Sunday 31 August 2014

The 20th anniversay of THE HOLY BIBLE

Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Holy Bible. No, not that one. This one:

The striking cover art is a painting by Jenny Saville called Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face). Saville's representatives demanded an exorbitant fee for its usage. After Richey Edwards rang Saville and explained the meaning of each track in detail, she let the band use it for free. The typeface and reversed Rs are a nod to Empires and Dance by Simple Minds.

The Holy Bible is the third album (of twelve to date) released by Manic Street Preachers, a rock band from Blackwood, Wales. The band was founded in 1987 by four close childhood friends: James Dean Bradfield (lead vocals, guitars), Sean Moore (drums), Nicky Wire (bass, lyrics) and Richey Edwards (lyrics, rhythm guitar). The foursome came from a working-class background, their community one of many badly affected by the 1984-85 Miners' Strike and the subsequent pit closures that had left the area awash in poverty and unemployment. The group came together with a mission statement to inject intelligence into rock, refusing to write love songs and making sure each track they wrote was about something.

The band released several indie singles (starting with "Suicide Alley" in 1989) but came to more widespread attention in 1990-91 when they released several singles through Heavenly Records, most notably "Motown Junk" and "You Love Us." "Motown Junk" was played on heavy rotation by BBC Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq and he championed the band in its early days. However, later that year Lamacq felt that the band had failed to deliver on its initial promise and carried out a challenging interview with Richey Edwards in which he asked if the band were genuine in their artistic intent. An annoyed Edwards pulled out a razor blade and carved the words "4 REAL" into his forearm in front of the horrified journalist.

Incidents like this and the inability of either Edwards or Wire to self-edit in interviews, to the delight of the British music press, soon gave the band a media presence at odds with their ludicrously tiny sales figures. It also helped them win a major record deal, with Rob Stringer of Columbia Records (a subsidiary of Sony) signing up the band. The Manics declared they would sell 16 million copies of their debut album, play Wembley and split up. In the event, they sold about half a million copies of Generation Terrorists (their debut), didn't play Wembley and didn't split up.

By the latter part of 1993, the band seemed to have come to the conclusion that maybe they had surrendered their ideals in the pursuit of commercial success. Wire and Edwards didn't want to be a in a cult band, playing well-received arty tracks to a hardcore few fans. They wanted "mass communication", as Wire said many years later, and to do that they coupled their sometimes challenging lyrics to some fairly standard rock song structures. James Dean Bradfield's astonishing way with a guitar riff (particularly on tracks like "Motorcycle Emptiness" and "La Tristesse Durera") helped the band win over some doubters about their musicianship, but the band also felt a step out of time. Generation Terrorists evoked the feel of Guns N' Roses and late 1980s American rock, a few years past its sell-by date. Its follow-up, Gold Against the Soul, mixed influences from grunge and Madchester - Seattle by way of Salford - to often terrific effect, but again it felt a bit dated by the time it came out.

For their third record, the Manics stopped chasing musical fads, dropped the American influences (instead binging on British acts like Wire, Joy Division and PiL) and decided to record the album close to home in a tiny, cheap studio in Cardiff. The band-members could commute into work and recorded the album in less than two months of tight, disciplined work. They were helped by Richey's incredibly prolific output, as he poured out lyrics (also poems and stream-of-conscious rants) by the dozen. Previously the band had ruthlessly edited the lyrics to fit the songs but Bradfield was so moved by Richey's words that he reversed the process, tailoring the songs around the often dense and complex lyrics. Co-writer Nicky Wire contributed about a quarter of the album's output, helping Richey name some songs and performing rewrites where necessary, but for the most part the album was the work of Richey Edwards by himself.

Manic Street Preachers in 1994: James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire, Sean Moore.

Almost insanely, the band did not initially pick up that anything was wrong. Ever since the "4 REAL" incident the band had almost perversely played up on Richey's "tortured poet" image (a Welsh Kurt Cobain, an Ian Curtis of the valleys) suggesting they'd top off his previous act by decapitating Richey live on stage. Drummer Sean Moore, known for his laconic sense of humour, told a journalist that Richey did not go to bed to sleep, only "the abyss". Richey spent his time off from writing playing video games (he was a huge Sega fan), reading 2000AD comics - and being delighted when the music-fan writers briefly included a character in the Judge Dredd strip based on him - and brushing up on his reading. During the recording of The Holy Bible he also bought a flat, allowing him the space needed to focus on his writing.

That said, the image was also not without its truth. Richey was a heavy drinker and was often depressed. He also experienced bouts of anorexia and self-harming. The Holy Bible provided an outlet for all of his darker thoughts and interests, with the lyrics reflecting on subjects like the Holocaust, starvation, political correctness, capital punishment, totalitarianism and prostitution. His band-mates didn't notice anything too unusual in this during the recording, when Edwards often came into the studio when he wasn't needed just to provide encouragement. However, during a post-recording tour of Thailand and Portugal Edwards's behaviour deteriorated. He often cried and during one gig cut himself with a knife live on stage. His drinking got out of control and, at the urging of his bandmates and their management, he checked himself into the Priory, London's most famous rehab clinic. This didn't seem to help very much. To pay for the clinic's extravagant bills the band did a string of festival gigs as a three-piece, which left them feeling angry and frustrated. The death of their manager from cancer and the fact that the album was released whilst Richey was still in rehab reduced the band to one of its lowest points.

They weren't helped by the shifting musical climate. Guitar music was increasing in popularity in Britain, propelled by bands like Blur, Suede and Pulp, and in the summer of 1994 suddenly exploded thanks to the arrival of noted Manchester rockers Oasis. Oasis's eagerly-awaited debut album Definitely Maybe was released on the same day as The Holy Bible and ensured that the Manics' album was comprehensively overshadowed, despite a strong critical reception from the music press.

The planned sleeve for the single release of "Yes". It was pulled after Richey's disappearance.

The Holy Bible may have been overlooked by the mass audiences, but nothing could dim its power. It retains a critical reputation amongst British albums of the time few others can match, and has now sold over half a million copies (which is small change to some, but for a record this "difficult", it's impressive). It's a tough album - "We knew people wouldn't play it at parties," as Moore said at the time - and one that s often given the dreaded description of "dark", although it's also not entirely shorn of hope.

The record kicks off with "Yes", the great lost Manics single. It was supposed to be released in early 1995 but other events saw it being cancelled. Instead it gets to lead out the record and does so in a manner that can be best described as "commercial suicide". It opens with a sample from the 1993 documentary film, Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns, which had blown open the lid on the modern prostitution trade. Five words in, Richey drops a c-bomb. The perversely upbeat chorus ponders the merits of castration. Richey's lyrics are so dense that Bradfield has to blast them out like a machine gun of bile to fit them in.

It's an exhausting song and sets the tone for what is to follow: tracks on the merits of American culture ("Ifwhiteamericatoldthetrueforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart"), totalitarianism and feminism ("Of Walking Abortion"), feminism again ("She is Suffering", later disavowed by the band for its apparent advocating of white knighting), capital punishment ("Archives of Pain"), failed relationships ("Revol", kind of), anorexia ("4st 7lb"), the Holocaust ("Mausoleum"), discipline and intelligence ("Faster"), dying of old age ("Die in the Summertime"), the Holocaust again ("The Intense Humming of Evil") and the odd bedfellows of drugs, communism and political correctness ("P.C.P."). It's a ferociously smart and hard-to-parse album, really requiring several listens to take in. And yes, it is a dark album, but one that is also streaked through with rays of hope. "This is Yesterday", a Nicky Wire track, is the album's most positive and uplifting moment, a simple but effective track with a little bit of the feel of the Beatles track it shares a near-name with. Other songs like "Of Walking Abortion" and "Faster" are angry but also defiantly life-affirming in their rage.

Its critical reception was mostly positive, but several writers were concerned about what the record said about its principle creator: Melody Maker declared it as "The sound of a group...hurtling towards a private armageddon." Select fitted the songs to what Richey Edwards was going through and was concerned that "No further gestures are required." The Holy Bible's music stock would also only increase with time, the record continuing to appear in Top 100 lists even when almost all of its near-contemporaries had fallen off the radar. This week, the 20th anniversary of the release of both the record and Oasis's vastly higher-selling debut, has been dominated in the British musical press by coverage of The Holy Bible, not Oasis's gamechanger.

What Happened Next

In the wake of The Holy Bible's release, the band were rejoined by Richey for a final string of shows culminating in an explosive gig at the London Astoria which ended with the band destroying most of their instruments. Walking offstage, the band felt a sense of cathartic release that a very difficult time in their lives was over.

The band had already decided that the band's fourth album would be lighter - or at least more approachable - in tone. Richey's prolific streak had continued and Bradfield had enough material to work out rough demos of several new tracks: "The Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky", "No Surface All Feeling" and the lyrically obtuse "Kevin Carter", a song about the South African photojournalist who had become immensely famous for a photograph he'd taken of a vulture and a young starving child in Sudan, which had won him the Pulitzer Prize. Feeling guilty of how he'd won fame, Carter had committed suicide in early 1994, a story that fascinated Edwards. Early work on the new album was interrupted by the band's management making a breakthrough in their attempts to raise American interest: the US wing of Sony Music had finally taken notice of the band's media profile and had agreed to fund a remix of The Holy Bible for American audiences, not to mention a fairly high-profile tour. Given that the band's only real previous exposure in the States had come from an LA TV station using their track "Slash and Burn" as a backdrop to their coverage of the Rodney King riots (to the band's utter horror), this positive development was a surprise.

The American tour never happened, and the remix would not surface for ten years when it was finally made available as part of a 10th anniversary box set. On 1 February 1995, the date Richey and James were supposed to fly to the States for promotional work, Richey checked out of his London hotel and was never seen again. Two weeks later his car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge, leading to rushed claims that he'd jumped from the bridge, a known suicide spot. However, nothing was conclusively proven. In 2008 his family finally declared him legally dead, but the truth of the matter remains unknown. He was 27 years old, the so-called "cursed age" at which musicians like Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones had all died, further adding to the rock star mythology.

The band immediately went on hiatus whilst they waited for news. After six months, they spoke to the Edwards family, who suggested that releasing the songs Richey had been working on might encourage him to make contact. The band reformed and struggled to resume work. It was only when Nicky Wire handed James Dean Bradfield a poem about how the working class had been empowered by education that the creative juices started flowing again. The resulting song, "A Design for Life," was released in April 1996 and was an instant smash hit, hitting #2 on the charts (only missing out on the top spot by a couple of hundred sales). The album that followed, Everything Must Go, sold two million copies in its first three years on sale and won the band two Brit Awards. With the near-total collapse of popular acclaim for Oasis following their successful-but-derided third album, Be Here Now, the Manics inherited the position of Britain's premier rock group, a position they would hold until the rise of Coldplay in 2000-01. Most notably, the Manics scored two #1 singles ("If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" in 1998 and "The Masses Against the Classes", the first British #1 song of the 21st Century) and a #1 album with 1998's This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. The Manics peaked with their sell-out show at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium on New Year's Eve 1999 (culminating in a live broadcast of "A Design for Life" on TV).

Subsequently the band underwent a period of unfocused direction. Their next two albums, Know Your Enemy (2001) and Lifeblood (2004) were messy and confused, although between them they produced several decent tracks. The band were also criticised - most stringently by themselves later on - for playing a show in Havana in 2001 meant to express solidarity with the people of Cuba but was spun by Fidel Castro for his own PR purposes. However, in 2007 they released Send Away the Tigers, an album brimming with hummable tunes and pop choruses. Whilst a little cheesy, it won back a lot of public goodwill and allowed them to take on a daunting task they'd been avoiding since Richey's disappearance: using up what was left of Richey's lyrics and poems to fuel a new album. They feared a backlash, but 2009's Journal for Plague Lovers was critically acclaimed and a huge hit with their fans (not so much commercially, as they refused to release any singles from it and did minimal PR for it). 2010's Postcards from a Young Man was described by Nicky Wire as "One last shot at mass communication", again focusing on catchy hooks and big choruses. However, the record did not find as much favour as their previous two records.

More recently, the Manics have enjoyed both their most critically and commercially successful period in many years. In 2013 they released Rewind the Film, a mostly acoustic record that featured several collaborations with other artists. The album was an unexpected hit. Earlier this year they released Futurology, an album recorded in Berlin and driven by European influences and ideas. The critical reception was nothing short of rapturous, making it their most well-received album since Everything Must Go (if not The Holy Bible itself).

But when the Manics do eventually split, it is The Holy Bible that will be namechecked the most, their most defining record and the one that nearly destroyed them. Twenty years on, it remains a remarkable record, the product of a singular and distressing vision.

Saturday 30 August 2014

New Paul Kearney cover art

Solaris Books have released an early working version of the cover art for Paul Kearney's new novel, The Wolf in the Attic. The novel is due for publication in late 2015.

An early description of the book:
The novel is set in very early 1930′s Oxford, features Tolkien and Lewis as characters, and is told from the point of view of a lonely 11 year old girl. She’s Greek, a refugee from the sack of Smyrna, and one day discovers a Romany boy in her attic. The boy is a shape-shifter, and becomes her friend. The two begin to explore the world around Oxford, discovering things they never imagined existed. The girl, Anna, is obsessed by the Odyssey, and likens the Romany boy, Luca, to Odysseus.

Kearney also has a Warhammer 40,000 novel entitled Umbra Sumus due out before then from the Black Library, but the Black Library is infamously close-mouthed about its release schedule so it is unclear when that will be published. Paul also reports that he has started work on a new novel, something he has been wanting to write for four or five years.

Monday 25 August 2014

Worldcon 2014 After Action Report

Worldcon! The World Science Fiction Convention is one of the highlights of the SFF scene, taking place each year in a different city, often alternating between the United States and other parts of the globe. This year it was in London, the first Worldcon in the UK for nine years and the first in the capital for forty-nine. With over ten thousand attendees, it was also the largest Worldcon ever.

  Aidan represented.

It was also my first Worldcon, although not my first SFF con. Fortunately, it was held on the closer side of London to my home town of Colchester and was enjoyably easy to get to: just over an hour from home to the door of the con. If I attend next year's event in Spokane, Washington (which may be - just about - possible) it will be a rather longer journey. I missed the early events as I only had a hotel room from Friday to Monday, so rolled up on Friday morning just in time for George R.R. Martin's reading.

Martin read from an account of the reign of King Aenys I Targaryen and the strained relationship between Aenys and his brother, Maegor the Cruel, which focused on the beginnings of the civil war against the Faith Militant. It was good stuff, even though we're not going to get the full story for a long time: this was a section that Martin has removed from The World of Ice and Fire (which will feature a briefer summary of these events) and will instead be part of a book called Fire and Blood (formerly nicknamed the 'GRRMarillion'), a much more detailed account of the reign of the Targaryens. This book will probably be mostly written and published after A Dream of Spring comes out, so don't expect it any time soon.

The Comparative Criticism panel in extreme close-up.

In the afternoon I grabbed a cup of tea with fantasy author Kate Elliott and her daughter, along with blogger and author Foz Meadows. I've long been a fan of Kate's work and it was fun to sit and talk to her about various issues (including dodgy SF books of the 1970s). After that I had my first panel, Comparative Criticism with Paul Kincaid, Roz Kaveney, Nick Lowe and Mahvesh Murad. This panel was interesting as we moved between discussions of the various different forms of SF (as games, TV, film and literature), and Mahvesh gave a fascinating insight into the popularity of SFF and how it is perceived in her native Pakistan (she hosts a very popular literature radio show in Karachi). One of those panels which took a little while to get into its groove, but when it did it was great and of course we ran out of time.

The long-standing GRRM fan group, the Brotherhood Without Banners, hosted a party in the Worldcon Fan Village on Friday night which was a lot of fun, although limited by atmosphere (try hosting an intimate gathering of old and new friends in the corner of an aircraft hanger to get the idea). The excellent punch made up for it though.

The Wheel of Time panel.

Saturday was a busy day on the blogging front. My first panel was on the Wheel of Time, which I helpfully discovered I was moderating fifteen minutes before it started. With WoT legends Harriet McDougal (Robert Jordan's widow) and Maria Simons (his research assistant) on hand, along with fantasy writers Wesley Chu and Peter V. Brett, this was more than a little nerve-wracking. Fortunately, we rallied and a fun panel was had in which some major news was unveiled about The Wheel of Time Companion (see the previous post) and some hope was kindled for those waiting for a WoT screen adaptation. After the panel I got a chance to meet Aidan 'Dribble of Ink' Moher, Justin 'Staffer's Book Review' Landon and authors Myke Cole and Robert Jackson Bennett. We repaired to a local pub for lunch, where (courtesy of Gollancz's Gillian Redfearn) I also met up with French authors Pierre Pevel and Antoine Rouaud. And then Tobias Buckell joined us, because at Worldcon you can't swing a cat without hitting a well-known SF author.

I power-napped through the afternoon (apparently I'm getting too old for these things), which means I missed the 'Coming of Age in Game of Thrones' panel, which by all accounts was a bit of a disaster. Panellists who hadn't read the books (despite the panel being billed as a spoiler zone for all of the novels) and got spoiled on upcoming events, not to mention being considerably less knowledgeable than the audience. I get the idea of bringing in a fresh perspective on the story and that could make for an interesting panel, but this was not billed as such.

I rallied in the evening for a Gollancz-hosted party in the hotel next door and rounded off the evening with a mini-concert in the fan village, because that's just how it rolls at Worldcon.

Sadly, a mock-up.

 Sunday was pretty good. Normally at cons things start winding down in the last few days and fatigue sets in, but not on this day. I picked up some good bargains in the dealers' room and was briefly imprisoned by the HarperCollins team on their stall before making good my escape (having triumphantly blagged an advance copy of the next Joe Abercrombie book). In the afternoon I took part on the 'My Opinions, Let Me Show Them' panel which was tremendous fun. Foz Meadows moderated and myself, Justin Landon (catchphrase: "Brutally, brutally honest"), Aidan Moher and Thea from the Book Smugglers talked about blogging and reviewing for an hour or so. Ken Neth (Nethspace) and James Long (the defunct Speculative Horizons) got shout-outs and there was an important discussion of the differing levels of hostility faced by male and female bloggers.

Our opinions, we showed them.

The evening saw the Hugo Awards. I'd been warned by many people that the Hugos can be an endurance test of epic proportions, complete with scary stories of long ceremonies punctuated by angry rants and tedious back-slapping. This didn't happen in London, with hosts Justina Robson and Geoff Ryman keeping things moving with breezy ease. The whole thing was done in two hours and we could get on with the partying. There were roars of approval as Kameron Hurley won (twice!) and Aidan collected his award, with Ann Leckie taking home the Best Novel award for Ancillary Justice (although part of me still wished Wheel of Time had taken it, for its huge impact on the genre). I was also impressed that the crowd restrained itself from any booing or jeering when the less-popular nominees were announced, with some polite applause and stiff-upper-lippedness ruling the day.

The Hugo Awards, people.

The evening party was mighty, with the ruthless and unrestrained deployment of karaoke. I must confess to partying a little too hard and having to leave rather bleary-eyed on Monday morning.

It was an epic Worldcon, marred a little only by the insane length of the convention hall (approximately 900 metres) which I had to walk six times a day and some chaotic planning with people finding they were moderating panels only minutes before they started. But given the sheer volume of panels and the vast number of attendees, this was by standards a phenomenally-well-organised event. Same time next decade?

Saturday 23 August 2014


At Worldcon I had the pleasure of moderating a panel featuring Harriet McDougal (Robert Jordan's widow), Maria Simons (one of his assistants) and fantasy authors Wesley Chu and Peter Brett, who spoke about the influence of Wheel of Time on their works. However, there was a fair amount of discussion by Harriet about the new companion volume to the series. This can be summed up as follows:
  • The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia is dead! Long live The Wheel of Time Companion as it will now officially be called.
  • The book will be 350,000 words long (comparable to several of the novels in the series; the longest, The Shadow Rising, is 389,000 words).
  • The book will feature a lot of new artwork, arranged by Irene Gallo at Tor.
  • Publication date likely to be November 2015.
  • The book will feature all of the already-published maps and also some new ones, including one of Thakan'dar.
  • The book will have a large vocabulary of the Old Tongue, with a minimum of 1,000 words.
  • The book will feature character profiles and sketches for almost every character in the series. Even Bela has her own entry.
  • The book will be written from a post-AMoL POV. It will have spoilers for the entire series.
In addition to info on the world book, Harriet revealed some more details generally about the series:
  • The series is finished and done. Tor offered a lot of money and tried to persuade Harriet into doing more, but Harriet put her foot down and said no. The Wheel of Time ends with A Memory of Light and the companion volume.
  • There were several unfulfilled contracts when Robert Jordan passed away, including for the Seanchan trilogy. Apparently the money involved was massive, worth many times the value of Harriet's house. Tor worked with the estate to re-write the contracts to substitute the companion book instead.
  • Robert Jordan wrote one line about the planned Seanchan trilogy: Mat Cauthon playing dice in a grubby alleyway in Ebou Dar (not verbatim). That was it.
  • Harriet named about 75% of the chapters in the series.
  • Harriet vocally re-enacted Bela's death-whinny from AMoL.
  • The panel spent an intense five minutes arguing about Bela's death. When I tried to suggest that we talk about the human characters who died, no-one was really interested. It was all about the horse.
  • Jordan tried to protect Maria from spoilers in the work he had her do for him. She eventually persuaded him she could handle them. Almost the first thing he then gave her was Verin's full backstory. This was somewhere around the time Path of Daggers came out.
  • The oddest research request was Jordan asking how babies feel when they are born. This was eventually used in the bonding scene in Winter's Heart.
  • The movie/TV rights situation is beginning to become clearer. Red Eagle sold the film rights on to Universal and it now looks like the rights could return to the Jordan Estate at some point. There is apparently interest from other companies in the rights given the success of other fantasy projects on TV and in film at the moment.
All in all, a good panel and some interesting stuff came out of it.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Obsidian and Paizo collaborating on a PATHFINDER project

Obsidian Entertainment, one of the best creators of CRPGs in the world, have teamed up with Paizo Publishing to do something using the latter's highly successful Pathfinder pen-and-paper roleplaying game.

The above picture from this year's GenCon is pretty much all we know so far, but the smart money would be Obsidian making a roleplaying game set in the Pathfinder world. Whether this would be a big-budget, 3D RPG funded by a major publisher or a smaller, lower-budget affair similar to Obsidian's Kickstarter game, Pillars of Eternity (due out before the end of this year), remains to be seen, although I suspect the latter is more likely.

Obsidian and Paizo have expressed their mutual admiration in the past, with Obsidian also suggesting that their Pillars of Eternity world could become a Pathfinder pen-and-paper campaign setting. This is a very good fit, and it'll be intriguing to see what form the project takes.

Update: Obsidian and Paizo Publishing have entered into a long-term licensing agreement. First up is a digital version of the Pathfinder collectable card game. This will be followed by a 'proper' CRPG at a later date.

Obsidian Entertainment, the developer of Fallout: New Vegas, South Park: the Stick of Truth and the Kickstarter phenomenon Pillars of Eternity, announced that they have entered into a long-term licensing partnership with Paizo Inc. to produce electronic games based on its popular Pathfinder Roleplaying Game intellectual property.

Obsidian's first licensed product will be a tablet game based on the highly successful Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players. Players each have a unique character composed of a deck of cards and a set of stats. Characters have classes such as fighter, rogue, wizard and cleric, as well as numbers that define attributes such as strength, wisdom and charisma etc. Players will be able to customize their deck to better suit each individual's vision of their character.

"At Obsidian we have a long history of working with the greatest RPG franchises, and we're thrilled to get to play in the Pathfinder universe now," said CEO Feargus Urquhart. "We're huge fans and can't wait to bring what we do in the electronic gaming world to Pathfinder fans everywhere".

In the world of Pathfinder, players take on the role of brave adventurers fighting to survive in a world beset by magic and evil. The Pathfinder RPG is currently translated into multiple languages, with hundreds of thousands of players worldwide. The Pathfinder brand has also been licensed for comic book series, graphic novels, miniatures, plush toys, apparel, and is being developed into a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game.

"Obsidian is a video game developer at the top of its game", said Paizo CEO Lisa Stevens. "Being able to bring that type of experience and passion to Pathfinder can only mean great things, both for our loyal Pathfinder community and for all fans of great CRPG's."

Obsidian will be at Gen Con 2014 showing off an early prototype of the digital Pathfinder Adventure Card Game in the Paizo booth (#203) and in their own booth (#2151) featuring the first consumer hands on for Pillars of Eternity.

Monday 11 August 2014

BABYLON 5 creator teases new reboot movie

J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of cult 1990s SF show Babylon 5, has announced that he is planning a big-screen reboot of the franchise.

Babylon 5 ran for five years in 1993-98 and was critically acclaimed for its long-running story arc, a single storyline executed across five seasons and 110 episodes (as well as a number of TV movies of varying degrees of competence), as well as its pioneering use of CGI for effects. Warner Brothers produced the show and retain the movie rights, but the movie rights remained with Straczynski.

Straczynski set up a new production company in 2012, Studio JMS, and has been raising $200 million for a slate of different projects. The company's first venture is a new TV series produced by the Wachowskis and co-written by Straczynski, Sense8, which will debut in 2015 on Netflix. Straczynski has said he will offer Warner Brothers first refusal on the Babylon 5 movie, with a budget of over $100 million. If they decline, he will fund the film himself through Studio JMS with a more modest budget of around $80 million.

Given that Babylon 5 helped pioneer the long-form, serialised drama, the style of television which is now the gold standard, it seems an odd choice to try to shoehorn its long, epic story into a couple of movies, especially when the TV series was more about the characters than the effects (impressive as they were in their day). I suspect this may be more a reflection of the rights situation - where JMS has full control of the film rights but none at all over the TV ones - than what might be the preferred route JMS would want to take. Even so, it's going to be a daunting project. The new actors have some pretty massive shoes to fill, most notably whoever tries to replace the formidable rapport between Peter Jurasik's Londo Mollari and the late Andreas Katsulas's G'Kar.

According to JMS, he wants the new film to enter production in 2016. It will be interesting to see if this happens or not, but he seems to have - for the first time since the TV show ended - a firm plan in place.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

In 1988, young Peter Quill is abducted by aliens and carried off into deep space to be raised as a mercenary. Twenty-six years later Quill steals a valuable orb coveted by both the renegade Kree warlord Ronan and Quill's own former boss (and abductor) Yondu. The orb rapidly draws the attention of many factions and Quill is reluctantly forced to ally with Gamora (a former ally of Ronan's), Rocket (a genetically-engineered raccoon-like creature), Groot (an ambulatory tree) and Drax (an overly literal, vengeance-fuelled warrior) in order to recover the orb and save the galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and arguably Marvel's biggest gamble to date. Whilst previous movies focused on fairly well-known characters or groups who were at least passingly familiar to a general audience, the Guardians source material is relatively obscure. Guardians is a test of how far into its decades of source material Marvel can really reach before losing its audience. Its immensely successful opening week suggests that Marvel isn't losing its magic touch any time soon.

Guardians is a fun but flawed movie. It's comfortably superior to any of the Iron Man or Thor flicks, but the (relatively) grounded realism of Captain America: The Winter Soldier worked better and The Avengers was stronger as an ensemble piece, as it was able to use the previous movies for its scene-setting and character development. Guardians's pacing suffers a little as it struggles to provide backstory and motivation as well as a cohesive storyline. In fact, the storyline suffers quite a lot, with some fairly risible "the team learning the art of friendship" scenes fitted in amongst discussions of magical maguffins and action beats of varying competence.

What holds the picture together and makes it work is the offbeat script and direction from James Gunn, the excellent 1980s soundtrack and a formidable cast. Chris Pratt brings the requisite levels of arrogance and overconfidence to Quill, whilst Zoe Saldana is excellent as Gamora. The real revelations come from former wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax (who channels a surprising degree of pathos into his performance) and Karen Gillan as Nebula, who leaves her Doctor Who role of Amy Pond far behind in a vicious and at terms unnerving role. Lee Pace as Ronan is less successful, his camp villainy feeling redundant. A bigger problem is that the movie deploys actors and comedians of the calibre of Peter Serafinowicz, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou and Benicio del Toro and does very little with them. It is good to see Michael Rooker building on his Walking Dead success with a more meaty role as Yondu. His smile of delight when he realises he has been betrayed, thus justifying vengeance later on, is one of the film's more enjoyable, quiet moments.

The film is witty, with some great one-liners and narrative zingers flying around, and the actors are certainly up to the challenge. However, the film does struggle with its CGI. After several movies - most notably The Avengers and The Winter Soldier - where Marvel seemed to be dialling back the use of sensory overload CGI (where stuff happens so fast and blurred that you don't know what's going on), it returns with a vengeance in Guardians of the Galaxy. Some dogfights and battle sequences are almost impossible to follow and intercut so rapidly it makes it hard to appreciate the strong production design.

Another area where the film succeeds is in how it is bringing together the different narrative strands established in earlier films. The backstory of the Tesseract (Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers) and the Aether (Thor: The Dark World) is explored and we find out more about Thanos, the big bad behind the events of The Avengers. The Collector also returns from Thor: The Dark World. There's a growing sense of a masterplan which will extend through several more movies to come and will be interesting to see develop. Gunn even trolls the fans with a post-credit sequence that is nowhere as revelatory and momentous as previous ones, instead going for laughs.

Guardians of the Galaxy (****) is loud, brash and almost entirely nonsensical fun. Some good laughs, an excellent cast and some much-needed tying together of the wider Marvel universe storyline overcome some confusing CGI and tiresome villains to deliver a solid, undemanding blockbuster. The film is on general release now.