Thursday 29 March 2007

Galacticawatch 4: Season 3, Eps 17-20

Like many, I have found this season of Battlestar Galactica to be pretty disappointing. After a strong start that gave us some of the best episodes in the entire series, things seemed to deflate a lot. The writers didn't really seem to know where to go next with the story, putting Baltar on the basestar and then not really using him much, whilst the Galactica crew seemed to lurch from one bland crisis-of-the-week episode to the next. Now the season has concluded with four episodes which have been more interesting, whilst still not constituting a true return to form.

Maelstrom was heavily pre-hyped as the most shocking episode ever in the show's history. Mostly a character piece, it focused on Starbuck and her background, who's been startlingly under-used in Season 3. Her oft-mentioned destiny plays a key role in the episode, and some interesting minor details that first turned up way back at the start of Season 2 were used to further her storyline in an intriguing manner. Unlike most of the rest of the episodes this year, Maelstrom was pretty well-written, with no ham-fisted editing to wreck the pace of the episode. The ending had been spoiled months in advance, but even so it was pretty startling stuff, even if there was something very suspicious about it. Nevertheless, some strong acting and superlative CGI rounded off a worthwhile episode.

The Son Also Rises examines the aftermath of the startling episode before it and addresses the development of the fleet's nascent legal system in the face of Baltar's forthcoming trial. For an episode many feared would degenerate into BSG Law, it actually turned out to be quite good. Pretty much the entire episode lives or dies on Mark Shepard's performance as the lawyer Lampkin, and he delivers an outstanding portrayal with some exceptional dialogue of the kind this show used to deliver weekly, but has tailed off in the latest season.

The two-part episode Crossroads is a somewhat unusual season finale. Whilst the trial of Baltar delivers some good acting and some strong dialogue, it hardly seems the stuff of the major dramatic paradigm shifts that BSG excels in its season and mid-season cliffhangers. However, what at first seems to be a minor subplot about Colonel Tigh cracking up due to stress and guilt over his wife's death suddenly turns out to be of critical importance to the series. The final twenty minutes of the second part are pretty dramatic, jaw-dropping stuff which I'm pretty certain will leave half the audience convinced BSG has lost the plot for good, and the other half confirmed in their belief that this is the best show on television. Whilst I found the finale to be excellent, both of the big revelations at the end seem to be filled with plot holes of varying degrees, and it will be interesting to see how these are resolved. I'm also uncertain about the last show of the finale, which uses some slightly dodgy CGI and over-the-top music in a manner more befitting The Matrix than the show's normal realistic approach. However, the finale still achieves its goals of raising questions the audience will be desperate to learn the answers to, although we'll have a long wait for Season 4 to find out.

317: Maelstrom ****
318: The Son Also Rises ****
319: Crossroads, Part 1 ****
320: Crossroads, Part 2 ****

Forthcoming: a Battlestar Galactica TV movie based around the story of the Pegasus will air in the autumn of 2007. Season 4 will debut in January 2008. Season 3 continues on Sky One in the UK for the next several weeks and will be released on DVD in August 2007.

Saturday 24 March 2007

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

This time last year a certain buzz was building up around the debut novel by a new American fantasy author named Scott Lynch. The Lies of Locke Lamora was preceded by an enormous amount of pre-release publicity on both sides of the Atlantic and attracted glowing reviews (a notable exception being an irate critic who claimed that anyone who liked the book had been bribed, leading to a lengthy and somewhat amusing blog-war, but that's by the by). Red Seas Under Red Skies is the eagerly awaited sequel, and the second novel in The Gentleman Bastard sequence.

Two years have passed since the events of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are now residents of the city-state of Tal Verrar where, as you may expect, they are running another extremely elaborate long con, this time designed to rid the wealthy owner of the Sinspire of his worldly goods. As in Lies, events beyond their control intervene and, after a long and complicated chain of events, they find themselves at sea commanding a pirate vessel, despite the fact they know next to nothing about sailing. As readers of Lies may be able to tell, the result is an extremely densely-plotted story of cons-within-cons, double crosses, reversals and betrayals, with Lynch adding some new strings to his bow by describing some of the finest fantasy naval action since Paul Kearney's excellent Monarchies of God series. Oh, and cat-lovers may find themselves enjoying this book quite a lot.

It would be very easy to simply do a 'flight sim expansion pack review', which essentially boils down to, "If you enjoyed the original, you'll enjoy this." Simply put, Red Seas contains pretty much the same type of storytelling, the same attitude and the same humour as Lies. However, the book is in many ways an improvement. The city-state of Tal Verrar, with its Elderglass reefs and sculpted islands, is a rival to Camorr in atmosphere and detail, although the book spends less time in its city than Lies does. The smaller towns that are visited in the book are similarly brought to life vividly, as is the pirate haven of Port Prodigal, and Lynch hits the right note in describing the ships in the book as miniature travelling societies, each with their own quirks and memorable characters. The biggest success in the novel, and a critical one for the continued success of the series overall, is the deepening of the friendship between Locke and Jean, moving from the simple, well-founded loyalty shown in Lies to a much more complex game of give-and-take between the two. However, Lynch also brings in some exquisitely-portrayed new characters, several of whom even manage to survive the carnage of the story; Lynch's George RR Martin-style ability to kill off characters just after he's made you deeply emotionally invested in them is somewhat more restrained this time around, but that just makes it hurt more when he does it. There's also a lot of pipe-laying going on for future books in the series. New enemies are made, old enemies are touched upon, new allies are acquired and new mysteries are introduced, but Red Seas remains at heart a resolutely stand-alone novel. Reading Lies is certainly recommended, but is not essential to enjoy the story.

Turning to the negative, there are a few niggles which did concern me whilst reading the book, although these are of a somewhat trivial nature. I must confess that whilst reading the novel I felt the first third or so of the story was essentially a retelling of
Lies with the names changed: the Gentleman Bastards plan a con, things seem to be going their way, complications ensue (of a similar nature) and they have to use their ingenuity to win free. However, the second our heroes hit the sea the story transforms into a somewhat different tale, and fears that Lynch is repeating himself are eliminated. Still, some readers may feel that the start of the book is over-familiar. This is going to be even more of a problem for those who read Lies and Red Seas back to back. On the other hand, some may feel the opening of the book being similar to the first one is no more of a problem than, say, the start of each Bond movie following a similar formula. Also, as with Lies, Red Seas is based in part around the subversion of traditional fantasy tropes, which makes it slightly more noticeable when the book employs these tropes without any development of them (the extremely fortuitous escape of a character from certain death at the end of the novel may actually be bordering on cliche). Again, those seeking to enjoy the story for what it is will probably take little notice of this. Finally, a fairly mystifying subplot is resolved in a rather unsatisfactory manner at the end of the book, and the events in the finale are dependent on several characters we only meet a few chapters before the end, when they could have been established much earlier. Readers of Lies may also feel that the opening chapters do not deliver on their promise that the events of Lies will tie directly into the storyline of the novel. None of these problems are critical by any means, but they are slight irritations marring an otherwise superb story.

Elsewhere, Lynch improves on areas that in Lies were found wanting. Those who found the numerous flashbacks in Lies distracting will also be relieved to know that the flashbacks are much less numerous in Red Seas, are more directly tied to the main storyline and pretty much disappear about halfway in the volume. Thus Red Seas is much better paced than Lies and, despite being longer, actually feels like a shorter, faster-paced read. By the way, the page-counts on seem to be way off on this novel: my advance copy is 650 pages of text of roughly the same size and spacing as the release trade paperback edition of Lies.

Red Seas Under Red Skies (****), despite a few rough edges, is a marked improvement on The Lies of Locke Lamora (itself a fine debut) and confirms Scott Lynch's place as one of the foremost new fantasy authors on the block. The novel will be published in the UK on 21 June by Gollancz in both hardcover and trade paperback editions. The US edition will by published by Bantam on 31 July in hardcover. Sandstorm Reviews have a typically less rambling review than mine at this location. The author also has a website here. Book 3 of The Gentleman Bastard sequence will be entitled The Republic of Thieves and should be out in mid-2008. I look forward to it immensely.

Sunday 18 March 2007

Black Man by Richard Morgan

The year is 2107. A century from now, the United States no longer exists. Religious and political strife has torn the country into three nations: the high-tech, rich Pacific Rim; the God-fearing, ultra-right-wing Republic (aka 'Jesusland'); and the liberal, UN-aligned North Atlantic Union. China is now the world's dominant economic superpower, whilst Europe and India's political and economic might continues to expand. After (another) lengthy period of war and turmoil, the Middle-East is relatively quiet. On Mars mankind's efforts to tame the Red Planet continue unabated. Forty years earlier, genetically-engineered supermen known as 'thirteens' were created to serve as unstoppable soldiers. But, in the wake of America's collapse, they are now feared and hunted. A few thirteens serve the UN, hunting down their fellows, but most have fled to Mars, or turned to crime.

Carl Marsalis is a black man in every sense of the word: a thirteen, a 'twist' who genetic pattern is based on that of the ultimate human alpha-males who became extinct twenty thousand years ago. Whilst most of the world doesn't pay a second glance at his skin colour, in the increasingly regressive Republic it is a target for prejudice and hatred. Luckily, Marsalis is more than capable of looking after himself. When his usual employers hang him out to dry after he is thrown in a Florida prison, he takes up an offer from the Martian colonial office: to hunt down another thirteen who has come back from Mars and embarked on a bloody and apparently senseless killing spree.

Black Man is the fifth novel by British SF author Richard Morgan. It is set in the same universe as his Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies), but roughly 400 years earlier. It is a totally stand-alone work: you may glean a few insights from having read the Kovacs books first (particularly the source of the increasingly advanced technology that is being shipped back from Mars), but the book stands up by itself. Which is just as well, as it is by far his finest book to date and sets the bar improbably high for all other science fiction released in 2007.

The book has been retitled Thirteen (or Th1rte3n according to the cover) for the American market and it's easy to see why. This is an incendiary novel that absolutely pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Morgan analyses the problems he sees in the USA's political and sociological make-up and uses them skillfully to tear the country apart. Not since Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy have I seen an author so convincingly show what can happen to a nation, to a mass of people, and how they develop. As an SF book relegated to the darker corners of bookshops, it's likely that the book will escape widespread scrutiny, but I can imagine this book being banned and then burned in certain parts of the American South, which it is not particularly flattering to (although the rest of the human race doesn't exactly come off lightly either). Morgan has said previously that he doesn't pay as much attention to his backdrops as he does to his characters and plots, but in Black Man the worldbuilding is exemplery. The San Francisco of Altered Carbon could feel somewhat cold and sterile at times, but the same city in Black Man is a vivid, three-dimensional place which fairly leaps of the page, as does 22nd Century New York, Miami and the other key locations in the novel.

The thriller element of the story is compelling. Morgan knows how to set up an intricate web of intrigue and mystery and when to make new revelations and bring in new characters. The world that Marsalis inhabits is a murky one of dubious loyalties and betrayals, through which a classic noir story unfolds (albeit a noir story with moments of extreme ultraviolence, a pretty explicit sex scene and a lot of swearing). Unlike the Kovacs novels, Black Man is told in the third person and there are several key POV characters as well as Marsalis, particularly the Martian colonial office agent Svegi Ertekin and her partner, Tom Norton. All are expertly drawn and deconstructed by the author. Marsalis himself is a fascinating character and hopefully Morgan will one day write books further exploring him further.

Black Man (*****) is everything modern SF should be: edgy, intelligent, compelling and deep. It is without hesitation I give it the first five-starred review of a book since I started this blog. The novel will be published in hardcover in the UK by Gollancz on 17 May and in hardcover in the USA by Del Rey on 26 June. The author has a website at this location. Sandstorm Reviews has an excellent (and far more concise) review of the novel here.

Saturday 10 March 2007

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

It is the year 2427. The place is the Glitter Band, ten thousand space habitats circling the planet Yellowstone, the golden heart of human space where a multitude of different cultures meet and trade, and a waystop for huge lighthuggers as they slowly traverse the distances between the stars at speeds just below that of light. This is the universe of Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds' critically-acclaimed gothic space opera which has now extended across five novels, two novellas and a short story collection. The Prefect is a stand-alone addition to this excellently-realised future history, taking place approximately a century before the events of Chasm City and Revelation Space itself.

Whilst the planet Yellowstone and its biggest settlement, Chasm City, deal with their own affairs, it falls to the prefects of Panoply to police the vast Glitter Band and its 100 million citizens, who practice the ultimate form of democracy, Demarchism. Every minute dozens of decisions, large and small, are put to the public vote and the people of the Glitter Band spend much of their time engrossed in politics, employing a form of VR known as Abstraction to talk to one another, or choosing to lose themselves in fantastical reflections of the real world. The greatest crime in the Glitter Band is an attempt to deny the will of the people. Voting fraud is a heinous perversion, one which the prefects exist to prevent at all costs.

An apparently routine case of voting fraud leads Tom Dreyfus and his team into a labyrinthe web of plots and conspiracies that threatens to destroy their very way of life. And, as this is a mystery novel, to say any more of the plot would threaten to indulge in spoilers. Suffice to say that the links between The Prefect and the other Revelation Space novels are subtle and numerous. The Prefect in fact occupies a position within its larger series framework similar to the position Steven Erikson's novel Midnight Tides occupies in his Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence: generally a standalone novel, but with equal arguments in favour of reading the book before the others (events in the other novels are clarified by information provided in The Prefect) or afterwards (when the reader understands exactly what will become of this society in the future).

Reynolds is on good form here, although arguably he fails to recapture the immediacy of his finest work, Chasm City. The Prefect is a somewhat more straightforward novel. Although there are several startling, late revelations and plot twists, the reader is in possession of most of the facts reasonably early in the book. Tom Dreyfus also remains a somewhat less complex protagonist then regular Reynolds readers may be used to, but as usual the author has a few aces up his sleeve which force the reader to reassess the character during the novel's conclusion.

In The Prefect Alastair Reynolds executes an enjoyable and extremely fast-paced return to the universe that made his name. The story develops nicely and explodes into a furious page-turning pace in its second half that barely lets up. At the same time Reynolds' ability to conjure up vivid imagery remains intact (one plotline is not for the squeamish or for anyone with a fear of knives), as does his assured grasp of his universe and the remarkable cultures and ideas that make it up. The book is not without its flaws - in particular, those who have already read Absolution Gap and know of Reynolds' fondness for ambiguous endings may be better-prepared for the conclusion than others - and there is perhaps a feeling that we are being set up for a sequel at the end, but these are fairly minor concerns. The Prefect is Reynolds' best novel since at least Redemption Ark, and is an engrossing read.

The Prefect (****) will be published by Gollancz in the United Kingdom in hardcover on 2 April 2007. The author has a website at this location.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

Another Update

Before updating what's new with me and SF&F, a brief pause of respect at the news that Leigh Eddings has passed away. The wife of fantasy author David Eddings, Leigh was the co-author with her husband on all of his fantasy novels, uncredited up until the 1995 release of Belgarath the Sorcerer before she got a joint credit with him on their later novels. All-in-all, she co-wrote twenty-two books with her husband. Leigh passed away at the age of 69 on 28 February following a series of strokes. Condolences to her family.

After that subdued note, I received my first-ever review copies of books from Gollancz today, courtesy of Simon Spanton. Many thanks to Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist who put them in touch with me. The books in question are:

Selling Out by Justina Robson (Book 2 of the Quantum Gravity series, the sequel to Keeping It Real)
Black Man by Richard Morgan (a new standalone novel from the author of Altered Carbon)
The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski (a highly-recommended novel by a leading Polish fantasist)
The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds (a new standlone SF novel set in the Revelation Space universe)

I think The Prefect will be the first book I check out, on the grounds that his last Revelation Space stand-alone novel was the masterful Chasm City. I think I'll have to pick up Keeping It Real as well before trying Selling Out.