Friday 31 October 2008

Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction

I covered Red vs. Blue a few weeks back here, but I thought it was worth revisiting the web series since its latest iteration, Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction, came to an end this week.

The story picks up after the events of the original Red vs Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles. The Red and Blue teams have been reassigned elsewhere, leaving only Sarge and Sister behind at Blood Gulch, apparently 'locked in an epic stalemate' (Sarge refuses to leave until the Blues have finally been defeated, but his personal code of honour prevents him from harming a woman). Meanwhile, the spacecraft carrying Tex, the sentient bomb known as Andy and an alien being destined to become ruler of its species (it makes sense, trust me) has crash-landed on a remote outpost. A team sent to recover the Omega AI from the scene disappears, so special agent Washington is sent in to investigate and find out what is going on. During his travels most of the characters from the original Red vs Blue are recruited to help out, due to their lengthy experience of dealing with the freelance agents and the AIs in the original series, although Sarge's desires to destroy the Blues and ensure the death of his nemesis Grif (who is now also a sergeant, a fact Sarge's brain is biologically unable to process) once again hinder progress. Towards the end of the series a number of major revelations are made that have severe repercussions for the characters, and also explain a number of lingering plot mysteries stretching back all the way to the start of The Blood Gulch Chronicles.

Reconstruction adopts a slightly different tone to the previous one. Whilst The Blood Gulch Chronicles was an out-and-out comedy with dramatic undertones, this is reversed in Reconstruction, which follows the drama first and foremost and weaves the comedy into the narrative. As well as a creative choice, this was also probably a result of the more advanced technology involved. The original Halo engine didn't allow for much in the way of drama or characterisation and everything hinged on the voice acting and the easiest way to hook an audience in was with humour. For Reconstruction, the Halo 3 engine is used which is far more impressive. Bungie also gave the creators, Rooster Teeth, access to camera shots and effects which weren't previously available. Reconstruction also focuses on a new character, Agent Washington, and the established characters play a more secondary role in the narrative to his mission. Each episode is also introduced by letters being exchanged between different parts of the military hierarchy outlining the political and military consequences of events in the series.

Whilst Reconstruction (****) takes a somewhat more serious tack, there's still plenty of laughs involved and the story is interesting, explaining as it does a lot of the backplot to the original series. There are also increasing signs that the creators are looking at tying the series into the Halo fictional universe: a single mention of Master Chief and the Covenant aside in the original series, it had been broadly assumed that the series stood on its own, but constant mentions of a war between humanity and an alien race and a late-series mention of the UNSC suggest otherwise.

You can watch all 19 episodes of Reconstruction on Rooster Teeth's own website here, or via YouTube. The series will be released on DVD next month.

Wertzone Classics: Spaced

Spaced was a UK sitcom that ran for two seasons in 1999 and 2001 and was tremendously critically acclaimed at the time. The creative team subsequently moved into cinema, creating the hit movies Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and the forthcoming The World Ends, but Spaced remains by far their funniest and most rewarding work.

The series opens with aspiring comic book artist Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) and workshy writer Daisy Steiner (Jessica Stephenson) both having to find a new place to live. Randomly bumping into one another in the local cafe, they decide to fake being a couple to rent a surprisingly cheap flat in London. The rest of the regular cast is rounded off by their landlady Marsha (a wine-swigging, ex-groupie single mum), Tim's best friend Mike (a failed soldier with a weapons fixation), Daisy's best friend Twist (who Tim sums up as being a "bit like Cordelia from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and latterly its spin-off series Angel, which is set in LA,") and Brian, the mildly pretentious artist (specialities: anger, pain, fear and aggression) who rents Marsh's basement flat.

It's a pretty traditional sitcom set-up, but Spaced differs from the average sitcom in two important respects. First, it is directed, shot and edited much more like a movie, with fast-cuts, segues, occasionally impressive special effects and the use of real locations (a nightclub sequence is actually filmed in a proper nightclub, for example, rather than a lame set). Secondly, the series is absolutely overflowing with movie, TV and comic references, some verbal, others visual, some subtle and some pretty outrageous. The DVDs come equipped with a 'homage-o-metre' which tracks these references as they fly past. The homage-o-metre almost explodes during Season 2 when Robot Wars, Fight Club ("No-one talks about Robot Club!") and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are all heavily referenced in just one episode.

What makes Spaced special is the way these elements are combined with some excellent writing and acting, particularly from Pegg and Stephenson as the leads and the brilliant Mark Heap as Brian (who went on from Spaced to win acclaim in a number of other Channel 4 comedy shows, most notably Green Wing). The comedic situations are also hilarious, such as Tim getting loaded on cheap speed and playing Resident Evil 2 for 12 hours straight, leading to him visualising the world as if a zombie apocalypse is taking place (this was the inspiration for Shaun of the Dead), or the gang's attempts to gatecrash their teenage neighbours' party turning into a Close Encounters of the Third Kind homage. There's also plenty of cameos from other comedians, with Little Britain's David Walliams playing transsexual artist Vulva and The Office's Ricky Gervais putting in a cameo as a slimy newspaper worker, whilst the irrepressible Bill Bailey steals every scene he's in as Tim's comic shop boss Bilbo Bagshot (who retains mild guilt about once punching his dad in the face for saying Hawk the Slayer was rubbish, instead of suggesting they watch Krull and compare the two).

The two seasons are linked by ongoing story arcs, although these are fairly low-key. Daisy and Tim having to fake being in a relationship to appease Marsha is a point revisited several times (leading to awkwardness when both end up in other relationships), whilst Mike is battling to be readmitted to the Territorial Army, having been thrown out after trying to invade Paris with a Chieftain tank. The second season is linked together by Daisy's employment problems, Brian and Twist's romance and Tim's utter hatred and loathing of The Phantom Menace, which lands him in hot water on several occasions (and gives rise to the legendary primal scream of, "BUT JAR-JAR BINKS MAKES THE EWOKS LOOK LIKE FU**ING SHAFT!").

Spaced (*****) lasted for just 14 episodes almost a decade ago, but remains one of the funniest, most entertaining sitcoms ever committed to screen. Even now rewatching certain episodes reveals more previously-missed homages to movies or comics, and the series seems to just get better with age. The complete series is available on DVD in both the UK and the USA. The US DVD edition is even more impressive, as it features guest-commentaries from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Matt Stone.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

The sixth book of The Wheel of Time takes us deep into the second act of this massive story, with the transition to a more political-oriented narrative continuing apace. Lord of Chaos is one of the more divisive books in the series, with fans praising its deeper exploration of ideas and intrigue, whilst critics bemoan the slow pace of the book compared to earlier volumes.

The kingdoms of Cairhien, Mayene and Tear are now sworn to the Dragon Reborn, and a successful raid on Caemlyn, capital of Andor, has seen that city fall to his forces as well. Several of the Forsaken, the most powerful servants of the Dark One, have been slain and Rand's successes look like they will continue unabated. In the south, he is assembling a vast army to send against the Forsaken Sammael in his stronghold of Illian, whilst the Aes Sedai remain divided on how to proceed with him. However, Rand's announcement of an amnesty for men who can channel has shocked the world, for all male channellers of the One Power are doomed to go mad and die, wreaking havoc as they go, and some of his enemies are prepared to move against him before that can be allowed to happen.

The theme of the sixth book in The Wheel of Time is consolidation. Rand's forces have absorbed vast amounts of territory, but before he can resume his campaign he must secure that which he holds already. With scheming against him in Andor and Cairhien underway and an outright rebellion going on in Tear, this proves a difficult task. Rand also has to find a way of dealing with both factions of the Aes Sedai, an undertaking fraught with peril. His companions also have their own problems to deal with: Perrin must prove his worthiness to his wife's parents, Mat has to deal with the issues of becoming a general, and Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have complex currents to negotiate amongst the rebel Aes Sedai. Even Pedron Niall, commander of the Children of the Light, has significant problems he has to overcome in both his own ranks and his dealings with the displaced Queen of Andor, whilst the surviving Forsaken scheme incessantly against one another.

The problem with this kind of stock-taking is that it is hard to work up a dramatic story about it. Instead, you end up with lots and lots of talk. Characters sitting around talking about the plot, about what has already happened and what they think might happen in the future. That's when they are not engaged in increasingly tedious and infantile discussions about male-female relations, which by this volume are starting to get a mite repetitive. The politicking and intrigue is fine as far as it goes (although fans of GRRM or Bakker may find it a bit on the shallow and simplistic side), but you do need a bit more to spice the book up. There's some fine, atmospheric interludes in the book, such as Rand taking a brief sojourn in the desolate, cursed city of Shadar Logoth, but overall the novel has serious pacing issues. Simply put, this is a 1,000-page book in which not a lot happens for the first three-quarters of it.

Towards the end, however, the pace starts to lift quite noticeably as Rand's attempts to play the two Aes Sedai factions off against one another backfire spectacularly and some of the most surprising events in the entire series take place, culminating in a massive battle at the spring of Dumai's Wells in which Jordan's sometimes-variable skills at depicting action, drama and the ability to tie together disparate storylines are put to their best effect. This late burst of action sequences and confrontations is extremely effective, and Dumai's Wells often tops readers' polls as the most satisfying moment of the entire series to date, with some fine moments right at the end of the book which hint at much greater things to come.

Lord of Chaos (****) is a sedentary novel where events unfold slowly, but do succeed in laying the groundwork for the spectacular and satisfying concluding section of the book. I suspect many readers will be put off by the slow pace, but I found the payoff to be more than worth it. The novel is available in the UK from Orbit and in the USA from Tor.

David Tennant leaves the TARDIS

David Tennant has confirmed he will be stepping down as the Doctor. The four 60-minute specials being made in 2009 will mark his last appearance as the character, indicating he will regenerate at the end of the 2009 Christmas special, with the new Doctor taking over for Season 5 in early 2010.

Tennant is the tenth actor to play the role, following on from William Hartnell (1963-66), Patrick Troughton (1966-69), Jon Pertwee (1970-74), Tom Baker (1974-81), Peter Davison (1981-84), Colin Baker (1984-86), Sylvester McCoy (1987-89), Paul McGann (1996) and Christopher Eccleston (2005). The Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, is capable of 'regenerating' when his body sustains wounds which would kill an ordinary human. However, he can only regenerate twelve times before dying. The current Doctor Who production team have suggested that they won't let this limitation prevent them from telling stories in the future.

The series originally ran for 26 seasons from 1963 to 1989 before returning for a one-off special in 1996 and then a new series beginning in 2005. The 2007 Christmas special won audiences of over 13 million, making it the most successful British drama series of modern times.

Tuesday 28 October 2008


Joe Abercrombie recently confirmed that Best Served Cold, his stand-alone sort-of follow-up to The First Law Trilogy set in Styria, will be published in the UK in June 2009, with a US release in July from Orbit USA which will be his first US hardcover release.

George RR Martin has reported that his office was broken into by thieves earlier this week. A commemorative sword was taken, but they were unable to gain access to the room where his computer (with the current version of A Dance with Dragons stored on it) was located.

R. Scott Bakker returns to the world of the Three Seas with The Judging Eye, Book 1 of The Aspect-Emperor, which is now confirmed for a joint UK/US/Canadian release in January 2009.

Blizzard have confirmed that StarCraft II, probably the most eagerly-awaited game of 2009, has gotten too large and they have decided to split it into three titles. The game itself, subtitled Wings of Liberty, will hopefully be released at some point in 2009 and will feature the Terran campaign. It will be followed by two expansions, Heart of the Swarm (focusing on the Zerg) and Heart of the Void (centering on the Protoss).

BioWare have confirmed they are working on a massive online RPG entitled Star Wars: The Old Republic. The game will be a semi-follow-up to their acclaimed 2003 RPG Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel, developed by their partner company Obsidian. The news has met an mixed reception from fans, who seem to favour a single-player third game in the series to resolve some of the unresolved storylines from the second game.

Currently reading: Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan
Currently watching: Spaced DVD boxed set, Heroes Season 3, Merlin Season 1.
Currently playing: Westeros: Total War, Company of Heroes, The Witcher Enhanced Edition, Sins of a Solar Empire (demo).

Monday 27 October 2008

Wertzone Classics: Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

"These are tales of the 21st Aeon, when the Earth is old and the Sun is about to go out."
From one classic of the genre to another. Jack Vance's Dying Earth series is set in the distant, remote future when technology and magic have become entwined. His stories are tales of humour, tragedy and whimsy set at the end of human history, and are among the most distinctive tales in fantasy fiction.

Tales of the Dying Earth collects all four of the principal Dying Earth books: The Dying Earth (1950), The Eyes of the Overworld (1964), Cugel's Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984). Written over a period of thirty-four years, these books (themselves collections of short stories or episodes) are nevertheless fairly cohesive in style and readability. That said, The Dying Earth is somewhat more serious than the latter three books, and the central two novels are sometimes considered to form a duology, as they relate the misadventures of a scoundrel and thief named Cugel the Clever, whilst the other two books feature different characters and situations.

The Dying Earth itself is a collection of six short stories, but these are connected by an interesting writing device. Each story focuses on a central character who meets the central figure of the subsequent story in his own adventure, so the narrative is passed almost like a baton to the next character. So the book opens with Turjan, a wizard of some power, encountering the artificial construct T'sais. In the next story he is imprisoned by the wizard Mazirian, who is defeated in turn by T'sain, T'sais' brother. Then the narrative switches to T'sais' adventures. And so on. It's an interesting device for a short story collection and the stories are bound closely together because of it. However, The Dying Earth's success is in its atmospheric depiction of a far-future, dying world under a shrunken red sun. The stories themselves are interesting, but not as compelling as the later books.

The Eyes of the Overworld introduces Cugel the Clever, a rogue and scoundrel always on the look-out for a profit. He is manipulated by a dubious rival, Fianosther, into attempting to rob the manse of Iucounu the Laughing Magician, who discovers this attempt and is not impressed. He offers Cugel a choice between being entombed 45 miles below the Earth's surface, or journeying to remote lands to seek a mystical 'eye of the overworld'. Cugel is thus exiled to the far ends of the world to seek the artifact and has to return home, having numerous adventures along the way. It's Cugel's constant misfortune, at times reaching ridiculous and farcical levels, that makes this part of the story both hilarious and breathlessly enjoyable. By this volume Vance's skills as a writer have grown tremendously and his command of the English language is a joy to behold, with its flowery, polite terminology used to disguise feelings of hatred and jealousy like a particularly demented take on medieval court language. At length, Cugel apparently succeeds in his mission and gains the upper hand...until misfortune once again befalls him and he is left on a cliffhanger.

Nineteen years later (a break in a series that would be unthinkable today), Vance resumed the story in Cugel's Saga. Once again banished to the ends of the Earth, Cugel once again sets out for home, but this time travels by a different route. Essentially a second picaresque travelogue, the story is similar in structure to the preceding volume but is possibly even better, with more polished writing and Cugel's ambiguous appeal remaining intact. If anything, this book is even more hilarious than the second, although some may feel the relatively happy ending is not entirely in keeping with Cugel's typical fortunes.

The final book, Rhialto the Marvellous, is also sadly the weakest. It is much more overtly fantastical than the first three, incorporating voyages through space, but the focus on less interesting protagonists than Cugel means it feels like an afterthought. That's not to say the stories here are unenjoyable, merely that they are of a different nature than Cugel's and less distinctive because of it.

Jack Vance is one of SF&F's most distinctive authors, with a formidable grasp of language and a keen wit making him one of the genre's most interesting writers. The Dying Earth stories are rightly regarded as genre classics, inspiring works such as Gene Wolfe's astonishing Book of the New Sun and being cited as a major influence on numerous writers. The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous have aged somewhat, but the central Cugel stories are as fresh, comical and as fun to read now as they were when they were first published.

Tales of the Dying Earth (*****) is published in the UK by Gollancz as part of their Fantasy Masterworks range and by Orb Books in the USA. A new Dying Earth book, Songs of the Dying Earth, containing short stories by writers such as Tad Williams, Robert Silverberg and Neil Gaiman, edited by Gardner Dozois and George RR Martin, and authorised by Jack Vance, will be published early next year by Subterranean Press and HarperCollins Voyager.

Sunday 26 October 2008

The Conan Chronicles Volume I by Robert E. Howard

"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kings lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."
Conan the Barbarian is one of the iconic characters of fantasy. Almost eighty years ago, he walked onto the pages of Weird Tales magazine and undertook many adventures in the Hyborian Age, ten thousand or more years ago when the world looked very different. Dozens of tales followed before Robert E. Howard committed suicide at a tragically young age. In the following decades the Conan tales were re-edited, revamped and new stories were written by authors such as L. Sprague de Camp and Robert Jordan. After fading from view after the early-1980s Jordan stories and the Schwarzenegger movies, Conan came back into the public eye around the turn of the century with a series of new collected editions intent on restoring the text to Howard's original standards.

This first volume of Conan's adventures is arranged in chronological, not publishing, order and takes Conan from a teenager through a period of some years until he is an more experienced adventurer. Most of these tales take place in the south and east of the Thurian continent (prehistoric Eurasia), with Conan equally at home raiding exotic Arabic-esque temples for treasure as captaining a pirate warship or fighting as a mercenary alongside a mighty host. The stories have a somewhat familiar structure: Conan becomes embroiled in some nefarious activity, bulldozes his way through it with no regard for subtlety, and bursts out the other side, usually laden with gold and a willing young lady on his arm. You can certainly tell the ones that Howard wrote for money, whilst the highlights - 'Rogues in the House', 'The Tower of the Elephant' and the story that gives the first volume its subtitle, 'The People of the Black Circle' - are altogether more interesting, with a bit more depth or humour to them.

For stories written the better part of a century ago, these tales are fiendishly readable and feel much more readable and recent than, say, the work of Tolkien, although they lack JRRT's much greater resonance and depth. There's still a fresh vitality to these tales that makes them compelling. However, in other areas they are very much of their time: female characters are generally walking plot coupons for Conan to rescue or fall in love with. There are a couple of exceptions, but some readers may find it a problem. Another issue is that whilst there are some outstanding stories here, there are a few more that are formulaic, and a couple that are incomplete. That feeling of familiarity can be off-putting, and makes it hard to read the book in one go. I've been toing and froing between other books and these stories for the better part of two years. Like a rich chocolate cake, dipping into it occasionally may be healthier than trying to digest the whole thing at once. Still, it is hard to argue with any character who has a theme tune as badass as this one.

The Conan Chronicles Volume I: The People of the Black Circle (****) introduces us to one of fantasy's most famous and notable characters. The range of defiantly non-PC stories on display here may not be huge, but they are certainly a lot of fun to read. The book is available in the UK from Gollancz as part of the Fantasy Masterworks range, in a new edition and also as part of the complete Conan Chronicles volume. In the USA Del Rey currently prints Howard's original stories in three volumes, The Coming of Conan, The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan.

New Interview with Paul Kearney

Once again, I teamed up with Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist to carry out an interview with Paul Kearney. You can read it here.

Saturday 25 October 2008

SF&F's All-Time Sales List

A question that comes up a fair bit on literature forums is: "How many books has Author X sold?". Compared to TV, where audience figures are easily available, and movies, where box office figures are even more easily retrieved, book sales figures are virtually impossible to calculate for an interested member of the public. The advent of the BookScan system in the USA has made this slightly easier, but the system is relatively new (introduced in 2001), it doesn't pick up every sale (according to Nielsen it tracks about 70% of sales) and only works in the USA (whilst more than half of the sales of titles take place outside that market). The New York Times and the UK Times offer their own figures, but refuse to disclose how those figures are reached. Publishers generally don't publish figures at all unless the book gets picked up for a movie option, or if the sales reach phenomenal levels. And of course often when figures are given they are for 'books in print' (i.e., the total number of copies of a book that exist, including those sitting unsold on bookshelves) rather than for books actually put through the till. Add to this the recent upswing in pirating books online, and the number of books where illegal or untracked editions have been printed in nations with a relaxed attitude to copyright, and you can see the difficulties faced in assembling any kind of all-time bestseller list.

For that reason, the following list should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Lake Michigan (the source for most of the figures is Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted):

1) J.K Rowling (350 million)
The Harry Potter series has been a phenomenon the likes of which publishing has never seen. In less than a decade, Rowling went from an impoverished single mother writing in an Edinburgh cafe to one of the richest women in the world, overtaking dozens of writers who had been working for decades in the process.

2) Stephen King (350 million)
In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1996), it was stated that Stephen King's total worldwide sales in all languages are probably incalculable, and the figure given above is on the conservative side of things. I've seen some figures suggesting he has sold twice this amount, but the 350m figure seems to crop up most often. Some may argue that Horror isn't necessarily part of the SF&F genre either and King shouldn't be counted, but most of his horror features supernatural forces, which firmly places it as a subset of Fantasy. Also, no-one would really argue that Eyes of the Dragon and the Dark Tower series aren't fantasy, and both of these works are set in the same multiverse as most (or, as some fans argue, all) of his other books, which puts him firmly in the Fantasy genre.

3) JRR Tolkien (c. 300 million)
Tolkien's sales really are incalculable, given how widely his books have been copied, published without permission and distributed worldwide in the last fifty years. However, it is pretty clear that by itself The Lord of the Rings is the biggest-selling single genre novel of all time, and possibly the biggest-selling single novel full stop of all time. 50 million copies of the novel have been sold this century alone. When you factor in the massive sales of The Hobbit, and the smaller but still significant sales of The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The Children of Hurin, plus his non-Middle-earth work, Tolkien is clearly a major force in SF&F publishing, arguably all the more notable as his output was small compared to some others on this list.

4) CS Lewis (120 million)
It is perhaps fitting that Tolkien's one-time best friend and sometimes collaborator should be next on the list. The 120 million sales is allegedly for his Chronicles of Narnia series by itself, and doesn't include his numerous non-fiction books or his other novels, such as his Space Trilogy.

5) Anne Rice (100 million)
A surprisingly high number from an author who hasn't produced a truly noteworthy book in some time.

6) Terry Pratchett (55 million)
Up until Rowling overtook him around the turn of the century Pratchett was a bona-fide phenomenon, publishing at least two novels a year for almost twenty years and being responsible for the sales of over 1% of all books sold in the UK and his books hitting the top of the Times bestseller lists like clockwork. Major success in the USA had eluded him until The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents won the Carnegie Prize in 2001. Following on from that, his US profile steadily rose until his books began hitting the NYT bestseller list as well. Aside from the occasional bit of mickey-taking, Pratchett was good-natured about losing out on his position as Fantasy's biggest-selling living author (with the King debate still going on) to Rowling, although his ire was provoked when some Potter fans complained that Equal Rites (1987) ripped off Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997), demonstrating a flexible interpretation of causality. Whilst Pratchett has now been firmly overtaken by Rowling, he bore it with equanimity and proudly maintains his position as the UK's most shoplifted author.

7) Robert Jordan (44 million)
Given how it dominates the discussion on some forums, this would seem to be a fairly lowly position for the biggest-selling of the modern epic fantasists. However, by any standards this is a seriously impressive number of books sold, especially given that the sales are split between a relatively small number of books (I suspect his Conan and Fallon novels' sales are all but negligible compared to those of The Wheel of Time sequence).

8) Terry Goodkind (25 million)
Pinning down concrete figures for Goodkind is harder than most due to some truly batty figures being circulated by his fanbase (at one time claiming he was Tor's biggest-selling author but failing to account for why only half as many copies of his latest book had been printed than Robert Jordan's). The worldwide figure of 25 million seems to be well-supported, however.

9) Terry Brooks (21 million)
Recently, with the announcement that movie versions of The Elfstones of Shannara and The Sword of Shannara are in development, it was suggested by some papers that Brooks was the 'second-biggest-selling living fantasy author', which would appear to be hyperbolic. An interview with JIVE Magazine reveals them to be rather more modest, although still extremely impressive. His books have sold very well for more than thirty-one years and Brooks, along with Donaldson, arguably kick-started the entire modern epic fantasy subgenre and has been one of its most reliable and visible writers ever since.

10) Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (c. 20 million)
This one was a bit of a guesstimate, coming out of discussions over these two authors' success on a message board several years ago. The figure is certainly highly plausible, with TSR claiming that more than 4 million copies of their Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies by themselves had been shipped in less than a decade, and this doesn't account for their gaming products, other Dragonlance books and numerous non-Dragonlance novels, many of which have been bestsellers as well.

11) Frank Herbert (18 million)
If there's one thing this list has proven, if you want to be a massive-selling author you're far better writing Fantasy than Science Fiction, unless your SF novel features a ton of Fantasy elements. Frank Herbert's Dune is SF's biggest-selling single novel, with more than 12 million copies by itself sold. I'd also make a fair guess that the other 6 million sales are comprised almost entirely of his other five Dune novels.

12) Diana Gabaldon (17 million)
The author of the Outlander series, in which a 20th Century nurse time-travels back to Jacobite times and falls in love with a Highlander.

13) Eoin Colfer (18 million)
The author of the Artemis Fowl series, which has proven a massive hit amongst YA circles. Colfer was recently picked to write the sixth Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel, following on from the works of...

14) Douglas Adams (16 million)
...whose exceptionally long periods of writer's block and multiple years spent writing very slim novels, not to mention a poor film adaption of his signature novel, haven't affected his immense popularity.

15) Kevin J. Anderson (16 million)
Whilst his Dune novels co-authored with Brian Herbert may have been critically mauled, that hasn't stopped them selling like hot cakes. When combined with his popular Star Wars and X-Files novels, not to mention original works like the Saga of Seven Suns series, Anderson clearly doesn't have anything to worry about.

16) Raymond E. Feist (15 million)
The author of the extremely long-running Riftwar Cycle of novels, which when complete will comprise approximately thirty books. Mixed reviews for his books published over the last decade or so do not seem to have influenced his legions of loyal fans.

17) Christopher Paolini (12 million)
His Eragon Trilogy (now in four parts) may have been ripped into by the critics with a vengeance, but his popularity is clear. In fact, his sales are all the more impressive considering they are largely based on just two books, with his third only released in the last few weeks.

18) Stephen Donaldson (10 million)
Possibly a surprisingly low showing for Donaldson. His Lord Foul's Bane, published in 1977, kick-started the modern epic fantasy explosion alongside Brooks' Sword of Shannara. However, unlike Brooks who has continued to work in the Shannara universe ever since, Donaldson spent a whole decade trying to stay away from his signature character with works such as Mordant's Need and the superlative Gap series before recently returning to the series, and the bestseller lists, with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

19) Neil Gaiman (10 million + )
If GRRM's figure is conservative, this is even moreso, and based solely on the figures I could find for sales of the Sandman graphic novels. Add in his other, highly successful novels and his real sales and position should be much higher.
Edit: Many thanks to Neil for stopping by with some harder figures for this. His figures are 7 million for the Sandman and related graphic novels, plus at least 1 million for Coraline. Factor in his other books and even the above figure looks conservative.

20) George RR Martin (c. 10 million)
Again, another guesstimate based on discussions from various forums and the recent revelation that the Song of Ice and Fire series has sold 2.2 million copies (at least in the USA). GRRM is one of the highest-profile authors in the genre and A Dance with Dragons must be one of the most-discussed unreleased books in genre history. Much to the discontent of those who'd prefer he spent his time on Song of Ice and Fire and nothing else, his recent Wild Cards books have been strong sellers for Tor, and his Dreamsongs retrospective was a significant success as well. I suspect this figure is leaning to the conservative side of things, especially given how big Wild Cards was back in the 1980s.

Update: More information has suggested sales of A Song of Ice and Fire worldwide may be about 7 million by itself, with Wild Cards adding another 2 million or so on top and his stand-alone novels adding hundreds of thousands more.

21) Timothy Zahn (8 million)
Timothy Zahn is the biggest-selling author of Star Wars novel, with the 8 million figure coming from his work in that setting alone (from the Bantam Summer 2011 catalogue). You can add hundreds of thousands more sales from his own novels on top of that.

Laurell K. Hamilton (6 million)
Sex sells, obviously, especially when combined with werewolves and vampires.

23) John Ringo (3 million)
The mildly controversial US author ("Oh John Ringo No,") of military science fiction is clearly enjoying the fruits of his success. People may be wondering where his sometimes-collaborator David Weber is, so I direct them to the 'Unplaced' list below'.
Edit: Many thanks also to John for stopping by. His figures suggest closer to 3 million if all his books 'in print' are counted.

24) Harry Turtledove (2.5 million)
The master of alternate history has made this subgenre pretty much his own, with many books about how the American Civil War, World War I and World War II may have unfolded differently. He's also written more overt SF and fantasy works.

25) Peter F. Hamilton (2 million)
The modern lord of space opera has shifted an impressive number of his brick-thick novels and with his US profile now growing rapidly, I suspect he's going to get even bigger in the years to come.

26) Guy Gavriel Kay (2 million)
Thanks to figures researched by Pat from the Fantasy Hotlist, we can add GGK to the list. Given his relatively small number of novels published, this is an impressive figure.

26) Robin Hobb (1 million)
A surprisingly low placing for one of fantasy's highest-profile and most prolific authors? Possibly. This was the figure given by HarperCollins Voyager in 2003 on the completion of her Tawny Man trilogy and applies solely to the nine books published under the Robin Hobb pseudonym in the UK up to that point. They do not include her earlier Megan Lindholm books, nor her later books, nor most importantly her US sales, all of which would likely make her position much higher.

27) David Gemmell (1 million)
Considering how many books he wrote (over 30), this figure may seem a little low. However, Gemmell never entirely cracked the American market, despite being a massive seller in the UK.

28) Steven Erikson (c. 500,000)
This may be even more of a surprise. The original source for the figure was Bantam UK, who announced shifting 250,000 copies of the Malazan Book of the Fallen in the UK in 2006, upon the publication of The Bonehunters. Given another two books have come out since then, and taking into account his Canadian and American sales, a doubling of that figure seems reasonable.

29) Chris Wooding (450,000)
Chris Wooding has been making a name for himself as an adult fantasy author with his Braided Path and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, but his initial success has come from his highly popular YA books, which have sold very well in the United States.

There's obviously a huge number of authors I couldn't find reliable figures for, many of whom would be fairly highly-placed on the list. I'll see if I can't track these down in the future and keep the list updated:

Isaac Asimov
R. Scott Bakker
Iain M. Banks
Clive Barker
Frank L. Baum
Jim Butcher
Orson Scott Card
Arthur C. Clarke
David Eddings
Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)
Robert Heinlein
JV Jones
Richard Morgan
Philip Pullman
Alastair Reynolds
RA Salvatore
Darren Shan
Neal Stephenson
David Weber

Friday 24 October 2008

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

It is 1946. WWII is over, the Soviet Union has crushed Nazi Germany and now exerts control over a vast swathe of Eastern Europe. However, Stalin is uneasy. He knows that the decadent United States will collapse within a decade and without an enemy to galvanize it, the Soviet Union's pursuit of worldwide Communist revolution may falter. He summons a group of the USSR's leading science fiction writers to a remote dacha and has them create a new foe to energise the Russian people. They concoct a story of radiation-based aliens launching an assault on the Earth by initially destroying an American spacecraft and then launching a devastating radioactive assault on the Ukraine. After several months of work, Stalin has the project terminated and the writers are sent back to their lives, warned never to speak of the project again.

Forty years later, Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky believes himself to be the sole survivor of that meeting. Eking out his old age as a translator, he, like much of the rest of the world, is shocked when the American space shuttle Challenger explodes after take-off. However, he is soon contacted by another survivor of that fateful writing circle and told that the events they made up are now starting to come horribly, irrevocably true. And the next sign will be an immense radioactive explosion somewhere in the Ukraine...

Yellow Blue Tibia is certainly a different SF book. It isn't strictly an alternate history, but plays around with its ideas and tropes. It isn't a comedy either, but I guarantee it will make you laugh out loud on at least several occasions. The combination of several farcical scenes with very polite and proper Russian grammar gives rise to some entertaining linguistic combinations even Jack Vance would be proud of, whilst the testicular-obsessed KGB interrogation scene is quite possibly a work of genius.

As with Swiftly, Roberts' previous novel, the book has a pretty straightforward and accessible opening half followed by the plot moving into an area much more open to interpretation. Yellow Blue Tibia isn't quite as open-ended as Swiftly, but it does demand maximum attention as several scenes of complex and convoluted exposition take place which are both informative and extremely amusing. Even though the reader is pretty much told what exactly is going on, there is the slight feeling of the book ending with the reader being tipped out and left trying to remember exactly what the hell just happened. But in a good way. There's a definite delayed reaction before you go, "Aha, that was clever!"

Yellow Blue Tibia (****) - say it reasonably fast to a Russian person with a sense of humour - is a clever, confounding and strikingly amusing book that will make you ponder important burning historical questions, such as was Stalin actually an alien robot? And how do you solve the dichotomy of UFOs quite clearly not existing but simultaneously being vitally important to the lives of millions of people? The novel will be published in hardcover and tradeback by Gollancz on 22 January 2009. There is no US publisher at the moment, but will apparently be importing UK copies of the book on release.

Wertzone Classics: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

On its original publication in Japan in 1999, Battle Royale was a surprise hit. Its author, journalist Koushun Takami, had written it for a literary competition but it had been rejected due to its controversial content and violent storyline. Of course, these very things combined with its searing commentary on Japanese society and reviews drawing comparisons with William Golding's Lord of the Flies made it immensely attractive to a younger audience.

The setting of Battle Royale is a little confusing, but it is eventually revealed that the book takes place in an alternate-reality timeline where Japan remained a police state after WWII and still controls much of Asia. Japan's schoolchildren and students are becoming more and more unruly as American culture and notions of freedom seep into the country, most notably via illegal musical imports (Bruce Springsteen's lyrics from 'Born to Run' are an influence on the main protagonist). To keep them under control, the Japanese government has instituted the Battle Royale programme. Every year, fifty classes of schoolchildren are dumped on various islands, equipped with weapons and told to slaughter one another. The last survivor is allowed to go free. The idea is that this horrifying threat will enforce peace and tranquillity on Japan's schools, but of course this doesn't quite work, with instead the programme being seen as a game to be followed and the winners become celebrities.

The novel follows one such class of schoolchildren as they are shipped to an abandoned island, given weapons and have failsafe bombs attached to necklaces placed around their heads. Any attempt to swim off the island or remove the necklace will result in it exploding. If at least one student isn't killed every 24 hours, all the bombs will be detonated simultaneously. The situation appears hopeless, apart from something the organisers didn't plan for. One of the students has played the game before...

Battle Royale is a scintillating novel. The premise is pretty shocking, but works brilliantly. By taking a bunch of schoolkids and ramping all of their petty animosities and arguments to the max and then giving them high-powered weaponry, Takami creates a situation which is both horrifying and, insanely, is also convincing. The characters are all pretty standard archetypes, with the class bully, the stuck-up rich girl, the innocents, the nerds, the peacemakers and so on, with Takami exploring the hierarchy of classroom power and how it is affected, or more accurately how it isn't particularly affected, but the disturbing situation these teenagers are placed in. The novel's length (over 600 pages) allows him to paint all 42 of the kids in reasonable detail, adding backstories and motivations to each character, usually engendering the reader's sympathy for each one just before they get violently offed.

Battle Royale works as a searing condemnation of humanity and how easy it is to slip into barbarism (much like Lord of the Flies, though with less spears and more petrol bombs and samurai swords), the inability for any repressive regime to maintain control over the imagination of the young and also that overconfidence always leads to a downfall (the ending of the novel, although possibly predictable, is deeply satisfying).

Battle Royale (*****) is the first novel I've ever reviewed on this blog which I feel compelled to add an advisory warning to: this book features a bunch of 14 and 15-year-olds killing one another (and some adults as well) in various inventive and disturbing ways. The book is pretty full-on in its depiction of violence and cruelty. That said, the violence is not gratuitous. There is a story, character or thematic reason for everything that happens, and the cumulative effect of the narrative is exceptionally powerful. The book is published in the UK by Gollancz and in the USA by VIZ Media.

In 2000, the celebrated Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku released a movie adaption of the book, which drew on his own experiences in WWII when he and his classmates were forced to work in a munitions factory in an area under repeated US bombardment, and thanks to the lies of the government about Japan's success he saw his schoolfriends die around him. The result was an, if anything, even angrier version of the story. I'll be reviewing the film version in the near future.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother is the fourth published novel by Canadian author Cory Doctorow, the co-editor of the popular blog BoingBoing. As hinted by the name, the novel is inspired by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also serves as SF's second great take on cryptology and online security, the first naturally being Stephenson's classic Cryptonomicon.

San Franciso in the near future. Al-Qaeda claims responsibility for a terrorist attack that destroys the Bay Bridge and kills over four thousand people. A group of high school students playing an alternate-reality web game are caught up in the resulting chaos and are interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security. Denied access to legal representation and threatened with torture and even execution should they reveal what has happened to them, they are released just before the seven-day limit, after which the police would being actively investigating any outstanding missing persons reports following the attack. One of the students, Marcus Yallow, becomes determined to expose the DHS' fascist tactics and sets up an online network - dubbed Xnet as it uses X-Boxes rather than easier-to-trace PCs to communicate - to undermine their security efforts and expose their attempts to subvert the law to pry into the lives of innocent citizens rather than actually doing anything that would prevent another terrorist attack. Pretty soon his online persona is public enemy number one for the DHS and they begin closing the net around him and his friends.

Little Brother is an angry book. Doctorow is clearly pissed off about the USA's reaction to the War on Terror and how the hard-won civil liberties of the country, and even its Constitution and Bill of Rights, are being treated as optional in the name of defending people from terrorist attack, even though the actual chances of being caught up in a terrorist incident are miniscule whilst the chances of having their freedoms infringed by repressive laws are overwhelming. In effect, in the book the DHS is spreading the very fear and terror that al-Qaeda wants to achieve. This is quite effective, and whilst critics of the book complain that the treatment of American citizens is unrealistic, the existence of Guantanmo Bay basically proves otherwise. It's also worth noting that the DHS in the book is being motivated by another terrorist attack on a scale greater than that of 9-11, which puts a slightly different spin on things.

Little Brother may be angry, but it's also hugely readable. Like Cryptonomicon before it, Doctorow goes to some trouble to lace explanations of cryptology and internet security into the text whilst keeping the story flowing, and pulls this off well. Characterisation is pretty good, and what happens to Marcus is so outrageous you find yourself cheering him on even if he does come over as being fairly unlikeable through large chunks of the narrative (particularly when he completely forgets to inform the parents of one of his friends still being held by the DHS that their son is still alive). The methods he and his friends develop to outwit the DHS are fairly smart and amusing as well. The pages fly past and the pace and tension ramp up admirably, but for such a cynical book, the ending does come a little out of the blue and feels more than slightly cheesily upbeat. Also, those non-Americans who don't quite get how the relationship in power between the individual states and the federal government in Washington works may find the ending a bit mystifying as well, but it tracks.

Little Brother (****) is an angry, polemical book which I suspect will provoke both admiration and outrage depending on what side of the civil liberties in the face of terrorism debate you fall on. It's also a smart and clever book with a deep sense of cynicism which is slightly undermined by the happy-ish ending, but the journey remains entertaining. The book is available now in the UK from Voyager and in the USA by Tor.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

With The Shadow Rising, Robert Jordan moved The Wheel of Time series out of its 'adventure' arc into a 'political' phase as the characters finally moved into positions of high authority and influence amongst different nations and cultures, and could begin the process of uniting the world to face the Last Battle. Whilst adventure storylines would continue to appear, a lot more time from this point onwards would be spent on political maneuverings. Indeed, some storylines would unfold almost entirely within a character's office as they fired off letters, received intelligence, and debated strategy. That, at this stage anyway, Jordan is able to make this readable and compelling is a testament to his often-underrated storytelling skills.

The fifth book in The Wheel of Time opens by picking up the storylines from the previous volume. Rand has convinced several of the Aiel clans to accept him as their chief-of-chiefs, and he makes preperations to lead them back into the Westlands. However, his task is complicated when the Shaido clan rejects him and launches a devastating invasion of the kingdom of Cairhien. Rand is forced to take his troops in pursuit before he can secure the loyalty of the remaining neutral clans, leaving his forces exposed to possible attack on two sides. Meanwhile, Nynaeve, Elayne, Thom and Juilin have extracted themselves from the civil war in Tarabon but now face the task of crossing the hostile nation of Amadicia, the stronghold of the Children of the Light and a country where channelling is outlawed. At the same time, a fanatic claiming to be the 'Prophet of the Dragon' is ravaging the kingdom to the north, Ghealdan. Back in Tar Valon, the Aes Sedai have splintered into opposing factions, with Elaida seizing control of the White Tower and a 'Tower-in-Exile' opposed to her rule establishing itself elsewhere, but the latter's stance towards Rand is unclear. Finally, the Forsaken are preparing a trap to neutralise Rand once and for all.

There's certainly a lot going on in The Fires of Heaven and Jordan mostly handles these storylines with aplomb, switching between them to stop things getting stale and delivering a relentless pace to Rand, Mat and Egwene's story, which has them chasing the Shaido hundreds of miles and culminating in the biggest battle in the entire series (to date, anyway). However, the first few cracks in the series' structure are becoming apparent. Given the distances traversed by Rand in his story, Jordan had to find a way of slowing down Elayne and Nynaeve's trip across a much smaller area so events would converge as he needed them to. His solution was to whack them in a very slow-moving circus as it traverses Amadicia, which leads to the first chapters in the entire series so far which don't actually seem to advance plot or character, but merely keep things ticking over for some of the characters. With events proceeding pretty rapidly elsewhere, the cutting-away to Elayne learning to walk a tightrope or Nynaeve being followed around by the lovelorn circus-owner really kills the pace of the book, making it a sluggish read in places. Some readers may also bemoan the lack of any appearance by Perrin in this book. Whilst Jordan had downplayed some characters' appearances in previous novels (Rand in the third, most notably), this is the first time one of the major characters from the first book doesn't appear at all.

Jordan makes up for these issues with the ferocious climax. At the end of the book Rand unleashes a blitzkrieg as a huge battle is fought with the Shaido and he has to face down two of the Forsaken in separate, desperate duels with the One Power. During these few chapters an enormous number of important events in the series take place, several important new characters are introduced and no less than five recurring characters are (apparently) killed off. This section of the book really repays careful rereads, as you can see how Jordan impressively set up events ahead of time. In fact, this may be the most dynamic part of the entire series to date and makes for great reading. However, be warned that a fairly big mystery is introduced at the end of Book 5 that has still not been conclusively answered more than 15 years later, although Brandon Sanderson has promised us a definitive answer in the final book of the series.

The Fires of Heaven (****) is a solid installment of the series, with a sometimes leaden pace and a very tedious subplot (the circus) more than made up for by the highly impressive climax and the way Jordan deftly spins the series' course onto a new heading (although this also lays the seeds for some extremely dubious writing decisions in the books to come). The book is published by Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA.

Monday 20 October 2008

The Wire: Season 3

With its third year, The Wire heads back to the streets and unfinished business. As with the second year, the third season opens up another dimension of the city, this time City Hall and the civil and police administration, but the focus is squarely back on the Barksdale organisation and Lt. Daniels' unit trying to bring them down and finish the job begun back in Season 1.

Season 3 opens with Avon Barksdale still inside, but his parole hearing is coming up. His friend and collaborator Stringer Bell has guided the crew through some lean times and formed a 'co-op' with several other gangs which has led to them making some serious money but at the cost of sharing each other's turf. However, a new player, Marlo Stanfield, is on the way up and is not interested in sharing his territory with anyone else. The stage is set for a series of bloody showdowns and bodies dropping on the streets, to the growing discontent of the police. Lt. Daniels and his unit are forced to drop their investigation into Bell (begun at the end of the second season) to concentrate on the war, unaware that the two are connected. This war is complicated by the re-emergence of Omar Little, who has sworn to bring down Bell for manipulating him into shooting an innocent man in the second season.

At the same time, an ambitious white city councilman, Tommy Carcetti, is planning to run for mayor, although his prospects in a city with a majority black population seem poor. Connecting these two storylines is a highly controversial initiative launched by police Major Colvin to move the drug dealers off the street corners into three abandoned city blocks where the police will turn a blind eye to their activities so they can concentrate more on murders and crime prevention elsewhere. The 'Hamsterdam' storyline, apparently inspired by the 'legalise drugs' movement, is a stunning and surprisingly even-handed piece of social commentary. There is also an ongoing subplot following the attempts of former Barksdale enforcer Dennis 'Cutty' Wise to go straight after spending fourteen years in prison.

Season 3 is tighter than the second season, as it is able to link the storylines together more effectively than the second, where the trials of the Barksdale gang were largely removed and separate from events on the docks. The new characters, both on the streets and in the city hall, are also more directly tied to the storylines that have gone before and are stronger as a result.

Thematically, the idea behind Season 3 appears to be that of failed reform. The failure of the city's drug prevention strategies encourage some radical, out-of-the-box thinking from Major Colvin. Whilst his policy is initially successful, it leads to a whole host of knock-on effects which are beyond his powers to address, and give a rather depressing impression that, indeed, no one man can make a difference to the system. The breathtaking cynicism and corruption of the political wing of the city is depicted, with Carcetti determined to reform the system from the inside, again with apparently little hope of success. Stringer Bell's attempts to reform himself and his friend Avon on his release from prison into respectable businessmen provides the season with its main narrative spine, but again does not have a happy ending. That said, there are moments of hope, with Cutty's attempts to go straight finally garnering some success and McNulty's attempts to straighten out his personal life ending on a positive note.

The ending of the season seems to be a little more definitive than the prior two, but the writers take care to leave enough loose ends untied to be pursued into the fourth year, with the candidates for mayor squaring up, several of the gang leaders still very much at large and the police unit once again finding themselves heading off in separate directions.

The Wire: Season 3 (*****) follows up on the first two by being just as dramatically intense with some superb characterisation, brilliant acting and some finely-judged moments of comedy to balance the darkness elsewhere. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).

Saturday 18 October 2008

News Round-Up

Legends of the Seeker is a new TV series produced by Sam Raimi and is based on Terry Goodkind's hilariously awful Sword of Truth series of novels. A ten-minute preview can be found here. It could still be entertaining, but between tons of unnecessary slow-motion shots and rather bland performances from the two leads, it doesn't look good so far.

StarCraft 2, which barring a new GTA will almost certainly be the biggest-selling game of 2009, has been unexpectedly split in three. Blizzard had determined that to tell their epic story properly would require well over 90 single-player missions. After debating how best to handle it, they decided to split the game and focus each title on one of the three core races. The first title will be subtitled Wings of Liberty and focus on the Terrans. The player will take on the role of Jim Raynor four years after the events of Brood War. A Protoss mini-campaign will also be included. The two expansions will be entitled Heart of the Swarm (focusing on the Zerg and Kerrigan) and Legacy of the Void (concentrating on the Protoss and Zeratul). Blizzard hopes to release them at roughly one-year intervals. The first release will include the full multiplayer component (including all three races), but the second and third games will add new maps and possibly new units to the experience. The announcement has had a mixed reaction from fans, to say the least. Meanwhile, Valve have announced that they will be issuing some news on Half-Life 2: Episode 3 in the next few months. The game is not expected until late 2009 or early 2010.

Orbit have tentatively scheduled the final Wheel of Time novel, A Memory of Light, for 1 October 2009. This date is only preliminary at the moment, but Brandon Sanderson has confirmed that it is the date he and his editors are aiming for.

The Sci-Fi Channel has confirmed that Battlestar Galactica will return to TV screens on Friday, 16 January 2009. Assuming no breaks, the double-length series finale will air on 20 March. No word on Lost's returning date for its fifth and penultimate season, but it will likely be around the same time (and shooting has been underway in Hawaii for the past two and a half months).

Friday 17 October 2008

New Interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont

Myself and Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist recently collaborated with some other bloggers on an interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont, co-creator of the Malazan world and author of the recently-released Return of the Crimson Guard. The interview can be found here, but some major spoilers for Return are included, so caution is advised.

Thursday 16 October 2008

The Temporal Void by Peter F. Hamilton

The first volume in The Void Trilogy, The Dreaming Void, was an enjoyable novel but not up there with Peter F. Hamilton's best. The story took a little long to get going and the links between Edeard's story in the Void and of events in the Commonwealth felt somewhat disconnected. This second book in the trilogy is a much stronger book which sets things up nicely for the finale and ties the two narratives together much more strongly.

Picking up after the events of the first novel, the Greater Commonwealth is in turmoil. The Living Dream movement is assembling its Pilgrimage fleet, which it plans to take into the Void to begin a life of paradise and unity. Unfortunately, it seems likely that this will trigger a major expansion event within the Void, threatening the Galaxy with destruction. In order to undertake the Pilgrimage, the Living Dreamers must find the Second Dreamer, the human who is in contact with the Skylords who control the Void. Unfortunately, the Second Dreamer is a scared young woman who has no interest in becoming the new messiah to a fanatical movement whose followers number in the billions, and she goes on the run.

Elsewhere, the alien Ocisens are hurtling towards Commonwealth space, determined to destroy the Pilgrimage fleet before it can reach the Void. The Commonwealth's attempts to deter them reveal that the threat they are facing are of a far greater magnitude than previously thought, resulting in the calling in of some very big guns indeed. Characters from the Commonwealth Saga - such as Paula Myo and Oscar Monroe - are involved in investigating the apparent conspiracy by elements within the Commonwealth who want the Pilgrimage to succeed, despite the trillions of lives it could cost. Another returning character, Justine Burnelli, opts for a more direct approach when she decides to try to slip into the Void and negotiate directly with the Skylords.

However, the bulk of the novel takes place within the Void itself. Edeard, a young constable in Makkathran's police force, has been revealed as possessing extraordinary psi-powers beyond those of many of the inhabitants. As his abilities grow, so does his determination to bring down and destroy the corrupt gangs who hold the lower echelons of the city in their grasp. But, as he discovers, there are connections between the gangs and the city's rulers which makes his task thankless, uncomfortable and exceedingly dangerous.

The Temporal Void picks up from the ending of The Dreaming Void without a beat and ramps up the pace of events. This may be a novel that is over 700 pages long in hardcover, but the pages absolutely fly past. There may be SF writers who have more attitude (Morgan) or better and darker prose (Reynolds), but for the simple ability to tell a rattling damn good story and combine it with complex scientific ideas and make it all compelling, Hamilton can't really be beaten. Just to add insult to the wound, Hamilton also proves himself to have similarly good skills with writing fantasy in the Makkathran chapters, and once again the reader ponders what Hamilton would do with a pure fantasy story.

Complaints? Edeard's powers mean that the situations when he finds himself in jeopardy are not as dangerous as they should be, and a shocking series of events near the end (which are beyond GRRM's Red Wedding in making the reader's jaw drop and go, "What the hell?") are disposed of rather easily. There's also a rather awkward plot revelation near the end of the book that essentially relies on lots of characters not talking about something they all know about merely to keep the reader in suspense, which feels slightly artificial.

The complaints are pretty minor though. The Temporal Void (****½) is the most readable, compelling slice of SF published this year, and leaves the reader sitting on edge for The Evolutionary Void, which will conclude the story (due in early 2010). The novel is out now in the UK from Pan Macmillan in hardcover, and will be published by Del Rey in the USA in February.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

The Wire: Season 2

When The Wire started it was easy to see it as just another cop show, until its overwhelmingly high quality lifted it onto another level. After all, the narrative of Season 1 was simply that of cops versus drug dealers, with some murky political dealings on the side but these were left relatively unexplored. Season 2, however, shows creator David Simon's real plan: he is trying to craft the definitive portrayal of the turn-of-the-century American city. Like a Grand Theft Auto game, progressing onto Season 2 'unlocks' another chunk of the city, this time the docks and a new cast of characters, including Eastern European criminals, the unions and their families, and introduces an important new thread to the tapestry of the show.

At the end of Season 1, Lt. Daniels' unit successfully cracked the Barksdale case, but political infighting between different police departments saw arrests made prematurely. Whilst Avon and D'Angelo were sent down, the evidence against Avon was flimsy and his time inside was limited, whilst back on the street the formidable Stringer Bell has been put in charge. Meanwhile, Daniels has been booted down to work in the evidence lock-up and McNulty has been sent over to the harbour patrol, to his extreme annoyance, whilst Freamon and Bunt are working in homicide. When McNulty fishes a body out of the harbour and port authority police officer Beadie Russell uncovers thirteen corpses in a freight container, the police's attention is turned to the harbour. This garners the interest of Commander Valchek, who is anxious to bring down the head of the stevedores' union, Frank Sobotka, after his union raises more cash for the local church's new stained-glass windows than Valchek's.

Season 2 of The Wire sprawls slightly more than the first season, a result of the story having to incorporate a large number of new characters and locations whilst at the same time keeping tabs on the characters from Season 1. The project gangs, Stringer Bell, Omar and so forth are firmly on the back-burner for the season, with their story forming a subplot that clears up some loose ends from the first season and sets up the events of Season 3, where they return to prominence. Whilst characters such as Omar and Bubs get limited screen time as a result compared to the first year, at least they don't vanish altogether. Luckily, the new characters are a good match for the originals. Union politics and the gradual loss of American industry and hands-on labour are covered in a fascinating manner. Frank Sobotka (played by Chris Bauer) is the character whom the season's themes centre on, showing how an essentially decent man who values loyalty and fair play is gradually morally eroded, ground down by the city institutions and effectively destroyed, whilst the start of the same process is shown happening to his nephew Nicky (Pablo Schreiber). On the law-enforcement side, Amy Ryan makes a good impression as Beadie Russell, the working beat officer who is pulled into the detective unit formed to investigate the port situation and finds herself out of her depth, until she steps up. On the street side of things, the fascinating character of Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) is introduced very late in the season, as more pieces are set up for the third year.

The Wire remains dramatically intense, with several deaths (one in particular) and shocking plot developments meaning you don't know who is safe, or who can be trusted. The show's black sense of humour is retained (the entire investigation starts due to a personal feud between Valchek and Sobotka over whose union gives more money to their local church), the fascinating investigative tactics used by the police are expanded upon and the increasingly bleak portrayal of the modern American city is balanced by a few decent characters and moments of hope.

The Wire: Season 2 (*****) takes slightly longer to get going than Season 1, but remains gripping, intelligent and adult television and the climax is much harsher. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).

Monday 13 October 2008

Babylon 5: Season 5 - The Wheel of Fire

So, Babylon 5 narrowly avoided cancellation by the skin of its teeth in 1997 and was rescued by cable network TNT, who had purchased the repeat rights to the entire series and also agreed to finance the spin-off, Crusade. Whilst this decision initially pleased fans, it did concern those who had noted that J. Michael Straczynski had ended a lot of storylines in Season 4 to give better closure to the show if it had been cancelled. What was there left to tell?

The year is now 2262. The Shadows and Vorlons have departed from the Galaxy, and the corrupt government of President Clarke on Earth has been pulled down. The other worlds have united under the banner of the Interstellar Alliance, but much work remains to be done to cement the worlds into a cohesive force. The new Alliance faces internal and external challenges as the now-masterless former servants of the Shadows hunger for vengeance.

Season 5 of Babylon 5 is its weakest and most problematic. The set-up for the season is good, but it has the feel of being the start of a whole new spin-off show, rather than the closing chapter of a story that's taken five years to tell. To suddenly go from stories of dramatic confrontation between former friends forced into being enemies, or stories of betrayal and consequences, to knockabout stand-alones about comedians visiting the station or a day in the life of two maintenance workers is rather jarring. The return of the stand-alone episodes after two years of very few stand-alones is unexpected and doesn't work very well, mainly as those stand-alones are merely repeating ground covered elsewhere, such as the Hyach/Hyach-do story which is a retread of the Centauri/Xon story covered much more briefly in Season 1. The season also suffers from the absence of several characters who left at the end of Season 4, most notably Claudia Christian as Commander Ivanova. Her replacement, Tracy Scoggins as Captain Lochley, gives it her all but comes off badly compared to her predecessor.

The dominant arc plot of the first half of Season 5 is also interminable. A colony of telepaths opposed to Psi Corps is established on the station, led by the supposedly charismatic Byron ('supposedly' because we are only ever told this about him, but never see it for ourselves). Their storyline pointlessly rams home points about the Psi Corps that were established much more effectively and succinctly in Season 1's Mind War or Season 2's A Race Through Dark Places. The Psi Corps are an amoral, cruel, bullying lot of racial supremacists. We get it. Move on. A rare high-point in this first batch of episodes is Day of the Dead, written by Sandman creator Neil Gaiman, which is emotionally raw and gives Tracy Scoggins her best showcase in the series. However, an ill-advised subplot featuring celebrity magicians Penn and Teller misfires.

Things pick up in the second half of the season, as the focus switches back to the Centauri. Centauri ships are secretly attacking trade vessels belonging to the other races, but Londo is being kept out of the loop. As the Alliance gathers evidence implicating the Centauri, Londo realises something is very badly wrong on Centauri Prime, the Narn realise they have an opportunity to repay the Centauri for what they did to their homeworld, and a severe lapse in Mr. Garibaldi's judgement results in thousands of civilian deaths. This is B5 as we know and love it, with characters making bad calls and others paying the price in blood, with dubious morality and pragmatism overcoming ideology along the way. It's a nicely-handled arc, culminating in the superb Fall of Centauri Prime, which saves the final season from being a total waste of time. Unfortunately, this episode is followed by a rather tediously long denouement in which characters spend a lot of time saying goodbye to one another as they are assigned to new posts and B5's importance dwindles as the Interstellar Alliance's HQ is transferred to Minbar.

The series finale, Sleeping in Light, is an elegant and well-written episode which gives the show a real sense of closure, and is a fitting conclusion to this epic, huge saga.

Season 5 of Babylon 5 (***) has many missteps that threaten to render the series unwatchable, but it recovers for a late-season burst of quality reminiscent of seasons 2 or 3 before reaching a satisfying conclusion. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the Complete Babylon 5 box set (UK, USA).

501: No Compromises (**)
502: The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari (***)
503: The Paragon of Animals (***)
504: A View from the Gallery (**)
505: Learning Curve (*)
506: Strange Relations (*)
507: Secrets of the Soul (*)
508: Day of the Dead (***)
509: In the Kingdom of the Blind (**)
510: A Tragedy of Telepaths (**)
511: Phoenix Rising (**)
512: The Ragged Edge (***)
513: The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father (***½)
514: Meditations on the Abyss (***½)
515: Darkness Ascending (***½)
516: And All My Dreams Torn Asunder (****½)
517: Movements of Fire and Shadow (****½)
518: The Fall of Centauri Prime (*****)
519: The Wheel of Fire (***)
520: Objects in Motion (**)
521: Objects at Rest (***)
522: Sleeping in Light (*****)