jet fighter dogfight. There's also another raft of thematic ideas related to first contact that are intelligently explored, from the existence of the so-called "Great Filter" (the puzzle that if intelligent, technologically-advanced life is possible, as we have shown, why hasn't it already colonised the galaxy?) to the dangers incurred when a more technologically advanced species encounters a less technologically-advanced one.

Axiom's End (****½) may end up being a bit less strange than it initially promises, but it's still a compulsive page-turner with a nice line in both terror and humour. There will be sequels - the book is touted as the first in the Noumena sequence - but the book has a fair amount of closure to it and no immediate cliffhangers. It is available now in the UK and USA.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Human colonists have settled the planet January, a tidally-locked world where it is too cold to survive on the nightside and too hot on the dayside. Instead, the few human settlements are located in a narrow band of twilight, struggling to survive. Xiosphant, the largest human city, is a dictatorship where the rulers justify their cruel tyranny with the excuse that this is a hard world. For a band of young rebels including Bianca and Sophie, this excuse does not ring true and they begin working to change things for the better. Caught and condemned for her "crimes," Sophia is cast out into the darkness to die. Fate has other ideas for her.

The City in the Middle of the Night is a stand-alone novel from Charlie Jane Anders, the author of All the Birds in the Sky. This novel is more overtly science fiction, delving into that thorny problem of how to survive on a tidally-locked planet, that is a world where one side always faces the star and one side faces away, trapped in eternal day and night.

This makes for a vivid setting, where humans can only survive in eternal twilight, although one that is perhaps a tad under-explored in the book. The novel mostly uses the setting as a backdrop to a story about communication, xenophobia and how to survive in a harsh environment without losing your humanity. If it wasn't for the fact that Anders started writing the book in 2013, I'd suspect some impact from city-builder/ice survival simulator Frostpunk, given the similarities in the hard questions of survival versus sociology. Snowpiercer is a more noticeably overt influence (especially since Anders worked on the TV version as well).

The story revolves around revolutionaries. The system is not working for everyone, with the underclass and labourers exploited by a wealthy ruling elite. The underclass plots revolution and this is as interesting as it ever is as a storyline, although there's an odd lack of connectivity between the revolution and the circumstances of the planet they're living on. It's unclear just how the rich are able to get away with not pulling their weight on a planet where literally the fate of the population is hanging in the balance. There's also a faint whiff of mid-1970s episodes of Doctor Who (which frequently revolve around rebels rebelling for the sake of rebelling against bad guys who are bad because they're bad) in some of these sequences, which is certainly fun but it feels like the themes could have been handled in more depth. Later sequences in the book, where the rebels start taking on the trappings of their oppressors as they gain more successes, do start to tilt in this direction but the themes don't really spring to life. I kept being reminded of China Mieville's handling of this idea in Iron Council, which was a lot more successful.

Still, this storyline is one of only two major narrative strands; the other, revolving around Sophie and the strange alliance she strikes up with January's rarely-seen native civilisation, is more successful. Sophie makes for an engaging protagonist thanks to her empathetic ability to communicate with the aliens and see a bigger picture than most other humans. The other major POV character is a much older, more world-weary and cynical survivalist and traveller, Mouth, and it's refreshing to see a more experienced and capable protagonist, albeit one whose cynicism has made her almost as incapable of dealing with new situations as the younger Sophie's inexperience. The writing is enjoyable, although the pacing feels like it could have been a bit peppier, with the story bogging down at several points (most notably when Sophie and Bianca escape to another city and it takes a long time for the storyline to get going again).

The City in the Middle of the Night (****) is readable and enjoyable, with a vivid if underexplored setting. It does feel like the book could have been tightened up a bit, and maybe the central themes of revolution and corruption could have been handled with more originality. As it stands, this is a solid novel but not one that's going to be lighting the world on fire in terms of originality. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Patrick Rothfuss's editor confirms she is yet to read a single word of THE DOORS OF STONE

In somewhat surprising news, Patrick Rothfuss's editor Betsy Wollheim has reported that she is yet to read any material from his next novel, The Doors of Stone, the third and concluding volume in The Kingkiller Chronicle, and notes a lack of communication on the book's progress.

A draft of The Doors of Stone, reportedly from 2013.

Rothfuss shot to fame with the first book in the trilogy, The Name of the Wind, in 2007. With over 10 million sales, The Name of the Wind became one of the biggest-selling debut fantasy novels of the century. The second book, The Wise Man's Fear, did as well on release in 2011. Nine years later, the third book remains unpublished.

The Doors of Stone is probably the second-most-eagerly-awaited fantasy novel of the moment, behind only George R.R. Martin's The Winds of Winter, which it actually exceeds in waiting time (though only by five months). Martin has provided updates on The Winds of Winter, albeit extremely infrequent ones, but has recently reported much more significant progress being made. Rothfuss, on the other hand, has maintained near constant zero radio silence on the status of book in recent years, despite posting a picture of an apparently semi-complete draft in 2013 that was circulating among his beta readers.

Reasons for the delay, as with Martin, have been speculated. Rothfuss has reported bouts of ill health, as well as trauma related to family bereavements. Rothfuss was also closely involved in an attempt to launch a multimedia adaptation of his books, which would have involved both a trilogy of films based directly on the novels and a prequel TV series revolving around the parents of his protagonist, Kvothe. However, the TV show was cancelled mid-development at Showtime, apparently due to massive cost overruns on their Halo television series, and a new network has not yet picked up the series. The movies also fell out of active development when director Sam Raimi, who had expressed interest, decided to move forward with a different project. Both projects now appear to be on the backburner at Lionsgate (unsurprisingly, the pandemic has not helped this situation).

Rothfuss has also been involved in charity work, blogging, video game commentary, spin-off material and contributing writing to other projects, causing comparisons to be drawn with Martin's similar engagement in secondary projects, which some commentators have speculated is the main cause of delays on the books. Without having access to an author's schedule, it is of course impossible to say if this is really the case, only that the perception of it being the case becomes unavoidable if the author in question is refusing to provide concrete updates on their book progress whilst discussing other, unrelated work in multiple public communications. Questions of ethics and obligations on the part of authors to their readers have circulated on this subject for decades, ever since the delays to Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions (originally due to be published in 1974, Ellison was allegedly still occasionally promising to publish it at the time of his death in 2018) stretched into the decades, and have been debated ad nauseam online enough to avoid going over them again here, suffice to say that the tolerance for such activities will vary dramatically by reader.

"This article is right: authors don't owe their readership books, but what about the publishers who paid them? Book publishing is not as lucrative as many other professions, and publishers rely on their strongest sellers to keep their companies (especially small companies like DAW) afloat. When authors don't produce, it basically f***s their publishers...When I delayed the publication of book two, Pat was very open with his fans--they knew what was happening. I've never seen a word of book three."

Wollheim's statement is surprising, however. Martin has noted being in communication with his editors on numerous occasions, flying to New York to provide in-person updates and apologise for the book's lateness, and periodically submitting completed batches of chapters for them to work on whilst he continues to write new material. In the case of The Kingkiller Chronicle, Wollheim reports not having read a single word of The Doors of Stone in the nine years since The Wise Man's Fear was published, which is mind-boggling. If Rothfuss had a semi-complete draft in 2013 that he was circulating to friends and early readers, the question arises why he didn't also share this draft with his publishers. Furthermore, if the book's non-appearance since 2013 indicates considerable problems with this draft (as would appear inevitable), it would also appear to be common sense to share that draft with his publishers to see if they agree. It's not uncommon for authors to believe their latest novel is poor and a disaster and threaten to delete it and having to be talked off the ledge by their editors, since they've been working so closely on the material that they've lost all objectivity.

Normally, of course, authors only share completed manuscripts (at least in first draft) with their editor, but when the author in question is a decade behind schedule and one of the biggest-selling authors in the publishers' stable, that normally changes to having much more regular feedback.

Although she notes the impact a long-missing manuscript can have on the margins of a small publisher like DAW, Wollheim notes no ill feeling towards Rothfuss and she continues to be proud of him and the work they've done in the first two volumes:

"If I get a draft of book three by surprise some time, I will be extraordinarily happy...joyous, actually, and will read it immediately with gusto. I love Pat's writing. I will instantly feel forgiving and lucky. Lucky to be his editor and publisher."

More news, as normal, as I get it.