Sunday 31 March 2019

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Captain America

Norway, 1942. A Nazi special weapons division commanded by Johann Schmidt secures an ancient artifact of unknown origin but incredible power, which they hope to use to power a new, more advanced war machine. At the same time, in New York City, Steve Rogers is rejected from joining the US Army due to a significant number of health issues. Frustrated, he tries to falsify documents in order to enlist. Impressed by his tenacity, Dr. Abraham Erskine instead recruits him for a top-secret programme, designed to create the ultimate soldier using technology. Rogers becomes Captain America, just as Schmidt (adopting the alias, 'the Red Skull') breaks away from his Nazi masters to undertake his own mission of destruction and world domination.

Captain America: The First Avenger was yet another foundational piece in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of tying together different characters into a single coherent universe. This plan - which also incorporated ThorThe Incredible Hulk and the two Iron Man movies before culminating in The Avengers - has of course become more epic over time, with more than twenty moves now forming part of the MCU canon.

With Captain America, Marvel resist the urge to bring the character immediately into the present, instead giving him a full origin story set in WWII. This sets the film apart from its contemporaries and allows Rogers' patriotism to be established in full at a time of good vs. evil before bringing him into the murkier present.

The film is anchored on Chris Evans's performance as Rogers/Captain America (Evans previously played the Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies), which is decent. A problem with the Captain America character is that unabashed American patriotism isn't a concept that travels well abroad. However, taking a nod from the comics where the same issue has come up a few times over the years, Evans plays the character as a good man who wants to do his part and isn't a blind follower of American policy. Later in the film the character becomes based in London and leads an international team of agents in taking the fight to the Red Skull, mixing things up in a more interesting manner. A combination of Evans's performance and impressive CGI also totally sells the illusion of the puny, short and unhealthy Rogers in the opening sequences of the film before his transformation into the buff Captain America.

Other performances are good, with director Joe Johnston opting for safe and reliable actors in many of the roles: Tommy Lee Jones plays a brash US general who gets the best lines in the movie (as may be expected), with Stanley Tucci bringing eccentricity and humanity to the role of Erskine. Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull and Toby Jones as his sidekick Dr. Zola also form a solid double-act (though Weaving occasionally slips into "auto-pilot evil", this being a role he could do in is sleep). Hayley Atwell provides solid support as British agent Peggy Carter. The potential for saying something interesting as a British female agent working alongside square-jawed American soldiers in wartime is squandered, however, with Carter characterised as a 'plucky British gal' and not developed much further beyond punching out a solider who makes a sexist comment before she falls for the hero. The ever-reliable Neal McDonough also appears as one of Rogers's international team of agents, though aside from a truly outrageous moustache he is not very distinguishable from the very similar roles he's played before on Band of Brothers and Minority Report.

The film adopts a cool retrofuturistic (or "Americanapunk") tone at times, with Johnston clearly tapping the same well as his entertaining early-career picture, The Rocketeer. There's a playful sense of humour at times, and Captain America deserves some plaudits for being the first contemporary superhero movie to transform into a musical for ten minutes halfway through (rationalised in the storyline). However, its musings on patriotism, warfare and heroism rarely rise above the predictable. The plot is pretty straightforward, although well-paced with some good action sequences. The links to the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe are downplayed to a few appearances by Tony Stark's father and the now-traditional appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the movie's closing moments (interestingly, in the actual finale of the movie rather than a post-credits sequence). This allows the movie to stand alone as an independent piece of entertainment.

The film's biggest problem is a total lack of surprise or tension. It's a solidly-made piece of entertainment which relies on its period setting as its sole distinguishing feature from its contemporaries, which to be fair does give it some of its own flair. The actors and director all do good work and it certainly passes the time enjoyably enough, but it lacks enough originality to make it a classic.

Captain America: The First Avenger (***½) is available now in the UK (DVDBlu-Ray) and USA (DVDBlu-Ray).

Note: the original version of this review was published in 2012.

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Thor

In the realm of Asgard dwell a race of aliens who inspired the Norse myths. A millennia ago, they fought a war against the frost giants, defeating them and forging an uneasy peace. When a frost giant raiding party attacks Asgard, Odin dismisses it as a one-off incident whilst his son Thor demands a warrior's response. When he disobeys his father's command and launches a counter-raid on the frost giant homeworld, Thor is stripped of his powers and exiled to Earth, leaving his brother Loki free to rise to power in Asgard...

Of the Marvel superheroes headed for the big screen, Thor was always going to be the hardest sell. Whilst the other Marvel heroes are (mostly) humans who have gained their power through science, technology or mutations, Thor is an alien from another world who dresses up like a Lord of the Rings character, intones rather than speaks and whose answer to everything is overwhelming violence. Marvel made an excellent choice in bringing in Kenneth Branagh to direct the movie. A Shakespeare actor and director of long standing, Branagh embraces the movie's crazy concepts and over-the-top theatrics with all the relish of a director jumping head-first into A Midsummer Night's Dream and brings real flair to many of the scenes. Most notably, he does not balk with either the action sequences or the CGI-heavy scenes and pulls these off well.

The movie's depiction of Asgard is a notable part of its success, with the realm depicted as a colourful and weird world of retrofuturistic buildings, rainbow bridges and people who have never heard the word 'camp' walking about in gleaming golden armour. The casting of its residents helps a lot with this, with Sir Anthony Hopkins bringing requisite gravitas to the role of Odin and Chris Hemsworth making for a likeable Thor. Tom Hiddleston is excellent in the role of Loki, bringing charisma to what could have been a one-note villain. Idris Elba also does great work in the very small (but crucial) role of Heimdall. As well as having the most ludicrous costume in the film (this is saying a lot) and some of the most portentous dialogue, he is also saddled with dubious contact lenses, but is never less than 100% convincing in the role. Thor's band of adventuring companions is well-played (and it's always great to see Ray "THIRTEEN!" Stevenson on screen) but under-used. Similarly under-utilised is Colm Feore as the king of the frost giants, who is appropriately menacing but barely appears.

For the Earth characters, Natalie Portman is also solid as Jane Foster, but her character lacks real development in the film. In fact, she degrades from an intelligent physicist into a two-dimensional love interest over its length, which is disappointing. Outside of a few decent one-liners, Kat Dennings also gets little to do as Darcy Lewis, to the point where she seems to have no point in the movie. Stellan Skarsgard is better-served as Eric Selvig (rather better than Portman, as he carries over to The Avengers) who gets a few good scenes, most notably when he and Thor get drunk in a bar. Most surprising is Jeremy Renner, who unexpectedly shows up for five minutes as an archer and then vanishes, which will likely confuse casual audiences but delight hardcore Marvel fans (as will Clark Gregg, returning from the Iron Man movies as Agent Phil Coulson).

The film ticks along nicely with some good pacing, and the script does a good job of mixing up the Marvel universe and Norse mythology whilst trying to anchor the Earth scenes in some kind of reality. Considering the potential for the movie degenerating into a confused mess, it's impressive it turned out as cohesive as it has. Unfortunately, there are some issues. Thor losing his powers so he is actually in danger on Earth is a lazy plot device, whilst the Destroyer is not a particularly engaging enemy. There's also a dearth of good female roles, with Portman's role being predictable and Dennings's being pointless. Jaimie Alexander is better-served as Sif, but is still relegated to the supporting cast. The script also arguably does not adequately explain why Thor offers to ally with SHIELD, given that SHIELD's portrayal for most of the movie is not particularly flattering. In fact, several of these weaknesses seem to be due to Thor setting stuff up for The Avengers which don't really help this film's development.

Still, Thor (***½) is enjoyable in a gloriously over-the-top, bonkers way. Some underserved actors and dubious plot points notwithstanding, it's a reasonable slice of entertainment. The movie is available now in the UK (DVDBlu-Ray) and USA (DVDBlu-Ray).

Note: the original version of this review was published in 2012.

SF&F Questions: How large is Arrakis?

The Basics

Dune, by Frank Herbert, is the biggest-selling science fiction novel of all time, having sold well over 10 million copies since its publication in 1965. It has been followed by five canonical sequels (Dune MessiahChildren of DuneGod-Emperor of DuneHeretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune) and various "expanded universe" books of execrable quality from Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert (which can be - and, under all circumstances, should be - safely ignored).

Most of the action in the Dune saga takes place on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Since the book was published, fans have asked about the size of the planet, with various attempts made to estimate the planet's circumference, diameter and mass. Most of these have foundered on a lack of hard information. In the 1990s an informal guess seems to have been made that Arrakis is around the same size as Mars, which seems to have become the default assumption for many fans since then.

The Evidence

In the novels, Arrakis is presented as a hot, desert world, essentially an entire planet covered by giant sand dunes similar to those of the Sahara. The only exceptions are the two poles, which are cooler and where clusters of mountains, rocks, plateaus and ridges provide some respite from the heat and also allow for the construction of permanent settlements. Most importantly, these rocky outcroppings are the only areas safe from sandworms, subterranean leviathans that can emerge from the dunes and consume people and equipment.

Arrakis is presented as a world with Earth-like gravity (or at least, not noticeably less) and a breathable atmosphere. The latter was a mystery, as Arrakis possesses neither extensive plant life nor oceans, until Frank Herbert clarified in a later sequel that the atmosphere of Arrakis is the result of gaseous emissions by the sandworms.

To determine the size of Arrakis, we require several things: distances and some way of determining the overall size of the planet that works with those distances. Fortunately, both are provided in the novel.

During the early part of the book, House Atreides moves to Arrakis and takes possession of the planet from House Harkonnen. The Atreides determine that it is too dangerous to take up residence in the Harkonnen capital of Carthag due to the number of booby traps and Harkonnen agents left behind, so they fortify the smaller city of Arrakeen instead. At one point it is said that Arrakeen is located more or less exactly 200 kilometers from Carthag, which is a firm distance (just about the only reliable, hard distance between two landmarks given in all six books).

Extrapolating this onto the map provided at the start of the book gives us a firm scale, which is quite useful. The map is also useful because it gives us longitude lines but, more usefully, the latitude line for 60° N. With the scale in place, we can then measure exactly how far it is from one side of the 60° N line to the other, through the northern polar ice cap. This works out, quite nicely, at almost 1,800 km (1,118.46 miles) exactly.

Comparisons to Other Worlds
Utilising Google Earth Pro, it is possible to measure the distance from one side of the 60° N line to another on no less than three other worlds. These produce the following results:

Earth: 6,693.82 km (4,159 miles)
Mars: 3,551.81 km  (2,206.99 miles)
Moon: 1,820.33 km (1,131.10 miles)


These show that Arrakis is approximately one-quarter the size of Earth and half the size of Mars, and almost exactly matches the size of our Moon. This would seem to give us a firm and straightforward answer using solely the textual evidence.

Problems & Contradictions

Arrakis being the size of our Moon is, however, highly problematic. First off, our Moon is generally considered to have insufficient mass - and thus gravity - to hold down a thick, life-supporting atmosphere. The Moon's gravity is about one-sixth that on Earth, and a combination of low gravity and solar winds have stripped the Moon of whatever atmosphere if may have once possessed.

There is a workaround for this: Arrakis could be small but dense, with many rich metals located far below the planetary surface. This would also solve the issue that during the saga, no-one comments on Arrakis being a low gravity world, or bounces around as they should. Instead, Arrakis clearly has a gravitational field as strong as Earth's, or not far off (the novel actually provides a figure of 0.9g for Arrakis's gravitational strength).

Another apparent contradiction arises in the text: an early conversation between Paul Atreides and Thufir Hawat reveals that the storms on Arrakis build up over "six or seven thousand kilometers of flatlands" in the equatorial band. However, this is not as contradictory as it sounds: the Moon's equatorial circumference is 10,921 km, so if Arrakis is the same, it is perfectly possible for the Coriolis storms to build up. More to the point, this conversation may confirm Arrakis's small size. Mars's equatorial circumference is 21,344 km and Earth's is 40,075 km. If Arrakis was more their size, than Hawat and Paul should be discussing much larger stretches of desert than just six or seven thousand kilometers.

Another question is if Arrakis is large enough to even be called a planet. However, it is larger than Ceres, Pluto and all the other dwarf planets of our star system, and presumably large enough to have cleared its orbit of debris, which is our modern definition of a planet.

Some fans may prefer to suggest that the map in the novel Dune is not to scale, which would be a more helpful answer, but the presence of both latitude and longitude lines on the map suggests this is not the case and the map is indeed supposed to be to scale.


Based solely on the textual evidence, the planet Arrakis is a near-perfect match for Earth's moon in size, with an approximate diameter of 3,474 km, an equatorial circumference of 10,921 km and a surface area of 38 million square kilometers (14.6 million square miles), which is more than Africa (30 million square km) but less than Asia (44 million square km).

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Thursday 28 March 2019

WARCRAFT and WARCRAFT II re-released

Blizzard Entertainment and GoG have joined forces to re-release the first two games in the WarCraft fantasy franchise.

WarCraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) was the game that kicked off the whole shebang and forms the basis of the storyline of the WarCraft movie. It has been updated (via DOSBOX) to work fine on modern PCs, although it's still something of an old-skool and slightly clunky game.

WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), which also includes the expansion WarCraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal (1996), has been given a fancier update to run natively in Windows 10 with some graphics improvements.

Both games are available together in a bundle deal from GoG.

Blizzard are working on a much bigger and more fundamental remastering of WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion The Frozen Throne for release later in the year.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Iron Man 2

Tony Stark has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, which has led to a huge amount of publicity and fame, but it has also led to criticism by corporate rivals and repeated attempts by the US government to seize his technology for their own use. As Stark fends off legal troubles, he also faces a new threat from a former ally of his father's.

Iron Man 2 is the very definition of a standard Hollywood sequel. It's bigger, brasher and noisier than its forebear, operates on a larger scale and clearly has more money running through it. There's more explosions, more Iron Man suits, more shout-outs to the wider Marvel universe and, well, more stuff going on.

What it isn't, necessarily, is more fun. The original Iron Man was entertaining and breezy, although lacking in real story or character depth. Iron Man 2 feels perfunctory and also perhaps a bit too overstuffed at times. There's a lot of shout-outs to Thor (which takes place simultaneously with this movie), SHIELD and Nick Fury have a larger presence and the movie spends some time setting up the character of Black Widow. The net result of this is that erstwhile villains Ivan Vanko (a effective but clearly unchallenged Mickey Rourke) and Justin Hammer (an entertaining but entirely nonthreatening Sam Rockwell) spend most of the movie off-screen. The Marvel "villain problem" is clearly a major issue in this film, with most of the time spent fighting unmanned drones rather than the actual bad guys, who are rather quickly disposed of and don't have much to do.

What the film does do, surprisingly, is dedicate a significant amount of time to Tony Stark's mental state and his character development as he strives to be a better person and face his own mortality, eventually overcoming it, recognising his weaknesses and becoming a more effective leader, setting up his role in The Avengers. This is something the film does quite well - maybe to the point of spending too much time on it - and better than I think the film is often credited for. Iron Man 2 is arguably the closest we get in the MCU to seeing what these characters are doing in their down time when the world isn't under threat of imminent annihilation.

The result is that Iron Man 2 (***½)  a bit of an oddball movie. The villains are decidedly non-threatening and the film is more concerned with the characters' internal lives and relationships than with heroics. But that's also something of a strength, especially given the strength of the cast. The result is a movie that's less straight-up fun than its forebear, but balances that out with stronger characterisation and better worldbuilding.

John Simm joins GAME OF THRONES prequel series

Actor John Simm has joined the cast of the Game of Thones prequel spin-off series, tentatively titled The Long Night.

Simm is a veteran British actor with a long and impressive resume, but is probably best-known in recent years for playing the Master on Doctor Who and the lead role of Sam Tyler on time-travelling detective drama Life on Mars. His other TV credits include State of Play and The Lakes, whilst his film work includes Human Traffic and 24 Hour Party People.

Simm is one of several new actors announced for the project. Other actors announced include Marquis Rodriguez (Luke Cage, Iron Fist), Richard McCabe (Collateral, Electric Dreams), John Heffernan and Dixie Egerickx (Patrick Melrose, The Little Stranger).

The Long Night is set thousands of years before the events of Game of Thrones, during the Age of Heroes, a bronze age civilisation that fell into ruin and despair due to the onset of the titular Long Night, a decades-long winter that plunged the world into darkness. This time marked the arising of the White Walkers, the founding of the Night's Watch, the building of the Wall and the mythic struggle known as the War for the Dawn.

HBO has so far greenlit a pilot that is expected to enter production in the next few weeks. If HBO are happy with the pilot and give a series order, the remainder of the first season would be expected to shoot later in the year for transmission in 2020.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

The Great Marvel Rewatch: The Incredible Hulk

Bruce Banner is a mild-mannered scientist who inadvertently turns into a monster every time his heart rate accelerates and he is subjected to great stress. Hunted by the government and the US military, he takes refuge in Brazil whilst trying to develop a cure for his condition. His path leads him back to the United States, and the realisation that others like him could exist.

It's a subject of some irony that the Incredible Hulk was the first Marvel character that was really nailed in live-action performance, thanks to the enjoyable 1978 TV series starring Bill Bixby, but subsequently failed to make work in several attempts, including Ang Lee's 2003 movie and this effort, the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Edward Norton takes on the role of Bruce Banner, playing him as a highly resourceful and intelligent scientist who fears to let the Hulk out and goes to some lengths to prevent it, whilst also being aware that he needs to find a cure. Norton gives a curiously flat performance in the film, the intense energy of his more famous film roles not really to be found. This is odd as Norton was also involved in writing the script, so you'd assume he'd have tried to include more interesting material to sink his acting teeth into, but instead delivers a fairly unremarkable film.

It's certainly not an incompetent film, and there is some stuff to enjoy, such as the fact that the origin story is told in a brief credit sequence at the start of the movie allowing the plot to begin immediately. The Brazilian favela setting of the start of the film is unusual, memorable and interesting, and the supporting cast give game performances, particularly Tim Roth and William Hurt, although Liv Tyler doesn't have much to do.

The weaknesses of the film are more obvious. The movie has some pacing issues, with a bit too much redundant shots of Norton running around, angsting over data and USB sticks and of William Hurt doing manly American general stuff. It feels too long, although it's actually the shortest movie in the MCU (tied with Thor: The Dark World), and Tim Roth's Abomination is a very underdeveloped character. His decision to voluntarily turn himself into a psychopathic monster and start tearing up New York at the end of the film feels random and poorly-motivated.

There's also the effects. Even in 2008 Hollywood was capable of better CG than what we get in this film, where the Hulk is effective in night time scenes but feels a bit too fake in daylight scenes. Compared to the later incarnation of the Hulk in the MCU (played with much greater charisma by Mark Ruffalo as both Banner and a mocapped Hulk), this one doesn't work as well.

The leaden pace, the indifferent lead performance, so-so CGI and a perfunctory concluding battle all make this feel like a film from a different universe rather than the MCU, which perhaps explains the indifference with which it has been treated every since it came out (if it wasn't for William Hurt's character recurring in Civil War and Infinity War, it'd be possible to believe this film had been jettisoned from continuity altogether).

The Incredible Hulk (***) is watchable but unexciting, lacking the verve and energy of many of the other MCU movies, and is a serious challenger for the title of most forgettable movie in the series.

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Iron Man

Ahead of the release of Avengers: Endgame in a month's time, which will conclude both Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also conclude the storylines that have been building since the MCU launched in 2008, I will be rewatching all of the Marvel movies released to date, in some cases revisiting older reviews and in others issuing new reviews. Let's do this.

Stark Industries is one of the US military's most advanced and reliable weapons contractors, at least until its chief executive and resident inventor-genius Tony Stark is kidnapped by Afghan terrorists. Escaping with the help of a local translator - and a home-made cybernetic suit of immense destructive power - Stark sets about revamping his company's ethos, something that does not meet with the approval of his fellows.

Back in 2008, Iron Man was a simple knockabout popcorn flick which seemingly had no great ambition beyond being a fun superhero movie. Contrasted against the other big superhero flick of the year, the intense-but-overwrought-and-overlong The Dark Knight, it came off as breezy and fun, although it also risked being seen as lightweight and disposable. My initial reception to the film was that it was a mediocre flick that was single-handedly saved by some fine performances, most obviously Robert Downey Jr. but also Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard providing able foils (Faran Tahir is distinctly under-used as seeming antagonist Raza though).

My other complaint was that the film was kind of stupid, with Stark building his first Iron Man suit out of leftover missile components in a cave in the Afghan mountains, which was less "unlikely" as "completely implausible." It may be my appreciation for cheesy comic book antics has increased in the meantime, but on this rewatch I found the development to be more forgivable, although the fact that the Afghan terrorists somehow don't cotton on that something is wrong despite having 24 hour video surveillance of what Stark is doing remains ridiculous.

Viewed on its own merits, Iron Man is much as it was in 2008: a fun, less serious and more lightweight superhero movie which is saved from being forgettable by some good laughs and Robert Downey Jr.'s relaxed performance as Stark, which is arrogant enough to make you initially dislike him but then charming and centred enough to make you care about his redemption arc. On this basis, the film works fine.

Of course, it is now impossible to rewatch Iron Man without being aware of the twenty (and counting) films that follow in its wake. It definitely disappears into the lower-middle end of the full pack of MCU movies, but it's fun to see the worldbuilding and scene-setting going on for later movies: Clark Gregg's presence as Agent Coulson (struggling to find a good name for SHIELD); Obadiah Stane's massive armour clearly being an inspiration for the later "Hulkbuster" suit; and of course the first post-credits sequence, which introduces Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and foreshadows the formation of the Avengers. From such small seeds a huge legacy was generated.

Iron Man (***½) is a lot of fun, and is a more enjoyable in hindsight than I was expecting, but it's clear that Marvel weren't quite the finely-oiled machine they are now.

Note: the original version of this review was published in 2008 and yikes, I was pretty harsh on it. I must be getting soft in my old age.

Saturday 23 March 2019

Angel: Season 1

Having helped Buffy Summers, the Slayer, defeat the evil Mayor and save Sunnydale from destruction, the infamous vampire-with-a-soul Angel has relocated to Los Angeles to open a new front in the war against evil. He rapidly joins forces with former Sunnydale associate Cordelia Chase and newcomer Doyle (a half-demon with visions of people in trouble) to continue the good fight, guided by the mysterious "Powers That Be" and opposed by a supernatural law firm, Wolfram & Hart.

Way back in the day, when it was first announced that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was spinning off Angel into his own series I could only groan. Angel, particularly in his "good" mode, was not the most compelling character on Buffy and if often felt like him hanging around was inhibiting Buffy's character development. As it turned out, I was wrong and the Angel/Buffy relationship was also damaging Angel's own character. Freed from that relationship, Angel quickly becomes a more interesting character in his own show.

It helps, of course, that Buffy has already done the heavy lifting of introducing Angel and establishing his detailed backstory and motivations, so the show is able to jump much more into doing its own thing: establishing Angel as a private detective (!) working in LA, helping the helpless. This slightly goofy premise would be more wince-inducing if the show itself took it seriously. Instead, Angel's semi-Batman antics are roundly mocked (including his early-season use of a Bruce Wayne-style utility belt packed with unlikely gadgets) and drama is mined from both the standard supernatural shenanigans and more mundane concerns, like Angel and his associates needing money to keep going.

The first half of the season has its moments, but also has a lot of monster-of-the-week episodes where Doyle gets a vision, Cordelia does research and Angel kicks backside. This dynamic is fine, but a tad repetitive. We're not in Buffy Season 1 territory of low production values and some dire scripts here, but the show is a far cry from its later, much more compelling self. Things improve markedly in the second half of the season, as Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (from Buffy's third season) joins as a new regular character and J. August Richards' Gunn joins a recurring ally. The dynamics at Wolfram & Hart also become more interesting. Whilst Buffy had a "Big Bad" which changed every season, Angel more realistically has a "Big Bad" that constantly unfolds and develops across its entire five-season run, complete with its own internal machinations and betrayals which makes for some compelling drama.

Still, Angel still feels like it's running with its training wheels on until the two-part story where Faith arrives in LA (after events in Buffy Season 4) to cause even more mayhem. This results in one of the finest fight scenes that either Buffy or Angel ever did, followed by a remarkably powerful story of redemption that will unfold across the next three seasons. Combined with Wesley levelling up as a badass (after being tortured by Faith for hours knocks some of the Giles-ness out of him) and Wolfram & Hart becoming a much more threatening enemy in the genuinely surprising season finale, Angel's first season goes out on a high, paving the way for the superior second year.

Angel's first season (***½) takes a little whilst to get going, but once it does it kicks into high gear and never looks back, becoming a worthy companion to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in some respects (such as general episode consistency) its superior. It is available now as part of the complete series boxed set (UK, USA).

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

In 1892, a young British couple working for an English bank in South Africa had a son, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. By the time he was twelve years old, Tolkien had lost both his family and was brought up by a family friend. He developed a love of languages and mythology, fell in love, married, went to Oxford University, fought in the First World War, went into academic, became a respected expert in his (albeit narrow) field and died peacefully at the age of 81. But along the way he created nothing less than an entire mythology, a long and stirring epic of mighty battles between good and evil, of angelic hosts descending from on high, a mighty kingdom drowned beneath the waves and, at the last, a small hobbit being the only thing standing against the shadow. This is the story of J.R.R. Tolkien and his life.

Originally published in 1976, Humphrey Carpenter's painstaking biography remains the definitive account of his life. Other biographies have followed, but they either draw so much on Carpenter that you might as well just read the original, or they are more interested in stirring up controversy which doesn't really exist.

Carpenter divides his book into sections, focusing on Tolkien's traumatic childhood and the development of his early interesting in languages, then his even more traumatic life as a young man, fighting in the trenches of the Somme and trying to win the heart of a (slightly) older woman, and then his life as an academic and teacher, during which time he began writing The Silmarillion and, later The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Carpenter has an interesting task here because, although Tolkien's life was certainly not free of tragedy and incident, it was also arguably not wall-to-wall action. Tolkien, by his own admission, was a conservative figure. He did not travel widely, apart from the war he avoided from getting involved in any major political or national events, and he was at his happiest in a pub or friend's drawing room, drawn into an engrossing conversation about religion, myth, art or literature. A fascinating biography this does not necessarily make.

But Carpenter does make it work, by tying incidents in Tolkien's life into his mythology, noting how a 1911 trip to Switzerland inspired Tolkien's fascination with mountains, and encounters with Norse, Icelandic, Welsh and Finnish mythology gave him the names "Middle-earth" and "Earendel." This constant circling back to Tolkien's literary works is clever - it's of course why people are interested in Tolkien's life - and gives the book a strong thematic spine. This approach also means we get a good view of Tolkien the individual and Tolkien the writer and academic and how these two sides developed.

Those looking for drama and controversy will find relatively little, apart from Tolkien's dislike of his friend C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories and the occasional tension between Tolkien and his wife over religion (Edith was a Protestant who had converted to Catholicism on marriage, something she always resented). The truth is that Tolkien's wasn't that controversial a character, so the biography instead is able to delve deeply into his stories and the events in his life that shaped them.

Carpenter writes with an easy, flowing style, mixing academic musings with more relaxed accounts of home life. The book never becomes bogged down in detail, but some elements are explored in greater depth where necessary. I suspect that when he wrote this book, Carpenter had an idea to publish Tolkien's own letters in a companion volume (Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981), whilst he certainly knew that Christopher Tolkien was planning the publication of The Silmarillion (1977) and possibly companion volumes, so that people who wanted more detail and depth on the mythology could find it elsewhere.

There's also a hint of poetry in the book, particularly the way Carpenter stakes out important touchstones in Tolkien's life - his love for his wife, his appreciation of trees - and uses these to anchor several key moments in the book: his early childhood in the countryside near Birmingham, a key moment when he was utterly stuck on Lord of the Rings and a neighbour's tree crisis sparked in him a revelation that helped him to complete the book, and his last few years in retirement. The result is that rarest of beasts: a biography of a literary figure that is fast-moving, rich in anecdote and detail, and simply enjoyable to read.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (*****) remains the definitive Tolkien biography, a well-written, well-researched and fascinating account of the most important figure in the history of fantasy literature. If you are at all interesting in how The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion came about, this is essential reading. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Netflix confirm that NEON GENESIS EVANGELION is coming in June

Netflix have confirmed that they will be airing classic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion from 21 June this year.

Originally airing across 26 episodes in 1995, Hideaki Anno's cult animated series has some traditional anime tropes - large battle mecha, battles with invading monsters, young heroes and their life problems - but mixes them in with a degree of philosophising and existentialism to create something more original and thoughtful (although standard anime mayhem is never too far away). The series has gained a reputation for being almost as confusing as it is revered, with fans intensely debating the meaning of the series and its themes to this very day, whilst the ending has proven controversial (and was subject to several rehashes via remakes and DVD movies).

Unlike some other classic anime, like Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, Netflix will not be producing a live-action remake of Evangelion on the grounds there isn't enough money on Earth to do so.

This is a slightly new version of Neon Genesis Evangelion, featuring a remastered look and an all-new English dub. A whole new generation can look forward to being confused anew by what can only be described as "David Lynch's Pacific Rim."

Narcos: Season 2

Colombia, 1992. Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar is possibly the richest man in the world, the head of a vast narcotics operation spanning much of South and Central America. But the Colombian and American governments are keen to bring him down. The DEA is on Escobar's trail but find his network of informants and sympathisers makes it hard to pin him down. If they are to bring Escobar to justice, they may have to make a deal with the devil.

The first season of Netflix's Narcos was an interesting, unconventional series. It mixed the tropes of traditional drama with the docudrama, a necessity of it trying to cover about fifteen years of complex political and criminal manoeuvring in just 10 episodes. This made for an interesting drama, but one which had a very intermittent, start-stop feel to it as sometimes years passed between each episode and major events were relayed in voiceover.

Season 2 fortunately improves on this by devoting itself to the final eighteen months or so of the Medellin Cartel's existence, and focusing much more on the hunt for Escobar by the DEA, the Colombian government and by rival criminal organisations. There's a real feeling of tension, intense drama and things gradually collapsing as Escobar's enemies rack up the pressure, but he is more than capable of hitting back.

The series hinges on the viewer being able to understand Escobar and even - if only fleetingly - sympathise with him whilst not sugar-coating the fact that he was a monster, a criminal whose impact on the world (particularly the flooding of the USA with cocaine in the late 1980s and early 1990s) has few rivals. This works purely through Wagner Moura's excellent performance, capturing the family man but also the ruthless drug kingpin and the person who believes himself to be a man-of-the-people folk hero sticking it to the man, who gradually realises that perhaps he isn't who he wants to be. As the mayhem rises and Escobar becomes more and more ruthless, resorting to mass murder, political assassination and ill-thought-out revenge killings, so whatever semblance of normality and likeability he had vanishes and he becomes a target for everyone. How true this is to reality and how much is dramatic invention is debatable, but certainly it makes for a gripping and tense drama.

The rest of the cast also bring their A-game (although Boyd Holbrook is a bit anonymous) to make for an increasingly intense chase story that does a good job of both wrapping up the Escobar story but also putting things in play for later one, for as the Medellin Cartel goes down in flames, a rival cartel is starting to take shape in Cali, and the players have to accept that defeating Escobar doesn't mean the end of the monster he has created.

Season 2 of Narcos (****½) is superior to the first, more grounded in character drama and forming a far more intense game of cat-and-mouse that can only have one ending. It's also a story of hubris, murder and of a country near-ruined by criminals and their associates, but trying to fight on. It is available now on Netflix.

Starport by George R.R. Martin & Raya Golden

Ten years ago the alien Chasheen arrived on Earth. They are members of an interstellar commonwealth known as the Harmony of Worlds, 314 species living and trading together in the interests of galactic peace. They offered humanity the chance to become the 315th member and humanity accepted. Three great starports have been built to link Earth to these other worlds, the latest of which is located in Chicago. Charlie Baker, newly promoted to detective on the squad overseeing the Starport district, is keen to use his knowledge of alien worlds and civilisations to help on the job, but discovers that not all of his fellow officers - or civilians - are that keen on the alien presence.

From roughly 1985 to early 1993, George R.R. Martin worked in Hollywood in the film and TV industry. He worked on The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast, rising to become a producer on the latter. This earned him enough credits to try creating his own show, so he wrote a slew of pilots. Doorways was the only one that was filmed, and that never made it to series or the air. Another, written in 1992/93 shortly before he gave up on Hollywood to return home to resume work on an epic fantasy side-project called A Game of Thrones, was called Starport. It did the rounds of the four American TV networks before being turned down for being (as per usual with GRRM) too long and too expensive.

A quarter of a century later, Starport has been given a new lease of life as a graphic novel, adapted from Martin's original 90-minute script by Raya Golden. Golden previously adapted Martin's story Meathouse Man as a graphic novel to some acclaim, and Starport is an altogether larger and more impressive project.

As a graphic novel, it's an attractive package. The art is vivid, colourful and pops at the reader. The script is punchy and pacy, with the pages flipping by quite quickly despite the book's impressive length (almost 300 pages). Golden's artwork is excellent, mixing a classic comic book feel with modern colouring techniques and some crazy panels of technicolor alien vistas and species that feels out of a mid-1970s Marvel cosmic epic.

The script has been updated, with VHS jokes going out and smartphones coming in. The dialogue is mostly decent and well-done, although Martin's script hews towards TV standards of the 1990s a bit too closely at times (with more short, soundbitey quips and less of the longer, more erudite speeches that may be associated with his fantasy work, although this does keep the pace flowing). There's also the feeling of some references being updated but others not: so the internet is mentioned but the cultural touchpoints are Gilligan's Island and Kojak, which do feel a bit dated.

The protagonists are a likeable bunch, a mixture of beat cops looking to improve themselves, cynical lifers just trying to reach their pension, geeks fascinated by aliens, bigots who hate them and so on. The characters tend towards archetypes, like the undercover cop who gets in a bit too deep and justifies some dubious behaviour (like sleeping with much younger women) by saying it is to maintain his cover, but do have some depth thanks to the graphic novel's length. The adaptation is generous at almost 300 pages (to cover what was originally a 90-minute TV script) which allows it to delve deep into the characters and premise. There's a few characters who don't have a lot to do, which is where the "TV pilot" feel comes in a bit more (characters set up for bigger things further down the line), but it also helps the story feel more realistically populated.

It's easy to see why Starport never got made in the early 1990s. It has an epic scale and scope which I think would have been hard to translate to the screen. It also came along not long after the Alien Nation movie (1988) and TV spin-off (1989-90) which was abruptly cancelled. Although Starport's premise is rather different - a police force of humans working alongside alien security forces from the titular starport, rather than alien refugees joining the police force - the surface similarity may have put some producers off. The premise also feels a little bit like the later Babylon 5, with the starport serving as a meeting and mixing ground for hundreds of alien races and humans.

Starport (****) is brash, enjoyable and fantastically-illustrated. Those looking for a deep, immersive, serious story like A Song of Ice and Fire may feel disappointed, but those looking for a fun, pulpy SF yarn will be well-catered for. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 22 March 2019

Paradox confirm they are working on VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE - BLOODLINES 2

Paradox Entertainment have announced that they are working on a sequel to Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, one of the most critically-acclaimed CRPGs of all time.

Originally released in 2004 as the second game (after Half-Life 2) to use Valve's Source Engine, Bloodlines was a somewhat open-ended RPG which cast you as a vampire in the setting of White Wolf's phenomenally popular pen-and-paper roleplaying game. You could choose from one of several vampire clans, including the insane Malkavians who would get an entirely different dialogue tree for the entire game from the other clans. The game was hugely acclaimed on release for the quality of its writing, dialogue, story and characterisation, but criticised for a large number of bugs. Subsequent patches and fan mods have fixed most of these issues and in some cases restored cut content.

Bloodlines' developer, Troika Games, later collapsed and most of the staff who worked on the game moved over to Obsidian Entertainment. Leonard Boyarsky, who worked on Bloodlines, is now working on The Outer Worlds alongside former Troika colleague (and Fallout co-creator) Tim Cain. However, Bloodlines' other creative lead, Brian Mitsoda, is working on the new game alongside Cara Ellison and Chris Avellone.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 is currently planned for release in March 2020.

Thursday 21 March 2019

Amazon greenlights DARK TOWER TV pilot, casts Roland & Marten

In an interesting move, Amazon have greenlit a new pilot based on Stephen King's dark fantasy series The Dark Tower. The move comes just two years after a movie version, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, bombed at the box office.

The new TV version of the story will adapt the series in a more chronological order, starting with the events of Wizards and Glass, the fourth novel in the series. Wizards and Glass mostly flashes back to the young days of central character Roland Deschain and his early encounters with the enigmatic Man in Black, here going by the alias Marten.

Sam Strike (Nightflyers) has been cast as the young Roland, whilst Jasper Pääkkönen (BlacKkKlansman, Vikings) is playing Marten.

The TV series started life as an addendum to the Dark Tower movie, with the plan being for Idris Elba to narrate a framing device and the series telling the story of Roland's younger days with a new, younger actor in the role. However, Amazon have now severed the storytelling connections between the 2017 movie and this new version of the story, allowing it to stand alone. Presumably, if successful, the series would then undergo a time jump and start adapting the events of The Gunslinger.

The Dark Tower is the central work of Stephen King's career, with most or all of his novels taking place in the Dark Tower multiverse, where different dimensions, timelines and worlds collide. The formal Dark Tower series, which has sold over 30 million copies, consists of eight novels (The Gunslinger, The Waste Lands, The Drawing of the Three, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower and The Wind Through the Keyhole), but many of King's most famous novels, including The Stand, also tie into the same story and setting.

With only a pilot greenlit, we're likely 18 months or so from seeing The Dark Tower on screen, but it's certainly a promising step in the right direction, and a surprising display of faith from Amazon in the franchise given its recent box office failure.

Epic vs. Valve: The Battle for PC Gaming

For the past fifteen years, the PC gaming market has been dominated by one retailer above all others: Steam. An online sales, downloading and gaming service, Steam is run by Valve Corporation and has utterly dominated the market since launch, fending off several competitors along the way. But that has now changed, with Fortnite developers Epic Games launching a rival service that means to do nothing less than smash Valve's monopoly forever.

The Epic Store launcher.

Steam was launched in late 2003 as a system for updating Valve's online games, titles like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic, keeping players all in sync with one another and allowing new maps and patches to be rolled out quickly and efficiently. In 2004 the service transitioned to a store, selling new games. It was mostly ignored until the November 2004 release of Half-Life 2, arguably the most eagerly-anticipated video game in history up until that time. It was the sequel to Half-Life, the 1998 game that rewrote the first person shooter rulebook and established Valve as a force to be reckoned with in the PC gaming scene.

Half-Life 2 launched with the required use of Steam. You could buy Half-Life 2 in stores, but to install it you had to also install Steam and sign up to the online service. In 2004, when not every gamer was online and certainly most gamers did not expect to have to sign up to an online service to play a single-player-only game (Half-Life 2's multiplayer mode wasn't patched in until months later), this idea was hugely controversial. Gaming communities rebelled, some gamers tried to report Valve for breaches of the law (no such claim was ever upheld) and so on. But Half-Life 2 was anticipated in a manner almost no other game in history was, and the sheer juggernaut force of the game's hype and its overwhelmingly positive critical reception saw gamers swallow their pride and buy the game in their millions. In many cases, they used the service to buy and download the game at midnight on release day, and were playing hours before their friends could get to the shops to pick up their copies.

After Half-Life 2 showed that online PC sales were viable, other publishers signed up to the service and more and more games appeared there. Valve had been either lucky or prescient, as 2004 arguably marked the last highwater for PC gaming in the 2000s. The 2005 release of the X-Box 360, followed a few months later by the release of the PlayStation 3, saw a huge crash in PC gaming sales. Within just a couple of years, the number of big titles being developed for PC dropped significantly. 2007-08 was arguably the nadir of PC gaming history, with few big titles coming out, almost no PC exclusives doing well (The Witcher, from CDProjket, being an honourable exception) and the platform being almost dead on its feet.

Remarkably, though, Steam had continued to grow in popularity and success. Valve jumped on the rise of indie gaming, adding lots of popular, low-budget titles to the platform. Valve also pushed their big sales hard. They won back support from big publishers through various tactics designed to promote sales. Rockstar Games had released the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV after a long delay, but noted that although initial sales had not been as high as the console versions, the "long tail" of the game was significant, with sales picking up years later every time the game was put in a sale, making it far more profitable in the long run on the PC platform. By the start of the 2010s the platform had recovered most of its losses, bolstered by the arrival of Kickstarter as a platform for funding niche, mid-tier games. By the end of 2018, Steam had 150 million accounts (30 million more than Netflix) and dominated the PC gaming market with a share of between 18 and 20% (but 75% of the online market). According to some reports, Microsoft has offered over $20 billion to buy the service and the company behind it outright, but Valve's owner, Gabe Newell (who worked for Microsoft in the 1990s, quitting to co-found Valve), had rejected such overtures out of hand.

Understandably, other services have tried to compete with Steam. CDProjekt launched GoG (Good Old Games) as a rival service which focuses on getting older games updated to work on modern hardware. Their main selling point is not using an form of DRM (Digital Rights Management), which they feel hinders the customer experience. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts, UbiSoft and Blizzard-Activision launched rival services to exclusively launch their games, respectively Origin, UPlay and BattleNet (although many UPlay games are also available on Steam). With relatively small game catalogues and niche target audiences, these services have existed alongside Steam, rather than trying to compete directly with it.

This has now changed thanks to a company whose pedigree in PC gaming is even older than Valve's: Epic Games.

Founded in 1991, Epic Games spent the 1990s releasing a large number of low- and mid-budged action games before releasing their first 3D shooter in 1999, Unreal. Unreal was followed by both sequels and the immensely successful multiplayer spinoff series, Unreal Tournament. In 2006 launched a new single-player focused series on console, Gears of War, which was immensely successful. They also made immense amounts of money by licensing their Unreal Engine to other companies and publishers. In 2017 they redeployed the Unreal Engine to make a new, fun and lighthearted co-op shooter called Fortnite: Save the World, and its multiplayer spin-off, Fortnite: Battle Royale. Better known just as Fortnite, the game has become the biggest global success story since Minecraft, with Epic Games making significant profits from the game's downloadable extras and content.

Late last year, Epic Games launched the Epic Store, which they proudly proclaimed was going to take the fight directly to Valve. At first gamers chuckled and moved on: many companies had vowed to do the same thing and all had failed. But then Epic Games started doing something that no other would-be Steam-killer had done before: actively seeking out PC gaming developers and offering them staggering sums of money for a 12-month exclusivity period on PC. In addition, Epic Games offered to take only a 12% cut of the sales of games, as opposed to Valve's huge 30%. Developers, watching profit margins drop steadily over the years due to an inability to keep development costs down and also an inability to raise prices accordingly due to market saturation, started signing up enthusiastically.

The first casualty was Metro: Exodus. The third game in a popular first-person shooter series, following on from Metro 2033 (2010) and Metro: Last Light (2013), Metro: Exodus's Ukrainian developers were offered a huge sum of money for a 12-month exclusivity period. They agreed. Fans of the series and more casual gamers railed angrily against the development, citing it was bad form for a company to wall off a game behind a new service, especially a new service that did not have the ease of use or many of the most basic features of Steam. They were also suspicious of Tencent, a Chinese company accused of spying on customers, which had acquired a 40% stake in Epic in 2012. Despite these complaints, Metro: Exodus sold exceptionally well on release, outselling Metro: Last Light more than two-and-a-half times on launch day.

Last week Epic flexed its muscles by locking in Phoenix Point to an exclusivity period. Phoenix Point is the eagerly-awaited new turn-based tactics game from X-COM creator Julian Gollop and his company Snapshot Games. Using an approach similar to Firaxis's recent XCOM games, the game goes for a more simulated-based approach and has been praised for its gameplay decisions. For a tiny company like Snapshot the deal was apparently "impossible to resist," as the money offered could keep the company going for "years." For fans, the anger was much more palpable this time around and also more readily supported: Phoenix Point had been crowdfunded with the explicit promise that the game would be available on Steam and GoG on release day, and that was now not going to happen. Possibly the most eagerly-awaited PC game of 2019 became reviled overnight, with an absolute flood of refund requests pouring in.

But this has not stopped Epic's onslaught. In the last few days they have announced a blizzard of new acquisitions and deals. Obsidian Entertainment's The Outer Worlds, another of the most eagerly-awaited games of 2019, has joined the exclusivity deal (or, more accurately, publisher Take Two signed up for them). Quantic Dream, known for their moody console games with jaw-dropping graphics, were offered a deal so lucrative that they have gone back and dusted down all of their previous games going back to 2010 for release through Epic (comprising Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls and Detroit: Become Human). Remedy Entertainment's promising Control has also signed up, along with RTS Industries of Titan and The Sinking City. The full list is extensive and surprising, encompassing many mid-range upcoming PC games, which are the bread and butter of the platform.

This is nothing less than a full-scale assault on Valve's control of the PC gaming business. Whether it can be sustained is unclear, but it represents the biggest challenge to Steam's supremacy in over a decade. Valve will have to respond and in some respects it already has, promising to fix long-standing problems like people gaming the review system and offensive zero-budget, zero-effort games being shovelled onto the platform. The real test, I think, will come when a real AAA big-hitter that should be on Steam goes Epic Store exclusive. Take Two putting some games exclusively on Epic has to be a major concern. It's an open industry secret that Take Two and Rockstar Games are prepping a PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2, 2018's biggest game on console, for release likely in 2020. If they decided to make that game an Epic exclusive, it would be a huge and fundamental blow to Steam's position in the marketplace.

This battle could determine how PC games are bought, sold and played in the 2020s, so is hugely significant. But it may also be futile, as waiting in the wings is Google's Stadia system, which may offer a completely different, more Netflix-esque approach altogether. How this pans out will be very interesting, and no doubt contentious.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

FARSCAPE turns 20, hits Amazon Prime Video

Cult SF series Farscape is celebrating its 20th anniversary through a major re-release on streaming platform Amazon Prime Video.

Launching on 19 March 1999 as a US-Australian co-production, Farscape ran for 88 regular episodes and two two-hour specials, concluding in October 2004. The show focuses on John Crichton, an American astronaut who is accidentally transported across the galaxy by a wormhole. He is found by the crew of a living ship called Moya, a collection of misfits and renegades where he feels at home. Vague attempts to return home are complicated by his growing camaraderie with his newfound friends and his own mental health (Crichton develops PTSD-like symptoms as a result of his misadventures).

As the story progresses, it becomes more serialised and epic, culminating with the team becoming central in a massive interstellar war between two major powers.

The show was notable at the time for its use of serialised storytelling, a device it had inherited from Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but was also a lot more humorous. Although certainly not a comedy (unlike its absurdist Canadian contemporary, Lexx), it was a show that knew when to kick back and have fun as well as when to ramp up the dramatic tension. After a lukewarm first season, the show won immense critical acclaim in later years for its storytelling, effects, acting and the exceptional prosthetic makeup and puppetry.

All four seasons of Farscape and the concluding Peacekeeper Wars mini-series (listed at the end of Season 4) can be found now on Amazon Prime Video in most territories.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Narnia fanfic inexplicably gets media excited

News broke today that a man has written some Chronicles of Narnia fanfic and, for some reason, this was deemed worthy of inclusion in numerous newspaper and online articles.

From a Guardian article last year.

Fanfic, short for "fanfiction," is the form where fans of a fictional work take it upon themselves to write stories in the same setting and featuring the same characters. These works are, by definition, unauthorised and the writers cannot sell or make money from these stories without engaging in copyright violation.

The attitude of authors to fanfic based on their works varies immensely: George R.R. Martin disapproves, but generally doesn't make too much of a fuss as long as fanfic is not sent to him. J.K. Rowling is somewhat more supportive of the concept. Some authors are a lot more enthusiastic and even host fanfic on their website, although this becomes legally dubious if the author later makes story decisions in the "official" material that echoes the fanfic.

In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia, the situation is both less and more clear: C.S. Lewis died in 1963, so is not around to make any judgements of his own on the matter. The Lewis Estate has resisted anyone writing "official" new Narnia material, but has been happy to authorise various adaptations for television and film, with Netflix being the latest studio to pick up the rights and begin development work of a new version of the story. Curiously, around the time the first Narnia feature film was released in 2005, the Estate did suggest that new books would be released as well, but nothing ever materialised.

The fanfic in question is called The Stone Table and takes place between the events of The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, explaining what happened to the rulers of Narnia and the castle of Cair Paravel prior to the events of the latter novel. This is a fertile area for exploration - and the title and premise feel potentially like Lewis inventions - and indeed this period has been discussed many times by Narnia fans over the years.

Francis Spufford - who has previously published exactly one novel (Golden Hill, in 2016, which won the Costa Book Award) - wrote the fanfic for his daughter, who had complained that her father had not written any books she felt like she could read (Spufford has mostly written non-fiction on adult subjects). Spufford spent three years working on the fanfic, which is apparently novel-length, which is not an inconsiderable time period for one fic.

Oddly, Spufford has declined to post the work through any of the established fanfic communities, instead only releasing the first couple of chapters at the urging of friends who have read the full book. Distinguished SF author Adam Roberts has acclaimed the book as being excellent and a worthy addition to the Narnia canon, which is a nice compliment. However, given that the only person who can make that determination is near sixty years dead, it's not particularly germane.

Spufford has apparently now reached out to the Lewis Estate to see if the book can see print in some fashion with their approval. If not, he'll apparently wait the fifteen years until the books leave copyright and publish then, which feels like an odd choice to make when there are plenty of fanfic communities who would be happy to release the book and critique it immediately, for free.

Or, of course, he could follow in the footsteps of the great fanfic trailblazer and innovator E.L. James, change a few names to create a new setting and cash in straight away.

Filming starts on the new DUNE movie

Shooting began yesterday on the new film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, the biggest-selling work in science fiction history.

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is directing the first of what he hopes will be two movies to adapt the first of the six canonical novels in the Dune series. Dune has been previously adapted twice, for film by David Lynch in 1984 and for television by the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) in 2000.

The announced cast of Dune is as follows:

  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
  • Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides
  • Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho
  • Chen Chang as Dr. Wellington Yueh
  • Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
  • Javier Bardem as Stilgar
  • Zendaya as Chani
  • Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
  • Dave Bautista as Rabban
  • Dave Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson (role not confirmed yet)
Several key roles remain to be filled, including Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, the mentat Thufir Hawat, the Shadout Mapes, Liet Kynes, Count Hasimir Fenring, and the Emperor Shaddam IV, along (possibly) with Princess Irulan.

In addition to Villeneuve directing, it has been confirmed that Hans Zimmer will be scoring the movie. Greig Fraser (Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty) is director of photography and Patrice Vermette (Arrival, Sicario) is the production designer.

The movie is currently scheduled to hit cinemas on 20 November 2020.

Sunday 17 March 2019

SF&F Questions: What works are part of the Middle-earth canon?

There are few words that strike fear deeper into the hearts of long-established fantasy fans and critics when someone starts asking about “the Middle-earth canon” and “what books are canon?” It’s a simple question, but the answer is long, complex and confusing.

What is a Canon?

In this sense, a canon is the definitive “official” version of what happened in a particular story, world or narrative created by an author. In very simplistic terms, the Harry Potter canon, for example, consists of the seven novels written by J.K. Rowling and other elements that she either wrote or approved of, such as the Pottermore website, spin-off books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Cursed Child stage play. Fanfiction is clearly non-canon and the films represent a separate canon, as they are an adaptation of the book canon rather than a formal addition to it.

The definition of canon can also change. For example, when George Lucas created the film Star Wars in 1977 and then its sequels, he held that only the films were canon and nothing else was: the spin-off novels and comic books written by third parties were not canon and he would not be bound by their events and in most cases did not read them. However, by the late 1980s he had come to believe a single Star Wars canon was more desirable and he hired people to ensure consistency and continuity between all officially-authorised Star Wars products, including novels, video games and comic books. This scheme became known as the “Star Wars Expanded Universe,” with the idea being that if someone just wanted to watch the films that was fine, but if they wanted to delve deeper into the setting, they could find a huge amount of official, canonical material, information and new stories. When Lucas wrote the Star Wars prequel movie trilogy in 1999-2005, he used planets, races, terms, concepts and characters created in prior Expanded Universe work in the films. However, when Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney in 2012, Disney decided that maintaining the Expanded Universe and keeping it coherent with the new films they were planning was impossible, and they declared that none of the material outside of the films and the animated series were canon (to the fury of many fans).

The definition can also be argued. Frank Herbert published his hugely popular Dune series of science fiction novels between 1965 and 1986 before dying unexpectedly. He left behind a very small number of notes and outlines for a possible continuation of the series, leading to his son co-writing and publishing an enormous number of additional books in the setting. The canonical status of these latter books has been hotly debated, especially since it became clear that the depth and detail of Frank Herbert’s notes had been grossly exaggerated.

Tolkien’s Works

In most cases determining which works are canon and which are not is relatively easy, especially if the author is still alive to simply answer questions on this topic. In the case of J.R.R. Tolkien, this is of course sadly impossible, as he passed away in 1973. The complexities of the determining the Tolkien canon are considerably complicated by the fact that Tolkien only published two major (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and two minor (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On) Middle-earth works whilst he was alive. After his death, his third son and literary executor Christopher sifted through his files to arrange the publication of The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980), The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017), The Fall of Gondolin (2018), and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series (1983-96). However, the publication of the latter series, which effectively presented some 5,000 Tolkien manuscript pages written over fifty-six years, meant that readers could make their own decisions over Christopher’s choices in assembling The Silmarillion and in some cases found them wanting, particularly regarding those papers and notes which came to light only after The Silmarillion’s publication, which in some cases Christopher acknowledged would have resulted in changes to the book if he’d known about them beforehand.

For this reason, a simple determination of the Middle-earth canon is extremely difficult and debatable. This is further complicated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own willingness to adjust even published books to reflect later decisions. Most famously, he rewrote the chapter in The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins confronts Gollum and finds the One Ring from its original, light-hearted style and tone to better reflect the darker and more sinister atmosphere of Lord of the Rings, and this appeared in a second edition of the book published in 1951. Certainly, some of the changes to The Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien was considering in the closing years of his life would have resulted in inconsistencies and incompatibilities with the published Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, suggesting that he may have produced third editions of both novels with revisions to take account of these developments. Thus, the reliance on a “fixed text” that canon usually relies on is absent in the matter of Middle-earth.

This has led to a controversial status for The Silmarillion as published. We know J.R.R. Tolkien was planning extensive, sweeping changes to the book at the time of his death, but these changes were not fully conceptualised or outlined. In the editing of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien therefore defaulted to the incomplete version of the story his father had developed from c. 1930 to the publication of Lord of the Rings, incorporating some elements from later on but also having to go right back to the original Book of Lost Tales idea (developed by Tolkien from 1917 to c. 1924) since that is the only place where he sketched out the end of the story in any kind of detail, despite the major differences in tone and style to his later writings. The result, it has been complained is a hodgepodge of drafts, ideas and stories and certainly does not reflect J.R.R. Tolkien’s plans for the book at the time of his death. Christopher Tolkien’s point, well-taken, is that it was impossible to create a book compatible with his father’s intentions in 1973, so he defaulted to the most completed and “best-case” narrative he could develop. The debate will no doubt rage on eternally.

So, what is the Middle-earth canon?

Returning to the original question, the Middle-earth canon can be broken down into the following groups:

Primary Canon
These are books published and revised by J.R.R. Tolkien in his lifetime. Despite Tolkien’s willingness to revise and issue new versions of the texts, we can nonetheless declare these as primary canon.
  • The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937, revised 1951)
  • The Lord of the Rings (1954-55, revised 1965)
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)
  • The Road Goes Ever On (1967, with Donald Swann)
It should be noted that although The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (a poetry collection) and The Road Goes Ever On (a musical score inspired by Middle-earth) both contain canonical new information, they are relatively minor works.

Secondary Canon
These are books consisting of material written by J.R.R. Tolkien but not published until after his death, usually edited by his son Christopher. This is material which is coherent and readable as stand-alone works, but some readers may raise concerns based on information from other sources:

  • The Silmarillion (1977)
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980)

Tertiary Canon 
This is material which was written and created by Tolkien, but was not completed by him or brought to a satisfactory state where it can be reconciled with either primary or secondary canon. However, in isolated moments this material may be argued to be canonical where it does not conflict with established material.
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume I: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1 (1983)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume II: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (1984)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume III: The Lays of Beleriand (1985)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume V: The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VI: The Shadow of the Past (1988)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VII: The Treason of Isengard (1989)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VIII: The War of the Ring (1990)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IX: Sauron Defeated (1992)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: Morgoth’s Ring (1993)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: The War of the Jewels (1994)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996)
  • The Children of Húrin (2007)
  • Beren and Lúthien (2017)
  • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

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Saturday 16 March 2019

The classic DUNE boardgame is being reissued

Gale Force Nine Games have confirmed they are reprinting the original Dune board game released in 1979 by Avalon Hill. Out of print since the early 1980s, the game has been lauded for its tight mechanics and rich theme, a forerunner of the modern board game scene from the same designers as the long-lived Cosmic Encounter.

Gale Force Nine have picked up the gaming rights to Dune and are working with other publishers on content: Modiphius Entertainment are also producing a Dune pen-and-paper roleplaying game and Gale Force are also working on a tabletop miniatures game.

Regarded as a classic of the board game medium, Fantasy Flight Games mounted a campaign to reprint the game a decade ago but were unable to win the rights, instead issuing a clone called Rex: The Last Days of an Empire, set in their own Twilight Imperium universe.

No release date has been set, but Gale Force may be eyeing a mid-2020 release date ahead of the release of Denis Villeneuve's new Dune film, which starts shooting imminently.