Sunday 30 August 2009

Wertzone Classics: The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton

In the year 2610, humanity has expanded to inhabit almost nine hundred worlds and thousands of industrial asteroid settlements. It has divided into two strands, the traditional Adamists who use technological starships and cybernetic implants, and the telepathic Edenists, who employ bitek - biological technology - to create living starships and sentient space habitats. The two sub-races are allied together in the Confederation (along with two xenoc species, the Tyrathca and the Kiint), despite their religious and ideological differences. Between them, every conceivable human society and civilisation exists, from the ultra-high-tech arcologies of Earth to the pastoral idyll of Norfolk to communist Mars to the breezy techno-economy of New California. Whilst crime and corruption still exist, most of humanity, at long last, seems on the verge of a golden age.

Current UK mmpb edition

Syrinx is an Edenist voidhawk captain, bonded to Oenone. Starship and captain are born and raised together, forming an unshakable bond. After a stint in the Confederation Navy, they go into business as an independent trader, but a family tragedy prejudices Syrinx against the Adamists, leaving a scar that it seems cannot be healed. Meanwhile, Joshua Calvert is a scavenger, hunting the debris fields of the Ruin Ring (the remains of thousands of alien space habitats destroyed by forces unknown two millennia earlier), looking for that elusive find which will make him rich and allow him to repair his father's grounded starship, the Lady Macbeth.

On the stage-one colony world of Lalonde, a humid jungle planet accepting colonists from Earth's overflowing European arcologies, a new village is being settled. People fleeing from the cramped, overcrowded cities of the ecologically-devastated homeworld now find themselves planting cropfields and building sailing boats. It's a tough but rewarding existence, but one that has a serpent growing at its heart. A chance encounter between an utterly alien entity and a brutal and sadistic cult unleashes a devastating, ancient threat upon the human race. An alien species annihilated by the same force called it 'the reality dysfunction', a force which spreads exponentially and is hungry for more human bodies to use for its own ends. Even the utterly formidable resources of the Confederation will be tested to their limits as the threat engulfs Lalonde and threatens to spread to other worlds.

The Reality Dysfunction is an imposing book, a massive 1,230 pages in length and itself only the first part of The Night's Dawn Trilogy (Books 2 and 3 are even longer). When the book first appeared in 1996, reviewers liked to point out that the first part of Hamilton's trilogy was bigger than most writers' entire trilogies, although today fans of epic fantasy will not be particularly daunted by its size. For a space opera novel which, for its first third anyway, veers towards the hard end of SF, the size remains unusual.

Of course, this would be an issue if the book flagged or if there were obvious ways the length could be cut. There is not, although the two sequels could probably have done with some pruning. Part of the genius of The Reality Dysfunction is the way its huge number of characters and storylines seems to randomly ramble all over the place at the start, but towards the end of the book they come together most satisfyingly.

2009 one-volume US edition from Orbit

In this trilogy, Hamilton has created what is certainly the most comprehensive futuristic society ever created. The only work that comes close to equalling it is Hamilton's own Intersolar Commonwealth, from his later Commonwealth and Void series. With Night's Dawn, Hamilton became SF's answer to Tolkien, building an immense space opera universe totally convincing in its solidarity. He has put huge amounts of thought into the politics, economics, religion, civil and military forces that make up the Confederation, and then seems to enjoy pointing out his own flaws (the economics of starflight in the Confederation seem questionable, and the author gleefully points that out, leaving the reader unsure if he has an answer or not or is just making them think he does). Whilst that solidarity is extremely impressive, it does give rise to accusations that Hamilton likes to info-dump. He has no problem with listing the dates for the founding of colony worlds or explaining how they achieved their techno-economic power in just a century. Personally I found such explanations fascinating, but other readers have reported they become wearying after a while. As always, your mileage may vary.

A central theme of the novel is that humanity will not fundamentally change in the future. The divisions between atheists and the religious faithful remain, and humans, at heart, seem to still be motivated an awful lot by money and sex. Even the Edenists, who have flickers of post-Singularity, post-humans about them, seem to still be defined by their essential, recognisable humanity. The realism of this can be debated, but a central complaint of far-future SF, that humans have become so unrecognisable they are no longer particularly interesting, is averted here. Life in the 27th Century is very much like life in the 21st, only with better healthcare, longer lifespans and everyone seems to get laid a lot more. In fact, with the Confederation, Hamilton has achieved the near-impossible by creating a near-utopian civilisation which is not bland or dull, but still flawed enough to be interesting. His view of the future is essentially optimistic whilst not shying away from the nastier side of human nature, which is an impressive balancing act.

Another complaint is that the book dwells a fair amount on sex, although this did give rise to David Langford's counter-argument in his 1997 review of the second book that any universe in which everyone has as much great consensual, safe sex as this one is intrinsically worth saving. Of course, all things are relative and out of the 1,230 pages of the book, the number of pages without any sex is also pretty high (and there's considerably less in the sequels). Hamilton himself seems to be aware of the situation and in a nice exchange near the end of the book the morality of the situation is briefly discussed between two of the characters.

2009 Subterranean Press edition

The Reality Dysfunction lives and dies by its central characters: the evil Quinn Dexter, the roguish Joshua Calvert, the aloof Syrinx, the determined Marie Skibbow, the responsible Ione Saldana, the conflicted Father Horst Elwes and more. They're a fascinating bunch, by turns flawed but also convincing, sometimes corrupt but mostly relatable (with the possible exception of the insane Dexter). I notice that many readers seem to dislike the apparent hero Joshua (Han Solo, but without the morals), but this is perfectly in keeping with the author's intentions: he describes Joshua as a 'prat' and states that the 'proper' title for the trilogy is actually Joshua's Progress, the transformation of his character from self-obsessed, borderline-sexist egomaniac to a better person due to the experiences he encounters.

Hamilton also delivers good space battle. The engagements between his starships are built on real-life physics, and the idea that such fights would involve fighter craft is rejected in favour of more realistic unmanned drones that fight whilst the actual spacecraft are thousands of miles apart. The tactics of space combat are well-handled, as are the ground combat sequences featuring mercenaries and marines. There isn't really enough to qualify The Reality Dysfunction as 'military SF', but fans of that subgenre will nevertheless feel well-catered-for.

Pacing wise, The Reality Dysfunction has to unfold smoothly in order to captivate the reader for such an immense length, not to mention to convince them to come back for two more, even larger books. To this end the book is divided into three roughly equal segments: introduction, rising action and counter-action. The introduction, which is more like a collection of short stories than a novel, shows us the Confederation, introduces the characters and outlines the main concepts of the story. After that, all hell breaks loose and the true threat is unleashed, investigated and (impartially) understood, with events building to a climax which, whilst not a cliffhanger, will nevertheless leave many readers on the edge of their seat, eager to move onto the second.

The Reality Dysfunction has some things acting against it. Some people will think it's too long, others that it has too much info-dumping or too many sex scenes, or that the entire exercise is just too confusing, with too many characters, planets or storylines to easily keep track of. Some people find the central premise of the reality dysfunction itself too unbelievable once it is revealed, and possibly out of keeping within an SF novel (although Hamilton does a surprisingly good job of explaining the situation in SF terms in the final novel of the series), although others absolutely love its unexpected nature: of all the 'twists' in an SF novel to occur, I don't think I've ever read anything on this scale before.

For myself, I found the book stunningly well-paced and a ferocious page-turner, building up the most well-realised SF setting in the genre's history with verve and aplomb. The Confederation is flawed and sometimes corrupt, but above all it is worth saving, unusual in a genre all-too-often dominated by dystopias that probably deserve to be annihilated. Hamilton also intelligently explores numerous questions in this book, from economics through to faith and religion. Whilst a conservative atheist (in the small-c sense), Hamilton is nevertheless fascinated by the merits and weaknesses of organised religion and its impact on morality and society, and in the Night's Dawn books he explores religion in space opera with more intelligence, fairness and understanding than any other SF writer bar possibly J. Michael Straczynski in his TV series, Babylon 5.

The Reality Dysfunction (*****) is for my money one of the very best works of space opera ever written, right up there with Dune and Hyperion (not as well-written as either, but considerably more convincing), and easily the most comprehensive single-author SF setting ever conceived. As SF author and critic Colin Greenland said at the time, The Reality Dysfunction reads like fifty science fiction novels, each tackling a separate and fascinating subject, rolled into one gripping and cohesive whole. The novel is available now in the UK and, at long last, in one volume in the USA. A limited and illustrated edition will be released by Subterranean Press in November.

The remaining two, slightly more flawed, novels in the sequence are The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God.

Farewell to Wotmania was established in 1998 as a major Wheel of Time fan forum. In 2002 it spawned an eclectic 'Other Fantasy' board which championed authors such as Erikson and Bakker long before they reached a larger public awareness. Whilst the board's claim as the premiere Wheel of Time fansite was gradually eroded by Dragonmount (which hosted Robert Jordan's official blog in the last few months of his life), it remained an interesting and vibrant Internet community.

Wotmania's founder has moved on to other things, and the message board will be shut down for good tomorrow. Its replacement site,, has already gone online and will hopefully grow to be as successful as Wotmania has been in the past. The best of luck to the new site and many thanks to the Wotmania team for four years of fun discussions and many years of interesting lurking before that!

Thursday 27 August 2009

Wertzone Classics: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords

It is a time of great turmoil in the Galaxy. A decade ago, two powerful Jedi warriors, Revan and Malak, rejected the decision of the Jedi High Council that the Order would remain neutral in the war between the Mandalorians and the Republic. Siding with the Republic, Revan, Malak and their followers eventually defeated the Mandalorians in a bloody battle at Malachor V, leaving that world shattered and millions dead. After that battle Revan and Malak turned to the Dark Side of the Force, forging a new Sith Empire. Revan was usurped by Malak, who in turn was defeated by the forces of the Republic in an epic battle above a remote planet called Rakata Prime.

The death of Malak did not end the chaos in the Galaxy. New Sith lords have arisen and Sith assassins have continued to strike, targeting the few Jedi who had survived the Mandalorian conflict and the Jedi Civil War that came after. The Jedi Order disbanded, its few surviving members disappearing, leaving the war-ravaged Republic vulnerable.

Unexpectedly, one of the Jedi warriors who followed Revan into battle at Malachor has resurfaced, stripped of her connection to the Force. Rescued from certain death by a ship called the Ebon Hawk and taken to a hospital facility on Peragus, this warrior now has to find out what has happened, who tried to kill her and why she can no longer use the Force. To this end she accumulates a band of allies, learns the fate of the other Jedi and is brought to a new understanding of the Force by a very enigmatic mentor...

Knights of the Old Republic II is to its predecessor what The Empire Strikes Back is to A New Hope: the grittier, more brooding and more philosophical sequel with a dark, ambiguous conclusion. However, it doesn't match Empire's primary achievement - of being a sequel superior to the original - for various reasons.

Knights of the Old Republic II's biggest problem is the incredible vagueness of the story at the start of the game. KotOR I put you in a big city with lots of options and quests to do right off the bat and plenty of characters and politics to interact with. KotOR II instead has you exploring a space station pressing buttons for what feels like ages (it's actually about an hour and a half of fairly tedious running around) and you're not really given a reason for doing so. Your character is also curiously unwilling to ask questions of the strange old woman, Kreia, who has appeared out of nowhere to mentor you. It's about halfway through the game before you can even ask if she's a Jedi, which is the question I wanted to ask about two minutes after meeting her.

Once the oddball opening sequence is dispensed with, you find yourself on Citadel Station orbiting Telos, and the more familiar playing style of the first game kicks in. From here you have lots of quests and sub-quests to pursue, different factions to ally with or play off against one another and several characters you can recruit to your party. The relationship between your character and Kreia also develops impressively, as Kreia has adopted a philosophical relationship with the Force which is fairly unusual and complex, going beyond the simplistic Light Side = Good, Dark Side = Bad notions of George Lucas and some of the less thoughtful other Star Wars writers. This gives rise to some fascinating conversations and some excellent dialogue. The game's main designer, Chris Avellone, was also the creator of possibly the greatest computer roleplaying game ever made, Planescape: Torment, and KotOR II covers some of the same ground as that earlier game. Avellone has a good claim to being the best writer of dialogue for computer RPGs around at the moment, and examples of that can be found throughout KotOR II.

It's an interesting approach and KotOR II does have a unique atmosphere and feel to it. Lightsabres and the Force aside, its dark story about challenging moral simplicity and questioning identity feels like it's come from some other universe altogether. This is also possibly the game's key weakness: Empire Strikes Back may have been an altogether more sophisticated take on Star Wars than the first movie but it still retained the core humour and warmth of the character relationships and still 'felt' like Star Wars. Matt Stover's novel Traitor, often heralded as another successful 'dark' take on Star Wars, also succeeds in retaining that core identity despite going to places George Lucas would be very uncomfortable with. KotOR II often fails to uphold that identity, and its coldness and lack of humour sometimes makes it hard going, especially compared to the manner in which KotOR I nailed those elements so successfully.

A major success of KotOR II is how it handles your party. In the first game it was possible to simply keep picking the first two NPCs you meet at the start of the game and take them through the whole game, missing out on the storylines of the other members of party. Whilst it is broadly possible to do this in the sequel, there are several quests which take place simultaneously, so you have to pick a second party from your character pool and have them doing stuff at the same time as your 'star party' is on a mission, which is an interesting and refreshing approach that gets as much of the plot as possible on screen and really gets into the characters across in a more interesting manner.

Unfortunately, this is slightly problematic as the NPCs in the second game are not quite as interesting as those in the first. They are fairly low-key in personality and the fact that they are a depressed and brooding bunch who have often committed horrible crimes makes empathising with them hard. The writing is excellent and eventually these characters' motivations are made clear, but they lack the vital personalities of characters such as Zaalbar, Mission and Bastila from the first game (although there is a brilliant inversion of the 'cute' Zaalbar/Mission, tough Wookie/smartass sidekick dynamic from the first game).

"If you seek to aid everyone that suffers in the galaxy, you will only weaken yourself… and weaken them. It is the internal struggles, when fought and won on their own, that yield the strongest rewards. You stole that struggle from them, cheapened it. If you care for others, then dispense with pity and sacrifice and recognize the value in letting them fight their own battles. And when they triumph, they will be even stronger for the victory."
- The Dark Lords of the Sith, apprently followers of Ayn Rand

Nevertheless, the game's story unfolds in a consistently intriguing manner, with enough mystery and plot development to drag you through its bumps. The game skirts against true masterpiece status a few times towards the end of the game through an impressively-executed plot twist (although not on the level of the central twist in the first game), but then things start falling apart again towards the end of the game. This time the problems have a far more straightforward explanation: LucasArts wanted the game released for Christmas 2004 no matter what, and denied Obsidian Entertainment the extra time needed to finish the game off properly. The result is that the game is incomplete. The designers managed to do enough to tie off the primary storyline at least, so that tracks coherently, but several quests are simply not solvable and most of your NPC allies' individual character arcs are left hanging in mid-air, with a cheesy dialogue exchange at the end of the game explaining the fates of the other characters. Two characters are left in a life-or-death situation that is simply never resolved, and another character's solo quest is not implemented in the game at all. This means the end of the game is extremely abrupt with many loose ends left dangling. Obsidian made a heroic effort to solve some of these problems through post-release patches, but LucasArts denied them the funding to actually finish the game through a content expansion.

As a result, what could have been (despite its slow opening) a five-star game and another classic is left wounded and broken. It's actually a tribute to the team at Obsidian that the game remains playable and compelling despite this significant problem. A mod team have been working for some time on restoring and completing the abandoned content (made possible thanks to Obsidian cheekily putting all the half-finished stuff on the game CD-ROMs for this specific purpose) which could immensely improve the game, but no release date has been set for this so far, and since it is now five years after release it is arguable if there is much point to it any more.

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (****) is a fascinating, compelling and altogether different take on Star Wars. It is intelligent, philosophical and refreshingly well-written for a computer game, although it doesn't skimp on the action and combat sequences either. However, a dull opening sequence and the incomplete content does leave the game feeling distinctly unfulfilling, especially compared to its near-flawlessly-executed forebear. The game is available now on the PC** (UK, USA) and X-Box (UK, USA) and a sequel, The Old Republic, is currently in development by BioWare.

* Although you can determine your character's gender, race and abilities, Lucasfilm has decreed that for canon purposes the main character in Knights of the Old Republic was male and your character in Knights of the Old Republic II was female.

** I would very, very strongly advise that those planning to purchase the game on PC download the two post-release patches, which are necessary to stabilise the game and eliminate its numerous bugs (once this is done the game is actually much smoother and easier to play on modern PCs than KotOR I) and also download the movie and music patches, which replace the horrible low-res movies and music from the original release. There's also an additional patch to run the game under Windows Vista as well.

REPUBLIC OF THIEVES Prologue available

Aware that his website hasn't been updated since Neanderthal man gasped his last (or about two years, which is the same thing in Internet Time), Scott Lynch has, erm, updated his website. As well a gargantuan new sample of Red Seas Under Red Skies he also has the complete prologue to The Republic of Thieves, including the debut of the much-discussed character Sabetha Belacoros. He has also added significant author annotations to the RSURS sample as well.

In Scott's own words:

"Next week I'll put together a new preview for TLoLL, at least as large as the new RSURS version, with similar author annotations. And it will replace the feeble excerpt currently available, and from here on out we're gonna party like it's the fucking 21st century."

All can be found here.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

The Auditors of Reality are unhappy with the Death of the Discworld, who has shown signs of individuality and - shudder - a personality. They decide to fire Death and recruit a replacement. Death accepts this decision stoically, and decides to spend his last few days of existence sampling life, adopting the alias of handyman Bill Door and going to work on a remote farm.

Unfortunately, Death's absence causes some anomalies. Windle Poons, the oldest wizard on the Disc, is upset to discover that, despite dying, he can't move on to the next life. As a result, he has to spend the interim as a zombie but, thankfully, he finds some help from Ankh-Morpork's resident undead rights movement. At the same time, an unusual plague of odd novelty items is afflicting the city. The wizards of Unseen University investigate and discover that something rather unusual is taking shape outside the city walls...

Reaper Man is, in the sometimes complicated hierarchy of Discworld novels, the second book to feature Death in a major role (following on from Mort and running ahead of Soul Music) and the first to feature the Unseen University wizards in a major role (although, confusingly, many of them appeared in a supporting capacity in Moving Pictures and the Librarian has been around since The Light Fantastic). Some of the City Watch (from Guards! Guards!) also crop up.

This slightly complicated arrangement probably adds to the schizophrenia of the novel. In all of the Discworld books prior to this, the storylines usually converge at the end and the story is usually quite focused. Reaper Man instead sprawls, with Death/Bill Door's adventures and the subplot of the wizards/Windle Poons not really gelling together. There is a vague link between them, but otherwise the two stories don't really intertwine, resulting in a rather disconnected feeling to the book. This is added to by the wizards stuff being quite funny and the Death stuff being quite serious (the advent of the Death of Rats aside).

"You can't trust those voodoo gods. Never trust a god who grins all the time and wears a top hat, that's my motto."
"Is it? That's a funny motto."
- two of the wizards

Pratchett is also pursuing another satirical target here, following on from films in Moving Pictures and police procedurals in Guards! Guards! Unfortunately, the target is rather weak - Pratchett apparently doesn't like shopping malls, hates muzak and isn't keen on combine harvesters - and there's a distinctly half-hearted feeling to proceedings here. The book never really seems to come together and fire up like the best books in the series, despite many individually good moments and some funny lines. Ultimately this appears to be a case of Pratchett trying to be serious and even moving but also trying to throw some chaotic comedy into the mix as well, and it doesn't work. It's notable that when Pratchett separates the two out - as he does in the double-whammy of the more serious Small Gods and the funny Lords and Ladies - he does very well, but the mix here does not work as effectively.

Reaper Man (***) is readable and interesting, but definitely one of the less successful books in the series. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 23 August 2009

A Second Chance at Eden by Peter F. Hamilton

In the mid-21st Century a brilliant geneticist named Wing-Tsit Chong creates the affinity gene. When spliced into human beings, it allows them to control bonded servitor animals with total accuracy. Humans fitted with the gene can also communicate with one another using the gene, which creates an effect similar to the old, mythical idea of telepathy. The affinity gene revolutionises science, and when combined with the growing industry of biological technology - bitek - it seems to promise a brighter, less technologically and materially-focused future for the human race. In 2090 the Jovian Sky Power Corporation begins mining helium-3 from the atmosphere of Jupiter and builds a bitek space station, Eden, as a cheap alternative to a traditional but expensive hollowed-out asteroid habitat. Eden is given its own neural strata and its sentient mind can communicate with all of its inhabitants, and all of them with one another, forming the ultimate utopian society.

But change is hard for some to accept. The Reunified Christian Church is deeply concerned about the implications of bitek and affinity, for with a person able to call upon the immediate support of thousands of other human minds to any crisis or problem, they grow up better-adjusted and in less need of psychological reassurance. In short, they grow up with no need for faith in what cannot be seen or known. And that is a danger that no religion can ignore.

Spanning 516 years of history, the six short stories and the title novella that make up A Second Chance at Eden chronicle humanity's first faltering steps into space, the colonisation of other worlds and the huge schism along ideological and religious grounds that splits the human race in two, the Adamists and Edenists. The final story takes place thirty years before the events of Hamilton's vast and epic Night's Dawn Trilogy, and tells the story of the last voyage of the starship Lady MacBeth under Captain Marcus Calvert.

Peter F. Hamilton is best-known for his immense, brick-thick novels, themselves usually parts of trilogies or duologies of a truly epic and cosmic scale. However, he initially made his career in short stories, building up an impressive body of work in the six years prior to the publication of his first novel, Mindstar Rising, in 1993. Several of these stories were based around the fictional science of affinity, which he explored in different ways. After his popular story 'Candy Buds' was published he expanded the concept to novel-length, giving rise to the massive Night's Dawn story. In 1998 he revisited these early short stories, re-editing them to fit into the Confederation timeline a bit more neatly, and combined them with some new works to form this collection.

A Second Chance at Eden is excellent, showing Hamilton's skills are just as impressive, if indeed not moreso, when applied to the short form as to his mega-epics. The first story, 'Sonnie's Edge', shows the dark side of affinity as it is used for a rather unpleasant new bitek version of bear-baiting, with an absolute killer ending. The story's setting, Battersea in 2070, (with the vast domes of the London arcology we later see in The Naked God taking shape in the background) is vivid and impressive.

'A Second Chance at Eden' itself takes us to the Eden habitat in 2090. This murder-mystery novella is superb, showing the birth of the culture we will see in action close-up throughout the Night's Dawn Trilogy and examining the morality and ethics of the affinity technology when brought in sharp conflict with religious concerns. This is an intelligent story which, in the tradition of all good SF, brings complex ideas back back down to the human level.

'New Days, Old Times' is Hamilton's answer to why the colonies in the Confederation are ethnically-'streamed', instead of culturally integrated. We visit the planet Nyvan (which plays a big role in the trilogy) and Hamilton's argument - that if different cultures, religions and societies are forced to live together on another world we will simply make the same mistakes all over again - is grimly persuasive. 'Candy Buds' is one of Hamilton's best-known short stories, set on Tropicana, the only Adamist world where bitek remains legal by the late 24th Century, where the richest man on the planet finds himself unusually touched by the plight of a young girl he was planning to exploit for her astonishing discovery. A dark story with a savagely clever ending.

'Deathday' is a superb slice of SF horror, as one of the last colonists ordered to leave the failed farming world of Jubarra pursues a destructive vendetta against a resident lifeform with destructive results. 'The Lives and Loves of Tiarella Rosa' is a curiously brutal and selfish kind of love story with a melancholic aspect, actually reminiscent of GRRM's 1970s SF work (such as 'A Song for Lya'). It's not quite as good as that due to a somewhat weird ending, but it's certainly a change of pace for Hamilton and works well for the most part.

'Escape Route' takes us to the last voyage of the Lady MacBeth under the captaincy of Joshua Calvert's father and explains exactly what happened to trash the ship so badly it was drydocked at Tranquillity for thirty years. This is an excellent SF story featuring some traditional tropes, such as the dubious passengers and an abandoned alien artifact in space, with a clever resolution. For fans of the trilogy, this story does fill in some gaps in the backstory in an entertaining manner.

Overall, A Second Chance at Eden (****½) is an excellent collection of short SF set in one of the most thoroughly-realised SF settings ever created. There are no really weak links and 'Sonnie's Edge', 'Deathday' and 'Escape Route' are all superb, whilst the title novella is nothing short of classic, showing the birth of a new human culture which is beyond normal human experience but in a manner that is convincing and even attractive: a sympathetic Singularity. Hamilton's handling of the religious element is also intelligent and interesting.

The collection is available now in the UK. The American edition has gone out of print but some second sellers on still have stock.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

The Guild of Alchemists have created a new form of entertainment - moving pictures! Soon Ankh-Morpork is gripped by this latest craze and everyone's trying to break into the business as more and more 'clicks' are made out at Holy Wood. The speed with which the phenomenon spreads is quite strange and soon reluctant actors Victor Tugelbend ("Can't sing, can't dance, can handle a sword a little,") and Theda Withel (aka 'Ginger') are caught up in epic events set against the backdrop of a world gone mad! With a thousand elephants! Once the order arrives, of course...

Moving Pictures is a bit of a 'fallback' Discworld novel. That is, whilst still entertaining, funny and enjoyable, there's also the feeling that Pratchett simply came up with a cool idea and let it meander around for a bit aimlessly rather than being really fired-up and inspired by the concept. His taking of a real-life phenomenon and turning it into a Discworld novel is a pretty consistent way generating stories throughout the series (he also does Discworld takes on the theatre, the post office, rock music, organised banking, Christmas, war and newspapers in future books, with football and taxation still to come), but it does feel like he hasn't put much more effort than that into the book compared to what he did with, say, police procedurals in Guards! Guards!

Of course, Pratchett on an off day is still considerably more entertaining than a lot of fantasy authors at their best, so Moving Pictures is still a decent novel. Pratchett is clearly a big movie fan and it's fun trying to find all the references to various films in this book, from Gone with the Wind and Charlie Chaplin through Laurel and Hardy to The Blues Brothers and Back to the Future, not to mention a particularly hilarious inversion of King Kong. There's also some nice prescience on Pratchett's part: the book is now twenty years old and his comments on product placement and the culture of celebrity seem more relevant today than ever before. Characterisation is also pretty good, and the regular cast continues to grow with the arrival of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Gaspode the Wonder Dog (don't ask) and most of the regular cast of Unseen University, led by the formidable Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully (finally ending the tendency of UU archchancellors in the series to have the lifespan of a colony of terminally depressed lemmings living near the Grand Canyon).

The book has a rather unusual problem for Pratchett, which is pacing. Pratchett usually handles pacing pretty well in his books, with a slow introduction to the story followed by rising action and a (usually) well-handled climax. Moving Pictures isn't quite like that, and stutters a few times with a start-stop feel to the action. In fact, it appears that the main problem has been solved two-thirds of the way through the book, followed by the 'real' grand climax in Ankh-Morpork which also turns out to be a fake-out before we get the final, somewhat anti-climatic, ending in Holy Wood. It's a bit all over the place, to be honest. In fact, it feels like on of those really big Hollywood action blockbusters which goes on for about half an hour too long after the movie should really have ended, which I suppose is quite appropriate.

That said, whilst Moving Pictures is not one of the stronger Discworld novels, it's still better than the earlier, less-well-written books and many of the individual characters and episodes in the book are funny and intelligently-handled, as always.

Moving Pictures (***½) is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 21 August 2009

Seven actors for the Seven Kingdoms

HBO have confirmed another seven roles for A Game of Thrones.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has been cast in the key role of Ser Jaime Lannister, a sworn knight of the Kingsguard, one of seven elite warriors who guards the king at all times. Coster-Waldau is a Danish actor who won some acclaim in his homeland before picking up a string of accomplished roles in western cinema and television. He has appeared in the movies Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven, and has had high-profile roles as the leads in both New Amsterdam and Virtuality.

Jaime Lanniser just after his most infamous act

Jaime Lannister is a major character in the series, although he arguably does not come into his own until the third novel. He is the greatest and most accomplished knight of his age, but is cursed by many as the 'kingslayer', the knight who betrayed and murdered the Mad King during the civil war. Although forgiven his crime by the priests and by King Robert, many still see him as essentially treacherous and unreliable, not fit for his cloak. Jaime is brash, extremely confident and deadly, and has a fierce loyalty to his family, the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, in particular to his twin sister Cersei, the Queen, and his younger, misshapen brother, Tyrion.

Tamzin Merchant as Katherine Howard in The Tudors

22-year-old Tamzin Merchant has been cast in the important role of Daenerys Targaryen. Merchant is another up-and-comer who has been building up her career nicely over the last few years, with roles in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice (as Georgiana Darcy), the lead in the latest version of My Family and Other Animals, and more recently as Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, in the third season of The Tudors.

Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys Targaryen is the only daughter and youngest child of the Mad King, Aerys II. Her mother was pregnant with her when Aerys was killed and the Targaryens deposed. Her mother died in childbirth, but Daenerys and her elder brother Viserys were smuggled to safety in the Free Cities across the eastern sea. Staying one step ahead of assassins in the pay of King Robert (whom she calls 'the Usurper'), they eventually find succor in the home of Ilyrio Mopatis, a rich and powerful merchant lord in the city of Pentos. Ilyrio has arranged for Daenerys to be married to Khal Drogo, a warlord commanding a vast army which could be used to retake the Seven Kingdoms in the Targaryen name. Somewhat lost in the machinations surrounding her, Daenerys grows over the course of the books into a powerful and canny ruler whose destiny seems to lead her back to the Seven Kingdoms, if she can escape the intrigue and deceptions of the eastern continent.

Richard Madden

23-year-old Richard Madden has been cast as Robb Stark. Madden is mainly a stage actor who has won some acclaim for various roles on the boards, and also recently appeared in the TV series Hope Springs.

Robb Stark

Robb Stark is the eldest legitimate son and heir to Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), Lord of Winterfell and the North. As such, Robb has been trained as a warrior, diplomat and politician. He is his father's son, honourable, steadfast and reliable. He is close friends with his bastard half-brother Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his father's ward, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who dislike one another. He is also close to his mother, Catelyn (Jennifer Ehle). When his father accepts the King's command to attend him in the capital, Robb is left in charge of Winterfell and the North.

Alfie Owen-Allen

22-year-old Alfie Owen-Allen has been cast as Theon Greyjoy. Alfie Owen-Allen is again mostly known for his stage work, such as a well-received stint on the boards in Equus (where he replaced Daniel Radcliffe). In Britain he is also well-known as the brother of pop star Lily Allen, and the subject of her song 'Alfie' on her debut album, Alright, Still.

Theon Greyjoy

Theon Greyjoy is the only survivor son of Lord Balon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands. Shortly after King Robert came to power Lord Balon rebelled against him, declaring the islands an independent state. King Robert and Lord Eddard crushed the rebellion decisively and swiftly. Balon's two elder sons were both killed and his castle and fleet were destroyed before he bent the knee in supplication. His infant son Theon was taken as ward and hostage by Lord Eddard to ensure Balon's future good behaviour. Theon has spent half his life in Winterfell and is regarded as a brother by Robb Stark, but the other members of the family are more distant. Theon is easily amused and has a somewhat cruel streak to him, but also a sense of loyalty to Robb. His culture, that of a race of reavers and pirates, is not very well-regarded on the mainland.

Iain Glen

Iain Glen is playing Ser Jorah Mormont. Glen is a very experienced actor, having had roles in Kingdom of Heaven (as King Richard), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (as Hamlet) and the Tomb Raider movie as well as many stage roles.

Ser Jorah Mormont

Ser Jorah Mormont is an exile from Westeros. His father, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, is the commander of the Night's Watch which guards the giant Wall from the thread of the wildlings who lives beyond. Jorah replaced him as Lord of Bear Island, but swiftly fell from grace after being found guilty of getting involved in the slave trade (illegal in Westeros). He fled to the Free Cities and has fallen into the retinue of Ilyrio Mopatis. When introduced to Prince Viserys and Princess Daenerys, he immediately recognises them as the 'true' heirs to the Seven Kingdoms and swears his sword to their service. Jorah is a skilled swordsman and his long travels in the east have given him much knowledge of the various cultures beyond the sea, which the Targaryens find useful.

Arya Stark

Newcomers Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (about whom I can find no info online at the moment) have been case as Sansa and Arya Stark. Sansa and Arya are the two daughters of Eddard and Catelyn Stark, and are very different. Sansa is dutiful, keen on dancing, poetry and stories about gallant knights. She is a bit of a dreamer. Arya is a practical and fun-loving tomboy, preferring playing at swords with the castle's kitchen boys. The two sisters do not get on. When Eddard goes south, he takes his daughters with him to be introduced to the court.

Sansa Stark

These are mostly good casting choices, especially Iain Glen and Coster-Waldau, who are very solid and capable actors. Merchant has impressed me with the clips I've seen of her in The Tudors, whilst Allen and Madden both have a bit of a buzz building around their stage work, especially Allen in a challenging role in Equus.

This leaves us with a few more major roles still to be cast - Cersei Lannister, Bran Stark and Sandor Clegane - and a host of smaller ones such as Grand Maester Pycelle and Khal Drogo. Expect these to be announced before filming commences in late October.

Now that's what I call marketing!

A couple of years back a very low-budget web series called The Guild appeared online. Written by and starring actress Felicia Day (previously best known for working on various projects with Joss Whedon, such as a recurring role on Buffy) it attracted a reasonable amount of attention and become a bit of a hit. The show's success inspired Joss Whedon to make his genius-like musical, Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which walked off with a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation this past summer, breaking Doctor Who's four-years-in-a-row winning streak.

With the series in its third season, its popularity looks set to explode with the well-timed release of an entertaining music video called 'Do You Wanna Date My Avatar' (starring the regular cast), which has spread like wildfire through the World of WarCraft fanbase and across YouTube, generating 1.5 million hits in just a few days, once again proving if you want to get some attention appealing to fans of a computer game with a jaw-dropping eleven million regular, monthly players is definitely the way to go. The Guild's Facebook page and the viewing figures of its individual episodes have accordingly sky-rocketed in the last few days as people checked out the music video, liked it, and took a look at what else the team have been up to.

The Guild, for those not in the know, depicts the real-life adventures of a group of people who only know each other from their online roleplaying game (which is probably World of WarCraft but the name is never mentioned for legal reasons). A rather disturbing incident (one of the players starts stalking one of the others) results in the group meeting up in real life and getting to know one another, resulting in much hilarity. Considering it was made for next to nothing, it is quite entertaining and worth a look.

Thursday 20 August 2009

The New Yorker Fantasy Introduction List

As has been widely reported elsewhere, The New Yorker has published a list of what it considers to be ideal 'gateway' reads into epic fantasy for the casual reader. It's a confusing list, apparently unsure if it's talking to kids looking to graduate from Harry Potter (the only possible explanation for the presence of Brooks) or more adult readers looking for something mindblowingly ambitious (hence the Erikson). The presence of Goodkind but the absence of Abraham, Martin, Lynch or Abercrombie I'll put down to a more generic form of insanity, or chronic lack of taste on the part of the person who assembled the list.

Obviously some other blogs immediately started bemoaning the lack of any works from the wider fantasy field, which I sympathise with but I think a simple reading of the article will reveal that the intent wasn't to find what obscure arthouse French films people should watch, but which action blockbusters instead. So on that basis, my agreements and disagreements would be:

The Big Traditional Epic High Fantasy
He went for Tad Williams which is not a bad choice. I think the only viable alternative is really Jordan, which has the disadvantage of being incomplete and five times as long as MST. So Williams I think is a reasonably decent choice, despite his immense longueurs and padding. If this was a more general speculative fiction list I'd have substituted Williams' superior and more imaginative Otherland series instead.

The Pseudohistorical Epic Fantasy
A much less open field. Really, it’s either Kay or Elliott’s Crown of Stars series and in that contest Kay is always going to win. The writer seems to bottle on actually narrowing down a choice, possibly because it'd be hard to know which one to recommend. Tigana and A Song for Arbonne are very fine but The Lions of Al-Rassan is probably his best starter novel for new readers.

The Gritty and Adult Epic Fantasy
I’m always amazed when people, let alone critics, say Wizards' First Rule is 'okay'. It’s only 'okay' when compared to the later books in the series, which says a lot more about them than it does about this atrocious excuse of a novel. Sure, the Evil Chicken, Noble Goat and 150-page Objectivist rants are still to come, but this book alone has the child abuse, the tongue-severing, the magical castration scene, the 75-page BDSM torture sequence, several almost-rapes and quite a lot of Goodkind’s other pleasant tendencies, with the writing as bad as ever. Drop-kick this entry off the end of the nearest pier and whack in A Game of Thrones instead. Having WFR on here and leaving off AGoT is a bit like assembling a best movie list and leaving off The Godfather II but sticking in Scary Movie 3: sure, you can write that down, but don't be surprised when no-one takes you as a serious SF&F critic seriously.

The Thoughtful Character-Based Epic Fantasy
If Hobb ever wrote a stand-alone that actually ended when the narrative drive actually ran out rather than carrying on for another 2,000 pages for no real reason, then I’d agree with her choice. As she never has, I’d boot her off the list and replace her with Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. Better prose, better characters, better stories, better pacing and better books.

The Cheesy 1980s Entry-Level Epic Fantasy
A rather crazy choice. The Heritage of Shannara sub-sequence is overlong and turgid even by Brooks' normal standards, so Scions can be dropped. I’d replace it with Raymond Feist’s Magician, which is not only better and more original, it’s also relatively stand-alone (the 29 sequels are strictly optional).

The New Kids on the Block
Rothfuss is a decent choice but it is very serialised and doesn’t have a climax, it just halts, almost mid-chapter. For that reason I think I’d have to replace it with Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, which is stronger and much more of a stand-alone. I’m tempted to suggest Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, but I think the First Law works a little bit better once you’re familiar with the genre. At that point Abercrombie’s gradual messing around with the genre tropes is a lot more satisfying.

The Balls-to-the-wall, WTF is Going On Philosophical Epic Fantasy With Huge Explosions
As with Abercrombie, I think Erikson works much better once you’re familiar with the genre and know what is going on a bit better. Also, given the series sharply divides even hardened fantasy readers, I’d say it would potentially scare off newcomers. So, as a total no-brainer, I’d substitute this for R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing Trilogy, which is more approachable for newcomers to the genre (especially if they’ve already read SF like Dune or mainstream historicals about the Crusades or the birth of religions) whilst addressing some of the same ideas and issues as Erikson far more coherently.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson

From across the continent of Lether and far beyond, powers and armies are converging on the vast Wastelands to the east of the Letherii Empire. Adjunct Tavore, commander of the the Malazan 14th Army - the Bonehunters - plans to take her army into that wilderness, aided by the Letherii imperial legions under Brys Beddict. To the south her allies, the Perish Grey Helms and Khundryl Burned Tears, barter for passage across the Kingdom of Bolkando, only to be met with betrayal and murder. On the plains of the Ar'kryn, the Barghast White Face clans face insurrection and treachery. A ribbon of refugees flees westward from Kolanse into the Wastelands and the immense Glass Desert, whilst in the far west the Shake abandon their island homeland to seek the First Shore, unaware that their return to their ancestral warren will re-awaken ancient powers.

Human and Barghast, K'Chain Che'Malle and T'lan Imass, Shake and Jaghut, mortals and ascendants alike find themselves drawn into a convergence outstripping anything before seen in the mortal realm, for the sky is rent in flame and shadow and a long-imprisoned god returns to the mortal realm with Darkness clenched in his hand. The Bonehunters and their allies march to a war they cannot win to avenge an empire that has rejected them, whilst the K'Chain Che'Malle march to war to end an ancient conflict and find a place for themselves in the world. But under the light of what has appeared in the sky, it appears that all might be in vain...

Dust of Dreams is the penultimate novel of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson's immense ten-volume saga chronicling the story of the Malazan Empire and its legions and the peoples and tribes it comes into contact with. More accurately, Dust of Dreams is also the first half of an immense 1,800-plus-page single novel, to be completed by The Crippled God when it follows (hopefully) next year. This, then, is the beginning of the end and the start of the final act of this immense series, certainly the most ambitious work of epic fantasy ever attempted.

Reviewing the ninth of a ten-book series feels slightly redundant. By now, people know if Erikson is for them or not. As a result, this review will likely be of most interest to those readers who perhaps felt that the series' second half has been more disappointing than its initial half, with the acceleration of the expansion of the cast of characters, concepts, races and forms of magic reaching an increasingly convoluted and over-complex pace. It is hard to argue with this, and the fact is that Dust of Dreams introduces yet many more new characters, ideas, forms of magic and concepts. Whilst it is certainly the case that we get some long-standing mysteries resolved in this book - like why exactly Tavore had to break with the Malazans and bring her army to the far side of the planet - other mysteries are left unaddressed or even further complicated by events. If Erikson takes the literally hundreds of questions left dangling by the series and answers them satisfyingly in the final book of the series I will be surprised, but I have a nagging feeling that an awful lot of stuff is going to be left for the nine additional Malazan books that Erikson (and four more from his co-writer Ian Esslemont) has been contracted for.

Dust of Dreams is certainly far more proactive in plot than the largely static and introspective Toll the Hounds, and returns to the format of many of the earlier books in the series: a lot of set-up and ponderous navel-gazing punctuated by some humour followed by a convergence of forces, usually in a massive battle sequence. The humour is great (although Tehol, one of Erikson's more reliable sources of comic relief, is actually severely annoying in this novel) and the characters in the Malazan army and occupied Letheras are mostly well-drawn, but the traditional problems of having tons of pretty identical 'salt of the earth' Malazan soliders with stupid names who can debate morality and political theory at the drop of the hat remains intact. Erikson's characterisation is also suspiciously transparent here: many of these soldiers, established not just here but in The Bonehunters, Reaper's Gale and House of Chains as well, seem to have scenes just so we feel sympathy for them later on when they are killed (or at least their fates are left hanging). For some of the characters this works, but for most it doesn't.

On the prose style, Erikson's writing ability remains impressive but is often mis-aimed: a lengthy five-page debate on morality between two characters often seems to end in the stunning realisation that it's wrong to use civilian shields in warfare, or unrestrained capitalism and the exploitation of poorer nations through trade is as bad in its own way as slavery and colonialism. Stunning insights into the human condition, these are most definitely not. As a result progress through the novel can feel like wading through treacle until the story actually gets moving again.

At the same time, Erikson still has an almost-unmatched ability to bring together subplots and characters in interesting combinations, moreso in Dust of Dreams as more of the puzzle of the entire series is unveiled and we begin to get a sense that most of those annoying minor elements that played virtually no constructive roles in previous books - such as Icarium and his machine, the Eres, the Shake, a certain journey through the Imperial Warren, Stormy and Gesler's long-ago transformation and the Tiste Andii moping around - are all vital pieces of the puzzle. The sheer breadth of Erikson's imagination, the scope of his world and the ambition of his story remains staggering and genuinely impressive, although arguably the weight of that narrative is so heavy that the author struggles in places to get his vision across.

Events culminate in a battle sequence that redefines the meaning of the word 'epic'. This series has had its share of massive engagements, from the Chain of Dogs through the Siege of Capustan and the Battle of Y'Ghatan through to the Bonehunters' rampage across the Letherii Empire, but what happens at the end of Dust of Dreams and the forces brought to bear eclipse everything that has come before combined. The novel ends on a colossal cliffhanger - for the first and last time in the series - with the immediate threat apparently receding but with the tally of the survivors incomplete. The fates of literally dozens of named characters are left hanging in the balance until the final book arrives, hopefully next year.

This late injection of energy and excitement to the book really props it up (and adds another star onto the review score), as does the return of a certain individual (already known to readers of Toll the Hounds) in an impressive manner. Erikson even gets a bit meta in places, at one point dishing out some excellent comical commentary on the series' infamously tangled timeline. The book also delivers an impressive and distinctive sense of atmosphere, with a sense of distant but approaching doom permeating almost every page and Erikson's powers of landscape description (always somewhat underrated) really bring even the barren Wastelands to life. His abilities to describe combat effectively remain unimpeachable, as well.

Dust of Dreams (****) is a typical latter-period Malazan novel, by turns infuriating and impressive, turgid and lyrical, slow and immensely action-packed. It's a stronger book than The Bonehunters and Toll the Hounds, possibly Reaper's Gale as well, and leaves the reader wanting more, which in the final analysis is a good thing, but there remains the nagging feeling that if Erikson could cut to the chase a bit more, the series would not only be shorter but also considerably stronger. Still, a bit late in the day to worry about that now. The book is available now in the UK and will be published in the USA on 19 January 2010.

Monday 17 August 2009

Wertzone Classics: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Four thousand years before the time of Vader and Palpatine, the Galaxy is divided by war. The mighty warrior-clans of the Mandalorians invaded the Galactic Republic and were thrown back by a fleet led by the Jedi warriors Revan and Malak. But, during that struggle, something happened to them and they fell to the dark side of the Force. Forging a powerful 'Sith Empire' out of their fleet and its conquests, they began a devastating war with the Republic, pushing them back on every front. The Jedi Knights have eliminated Revan, leaving his apprentice to take over, but the architect of that victory, the Jedi Bastila Shan, has been shot down over the planet Taris. Two Republic soldiers have to find and rescue her before Malak can finish the job and crush the Republic once and for all...

Better than Attack of the Clones and absolutely no Jar-Jar, 100% guaranteed.

Back in 1999, excitement for the new Star Wars movies was palpable. Fans were waiting excitedly to see the epic Clone Wars, the clash of entire armies of Jedi against the forces of evil, and the gripping tragedy of Anakin Skywalker's fall to the dark side. Instead, they got an extended toy commercial where genuine human conflict and drama was substituted for insane amounts of confusing and badly-choreographed CGI. By the time 2003 arrived, the ludicrous revelation that the Clone Wars was actually fought by an entire army of Boba Fetts against some very camp robots had destroyed whatever vestigal interest a lot of Star Wars fans had in the franchise.

It was thus surprising that it was a Star Wars game which became one of the most talked-about titles of the year. RPG stalwarts BioWare, creators of the legendary Baldur's Gate series, teamed up with Lucasfilm to produce the first-ever Star Wars computer roleplaying game. Declining the suggestion of setting the story during the Clone Wars (perhaps aware that the next movie would likely de-canonise anything major they chose to do), they went back four millennia into the distant past, to the time of the Sith and the Jedi, to the time covered in the popular Tales of the Jedi comic mini-series, and created a new story there.

Darth Malak, bringer of universal armageddon and giant space station headquarters/mechanical voicebox trend-setter.

Knights of the Old Republic's roaring success comes from it identifying with pinpoint accuracy all the things that make Star Wars great: memorable, strong characters, cool spaceships, a gripping plot, satisfying action and some great humour. They also did things that would likely give George Lucas a heart attack if he tried them: they added genuine moral ambiguity to the characters, they gave the player the choice of taking his or her character (and several others) down the dark side, and included intriguing moral debates over the Force itself (pointing out the very true fact that all we know of the 'dark side' in the movies comes from the hardly-unbiased 'light'-sworn Jedi). They also included the second-biggest twist in the entirety of Star Wars canon to date (outstripped only by the "I am your father," moment). They also borrowed some great ideas from the then-current New Jedi Order series of novels, such as ideas about a more dispassionate 'neutral' side of the Force and even a cameo mention of the Yuuzhan Vong. The result is what is easily the finest slice of Star Wars in any medium since The Empire Strikes Back (Matt Stover's Traitor possibly excepted).

Knights of the Old Republic sees you taking up the role of a Republic soldier marooned on the city-planet of Taris when your flagship is blown up. How you proceed is up to you, with you taking on jobs for profit as you attempt to track down the Jedi Bastila so you can get off-world. You can follow the light side by acting altruistically and honourably, or the dark side by threatening, murdering and blackmailing your way through the game. As the game continues you amass a number of sidekicks, some good, some bad, some somewhere inbetween, and build up complex relationships with them (including, interestingly, the potential for romance). It's this core cast of characters that, for starters, makes Knights so cool. Your sidekicks include the unfeasibly muderous assassin droid HK-47, the smart-alec street girl Mission, the disgraced wookie Zaalbar, the brutal Mandalorian warrior Canderous and several more, all superbly characterised and voice-acted. You also get your own ship, the Ebon Hawk, a badass smuggler's craft that gives the Millennium Falcon a serious run for its money as coolest ship in the Star Wars universe.

HK-47, a bit like Threepio except with less camp and more uncontrollable homicidal ultraviolence.

As the game continues the plot opens up. After the initial sequence on Taris, you spend most of the game travelling between several different worlds, including Tatooine (here presented at the very start of human settlement, with only a single small starport and the genesis of the some of the cultures that become dominant by the time of the films), the wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, the water world of Manaan and the Sith tombworld of Korriban, not to mention the Jedi training enclave on Dantooine. As you roar back and forth between these worlds, carrying out missions, engaging in a bit of trade, fighting off Sith and criminals and pursuing the locations of the mysterious 'Star Maps' that may hold the key to the resolution of the war, your characters gain experience and their own backstories and mysteries come to the fore. The game is also highly replayable, as some missions only take place if you have a certain character or combination of characters in your party at any one time, and there are notably different endings depending on if you follow the dark or light side of the Force.

The game has aged well. The graphics, particularly on PC where they can now be rammed to the maximum on any decent modern-ish machine, are very good and the controls, although a little clunky due to the behind-the-shoulder 3D camera and limited field of view, generally work well. A lot of fun is had customising your character's armour and weapons for the best possible result. As the game is based on the pen-and-paper Star Wars RPG, which in turn is based on the D&D d20 system, the rules tend towards a curious favouring of melee combat which may be appropriate for lightsabre-wielding Jedi but would feel out of place elsewhere. Cleverly, BioWare use the fact that the game is set in a different era to set up a different culture of combat, with lightsabre-resistent cortosis blades and personal shields (reminiscent of those in Dune, although lacking their tendency to detonate in nuclear blasts) commonplace and thus duelling is still popular with warriors right across the galaxy. Voicework is also extremely impressive, particularly computer game veteren and BioWare regular Jennifer Hale as Bastila, who comes over as Princess Leia with a lightsabre, which is amusing.

The Sith flagship Leviathan, a typically understated and subtle piece of Star Wars starship design.

Perhaps inevitably, your character does show Force potential and later gains access to Force powers and the use of lightsabres in combat. If you decide to go down a combat-oriented gameplay path I strongly recommend creating a dual-wielding character right from the off, as they tend to be the most effective, and later equip your character with two lightsabres or one of those Darth Maul-style doubled-ended jobs for maximum impact.

Aside from the possible technical difficulties that come with any game more than a few years old (see below), there aren't many weaknesses. Sometimes you have to backtrack across quite large areas, which can get slightly tedious. The absence of a fast-travel system to cover already-explored territory is sometimes keenly felt. Other issues are really not Knights of the Old Republic's fault: at the time of its release its structure was quite fresh, but BioWare has reused many ideas from the game in later releases such as Jade Empire. Mass Effect in particular is something of a rehash of Knights in their own setting, but only about half the size, and suffers in comparison (although still a fine game compared to most titles out there). A more glaring problem is that one event in the game can leave a whole stack of quests uncompletable and you have no warning of it, meaning that if you don't have a handy save when it happens a good hour or so of game content can be rendered unreachable (although you can still complete the game without a problem). Also, and I'm really reaching here, the light side/dark side metre is open to ridiculous abuse, as you can behave like a total paragon for 90% of the game and then kill a couple of innocent people to open some interesting side-quests and you don't really get penalised for it. The only other thing that comes to mind is that although the game sticks a level cap on you (you can only get to Level 20 in the game), the last few locations in the game seem to assume you'll be four or five levels lower when you get there, making them quite easy to get through at Level 20.

None of these issues are really problematic, however, and are more down to technical constraints and the fact the game had to be scaled for both PCs and the X-Box at the same time, as well as the fact it was aimed at a more casual console-buying public as well as the hardcore PC RPG-player.

Knights of the Old Republic (*****) is a superbly-written, surprisingly morally complex and well-characterised RPG. It is one of the best slices of Star Wars of any stripe in existence, and would also rank as one of the best computer RPGs ever made. Star Wars fan or not, if you enjoy a good computer roleplaying game, you have to check this out. It is available now on PC (UK, USA), Mac (UK, USA) and X-Box (UK, USA).

Technical note: unfortunately, BioWare chose to use OpenGL as the game's graphics driver, which may not have been wise (D3D had won that battle several years earlier, making it a curious choice on their part) as modern graphics cards have a problem with that outmoded driver system. NVidia graphics card-owners can get around this quite easily, but those with ATI Radeon cards may find the game crashes frequently. Also, whilst the game works fine with Windows XP (which was current when it first came out), Vista owners may also experience headaches getting it to work, although it is doable and well worth the effort.