Tuesday 30 September 2008

Babylon 5: Season 1 - Signs and Portents

By 1991 Star Trek: The Next Generation was a smash-hit, the biggest and most successful space-based SF show in history pulling in over ten million viewers weekly. It was unsurprising that other studios would start looking for a piece of Paramount's space opera pie. Warner Brothers chose to go with a proposal by J. Michael Straczynski, a respected scriptwriter with a huge output and a solid background working in animation and on live-action shows such as Captain Power and Murder She Wrote. JMS, as he prefers to be known, had created an ambitious five-year plan. Unlike other series, Babylon 5 would have an unifying 'story arc' that would progress throughout the series. Characters would die, empires would fall and others would rise to replace them, but these epic events would be told through a relatively small number of characters located on a single space station.

The story opens in the year 2258. Babylon 5 is a five-mile-long space station constructed by the Earth Alliance. Located orbiting the third planet of the star Epsilon Eridani, the station is designed to fulfil a similar role to the UN, providing a forum for discussion and trade between more than two dozen races. The advisory council is made up of the 'big five' races: Earth, the Minbari Federation, the Centauri Republic, the Narn Regime and the Vorlon Empire. These races have some issues between them: Earth and the spiritual Minbari have recently fought a devastating war that nearly ended in the destruction of the human race, but the Minbari chose to spare them for reasons that remain unclear. The once-vast Centauri Republic has been forced to withdraw from a number of occupied worlds, including the Narn homeworld, and the Narn, a young, aggressive race, now hunger for revenge. The Vorlons, meanwhile, are exceptionally mysterious. They rarely attend council meetings and are clad in encounter suits which hide their true appearance. The races also have internal dissent: the Centauri are riven between the factions who favour peaceful coexistence with other races and those who want to return to the glory days, whilst tensions are rising between the Minbari religious and warrior castes.

Charting a path through the chaos are the crew of the Babylon 5 station, notably commanding officer Jeffrey Sinclair, first officer Susan Ivanova, security chief Michael Garibaldi, chief medical officer Stephen Franklin and registered telepath Talia Winters.

Season 1's role in the narrative is to introduce the races, concepts and underlying themes of the series. There is a huge amount going on, and it's impossible to deny that JMS has created a fantastically rich universe. In many ways it is the antithesis of Star Trek. Earth is riven by corruption and political dissent, and ranks only somewhere around the middle on the technological scale, centuries behind races like the Minbari, and they don't even have artificial gravity (B5 and the larger Earth warships have to spin to simulate gravity; most ships are weightless environments). There's also a concentration on the 'little man', with several episodes focusing on the homeless and working class of the station, and one even heavily featuring labour and union relations of the 23rd Century. However, there are also several major space battles and some very impressive early CGI, most of which still stands up well today (aside from the slight problem that the CGI shots were not rendered at full film quality, meaning they look a little fuzzy on DVD, but not enough to impair enjoyment of the show).

Season 1 mostly consists of stand-alone episodes, but each episode usually has something to add to the overall tapestry of the story, and the late-season episodes Eyes and Chrysalis do an excellent job of showing what role those apparently unrelated tales in the grander narrative. The quality of the episodes and performances also varies tremendously. A key problem is Michael O'Hare as Sinclair, whose performance is a little too stoic and stiff. When he is forced to come to life, he overacts somewhat badly. Notably his better performances come when he strikes the right note between the two, but these moments are rare throughout the first season. Elsewhere the cast is first-rate, particularly the late Andreas Katsulas as Narn Ambassador G'Kar and Peter Jurasik as Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari. Both have comic elements to them and the actors pull them off, but it is the dramatic tension between them as their races squabble for power that impresses the most. Jerry Doyle also makes an impression as Garibaldi. Not a trained actor (he was a stockbroker before taking on the role), he lacks confidence at the start of the season but improves throughout.

Of the episodes, the highlights are And the Sky Full of Stars, in which Sinclair starts uncovering why the Minbari gave up on the brink of their victory; Signs and Portents, in which Londo inadvertantly strikes a bargain with an enigmatic faction; Babylon Squared, a time travel story in which we get some clues as to what is going to happen several years down the line; and the magnificent Chrysalis, one of the best episodes of TV SF ever, which gives the viewer the feeling that the writer has gone completely insane, torn up the show's bible and now anything can happen. However, to balance this out are episodes which are simply dire, such as Infection, Mind War (despite a heroic performance by former Star Trek alumni Walter Koenig as Psi Cop Bester), TKO and Grail.

Season 1 of Babylon 5 (***½) successfully intrigues the viewer in this vivid and fascinating world. It is well worth a look, even if it fails to match the dizzying heights of the successive two seasons. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA either by itself or as part of the Complete Babylon 5 DVD set (UK, USA).

101: Midnight on the Firing Line (***)
102: Soul Hunter (****)
103: Born to the Purple (***)
104: Infection (*)
105: The Parliament of Dreams (****)
106: Mind War (*½)
107: The War Prayer (*)
108: And the Sky Full of Stars (****½)
109: Deathwalker (****)
110: Believers (***)
111: Survivors (***½)
112: By Any Means Necessary (***)
113: Signs and Portents (*****)
114: TKO (*½)
115: Grail (**)
116: Eyes (***)
117: Legacies (***)
118: A Voice in the Wilderness, Part 1 (***½)
119: A Voice in the Wilderness, Part 2 (***)
120: Babylon Squared (****½)
121: The Quality of Mercy (****)
122: Chrysalis (*****)

Sunday 28 September 2008

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

The Dragon Reborn - as I am sure most people have guessed - is the third volume in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series and was originally published in 1991. It is notable within the series for marking the end of the 'adventure' phase of the series. After this book on, the main characters start becoming major players in the politics of the world.

The Dragon Reborn picks up a few months after the end of The Great Hunt. With the invading armies of the Seanchan driven back into the sea, Rand al'Thor has also defeated Ba'alzamon for a second time, but their battle was seen in the skies above the city of Falme. Rumour is spreading that the Dragon has been Reborn and the kingdoms of the west - Tarabon and Arad Doman - have been plunged into war and civil war. Torn by self-doubt over whether he is the real Dragon Reborn, Rand decides to prove it once and for all by travelling to Tear. The fall of the fortress that guards the city, the Stone of Tear, is the greatest sign in the Prophecies of the Dragon that the true Dragon has emerged. Whilst Rand proceeds on his own, Perrin, Moiraine, Lan and Loial pursue him. Meanwhile, Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have returned to the White Tower but rather than face a heroes' welcome for their part in the defeat of the Seanchan, they find themselves accused of being runaways. As they struggle for acceptance, they also learn of a new threat to Rand, which will also take them to Tear.

The Dragon Reborn is a pretty tightly-focused book, with three major storylines proceeding in tandem and events driving the characters in all three arcs to a major convergence in the city of Tear. The biggest surprise of the novel is that the central character of Rand, who drove the first two novels, is all but absent from this third book. Instead, most of the book is related through his two friends, Mat and Perrin, and the trainee Aes Sedai as they are dispatched on a dangerous mission by the Amyrlin Seat. A number of interesting new characters also appear, such as the thief-taker Juilin Sander and Zarine 'Faile' Bashere, who is probably among the most unpopular characters in the books (although I always found her tolerable, at least up until the last few installments). The (relatively) rapid intercutting back and forth between the three storylines makes this feel like the shortest book in the series. In fact, with the possible exception of some of the toing-and-froing in the White Tower, the book has remarkably little filler or fat to wade through, making it among the fastest reads in the series.

Are there any complaints? Well, the overall story is becoming a little too reliant on plot coupons: the Horn of Valere and the cursed dagger in the second book, the dreaming ter'angreal and the sword housed in the Stone of Tear in this one. The book is also mostly taken up by characters travelling from one point to another, making it feel rather transitional. Balanced against that is some excellent character development (most notably for Perrin, who was low-key in the second volume as he struggled with his own problems but in this volume makes important progress to finding a new role in life) and a much greater focus on Mat. Whilst the other characters have the weight of the world on their shoulders, Mat fairly consistently throughout the series comes across as the most fun character to read about, and his adventures in this book are memorable and set up a lot of future plot developments in an entertaining manner. There's also the introduction of certain metaphysical concepts such as the World of Dreams, which adds a fascinating psychological/metaphorical side to the more mundane epic fantasy trappings of the story.

The Dragon Reborn (****) is another enjoyable addition to the overall series which tries some new things (pushing Rand out of the limelight) and generally pulls them off. The novel is available in the UK from Orbit and in the USA from Tor.

Friday 26 September 2008

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt is the second volume in Robert Jordan's gigantic, rainforest-devastating Wheel of Time series. It was originally published in late 1990 and like the first volume, The Eye of the World, was an immediate big seller.

The story picks up a month or so after The Eye of the World. Rand al'Thor has discovered he can channel the One Power and thus is doomed to go insane and die, wreaking terrible destruction at the same time. Normally it would be the responsibility of the Aes Sedai sisterhood to 'gentle' him, remove his ability to channel, but Rand's Aes Sedai mentor, Moiraine, and the head of the sisterhood, Siuan Sanche, believe that he is the Dragon Reborn, the long-prophesied saviour who will defeat the Dark One at the Last Battle. As such, they have no choice but to let him go free. When the twisted, insane Padan Fain steals the legendary Horn of Valere and the cursed dagger from Shadar Logoth upon which the life of Rand's friend Mat depends, a band of hunters are assembled to track Fain down and reclaim the dagger. Meanwhile, Egwene and Nynaeve travel to Tar Valon to begin their training as Aes Sedai, but find danger lurking even within the walls of the White Tower. In the far west, on Toman Head, rumours speak of the arrival of strangers who apparently use the One Power in battle and use savage beasts in combat, strangers who will not rest until all the lands are under their control...again.

The Great Hunt sees a notable widening of the scope of the world seen in the first book. Whilst the first novel perhaps veered too close to Lord of the Rings' characters and structure to be entirely comfortable, the sequel takes off in a completely different direction. Whilst the series' slightly irritating tendency to be obsessed with 'plot coupons' gets its start here, it does give the book a classical quest structure and deals with the parallel timelines as the core group from the first book gets split up and we follow them separately until their reunion at the end. Jordan also introduces a whole new threat in the form of the Seanchan, a powerful empire ruling a continent beyond the western ocean who now want to reclaim the homeland of their founder (Artur Hawkwing's son). This out-of-left-field threat does an excellent job of shaking things up, whilst the suspicious timing (the Seanchan invasion occurs at the same time the forces of the Shadow are gaining strength in the world) is later revealed as deliberate. The characters are deepened and made more interesting, particularly Rand and Perrin who are shown to grow and change as a result of the revelations they have discovered and the things they have suffered in the first novel. However, we also get to see the Dumb Aes Sedai plot trope get the first of many wearying outings, as Nynaeve, Elayne and Egwene get led into a trap which couldn't be any more painfully obvious. Only their relative youth and naivete makes it convincing in this book; the fact that Elayne is still falling for these things as late as Book 11 is rather more dubious.

The Great Hunt (****) is a notable improvement on the first book, taking the world, story and characters in refreshing and interesting new directions. Jordan's mastery of his enormous narrative is evident here, and even a certain economy (not a word normally associated with the verbose Jordan) of plotting can be detected as some major storylines are rattled through in just a few pages (the Seanchan themselves, surprisingly, don't appear until the book is more than halfway done). The novel is published by Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA, and is followed by The Dragon Reborn.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

The Sandman: Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman

The sixth Sandman collection turns to the ideas of taletelling, leadership and responsibility. Fables and Reflections is obstinately a random grouping of single-issue stories and short narrative arcs that didn't really fit in with the larger, more epic stories that make up the bulk of the series, but the collection is cohesive in theme and consistent in quality. For my money, it may be the best of the Sandman collections; certainly some of the stories in here qualify as among the very best things Neil Gaiman has ever written.

The collection opens with a very short (10 page) story called Fear of Falling. It's a very simple tale, possibly the simplest thing Gaiman has ever written. A New York playwright is terrified that his new play is rubbish, and plans to call it off and dump it. In a dream he finds himself ascending a rock pinnacle, atop which the Sandman is waiting. The dreamer finds himself revitalised and presses ahead with the play. Very simple, yet surprisingly effective.

Three Septembers and a January (Gaiman stole the title from a certain movie script his friend Richard Curtis was working on at the time) kicks the collection off in style. Joshua Norton, a failed San Francisco entrepreneur, is preparing to commit suicide in 1859 after his latest business collapses. Despair of the Endless summons her brother Dream and challenges him to a wager that he cannot give Norton back his sense of purpose. Dream does so, amplifying Norton's tightly-held belief that the USA's lack of moral purpose is a result of it not having a king. As a result Joshua Norton proclaims himself Emperor of the United States of America. Astonishingly, he seems to gain some success. The writer Sam Clemens (aka 'Mark Twain') comes to him for advice, his own stamped banknotes become legal tender in some parts of the city and he earns the respect of several feuding Chinatown gangs. Several attempts to have him sectioned come to nothing, as the city's judiciary points out that unlike some emperors Norton has started no wars and killed no-one. When he dies of natural causes in 1880, over ten thousand people turn out to line the streets of San Francisco and a total eclipse of the Sun takes place. And, brilliantly, it is a true story (well, not the Dream and Despair bit, obviously, but the rest of it is). This is Gaiman at his funniest, most heart-warming and cleverest. The writer disliked it for years as he was suspicious of sentiment, but it has aged very well.

Thermidor, on the other hand, sees Gaiman's dark side kicking in. In 1794 Ms. Johanna Constantine is dispatched by Dream on a dangerous mission into Revolutionary Paris at the very height of the Reign of Terror, during which she runs afoul of both Louis-Antoine St. Just and Robespierre himself. This is a taut, dark and intense story which mixes together Greek legend and French history to great effect. Then we have The Hunt, the typical story of the hero setting out to rescue the princess. Except he's a murderous werewolf. And the story is being told by a New York Jewish immigrant to his granddaughter, who at one point decries it for being too post-modern. It's a nice little story with a cameo appearance by Baba Yaga, but I'm not entirely sure what Gaiman was trying to achieve with it.

August, on the other hand, is terrific. The Roman Emperor Augustus (Octavian) sees two visions of the future of Rome: one where it splutters for a few centuries and dies, but in the doing so sets humanity free, and another where it lasts for ten thousand years and takes the human race to the stars. As he struggles to decide which path to set in motion, he goes out amongst the people to ponder what the Empire is and what it has become. Soft Places sees several travellers lost in space and time meet to share a campfire, including the young Marco Polo and Fiddler's Green, a denizen of the Dreaming. The Parliament of Rooks sees young Daniel Hall, son of Lyta and the baby Dream has taken a special interest in, venture into the Dreaming where he is treated to some stories by Cain, Abel, Eve and Matthew. This is a dark but funny story, and the revelation of how many wives Adam actually had may be illuminating to those who think they know their Bible myths inside and out.

The longest story in the collection is Orpheus, but it's also probably the least satisfying as it is merely a straightforward retelling of the Orpheus story. Anyone who's read their Ovid or even a sketchy account of the Greek myths should be familiar with the basics. Here it is recontextualised as being part of the Sandman universe, but not much more beyond that is achieved. Still, it's fun to finally meet Destruction, based on British actor Brian Blessed.

The collection is concluded with the stellar Ramadan. Caliph Haroun al Raschid is the ruler of Baghdad circa 810 AD, when it is the greatest place on Earth with travellers and traders from every corner of the globe coming to visit the great city. Realising that the city can only decline from this point on, al Raschid summons the Sandman to make a bargain to ensure the city will live on, forever...

Fables and Reflections (*****) is a superb collection of stories and musings about stories. For those wondering why Neil Gaiman is acclaimed as one of the greatest and most imaginative writers of his generation, look no further than this collection and its insightful introduction, provided by Gene Wolfe. It is available from Titan in the UK and Vertigo in the USA. The stories in this collection are also scattered between The Absolute Sandman, Volume II (UK, USA) and Volume III (UK, USA).

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Red Dwarf to return!

The successful SF sitcom Red Dwarf is to return to British TV screens after a ten-year hiatus. The original series aired eight seasons and 52 episodes from 1988 to 1999, becoming BBC-2's longest-running sitcom (a record still held to this day) and winning audiences of over 8 million in its heyday, sometimes demolishing the opposition on the mainstream channels of BBC-1 and ITV. After Doctor Who, it is the most successful SF show produced by the BBC in terms of revenue generated and international sales, with enormous success on both VHS and DVD. There was even a pilot produced for an American version of the series in 1993, but this didn't lead to an ongoing series.

The premise has the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf on an extended tour of the Solar system, conducting mining operations on several moons of the outer gas giants, when a lethal radiation leak wipes out the entire crew, with the sole exception of Third Technician Dave Lister, who has been sentenced to a disciplinary spell in stasis after smuggling a pet cat on board through quarantine. To avoid exposing other humans to the danger, the ship's AI, Holly (IQ 6000), takes it out of the Solar system and into deep space. Once the radiation has died down to a safe background level he releases Lister from stasis. Unfortunately, this takes three million years. Lister finds himself alone in a remote part of the Galaxy, possibly the last human alive, with only a senile computer for company, so Holly resurrects Lister's direct superior officer, Second Technician Arnold Judas Rimmer, as a hologram to 'keep him sane'. They also discover that thanks to the radiation leak, Lister's cats' descendants have evolved into a humanoid form and left the ship, leaving behind only one representative. Lister, Rimmer, Holly and Cat take the Red Dwarf back to Earth, eventually being joined by a robotic janitor named Kryten. Along the way they have various comic adventures.

The series was created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who co-scripted the first six seasons. The series' success was put down to its everyman hero, Dave Lister, who has zero knowledge of astronomy or physics, and the relationship between him and the impossibly arrogant and incompetent Rimmer. Also, the show utilised quite complex SF ideas such as quantum theory and parallel universes to carry forward its comedic plots, rather than simply laughing at the genre. After the sixth season aired in 1993, Rob Grant decided to leave to pursue a solo writing career. There was also a lengthy hiatus brought about by the cast pursuing other projects. When it returned for its final two seasons in 1997-99 it was noticeably bigger-budget and slicker, but the writing was definitely a lot weaker and relied on already-existing storylines, characters and injokes rather than creating new material. Despite this the series achieved record audience figures for its final season.

Doug Naylor then chose to spend the next several years trying to find backing for a movie version of the series, coming close to a deal several times, but each time being disappointed. He officially abandoned the project last year and reopened negotiations with the BBC for the series to return. With the enormous success of the resurrected Doctor Who and the huge DVD sales of the series (Red Dwarf has sold more DVDs than any other British comedy series bar only The Office), he assumed that the BBC would be interested in a new series, but was surprised when the network told him that the show was "Too commercial," for them to consider at the time.

However, whilst the BBC itself was not interested in the show returning to its original home on BBC-2, BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the organisation, agreed to co-fund a revival of the series along with the Freeview channel UKTV. After some discussion, it was agreed to fund four new half-hour shows. The first will be a documentary about how the show has survived and its popularity has grown during the decade-long hiatus. The second and third will be 30-minute new episodes with the return of the full cast, and the fourth will be a clip show 'with a difference'. The four episodes are in production now and are expected to be aired some time in 2009 on UKTV's affiliated channel Dave.

World in Conflict

Few countries in the world are as safe from military invasion as the United States. With vast oceans on two sides and friendly land neighbours on either border, the notion of any large-scale land offensive being possible against the country is pretty amusing. Even the possibility of a Soviet invasion of Alaska during the Cold War seems to have been considered pretty far-fetched, due to the remoteness and harshness of the terrain.

Nevertheless, fiction seems to love throwing up the possibility of a hostile force invading the USA and computer games seem to particularly relish the concept (Red Alert 2 also explored the concept). World in Conflict is set in an alternate 1989 where the faltering USSR, instead of allowing itself to disintegrate, instead lashed out at Europe and, once US forces were fully engaged there, snuck an expeditionary force into Seattle Harbour on disguised civilian freighters. With the US Army fully committed to the defence of Europe, it falls to a small number of army units to delay the Soviet advance long enough to evacuate Seattle, set up a command centre in the Cascade Range, and then launch a counter-attack.

The notion is pretty silly, although the developers try to make it work: the attack on Seattle is meant to divert American resources from Europe rather than as part of a full-scale attempt to invade the USA itself, and the operation is also meant to establish a bridgehead from which a raid can be launched to destroy the headquarters of the USA's SDI or 'Star Wars' programme, opening the US to nuclear attack. However, let's be honest here, this is a solidly enjoyable computer game. The plot isn't of paramount importance.

The game was developed by Massive Entertainment, the masterminds behind the Ground Control games, the finest slices of real-time strategy between the release of StarCraft: Brood War and the arrival of Company of Heroes seven years later. Anyone who has played Ground Control or its sequel should feel at home here. If you haven't, then I thoroughly recommend you remedy that immediately, as those are spectacularly good games. World in Conflict uses the same camera system and the same methods of reinforcement, position-holding and artillery bombardments as Ground Control II. The graphics are better, naturally, but oddly only really for Vista owners using Direct X 10. Windows XP users will note only modest improvements over Ground Control II, rather oddly.

There is no base-building in the game. Instead, you call in reinforcements by 'paying' for them from a pool of points. These points regenerate over time and are awarded for holding 'control points' on the battlefield and destroying enemy units. You also get points towards calling in various off-map aids, such as air strikes and artillery bombardments, which can be decisive in certain battles. Whilst you can't construct bases, if you hold a control point with units for long enough, defensive turrets will appear to assist in the holding of these strongpoints, which is where the biggest battles occur.

The single-player campaign is terrific fun, due to some great writing and the fact the story is told from civilian and grunt POVs as well as those of the generals fighting the grand strategy. I particularly found the story following the two soldiers trying to find some batteries for their portable CD player to be quite amusing. The story is also built a nice manner, as at a moment of high drama it suddenly cuts away to the European front six months earlier and you have to play several missions there before returning to the present. Most of the missions are great fun, with the outstanding highlight probably being the one where you take control of a massive force of helicopters and try to defeat a Soviet special forces squad which has taken over Governor's, Ellis and Liberty islands in New York Harbour.

However, there are key weaknesses. The Ground Control games gave you objectives and left it up to you how you handled them. Changes to objectives happened via radio in the middle of the mission, but you never lost control of your units. However, World in Conflict insists on wrenching control away from you to play some cut-scene every five minutes, which gets annoying. There are also plenty of early missions where there is no reason given for you not to have more powerful units, forcing you to take on Soviet heavy tanks with APCs which have to constantly run away and repair.

Multiplayer is where a lot of the game's focus lies and this is great fun, with different reinforcement techniques and game types giving some good replayability.

World in Conflict (****) is a solid real-time strategy game. If it doesn't live up to the standards of its forebears or the other recent RTS Company of Heroes, it isn't for lack of trying. The game is available on the PC in the UK and USA. A sequel, Soviet Assault, featuring the same events from the Soviet POV and also due for release on X-Box 360 and PS3, has been completed but the unexpected sale of Massive Entertainment to another publisher, its fate is in severe doubt at the moment.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Edge of Darkness

In some circles, Edge of Darkness is regarded as the Citizen Kane of BBC mini-series. First broadcast in late 1985, it won an absolute ton of awards, including BAFTAs for Best Series, Best Actor (Bob Peck), Best Music, Best Cameraman, Best Sound and Best Editor. It made stars, in some cases rather briefly, out of Bob Peck (best known to US audiences as big game hunter Muldoon in Jurassic Park) and Joanne Whalley (who went on to star in Willow and marry Val Kilmer) and bolstered the profile of director Martin Campbell, who later helmed the James Bond movies (GoldenEye and Casino Royale). The musical score is highly distinctive, the result of a collaboration between composer Michael Kamen and guitarist Eric Clapton.

Yorkshire police detective Ronald Craven (Peck) is investigating election rigging in the union of the local mineworkers when his daughter, Emma (Whalley), is shot dead in front of him. The police investigation works on the basis that it was a revenge killing by someone Craven put away, but Craven starts uncovering evidence that his daughter was involved in a secretive organisation called 'Gaia', which is opposed to the spread of nuclear power in Britain. After travelling to London to help further the investigation, Craven is contacted by two British intelligence agents who believe there is a connection between the murder and a covered-up break-in at the Northmoor nuclear power station. The US government, which is trying to get its hands on as much plutonium as possible for its Cold War arsenal, also takes an interest and assigns CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker) to help Craven with the investigation. Throughout the investigation, Craven is suffering from shock and trauma over his daughter's death, and finds himself only able to cope by imagining that Emma is still alive and able to help with the investigation.

Edge of Darkness is, bizarrely, almost more topical today than it was almost a quarter of a century ago. Once again Britain finds itself riven by controversy over nuclear energy and environmentalism, and after a decade or so of being out of the spotlight, James Lovelock's Gaia theories again seem to be becoming more popular. However, it is the writing and acting that makes the serial so compelling. Peck gives a strong performance as the shell-shocked Craven and Whalley is effective as his daughter (in both her 'real' and arguably 'supernatural' states), but it is Joe Don Baker as the golf-obsessed, Come Dancing-watching, gun-toting, one-man army Jedburgh who steals every scene he is in. Baker shades the character enough not to turn him into a cliche, although the slightly bizarre turn his character takes in the final episode may have been a case of the writer realising he's created a badass character they audience might end up rooting for and trying to head that possibility off, with mixed results. There are also excellent minor turns from actors such as Ian McNeice (best-known to US audiences probably as Baron Harkonnen in the Sci-Fi Channel's version of Dune) and Zoe Wanamaker (Madam Hooch in the third Harry Potter movie, probably better-known for her role in the long-running BBC sitcom My Family).

This is a superior drama. The writing is tight and the revelations are logical and well-played. The hypocrisy of the politicians and businessmen involved (who seem to be deadly rivals one moment, and then best friends once their interests align) is excellently depicted. However, it does stumble in the last episode. The series feels like it should have ended with the fifth episode, with Craven and Jedburgh mounting an infiltration of Northmoor and uncovering the secrets there. The final episode, disappointingly, comes across as more of a writer's polemic with the formerly subtle exploration of the themes rammed down our throats in a rather obvious manner. However, the final scene and the symbolism of what it means for the long-term survival of the human race, remains powerful.

Edge of Darkness (****½) is a haunting, compelling mini-series. That it falls at the last hurdle shouldn't take away the quality of the earlier part of the story. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA. Martin Campbell is currently shooting a cinematic remake of the story, with Mel Gibson starring as Craven and Ray Winstone as Jedburgh, for release in 2009.

Friday 19 September 2008

Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian Cameron Esslemont

2008 is proving to be something of a bumper year for fans of the Malazan universe. Steven Erikson's eighth novel in the setting, Toll the Hounds, was published back in June and the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon, has seen two reprintings this year. The first was as a new, wallet-friendly budget edition from Bantam designed to entice new readers to the series, whilst Subterranean Press are about to release a new, limited edition beautifully illustrated by the mighty Michael Kormack. And to top it all off, Ian Cameron Esslemont, the co-creator of the Malazan world, has had his second novel published.

Return of the Crimson Guard starts shortly after the events of Erikson's sixth book, The Bonehunters. The Malazan Empire is in trouble. Whilst the Genabackan campaign has ended in peaceful negotiations with Anomander Rake's Tiste Andii and the remaining free cities, the Seven Cities theatre has turned into a bloodbath. The rebellion known as the Whirlwind has been crushed only at a truly staggering cost, whilst the subcontinent has been devastated by plague. The two most disgraced officers of that campaign, Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom, have somehow come up smelling of roses and risen to high office within the Empire. They have turned the blame for that campaign on the Wickans, and now Malazan settlers desperate for new land are embarking on a pogrom of the Wickan homelands. Elsewhere, the near-annihilation of the elite imperial assassin-mages, the Claw, in the battle for Malaz City has seen Empress Laseen's position weakened and long-quiescent nationalist movements across Quon Tali, the Empire's heartland, have awoken with a passion. The 'old guard' who believe that Laseen betrayed the first Emperor, Kellenvad, have joined forces with the Talian League on a mission to pull Laseen down.

Whilst the Malazan Empire braces itself for its first major civil war, its enemies prepare to move against it. A century ago, when the Malazans overran the Duchy of Avore, its leader, K'azz D'avore, swore a vow not to rest, not even to die, until the Empire was destroyed. Thus was born the Crimson Guard, the most elite fighting force in the world who have opposed the Malazans on multiple fronts. Now the Guard are regrouping in Stratem with one goal: to strike at the Empire in its moment of weakness and utterly destroy it.

Whilst Erikson's novels have concentrated mostly on the Empire's foreign theatres and events in distant lands, Esslemont has clearly made it his job to examine the Empire itself. Night of Knives was the story of a tumultuous single night in the history of the Empire, whilst Return of the Crimson Guard shows the consequences of some of the events in Erikson's books on the Empire's heartland. Whilst Night of Knives was a bonus or add-on story, Return of the Crimson Guards is a much more important, integral part of the overall Malazan story. Characters only briefly seen or alluded to in Erikson's books are on centre stage here. Major, earth-shattering events take place which will have a major fall-out on future Malazan books. There's even a running gag from Erikson's books (involving a bunch of arrogant Tiste Liosan) which gets revisited here.

Quality-wise, Return is a major improvement over Knives. The events are much bigger, with multiple storylines, each quite complex on its own, building to a huge convergence on the Seti Plains for the conclusion which doesn't disappoint: the biggest battle in the entire series to date, which considering the likes of the Chain of Dogs or the Siege of Capustan in Memories of Ice, is really saying something. The story is told by a large number of POV characters, including a young Crimson Guard recruit, the unwilling figurehead of the Talian League and multiple League and Malazan soldiers and mages. Shockingly, a lot of these characters talk like people actually would talk, rather than engaging in Proust-style discourses on the metaphysical nature of truth or something at random moments (one of Erikson's key flaws). Esslemont also has a much clearer writing style that Erikson and doesn't get bogged down as much in pointless naval-gazing semantics (as a result the book is easily 300 pages shorter than if Erikson had written it), although on the flipside his writing doesn't quite reach the heights of Erikson when he is on-form. Esslemont also has a great sense of humour going on here, with the increasingly bad luck of the Chief Factor of Cawn and the Untan citizenry's reaction to the news they are being 'liberated' being notable comic high points. The traditional Malazan problem of enigmatic figures turning up, making dire pronouncements and then vanish, only to be explained three books down the line, continues to irritate, however.

Return of the Crimson Guard (****) is a breathlessly enjoyable novel, featuring a relentless, driving pace the Malazan series has not enjoyed since Memories of Ice. It is certainly not flawless, but I found it to be the best overall Malazan novel since Midnight Tides. The book is available in hardcover and trade paperback in the UK. It does not have a US publisher at the moment, but is available from The Book Depository with free international shipping, or as an import via Amazon.com. A two-volume limited edition is also available from PS Publishing.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Happy 30th Birthday Battlestar Galactica!

On 17 September 1978 a huge number of Americans (60 million, according to some counts) sat down to watch the pilot episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. The original series, starring Lorne Greene (who had won fame on the Western Bonanza), John Colicos, Dirk Benedict (a few years from his success on The A-Team) and Richard Hatch ran for a single season, notching up 24 episodes, before it was cancelled by ABC. Although the audience figures were huge, the budget (over $1 million per episode, vast money by the standards of the day) was crippling and unsustainable.

A second season, which allegedly would have dropped the cheese factor in favour of new, harder-SF stories advised on by Isaac Asimov, was already deep in the planning stages when the news fell. However, ABC were still keen to exploit the Galactica franchise and asked original creator Glen A. Larson to develop a much cheaper sequel series (in which Galactica arrives at present-day Earth). The result was Galactica 80, a series so heinously bad it was written out of canon and very quickly cancelled.

Multiple attempts were made to resurrect the show, with original star Richard Hatch keeping the fires burning with a new line of comic books and novels before he produced an amateur mock-trailer filled with modern CGI effects. The show also did well in the VHS market. In 2000 Fox collaborated with the X-Men team of producer Tom DeSanto and director Bryan Singer on a new sequel series to the original starring several of the original cast and picking up the story 20 years on. It was abandoned just weeks before shooting was due to begin due to the uncertainty afflicting the entertainment industry in the wake of the 9-11 terror attacks. Singer also left to work on X-Men 2, and without his name attached Fox felt unable to continue. Surprisingly, the Sci-Fi Channel swiftly stepped in, picked up the rights and David Eick and Ronald D. Moore were brought in to develop a reimagining of the show, which debuted in 2003 and has since become one of the most critically-acclaimed shows on TV. Its final ten episodes air from January 2009.

The modern show, with its critical acclaim and awards, wouldn't have been possible without the original, warts and all. So here's to the original BSG, complete with its annoying kid sidekick, space discos and monkey space dogs, without which the SF TV world would be somewhat poorer.

Modern BSG CGI creator Mojo interviews original Cylon designer Andrew Probert here and waxes lyrical about the original show here:

On Sunday, September 17th, 1978, ABC premiered Battlestar Galactica. THIRTY years ago. How old do you feel now? It seems like everyone remembers May 25th, the anniversary of that other space franchise with Luke what’s-his-name, but why no love for September 17? I know I’ll always remember. Sure, I was teased as a kid for wearing my Starbuck jacket to school and teachers chastised me for drawing Vipers in my notebook when I should have been paying attention in class, but you know what? The day I cashed my first paycheck with words Battlestar Galactica on it is the day I offically told all those nay-sayers to bite me. So yeah, I remember.

Sunday 14 September 2008

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World is the first volume in Robert Jordan's best-selling Wheel of Time series. Originally published in 1990, this was supposed to be the first book in a six-volume series. Instead, the series doubled in size. The eleventh book, Knife of Dreams, was published in 2005. The author passed away in 2007 whilst working on the final book, A Memory of Light, which will be completed by fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson for publication in late 2009.

With sales of 44 million and no less than four New York Times #1 bestsellers, The Wheel of Time is the most popular work of epic fantasy since The Lord of the Rings. However, it also one of the most divisive. The series has always attracted mixed reviews and has never won any major awards, but its fans love it, and some of the WoT fansites are the biggest SF&F forums and websites on the Internet. Jordan also became tremendously influential, with authors such as George RR Martin, JV Jones, Raymond E. Feist and Guy Gavriel Kay all attracting notice after Jordan recommended them to his fans or provided cover blurbs.

The first volume opens in traditional fashion, with a prologue set roughly 3,400 years prior to the main narrative. In the Age of Legends, the world was united in peace under the leadership of the Aes Sedai, men and women who could wield the One Power, the primeval force of creation which turns the Wheel of Time. In their hubris, the Aes Sedai carried out experiments to access greater forms of the Power, and accidentally breached the prison of the Dark One, the ultimate force of evil in the universe. The Dark One's touch plunged the world into a century of chaos and despair until the Aes Sedai rallied under their leader, a man nicknamed the Dragon, and re-sealed the Dark One's prison. At the moment of that victory, the Dark One cursed the male half of the One Power, driving all male channellers of the Power insane. In their insanity, they destroyed the world, pushing humanity to the brink of extinction and reshaping the continents through the three centuries of earthquakes and tidal waves they unleashed. With the ending of the Breaking of the World, the Aes Sedai, now consisting only of women, rallied and helped civilisation rebuild to a level of technology roughly equal to that of the Renaissance (although social customs and graces are much more akin to the late 18th/early 19th Century). This Age of history has lived in the shadow of the Prophecies of the Dragon, that state that the hastily-patched seal on the Dark One's prison will eventually fail and the Dragon will be Reborn to save the world, but in doing so will doom it for he will go insane and shatter the world for a second time. Which would be bad, obviously.

The Eye of the World opens in the backwater region of the Two Rivers, a bucolic rural landscape tucked in a forgotten corner of the Kingdom of Andor. Rand al'Thor - a shepherd's son - and four of his friends are forced to flee the Two Rivers when the monstrous servants of the Dark One attack, searching for Rand and two of his friends, Mat and Perrin. They are guided by an Aes Sedai, Moiraine, and her Warder (a sort-of bodyguard, but with souped-up badass qualities), Lan. Whilst hiding in the ruined, ancient city of Shadar Logoth our heroes are separated, and must undergo many trials before they reunite in Andor's capital city of Caemlyn and find out what it is that the Dark One wants with them.

Rereading The Eye of the World after thirteen years is a fascinating experience. Both the good and the bad elements stand out a lot more than when I read it as an engrossed teenager, but it's still a page-turning read with a lot to recommend it.

First, the positives. Jordan is an excellent storyteller and demonstrates full command of the numerous entwining plots in this first volume. He delineates each character quite clearly and whilst those characters are based strongly on existing archetypes, he makes them work, so the reader cares about what happens to them. He is also a strong worldbuilder. Few fictional worlds come as fully-realised as this one, with only Middle-earth and after three books or so, GRRM's Westeros coming close to matching both its depth and scope (Bakker's Earwa may also yet match it). Jordan also has some interesting things to say in this series. Whilst not averse to 'grittiness' in fantasy, Jordan expressed concerns about the idea that everyone is flawed and grey takes away from the nature of evil, that real evil exists in the world and must be confronted. Whilst Jordan's characters are certainly not saints or flawless, the forces of the Shadow are very clearly shown to be black-hearted, cruel and merciless, which especially now is refreshing from the notion that are no bad guys, just people with their own agendas which may or may not be as valid as the heroes'. However, this doesn't make for very interesting antagonists and it's a relief then that much of the rest of the series concentrates more on the struggles between different factions of the supposed good guys.

The negatives sound pretty damning. The first half of the book is modelled very closely on the opening of The Lord of the Rings, but the novel stretches the line between tribute to parody to breaking point. We not only have analogues to the Shire (the Two Rivers), Gandalf (Moiraine) and Aragorn (Lan), but also the One Ring (the cursed dagger), the Nazgul (the Myrddraal), the Trolls and Orcs (the Trollocs), Moria (Shadar Logoth), Gollum (Padan Fain), Treebeard (the Green Man) and even the Argonath (the Arinelle statues). It's extremely hard to ignore these close parallels, although they do broadly succeed in giving the first half of the book some of the same atmosphere as the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring and, as bad as they are, they're not quite veering into Terry 'How the Hell Did He Not Get Sued' Brooks territory. As mentioned earlier, the Shadow's pure, irredeemable evil is also rather wearying and the Myrddraal and Ba'alazamon's tedious threats almost tip them into cartoon villain territory. The world building is excellent, but occasionally Jordan resorts to info dumping to transmit it to the audience, which comes across as awkward. And Robert Jordan's sense of humour is beyond tiresome. I was trying to count the number of times Rand or Perrin thought that the other was better at talking to girls and had to give up in the end. A good running gag is one that appears once per book and is varied a bit each time, not exactly the same gag repeated half a dozen times within a few chapters. This also runs into Jordan's problem of his use of stock phrases and recurring sentence structures, which occasionally come across as quite clumsy. Jordan is a great storyteller, but he is certainly not a good writer.

Yet these negatives, although rather annoying, are offset by the positives. The story is engrossing and the depth of detail refreshing, if overdone at times. The characters are interesting, the world building excellent and the fresh spins on old ideas are well-done. The book hints at countless more mysteries to come, and makes you want to pick up the second (and much better) book, which is its main goal, after all.

The Eye of the World (***½) remains a decent opening to a fascinating, if eventually rather troubled, saga. The novel is published by Orbit in the UK and Tor in the US. The second book is The Great Hunt.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Seasons 6-7

By the end of Season 5, Deep Space Nine had long established an identity that set it apart from its progenitor, The Next Generation, and its struggling younger sibling, Voyager. With its darker tone and greater focus on long-running storylines, conflicted characters and the difficult subjects of religion, politics and war, DS9 seemed to challenge the very foundations that Star Trek was based on. Whilst this made the show arguably the most popular Trek series with those who normally didn't like the universe of the Federation and Klingons, it divided Trek fans between those who welcomed its different approach and those who felt it strayed too far from the ideals laid down by Gene Roddenberry. The events at the end of Season 5, with the Federation abandoning Bajor and the DS9 station, allying with the Klingons and launching a pre-emptive attack on the Dominion, seemed to showcase this.

Season 6 of DS9 kicked off with something Trek had never before attempted: a tightly-plotted six-episode serial. Three months have passed since the end of Season 5. Deep Space Nine is in the hands of the Dominion and its Cardassian allies, who are now using the station as their forward command post for prosecuting a full-scale war against the Federation and Klingons. Although a minefield across the mouth of the wormhole prevents them from bringing in reinforcements from the Gamma Quadrant, the Dominion is achieving great victories on every front due to their superior technology and the ability to breed fresh Jem'Hadar warriors to replace those lost on the front lines much faster than the Federation and Klingons can train new soldiers. The series splits into several parallel narratives, as we follow the adventures of Worf and General Martok on a Klingon warship, Sisko and the Starfleet crew on the USS Defiant, and Odo, Quark, Kira and Jake living on the station under Dominion occupation. This is Trek at its most epic, featuring the biggest single space battle ever seen on any Trek series before or since (Operation Return, involving over 2,000 starships) and some of the most startling character developments in DS9's history. As well as the visual spectacle of the CGI fireworks (still very impressive ten years on), there is a fascinating psychological storyline as Kira and the Female Changeling fight a battle for Odo's soul, and Gul Dukat becomes obsessed with defeating Sisko to the exclusion of all else.

Predictably, the Federation soon gains the upper hand and the station falls back into their hands, although the war continues. The remainder of Season 6 is spent following the reverses and successes of the war and features some superb storytelling. In one memorable story the Federation recruits a pool of genetically-engineered geniuses (including Dr. Bashir) to help with war strategy, and their analyses of the Dominion's apparently inevitable victory is a tip of the head to Isaac Asimov's science of psychohistory, as shown in the Foundation novels. Elsewhere, we learn that a much greater and more mythical conflict is taking place between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths, of which the Dominion War is but a reflection, and the Prophets' manipulation and use of Sisko and his Bajoran religious nemesis, Kai Winn, in that war makes for fascinating viewing. This season also features what is often called the darkest-ever episode of Trek, when Sisko and Garak scheme, conspire, manipulate and even carry out murder in order to trick the Romulans into attacking the Dominion. The episode in question, In the Pale Moonlight, is one of the most gripping in all of Trek's history. There is also Far Beyond the Stars, in which Trek pays homage to its 1950s SF roots and addresses racism in an honest and surprisingly (for Trek) non-preachy manner. Events culminate in a shocking cliffhanger as a regular character is killed, Sisko abandons his post and the Pah-Wraiths seem to gain the upper hand.

Season 7 is slightly less successful. The opening story arc restores the status quo, of sorts, but a string of stand-alone episodes feel suddenly out of place as the war continues to rage off-camera. Some fans also objected to the inclusion of the recurring holosuite character of Vic Fontaine, a Las Vegas singer and bar-owner who gives the crew advice on their personal problems. However, James Darren (a real-life 1960s Vegas vet who had also acted in The Time Tunnel and TJ Hooker) gives a charming and often funny performance, and he appears in significantly fewer episodes than you might think. Many of these earlier episodes also focus on the new character of Ezri, played by Nicole de Boer, to the slight exclusion of more familiar characters.

These problems are swiftly addressed by the season's halfway point, when the war is brought back into sharp focus and the final nine episodes build to a huge finale. The Federation-Romulan-Klingon alliance is tested when the Dominion aligns itself with another powerful race, the Breen. However, this also tests the Dominion's own relationship with the Cardassians, who are increasingly resentful of their downtrodden position. The evolution of the character of Damar is deftly handled in this arc by actor Casey Biggs as he convincingly goes from stooge to Spartacus in the space of a few episodes. At the same time, the writers' alignment of Dukat and Winn as servants of the Pah-Wraiths is an extremely clever, if horribly inevitable move. The final episode answers most of the series' outstanding questions, resolves most of the characters' storylines fairly convincingly, but also leaves some ambiguities and loose ends for the future. Despite a weak opening, the final season of DS9 achieves something that none of the other Trek series were able to do with their finales: it leaves you wanting more.

Deep Space Nine Season 6 (*****) continues the extremely high quality of the preceding two seasons and gives us more of the successful blend of space battles, comedy, drama and social commentary that has made DS9 worth watching. It is available on DVD in the UK and US.

Deep Space Nine Season 7 (****½) picks up after a slow start to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the series. It is available on DVD in the UK and US.

Sunday 7 September 2008

The Sandman: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman

The fifth Sandman collection sees Gaiman tackle the traditional fantasy/fairy tale 'quest' story. This is an interesting tale, one of the most traditionally-structured in the series, and once again makes use of the history already established in the series whilst setting up elements for use in future stories.

Barbie, the young woman who was one of Rose Walker's housemates in The Doll's House, has relocated to New York City and now lives in an apartment block. Other residents of the block include a transsexual named Wanda, a lesbian couple named Hazel and Foxglove, a bookish young woman named Thessaly and a surly man named George. Since the events of The Doll's House Barbie has been unable to dream and in her absence the dream-kingdom she used to inhabit, the Land, has been overrun by an evil force known as 'the Cuckoo'. Only a few of Barbie's imaginary friends have survived, and using powerful magic one of these, a giant dog named Martin Tenbones, crosses over into the real world to enlist her aid in saving them.

A Game of You is, by some reports, the least popular of the Sandman tales. I'm not sure why that is the case, although Dream spending much more time off-page than normal (only really active at the beginning and end) may have something to do with it. The mix of high fantasy with harsh reality may have something more to do with it, and the somewhat bemused-rather-than-scared-into-catatonia reactions of the other residents of the apartment block to one of their number cutting off someone's face and pinning it to the wall strains credulity somewhat. But Gaiman again gives us an interesting, intricately-crafted story featuring some very well-realised characters and some fascinating fantasy concepts. A lengthy essay by Samual R. Delaney opens this collection in which he discusses some of the ideas and themes presented, and is an interesting read. A Game of You is, at its heart, a story about identity, about what people want to be versus the sometimes harsh reality of who they actually are, and about the role that fantasy plays in people's lives.

A Game of You (****) is another solid addition to the Sandman mythos, with a strong storyline and some interesting thematic elements making up for a slightly unsatisfying ending and a distinct lack of appearances by the Sandman. It is available from Titan in the UK and Vertigo in the USA, and is part of The Absolute Sandman, Volume II, available from Vertigo in the UK and USA.

Saturday 6 September 2008

Misspent Youth by Peter F. Hamilton

Misspent Youth is the eighth novel by British SF author Peter F. Hamilton, originally published in 2002. It is a stand-alone novel, but also serves as a prelude to his critically-acclaimed Commonwealth Saga (consisting of Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained). A new edition of the novel has just been released for the US market, although the differences with the UK edition are fairly minimal.

Hamilton is most famous for his epic space operas such as the classic Night's Dawn Trilogy, but it is easy to forget he started his career much smaller in scale, with his trilogy of near-future detective novels starring Greg Mandel. Misspent Youth, although set in a different timeline, recalls those early days by having the story set circa 2040 in Britain, in and around Hamilton's own home town of Rutland. The novel follows what happens to 77-year-old millionaire philanthropist Jeff Baker when he becomes the first human to undergo a complex rejeuvenation technique, which restores him to the physical age of 21, and the consequences of this on his trophy wife, his teenage son Tim and his friends.

Misspent Youth has the reputation of being Hamilton's weakest novel and it certainly is that. Hamilton has many great skills, including off-hand and easily comprehensible descriptions of high technology, great space battles, a furious pace and a knack for writing detective fiction. None of this is much help in this novel. The book is something of a character study and a treatise on the emotional impact of the rejeuvenation technology, but although Hamilton can certainly create cool characters, he is less adept at providing them with onion-like layers of complexity and depth. His biggest mistake in Misspent Youth is making most of the characters inherently selfish and dislikable. Jeff Baker rapidly alienates his old friends by preferring to go clubbing rather than hanging out at the local rehashing decades-old arguments over whether Alien or Aliens is the better film, and he later seduces his son's 17-year-old girlfriend Annabel. Annabel herself is one of the three principal POVs we follow through the story (along with Jeff and Tim) and doesn't come across as particularly likable either, though amusingly her often thoughtlessly-selfish actions do ring true for a teenage character. The only halfway likable character is Tim, whose relationship with his father shifts convincingly back and forth several times in the book.

Whilst this plot unfolds in the foreground, Hamilton remembers to include his trademark superb worldbuilding and it's fascinating to watch the very earliest pieces of the culture of the later Intersolar Commonwealth slot into place. Baker is the inventor of the datasphere, forerunner to the universal data-storage system seen in the Commonwealth novels, and the story of how he invented it and why he gave away all business rights to it is actually the highlight of the novel. The datasphere may allow virtually instantaneous transmission of ideas, video and audio (tens of thousands times faster than broadband) but it has also single-handedly wiped out most of modern culture. No one makes films or releases music commercially any more as the datasphere allows pirate copies to be spread and downloaded in microseconds, beyond the ability of any data-protection system to neutralise, whilst bands and writers only work for personal pleasure. TV is also pretty much dead, save for repeats, news and soap operas. In an interesting scene real-life SF&F author Graham Joyce debates the rights and wrongs of this system with Tim and Hamilton certainly raises a worthy debate with this plot strand.

It's all rather subsumed by the soap-opera like character machinations though. Some may find the rather large number of sex scenes to be unnecessary, and the dislikable characters do make the story somewhat laborious to continue with at points. I'm guessing most won't find the ending that unpredictable either. However, Hamilton raises some good points and for once his technology isn't that too far off from what might actually be possible, and his willingness to address that through a character study rather than his typical massive war-in-space is an interesting move. Also, it's relatively short (400 pages) compared to his usual behemoths.

Overall, not his best work and at times rather dull, but the scene-setting for The Commonwealth Saga makes Misspent Youth (***) worth reading. The novel is published by Pan Macmillan in the UK and by Del Rey in the USA. Hamilton's latest novel, The Temporal Void, is released next month in the UK.

The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett

The Painted Man (aka The Warded Man in the USA) is the first book of The Demon Trilogy and is this year's big debut fantasy series from HarperCollins Voyager. I hadn't heard of it prior to receiving the review copy, which is a shame as it's an excellent debut novel that can stand alongside a number of other recent high-profile debuts quite comfortably. I enjoyed it more than Ruckley's Winterbirth, and at about the same quality of enjoyment as Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, for example.

The Painted Man is set in a world where people live in terror of the night. When the sun goes down, demons - or 'corelings' - from below the ground emerge on the surface to kill and feast on human flesh until morning comes. Humanity has discovered powerful defensive magic in the form of wards which can protect their homes, or even patches of ground, but this magic is not always perfect and the different varieties of demons have different ways to overcome the wards.

Eleven-year-old Arlen lives on his parent's farmstead, but a coreling attack leaves his family decimated and many friends and neighbours dead. Despising his father's cowardice for getting his mother killed, Arlen runs away from home, surviving by carving wards into the dirt every night. Eventually he reaches safety in a big city and finds a new, loving family...but memories of his childhood continue to haunt him and he becomes obsessed with the idea of leading humanity to an ultimate victory over the demons, to stop cowering in fear behind walls and wards and go on the offensive.

Meanwhile, thirteen-year-old Leesha is set up for a prosperous life, ready to inherit her father's business and marry one of the most popular boys in her village. However, her mother's bitterness and her betrothed's error in judgement instead leads her on a very different path as she learns the arts of herblore and healing from the town's wise woman.

An entire town is obliterated by a coreling attack, leaving only a single survivor: a three-year-old boy named Rojer. A visiting Jongleur decides to take Rojer her his wing as his apprentice, setting them both on an dangerous path.

The Painted Man is a page-turning book. Whilst at heart it doesn't necessarily journey too far from established tropes (it even starts in a village), it mixes them up nicely. The land of Thesa owes as much to Westerns in its scenery than to traditional epic fantasy, whilst the ward magic is notably different to the wizards 'n' warlocks found in other works. The notions of paranoia and fear, and the price of overcoming that, are also explored in-depth. The characters are likable and interesting. To some extent they follow the traditional 'callow youths come good' model, but the central character of Arlen takes a rather different course and there are hints that his dark and dangerous journey have left him a scarred and bitter character, for all that he finds some happiness at the end of the book. Brett's worldbuilding is pretty good, best exemplified when in a sequence lasting just a few chapters he takes Arlen into a burning desert kingdom and is able to paint it in as much detail and bring it to life as well as does the Free Cities and surrounding villages where the bulk of the narrative takes place. The plotting is also nicely done, with a huge amount of incident and character-building set up in the book, along with a reasonable amount of exposition. The book also comes to a definitive climax rather than a cliffhanger, meaning that whilst there is clearly plenty more to come you're not left hanging in mid-air for a year for the next instalment.

The Painted Man (****) is a most enjoyable novel with an interesting premise that is well-developed and explored. I look forward to reading the sequels. The novel is available now from Voyager in the UK, and will be published (as The Warded Man) in the USA by Del Rey in March 2009. The author has a website here.

Friday 5 September 2008

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Christmas, 2054. The 'net' is a technological breakthrough, a device which allows people to travel back in time to observe the events of the past. Historians use the net to go back and observe history in progress, but anachronisms and those intending to change the past are not permitted through. Whilst the net has mostly been used to travel to relatively recent periods of history, the Mediaeval department of Oxford University is preparing to send a young student named Kivrin through to the year 1320. No sooner has she gone through, than chaos erupts: a virulent disease sweeps through Oxford, striking down most of the populace and a quarantine is enforced that prevents the faculty from retrieving Kivrin. Back in the 14th Century Kivrin becomes used to living in the Middle Ages, which none of her training has really prepared her for, but it soon becomes clear that something has gone horribly wrong, and she is not when she is supposed to be...

Doomsday Book was originally published in 1992 and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel. It mixes elements of traditional time travel stories with elements from a disaster movie: Kivrin is trapped in the past and her friends in the present are unable to help her as they themselves are dealing with a pandemic. This is a nice spin on the cliche, with the present-day storyline given just as much attention (if not more) than Kivrin's misadventures in the past. The notion of disease and illness lies at the heart of the book, and seeing how futuristic medicine can barely stop the pandemic from killing people makes the sections set during the Black Death even more horrific in comparison. The novel also acts as a curious comedy of manners, or even a farce, with characters' own blinkered viewpoints and opinions mean that they are unable to effectively deal with the unfolding crises. At times this makes the book a frustrating experience, as some characters are obtuse to the point of total ludicrousness and gives an oddly tonally inappropriate dose of humour to the novel.

What keeps you reading is the depth of research that has been done here: 14th Century England is brought to life vividly, with the characters painted richly and convincingly. Unlike a lot of writers (such as say Ken Follett, whose Pillars of the Earth is an utterly unconvincing depiction of medieval life), Willis makes the point successfully that the medieval period was one where people's beliefs and thoughts were totally alien to our own, and understanding how they thought and acted on a day-to-day level is extremely difficult. She succeeds at this admirably.

The 21st Century sections are less successful, mainly due to the stupidity of certain characters meaning that you lose any belief that these people would actually attain the roles or positions they have. There are also a number of plot strands in this sequence which are completely left unresolved: it's never made clear if it was user error or a deliberate act by Gilchrist that resulted in Kivrin being sent to the wrong year, and the mystery of what happened to Mr. Basingame, who vanishes before the book even starts and whose fate is much debated by the other characters, is never answered. The lack of communication between major characters is also completely unbelievable and adds to the frustration levels of the novel.

Doomsday Book (***½) features some stunning and deeply affecting sequences set in the 14th Century. Those set in the future are less compelling, and there are some moments of reader frustration to be had, but overall the book remains a vivid and memorable reading experience. The novel is published by Bantam in the USA. It doesn't currently have a UK publisher, but the US version is readily available from Forbidden Planet or via Amazon.co.uk.