Sunday 30 January 2011


Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an agent working in the field of data acquisition and extraction. However, rather than follow the traditional routes of industrial espionage, he uses cutting-edge technology to extract this information from his targets' dreams. This can be a dangerous task, with the infiltrators at risk from the target's subconscious, but Cobb is the best in his field.

Exiled from the USA for undisclosed reasons, Cobb is desperate to return home and see his children. His latest employer claims that he can make this happen, but only if Cobb can perform the impossible: inception, placing an idea so deeply in the target's subconscious that they believe they came up with it themselves. Cobb has never managed to succeed at this before, but relishes the challenge and the reward. He assembles a team of the very best in their field to mount a reverse-heist into the unconscious of a top businessman, but can he leave his own past behind?

Inception was one of the more heavily-acclaimed movies of 2010, a complex SF thriller helmed by director-of-the-moment Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight). Its cerebral and complex premise was feared to be off-putting to casual audiences, but the film took an impressive $820 million at the box office and demonstrated that a clever film could still be a break-out hit. At least that's the narrative that's been spread around by various critics. Actually Inception's complexity is more about asking the audience to retain information and maintain a keen eye for detail. The film isn't really ambiguous (aside from a slightly cheesy final shot that screams "The End...OR IS IT?!?") and the rules of the dream-hacking and details of the heist are pretty well-laid-out by clearly-related expositionary sequences.

Like The Matrix, the film isn't as original as it first appears but melds its ideas with compelling action sequences (a fistfight in a hallway with the exterior gravity switching around is an impressive highlight) and use of CGI (Paris wrapping itself into a giant ball is a staggering visual idea, executed flawlessly). It lacks the confused cod-philosophy of The Matrix's weaker sequels though, instead focusing on the characters of Cobb (a damaged, somewhat arrogant man) and his team-members, particularly Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Saito (Ken Watanabe) and their mark, Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy), well-written characters who stand out alongside the film's impressive visuals and more complex ideas.

The film's SF influences are intriguing. Previously Nolan had worked with Christopher Priest on The Prestige and Inception feels very much like a Priest novel reworked to include more explosions and machine guns. The big difference between them is that Priest loves ambiguity whilst Nolan is less interested in leaving open questions, with only the very final shot leaving the story open to further interpretations. The DNA of Philip K. Dick can also be seen in the "What is reality?" question that pops up throughout the film, not to mention the vast and imposing SF city that we encounter in the final act.

The film falters occasionally. Like The Dark Knight the film occasionally feels weighed down by maybe one or two too many subplots (though vastly less of a problem than on The Dark Knight, which sometimes loses focus as a result of this). Whilst the film has a strong emotional core with regards to Cobb's relationship with his deceased wife and his desire to be reunited with his children, in other areas the film is less emotionally engaging. In particular, the key relationship between Fisher and his father (the late Pete Postlethwaite) never really grabs hold of the imagination.

These are somewhat minor issues, however. Inception (****½) features strong performances, a clever premise and mixes entertainment with thought-provoking ideas. The film is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and in the USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars by Robert Kirkman

Rick Grimes and his band of survivors have found a promising safe haven: a well-defended prison with lots of fences, gates and other areas where the zombie menace can be contained. Of course, the prison itself has to be cleaned out of zombies first, and the surviving inmates have to be negotiated with. Eventually it looks like the gang has a new home...but a spate of murders suggests this might not be for long.

The third volume of The Walking Dead has our heroes reach the next stage of the traditional post-apocalypse, survival horror narrative: having survived the road trip they're now fulfilling the 'living in a safe haven with other survivors' trope. As usual, Kirkman plays the cliches pretty straight, to the point where there is some enjoyment found in identifying which character is about to be offed next by the serial killer or the zombies, which other one is about to crack up next and which one of the new characters is a good guy and which is a psychopath. Kirkman's writing steps up a notch here with more focus on character-building and giving the protagonists more depth. The book ends on a cliffhanger with two groups facing off against one another, but both sides are pretty justified (from their own POVs) for why events have built to this impasse, with bad calls and mistakes from both parties.

There's some other nice ideas here, including impressively logical story developments. Volume 2 saw our heroes split into two bands with the final parting appearing to be permanent. However, with the discovery of the apparently zombie-safe prison not far up the road, the first group nips back to tell the second about it and they agree to re-team up. This is not satisfying from the POV of emotional drama, but is a pretty sensible and realistic thing to do (though it probably worked between on the monthly book, when the separation and reunion were separated by months, rather than in the collected edition where it's a few minutes). There's some more entertaining zombie kills and effective action beats.

Where this edition really succeeds is in deepening and darkening the story beyond its predecessors. The serial killer story is disturbing, with some sick moments showing that other humans may be more dangerous than the zombies to the survival of the group. There's also a few other storylines that delve into the more psychological aspects of trying to survive in a dying world, showing the writer flexing his muscles and trying out some different and interesting techniques this time around.

Some of the same weaknesses from before remain. Dialogue is still patchy, with a tendency towards over-explaining things, and the artwork is still variable (though better than the second collection), with again the zombies being well-portrayed and the main characters less consistently so.

Still, Safety Behind Bars (***½) shows the story developing along the right track. It'll be intriguing to see where the story goes next. The graphic novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Seven kingdoms...or eight?

In A Song of Ice and Fire, much of the action takes place in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, which, to cause immediate confusion, is actually one nation. But there's actually nine distinct regions in the kingdom and eight ruling families. And what about the wildlings, do they count (answer: no)? What's going on? Where does the 'seven' come from?

The 7/8/9 Kingdoms of Westeros (delete by preference).

In SFF, organisations seem reluctant to change their names, often retaining the same names, designations and hierarchy unchanged for centuries or millennia. In real life these things change much more often. Remember when the G8 was the G6? Or when the Solar system had nine planets?

Of course, in Westeros the number seven is sacred, being the number of the dominant Faith of the Seven, so thus the desire to keep the number down to seven becomes more understandable. It does, of course, require some arguing to make the count accurate for all of Westeros's history. Even the producers of the TV show seemed to recently get confused over whether the real count is seven or eight and I daresay it will come up from the new fans that come aboard with the TV show.

George R.R. Martin has of course been asked about this point. His explanation is simple: when Aegon the Conqueror set out to invade Westeros, there were seven kingdoms extant on the continent. These were:

  1. The Kingdom of the North - ruled from Winterfell by House Stark.
  2. The Kingdom of the Vale - ruled from the Eyrie by House Arryn.
  3. The Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers - ruled from Harrenhal by House Hoare.
  4. The Kingdom of the Rock - ruled from Casterly Rock by House Lannister.
  5. The Kingdom of the Reach - ruled from Highgarden by House Gardner.
  6. The Kingdom of the Stormlands - ruled from Storm's End by King Argilac.
  7. The Kingdom of Dorne - ruled from Sunspear by House Martell.
So it appears that the Targaryens on Dragonstone used the term 'Seven Kingdoms' to refer to the seven nations that existed on Westeros and Aegon went off to conquer all of them. Except of course he hit a few hurdles along the way.

First off, when he invaded the Riverlands - at this time occupied by the ironborn - he was assisted by a popular uprising led by House Tully of Riverrun. Aegon burned out Harrenhal with his dragons (with King Harren Hoare still inside) and chased the ironborn pack to the Iron Isles, where the surviving lords chose Vickon Greyjoy of Pyke as their new overlord. Greyjoy swore fealty to Aegon, but Aegon also accepted an oath of fealty from Lord Edwyn Tully of Riverrun and appointed him overlord of the Riverlands. So he was already up one kingdom anyway.

The order in which the other kingdoms fell is unknown, but the North and (apparently) the Vale both signed up to the Aegon Plan (accept me as your king or I will burn you alive) enthusiastically, whilst Aegon's half-brother Orys demonstrated his badassery by taking over the Stormlands and founding a new house, the Baratheons. The Reach and the Rock both also surrendered after being defeated at the Field of Fire. During the battle the Gardners of the Reach were wiped out and Aegon raised up their stewards, the Tyrells, in their place.

At this point, possibly crucially for the numbering system, Aegon was welcomed into Oldtown and blessed by the High Septon of the Starry Sept, his mission to unite Westeros officially blessed by the Seven. Aegon went off and invaded Dorne and didn't get very far before withdrawing. It's possible that the North signed up later in the war and Aegon withdrew from Dorne to meet King Torrhen Stark on the Trident and decided not to return. It's also possible that the Dornish, who adopted guerrilla tactics in the war, simply could not be brought to a dragon-tastic decisive battle and Aegon didn't want to bleed his troops with a long march through the desert (a choice accepted by his descendant King Daeron I, with accompanying huge losses). So, for whatever reason, Aegon left Dorne untaken. He may have liked the idea of having Seven Kingdoms for the Seven Faces of God. For all we know he may have received advice from his financial advisor that having Dorne as an independent place where they could stash their money was a great idea.

King Aegon I - perhaps more of a pedantic number nut than first thought?

So, anyway, after the invasion Aegon was left in control of seven kingdoms, which now looked like this:

  1. The North - ruled by House Stark from Winterfell.
  2. The Vale - ruled by House Arryn from the Eyrie.
  3. The Iron Islands - ruled by House Greyjoy from Pyke.
  4. The Riverlands - ruled by House Tully from Riverrun.
  5. The Westerlands - ruled by House Lannister from Casterly Rock.
  6. The Stormlands - ruled by House Baratheon from Storm's End.
  7. The Reach - ruled by House Tyrell from Highgarden.
Dorne was still an independent kingdom, whilst the Crownlands, the area around the city of King's Landing that was slowly taking shape, was an independent area under the direct command of the crown (a bit like the District of Columbia not being counted as one of the fifty American States).

This was the happily logical situation for about two centuries. However, in 195-196 After the Landing the realm was torn apart by a bloody civil war, the Blackfyre Rebellion. After a lengthy struggle and the mighty Battle of the Redgrass Field, King Daeron II managed to secure his rule and chased off the Blackfyre Pretenders to the eastern continent. In the wake of this war, which had been won with the help of the Dornish, Prince Maron Martell of Sunspear married Daeron's sister, Princess Daenerys (not the one from the novels, who was around a century later, but possibly the person whom she was named for). Since King Daeron had already married a Dornish princess, this tied Dorne to the Seven Kingdoms and it was formally absorbed into the realm.

Of course, this gave Daeron a headache, since it now meant he ruled eight kingdoms. Possibly for religious reasons he didn't want to rename the kingdom, so he had to demote one of the existing kingdoms. Checking them over, there was an obvious candidate: House Greyjoy of the Iron Islands. They'd been pretty much independent anyway, rarely interacting with the politics of the mainland, and at the time of the war had happily taken advantage of the chaos to raid and reave along the coastline, which was basically not cool.

King Daeron II. Couldn't leave well enough alone and screwed up the count again.

So the Greyjoys were demoted and the Martells promoted. This left the count as:

  1. The North.
  2. The Vale.
  3. The Riverlands.
  4. The Westerlands.
  5. The Stormlands.
  6. The Reach.
  7. Dorne.

This is the count at the time that A Game of Thrones begins. The Iron Islands are out of the count and don't seem to particularly care very much (although in one memorable scene, Joffrey does propose reinstating them for kicking the arse out of one of the other kingdoms) and that sorts that out.

Next time: were there always seven crewmembers in Blake's 7? What is up with SFF and the number 7 anyway?

William Adama cast in new BSG spin-off

Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome has made its first casting announcements. Luke Pasqualino, best-known for his role on the UK Skins in its third and fourth seasons, will be playing the young William Adama, a role previously played by Lorne Greene (in the original 1970s TV series), Edward James Olmos (in the revamp) and Nico Cortez (in flashbacks in the revamped series).

Questions remain why Nico Cortez simply did not return for the new series: presumably SyFy decided they wanted a fresh start. In addition, Blood and Chrome sounds like it might violate continuity (establishing as it does Adama as a Viper pilot two years before the war's end, whilst previously he only flew his first mission on the very last day of the war) anyway, so this is less of an issue for them.

Another actor announced was Ben Cotton, who's playing Coker, Adama's war-weary superior officer. BSG stalwarts Michael Taylor, Bradley Thompson and David Weddle are on-board on the creative side of things, with David Eick producing, but Ronald D. Moore seems to have moved on to other projects.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

News on the SONG OF ICE AND FIRE Kindle editions

The new UK Kindle edition of A Game of Thrones was released on Christmas Eve, but the remaining books are still unavailable on Amazon. However, Voyager have revealed today that the new edition of A Clash of Kings will be released on 3 February, with A Storm of Swords to follow by the end of the month and A Feast for Crows by the end of March. As with the new version of A Game of Thrones, these new editions have been proof-read and formatted properly, hopefully avoiding the problems found in the existing versions. And yes, the ebook of A Storm of Swords will be in one volume (the UK paperback is in two). Voyager also plan to release the ebook of A Dance with Dragons simultaneously with the hardcover, barring unforeseen events.

It is unclear when or if these new UK Kindle editions will be replicated for the American market.

In additional news, Voyager have said they have no plans to change the British ASoIaF covers. The American covers will be changing to new versions in March (to the British ones, although the British ADWD cover is now on AGoT and presumably vice versa, which could get confusing).

The Russian Dunkirk

I am currently on a brief break from SFF to reread Harrison E. Salisbury's classic book about the Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), The Nine Hundred Days. Whilst a full review will follow (eventually; this book is 600 pages of tiny type) one episode mentioned in the book is almost completely unknown in the West and seemed worthy of its own article: the so-called 'Russian Dunkirk'. This event took place in August 1941, but the seeds of it were sown the previous year.

The cruiser Kirov, commanding the Tallinn evacuation.

The USSR, flush from its (costly) victory over Finland in the Winter War, occupied the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in June 1940. Combined with the pushing back of the Finnish borders from the Karelian isthmus in the north, this gave Leningrad a protective 'shield' which would safeguard it from immediate attack should war break out. Formerly the city had only been 20 miles from the borders of nations sympathetic to Nazi Germany (and any resident of Seoul will tell you that living 20 miles from a hostile nation can be somewhat worrying).

The problem was that the 'shield' was never fortified properly. The Soviet Baltic Fleet established new bases in Tallinn and Riga (the capitals of Estonia and Lativa respectively), but the building of fortifications and defences at the ports and on their landward sides proceeded at a slow pace, due to Stalin's fear that Hitler would seize on any military build-up in the area as a provocation. When the Germans invaded on 22 June 1941, both the Soviet armies and the fortifications in the area were totally unprepared to face them. Field Marshal Von Leeb's Army Group Nord pushed aside the Soviet defences with near-contemptuous ease and advanced into the Baltic States. Simultaneously, Finnish and German naval forces succeeded in laying hundreds of thousands of mines along the coast of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, threatening to cut off the Baltic Fleet's forward elements in Riga.

The Baltic Fleet gave up Riga as being indefensible (the city fell nine days into the invasion) and pulled back to Tallinn. The natives of the Baltic States saw the Germans as liberators (they changed their minds when Hitler refused to allow the Baltic States to reconstitute themselves as independent states, even as ones allied to Germany) and many refused to support efforts by the Soviets to hold the territory or throw up defensive lines. As a result, it fell to the Fleet's own military police, sailors and marines, aided by the shattered remnants of Red Army groups in the area, to defend Tallinn. They managed to fortify Tallinn just enough to make it difficult for the Germans to take without a major offensive.

This act, combined with the stalwart defence of the River Luga to the south-west of Leningrad, probably saved Leningrad from being quickly overrun. Von Leeb had to split off significant forces to take Tallinn (otherwise he'd have been in danger of attack from 80,000 armed Soviets on his left flank; a proposal to do exactly this was rejected by the Soviet command) which made turning the Luga line even tougher. It took a month to dislodge the defenders from that line and to start penetrating Tallinn's suburbs in earnest.

Having held Tallinn against siege for three weeks, the Baltic Fleet pulled out on the night of 27-28 August. The Fleet had to navigate 200 miles and several large minefields, all within range of Finnish coastal batteries and Luftwaffe airbases, with both German U-boats and Finnish torpedo boats in the area. The Fleet not only had to evacuate its own personnel and Red Army troops (many of whom stayed behind to buy the Fleet more time, or were simply pinned down and unable to get to the ships) but also thousands of Soviet civilians, including journalists covering the conflict. All-told, 30,000 personnel escaped on 190 transport ships, protected only by a single Soviet cruiser of note, the Kirov, and a few smaller naval vessels.

The journey can only be described as nightmarish. The Kirov and several other naval ships acted as minesweepers and drew enemy fire (a German U-boat almost sank the Kirov, but an escort spotted the torpedo in the water and took the hit instead), but there were too many ships to protect, spread out over a huge area. The Luftwaffe had a field day, and between them and their naval and Finnish counterparts they sank over sixty of the transports and several of the naval warships. Of the 30,000 who embarked in Tallinn, only 18,000 made it off at Kronstadt (Leningrad's colossal naval bastion, located in the Gulf of Finland near the city) and Leningrad itself the following day.

It wasn't a totally unmitigated disaster - the Kirov's survival was an important bonus as the ship later took up station within Leningrad's river network as a mobile artillery platform and performed sterling work in the city's defence - but it was still a severe fiasco. The captain of at least one of the ships involved was shot for abandoning his post (in reality he'd been blasted into the sea by a shell that had destroyed the bridge and had to be picked up by another ship), whilst it was later revealed that the minefields had been concentrated along the coast; if the fleet had swung out wide into the deeper water, it wouldn't have suffered anywhere near as many casualties, though obviously this was not known at the time.

The near-total-ignorance in the West of not just this event but most of the Soviet-German conflict remains startling as the 70th anniversary of WWII continues to roll on. As we get to the 70th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa later this year, hopefully the sheer scale and significance of the Eastern Front will become better known and appreciated here. After all, if Hitler hadn't decided to abandon the offensive against Britain in favour of Barbarossa, Britain would have been (eventually) invaded and defeated quite easily.

THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES is NOT coming out in February

There's been some confusion over the release date for Scott Lynch's third Gentleman Bastard novel, The Republic of Thieves, exasperated by last night seemingly 'confirming' that the book will be out next month. This is not the case.

The confusion seems to have been caused by that most hated nemesis of book publishers, a date for publication that was indeed mooted but has somehow gotten 'locked' into the system. These problems can reach quite ridiculous levels: some sellers claim that A Dance with Dragons was actually released in November 2008 but they're just out of stock, for example. In this case the problem seems to have been caused by Gollancz offering February 2011 as a possible date in their official catalogue published last year and people taking it as read (understandably, perhaps, although catalogues have been wrong before). Gollancz themselves has been trying to change the date shown by Amazon and other sellers, but several editions remain showing the February 2011 date.

As of this time, Scott Lynch does not appear to have handed in the final draft of the manuscript for the book, obviously making publication just next month impossible. In fact, I spoke to Scott's editor in October and the MS hadn't been handed in then. If it had been turned in the very next day, it would still have been impossible for the book to come out in February (Lynch sells okay but not on a Patrick Rothfuss, publish-3-months-after-hand-in scale). Gollancz are now postulating November 2011 as the earliest-possible release date based on current info.

The situation is awkward and unfortunate, complicated by Scott Lynch's ongoing health complications. Rest assured that the moment that reviewers and bloggers get hard info, including review copies, you'll hear about it hear and on other blogs. And yes, Gollancz should have updated the incorrect info on their website a while ago. This incident just goes to show that people are increasingly relying on the Internet for their book release info and a few mistakes and problems in the system can result in misinformation being spread quite easily.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Welcome to the Twelve Colonies

io9 have published the first canonical map of the Twelve Colonies system from Battlestar Galactica, Caprica and the forthcoming Blood and Chrome.

It's an interesting piece. According to the map, the Twelve Colonies system (the fanon name 'Cyrannus system', taken from the name for the system in the original 1978 series, is now confirmed as canon) consists of four stars, organised as two binary star systems. Kobol is revealed to be about 2,000 light-years away. Additional information is given on each of the Colonies' cities, major industries and some of their histories (for example, Virgon is identified as the first major power of the Twelve Colonies before a costly war with Leonis shattered its might, paving the way for Caprica's rise).

Interesting stuff. Possibly more interesting if it had come out earlier, but with Blood and Chrome set to depict the First Cylon War which raged across the whole system, it'll be interesting to see how much of this material comes up in the new show.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series bible online

Ronald D. Moore's original series bible for Battlestar Galactica is now available online to peruse, for those so inclined. The document is dated 17 December 2003, after the pilot mini-series had aired but before work in earnest had begun on the first season proper.

The bible outlines some information about FTL travel that never came out in the show itself (confirming the old theory that Galactica could only jump about 5 light-years at a time), as well as showing that some story arcs in the series were indeed plotted out ahead of time, though others were not. It's interesting to see how conceptions of characterisation changed: Roslin is initially described as being more hawkish and having to be reigned in by Adama's more liberal tendencies, whilst Tyrol and Baltar are described as coming into conflict and becoming one another's sworn enemies, which basically never happened (though they were not exactly best buddies in the transmitted show).

Given how the show turned out it's an interesting document, and possibly somewhat ironic given how the emphasis is firmly on realism and 'naturalistic' science fiction over technobabble and mystical mumbo-jumbo, at least in the first season.

Monday 24 January 2011

A space empire made up of 300,000 real people

PC Gamer has published a lengthy interview with CCP, the Icelandic developers of the online, space-based role-playing game EVE Online.

Originally launched in 2003, EVE Online is one of only a few successfully-competing MMORPGs in a field dominated by the all-consuming World of WarCraft. As of 2010, the game had more than 300,000 long-term players and 50,000 trial accounts in operation, virtually all on the same server (a smaller server is dedicated to Chinese players, who for censorship reasons aren't allowed to play on the same server as everyone else), an impressive technical achievement (even if the number of players is about one-fortieth that of WoW).

Unlike WoW, EVE is creatively driven by the player community. The game's economy, major powers and military alliances and a lot of its technology is the result of player activities rather than decreed-from-on-high. The game has also won plaudits for giving its massive expansions to all of its player base free of charge, so every player remains on a level footing. Its battles have also won a lot of coverage in the gaming press, with one recent engagement seeing almost 4,000 players fighting alongside and against one another. On the minus side the game has a reputation for a notoriously unforgiving learning curve. Whilst recently much-improved, it can remain a challenge for new players to get into the game.

In the article, the CCP founders recall how they started the project in a rather bizarre way (by producing a board game concept that kept them ticking over), how they went without money for weeks at a time and living in the offices to keep development ongoing. Finally that decision appears to have been vindicated by CCP becoming a major Icelandic company, one of the few to flourish during the recent credit crunch, and is on the verge of spreading the EVE universe to console gamers via the upcoming shooter, Dust 514, in which console gamers will be mercenaries contracted out by the PC gamer-run corps to take, hold and defend various planets. It'll be interesting to see if this cross-platform cooperation takes off.

Back in 2006-07 I spent about eight months playing EVE. Whilst the game was challenging, it was also thoroughly engrossing and a massive time-sink, to the point where I had to uninstall it or risk getting nothing else done. Good to see the game still going from strength to strength.

Two new MATRIX films on the way?

The rumour mill is reporting that the Wachowski Brothers and Keanu Reeves have met up to discuss a new two-movie Matrix project. The new films would be in 3D and would probably feature bullet-time and further the thoroughly confused mythology of the second and third movies.

My enthusiasm for this news is sorely lacking. The first film was solid, the second was rather boring and the third fell flat but was livened up by the battle for Zion (just don't ask why the defending battlemechs didn't have any armour or protection for the pilots). A fourth and fifth instalment would seem to be totally superfluous, especially if it means they resurrect Neo and invalidate his sacrifice from the end of the third film. Still, this is just a rumour so far.

New edition of Guy Gavriel Kay's THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN

After the reveal last month of new cover art for several of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels, here's the new UK cover art for The Last Light of the Sun:

Whilst not Kay's best-regarded book, I quite like this novel. It applies Kay's brand of alt-history to the legend of Alfred the Great and is told with his traditional aplomb.

This only leaves the new cover art for The Lions of Al-Rassan to be revealed from March's reissues.

Saturday 22 January 2011

DUKE NUKEM FOREVER gets trailer and release date

Duke Nukem Forever has got its final release date: 3 May 2011 in the USA, 6 May in the rest of the world. There's also a definitely-not-safe-for-work trailer to accompany the news:

Looks like the game will feature plenty of knowing nods to the insane development time (work began on it in 1997). From the look of it this is an old-school first-person shooter where you just blow stuff up. Innovations appear to be somewhat light on the ground (unless you count being able to punch aliens in the nuts as innovative) and there appears to be lots of bad taste involve. Which really just means it's true to the spirit of the franchise.

Friday 21 January 2011

Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg

Over the last ten years Simon Pegg has risen from being a minor stand-up comic to one of the UK's most recognisable funny men, via the classic TV series Spaced and the movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. He's also become a sort-of ambassador and spokesman for geek culture due to his well-known love of all things SF&F (only don't mention the Star Wars prequels in his presence).

This autobiography is an interesting read but ultimately fails to entirely satisfy. Pegg himself seems to frequently cast aspersions on the project, pointing out that most celebrity bios are rubbish and a bit pointless. Whilst Pegg has certainly had an interesting enough career to cover in a book (moving from unknown stand-up to having Spielberg, Romero, Tarantino and Peter Jackson on his mobile phone contacts list), much of this 'interesting stuff' gets short shrift. Instead, the book focuses on Pegg's childhood, teenage years and upbringing in Gloucestershire.

Pegg writes engagingly, but eschews any type of chronological structure in favour of a thematic one, although this doesn't work well. As such the book bounces around the timeline of his life fairly randomly as he recounts various childhood incidents. Some of these are very funny, but the problem Pegg has is that he had a perfectly ordinary, middle-class upbringing in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite his strong geek credentials, he wasn't really a stereotypical geek at school either. Indeed, he was exuberant, out-going and arty, and even spent a brief period bullying younger and smaller children at school (until, not entirely unsympathetically, one of his victims grew up to be much bigger than him and eventually exacted revenge). His recounting of friendships and early romantic entanglements is rather endearing, but the book only really gets interesting when we get insights into events that were clearly influential on his later acting and writing.

For example, arguably the three finest chapters in the book deal with Star Wars. The first two recount his early exposure to the trilogy and his essay on the trilogy's impact on popular culture and cinema of the period. The third analyses the prequel trilogy and where exactly George Lucas went wrong (which might feel redundant if it wasn't then illuminated by a conversation between Pegg and Lucas at the end which features Lucas's eye-popping admission that he shouldn't have been making the same movie over and over again for thirty years). These sections are great, contrasting Pegg as the young kid exposed to this huge, zeitgeist-defining shift in pop culture and as the older adult confronting a cynical marketing and toy-selling exercise. A further chapter where Pegg recollects his friendship with Nick Frost and their frequent patronage of a local pub is also brilliant, as we start seeing the genesis of Shaun of the Dead in the duo's refusal to try other hostelries. There's also some solid anecdotage here, such as the time they invited Gillian Anderson to join them for an X-Files-themed pub quizz night and knew more about the show than she did, or when they convinced Chris Martin of Coldplay to let the pub have the band's second album for the jukebox weeks before its official release.

Similar gems are sprinkled through the book, such as the time Pegg and (frequent collaborator and director) Edgar Wright won an argument with a mickey-taking Quentin Tarantino, or when Pegg donned a Batman Joker mask to traverse Comic-Con to get stuff signed without being stopped by Shaun of the Dead fans, but the good stuff is few and far between. Pegg, somewhat bafflingly, says that he can't get into the nuts and bolts of his professional career without risking offending anyone. As a result, we get only a small amount of writing about Shaun of the Dead, a little on Spaced and his new movie, Paul, and virtually nothing on Hot Fuzz. Given that the latter film was much-inspired by Pegg and Wright's Gloucestershire upbringing and could have been thematically linked to the earlier formative recollections, this feels like a missed opportunity.

Every few chapters Pegg drops in a chapter from a non-existent novel in which Simon Pegg, international agent provocateur, the best-dressed man in Europe and lover extraordinaire, battles the machinations of an evil enemy with the assistance of his robot butler and bodyguard Canterbury (absolutely not based on Threepio from Star Wars, apparently) whilst being frustrated by his inability to quote from The Shawshank Redemption correctly. These sections are amusing, but thankfully brief, given their reliance on the same few jokes.

Nerd Do Well (***) is readable and somewhat entertaining, but also disappointing: the author doesn't really talk about the things that made him famous and his life story is pretty straightforward with no major drama to recount. As such it's a fun but disposable read crying out for a much more in-depth sequel. The book is available now in the UK and in June 2011 in the USA.

RED DWARF to return for a new series

Actors Craig Charles (Lister) and Robert Llewellyn (Kryten) have confirmed that Red Dwarf will be returning for a new, six-part series. The new series will be recorded - again in front of a live studio audience if possible - between November and January and will air in mid-to-late 2012 on the UK satellite/cable channel Dave.

The classic Red Dwarf line-up: Cat, Lister, Rimmer and Kryten.

Red Dwarf's last full season, its eighth, aired in 1999. The producers subsequently spent a long period trying to develop a movie version which never materialised. Dave commissioned a new, three-part TV special called Back to Earth, which aired in 2009 to smash ratings (beating both BBC-2 and Channel 4, free-to-air channels). The success of the specials has now convinced Dave to develop a longer series in the spirit of the original series. Craig Charles has said that they're hoping to recapture the 'classic' Dwarf feel of around Season 5 of the original run. Llewellyn also confirms the hope to film the episodes live, but this may prove untenable if too much information leaks via the Internet.

It's been confirmed that the four central castmembers - including Danny John-Jules as the Cat and Chris Barrie as Rimmer - will return, with no decision made yet on other recurring characters from the original run. However, Norman Lovett, who played the ship's AI Holly, is unlikely to return given his recent criticisms of the show and his decision not to play the character again.

Red Dwarf was a classic series in its heyday, but I must admit this news fills me with trepidation. Back to Earth was terrible and Seasons 7-8 of the original run were very poor. If original writer Rob Grant (who left after Season 6) was to return as well that would restore a lot of confidence in this project. However, if Doug Naylor can find a good writing partner for the new series, it could turn out okay. I also hope Dave are putting a decent amount of money into the project, as Back to Earth suffered from its near-zero budget.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Some New Bakker covers

Here's the Canadian cover art for R. Scott Bakker's The White Luck Warrior, replacing the horrible placeholder cover from last year:

Nice. Here's the American cover art, which is a variation of the British:

The book is due for release in March in the USA and Canada and May in the UK.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

UK cover art for Brandon Sanderon's ELANTRIS.

From's cover art-hunter Jussi. Very much in the same minimalist of The Way of Kings and The Mistborn Trilogy:

I like the art direction, but as with Kings I find the actual image somewhat underwhelming (though the Kings image has grown on me, so maybe this well as well). Good to see the book finally arriving in the UK as well, six years after US publication.

Staring into the Abyss: My brush with L. Ron Hubbard's MISSION EARTH

Long ago, in the early 1990s, I was given a long piece of coursework for English Lit. at school: we had to compare and contrast two works of the same genre. Naturally, I chose science fiction. Being a bit of a speed-reader, doing the sane thing and just contrasting two books would have taken about a week, so I decided to be a bit more ambitious and went for two series of books: Isaac Asimov's six-volume Foundation series (the seventh and last was out but I hadn't read it), which I'd just read for fun anyway, and another series which I'd just started reading after randomly finding the first book in a library. That book was called The Invaders Plan and was the first volume in a 'dekalogy' (the writer's term) called Mission Earth. Its author was one L. Ron Hubbard.

As a result, I had committed myself to what remains one of the most harrowing literary experiences of my life: approximately four thousand pages of some of the worst writing in any genre I've ever read. And I've read Kevin J. Anderson.

To backtrack, L. Ron Hubbard had originally been a somewhat-successful author of SF and horror novels, novellas and short stories back in the Golden Age of science fiction. Then, famously, he'd hit upon the idea of inventing a new religion, Scientology, complete with a detailed and coherent, if completely bizarre, mythology. He was catapulted to immense wealth and had no need to write any more.

In the late 1970s Hubbard seems to have apparently decided that he wanted some literary acclaim as well (perhaps fearing that Scientology would be the only thing in his obituary). He wrote Battlefield Earth, about aliens invading and occupying the Earth for a thousand years, reducing humanity to the Stone Age, before they were driven off by nuke-armed cavemen flying fighter jets. The book became an immense success, despite its total lack of readability, and seems to have encouraged Hubbard to write a much bigger story: Mission Earth. This was written as a looooong single novel, but divided into ten volumes by the publishers (the publishing house owned by Scientology), possibly out of artistic respect for the author's vision of the story, but probably because it meant they made more money. The first novel, The Invaders Plan, was published in October 1985 and the following nine appeared at regular intervals until the last book was published in September 1987. That Hubbard wrote such a huge story in just three years seems implausible, leading to accusations of ghostwriting, but some former Scientologists and editors have backed up the idea that he did write the whole thing, though his editor did move some material round and write a new introduction and ending to each volume to make them stand alone better.

Mission Earth's plot is somewhat straightforward: the Voltar Empire has decided to add Earth to its expanding sphere of influence. The invasion is not scheduled for another century, but the Empire discovers that the people of Earth are experimenting with more and more powerful nuclear weapons, and the Cold War between the USA and the USSR (the story is set in a contemporary period, so mid-1980s Earth) is in danger of going hot. Since Earth will make a vital supply depot on the Empire's invasion route, they decide they must prevent Earth's self-destruction by sending an engineer, Jettero Heller, to investigate and if possible defuse the situation.

Unfortunately, the Empire's intelligence-gathering organisation, the CIA (the Coordinated Information Apparatus), has been running various illegal and underhanded operations on Earth for generations, most notably importing illegal drugs back to Voltar as an attempt to unseat the ruling government in favour of the CIA's director, Lombar Hisst. Panicking that these plans are about to be unmasked by the unknowing Heller, Hisst assigns one of his best agents, Soltan Gris, to undermine and disrupt Heller's plans no matter the cost.

This is where Mission Earth briefly - very briefly - threatens to get interesting. The bulk of the story - the first seven and a half volumes - are told from Gris's POV, that of the villain. Using a CIA base near Ankara, Turkey and posing as a fellow agent sent to help Heller, Gris attempts to stop Heller's plan from succeeding, either by sabotaging his operations or by trying to kill him directly. Effectively the story is a long farce as Gris's attempts to defeat Heller repeatedly blow up in his face, with Heller's plan sailing on serenely with him continuing to believe that Gris is a good guy. Eventually Heller realises that Earth should be spared invasion and encourages the development of new sources of power and renewable energy, earning the enmity of the powerful Rockecenter family (Hubbard was, perhaps, not the subtlest of satirists), who, it is revealed, control Earth's sources of oil and are unhappy with Heller's attempts to give free energy to the whole planet (by creating a black hole in orbit and tapping the energy of its singularity). To this end the Rockecenters assign a public relations genius to destroy Heller's reputation, a plan which nearly succeeds until Heller, aided somewhat randomly by the Mafia, turns the tables and successfully rescues the Earth from oblivion. He also discovers that Gris is his true enemy and has him incarcerated. The last two volumes are set back on Voltar as Heller attempts to stop Hisst's plan from conquering the Empire coming to pass.

On the surface this is a fairly random but not entirely valueless story. Old-school, yes, but with some potential for exploring themes about nuclear self-destruction, the problem of dwindling energy supplies and the corruption of power, whilst having the main villain as the central POV character for 75% of its length is an unusual and potentially fascinating move.

Hubbard, of course, doesn't actually fulfil any of this potential. Instead, the series mounts a sustained, shock-and-awe assault on the reader's intelligence, taste and suspension of disbelief that is awesome to behold (though thoroughly unpleasant to experience). With Battlefield Earth, by virtue of its far-future setting, Hubbard was unable to really do much in the way of satire or commentary on modern American values. With Mission Earth, mostly set in contemporary New York City (with occasional jaunts to Turkey and other locations), he was able to let rip with both barrels. As a result, we get lengthy digressions on how rock music turns people into effeminate gays, how lesbians are just frigid women in need of 'real men' to show them who's boss (in a stomach-churning sequence, Gris imprisons two lesbians, tortures them with a cheese grater and chili powder, and they end up falling passionately in love with him), how drugs are the root of all evil and how most foreigners are shifty criminals who are not to be trusted. Whilst Hubbard doesn't mention Scientology directly, he goes on at some length about the evils of psychology and psychiatry, one of the pillars of that belief system. Ironically, he does give immense credence to the power of public relations and image-building, and how people can believe the most self-evidently delusional tripe if it's sold the right way.

So, the series is effectively a very basic, pulpy old-school SF adventure decked out with more torture porn, homophobia, sexism and racism that you can shake a stick at. It was greeted with full-blown disbelief from both the general SF and literary communities, though bizarrely a few people (like Orson Scott Card, who really should have known better) did give it good reviews. The series also managed to briefly damage the credibility of the Hugo Awards, when Scientology block-voting got the second volume, Black Genesis, onto the shortlist for Best Novel in 1987. This was the same year as William Gibson's Count Zero and Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts, genuine classics of the genre. At Worldcon that year (fortunately held in the UK, preventing too many hardcore Scientologists from attending and voting) tensions ran high as a number of SF novelists and fans alike were heard muttering darkly about the quality and integrity of the books. For their part the few attending Scientologists, mourning Hubbard's death a year earlier, were taking any slight against the book as an assault on Hubbard's memory, leading to at least one alleged bar-room heated argument over the matter.

Eventually, Orson Scott Card made up for his earlier error of judgement by going ahead and winning for Speaker for the Dead, restoring sanity to the world.

At 14 Mission Earth was a bit of an eye-opener, I can tell you, and in retrospect I perhaps should have given up after the fourth or fifth book (when the rape scenes were kicking in with full force), but a sense of honesty propelled me through reading the whole series. When I handed in my 2,000-word essay it talked about the challenges of writing a long SF series and what ideas could be handled in the medium, but it could generally be summed up as one sentence:

"Foundation was better."

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Salute the Dark by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Spring has come, and the war for the Lowlands has resumed. A freshly-reinforced Wasp army is marching on Sarn, whilst a newly-assembled force is preparing to assault the Mantis-held woodland of Felyal and clear the coast route to Collegium. With the chances of victory hanging in the balance, Stenwold Maker embarks on a daring diplomatic mission to the Dragonfly Commonweal, hoping to convince them to attack the Wasp Empire whilst their attention is elsewhere. Meanwhile, Nero and Taki are returning to the Exalsee to try and arrange the liberation of Solarno.

Elsewhere, other events are coming to a head. Tisamon's path leads him to Capitas for an attempt on the Wasp Emperor's life. Uctebri, now master of the Shadow Box, is preparing for the culmination of his own plans. And Cheerwell sees an opportunity to tear apart the Empire from within, but finds that old allies now see her as a deadly enemy and traitor...

Salute the Dark is the fourth book in the Shadows of the Apt series and whilst it isn't the conclusion of the whole series (which will run for ten books), it is the culmination of the first major story arc. Enough closure is given here so that the reader can pause before reading the next book in the series (Books 5-7 form a trilogy of their own within the larger series). Events that Tchaikovsky has been laying the ground for since the first book finally take place and some questionable earlier storytelling decisions are here explained fully. Whilst there's a large amount of military activity going on in the fourth volume, it isn't as overwhelmed by it as the second book was, and there is a good mix between the war scenes, character-building and political intrigue. Thalric's return to the centre of attention is well-handled, and characters like Cheerwell, Tisamon and Salma are all developed impressively.

The main startling thing about Salute the Dark is the death toll. Perhaps aware that the number of characters was getting extremely large, Tchaikovsky takes a scythe to the cast with enthusiasm, killing off major and minor characters in a bloodbath that even George R.R. Martin might find a tad excessive. This gives rise to a genuine feeling of unpredictability and tension as you don't know who's going to be offed next. Some of the deaths fall a little flat, as they're minor characters who haven't had much screen-time, but there's enough major ones to be surprising.

The book's conclusion is well-handled, giving a good explanation for the pause in hostilities whilst laying just enough groundwork for future stories to make you want to pick up the next book without being left on a tedious cliffhanger.

Salute the Dark (****) is the best book in the series to date, featuring impressive developments in the story, the worldbuilding and characters. It is available now in the UK and USA.

CANNON FODDER 3 in development.

Unexpected news.

A little-known outfit called GFI Games is developing a third game in the Cannon Fodder series. This was startling because the previous installment in the series - which, as might be guessed, was called Cannon Fodder 2 - was released in 1994. Whilst a reboot/remake of the first game might be expected - Starbreeze are working on a new version of the classic Syndicate whilst a new version of X-Com is also in development - a new sequel is a surprising move.

Cannon Fodder was released in 1993 by legendary Amiga developers Sensible Software and was a major success. Using isometric graphics, the game depicted a group of soldiers fighting against various bad guys using a number of different weapons. The game was noted for its dark sense of humour - corpses could be mutilated, and passing animals gunned down - and also a satirical streak. The game displayed a graveyard where each one of your soldiers (each individually named) was buried after being killed. Players who were profligate with their soldiers' lives would find the screen buried in white crosses. The game also used some Remembrance Day imagery such as the red poppy, causing a minor burst of controversy. The sequel, using the same engine and a loopy time travel plot, was not as accomplished.

The new game will apparently be in 3D, but will maintain the overhead isometric viewpoint and the same gameplay as the original. It will be released by Codemasters.

EDIT: Weird. The game is being developed only for Russia and CIS territories, with no European or American release planned at this time. And the original developers are apparently unaware of what's going on.

Monday 17 January 2011

The Iron Throne

HBO have released their latest trailer for Game of Thrones, which sees various characters sitting on the Iron Throne and a sprinkling of dialogue from the series. It's pretty dark and intense.

HBO confirm the 17 April premiere date at the end.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Ridley Scott's ALIEN prequel is no more.

Ridley Scott has announced that the Alien prequel movie project he has been working on for the last year or so has been reconfigured into an original film.

It was originally indicated that Scott would be helming two movies set before the events of the original Alien, revealing the backstory of the 'space jockey' aliens and how they came to have a ton of xenomorph eggs in their cargo hold. However, after pre-production headaches (including the apparent loss of the second part), a major rewrite by Lost scribe Damon Lindelof convinced Scott to transform the movie into a stand-alone film, unrelated to the Alien franchise.

The new film, now entitled Prometheus, is expected to go into production shortly. Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth from the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies), originally hired when it was still an Alien project, remains attached as the lead and the release date of March 2012 still stands. I assume it's still in 3D as well.

As a long-term fan of Alien and Aliens, this is good news. Whilst a new Alien movie by the original director was intriguing (and the implication that it might retcon the Alien vs Predator movies as non-canon), some of the ideas sounded a bit odd. At the end of the day, we don't really need every t crossed and every i dotted on the backstory of the xenomorphs, and people really into this stuff would have already found the various explanations given in the novels and comics.

A new, original Ridley Scott SF movie - his first since Blade Runner - sounds like a far more interesting prospect.

GAME OF THRONES tie-in edition cover art draft unveiled.

Bantam have unveiled the cover art for their new, tie-in edition of A Game of Thrones, due for release on 22 March ahead of the TV show's debut on 17 April (the promo material says 24 April, but this has since changed).

The cover art depicts Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, a photograph originally released as the second piece of promo material for the series many months ago.

My understanding is that this new edition will complement existing editions of the book, not replace them (although new printings of the books will apparently be amended to note the HBO series' existence). I assume that this is the cover art Voyager will be going with in the UK as well. The Voyager edition is not just new cover art, but will feature a whole new, 'cleaner' typeface and will be a larger, B-size mass market paperback. Whether the American edition gets the new typeface as well is unclear at the moment, but the US edition will be available in both tradeback and mass-market paperback.

The version on the PDF has a FOR SOLICITATION ONLY warning on it, so this may not be the final cover. In addition, the PDF has a second page indicating that the American editions of the series are going to be rejacketed with the UK cover art, with the exception of A Game of Thrones which has been given the UK cover art for A Dance with Dragons. Since the UK GoT has a dragon's skull on the cover, Bantam may have decided it makes more sense to have that as the new cover for A Dance with Dragons (the third cover design that unreleased book has had, which may be some kind of record).

At the moment it is unclear if these new editions are 100% replacing the existing American editions, but going by the title across the top of the PDF, I'm guessing this will be the case.

On 18 January HBO confirmed that the above art is a placeholder, not the final version. Whether that means the image will stay but the logo will change, vice versa or both, remains unknown.

Friday 14 January 2011

Cover art for THE DESERTER.

Peadar O Guilin has posted the cover for his second novel, The Deserter, to his blog. This is the sequel to his excellent 2007 debut, The Inferior, and the middle volume of The Bone World Trilogy.

The novel has a current, tentative release date of May 2011 and is one of my more eagerly-awaited books for this year.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Rivers of London/Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant is a probationary constable in the London Metropolitan Police Force who hasn't decided yet on what branch of the force he wants to serve in. A glorious career in the Case Progression Unit - who do the tedious paperwork other branches don't want - appears to be on the cards until a terrible murder takes places and Grant ends up taking a witness statement from a ghost.

Assigned to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale - who deals with all the 'X-Files stuff' no-one else in the Met wants to touch with a bargepole - Grant finds himself tracking down a mystical serial killer with an old axe to grind...

Rivers of London - published under the somewhat less evocative title Midnight Riot in the USA - is the first original novel by Ben Aaronovitch, better-known to SF fans as a writer on the final two seasons of the original Doctor Who (and as the writer of the excellent Remembrance of the Daleks and its impressive novelization). It's the first in a recurring series featuring Peter Grant and Thomas Nightingale as the Met's supernatural experts, with Moon Over Soho due in just a few months and Whispers Under Ground due early next year. It's a rather lazy comparison, but this looks like it could be the closest we have to a British version of The Dresden Files, with the notable exception that whilst Dresden takes a few books to bed in and really take off, Rivers of London is superb from the very start.

The book opens with Grant being dragged into the investigation into a spate of killings and random violence erupting across London. This leads him to becoming the apprentice to Thomas Nightingale, both the Met's resident supernatural expert and apparently the last proper wizard in all of Britain. Grant's education in the ways of magic and mysticism is played out in sporadic scenes alongside the developing plot, as he learns how to create balls of light, levitate things around and so forth. This is also an effective way for Aaronovitch to set out the rules of magic in his world: magic generates a sort-of EMP field that reduces silicon components back to their natural state, making it difficult (but not impossible) for magic and technology to coexist.

Aaronovitch makes the interesting choice to have Grant as someone who is very much aware of the SF&F genre, hence references to things like Doctor Who, The X-Files, the Twilight novels (vampires have a cameo in the book, but no more than that, thankfully), D&D and Cthulu. This could come across as a bit too knowing and a bit too nod-nod, wink-wink, but it actually feels pretty natural and works well. Aaronovitch also has that ability to make the story humourous one moment, dramatic the next and genuinely horrifying the next, spinning the story around and sending it off in a new direction just as you thought you knew what was going on, but always ensuring that everything makes sense.

The book takes its title from its main subplot: whilst Grant and Nightingale are hunting down the mystical killer, they are also tasked with repairing relations between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, using their tributary stream spirits (personified as the deities' sons and daughters) as intermediaries. This is a clever storyline which personifies parts of London as actual people in a similar manner to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and is just as successful. Given that Rivers of London is also the title of the whole series (according to a couple of listings sites, anyway), I'm guessing these characters will return in later books, particularly the Lady Tyburn, whom Peter develops an antagonistic relationship with.

It's difficult to think of negatives. Perhaps the characters accept the existence of magic a little too readily, and maybe there's a few underdeveloped elements (some more info on Molly would have been nice). Otherwise, the book progresses along at a brisk pace, but is not rushed. Characterisation is strong, and Aaronovitch juggles the humour and horror very well. At one point he even trumps A Game of Thrones to provide the most shocking defenestration in the history of modern fantasy. His depiction of London is also excellent, painting the city and its history with affection without whitewashing the darker parts of its past (or showing any hesitation in reducing well-known streets to warzones). Also, whilst this is a complete novel, Aaronovitch seeds in some unresolved elements for later novels to pick up and develop.

Rivers of London (****½) is a page-turning, relentlessly entertaining novel which injects some vigour into the urban fantasy subgenre. It's available now in the UK and, under its dubious alternative title, in the USA.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Blood of the Mantis by Adrian Tchaikovsky

With the Wasp armies' advance stalled by the arrival of winter, Stenwold Maker takes advantage in the lull to send his agents on dangerous missions. Achaeos, Tisamon and Tynisa are dispatched to Jerez, a marsh-town on the edges of the Empire, in pursuit of the stolen Shadow Box, which holds an evil that cannot be unleashed back onto the world. Elsewhere, Che and Nero are sent to Solarno, a city on the distant Exalsee, which is also under threat from the Empire's expansion. However, the feuding political factions of Solarno seem rather unmoved by the threat they face.

Blood of the Mantis is the third volume in the Shadows of the Apt sequence and the penultimate book in the opening story arc. In this novel, Tchaikovsky abandons the large-scale war stories and huge battles of Dragonfly Falling to return to the back-alley intrigue and politicking of the first novel in the series. He also reigns in the book's length, delivering a relatively slim 400-page novel that certainly benefits from a greater focus following three storylines in tandem: events in Jerez, the intrigue in Solarno and Stenwold's attempts to forge the Wasps' myriad enemies into a single, cohesive force. This growing focus means some characters get short shrift - Totho and Salma's storylines are put on the backburner for now - but those characters who are featured benefit from more page-time and development.

Tchaikovsky also (for the first of at least two times in the series) widens the scope of the worldbuilding, introducing a whole new area of the world (the Exalsee or Sea of Exiles and its surrounding city-states) and establishing a whole new set of characters and politics. This is achieved reasonably well, although the Exalsee cities aren't vastly different from the established Lowlands locations and the blindness of Solarno's rulers to the Wasp threat is perhaps a little too reminiscent of Collegium's similar scepticism in Empire in Black and Gold. That said, some of the new characters, such as Taki the pilot and Cesta the assassin, are well-drawn and welcome additions to the (already very large) cast.

The book is certainly enjoyable and page-turning, with the weird and steampunk elements raising what would otherwise be a pretty standard epic fantasy to some interesting new heights, but the Shadow Box is a disappointingly traditional 'evil magical talisman of doom' and it's hard to invest too much in that storyline, especially as Jerez is not a particularly interesting locale (though some late developments near the end of the book may cause some reappraisal of that). Another weakness is that Thalric has, extremely reluctantly, become an ally of the good guys and immediately lost some of the elements that made him more interesting in the first novel. Stenwold's attempts to merge disparate allies into a cohesive alliance against the Wasps is also rather over-familiar and perhaps too easily achieved given the daunting difficulties he faces.

Blood of the Mantis (***½) continues to develop this enjoyable series and benefits from a shift in focus away from the battle-heavy second volume. However, some weaknesses mean that it continues to fail to fully achieve its potential. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Gerry Anderson working on new THUNDERBIRDS TV series

Gerry Anderson confirmed yesterday on the BBC News that he is now working on a new TV series based on his classic 1960s children's show Thunderbirds. Anderson successfully brought back Captain Scarlet as an animated CGI series for a two-season run a few years back, so I assume he'll be pursuing the same sort of format for Thunderbirds.

Thunderbirds ran for two seasons in 1965-66 and was a huge success. Set in the late 21st Century, the series depicted the adventures of International Rescue, run by the fabulously wealthy Tracey family. Using several large vehicles known as 'Thunderbirds', the Tracey boys helped resolve disasters and accidents around the world, sometimes ones caused by natural disasters and others caused by villainous interventions. Their principal foe was a strange, mystical enemy known as 'The Hood', who coveted the technology used to build the Thunderbird craft. Whilst the action was filmed with puppets, the series became infamous for the quality of its miniatures work and special effects, which were light-years beyond anything else on British TV at the time (its famed special effects maestro Derek Meddings, known for his ability to make something explode twenty-three times, later went on to work in Hollywood, most notably on the Tim Burton Batman).

After the original series ended, it became an immense hit in Japan, where an anime series influenced by the original was released in the 1980s (and was dubbed into English directly as Thunderbirds 2086, although this was not authorised by Gerry Anderson). However, later attempts to resurrect the show were stalled by rights issues and disputes. A 2004 live-action film directed by Jonathan Frakes flopped and was a critical failure (Anderson: "The biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my life,").

Whilst I'm broadly sceptical of remakes, there are a few properties that seem to be very suitable for it: Thunderbirds, Blake's 7 and UFO (another Gerry Anderson production which later inspired the X-Com PC game franchise) are actually my top three choices, so this is promising news. Anderson's new Captain Scarlet, with CGI graphics provided by Ron Thornton (the pioneer behind Babylon 5's groundbreaking effects), also seems to have been reasonably well-received, though it was shunted around the schedules disgracefully by ITV. Hopefully that won't happen again.