Tuesday 31 October 2017

2016's best game now out on console

2016's best video game - okay, one of 2016's best video games - has now been released on X-Box and PS4 (with a special mode to take advantage of the PS4 Pro's extra features).

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is an isometric stealth game where the player has to guide a team of mismatched comrades in carrying out missions for the Shogun during Japan's Edo period. A combination of tactics, stealth, combat and puzzles guides the player through a good 30 hours of so of clever and well-written gameplay.

I gave the PC version of the game a full five-star review last year and spent some time a few months ago replaying the game from the start, which I rarely do with titles. It remains a remarkable and enjoyable experience. By all reports, the console versions do a good job of translating the game to those platforms.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Atlas of Ice and Fire: Mapping George R.R. Martin's World

As hopefully everyone is aware, I also blog at Atlas of Ice and Fire, where I'm mapping the history, geography and narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire (and throwing in some stuff for other fantasy series as well).

Today I completed the "Geographic Maps" section of the Atlas, 25 maps which cover the known world from the Lonely Light in the Sunset Sea to the island of Ulos in the Saffron Straits beyond even Asshai, a full seven thousand miles to the east. We cover a similar distance from the frozen northern polar region beyond the Lands of Always Winter down to the steaming equatorial jungles of Sothoryos and Ulthos.

This has been quite a project, a full year or so in the making following the completion of the earlier "Historical Maps" section. Next up - probably after a break of a few weeks or a couple of months - will be the "Narrative Maps" covering the events of the novels themselves.

I also blog over on Patreon, where I'm currently producing the "Cities of Fantasy" series. Today's article is on the city of Asshai from A Song of Ice and Fire, but I've also covered cities from other book series and video games. The Cities of Fantasy articles are reprinted on the Wertzone after one month, but you can get early access by signing up to my Patreon feed.

Once again, thanks to all my readers who make this all worthwhile.

Saturday 28 October 2017

JV Jones completes new urban fantasy novel

Author JV Jones has completed her first novel in six years. Sorry Jones is an urban fantasy thriller featuring a new character getting into supernatural hijinks on the American West Coast.

The new novel is short by Jones's standards, clocking in at 100,000 words or so. Jones has written the novel in just a few months, driven by her early success on Patreon. Originally, it seems that her plan had been to get straight into completing the partially-finished fifth Sword of Shadows novel, Endlords, but upon attempting that she found that her writing skills needed some honing before returning to her fantasy series. This is the project she undertook to do just that.

It remains to be seen if Tor or another publisher will pick up the new novel. But this is encouraging news given that Jones (who has suffered a major relationship crisis and a series bereavement during the past few years) had not written much that she was happy with in over half a decade, and her experiment with both Patreon and this new novel seem to have succeeded in recharging the creative batteries. In addition, Jones notes on her Patreon that writing the new book has already provided insights on how to complete Endlords, such as abandoning her previous strict practice of writing in chronological order in order to skip "difficult" chapters and double back to finish them later, rather than being simply logjammed for weeks on end on single chapters, which was apparently a major problem on Endlords.

Hopefully we'll see this new novel in 2018 and Endlords in the not-too-distant future.

ETA: Julie drops by in the comments to confirm that Endlords will be the penultimate book in the series.

Stranger Things 2

Halloween, 1984. A year has passed since a young girl named "Eleven" escaped from Hawkins Labs into the outside world and unleashed chaos in her wake. Will Byers has been rescued from the mysterious realm known as the Upside Down, but is still suffering the consequences of his time there. The disappearance of Barbara Holland has also had unforeseen ramifications. The arrival of strangers in Hawkins coincides with a resurgence in activity from the Upside Down...and the beginning of an even larger, graver threat to the town.

Stranger Things came out of nowhere last year to become one of Netflix's biggest-ever hits, a show that was both an indulgence in 1980s nostalgia but also remembered to tell a really good, interesting and brilliantly-characterised story at the same time. The renewal for a second season was both welcome, because this world is compelling and deserves more exploration, but also worrying, because Stranger Things had a story with a well-defined beginning, middle and end, and artificially introducing another mystery in the town might feel like a tacked-on move.

Fortunately, it doesn't. After a slightly haphazard start, Stranger Things 2 (the official name of the season, denoting that this is a proper sequel, not just a continuation of the first season) soon matches and, in some areas, outstrips its forebear. The Duffer Brothers made it clear that for this season they wanted to make a sequel along the lines of Aliens or Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a story with bigger stakes, more action and a larger threat, but also more compelling characters and greater emotional resonance. They bring in some new characters, expand the world further with more information about the Upside Down and the experimental subjects at Hawkins Labs (giving rise to a very good one-episode side-story set in Chicago) and also up the stakes in a massive way.

This increase in scale does not come at the expense of characterisation. In fact, the multi-pronged threat faced by Hawkins results in the characters splitting up into smaller teams to deal with what initially appear to be unrelated storylines. Nancy and Jonathan team up to find justice for Barb, Dustin and Steve join forces to tackle a new creature issue and Mike devotes his time to helping Will overcome his issues from the Upside Down. A bit like Lord of the Rings - or the later part of Aliens - the team is forced to split up only to rejoin forces later on for the grand finale...and it's a massive finale, with huge ramifications for the world.

The show's cultural touchstones continue, with more classic 1980s tunes being referenced, movies like Ghostbusters and The Terminator being namechecked and scenes being included which homage everything from Poltergeist to Aliens to The Goonies. The new castmembers include several shot-outs to the period, most notably the addition of Sean Astin (The Goonies, Lord of the Rings) and Paul Reiser (Aliens), albeit with both playing very well-rounded and interesting characters.

On the negative side of things, Stranger Things 2 does start to overdo it with the CGI. Season 1 made a point of not just being set in the 1980s, but even aping the style of a 1980s movie, with minimal CGI and the use of practical effects wherever possible. The second season has no truck with this, and CGI is used quite extensively. A lot of the time it's of the highest quality and the creature scenes would be difficult to do without it, but some CG establishing shots feel unnecessary. In particular, the use of CG to create school corridors in the Upside Down version of Hawkins feels a like a bit mid-2000s video game.

Still, that's a very minor complaint. Stranger Things 2 (*****) gives us greater insight into the existing characters, introduces interesting new faces and expands the world and scale of events whilst not selling out the show's heart and soul. The biggest question when the season ends is "now what?", because I can't see the third season getting bigger still. We'll have to wait until 2019 to find out the answer to that question. In the meantime, Stranger Things 2 is available to stream on Netflix worldwide.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Showtime picks up KINGKILLER CHRONICLE prequel TV series

Showtime have confirmed they are developing a prequel television series to Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle novel trilogy. Lionsgate undertook a complex multimedia option on the series a couple of years ago, but picked up momentum a few months back when Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) was attached as a producer and musical director.

The plan seems to be for writer Lindsey Beer to adapt the three novels - The Name of the Wind (2007), The Wise Man's Fear (2011) and the still-unpublished The Doors of Stone (forthcoming, still) - as big-budget motion pictures, with a TV series intersecting the events of the novels but focusing on other elements of the story to be produced by John Rogers (Leverage). Miranda will produce and work on songs and other elements for both projects.

It sounds like the TV show will, at least initially, take the form of a prequel set a generation before the events of The Name of the Wind and will follow other characters through the world of Temerant. This plan gives Rothfuss additional time to complete the much-delayed third and concluding novel in the trilogy and reduces the chances of the adaptation running out of source material before it's done (as recently experienced by Game of Thrones).

The plan also encompasses video games, but no announcements have been made with regard to this part of the franchise.

Steven Erikson puts Kharkanas Trilogy "on hold", starts Malazan sequel trilogy

Steven Erikson has, surprisingly, announced that he is putting his Kharkanas Trilogy on hold and will be starting work on the long-promised Toblakai Trilogy instead, a sequel to his ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Erikson announced both trilogies before wrapping up the Malazan series in 2011 with The Crippled God. The Kharkanas Trilogy is set 300,000 years or so before the main Malazan sequence and details the backstory of the three Tiste races (Andii, Liosan and Edur). Erikson released Forge of Darkness to a generally warm reception in 2012, but took four years to release the follow-up, Fall of Light (2016). On release, the novel got a mixed (but leaning towards lukewarm) reception from readers.

Erikson has also worked on other novels in the meantime, writing three Betty comedic space opera novels and a stand-alone SF work, Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, which will be released in late 2018. It was assumed that the final Kharkanas novel, Walk in Shadow, would also be released in 2018 or 2019.

Now, according to Erikson, he has put Walk in Shadow on hold and will be starting work shortly on The God is Not Willing, the first novel in the Toblakai Trilogy. This trilogy will catch up on the adventures of Karsa Orlong shortly after the events of The Crippled God and - it is believed - will see him return home to his people to rouse them in a crusade against "civilisation". It is likely that this trilogy will also catch up on at least some of the situation in other parts of the world following the events of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and Ian Esslemont's Malazan Empire books.

This news is startling, since Erikson has formerly been one of the fastest, hardest-working and most reliable authors in the fantasy canon. However, he clearly struggled with Fall of Light (which took more than three times as long to write as any of his previous books of comparable size), so this move may help recharge the creative batteries.

It's also good news for fans: the deep backhistory of the Tiste is fascinating to some fans, but many of the main series fans seemed much more excited about the Karsa Orlong saga, expanding as it will on a fan-favourite character from previous books.

No publication date is set for the first Toblakai novel, but hopefully we will see it this side of 2020.

ETA: From Steven Erikson:

Status Update: Completing the third and final Willful Child novel, The Search For Spark. Then it's onward to the first Karsa Orlong novel (what about the third Kharkanas novel? On hold). Thanks everyone for your kind greetings.
Hmm, okay. I've made a point of never dissembling to my readers so why start now? The reasons for this decision (delaying Walk in Shadow) are varied: the basic situation is as follows. For reasons unknown to me, my agent or my publishers, DoD and FoL have tanked in terms of sales. I wasn't even aware of that until we started marketing the First Contact novel, RKH, but when the details came out it took the wind out of my sails (putting it mildly). Now, if it was a matter of the style I employed for the Kharkanas trilogy turning readers off, then the sales of FoD should have been decent, only to then fall off for FoL. But that wasn't the case. Strangely, the Book of the Fallen series remains strong in terms of sales. Was it because it was a prequel? Possibly. Did FoD come too soon after TCG? Maybe. Or is there some kind of reader-fatigue going on? Could be. One theory I've been considering is a more general wariness among fantasy fans regarding trilogies and series -- having been burned by other authors waiting for books, are readers just holding back until the trilogy is done, before buying in? But then, Dancer's Lament sold brilliantly (and it too is a prequel). Anyway, the upshot is, given what we perceive as considerable enthusiasm for the Karsa trilogy, we decided to jump right in. The story picks up four or five years after the ten book series, so there'll be plenty of room to explore the fall-out, and room for favourite characters to make an appearance beyond Karsa himself. I do remain committed to writing Walk in Shadow and humbly apologize for you (few?) readers eagerly awaiting that novel.
Thanks so much for all your comments and encouragement. To those of you waiting for the trilogy to finish before buying, no need to apologize. Waiting for books sucks. Personally, I wish FoL hadn't taken three years to write. That alone is a long wait for any reader. I think what's made the Kharkanas trilogy so fragile for me is that it was always a risky proposition, in terms of tone, atmosphere and writing style. It's dense stuff, and while the style is seductive (for me) it's also one that requires a certain frame of mind. I wasn't aware of how vulnerable that frame of mind was until it got hammered. It may well turn out that after the first Karsa novel (working title: The God is not Willing), I'll head straight back to Walk in Shadow. Sometimes momentum is all one needs.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor, God of Thunder, returns home to Asgard with a mighty artefact and discovers that things are...amiss. Soon he finds himself imprisoned on the remote planet Sakaar along with his redoubtable half-brother Loki, pitched into fighting in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of millions. Back on Asgard, the realm (and its eight fellows) stand in mortal peril due to the return of Hela, Goddess of Death. Thor must find a way of escaping, returning home and averting Ragnarok, the end of everything.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a smooth conveyor belt churning out superhero action blockbusters, now up to three a year, reliable as clockwork. If it's a tribute to the powers behind this multi-billion dollar mega-franchise that they've never produced a truly awful movie (even Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World are watchable, if mediocre), it's also damning with faint praise to realise they've never produced a single stone-cold for-the-ages classic either. After seventeen movies you'd expect at least one of them to be a genuine stand-out, but nope (The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 come close but ultimately no cigar). There is a Disney-Marvel formula and whenever they've hired a director who seemed in danger of putting too much of their own spin on things or adopting a more experimental approach, that director has gotten with the programme or been fired (such as the fate of Edgar Wright on Ant-Man).

From that perspective, Marvel's decision to hire New Zealand director Taika Waititi for the third Thor movie seems a bit crazy. Waititi is a free-wheeling comic genius, the director of movies such as Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and, most hilariously, What We Do in the Shadows, a crowd-funded Spinal Tap with vampires. His approach to his films relies heavily on actor improvisation and experimenting with different ideas on set, ideas which seem antithetical to a $180 million CGI action fest where every scene is storyboarded to within an inch of its life a year before shooting starts. Indeed, when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller adopted the same approach to the Han Solo Star Wars prequel movie, they were fired. Watching Thor: Ragnarok, it's clear that Marvel stuck with Waititi for the simple reason that, as much as Waititi has made his mark on this film, Marvel has also made its mark on Waititi: this is very much a Standard Marvel Movie with the same basic structure and story beats that we've seen sixteen times before, just with a couple more genital jokes than usually get thrown into the mix.

Structurally, the film is a mess. Typically, a film's opening will establish the premise and backstory of what's going on, either by itself or through entertaining plot action. Ragnarok's opening takes in a planet that looks like Hell with scenes set in Norway, New York and on Asgard and a completely pointless Doctor Strange cameo before the story really even kicks in. Once it does, we follow two plot strands, one with Team Thor on the planet Sakaar trying to escape from the Grandmaster, and another on Asgard as it comes under attack from Hela and the established B-cast from the previous movie (led by Idris Elba's Heimdall) try to hold her off until Thor gets his act together. This would be fine, except that the Sakaar interlude goes on way too long, leaving the resolution on Asgard to take place with almost indecent haste.

There are some benefits to this approach, most notably that the ending is fast-paced, punchy and wrapped up with a minimum of fuss, which is a bit of a relief from way too many recent big movies with huge, CG-drenched endings that go on forever (hi, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). The downside is that the Sakaar sequence is a bit interminable. Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster is funny, but he's never really a serious threat, and the apparently "serious" character stuff as Hulk undergoes some much-needed character evolution (if you're wondering why and how he can talk rather than just being an irrational force of destruction, that gets explained) could have been wrapped up much more quickly than is the case. As usual Tom Hiddleston steals the show as Loki and Tessa Thompson makes for a compelling new protagonist as the hard-drinking Valkyrie who, refreshingly, doesn't end up as anyone's love interest.

The scenes set on Asgard are briefer, but they do feature a surprisingly excellent subplot focusing on Karl Urban as Skurge. Skurge's character arc is relatively brief and straightforward, but Urban does outstanding work with very little material, confirming his position as the single greatest supporting actor on Planet Earth at this time (get this man back as Judge Dredd, stat!). Of course, it goes without saying that Cate Blanchett relishes her performance as the evil Hela, chewing scenery and unleashing villainous dialogue with absolute conviction.

The film has gotten a reputation as a comedy, even the first outright comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which is a bit of an exaggeration. There's a lot of funny lines and some characters like Korg (a CG rock monster voiced by Waititi himself) are pure comic relief, but there's also quite a lot of death and destruction (the film is called Ragnarok, after all) and a few grim moments. The comedy stuff is fine and there's a few belly laughs here and there, but the trailers definitely give away almost all of the funniest moments which is a bit of a disappointment.

One of the biggest successes in the movie is how Waititi handles effects. He's never handled a CG extravaganza on this scale before and his grasp of visual imagery is striking. Some of the scenes, particularly a flashback to a charge of horse-mounted Valkyrie warriors, are beautifully composed. There's a hell of a lot of moments in the film which would make for great paintings or desktop wallpapers.

Ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok (***½) emerges as the best Thor movie to date but also the weakest Marvel film released this year; it may in fact be the weakest Marvel movie since Age of Ultron, which is a little bit disappointing. It's still fun, funny, well-acted and with some breathtaking visual moments, but it's lacking in the serious dramatic stakes and the film has a messy opening and saggy middle before it pulls things together for a strong, brisk finale that sets up next year's The Avengers: Infinity War. The movie is on general release in the UK and Europe now, and opens in the US in a few days.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Tad Williams Signing and Q&A Report

Last night Tad Williams was in London to do a signing at Forbidden Planet and also to take part in an interview and Q&A session. I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time and it turns out he's a really friendly and nice guy.

New information from the signing: Tad confirmed that Empire of Grass, the second volume of The Last King of Osten Ard, is complete but needs to be edited. The publishers are mulling over when to release it: if they go for an early release (presumably in 2018), Tad will immediately start writing the concluding book of the trilogy, The Navigator's Children. If they decide to hold off until later, Tad will write the second short prequel novel, The Shadow of Things to Come, first. Unlike The Heart of What Was Lost, which was a bridging novel between the two trilogies, Shadow is a completely self-contained story with no connections to the latest work; in fact, it's more about Sithi and Norn characters from the first trilogy in the heyday of Sithi civilisation (Sithilisation?), so can come out before or after the trilogy is done.

Otherland remains under a film option but Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is not under any option at the moment, despite some vague interest from time to time.

Tad prefers writing his shorter novels like the Bobby Dollar books, which only took four to five months each to write rather than two to three years like his big epics. We may see more shorter books from him in the future.

When asked which of his fictional worlds he'd like to live in, he replied "The one with the best toilet facilities".

Video blogger Kitty G recorded the interview so keep an eye on her YouTube channel to see when it goes up.

Saturday 21 October 2017

One of the greatest video games of all time is back on GoG

GoG has been re-releasing a lot of masterpieces from yesteryear recently. They've managed to secure another major coup by releasing the original Mafia in a new form that's readily compatible with Windows 7, 8 and 10.

Mafia, subtitled The City of Lost Heaven in the States, was a game from Illusion Softworks released in 2002. The game saw you play a young man named Tommy Angelo as he moves up from being a cab driver to a high-ranking member of the Lost Heaven mafioso. The game features a long and complex storyline in which Tommy is drawn inch-by-inch into the world of the mafia until he realises what sort of people he's aligned with, at which point he starts looking for a way out.

It's a familiar story, told before, but in this game it is told with tremendous skill, subtlety and atmosphere. The game is remarkable both for its high-octane action set-pieces and slightly comically slow car chases (the game is very true to its simulation of 1920s and 1930s vehicles), but also for its slower moments of characterisation, scoping out targets for heists and scenes of just hanging out and talking to people. Released the same year as the excellent (but extraordinarily dark) Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Mafia got a little lost in the mix but is frankly the far superior game, with less insane mayhem but far more nuance, character and a much better-developed storyline. It's also worth keeping an eye on the cast lists, with actors from both The Sopranos and the then-brand-new The Wire both showing up in surprising numbers.

This new release from GoG has a slight flaw in that the original, licensed music had to be removed from the game. However, there is a fan workaround to restore it available via the GoG Forums.

You can read my original review of Mafia here.

Two new Paul Kearney novels incoming

Paul Kearney is working on two new novels. The first is provisionally entitled The Other Side of Things and will be a sequel to his critically-acclaimed 2016 novel The Wolf in the Attic.

The Wolf in the Attic was an excellent novel, one of the top genre releases of 2016, and the news that we'll find out what happened next to Anna is most welcome. The Other Side of Things will likely be a 2019 release.

The other novel in the writing process is Calgar's Reckoning, a follow-up to Paul's Warhammer 40,000 novel Calgar's Siege. It's possible there will be even more novels from Paul in this setting, which is good news.

Unfortunately, it sounds like the copyright issues that led to his novel Umbra Sumus: Dark Hunters being put on indefinite hold are continuing. Don't hold your breath on seeing that in the near future.

Friday 20 October 2017

Joe Abercrombie's next novel is named

Gollancz have confirmed that Joe Abercrombie's next novel will be called A Little Hatred and have a tentative release date of May 2019.

This is the first in a new trilogy in the world of The First Law, set some thirty years after the events of Last Argument of Kings. The story will feature some familiar characters from the first trilogy as well as some new characters and the children of old ones, as, once again, the Union is drawn into a conflict.

Abercrombie is drafting the entire trilogy, having recently completed the second book in the new trilogy, before rewrites and edits before publishing the series. The plan is to get the trilogy out relatively quickly, so expect to see (all being well) the second and third books in this trilogy out in 2020 and 2021.

RIP Julian May

Science fiction author Julian May has passed away at the age of 86.

Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1931, May became a fan of science fiction in her teens. She sold her first short story, "Dune Roller" (filmed as The Cremators in 1972 by Harry Essex) to Astounding Science Fiction in 1951; like many female writers of the period, she adopted a pseudonym, J.C. May. This may have proven unnecessary, as her first name meant she was often assumed to be a male writer anyway. She met SF editor and anthologist Ted Dikty in 1951; they married in 1953. Inbetween May chaired the 1952 Worldcon in Chicago, becoming the first woman to chair a World Science Fiction Convention.

May and Dikty had three children and May dropped out of the SF field after publishing her second short story, "Star of Wonder", in 1953. She worked as a prolific editor until the early 1980s, publishing more than 250 books aimed at children which explored topics such as history, sports and music.

She rejoined SF fandom in 1976, attending the Los Angeles Worldcon and writing a gazetteer of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian world (under the pen name Lee N. Falconer), and began planning a return to writing adult SF. The result was the Saga of Pliocene Exile (or the Saga of the Exiles), a four-volume series in which a group of people travel back in time from a future Earth to seek a simpler way of life in the Pliocene epoch, some five million years in the past. Upon their arrival, they are shocked to discover that the Earth of this era has been invaded by aliens who are interfering with the native species for their own ends. Conflict results. The series consists of the novels The Many-Colored Land (1981), The Golden Torc (1982), The Nonborn King (1983) and The Adversary (1984), as well as a reference work, The Pliocene Companion (1985).

The series sold well and attracted significant critical acclaim, with the first book winning a Locus Award. May returned to the setting with Intervention (1987) and a further trilogy consisting of Jack the Bodiless (1991), Diamond Mask (1994) and Magnificat (1996); the four books together are often called the Galactic Milieu Series. This series acts as both sequel and prequel to the Saga of Pliocene Exile.

May also wrote a shared world fantasy sequence, Trillium, with Marion Zimmer Bradley and Andre Norton. The three authors together wrote the first novel, Black Trillium (1990), with May alone contributing the second and fifth volumes, Blood Trillium (1992) and Sky Trillium (1996).

May also wrote the Rampart Worlds SF trilogy, consisting of Perseus Spur (1998), Orion Arm (1999) and Sagittarius Whorl (2001), as well as the Boreal Moon fantasy trilogy: Conqueror's Moon (2003), Ironcrown Moon (2004) and Sorcerer's Moon (2006).

In 2015 May was inducted into the First Fandom Hall of Fame at the Spokane Worldcon. The same year, she confirmed that her Pliocene Exile/Galactic Milieu novels had been optioned for Hollywood, but no further announcement on that front has been made.

May's agent Russell Galen said:
"My client Julian May has died at the age of 86. She was a force of nature, a fighter, and a taker of no bulllshit, working right up to the last minute on a TV adaptation of her best-known work, the "Saga of Pliocene Exile" series. And she introduced me to single malt Scotch at her home on Bainbridge Island, WA years ago. Lifting a glass of Talisker in her honor tonight."

Wednesday 18 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 17-18

B17: In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum
Airdates: 10 May 1995 (US), 23 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by David J. Eagle
Cast: Morden (Ed Wasser), Sergeant Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Pierce Macabee (Alex Hyde-White), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain)

Date: 24 September 2259.

Plot:    Following his recent vision of the destruction of the Icarus (B16), Sheridan has decided to finally sort out the belongings of his dead wife, Anna. Garibaldi comes along just as Sheridan is playing the crew roster from the Icarus and is shocked to see someone he recognises: Mr. Morden, Londo’s erstwhile ally. Sheridan is enraged that someone survived the Icarus explosion and no-one ever told him. Realising from entry records that Morden is on the station, he orders Garibaldi to find Morden and bring him in for questioning immediately.

Pierce Macabee arrives on Babylon 5. A representative of the newly-formed Ministry of Peace, he announces the founding of a new organisation called Nightwatch. Nightwatch’s job will be to help people in trouble, intervening in social problems in the way that military forces and the police cannot. Garibaldi’s second-in-command, Sergeant Zack Allan, joins up, although mainly for the extra 50 credits a week than out of any sense of civic duty.

A large number of Narns pass through Medlab, most badly wounded by heavy fighting. Franklin treats them, but is increasingly using stims to keep going without the need for sleep. Ivanova forces him to get some sleep and food.

Morden is placed in a holding cell and quizzed mercilessly by Sheridan. Morden agrees that he was on the Icarus, but was working EVA when the ship was destroyed. He was picked up by a passing transport and dropped off at the Vega colony. It was months before he could remember what happened. Sheridan tells him he is lying: there is no record of Morden ever visiting the Vega colony or reporting his condition to Earth. He promises to keep Morden in holding – even without charge – until the truth is revealed. Garibaldi, astonished by Sheridan’s abuse of the law, refuses to cooperate and resigns. Sheridan even refuses to listen to Ivanova. Vir tells Sheridan that the Centauri government is extending their diplomatic immunity to cover Morden, but Sheridan ignores that as well. He tries to get Talia Winters to scan Morden against his consent but she refuses. Sheridan arranges for them to pass in the corridor and Talia sees two dark, insectoid shapes rearing up next to Morden. She screams and almost passes out, confirming Sheridan’s guess that something is seriously wrong. Finally, Delenn and Kosh confront Sheridan and agree to tell him what he needs to know.

Millions of years ago races so powerful they make humans look like insects colonised the Galaxy. As the aeons passed they raised lesser races to positions of power and then passed beyond the Galactic Rim. These “First Ones” became embroiled in a war against one of their own races, a species known only as “the Shadows” and after a devastating conflict ten thousand years ago, most left the Galaxy. The Shadows and another race, the Vorlons, remained behind. A thousand years ago the Shadows returned and waged war again, but were stopped by an alliance of races led by the Minbari and guided by the Vorlons. The Shadows were defeated but not destroyed. They went to ground, going into hibernation to ride out the next millennia before arising again. Almost three years ago the Interplanetary Expeditions science vessel Icarus landed on Z’ha’dum, the Shadow homeworld. From what Delenn and Kosh can gather, they stumbled across or even directly awoke the Shadows, who in turn destroyed the Icarus and murdered the entire crew bar Morden, who agreed to serve them. Since then the Shadows have been moving, rebuilding their ships and marshalling their forces quietly, in secret. For the past year the Minbari have also been preparing, but are far from ready. Kosh and Delenn tell Sheridan that if he forces Morden to tell him the truth about his fate then the Shadows will attack now, before the Minbari and Vorlons are prepared to fight them, and billions will die.

Sheridan is unsure what to make of the story until he scans Morden’s cell with infra-red and ultraviolet sensors and catches a brief glimpse of two Shadow aliens guarding Morden. He has Morden released and Garibaldi returns to work. He then goes to Kosh and asks to be taught about how to fight the Shadows and how to kill them. Though Anna is probably dead, he will never rest easy until he knows for sure. One day, he promises Kosh, he will go to Z’ha’dum. Kosh tells him that if he goes, he will die. Sheridan says that if that is so, he will not die alone.


Monday 16 October 2017

RIP Roy Dotrice

Roy Dotrice, a veteran actor of stage and screen who achieved a new level of late-life fame through his collaborations with George R.R. Martin, has passed away at the age of 94.

Dotrice was born in Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands, in 1923. When the Germans invaded in 1940, he escaped in a rowboat to the south coast of Britain. Aged just 16, he entered the Royal Air Force as an AA gunner before being assigned as a gunner on board aircraft. He was imprisoned for three years in a German prisoner of war camp. Released at the end of the war he started acting almost immediately, appearing a play later in 1945 called Back Home about ex-POWs reintegrating into civilian life.

Dotrice cultivated an extensive stage career in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He began appearing on television and in film in the early 1960s, but his heart remained with the stage: his one-man performance of Brief Lives, starting in 1967, eventually wracked up 1,782 performances and earned him his first Guinness World Record.

During the 1980s he gained renewed fame in the United States, first through appearing in Amadeus in 1984 in a celebrated supporting role playing the title character's father. He was then cast as Father, the mentor and leader of an underground community in New York City, in the urban fantasy series Beauty and the Beast. During his three-year stint on the show, he met and befriended George R.R. Martin, who worked on the show as a producer and writer.

After Beauty and the Beast was cancelled, Martin began working on a fantasy novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire. When the first book, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, he personally requested that Dotrice perform the audio book version. Dotrice agreed, voicing 224 distinct characters in the novel, earning him his second Guinness World Record. Dotrice returned to voice the audio books for each successive novel in the series; A Storm of Swords saw him break his own record for the largest number of distinct characters voiced. Dotrice was unavailable (due to ill health) to voice A Feast for Crows in 2005, but returned by popular demand. In 2014 he voiced the audio book version of The World of Ice and Fire.

Dotrice continued to appear in television and on film, including a recurring role on Picket Fences. He also wracked up other genre credits, playing Frederick Lantze in the Season 2 finale of Babylon 5, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce's overbearing father on Angel and Zeus on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Despite advanced age, he continued to act on stage and on screen. In 2011 he was cast in the role of Grand Maester Pycelle on HBO's Game of Thrones, the TV adaptation of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels. Ill health forced him to pull out of the role at the last minute; his friend and occasional colleague Julian Glover agreed to take the role over partially as a favour to Dotrice. Recovered, Dotrice did appear in the series as Pyromancer Hallyne in two episodes of Season 2.

A tremendously gifted and talented actor, with a career spanning a remarkable eight decades, he will be missed.

Sunday 15 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 15-16

B15: And Now For a Word
Airdates: 3 May 1995 (US), 16 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Mario DiLeo
Cast: Cynthia Torqueman (Kim Zimmer), Ronald Quantrell (Christopher Curry), Psi Cop (Granville Ames), Johnny (John Christian Graas), Mother (Leslie Wing), Eduardo Delvientos (José Ray), Lt. David Corwin (Joshua Cox)

Date: The ISN report is aired on Earth on 16 September 2259. It was filmed “recently”, presumably within a couple of weeks previously.

Plot:    ISN broadcasts 36 Hours on Babylon 5, an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the controversial diplomatic space station, with interviews with diplomatic staff, station personnel and Earth politicians who are uncertain about the future of the Babylon Project. The ISN team arrives during the middle of a fierce argument between the Narn and Centauri. G’Kar accuses the Centauri of transferring weapons through Babylon 5 in clear violation of interstellar law. Londo denies it, but points out that since all cargo transfers take place outside the station, ship-to-ship, B5 legally cannot intervene. Narn and Centauri cargo ships start firing on one another outside and Sheridan impounds the ships on both sides. Londo tells Sheridan that if any of the Centauri ships’ cargo holds are opened the Centauri government will not be pleased. Sure enough, a Centauri battlecruiser arrives and blockades the station until their equipment is handed over, unopened. Sheridan decides to call the Centauri’s bluff by sending an unmanned cargo ship through the jump gate. The Centauri do not fire and agree to reopen negotiations. At that moment a Narn heavy cruiser jumps out right on top of the station and fires on the Centauri cruiser. Taking the Centauri by surprise, the Narn manage to destroy the Centauri warship, despite taking heavy damage. However, when the Narn ship activates its jump engines the ship explodes. After the battle Sheridan confirms that the Centauri were shipping weapons of mass destruction though the station and the Earth Alliance files an official complaint against the Centauri government, although again it is insufficient to get Earth to take sides against the Centauri.

On Earth senior senators question the need for Babylon 5 and an especially arrogant senator claims that diplomacy is unnecessary, since recent developments in Earth technology means that even if another war with the Minbari took place Earth could win with ease (!). The ISN reporter questions Delenn on why she has changed her appearance and wonders how the families of those killed by the Minbari during the war will react to this apparent insult. Delenn is left speechless.

In a final interview Sheridan tells ISN that Babylon 5 is essential if Earth and the other worlds are to be brought together in peace.


Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle between Marvel & DC by Reed Tucker

In 1961 DC Comics was the biggest comic company in the United States. Its superhero comics - Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman - were the most popular in the world and it had absolutely no competition of note. But that same year Atlas Comics was branded Marvel and its editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby released a new comic called The Fantastic Four. Within a decade Marvel had displaced DC as the biggest comics company in the US and snatched away a lot of talent and critical acclaim that had gone to DC. DC fought back, starting formidable Superman and Batman movie franchises and releasing a series of artistic, critically-acclaimed comic books in the 1980s and 1990s from the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. But in the early 2000s Marvel finally entered the movie scene in force with X-Men and Spider-Man, and never looked back.

This non-fiction book looks into the 50-year competition between DC and Marvel, the two titans of comic book publishing. Reed Tucker has exhaustively interviewed many key players involved and scoured the archives for interviews with those who are no longer with us. The result is a potential interesting book that examines the corporate battle between the venerable establishment figure and the plucky upstart newbie.

Or at least it's a potentially interesting book that tries to do that. The opening chapters expand on this, detailing how Stan Lee took over a moribund company and injected some 1960s inventiveness, irreverence and character development to win over young fans from the older, more moribund publisher. We're told that Marvel focused more on the characters' internal lives, on the distrust with which they are treated by the government (helping young readers identify with similarly confused and mistrusted characters) and gave their writers and artists much greater freedom to express themselves, throwing away the style guides DC saddled their readers with. Marvel also used real locations, particularly in and around New York, which excited readers more than stories set in completely fictional locales like Gotham and Metropolis.

All of this stuff is great, but Reed never really moves on from this basic assumption: Marvel was the plucky underdog with greater creative energy and freedom, and DC was the staid old man taken by surprise by what the youngster was doing and whose attempts to replicate it by "getting down with the kids" were embarrassing. That applies very well to the 1960s and the early 1970s. However, some of Reed's conclusions and anecdotage are questionable: he challenges the wisdom of DC poaching Jack Kirby from Marvel and putting them on the Jimmy Olsen comic book, but this was both Kirby's own choice (so he wouldn't cost anyone a job on another comic, as the Jimmy Olsen book didn't have a permanent artist at the time) and also allowed him to set up his own, more original books later on by introducing characters like Darkseid.

By the time the 1980s have rolled around, Reed is still expanding on Marvel being the plucky underdog beating the boring old figure of DC, but seems to contradict himself by then talking about DC's artistic achievements with books like Swamp ThingWatchmen and Sandman, as well as how Marvel had become the biggest-selling comic book company, making DC the underdogs. Aware that this is getting repetitive, he switches to studying the film business and how DC got some great movies made whilst Marvel flirted with moderately successful TV shows but otherwise couldn't get a decent movie on screen until twenty-two years later. This is interesting, with some great stories of bizarre behind-the-scenes battles and the film companies not "getting" comic books at all, but again it lacks depth.

The book is ultimately a bit constrained by its premise, and it's to Tucker's credit that he remains laser-focused on the interrelationship between Marvel and DC. It would have been very easy to get sidetracked in the internal history of the two companies and discuss more creative decisions, but Tucker stays on point throughout. This does mean the book veers towards the more corporate side of things rather than the creative one, which I think will be of less interest to those keen to learn more about the origins of superhero characters or how the books developed. But it has some value: this is an under-told aspect of the comic book story and Tucker keeps the story ticking over nicely.

Slugfest (***½) is a readable and intriguing book about the titanic competition between the two biggest comic book companies in the United States. It's also a bit on the repetitive side, with not as much depth as perhaps might be wished, and a lack of information on the creative choices as opposed to business ones. It's still a good story, well-told and interesting, but one for hardcore comic book fans only. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday 14 October 2017

StarCraft Remastered

2499, in the remote Koprulu Sector. Two centuries ago, a group of penal ships with tens of thousands of prisoners were lost in hyperspace, emerging in a distant system on the far side of the galactic core. They established an interstellar civilisation, the Terran Confederacy, which now rules the human worlds with an iron fist. A hostile alien race, the Zerg, have arrived in human space. Hot on their heels are the technologically advanced Protoss, whose main goal is to destroy the Zerg no matter the cost in human lives. A three-sided war has begun, a war which will determine the fate of three races and hundreds of worlds.

StarCraft was originally released in May 1998, rapidly becoming the biggest-selling strategy video game of all time. It became an international phenomenon, noted for its fiendishly addictive multiplayer mode, and became an unlikely cultural craze in South Korea. It took Blizzard Entertainment from a small, modestly successful studio to one of the biggest companies in the entire field, giving them the resources needed to make later games such as World of WarCraft and Overwatch.

Almost twenty years on from release (and a startling nine and a half years since I reviewed the original game), Blizzard have released a new revamp of the game. These kind of "remasters" have become extremely popular in recent years, taking old games and sprucing them up so new players who might be put off by their old graphics can see what the fuss is about and old players can enjoy their favourite games with a fresh lick of paint. How companies handle these remasters is critically important: change too much (especially making old games easier or removing key features) and old players will hate it and denounce the game. Change too little and people will, justifiably, ask what is the point?

StarCraft Remastered, which updates both the original game and its expansion, Brood War, definitely falls on the conservative change of things. This is exactly the game originally released in 1998, with the exact same user interface. The graphics have been sharpened up substantially, of course, and the sound has been pleasingly remixed, but the remaster, crucially, also carries forward all the problems, clumsy UI issues and baffling design choices that Blizzard was criticised for twenty years ago and have been annoying players ever since.

Rewinding a little for newcomers, StarCraft is a real-time strategy game. You play one of three races and have to build up a base to produce different types of military units. You then take these forces into battle and attempt to defeat the enemy. There is a lengthy single-player story campaign consisting of 56 missions, separated by mission briefings and occasional animated cut-scenes which tell a story. This story is cheesy but great fun, and is surprisingly rooted in characters on each of the three sides (divided between several sub-factions). Some of StarCraft's characters are the most iconic in all gaming, such as the divisive Sara Kerrigan (a villain to some, a tragic fallen heroine to others), the grizzled marshal Jim Raynor and the noble but constantly-misunderstood Zeratul of the Dark Templar. The story is pure pulp space opera, but is told economically and energetically (unlike the story in StarCraft II, which could often be stodgy, badly-paced and tedious), with a lot of humour.

StarCraft's ace in the hole has always been its terrific sense of asymmetric balance between the three sides. The Zerg are genetically-engineered creatures, animals from hundreds of worlds turned into biological weapons. Strongly influenced (cough) by the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000 (and the xenomorphs from the Aliens franchise), the Zerg are fast and cheap, but also extremely fragile. The key to using them is both deploying them in enormous numbers, using suicide tactics and also intelligently using support units who can scout out the enemy, entangle or poison upon their troops. The Protoss - strongly influenced (cough cough) by the Eldar from Warhammer 40,000 - are much more advanced and powerful, equipped with energy shields and using plasma weapons and telekinetic powers. The Protoss are tough but slow to move and slower to build; mastering them requires working out how to defend against early Zerg rushes to deliver an unstoppable knockout blow later on. The Terrans are jacks of all trades, falling between the two sides with a more traditional arsenal of aircraft, tanks, marines, nukes and powerful battlecruisers.

It's this balance between the three sides which was Blizzard's masterstroke, something they never quite achieved with the same degree of precision in either StarCraft II (witness the constant balance changes they are still doing seven years after that came out) or WarCraft III. The relatively small unit roster for each side also allows players to master each unit, try out difference combinations of forces and tactics. StarCraft is essentially an ultra-fast, real-time version of chess, with a fascinating array of tactics to try out. It's impossible to say which of the three sides is the best or which is the optimal strategy for winning. There's reasons why this game is still lionised twenty years after release and is widely considered superior to its own sequel, and, impressively, the game still lives up to those reasons.

The remastered version of the game maintains all of these strengths. Units now look much sharper, the up-resolved CGI cut scenes are hugely improved (although not re-rendered from scratch with Blizzard's modern level of graphical fidelity, to the surprise of many) and the sound is punchier and more evocative.

Unfortunately, it also maintains a lot of the game's problems. On release, StarCraft was widely criticised for a sometimes-stodgy control scheme, some really weird limitations - you can only select up to 12 units at one time - and a decidedly primitive control system which forced the player to micro-manage a lot of tasks that should have been automated (Total Annihilation, released a year before StarCraft, spoiled a lot of players with a far superior control scheme and better 3D graphics). StarCraft II fixed a lot of these problems and players were expecting some of these to be retrofitted to StarCraft Remastered. Bafflingly, especially as far as the single-player experience goes, these quality of life improvements have not been carried over. You can't send newly-built resource gatherers straight to a mineral patch, you can't send marines straight to bunkers and so on. This adds a lot of tedious busywork to the game that felt antiquated and tiresome in 1998, let alone in 2017.

There still isn't a difficulty slider for the single-player campaigns, which isn't a problem for the 30-mission base game, which scales very nicely in difficulty, but definitely is for the 26-mission Brood War, one of the most punishing games ever released. The Protoss and Terran campaigns are - more or less - okay but the final few Zerg missions are among the hardest single-player strategy challenges ever put in front of players and there are zero concessions for people who don't have dozens of hours into trying different strategies and approaches before finally beating them.

There's also a nice 4-mission mini-campaign meant to show off the powerful level editor, "Enslavers", but the game doesn't tell you this exists: you have to go through the custom skirmish menus before you stumble across it.

A further issue a bit of technical revisionism. Hit F5 at any time and the game will switch back to the way it looked in 1998. However, it doesn't, because makes the original version of the game look substantially worse than it did originally (confirmed by a quick re-install of my 1998 CD-ROMs). Don't get me wrong, the remaster still looks a lot sharper and nicer than the original, but the difference is not quite as great as Blizzard is trying to sell us.

The issues with StarCraft which could be - reluctantly - dismissed as niggles back in 1998 feel like bigger problems in 2017, simply because they could be fixed so incredibly easy. Even if you accept Blizzard's questionable claim they couldn't change these without offending the harshly old-skool multiplayer scene which doesn't want a single change at all, there's zero reason the sequel's better UI and control scheme couldn't be implemented for the single-player campaign alone.

This leaves StarCraft Remastered feeling underwhelming, especially in the light of the monumentally superior Homeworld Remastered, which also took a nearly-20-year-old strategy game and really did make it look like a contemporary title with a better UI and an absolutely fantastic improvement in graphical and cut scene fidelity. StarCraft Remastered feels lacklustre by comparison.

The original StarCraft (*****) and Brood War (****) are two of the finest strategy games ever released when viewed and placed in their original historical context. However, this re-release (***½) fails to update and revamp the games in a way that makes them more approachable and playable for newcomers, whilst people who still enjoy playing the original games will find this remaster only a minor improvement. Any excuse to go back and replay StarCraft is welcome, but this remaster exposes the truth that maybe this game isn't ageing quite as well as it could have done with a more thorough remaster more prepared to kill a few sacred cows in the service of greater playability.

The game is available now via Blizzard.

Thursday 12 October 2017

After twenty years, Gollancz finally signs Steven Erikson

It's taken almost two decades, but Gollancz - the UK SFF imprint of Orion Books - have finally signed up Steven Erikson.

Erikson's new stand-alone SF novel, Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, will be published in October 2018. The novel is described thusly:
Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart tells the story of the Intervention, which begins when Samantha August, science fiction writer, disappears into a beam of light, apparently from a UFO, while walking along a busy street in Victoria, Canada.  While footage of the incident – captured on smartphones – goes viral, Samantha wakes up in a small room, where she is greeted by the voice of Adam, who explains that they are in orbit and he is AI communicant of the Intervention Delegation, a triumvirate of alien civilisations seeking to ensure the continuing evolution of Earth as a viable biome. Thus begins an astonishing, provocative, beautifully written and startlingly visionary novel of First Contact.
Back in 1998 Erikson sold his debut fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon (the first in the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence), to Transworld/Bantam UK. Gollancz attempted to lure Erikson away and the result was a fierce bidding war, which ended with Bantam signing up Erikson for nine additional books for £675,000 (over $1.1 million back then). As far as I can tell, this remains a record for a debut fantasy author.

This is Erikson's first "serious" science fiction novel, following his Wilful Child series of comic SF books.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 13-14


B13: Hunter, Prey
Airdates: 1 March 1995 (US), 2 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Menachem Binetski
Cast: Derek Cranston (Bernie Casey), Security Aide Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Sarah (Wanda de Jesus), Dr. Everett Jacobs (Tony Steedman), Max (Richard Moll), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Lurker (Damon C. Reiser), Aide (Debby Shiveley), Merchant (Robert Silver), Guard (Bryan Michael McGuire), Station One (Joshua Cox)

Date: July or August 2259.

Plot:    An Earthforce security agent, Derek Cranston, arrives on Babylon 5 alongside his team. Dr. Everett Jacobs, former the personal physician to President Clark, has gone AWOL with sensitive information which could damage the Earth Alliance. It is thought he is coming to Babylon 5, presumably to pass this information onto one of the alien governments. However, Sheridan is contacted by an agent of General Hague’s who tells him that they helped Jacobs escape from Earth. He has evidence proving that Clark didn’t really have the ‘flu when he got off Earthforce One at Mars, evidence that could help indict Clark when the time comes. Sheridan is ordered to find Jacobs and make sure Cranston doesn’t get hold of him. This task isn’t made any easier because Jacobs has an implanted beacon like all Earthdome personnel so he can be located in a hurry, although it will take some time before Babylon 5’s sensors can be adjusted to look for the signal. Sheridan despatches Garibaldi and Franklin into Downbelow to find Jacobs.

Ambassador Kosh speaks to Sheridan, confirming Sheridan’s guess that Kosh telepathically communicated with him during his recent trials aboard the Streib warship (B11). Sheridan wants to learn more about the Vorlons, but Kosh isn’t impressed by Sheridan’s attempts to interpret his obscure sayings. He decides to take Sheridan under his wing to prepare him for what lies ahead.

Jacobs is captured by two Downbelow criminals who plan to give him over to Earthforce in return for a fee, but Garibaldi and Franklin rescue him. They hide him in Franklin’s quarters but it is a temporary measure at best. Worse, Cranston has discovered that Babylon 5’s massive external sensor arrays can be recalibrated to scan the interior of the station for energy emissions (as in episodes PM and B6), such as that given out by the implant. Sheridan and Ivanova begin, slowly, reconfiguring the sensors. Ambassador Kosh’s ship leaves the station, though Cranston demands that it be scanned as well, despite the extreme unlikelihood of the Vorlons harbouring an Earth criminal. No trace of Jacobs can be found and Cranston leaves the station, puzzled. The Vorlon transport returns and Jacobs is deposited out of the ship, where he has been hidden in a comatose state. Despite his unconscious state he is sure the ship ‘sang’ to him in his sleep. Jacobs leaves the station for a safehaven prepared by Hague, but Sheridan is told that this is merely the start of the fight back. They need a lot more evidence to convince a tribunal of Clark’s guilt.


Monday 9 October 2017


Warner Brothers have confirmed that they are remastering the classic Batman: The Animated Series from the 1990s in high definition for a 2018 release.

The project was inspired by the remastering of the animated movie Mask of the Phantasm (from the same time period) last year, which was both effective and popular. Despite some of the technical difficulties involved in updating animation cells from twenty-five years ago, the team seem to have decided it was well worth the effort to tackle the entire series.

Warner Brothers have not confirmed if this will be a single box set (which is most likely), separated season boxes or some other arrangement.

Sunday 8 October 2017

The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

Thirty years have passed since the Storm King's War. Simon and Miriamele have ruled Osten Ard well, keeping the peace between the nations that make up the High Ward and the noble families within them, but their life has been tinged by the tragic death of their son. Their grandson Morgan stands to inherit the throne, but he is a wastrel more interested in drinking and wenching than in learning what he needs to rule. The heroes of the old war are passing and a new generation is coming to power, one that is less impressed by stories of old conflicts that they only half believe.

But in the far north, Stormspike is stirring. The Norn Queen has awoken after a long sleep and the lust for vengeance against humanity is resurgent. A band of Norn and half-Norn warriors strikes out on a quest they only barely understand. In the far south the kingdom of Nabban is on the brink of civil war. The Sithi have gone silent, their last messenger shot with arrows within sight of the Hayholt. The long peace is coming to an end, and the fate of the world again hangs in the balance.

The Witchwood Crown is the first novel in the Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, which sees Tad Williams return to the setting of his classic original trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower) and the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, published earlier this year. It's been twenty-three years since Williams last wrote in this world, the author wary of "franchising" his earliest and most iconic work until he had a story that was worth telling.

There is much to admire about The Witchwood Crown. Williams is telling a very large story from a large number of points of view. The original trilogy was very focused in the Hayholt and told a more linear, focused narrative which only gradually expanded outwards. This novel starts with a more George R.R. Martin-esque approach of having a larger cast in disparate parts of the world. One second we are with a slave living in the depths of Stormspike and then we're a thousand miles or more away in the palaces of Nabban, riven with Byzantine plotting. Old favourite characters return, including Simon, Miariamele, Tiamak, Eolair and Binabik, but there's a lot of new characters such as Morgan, as well as the return of characters like Porto from The Heart of What Was Lost. The worldbuilding is more in-depth, with reflections on time passing (Erchester is now a real city rather than the more modest town of the previous trilogy). Epic fantasy, as a genre, is at its best when it can indulge in "long-breathed storytelling" and The Witchwood Crown certainly does that. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and Williams develops his story with surety, confidence and time.

This does mean that The Witchwood Crown is a slow-paced work. Major plot revelations are separated by many chapters in which apparently little happens (although it does, it's just a lot more subtle). Although Williams tries very hard to make this book approachable for new readers, there's some instances of self-indulgence as Simon catches up with Binabik and asks about his family and his wolf, but this is generally kept to a minimum. The reason this book is so large (700 pages in hardcover) and so deliberately paced is because he is setting up a very big story and it's only towards the end of the novel that he fires the starting pistols which really get the narrative fired up.

This slow pace could be a bigger problem - and it's certainly put some other reviewers off - if Williams didn't also take his time to explore thematic ideas of ageing, grief and the passing of the years. Simon and Miriamele are now grandparents in their early fifties and apparently slightly baffled that so much time has passed so quickly. Those of us who read the original books when they first came out or shortly afterwards can sympathise: I finished reading the first trilogy on a fine summer afternoon in the park behind my old house almost exactly twenty years before I started reading this book, and a similar shock at the passage of time went through me. The characters are also haunted by the memory of the death of their son, John, and how this has impacted not just them but his son Morgan. Ironically, the joint grief they share has also divided them, with the natural lack of understanding between the generations preventing them from reaching an understanding.

This thematic idea gives the book a somewhat melancholy aspect. We also learn a lot more about the Norns and even sympathise with them (or at least some of them): they are a slowly dying race and their constant search for blood and vengeance seems pointless, corrupting further what was once a noble people. When they gain access to a new supernatural weapon, the reaction from some of the Norns isn't triumphant but instead weariness at the idea of yet another war, yet more pointless slaughter. The Witchwood Crown, on this level, is an epic fantasy that rejects some of the martial triumphalism and blood-letting that other epic fantasies revel in.

At the end of the book, some long-standing questions are raised, some long-missing characters return and other characters are left on immense cliffhangers, their fates unclear. Fortunately, we will not have to wait to learn more: the second novel in the trilogy, Empire of Grass, is already complete and should be published in late 2018 or early 2019.

The Witchwood Crown (****) is slowly, deliberately-paced and sometimes meanders or is allowed to become self-indulgent rather than being tightened up. It's certainly a slower novel than even the original Dragonbone Chair, and Tad Williams newcomers may be put off. But it's also wonderfully well-written and explores ideas of ageing, dying and living which are universal. For the most part the new storylines are logically extrapolated from the original trilogy without lazily rehashing it and confirms that yes, the return to Osten Ard is (so far) worth it. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday 7 October 2017

On the Edge of Blade Runner

Back in 2000, British film critic Mark Kermode made a BBC documentary called On the Edge of Blade Runner, in which he investigated the cultural impact of the movie and its torturous filming process. Harrison Ford and Sean Young declined to take part, but director Ridley Scott, the writers, producers and most of the rest of the cast participate, for an insightful look at what was a very difficult movie to make. You can watch the whole thing below:

Thursday 5 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

California, 2049. Blade Runner "K" retires an old-model replicant who is pursuing a life of peace on a remote farm. In the process he unearths a secret, something that has remained buried since before the epoch-changing event known as The Blackout. Charged by his superiors with investigating this mystery, he follows a trail that leads him from the tech-canyons of Los Angeles to the dumps of San Diego to the radioactive wastes of Las Vegas. It's also a journey into his own heart and forces him to confront the question of who he is, and what it is he lives for.

Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that should not work. Blade Runner - a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - was a movie rooted in ambiguity, in which far more was left unsaid than spoken out loud and where the still-astonishing visuals masked a strong vein of character and thematic subtlety. The film's ending seems to explicitly reject further exploration of that world, and three disappointing sequel novels (by K.W. Jeter, a friend of Philip K. Dick's and fellow traveller in SF dystopian fiction) only reinforced that idea. The announcement that Ridley Scott was helming a sequel to do to Blade Runner what Prometheus did to Alien was enough to make movie fans break out in a cold sweat, only moderately alleviated when Scott bailed and a director no-one had heard of was announced in his stead.

That director, Denis Villeneuve, had already some intriguing form in movies like Sicario, but it was last year's Arrival that made people really sit up and take notice. A beautifully-shot movie with a pace that was relaxed but intense, stand-out performances and a phenomenal sense of atmosphere, Arrival was a stand-out work, a piece of art that also worked as a strong science fiction piece. And Blade Runner 2049 is the same, but even moreso. It is a virtuoso triumph that on absolutely no level should work, but on almost every level it does.

Blade Runner took us deep into the streets of a future (and now - in two notable moments - explicitly alternate history) Los Angeles, with neon-lit grime and rain-soaked futurism. Blade Runner 2049 revisits the city - which is now larger, even more imposing and less human - but relatively briefly. Instead we spend a lot of time on the outskirts of the city, in the grey-soiled remnants of California, in a San Diego turned into an vast industrial wasteland and a Las Vegas slowly being swallowed by the desert. When you think of Blade Runner you think of those towering tech-pyramids, and for Villeneuve to minimise that imagery in the movie's sequel is a brave move, but one that exemplifies his goal with this film: to craft a successor to Blade Runner, not a retread. And it's a successor on every level, with the core question of the original movie, what does it mean to be human, taken to an even higher and more ambiguous level.

Blade Runner 2049 very quickly identifies its protagonist as a replicant and one who seems to be relatively content with his lot, complete with an AI girlfriend and a good working relationship with his boss, but a few key moments of revelation see him going down a path of self-discovery that is a reflection of Rachael (and Deckard if you subscribe to that theory, a theory that this movie cheerfully does nothing to confirm or deny) in the first film. What are the replicants? Unthinking, soulless machines or a new type of human, one that is stronger, faster and smarter than the originals? Is using them a slaves even remotely morally justifiable? The fact that human civilisation on Earth and in the offworld colonies would collapse without them makes it very easy for the "real" humans to ignore the question, and the introduction of a new breed of replicant that is 100% loyal and obedient seems to render the question moot. Enslaving a race that seems to have no qualms about being enslaved makes it easy to pretend it's not slavery at all. At least, until one very small secret is learned and turns the entire world on its head.

Blade Runner 2049 understands that the simplicity of the original Blade Runner was a key part of its success: the plot was pretty bare bones and the sequel follows suit, the main plot being a simple (ish) missing persons case. But K's following of the clues becomes unexpectedly harrowing, revealing greater depths to this world and the existence of his own kind. Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have taken the set-up from the first movie and extrapolated a storyline that follows it up perfectly, without damaging the integrity of the first movie in any way. The film even pays homage to some of the futuristic dystopian movies that have come in its way, with several brief nods to the numerous anime (but most famously Akira and Ghost in the Shell) that have borrowed the original Blade Runner's visual stylings. The film also gives us the weirdest love scene since Ghost, although one that is also altogether healthier and more positive than the original movie's rather debatable relationship between Rachael and Deckard.

This film works tremendously well. The cast is excellent, Ryan Gosling in particular doing a lot of work with his eyes and his reactions to the revelations he encounters. Robin Wright as his boss is perfect, the steely resolve we've come to expect of her mixed with several unexpected, and all the more effective, moments of real human vulnerability. Sylvia Hoeks as replicant enforcer Luv is terrifying, blank-eyed and emotionless when carrying out violence, but she also occasionally shows what she really thinks of what's going on through flashes of honest emotion. Jared Leto is okay as new tech-king Wallace, but he does get the lion's share of ripe dialogue in the film. He's only in two scenes of consequence and they're both the more interminable scenes of the movie. The film's biggest revelation is Ana de Armas, a young Cuban actress who is given a very difficult role as Joi and carries the role with charisma, sweetness and resolve (even if her storyline may make fans of the animated series Archer do a double take).

Harrison Ford shows up again as Deckard and is perfectly fine, showing charisma and cynical humour in his role. This is actually a bit distracting - Deckard was very much an un-Harrison Ford-ish role, reserved and cold and undemonstrative compared to Indiana Jones or Han Solo - since Ford plays the older Deckard more as a subdued version of Han Solo in The Force Awakens. I enjoyed his performance, but I didn't really believe I was seeing the same Deckard as in Blade Runner, just thirty years older. This would be a bigger blow to the film if Ford was actually in it for any substantial amount of time, or if his role was integral to the movie. Although Ford's presence allows for some excellent moments of reflection and soul-searching (including what may be the greatest special effect in film history, to the point where I eagerly await learning how the hell they did it), the same story could easily have been told without him.

Another negative is the score. It's certainly not bad, but it lacks a theme as memorable as anything in Arrival. Johan Johansson began composing this movie but was ousted in favour of Hans Zimmer, who then hands in a completely unmemorable Johan Johansson cover work, which is one of the more bizarre scoring decisions I've seen in recent years. I appreciate that no-one was trying to out-Vangelis Vangelis, but the decision to go in a different, more traditional direction and then make a hash of it is disappointing.

Blade Runner 2049 (*****) does the impossible: it crafts a sequel, a successor and a subversion which respects the original whilst not being afraid to be different from it, that knows what made the original film work without slavishly copying it and which raises many of the same questions in a different way. The combination of story and visuals has profound thematic and character consequences which will drive as much discussion about this story as it did the original, as will the somewhat open ending. If this film does well expect a third trip to the Blade Runner universe, and we'll probably not have to wait another thirty-five years for it. Part of me hopes the movie doesn't do well: the story wraps up well enough and the only place the story can go in a third film is a very familiar one.

Blade Runner 2049 is on general release now. Villeneuve's next movie will be the holy grail of SFF adaptations, Dune. Right now, I think he can actually do it justice.