Sunday 29 June 2008

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 anime directed by Mamoru Oshii, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. Like the earlier Akira, Ghost in the Shell broke out out the traditional anime/manga fanbase and won a large following, including the Wachowski brothers who used some of its ideas and motifs in The Matrix a few years later.

The setting is Hong Kong in 2029 and chronicles an intercine power struggle in the justice and law-enforcement agencies of the city, with most of the protagonists belonging to Section 9, whilst the antagonists belong to the government and Section 6. A number of innocents, criminals and agents belonging to Section 9 get caught up in this whirlwind of conspiracies and violence. The main character is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg who finds herself riven by existential questions over her nature and consciousness whilst investigating the activities of a criminal known as the Puppetmaster.

The movie version of Ghost in the Shell is notably less complex than the manga or the later TV Stand-Alone Complex TV series, stripping away a lot of secondary storylines to focus on Kusanagi's dilemmas and the Puppetmaster storyline. As a result, Ghost in the Shell is a surprisingly approachable anime for those not versed in the genre (especially for those whose only contact has been Akira or other notably dense anime). The storyline is reasonably complex and operates on multiple thematic levels, but events and charcter motivations are depicted clearly and elegantly. The movie is notable for its use of music - especially a gorgeous but unsettling choral piece - and lengthy, well-animated establishing shots to cover moments of character introspection.

This is a thoroughly intriguing and thought-provoking movie which raises many of the same issues as the later Matrix but investigates them far more elegantly and with a less tedious running time. There are a few criticisms, though. A couple of scenes are rather heavy on the exposition and some of the secondary characters are not as well-developed as might be wished. For example, Motoko's partner Togusa initially appears to be an important character and as the least cybernetically-enhanced member of Section 9 is set up to be an 'in' for the ordinary viewer into this cyberpunk world, but he quickly fades into the background in favour of the (admittedly more interesting and dynamic) character of Batou.

Overall, this is an intelligent and well-made science fiction move that asks some interesting questions and doesn't provide easy answers.

Ghost in the Shell (****) is available in a double-pack with its sequel Innocence from Manga Entertainment in the UK and as a stand-alone release in the USA.

Friday 27 June 2008

Major US Fantasy Series Hits the UK in September

In the past couple of years a few major SF and fantasy series long-standing international repute have finally landed in the UK, most notably Celia Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy, which finally appeared sixteen years after its US publication, and Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books, the English translation of which has been a long time coming. The next big author to arrive is Glen Cook, whose Black Company series has met with tremendous critical acclaim and garnered a legion of fans, not least of whom is Steven Erikson, who admits that the Malazan Book of the Fallen was inspired by Cook's tales.

The Chronicles of the Black Company collects the first three novels in the series, The Black Company, Shadows Linger and The White Rose, and will be published on 18 September 2008. There are another seven books in the series.

Gollancz have more info on this title here and preorders can be made on Amazon here. The book is already available in the USA. Expect a review around the time of publication.

With the simultaneous publishing of Sapkowski's Blood of the Elves on the same day (more details here) and Solaris making a big push for Paul Kearney's underread and underrated Monarchies of God series (available in two volumes, Hawkwood and the Kings and Century of the Soldier, in the late autumn), it's a great time to be able to catch up on some excellent fantasy that's not been available in the UK before, or out of print for a long time.

Thursday 26 June 2008


Back in 2004 a hitherto unknown company called CryTek released a game called Far Cry. In a year that also saw the long-awaited releases of both Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, Far Cry was a surprisingly successful break-out hit, marrying the excellent graphics of those games with a semi-freeform approach to missions that was truly exihilirating. The sense of freedom it brought to the normally linear-as-hell first-person shooter market was quite revolutionary, and it has arguably aged better than either of its competitors due to its much greater replay value. Crysis is not the sequel to Far Cry, since Electronic Arts snatched up CryTek and their next game whilst the Far Cry brand name remains with Ubisoft (who are currently developing the Africa-set Far Cry 2 for a late 2008/early 2009 release), but it is the 'spiritual successor'.

Crysis is set in 2020. North Korea has occupied an island in the Pacific Ocean where something unusual has been uncovered by an archaeological expedition. The UN has sent in a team of special operatives using new nanosuit technology to investigate, resulting in guerrila warfare against the North Koreans before the situation escalates and a full-scale war looks set to unfold over the island, resulting in the deployment of two US carrier groups to the area. And then the object the expedition has uncovered wakes up...

So far, so traditional. Crysis builds on the success of its predecessor by retaining the tropical island setting but ramping its graphical capabilities to the max. Make no mistake, Crysis is the single most graphically-advanced computer game on the market, a position it will retain for some years to come given the somewhat conservative looks of its nearest competitors. That said, the game scales excellently: my two-and-a-half-year-old single-core machine coped with most settings at Medium, and it looked substantially better than the still-gorgeous Far Cry with everything turned up to maximum.

Of course, graphical excellence is nothing without the gameplay to back it up and Crysis delivers on that score. It's a fast-paced action game but, like Far Cry before it, it also allows you to play stealthily and gives you more options, such as more silenced weapons and a camouflage field ability, to make use of that tactic. The game also allows for more effective hand-to-hand combat. The nanosuit allows you to increase your speed, strength or armour throughout the game depending on the situation, although to be honest you rarely need to take it off armour mode, but it's a nice touch. Weapons selection is surprisingly poor, however. The UN-issue SCAR rifle is great but you have to ditch it as soon as you run out of ammo and switch to the North Korean automatic rifle, which has the stopping power of a gnat in a hurricane. Entire clips are sometimes needed to take down one enemy soldier. The shotgun is great but ineffective at range, whilst the minigun tears through ammo so fast it's barely worth using. The gauss rifle and the infinite-recharge ice weapon you get at the end of the game are both excellent, but since you only get them five minutes before the game ends, hardly astonishing.

Crysis is a pretty good game that fixes many of the sins of Far Cry. There is less messing around indoors, the story and characters are much better-developed, there's a much greater sense of coherence in how the missions and levels fit together and a solid sense of camaderie once what appears to be the entire US Marine Corps lands on the island to provide some back-up in the latter half of the game. Unfortunately, it also takes some retrograde steps. Whilst multiple routes to mission objectives are again provided, they are much more constrained than before. This is because whilst Far Cry took place across multiple islands, Crysis takes place in sectioned-off areas of one big island, and the game won't let you just wander off at will. This decreased freedom from its predecessor is extremely irritating, given it's one of the appeals of CryTek's work. Secondly, CryTek have astonishingly not yet figured out that whilst we enjoy fighting intelligently-designed human opponents, having lumbering mutants or in this case (spoiler!) ice-based, gravity-bending aliens turn up just feels lame, especially when they can take ten times as much ammo to kill compared to the superhumanly damage-resistant human enemies.

The other major problem, one increasingly prevalent in the FPS genre, is the establishing of Crysis as a franchise. We can't have one good, long game and that's it, we've got to have a major cliffhanger ending, followed by the news that Crysis is a trilogy with part two due in 2009 and part three in 2011, and finally the news that there will be a 'parallel' game following another character through the same events, with the first of these, Crysis: Warhead, coming out in late 2008. Sometimes the sheer avariceness of the computer game industry is startling, especially when the developers proudly tell us that the game has sold a million copies in six months but it could have sold more if piracy wasn't around, so as a result the sequels will be co-developed for the consoles and may not be as visually impressive as a result. And to finally put the boot in, Crysis is quite short: at about eight hours to completion, Crysis is substantially shorter than Far Cry, Half-Life 2, FEAR or a lot of other recent FPS games.

Crysis (***½) looks a million dollars even on relatively underpowered machines and is a huge amount of fun to play. However, it won't last very long, has a huge cliffhanger ending and scales back on the amount of freedom you have. The game is available now for PC in the UK and in the US as both a standard and collector's edition. The 'parallel' game, Crysis: Warhead, will be released in November 2008, with Crysis II likely to follow a year later.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Released in 2004, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a huge success for its author, who had spent ten years writing the novel. It sat on the bestseller lists for quite some time, was hugely promoted (for over a year I couldn't go into either of my local Waterstones without seeing the book everywhere) and won both the 2005 Hugo Award and World Fantasy Awardfor Best Novel. Unusually for a self-proclaimed fantasy novel, it was also longlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (which normally prefers authors who refuse to admit their novels are SF or fantasy, such as Margaret Atwood). Time Magazine also named it the best novel of 2004.

The book opens in the early 19th Century. Britain used to be a centre of magical prowess and for three hundred years a powerful magician ruled a magical kingdom in the north (based around Newcastle) before disappearing, but in recent centuries magic has faded out of view and become purely a theoretical science. A theoretical magician, John Segundus, discovers a 'real' magician named Mr. Gilbert Norrell and reluctantly convinces him to make his magical prowess known to the public at large. At first resistant to the idea, Norrell soon changes his mind and finds himself the toast of London society and is greatly valued by the King and Parliament for the magical aid he gives in the war against Napoleon. However, Norrell's profile is soon upstaged by the emergence of a new magician, the young and handsome Jonathan Strange. Norrell sees Strange as headstrong and dangerous, whilst Strange thinks Norrell is controlling and old-fashioned. As their feud escalates across the years, a lord of faerie, known only as the 'gentleman with thistledown hair', returns to Earth and sets in motion a number of villainous plans that ensnares a beautiful young woman and a black servant of kingly countenance.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a terrific and major accomplishment in fantasy writing: the recreation of a 19th Century novel as if it was written by Dickens or Austen with magic merely part of the backdrop. It is a rich book dripping in atmosphere and, at times, humour that is reminiscent of Jack Vance but fits in with the time period. The core of the plot - the rivalry between the two magicians - is simple, but the details that embellish it make it far more complex and involving. The book is accompanied by intriguing and amusing footnotes and some excellent Victorian-esque illustrations by Portia Rosenberg.

Indeed, for much of its considerable length the book looks like it's going to walk off with top marks. Unfortunately, it hits a snag about two-thirds of the way into the volume that threatens to unbalance the whole enterprise. Having already channelled Dickens and Austen with the merest dash of Tolstoy in the short battle sequences, Clarke seems to have decided that what the book really needed was some kind of extended European adventure in which our main characters are put through hell and back, suffering illnesses and bouts of insanity, almost as if she wanted to put Strange through a Byron or Keats-esque nightmarish wringer for the sheer hell of it. And it seems to go on forever. If I hadn't been on holiday at the time with this as the only book to hand, I question whether I could have gotten through it. The book does recover somewhat towards the end, with an intriguing reapproachment between Strange and Norrell that unfolds in a totally unexpected way with a somewhat appropriate ending, but the unexpected, extended interlude of misery into a story enlivened by its earlier, lighter moments is a jarring tonal shift that makes it difficult to recommend the book unreservedly.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (***½) is a book that very nearly achieves greatness through is rich character-building, its lavish descriptions and lively humour, but is let down by an unnecessarily long and drawn out latter third. If you can bear with it, the novel does ultimately end with a fitting conclusion, but it's possible you may lose interest before that point.

The novel is published by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom and by Tor in the USA. A short story collection expanding on characters from the novel, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, was released in 2006. Clarke is currently working on a sequel to the novel.

Monday 23 June 2008

What's up, Doc?

I occasionally get asked (okay, I was once) why the new Doctor Who doesn't get the Battlestar/Lost/Avatar treatment on this blog. It's a current, ongoing SF series and would seem a fair target for coverage.

That's an interesting question, especially since I was a huge fan of the original show (in fact, just yesterday I had to move my old collection of 30-odd Who VHS tapes into storage). I think it stems from the fact that I see the new Doctor Who very much as a kid's show which sometimes rises above that to deliver killer episodes, but in terms of quality is extremely uneven, to the point where if I tried to review it I'd have to analyse it to death and probably lose all the sense of fun I do get out of watching it. There's also the issue that up until a few weeks back I wasn't getting back from work until after it finished, and as a result I'd missed huge chunks of Seasons 3 and 4 (or, as I like to call them, Seasons 29 and 30). And before someone mentions it, no the BBC iPlayer was not available in Ireland. Now I'm back in the UK I can make use of it.

Having said all of that, with Who taking a year off in 2009 (bar a couple of specials), I may take that opportunity to get the box sets in and take a look at the whole thing. I do like the new series, but it's a lot more infuriatingly uneven than almost any other SF show on the box at the moment.

Sunday 22 June 2008


Cloverfield managed the impossible when it slipped into cinemas back in January: a very low-key, relatively low-budget production with an innocuous name, it managed to pass unnoticed until just a couple of months before release, when Paramount's publicity machine swept into operation. The producer is JJ Abrams, the co-creator of Alias and Lost and the director of Mission Impossible III and the new Star Trek movie, so his name immediately generated a lot of interest. The result was a bit of a sleeper hit, winning critical acclaim and popular success in what is typically a very slow month at the cinema.

One possible way to sum up Cloverfield is to call it Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project with a ton of 9/11 imagery chucked on top. The POV for the movie is a guy given a camcorder at his friend's leaving party and told to go record a bunch of 'goodbye' messages for him. Halfway through the party the city suffers a momentary power failure. Suddenly massive explosions can be seen in the distance, the Woolworths Building collapses into a pile of rubble and the head of the Statue of Liberty lands in the street. Clearly something is up.

From there the pace doesn't let up. Our four intrepid heroes (who aren't actually particularly heroic) initially attempt to flee the city via the Brooklyn Bridge, but then have to return to Manhattan to rescue the ex-girlfriend of one of the characters. Along the way they have various encounters with what appears to be a genuine huge city-destroying monster and its parasites. Along the way they see the attempts by the US Army and Air Force to take the monster down, and discover some horrible things about its abilities along the way. The ending is extremely dark and not what you'd expect from a typical monster movie (there is also an audio clip at the end of the credits that is somewhat disturbing).

First off, the camcorder POV works pretty well. You have to swallow some disbelief that during the scenes of chaos and fury the camera would conveniently always end up pointing in the right direction whilst the person carrying it is running for his life, but then this is a movie about a 500-foot-tall monster tearing up New York City. Picking nits about the camera work is probably a bit redundant. Unfortunately, the camera movements can be extremely jerky, with sudden shifts in perspective and very dizzying moments combining to induce nausea in the viewer. Neither myself nor the friend I watched the movie with have ever suffered from such problems before in a movie, no matter how loud, confused or gory, but during Cloverfield we both experienced bouts of dizziness and vertigo. Very strange, but then we were using a massive projector screen. The effects will no doubt be much less pronounced on a standard-sized TV set.

The camcorder approach also strengthens the storyline. Whether the monster comes from outer space or from the depths of the ocean is irrelevant really, and any attempt to explain the monster's origins would probably draw more attention to its innate silliness. Instead, we get to the meat of the storyline pretty quickly. The opening 10-15 minutes at the party also do an effective job of establishing the characters and making us sympathise with them. The actors are largely unknown but all do solid jobs of selling the situation as well.

There are a few other problems. One character suffers a debilitating wound that should really either have killed them or knocked them out through shock, but they recover remarkably quickly. There is also a scene where the main characters are accompanied by two military personnel, armoured and armed, and they die extremely easily whilst our unarmed, unarmoured and untrained civilians walk away without a scratch on them. But again, these are hardly major criticisms and you could say the same about almost any other monster movie. What has caused a bit more of a furore is the use of a sequence which is nearly identical to some well-known camcorder footage of the Twin Towers coming down: a skyscraper collapses, the wall of dust and debris shoots down the street, our characters take cover in a nearby store, and then emerge onto the dust-enshrouded street. Whilst it adds an element of realism to the film, and from a technical standpoint is an absolutely stunning achievement, there is perhaps the feeling that the film-makers were deliberately trying to invoke the same kind of terrors people experienced on 9/11 as part of a cinematic thrill, and them doing that is in questionable taste. The ending is also rather too obviously left open for a sequel.

Cloverfield (****) is an interesting, innovative take on the standard monster movie formula that succeeds in drawing the viewer in and doesn't have a cheesy, high-five happy ending either. I would certainly recommend it, but for once not on the big screen. The film is available in both a standard DVD edition (UK, USA), a special edition with extra special features (UK, USA) and on Blu-Ray (UK, USA). Apparently Cloverfield 2 is already in development, but the director and producer have indicated that they may wish to explore other projects before proceeding with it.

Saturday 21 June 2008

The SFX Top 100 List (continued)

49. H.P. Lovecraft
Classic 1920s writer, best known for his Cthulu Mythos series of stories and novels, which other writers later expaned upon.

48. Mervyn Peake
The author of The Gormenghast Trilogy. After The Lord of the Rings, arguably one of the most important, 'classic' works of fantasy of the 20th Century.

47. Jules Verne
19th Century early SF author, best-known for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

46. Alastair Reynolds
British SF author, best-known for his Revelation Space series of novels, novellas and short stories. Chasm City is his finest work.

45. Neal Stephenson
Major post-cyberpunk SF author, best-known for Snow Crash, The Diamond Age (soon to be a mini-series), Cryptonomicon and the enormous Baroque Cycle.

44. Clive Barker
British horror-fantasy writer, author of novels such as Weaveworld and Imajica, but probably best-known for being the creator of the Hellraiser series of movies.

43. Jim Butcher
A relative newcomer, but one who has made a major impact with his Dresden Files series of urban fantasies and his Codex Alera fantasy sequence.

42. Tad Williams
American fantasy and SF author whose Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy is usually cited as the first work (excepting Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series a decade earlier) of epic fantasy explicitly aimed at adults, with more interesting and deeper themes than the Brooks/Feist/Eddings school of fantasy which predominated in the 1980s. His series of Otherland SF/fantasy hybrids is his strongest work to date, although it suffers from his continual problem of overwriting. His current Shadowmarch Trilogy, which returns him to epic fantasy, has received mixed reviews.

41. Kurt Vonnegut
Classic American SF writer, best known for Slaughterhouse Five.

40. Trudi Canavan
A relative newcomer and one of the new wave of Australian and New Zealand SF&F writers to make an impact on the genre. Her Black Magician Trilogy was a huge success when published in the UK a few years ago.

39. Michael Moorcock
One of SF&F's most prolific and interesting figures, also noted for producing interesting works of mainstream fiction. The centrepiece of his work are the Tales of the Eternal Champion, a massive collection of stories and novels spread across multiple worlds, universes and incarnations of the central hero. Of those tales, his Elric of Melnibone series is the best-known. Mother London and The Dancers at the End of Time are among his other works.

38. David Eddings
Although his later novels - particularly the near-unreadable Tamuli series and everything published since - can best be employed for cat litter purposes, Eddings' Belgariad series was a gateway to the genre for many young readers, and continues to do so since it was re-purposed as a YA series. Eddings later acknowledged that his wife Leigh, who sadly passed away last year, was his collaborator and co-writer on all of his fantasy work.

37. Alan Moore
Probably the most iconic writer in modern comics publishing, having written The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, V for Vendetta and the seminal Watchmen (the movie version of which will be released in June 2009), although he got his break by writing for Doctor Who Magazine's comic section and 2000AD. Infamously scathing of the film adaptions of his works, Moore is one of the defining SF&F authors of the modern age, and Watchmen should be required reading in the genre.

36. Orson Scott Card
An interesting SF&F author whose popularity is based mainly on his extremely accomplished mid-1980s novel, Ender's Game. His Alvin Maker and Homecoming series have also proved popular. In recent years Card has mostly spent his time churning out additional Ender books of variable quality, and his most recent stand-alone, Empire, may rank as one of the worst novels published by a reputable publishing house this millennium.

35. Stephen Donaldson
Major SF and Fantasy author whose Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series is generally held to kick-started the modern fantasy boom when the first volume Lord Foul's Bane, was published within a few weeks of Brooks' The Sword of Shannara in 1977. Although Covenant is Donaldson's best known series, his SF series, The Gap, is probably his most accomplished work.

34. Gene Wolfe
A surprisingly low entry for one of the best speculative fiction authors of the modern age. The Book of the New Sun is a stunning achievement, a work to rival Gormenghast and The Lord of the Rings for significance and resonance, and even more startlingly its sequel series are important works in their own rights and not mere cash-ins. Still producing interesting work, Wolfe should frankly be in the Top 5 of this list at the very least, but such are the ways of polls.

33. China Mieville
An author who is something of a breath of fresh air in the genre, whose Perdido Street Station kick-started his quasi-horror, semi-steampunk SF/Fantasy hybrid Bas-Lag series of very loosely connected novels (also incorporating The Scar and Iron Council). Outside of this series he has published a very fine urban fantasy (King Rat), an exceptional YA novel (Un Lun Dun) and an excellent short story collection (Looking for Jake). Still in his 30s, Mieville's greatest work may still lay ahead of him, although what has come so far already marks him as one of the best SF&F authors of the new millennium.

32. Raymond E. Feist
Feist's 1982 novel Magician remains a readable and exhiliratingly entertaining epic fantasy novel incorporating the clash between two worlds (the medieval Europe-influenced Midkemia and the Oriental-stylised world of Kelewan) when they are linked by a magical rift in time and space. All but one of Feist's subsequent 26 novels have been set in the same universe. His Empire Trilogy, cowritten with Janny Wurts, is an excellent dynastic fantasy set on Kelewan, and shows the freshness and originality that epic fantasy can still achieve when it moves outside its comfort zones. His later novels reached their zenith with the bloody war novel Rage of a Demon King, but with the exception of another collaboration with William Forstchen (Honoured Enemy) all of his later novels have been disappointingly pedestrian.

31. Lois McMaster Bujold
American SF author, best-known for her Miles Vorkosigan series of space operas which, sadly, I have not read yet.

30. Roger Zelazny
Another major 'classic' SF author, best-known for the lengthy Amber sequence of fantasy novels, although his Lord of Light and Damnation Alley are also highly accomplished.

29. Anne McCaffrey
American SF author, currently resident in Ireland. Best-known for the Dragonriders of Pern and The Ship Who... series.

28. Steven Erikson
Canadian fantasy and SF author, best-known for his enormous Malazan Book of the Fallen series which is now one of the most dominant epic fantasy series on the market. He has also written an SF novella (The Devil Delivered) and has worked on a web-based SF series, The Dark.

27. William Gibson
Major SF novelist best-known for Neuromancer and is sequels and is credited as the originator of cyberpunk, although his more recent work has been dominated by near-future and mainstream novels.

26. Guy Gavriel Kay
Another Canadian fantasy author, but whose credentials are impressive: he got his first break in the genre when he assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing The Silmarillion for publication in 1977. His earliest work, The Fionavar Tapestry, is also his most traditional, but he is best-known for producing four classic stand-alone novels that evoke particular times and places in the real world: Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun. His Sarantine Mosaic duology and Ysabel, a semi-sequel to the Fionavar series, are also of note.

25. CS Lewis
Classic British SF and fantasy writer, best-known for The Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as his Christian views that influenced much of his later work, most controversially in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle.

24. Diana Wynne Jones
Author of numerous SF and fantasy books for children and adults alike, although her most notable work may remain The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a hilarious guidebook to the tropes of the epic fantasy subgenre. Anyone who sets out to write an epic fantasy these days without consulting this book first may find themselves on very shaky ground.

23. John Wyndham
Classic British SF author, best-known for his enormously influential The Day of the Triffids, but also wrote many other books of note, including The Chrysalids.

22. Philip Pullman
British author of fiction for children, some of it falling into the SF&F genre. His most notable work is the hugely successful His Dark Materials Trilogy, which can be seen as a thorough rebuttal of Lewis' Narnia series but also a major and influential work in its own right.

21. Robin Hobb
One of the biggest-sellers of epic fantasy in recent years, with her 'trilogy of trilogies' (The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man) attracting a huge number of fans, although her more recent Soldier Son Trilogy has attracted more mixed reviews.

20. Stephen King
One of the biggest-selling authors of all time, with his total lifetime sales likely to be incalculable. He has written many works of horror, some supernatural and some not, as well as a smaller number of pure science fiction and pure fantasy stories. However, almost all of his work takes place in the extended universe of The Dark Tower, with characters and motifs repeating themselves across many different books. The Dark Tower itself - seven novels written between 1970 and 2004 - has divided readers due to its highly controversial concluding volume.

19. Ray Bradbury
Major American SF novelist and writer, best-known for Farenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.

18. Arthur C. Clarke
Probably the most famous SF writer of all time, the author of several seminal SF novels (Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood's End, The Fountains of Paradise, The City and the Stars and A Fall of Moondust most prominent among them) and the co-writer of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, along with director Stanley Kubrick. He also had a huge impact on popular science through his 1970s and 1980s documentaries and TV series (most notably Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World). He also popularised the idea of geostationary communications satellites in the 1940s, which has led to the geostationary orbit also being dubbed the 'Clarke Orbit'. Clarke passed away earlier this year at the age of 90.

17. Robert Jordan
The author of the hugely successful Wheel of Time series which, despite a major lapse in quality in its eighth through tenth volumes, is nevertheless a major work which popularised the idea of SF&F series lasting more than the traditional three volumes. Despite longeurs, the series is notable for its themes of the mutability of knowledge and the interrelationship between legend, myth and history. Jordan died of the blood disease amyloidosis last year having begun the twelfth and final Wheel of Time novel, which will now be completed by Brandon Sanderson for publication in late 2009.

16. JK Rowling
The most successful author of the 21st Century, whose seven-volume Harry Potter series has sold some 350 million copies worldwide and been credited with interesting an entire generation in reading.

15. Robert Heinlein
American SF author, one of the 'Big Three' alongside Clarke and Asimov, best-known for Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers.

14. Frank Herbert
The author of Dune, the single biggest-selling SF novel of all time. His other work, particularly the five Dune sequels, are variable in quality and the 'tribute' novels by his son and Kevin J. Anderson should be avoided at all costs. But Dune itself remains a powerful and unique work of science fiction.

13. Peter F. Hamilton
British SF author whose work encompasses near-future detective thrillers set in a Britain flooded by global warming (The Greg Mandel Trilogy) and enormous space operas spanning dozens of planets and thousands of pages (The Night's Dawn Trilogy). His fast-paced, page-turning style mixed with a tremendous capacity for invention (a PFH book is "Fifty lesser SF novels rolled into one," according to critics) has won him enormous success and legions of fans. Hamilton is at his best writing gigantic blockbuster space operas with intelligence, and The Night's Dawn Trilogy may be the best work of 'pure' space opera since the original Dune.

12. David Gemmell
British fantasy author who started his career with Legend. He eventually wrote some thirty novels which combined hack 'n' slash fantasy adventures with musings on the human condition, and he was capable of tremendously cutting observations and poetic turns of phrase when required. Tragically, he died two years ago from a heart attack just before completing his finest work to date, a historical trilogy based on the fall of Troy, although the final novel was ably completed by his wife Stella.

11. Ursula K. LeGuin
Still one of the most influential of all SF and Fantasy novelists, best-known for The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea series.

10. Robert Rankin
Prolific British comic fantasist whose work owes a lot to the zany observations of Spike Milligan. His books come across as 'tall tales' rather than conventional novels. He is variable in quality (the Armageddon Trilogy is vaguely amusing but nothing more, whilst his Hugo Rune series is hilarious), but usually has some interesting ideas going on.

9. HG Wells
One of the most important formative writers of SF, the author of The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man, although his greatest success was probably depicting the use of nuclear weapons in The World Set Free, written some thirty years before the testing of the first A-bomb.

8. Philip K. Dick
A major SF writer of the 1960s and 1970s, whose novels were enormously influential. His best-known works are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later filmed as Blade Runner), The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

7. Iain M. Banks
British science fiction author who has also had a highly successful career as a mainstream author (writing under the name 'Iain Banks'). He is best-known for his creation of the Culture, the ultimate utopian society, and its depiction in major SF novels such as Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons and Player of Games. His non-Culture SF works, Feersum Endjinn, Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist, have not been as notable. His mainstream work, which sometimes touches on SF&F tropes through fantasy and dream sequences, most notably in The Bridge, is also accomplished, most notably his classic debut novel, The Wasp Factory.

6. Isaac Asimov
The most prolific author on this list, with some 500 books to his name. In SF he was best known for his enormous future history sequence incorporating the Robots, Empire and Foundation series into a massive framework spanning over 20,000 years, and also for the short story Nightfall which was voted the best SF story of all time as recently as the 1980s. He also wrote mainstream detective fiction and dabbled with fantasy, most notably the Azazel series of comic fantasies, but he will be best-remembered for coining the Three Laws of Robotics.

5. George RR Martin
The highest-ranking non-British author on the list. GRRM has been writing in the SF&F genre for forty years, penning some highly-accomplished short fiction from the late 1960s onwards (including Nightflyers, Sandkings, A Song for Lya and many more). He started writing novels at the end of the 1970s with Dying of the Light, and achieved a major success with the excellent Fevre Dream in 1981. However, the commercial failure of the subsequent The Armageddon Rag led GRRM to get work in Hollywood, where he worked on The New Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. At the same time, he won new legions of fans by cowriting and editing the lengthy Wild Cards series of 'realistic' superhero stories. In 1991 he began work on his Song of Ice and Fire series, one of the most critically-acclaimed series (SF or fantasy) of modern times, which now extends to four novels and two novellas with more on the way. Whilst A Song of Ice and Fire has to some extent eclipsed his earlier work, the release of his Dreamsongs collection has demonstrated his versatility as a writer.

4. Douglas Adams
Comic SF author who got his start by scripwriting for radio and for TV series such as Doctor Who, where he was a script editor in the late 1970s. His own best-known creation is The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which began as a radio serial and became a BBC mini-series, five novels and a disappointing movie adaption. He also created Dirk Gently's Holstic Detective Agency (which was supposed to be an ongoing series, but only reached two novels and a third half-finished at the time of his death). Adams suffered from writer's block for much of his working life, explaining his low output, but the work he did produce continues to entertain new generations of SF readers.

3. Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman rose to prominence in comics, most notably with The Sandman, which ran from 1989 to 1996. When taken as a single, 2,000-page work, The Sandman is an astonishing accomplishment and one of the most significant works of fantasy of the modern age, an epic combining myth, dreams and fantasies into a surprisingly tight narrative surrounding Morpheus, the Prince of Dreams. Outside of this work, Gaiman is best-known for his novels Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett), American Gods and Stardust (later adapted as a successful movie). The Graveyard Book, a macabre take on The Jungle Book, is his latest novel, due at the end of the year. He also created the television mini-series Neverwhere, which became a successful novel and comic book.

2. JRR Tolkien
The creator of Middle-earth and the writer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit probably needs little introduction here. No author is more significant in the development of 20th Century fantasy or more influential in the number of other writers they have inspired, whilst the three-part movie adaption of his Middle-earth stories (soon to be joined by two more) is the biggest success story in cinema this century.

1. Terry Pratchett
A surprising winner? Possibly not. Pratchett has written some 30 novels set in his Discworld setting and another dozen outside it, making him one our most prolific authors. With nearly 60 million sales to his name, he is also the biggest-selling living author in the genre with the exceptions of Rowling and King. However, Pratchett combines success with almost continuous critical acclaim and increasing mainstream literary respect. His books are sometimes just pure comic entertainment, but more often than not they are also keen-eyed satires and observations on culture, history and the world, displaying a formidable intelligence and attention to detail,a ll of which have won him plaudits including regular comparisons to Dickens. Easily one of the most significant authors of fantasy of our time.

So there you have it. A fairly decent list, all round, although I can hear various cries of "But what about..." and "WHO is number one?" across the Internet from here. As always, there are some notable absences: a list that has Douglass, Goodkind and Eddings on it cannot spare room for Kearney, KJ Parker, Celia Friedman or Walter Miller? Disappointing.

Friday 20 June 2008

News for Scott Lynch fans

The previous attempt to create a Scott Lynch fan community on the web died out after a few months when the admin took an extended break and spam overran the forums. Happily, a new forum has been established at this location, and I wish the best of luck to them with their new endeavour.

Look for a round-up of some of the big SF and fantasy forums on the blog in the near-ish future.

The SFX Top 100 List

The UK's SFX Magazine recently published it's Top 100 List in its summer special about SF and Fantasy literature. This is the latest in a number of such polls to be conducted on the Internet in recent months, but the SFX one is of interest as it directly informs the buying habits of many of its readers, and other magazines and papers sometimes pick up on such stories run in SFX.

First some number-crunching. SFX is in its thirteenth year and is Europe's biggest-selling SF&F monthly, shifting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 35-40,000 copies per month. It is not a literary-focused magazine and mostly focuses on TV and film. However, its literature section is reasonably decent compared to other media mags of its type (the disappointing SciFi Now comes immediately to mind) and I have SFX to thank for introducing me to several of my favourite authors, including Alastair Reynolds, Neal Stephenson, Paul Kearney, Guy Gavriel Kay and Peter F. Hamilton. One of the side-effects of the mag not being literary-based is that the list offers an interesting insight into those who pick up SF&F novels but don't really discuss them on-line (you know, the 90% of the SF&F book-buying public that all of our blogs and forums and review sites have no impact on whatsoever). On that basis, the list is surprisingly decent. The magazine's reasonably non-partisan nature also makes the list more useful than some of the other recent polls:, the George RR Martin forum, voted GRRM as its Best Author;, the Steven Erikson forum, voted Steven Erikson as its Best Author; and, the Robert Jordan forum, voted Robert Jordan as its Best Author. In each case the result was not really a surprise.

That said, SFX is a UK mag and a lot of the feedback for the poll from outside the UK has been of the flavour of, "Who is Robert Rankin? James Herbert? Simon Clark?", which is certainly understandable.

Approximately 185 people voted on the SFX Forum for the list. But more than 3,000 other votes were also counted for the list, which makes it far bigger than any of the other recent online polls.

For reasons of length, I've broken coverage of the list in two pieces. Expect the second part in the next few days. The Bottom 50 looks like this:

100. James Herbert UK horror author, best known for The Rats and several sequels, and also for writing the novels that inspired the mid-1990s movies Fluke and The Haunted.

99. Gwyneth Jones
Haven't read.

98. Sara Douglass
Australian fantasy author. He first series, The Axis Trilogy, started off as light popcorn fare and made it as far as the third volume before becoming too cheesy to really stand up. I'm told her later books are better.

97. Charles Stross
One of SF's current big hitters, whose novels are nominated for Hugos almost automatically every year. I have tried a couple of his hard SF novels and not really found them to my taste, although I plan to try out his fantasy series, The Merchant Princes, at some stage.

96. Terry Goodkind
The most controversial author in fantasy, whose Sword of Truth series has been a big hit but whose ultra-right-wing tendencies and lead characters who seemingly base their leadership ideas and military tactics on George W. Bush aren't really to my taste. However, the series did give us the Chicken That Is Not A Chicken But Is Evil Incarnate, one of the seminal moments in modern fantasy, which may account for its place on this list.

95. Brian W. Aldiss
Underrated classic SF author who's still churning out important new work (his latest novel, H.A.R.M., is on my to-read list). Non-Stop, Hothouse and The Helliconia Trilogy, still the greatest achievement in SF worldbuilding to date, are bona fide classics of the genre whilst Report on Probability A still makes peoples heads hurt to this very day.

94. Ken MacLeod
Scottish SF author, known for mixing up left-wing politics and SF to interesting effect. Another author on my 'to read' list.

93. Olaf Stapledon
Formative writer of early SF who gave us massive, far-visioned works such as Last and First Men and Star Maker.

92. Michael Marshall Smith
An interesting author whose mid-to-late 1990s SF output (most notably Spares) marked him as a writer to watch, but he diverted into writing mainstream thrillers as Michael Marshall instead.

91. Jon Courtney Grimwood
Regrettably, another author I have to read.

90. Christopher Priest
Probably the most underread author in SF, although that's now starting to change thanks to the recent movie adaption of his novel, The Prestige. Priest explores themes of duality, memory and reality in his fiction, but arguably never better than in his most recent work, The Separation.

89. Jonathan Carroll
Another author I have to read.

88. Scott Lynch
A relative newcomer to the genre, but The Lies of Locke Lamora made an impact like few other debut novels in recent years have when it landed two years ago.

87. David Weber
Author of the interminable Honor Harrington series of space operas. I have one of his more recent SF/Fantasy crossbreeds, Off Armageddon Reef, waiting to be read.

86. M. John Harrison
Probably second only to Goodkind for the controversy he causes in the genre. Probably the most polarising author on this list, with people who read him seemingly fairly evenly divided between those who love him and those who hate him. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter camp: the Viriconium omnibus is one of a very small number of books that I disliked so immensely whilst reading that I couldn't finish it.

85. Jacqueline Carey
Her Sundering duology is on my to-read list, but she is better-known for her Kushiel series of erotic fantasy novels.

84. Kim Stanley Robinson
American hard SF author, best known for his interesting Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, the first book in the series, remains his single finest novel) but his Years of Rice and Salt and earlier novels set in California in three different parallel timelines are all worth a look.

83. Theodore Sturgeon
Classic early SF novelist, although possibly best-known for coining Sturgeon's Law: "90% of science fiction is rubbish but 90% of everything is rubbish."

82. J.V. Jones
British fantasy author whose Book of Words trilogy was a decent beginning to a career which really took off with the much darker and more interesting Sword of Shadows quintet (Book 4 due in 2009).

81. Joe Abercrombie
British fantasy author whose First Law trilogy has made a substantial impact on the epic fantasy field over the past three years, bringing a wry sense of humour and fusing with character-building which approaches GRRM levels on occasion. His 'difficult second album' due next year, Best Served Cold, will no doubt determine whether we see him stay at such a lofty position or - gasp! - climb even higher in future years.

80. Joe Haldeman
Dispiritingly, I have never read The Forever War, but I did enjoy Haldeman's Worlds Trilogy.

79. Simon Clark
British fantasy/horror author, best-known for his sequel to John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, the inevitably-titled Night of the Triffids, which won him the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2001.

78. George Orwell
Arguably only two of his novels fit into the genre, but when one of them is Nineteen Eighty-Four and the other is Animal Farm, that's all you need. An essential writer to read.

77. Samuel R. Delaney
The author of numerous critically-respected SF novels in the 1960s and 1970s, probably the best-known of which is Babel-17. Another author I haven't read.

76. Charles de Lint
Prolific Canadian fantasy author. Not read as yet.

75. Julian May
A well-known female SF author, best known for her Saga of the Plioscene Exile series, which I tried a long time ago and couldn't get into. A re-read may be in order.

74. Edgar Rice Burroughs
The creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars and a formative writer in the pulp SF-adventure field.

73. Robert Silverberg
Hugely prolific author in both SF and Fantasy. His finest single novel is probably Dying Inside, but he is best-known for his Majipoor series.

72. Susanna Clarke
A surprisingly high entry for someone with only two books to her name: the massively successful novel Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell and the Ladies of Grace Adieu collection. Definitely an author to watch in the future.

71. Stanislaw Lem
Polish SF author, best-known for Solaris, which inspired no less than two movie adaptions.

70. Larry Niven
A major SF author of the 1960s-80s, best-known for Ringworld and his other Tales of Known Space.

69. Alfred Bester
An excellent SF author. The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!) is one of the most essential books to read in the genre. His Demolished Man is also a majorly influential novel.

68. Katherine Kerr
An author I haven't read, despite multiple attempts to penetrate her huge Celtic fantasy Deverry series, which after thirteen volumes is finally drawing to a close with her next volume.

67. Jack Vance
In my opinion, one of the five or six most vital authors to read in the entire SF&F field, whose Dying Earth and sequels inspired a huge number of other writers (including Dan Simmons and Gene Wolfe). His Lyonesse Trilogy is also excellent.

66. Harry Harrison
Comic SF author best-known for The Stainless Steel Rat and umpteen sequels, plus Bill, the Galactic Hero. Steer clear of his later alternate-histories though.

65. Marion Zimmer Bradley
An American SF, Fantasy and horror writer, best-known for her Darkover and Avalon series, although the only book of hers I ever read was a mediocre horror book called Witch Hill. The Mists of Avalon is on my to-read list.

64. Richard Matheson
The author of the excellent I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man.

63. Dan Simmons
I read and reviewed the first two books of his superb Hyperion Cantos recently.

62. Elizabeth Haydon
An author I have not read.

61. Terry Brooks
Brooks' 1977 novel The Sword of Shannara (which critics most kindly describe as 'inspired' by Tolkien) kick-started the entire modern epic fantasy explosion, for good and for ill, so his impact on the genre cannot be doubted. That said, the Shannara series is best read as a 'gateway' series for younger readers starting out in the genre. On that level, his books work well as adventures. His more recent novels have shown signs of growing ambition as he fuses urban and epic fantasy together.

60. Richard Morgan
Probably the most striking author to enter SF in the last few years, whose blistering Altered Carbon and sequels rocked a somewhat staid genre as very few books have, whilst his most recent, Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Black Man stirred up a fair bit of controversy. He is now taking on fantasy with his new novel, The Steel Remains, due in August.

59. Stephen Baxter
The natural heir to Arthur C. Clarke, who combines hard SF with broad-canvas epic stories about humanity's future. His single finest novel remains The Time Ships, a stunning sequel to The Time Machine taking in the history of the universe itself.

58. Jennifer Fallon
57. Mercedes Lackey
56. CJ Cherryh
Three authors whose work I am not familiar with, although I vaguely recall trying a Lackey novel once and putting it down after three pages, but I may be wrong about that.

55. Harlan Ellison
Probably the finest SF short fiction writer of the 1960s and also responsible for the best episode of the original Star Trek (The City on the Edge of Forever), Ellison is better-known for his personal reputation these days rather than his often innovative and interesting fiction.

54. Jasper Fforde
53. Octavia Butler
Two authors I am not familiar with, although in the latter case I know that is a massive oversight.

52. J.G. Ballard
Better-known for his mainstream novels and memoirs (the first of which was filmed by Steven Spielberg as Empire of the Sun) these days, Ballard started out in SF with a series of books depicting possible futures for our world, such as The Drowned World. His 1973 novel, Crash, caused a lot of controversy on release, which was repeated with the 1996 movie version directed by David Cronenberg.

51. Robert E. Howard
The creator of Conan the Barbarian, which arguably stands alongside the likes of Dunsany, Tolkien, Vance and Peake as a vital piece of formative fantasy. Those reading Conan for the first time today may be surprised at how fresh it still feels (certain odd attitudes towards female characters notwithstanding), and how mercifully easy it is to divorce the character from the image of Arnie once you actually start reading the books (Conan the Barbarian is a good movie, but not tremendously true to the more cunning in-print character).

50. Sherri S. Tepper
An interesting SF author, best-known for her early 1990s novel Grass, which is on my to-read list.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Galacticawatch 7: Season 4, Ep 10

The first half of Battlestar Galactica's fourth season came to an end with an explosive, revelation-packed episode that seemed to finally shake the show out of its somewhat plodding pace and deliver the kind of quality we haven't seen since the Exodus two-parter at the start of Season 3. Before it aired the producers had bigged it up, claiming that the end was more jaw-dropping than the occupation of New Caprica. They weren't wrong about that. But before we get to that point there's another 40 minutes of drama to get through.

The resurrected D'Anna Biers (Lucy Lawless clearly having a thoroughly great time) wants the four Cylons who are in the fleet and plans to hold Roslin and the Viper pilots from the Hub mission hostage until they are handed over. "Where's the Fifth?" Roslin enquires, about half a second after the entire audience has asked the same question, but D'Anna dodges it. Tory quickly finds a way of jumping ship and revealing herself as a member of the Five, but Tyrol, Tigh and Anders are much more reluctant to come forward. Starbuck starts planning a rescue op, but the chances of success before either the hostages are killed or the basestar fires on the civilian ships in the fleet seems limited. With the stakes growing by the minute, Colonel Tigh finally 'fesses up to Adama: he is a Cylon, activated by a signal in the Ionian Nebula.

This is the first masterclass scene in the episode. Michael Hogan and Edward Olmos give their all in this scene. Adama looks first confused, then suspicious and then finally enraged. Tigh, on the other hand, is first ashamed for keeping this secret for so long and then finally seems almost joyous to be relieved of his burden and able to give Adama a weapon to use against D'Anna. Whilst that may be true, this is one shock too far for Adama, who finally experiences a kind of mini-breakdown. Jamie Bamber, who has always been effective but rarely outstanding as Lee, finally comes into his own here. The scene of the son trying to comfort his crying, broken father is a powerful one and the two actors sell it completely (even going into method when Adama drools over his son's hand and Bamber just keeps going). Adama has been the bedrock of this show, the unmovable object which anchors everything down, and to see him finally cracking after 65-odd episodes of disciplined stoicism is a shock. With Adama out of commission and Tigh revealed to be a potential enemy agent, Lee has to step up to the plate and does so decisively, slugging Tigh, putting D'Anna firmly in her place and making the hard calls. Whilst the route that Lee took to becoming President may be highly questionable, once he's in that place you finally see where his arc has been heading since the mini-series, and it's a relief to see that it works and that the character and actor can handle it.

Elsewhere, all of the four have heard a signal drawing them to Starbuck's Viper. Anders, Tyrol and Starbuck's investigation is curtailed by Tigh giving up his fellow Cylons. Now we're in a classic BSG stand-off (D'Anna loves these: she was at the heart of the one that caused the Season 3 mid-season cliffhanger as well), with the Cylons threatening to airlock the hostages if Tigh, Tyrol and Anders aren't handed over and Lee threatening to do the same to the three Cylons if the hostages aren't released. Even Baltar's entreaties to D'Anna (whom he's been quite intimate with in the past) don't seem to have much impact. Obviously something else has to resolve the stand-off and that is accomplished by Starbuck, after futilely fiddling around with the DRADIS and black box recordings and other electronic gizmos on her Viper, comes up with the idea of switching the radio on. Sure enough, she picks up a Colonial transponder system leading to a star system a few light-years away: Earth.

The convenient neatness of this plot twist will probably infuriate those who have felt that BSG has moved away from the hard-edged realism of the first season and a half or so and become dependent on mystical hand-waving to resolve its plot threads. Refreshingly, this is actually challenged in the episode itself with Lee and Starbuck finally concluding that a 'higher power' is orchestrating events for their own purposes, rather than stuff happening for the sheer hell of it. Irritatingly, this isn't followed up on in the episode itself, but it still gives our heroes a way out of the impasse and no doubt paves the way for plotlines to come (the 'higher power', I suspect, will be the same force behind Head-Six and Head-Baltar, who have been notable for their absence from the last few episodes). The hostages are released, a broken Adama is healed somewhat by Roslin's return, the Penultimate Four are given an amnesty, Lee earns Roslin's respect and the humans and Cylons agree to go to Earth together.

The final act opens with a soaring blast of choral music. Composer Bear McCreary was asked to do something special for this episode and complied with a stunning piece called 'Diaspora Oratorio' (more on how he created it here). The fleet has moved towards the signal and is now a single jump away. Roslin gives the order, the fleet jumps and there is a moment of tension whilst the navigation crew work out where they are. The reports come in: the fleet has arrived intact in orbit above a blue-white planet. The constellations match the patterns recorded in the Temple of Athena on Kobol (in Season 2's Home, Part 2) exactly. Admiral Adama delivers the speech he's wanted to since accepting the reality of Earth's existence at the start of Season 2:

"Crew of Galactica. People of the fleet. This is Admiral Adama. Three years ago I promised to lead you to a new home. We've endured a difficult journey. We've all lost, we've all suffered, and the truth is, I questioned whether this day would ever come. But today our journey is at an end. We have arrived, at Earth."
There are mass celebrations. The CIC degenerates into cheering and shouting. There are shots of people celebrating throughout the fleet, even on the refinery ship. But against the happiness and celebrating there are moments of discord: Starbuck looking at the wall of the fallen showing those who haven't made it (particularly Kat); Tyrol playing with his motherless son; Tigh staring blankly into his bottle. But overall the feeling is one of relief and happiness. McCreary's score builds to a finale and we fade out over a shot of Earth. Damn, are they going to leave us there for seven months? But no, there's still another two minutes on the clock.

A detachment of Raptors, Cargo Lifters and Cylon Heavy Raiders drops through the atmosphere. Cut to a shot of Adama's hand sifting through the soil, whilst a giger counter clicks alarmingly. He looks pretty pissed off. A slow, deliberate pan takes in Roslin (who can only stare vacantly and say, "Earth,"), an utterly horrified D'Anna, the grim-faced Agathons, a blank-faced Anders (who brushes off Tory when she reaches to him for comfort), a devastated Lee, a despondent Baltar, a totally shocked Tigh (who similarly doesn't react when Six tries to comfort him), a strangely laughing Tyrol, a despondent Dualla, a grieving Leoben and, finally, Starbuck, who looks like she's regretting having led her friends to this place. The camera keeps going, taking in a twisted dome-like building before moving across what appears to be a large island, covered in the ruins of shattered skyscrapers before finally ending on the remnants of a broken, huge bridge. Fade to black.

This shot may go down in history as the most powerful thing the show has ever done. Building up the viewer's hopes and expectations over what Earth is through the partying and celebrating in the fleet, and then delivering a kick to the balls of monumental proportions by showing what appears to the ruins of a nuclear war. It's a deliciously dark image and one that leaves the audience's jaws on the floor and desperate to know what happens next. What does the fleet do now? Is the entire planet uninhabitable or are there remote areas free of radiation where the colonists may settle? Are Cavil and the other Cylons still on our heroes' trail? Who is the Final Cylon? Who or what has manipulated the humans and Cylons into coming to Earth if it's just a burned-out wasteland, and for what purpose? Where is the signal that Starbuck's Viper picking up coming from? And if this is a future Earth, where are its communications satellites? Could some people have escaped whatever happened before the end and fled somewhere else in space? It's going to be a long, cruel wait before we get the answers. During that time expect every frame of that final shot to be scrutinised in-depth (is that New York? Or Sydney? Tokyo? Vancouver? Or some future city not even dreamed of as yet?) and every interview and utterence from the producers to be raked over for clues.

410: Revelations (*****)

Forthcoming: Sometimes a Great Notion, The Disquiet That Follows My Soul, The Oath, Blood on the Scales, No Exit, Someone to Watch Over Me.

The second half of Season 4 will start airing in the 'first quarter' of 2009, with January mooted as a possible date. Between now and then there will be ten webisodes directed by Jamie Bamber and James Callis that link the two halves of the season. It also appears likely that there will be an additional TV movie which will be filmed in the summer and screened around November time, but this hasn't been formally commissioned yet. The first half of Season 4 will be released on DVD in the USA in December, but at the moment it looks like the Region 2 release won't be until next year, so the season can be released in one go.

Monday 16 June 2008

Galacticawatch 6: Season 4, Eps 6-9

Hang on, aren't there ten episodes in the first half of BSG Season 4, you may be asking? Correct, there are. But episode ten is pretty monumental - actually the biggest episode of the series to date - so much so that I'll be discussing it by itself (a first on the blog for a standard 45-minute episode of television) later on in the week, after it airs in the UK and Ireland on Tuesday.

Anyway, the first five episodes left off with Starbuck facing a mutiny against her command on the Demetrius after she decided to trust the Cylon Leoben and have him take them to his basestar. Faith opens with a stand-off as Helo, Starbuck's XO and best friend, joins the mutiny. However, Anders steps up and supports Starbuck, but takes a step too far by shooting Gaeta in the leg. As the crew rally to save their comrade, Starbuck realises her actions have been irrational and decides to take a skeleton crew of volunteers (consisting of Athena, Anders and Barolay, a former member of both Anders' and the New Caprica reistance movements) on a single Raptor to investigate. As Starbuck tries to forge a peace with the stricken basestar, Laura Roslin faces her own mortality with the help of another cancer patient, Emily Kowalski.

Faith is an effective episode that begins to batter down the lines drawn in the sand between the Cylons and humans. Whilst misunderstandings continue (two Cylons and a human die before the two sides seem to be able to start trusting one another), the episode effectively builds to the point where you can believe that some sort of mutual accomodation may be possible, even if Starbuck's sudden acceptance of Leoben as some kind of guide to her visions after what he did to her on New Caprica is a bit much to swallow. Katee Sackhoff does sterling work this episode, especially her reaction to what the Cylon Hybrid tells her about her future and that the Final Five know the way to Earth (which also gives the show a much-needed sense of direction for the first time since New Caprica). There are also effective moments depicting Anders' reaction to being on a Cylon baseship for the first time, such as him comforting the dying Eight and wondering what would happen if he stuck his hand in a Cylon control node. However, the acting meat of the episode is back on Galactica as producer Ronald D. Moore calls in one of his Deep Space Nine cohorts, Nana Visitor, to depict the dying Emily. Whilst it's an expected storyline - the first step in softening the hardass that Roslin has become and making her question her own views of religion and what Baltar and his cult are preaching to the fleet - both Visitor and McDonnell pull it off.

Guess What's Coming to Dinner? opens with the now-compliant Cylon basestar jumping right into the middle of the fleet, triggering a major crisis. Luckily, a tardy Demetrius shows up just in time to stop the Galactica fragging the basestar. We then have some nice revelatory moments where the Cylon rebel leader, Natalie, explains that Cylon resurrection technology is based around a single, huge mobile space station, the Hub. If the Hub is destroyed then the Resurrection Ships stop working and Cylon resurrection becomes impossible. She is offering the Colonials the opportunity for a joint mission to rescue D'Anna Biers, retrieve the identities of the Final Five from her, destroy the Hub and then proceed to Earth as partners. Obviously the Colonials are skeptical but the temptation of destroying the Hub and ending the Cylons' biggest advantage over the humans is too much for Roslin and Adama to ignore.

This is a solid episode, although it seems rather convenient that the Resurrection Hub, which was never mentioned until a few episodes ago, is such a massive Achilles' heel for the Cylons. Presumably the Hub took so long and so many resources to build it cannot easily be duplicated or replaced, but it still seems awfully convenient that such a weakness exists. Ignoring that plot convenience, there is much of interest in this episode with the Cylons and Colonials having to plan a joint attack mission and the Cylons debating about whether to betray the Colonials or not. Athena's reaction to what happens to Hera at the end of the episode is a little hard to swallow, however, considering that Natalie isn't even the same Six who picks Hera up in her vision of the Opera House on Kobol, and that there is no evidence that either the Six or Baltar in that vision actually wants to harm her. As a result the episode feels a little under-developed, and the methods used to ensure that Baltar and Roslin are on the basestar at the end of the episode are somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, a solid instalment that advances the plot. The CGI for the showdown between Galactica and the basestar is also, as ever, spectacular.

At this point the narrative splits in half. Sine Qua Non follows events on Galactica and in the fleet whilst The Hub switches to events on the basestar. Sine Qua Non is, frankly, the most bizarre episode of BSG in its history. The events that happen in the episode are not surprising, but the speed with which they occur and the reasoning behind it is. First off, we learn that Lee has apparently been in regular contact with Romo Lamkin (a welcome reappearance by Mark Shepherd) since the Season 3 finale but there has been no evidence for this. Secondly, the decision to replace Roslin as president seems premature. This episode makes it ambiguous how long she's been gone for, but the next reveals that both episodes cover a period of some two days only. As a result the political events in the fleet that lead to Lee becoming President seem ludicrous. If Roslin had gone missing for a week, perhaps this would be conceivable, but as it stands it's possibly the single most contrived plot development in the history of the series. Lee being President is logical, even predictable given his character development since the mini-series, but it happening so fast is not believable. Then we have Romo losing it, having cat hallucinations and threatening Lee at gunpoint, which is all extremely silly.

Elsewhere, Adama becomes consumed by the need to search for Roslin and endangers the fleet's security to do so. Sound familiar? It's a re-run of the Season 1 episode You Can't Go Home Again, where Starbuck crashed on a desolate moon and Lee and Adama endangered the fleet by staying to look for her long after any hope for her survival had passed. The parallel between the two events is even drawn in this episode by Adama admitting to losing his focus far more readily. The problem is that the situations are totally different: Starbuck was just one pilot, whilst Roslin is the President of the Twelve Colonies. Also, 50% of Galactica's Viper wing and pilots are also missing. Once they confirm that the Hub has been destroyed as well, it's also possible that the missing baseship also contains D'Anna and the information that will lead to the discovery of Earth. Employing all means to search for the ship makes perfect sense, and the sequence of events that leads to Adama stepping down in favour of Tigh - whom he has just berated for getting the captive Six pregnant! - and staying behind in a Raptor on the off-chance the basestar shows up again is utterly implausible. That said, seeing Adama get into a flight suit again and take on his callsign of 'Husker' is quite cool. But overall Sine Qua Non is a badly-conceived episode that takes us back to the dark days of mid-to-late Season 3 when things were happening that didn't make any kind of sense.

The Hub switches over to the basestar and thankfully things are much more interesting here. The Hybrid is unhappy with Natalie's death and decides to attack the Hub by herself ("We don't need no stinking battlestar!", or something). Whilst Baltar and Roslin try (and fail) to get some sense out of the Hybrid - who is in danger of just becoming a convenient plot device at this point - the Cylon and Colonial pilots have to learn to get along, which isn't as easy as it seems. There also very amusing subplots where Helo meets an Eight who has downloaded his wife's memories and knows some very intimate things about him, which freaks him out a bit, and Baltar tries to find out if the robotic Centurions believe in the Cylon god. However, the latter part of the episode belongs first to Mary McDonnell as she finds out about Baltar's involvement in the destruction of the Colonies and debates leaving him to die when he is wounded in the battle, and then Lucy Lawless as D'Anna returns from the dead, kills Cavil and then confounds Roslin's desire to know about the Final Five. There are some more nice CGI sequences in the battle, ending with the double-nuking of the Hub in slow motion, which is almost beautiful to watch, with Bear McCreary's score doing some excellent work over the top.

The episode ends with Roslin finally admitting her feelings to Adama, and Adama giving the best comeback to that phrase since Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

These four episodes provide plenty of build-up to what is BSG's biggest, and possibly best, cliffhanger episode to date. Check back for a review of that later in the week.

406: Faith (****)
407: Guess What's Coming to Dinner? (***½)
408: Sine Qua Non (**)
409: The Hub (****)

Forthcoming: Episode 410, Revelations, aired in the USA last Friday and will be shown in the UK on Sky One on Tuesday evening.