Friday, 10 October 2008

Ten Years Ago...

Over on his blog, Larry has been looking through the books released five years ago, which struck me as an interesting idea. Dusting off the late 1998 issues of SFX Magazine I discovered a surprising number of high-profile books, movies, TV shows and games were released a decade ago. I warn you that the following may make you feel very old indeed:

The highest-profile late-1998 releases were probably the respective latest instalments in The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire: The Path of Daggers, Jordan's eighth book in his huge series and the one where arguably the rot set in; and A Clash of Kings, George RR Martin's excellent second book in his sequence. Amusingly, I note that at the time the reviewers seemed irritated that A Clash of Kings was "a year overdue". Ha, lightweights. Robert Silverberg cashed in on the epic fantasy boom with his anthology Legends, featuring both the above writers (including GRRM's superb The Hedge Knight) and a galaxy of other stars, including Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, Terry Pratchett, Orson Scott Card and Raymond E. Feist.

Speaking of the Feister, it was also at this time that, having completed his otherwise excellent Serpentwar Saga a few months earlier with the lacklustre Shards of a Broken Crown, he published the first book in his Riftwar Legacy series, Krondor: The Betrayal. This is actually one of the worst epic fantasy novels I have ever read, all the most startling for coming from a writer who can usually be relied upon to deliver at least competent and occasionally outstanding work. I don't think Feist has ever recovered the form he had before this novel, which is a crying shame. Terry Pratchett also delivered one of the weakest books in his Discworld sequence, Carpe Jugulum. Whilst it's vaguely amusing and raises a few smiles, the book is a rather tired retelling of the far superior Lords and Ladies with vampires replacing the elves. Disappointing.

Tad Williams continued his SF/fantasy/cyberpunk series Otherland with the second volume, River of Blue Fire, which may be the best book of the four. Reaction to this new series was muted at the time, although Williams should be congratulated for not simply churning out more Osten Ard books. However, the passage of time has seen Otherland get a lot more respect as time has passed, and the series has become an unexpected mainstream hit in Germany. Guy Gavriel Kay also kicked off his Sarantine Mosaic duology with Sailing to Sarantium, a typically lyric and imaginative take on history, this time Byzantine. Elsewhere, a pre-tie-in Greg Keyes brought home The Chosen of the Changeling duology with The Blackgod, and Terry Brooks unleashed A Knight of the Word, the middle volume of his Word and Void trilogy. A far more interesting and original fantasy tale came to a close with Land of Mists, Garry Kilworth's conclusion to his Navigator Kings trilogy which swaps traditional medieval Europe for Polynesia and a very different style of story. Elsewhere, LE Modesitt Jnr. delivered The Chaos Balance and Kate Elliott unveiled Prince of Dogs, the second in her Crown of Stars series. Meanwhile, Tom Arden squandered the promise shown in his debut novel The Harlequin's Dance with its excruciating follow-up in the Orokon series, The King and Queen of Swords.

For debuts, this period marked the beginning of successful careers for Sara Douglass, whose Axis Trilogy kicked off with the cheesy-but-fun Battleaxe (although it had been published earlier in Australia) and KJ Parker, whose Fencer Trilogy began with the splendid Colours in the Steel. Established fantasy writer David Eddings invited readers to peak behind the curtain with his Rivan Codex, a sort-of 'behind the scenes' guide to how the David Eddings Fantasy Production Line works. A fascinating read, if only for Eddings' astonishingly open and brazen admission of just how formulaic his books are and how he got into the writing business purely for the money.

Over on the SF side of things, David Brin published Heaven's Reach, the third book in his Uplift Storm trilogy and the last Uplift novel to date. Notable for scenes in which trillions of people die rather horribly, Heaven's Reach satisfyingly plateaued the storylines that had been running for sixteen years already by that point, but few of the central mysteries of his series were answered, and a decade on remain so. Jack McDevitt also published his gloriously OTT disaster novel Moonfall, which has the Best Cover Blurb Ever ("A Comet Is Coming. It Is Going To Hit The Moon. And The Moon Is Going To Fall. ON US.") and probably would have sold to Hollywood if it wasn't for bad timing (see the movies section below). Greg Bear continued the dubious Second Foundation Trilogy experiment with Foundation and Chaos, but also found time to put out a new work, Dinosaur Summer. David Zindell also concluded his much-applauded SF epic A Requiem for Homo Sapiens with War in Heaven, before making an ill-advised move into epic fantasy. Christopher Priest also released The Extremes. Coming between The Prestige and The Separation, two of the greatest SF novels of the last generation, The Extremes merely had to settle for merely being very, very good and one of the best books of the year.

This was also the time when Peter F. Hamilton released the under-rated A Second Chance at Eden, a collection of short fiction in his Night's Dawn universe released to fill the gap between the second and third volumes of the trilogy proper. Colin Greenland also released the concluding volume of his well-regarded Plenty trilogy, Mother of Plenty, and hasn't published much since, which is a shame.

This post is too long already, so let's just say that late 1998 saw some middling-to-good movies (The Truman Show, Deep Impact, Antz, Small Soldiers, Blade, The X-Files), some bad movies (Halloween H20, Godzilla, Lost in Space) and some really bad movies (Armageddon, Species II).

The TV highlight of this period was Ultraviolet, Channel 4's superb take on vampire mythology. Over in the USA, the same ground was being covered almost as well in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's second (and best) season. Babylon 5 came to a conclusion with its fifth and final season (review up soon), with the horrors of the early part of the season being almost redeemed with the concluding Centauri Prime arc and the elegant finale, Sleeping in Light, although we'll pass over the appalling River of Souls TV movie. The first half of Deep Space Nine's final season also aired at this time, and didn't fill the hearts of viewers with much joy. Fortunately, the barnstorming series-ending arc was approaching in the first half of 1999. Elsewhere, Star Trek: Voyager somehow remained on the air and Highlander's short-lived spin-off series The Raven briefly aired.

Some interesting and decent games were released at the end of 1998, including some highly influential ones, such as Thief: The Dark Project, SiN and the original Unreal, or the MechWarrior strategy game MechCommander, and the glorious brainless fun of Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now. Not to mention the superb Myth II: Soulblighter, which still has a cult following today, and the epic Baldur's Gate, which began the career of BioWare (who went on to develop Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic). However, the one game released in late 1998 that obliterated everything else in sight and kick-started both a best-selling games franchise and the propulsion of its developers to become the most respected developers in PC gaming: Half-Life. Now that makes me feel old.

In other gaming related news, many magazines and critics at the time moaned about the total non-appearance of the eagerly-awaited and overdue Duke Nukem Forever...


Anonymous said...

One of the things that strikes me at once is how much more material is being published now, especially in Fantasy, less so in SG of course. Also, it's not just more, but there is so much more interesting Fantasy being published that it is pretty much impossible to keep up, even for prodigious readers.

In looking at how some of those authors you mentioned are doing now, well, Jordan has died, Martin's future is uncertain and his ASOIAF output has been depressingly minimal the last decade, Guy Kay is still writing at a rate of about one book every 3years, Silverberg has pretty much stopped writing, understandable given his age, Feist is still doing what he's always done, as is Brooks, Tad Williams seems to have lost the flair of his early career, David Brin hasn't put a book out in many years, Greg Bear just published the poorly received City at the end of time, David Zindell has, as you say, made a poor show show of doing epic fantasy but Peter Hamilton is still publishing regularly( and to me is now doing his most interesting work).

Lsrry said...

Those books weren't released five years ago; I only read them for the first time in 2003. Interesting to see what was released 10 years and how those books have "aged" in the interim, however.

But if you wanted to do a "historical" event, consider what 2002-2003 brought in terms of a certain "movement" developing - the New Weird one.

Adam Whitehead said...

Wasn't PSS (2000) more important in kick-starting the New Weird movement? I know Year of Our War came out in 2004 which is one of the first books to be definitively influenced by Mieville, and then you have Harrison as a precursor.

What 2002-03 books do you think are key New Weird books?

Anonymous said...

I quote:

Tad Williams seems to have lost the flair of his early career

I wouldn't bet on that. have you guys seen all the stuff on the web about the Otherland MMO? It's a huge venture, and it launches 2010.

And BTW, the best of the 4 Otherland books is #3, Mountain of Black Glass. It's got the killer Troy recreation in it. Although, the kitchen world, house world, and toon world, in River of Blue Fire (#2), if memory serves aright, are indeed very find.

Adam Whitehead said...

That seems like a great project, but Williams isn't producing the thing himself. I haven't read the Shadowmarch Trilogy myself (waiting for the last book), but it does appear to have had a very lukewarm reception compared to his earlier books.

James said...

Krondor: The Betrayal is indeed a terrible novel. In fact, probably the worst fantasy novel I've ever read. About the most positive thing you can say about it is that at least it is pretty short. But otherwise it is deficient in every department - dull characters, a pedestrian plot that plods blandly along and - most worringly - a total lack of sparkle or flair. It was as if Feist just wrote it for the paycheque. Although he was going through a divorce at the time, so perhaps that is why. Then again, he followed it up with Krondor: Assassins and Krondor: Tear of the Gods which, although better, were still pretty poor.

Baldur's Gate is/was brilliant. The first was a rough diamond, the second was a polished masterpiece. It was great to see developers actually take on board what the fans didn't like about the first one and keep what they did like. And Baldur's Gate 2 had one of the coolest baddies ever - Irenicus. Can't remember the chap that did the voice-over for Irenicus, but he did a damned good job - "I CANNOT BE CAGED, I CANNOT BE CONTROLLED!"
Awesome, indeed.

Adam Whitehead said...

I believe the mighty David Warner did the voice of Irenicus, and yes, he did a great job.