Thursday 30 November 2006

Lostwatch: Season 3

I have come to the conclusion that Lost is the televisual equivalent of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Initially enjoyable, with interesting characters and a storyline that intriguingly unfolds backwards as much as forwards (the ongoing storyline exposes more of the mysterious backstory), Lost has started to show signs that it has peaked and may be entering a somewhat mediocre stage as the writers try to come up with new ways on how to delay the revelation of important story elements in the misguided belief that if they actually told us what the hell was going on people would start switching off in droves. This ridiculous belief is what drained The X-Files of everything that made it interesting and turned it into an ongoing joke, and Lost may be showing the first signs of that here.

The season got off to a rousing start. Seeing the crash again from a different angle is a clever storytelling device, if not original (previously used in Season 2's The Other 48 Days). We then got into an intense prison story, as Sawyer, Kate and Jack are held and interrogated by the mysterious Others. We learn that their leader (the Artist Formerly Known as Henry Gale) is actually called 'Ben' and the Others' society is lot more comfortable then we'd been led to belief. Frustratingly, Jack still doesn't bother asking questions any normal person would and the Others' intransigence is becoming ridiculous (would it kill them to say simply yes, they are former DHARMA/Hanso scientists, or no, they're not?). Yet it's a reasonable episode. We then move into seeing Sayid, Jin and Sun mounting a rescue attempt on our heores, only for it to fall apart. Some very bad editing makes Sayid - probably the most competent and dangerous of the survivors in this kind of situation - look like a moron, setting a trap and then watching it so intently the Others sneak right past him (the next episode reveals the Others actually used a submarine to get to the boat). The flashback is very interesting, however, and Sun and Jin remain seem to continue to have interesting backgrounds for storyline possibilities (unlike Jack, whose backstory has been mined dry by repeated, pointless flashbacks).

Episode three continues to pick up things from last season, with the fates of Desmond, Eko and Locke revealed. Some good stuff with Locke getting his hunter mojo back is derailed by an appaling CGI polar bear and the fact that the entire episode's plot is derailed by what happens two weeks later. Things get shaky in episode four: Sawyer continues to be a great flashback character but by simply going along with the wardens' plan he looks like a bit more of a chump than we are used to. The ending is interesting though: there is more than one island (this is what passes for true excitement in Lost).

Episode five is probably the best of the new bunch, although it's been criticised for killing off yet another tail-section character. Apparently the decision had been taken when Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbajge decided to leave several episodes early. Despite this, his character has a reasonably decent ending, giving us a much closer look at the enigmatic smoke monster (real name: Cerberus, apparently) and, more importantly, undertanding that it has mimic abilities and also doesn't like to be crossed. This dramatically satisfying episode does make the events of episode three look pointless though. Why bother having Locke save him from the polar bear? Nevertheless, a good one and, thanks to the revelations about the smoke monster, one that answers quite a few mysteries from the first three seasons in one fell swoop.

Episode six, on the other hand, is weak. Kate's flashback is so pointless it defies belief and Nathan Fillion is badly wasted in his role. The only good news is apparently he'll be back later in the season. Back on the island things are more satisfying: Kate finally chooses her man and the scene where Sawyer is about to have his head blown off is genuinely tense. They've just killed off one regular character, who's to say they're not going to kill another? But the cliffhanger is pointless. We were promised a season-ending style cliffhanger and get lots of shouting instead. Bah. And now it's off the air for two months, leaving the audience not so much as on the edge of their seats as rolling their eyes. Still, at least we have a few more weeks of BSG and Heroes to keep us entertained in the meantime.

301: A Tale of Two Cities ***
302: The Glass Ballerina ***
303: Further Instructions ***
304: Every Man For Himself **
305: The Cost of Living ****
306: I Do **

Forthcoming: Not in Portland (07/02/07)

Tuesday 28 November 2006

Books to Look Forward To in 2007

2007 promises to be pretty big in SF&F literature. Here's the books on my to-get list for next year.

1. A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
ETA: Late 2007

The fifth book (of seven) in GRRM's epic fantasy masterpiece, A Song of Ice and Fire, brings back all the characters you missed in 2005's A Feast for Crows, including fan-favourites Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister (not to mention Bran Stark and Davos Seaworth). Compared to the bloodbath that was the writing of AFFC, work on the new novel has progressed much more smoothly, although sadly the book has slipped from its original release date of this year. ADWD will be the book to beat in 2007.

2. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
ETA: 21 June 2007

The only book with even a reasonable chance of dislodging GRRM from his pedastal is likely to be the second installment of newcomer Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series of crime fantasy novels. The Lies of Locke Lamora was the SF&F book of 2006, and its already-completed sequel is eagerly awaited by many.

3. The Aspect-Emperor: Book One by R. Scott Bakker
ETA: Very late 2007

Although not due in the UK until May 2008, the second part of Scott Bakker's trilogy-of-series begins in the USA and Canada at the end of 2007 (touch wood), picking up the storyline 20 years after the end of The Thousandfold Thought. Expect more gritty warfare and intricate worldbuilding as the threat of the Second Apocalypse looms ever closer. Ansurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas, may be the greatest hope for the salvation of mankind...or a threat beyond that even of the No-God. Bakker's dark, controversial take on epic fantasy continues. Before then, if we are lucky, we may also get to see Bakker's SF thriller, Neuropath, which has generated interesting press across the blogosphere (although no, as yet, proper reviews).

4. Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson
ETA: 2 April 2007

The seventh book of ten in the Malazan Book of the Fallen sees the vast, intricate web of plotlines in this gargantuam series slowly converging as the series moves towards a definitive conclusion. The Bonehunters may have been the big disappointment of 2006, but there is plenty to suggest that the seventh volume will be a return to form, with the return of Tehol and Bugg (a comedy duo out of the Pratchett school of comedy) and the stage being set for an enormous gathering of some of the most powerful forces in the six books to date. May also sees the arrival of Erikson's collaborator Ian Cameron Esslemont, with the first big-print publication of Night of Knives, his prequel to the Malazan saga. American publishers Tor continue to lag behind however: Book 5, Midnight Tides, is not out until 17 April over there.

5. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
ETA: 5 March 2007

Kay's first urban fantasy has already attracted rave advance reviews, although the UK edition isn't out until February.

6. The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton
ETA: Autumn 2007

Hamilton's new Void Trilogy is set in the same world as his Commonwealth Saga, 1,200 years further on from the events of Judas Unchained. Hamilton remains one of the best space opera authors around, writing fast-paced thriller-esque stories full of technical wizardry and explosive space battles (not to mention enormous page counts). However, Judas Unchained was slightly mispaced and the ending seemed rushed. Hopefully Hamilton can recover his equilibrium to deliver a much more polished epic story. Set much further into the future than his other works, it will be interesting to see Hamilton handles the challenge of far-future storytelling whilst retaining his trademark identifiably human characters.

7. The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds
ETA: 19 April 2007

Alastair Reynolds' first foray back into his Revelation Space universe, his recent Galactic North collection excepted, since 2003's Absolution Gap, which attracted a mixed reception. The Prefect is a new stand-alone novel set in the same mileu as his earlier books, which bodes well. The previous stand-alone RS novel, Chasm City, remains his best work.

Galacticawatch: Season 3

Harlan Ellison recently handed over a writers' award to Ronald D. Moore in Los Angeles, telling him he'd taken the worst SF show of the 1970s and turned it into the best of the 2000s. Certainly the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica is a substantial improvement over the original in terms of acting, drama and special effects. That said, the tiresome "GINA" versus "TOSsers" argument still raging in some corners of the web is somewhat tiresome and pointless.

Season 3 of Galactica has been running for a few weeks now. It picked up the dangling threads from the Season 2 finale, Lay Down Your Burdens, which ended with nearly 40,000 of the 50,000 survivors of the human race under occupation by the Cylons on the bleak planet of New Caprica, whilst the under-manned battlestars Galactica and Pegasus fled into space to avoid destruction. Season 3 thus started with two stories unfolding in parallel: the battle between the human 'insurgents' and their occupiers on the planet, and the unfolding of a dangerous, complex plan hatched by Admiral Adama to rescue his people. The first four episodes of the season - Occupation, Precipice, Exodus, Part 1 and Exodus, Part 2 - form a continuous, building narrative which starts by turning our American-analogue heroes into suicide bombers and doesn't let up. The idea that the only show on US TV at the moment bold enough to directly address the issues raised by Iraq is a science fiction show featuring sexy robot women and space pilots called 'Hot Dog' is pretty ridiculous when you think of it. Yet Galactica delivers in spades. Wisely, Moore chose not to milk the Occupation story arc across half a season or more, instead resolving the plot in just four tightly-plotted episodes. Exodus, Part 2 sees the rescue of the civilians from New Caprica through massive ground battles, the most astonishing space battle sequence since Deep Space Nine's Sacrifice of Angels episode in 1997 (outstripping all three Star Wars prequels for imagination and design) and, significantly, one of the most emotionally powerful moments of television drama I've seen in years. Needless to say, Michael Hogan and Kate Vernon won't be getting their Best Supporting Actor Emmys next year (what? A scifi show with good acting?), and that is a crime.

Sadly, the enormous quality of BSG's opening arc this year has inevitably led to a bit of a comedown in the episodes immediately following it. Collaborators dealt with the problem of Cylon collaborators among the fleet far too easily, whilst the two-parter of Torn and A Measure of Salvation suffered from a flawed central premise (there are simply too many ways the Cylon virus could have been cured, especially once the Colonials knew Baltar was on the basestar; Helo's actions at the end of the storyline may have been noble but should have landed him in the brig). Hero, the latest episode to air, was simply an ungodly mess of continuity flaws, self-contradictions and a Cylon plot so half-hearted as to be preposterous. Despite these weak installments, the series has consistently delivered quality acting and effects and it is hoped that the forthcoming 'big' three-parter which ties up a lot of the outstanding plotlines will lead to a better second half for the season.

Next week, a big boxing match on the Galactica generates flashbacks to the Colonials' year on New Caprica.

301: Occupation *****
302: Precipice *****
303: Exodus, Part 1 ****
304: Exodus, Part 2 *****
305: Collaborators ***
306: Torn ***
307: A Measure of Salvation ***
308: Hero **

Forthcoming: Unfinished Business (01/12/06), The Passage (08/12/06), The Eye of Jupiter (15/12/06), Rapture (21/01/07)

A Brand New Start

It had to happen. I've been talking so much crap on a dozen forums or so across the Internet for the last year that creating my own space dedicated to that function was inevitable. So here it is. Here I will muse on the latest SF&F news, books, films and TV episodes. I have been a fan of speculative fiction since I saw Star Wars at the age of four and started collecting Transformer comics the same year. By nine I was onto Clarke and Asimov and made a late move into fantasy as a teenager, getting into Pratchett by 14 and Tolkien by 16. Today my favourite fantasy series is A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin and I am also keen on works by Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker, Paul Kearney and Peter F. Hamilton. 2006 has been a great year for new authors, with Scott Lynch in particular making waves with his superb debut The Lies of Locke Lamora, which will hopefully get the recognition it deserves as the end-of-year awards get going in earnest and Hugo nomination time continues.