Thursday, 28 January 2021

Gratuitous Hugo Self Promotion Post 2021

It's that time of year again. Nominations are open for the 2021 Hugo Awards, to be held at WorldCon 2021 in Washington, DC*. 

I am eligible in the category of Best Fan Writer. After several years on the longlist, I made it onto the shortlist last year, which was very nice, even if I didn't have a chance of winning (as proved to be the case). The Wertzone and Atlas of Ice and Fire are both eligible for Best Fanzine, but again the majority of my work is here on The Wertzone.

To nominate, you must have been a virtually-attending or supporting member of the New Zealand WorldCon last year, and either be a supporting or attending member at this year's WorldCon in DC. The nomination form can be found here. This, of course, also allows you to nominate for all of the Hugo Awards, including Best Novel, Best Editor, Best Dramatic Presentation and so on.

You can join WorldCon 2021 here, although I don't believe you can register and nominate immediately (happy to be proven wrong there).

Please check out some of the work by other bloggers in the field: Paul Weimer, Foz Meadows and Aidan Moher are among those whose work is well worth checking out, along with last year's winner, Bogi Takács, who has recused emselves from the Hugos this year (but read eir blog anyway!).

Some of my articles last year which might be worth a look (ranging from the trivial to the long):

Good luck to everyone and hopefully there'll be an actual WorldCon to go to this year!


* Although it's not yet certain if this will be a virtual or walk-in convention, or if it will be held in August or December, due to the ongoing COVID pandemic.

The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Empire of Nilfgaard is prosecuting its invasion of the North with a three-pronged assault on the remaining free kingdoms. The allied nations make ready to receive them in the largest battle in living memory. Meanwhile, Ciri has learned how to use her powers to travel between worlds, but her ability to control them remains questionable. Geralt, the witcher, and his band of companions reach the fairytale kingdom of Toussaint in their pursuit of Ciri, but face difficult decisions on how to find the missing princess.


The Witcher books are an odd bunch, with two volumes of tightly-plotted short stories followed by a five-volume novel series which can be best described as meandering. Sapkowski takes in a lot of stories, characters and ideas in the series, but sometimes it feels like a certain focus is lacking. Main characters vanish for books or half a book at at time and it sometimes feels very random what major events will be depicted on-page or left to a side-paragraph in a later volume to be referred to. Sapkowski's witty dialogue and fine grasp of politics, character and action makes these narrative tangents entertaining, but it's hard to ignore the feeling that this could have been a stronger, tighter trilogy with some firmer editing.

However, and it feels like against the odds, Sapkowski ties his flabby narrative together here in the concluding volume with a surprisingly well-constructed ending. Character and story arcs stretching back to the short stories are rounded off well, and the main storylines revolving around Geralt's hunt for Ciri (not since Mario has a hero been so frustrated by the target of his search always being in another castle) and Nilfgaard's invasion are both resolved with surprising emotional power.

The novel follows several narratives in parallel. The main story is Ciri's, as she learns how to use her power to move between worlds (including our own) and finally learn how to stand on her own two feet and make decisions rather than be subject to the whims of others. Behind her is Geralt, whose story suffers a little from him always being a few steps behind Ciri, and not having indulged in any actual witchering for some considerable time. People used to the Witcher novels and video games may be surprised at Geralt's relatively low-key presence in this volume, although his story does climax in an extended battle sequence with he and his friends getting into a fight which they don't all survive. Sapkowski's characterisation of Geralt's band of allies has been good enough that it hurts a bit when not all of them make it (though gamers may be somewhat cheered that, at least in CD Projekt's version of the story, a couple of the characters who apparently bite the dust here do survive to return later on).

Another major story follows the military conflict and it's here that Sapkowski strikes gold, for the complex, multi-front Battle of Brenna is simply one of the finest battle sequences in fantasy this side of the Blackwater, Joe Abercrombie and Paul Kearney. The action is crisp and clear (even when the characters can't tell what the hell is going on), the consequences of the battle well-told and the conflict depicted without any glorification or glamour, just a lot of people dying unremarked in the mud for political causes they don't understand. I was extremely impressed by this extended sequence, where Sapkowski makes excellent use of some of the side-characters and stories he set up in earlier novels.

The semi-tragic finale is perhaps a bit disappointing, leaving the fates of too many characters up in the air, but it feels true to life and true to this world to leave things with a touch of ambiguity (although, again, the video games do present a non-canon, alternative idea of what might happen next). More entertaining is the discussion of the great prophecy about the end of the world, which is savagely stripped of all the traditional fantasy cliches and revealed to be a simple discussion about a scientific, natural process, which I did enjoy for subverting expectations. In fact, Sapkowski's theme in this book is that those expecting cliches and tropes to be employed without irony have definitely come to the wrong series.

Lady of the Lake (****) wraps up the Witcher series in style. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Netflix's SANDMAN TV series announces cast

Netflix's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels has announced its primary cast. Remarkably, they kept the casting (mostly) secret for almost two months after filming had begun.


British actor Tom Sturridge is playing Morpheus, aka Dream, the Lord of the Dreaming and one of the Endless, seven beings given power over different facets of human existence. Sturridge is best-known for his stage work and for playing Henry VI in The Hollow Crown.

American actor Boyd Holbrook is playing the Corinthian, a nightmare in human form with teeth for eyes. He is best-known for playing DEA agent Steve Murphy in the first two seasons of Narcos. He also played the villain Donald Pierce in Logan.

Gwendoline Christie is playing Lucifer, the genderless fallen angel and ruler of hell. Christie is best-known for playing Brienne of Tarth on six seasons of HBO's Game of Thrones and Captain Phasma in two Star Wars movies.

Charles Dance is a British actor of long-renown, with roles in films such as The Jewel in the Crown, The Golden Child, Alien 3 and Last Action Hero, and TV series including The Crown and Going Postal. He is best-known to modern audiences for playing Lord Tywin Lannister on four seasons of Game of Thrones. He is playing Roderick Burgess, a man who tries to cheat his fate by imprisoning Death, but instead ensnares her brother, Dream, leading to chaos.

Asim Chaudhry is a British comedian best-known for appearing in the mockumentary series People Just Do Nothing and Hoff the Record (alongside David Hasselhoff). He is playing Abel, the first murder victim and brother of Cain. The two of them are doomed to repeat their cycle of murderer and victim forever in the Dreaming.

Sanjeev Bhaskar is a British comedian and actor of long standing, having risen to fame as one of the stars of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42. He has played more serious roles, such as in the TV series The Indian Doctor and Unforgotten. He is playing Cain, the first murderer.

Vivienne Acheampong is best-known for her roles in The Witches, Famalam and Death in Paradise, as well as doing voice work for World of WarCraft. She is playing Lucienne, a genderflipped version of the comic book character of Lucien, the chief librarian of the Dreaming and one of Dream's key allies.

Many other roles are yet to be announced, with fans particularly keen on seeing who will be playing the iconic role of Death from the comic books.

The Sandman is currently shooting, with Neil Gaiman attached as writer and executive producer. The first season of the TV series is directly based on the first two graphic novels in the series, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House. It is expected to debut in late 2021 or early 2022.

Audible has also renewed their audio version of The Sandman, with a different cast, for two more seasons.

A Potted History of Cyberpunk, Part 1

Cyberpunk 2077

Thanks to the high-profile release of the video game Cyberpunk 2077 and its attendant controversies, more people are talking about cyberpunk as a genre and concept than at any time since the 1980s, and probably even more than then.

Defining the genre was tricky even thirty years ago, with the letter pages of SFnal magazines and fanzines occasionally descending into heated battles as people debated what was part of the genre and what was not, who was part of the movement proper and who were its progenitors. There was also a long-running argument – still hashed out today – about works that truly embodied the spirit of cyberpunk versus those merely borrowing its aesthetics for commercial purposes, or perhaps those who held that cyberpunk was a more tightly-defined literary genre as opposed to a setting.
 
Netflix's Altered Carbon


What’s in a Name?

At its simplest, cyberpunk is a portmanteau of two works: cyber – referring to computers – and punk – referring to anti-authoritarianism and rebelling against the established order. In his Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995), SF critic John Clute offers a bald summary of the term: “stories set in a computer-dominated environment with a streetwise, anti-Establishment culture.” In Burning Chrome (1986), Bruce Sterling and William Gibson (two of the genre’s most notable figures) defined it as “low-life and high tech.” In the titular short story from that collection, originally published in 1983, Gibson coined the phrase “the street finds its own uses for things,” which has become a widely-quoted aphorism for the street-level use of advanced technology.

However, when the term “cyberpunk” is mentioned, it also brings up certain images. Usually a vast, futuristic city, sometimes a future version of an existing location like Tokyo or Los Angeles or a completely new conurbation, such as California’s custom-built Night City, or a new urban mass that amalgamated out of previous cities, such as Mega-City One or the Sprawl, two separate ultra-cities which both formed out of existing US cities along the Eastern Seaboard of North America. A lot of people wear sunglasses, even at night. Chrome is everywhere, and is cool. Virtually everyone is a cyborg, from extreme techno-fetishists who have replaced limbs with weaponry or techno-enhanced prosthetics to the everyday people who look just like we do, but might have bionic eyes or a computer interface port behind their ears.

A key complaint and criticism of cyberpunk is that whilst “cyber” shows up in almost all examples of the genre, the “punk” element may or may not be present. Punk usually refers to low-level, “street” kids and people who are non-conformist, anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate, who work for themselves and despise the idea of selling out. In cyberpunk works, the protagonists are often idealistic, seeking to bring down the supercorporations who now wield unfettered power, or sometimes the government which has become enhanced by corporate power.

Cyberpunk is also generally held to be Earth-based, or at least planet-bound. Space travel is often available in a cyberpunk setting but is not a key part of the genre; offworld colonies are sometimes used as a place of escape or refuge for the ultra-rich, leaving the poor masses behind. Sometimes space operas visit Earth or other planets to find vast, semi-dystopian cities and people integrated with technology, such as Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy with its vast, cyberpunk-ish arcologies on Earth or even those instalments of Star Wars which dwell on events on the city-planet of Coruscant, but generally these are held to be space operas first and foremost, with cyberpunk elements of secondary interest.

The genre is often held to be inherently a dystopian vision of the future where technology has run amok and been used to solidify the power of corrupt governments, corporations and other elites at the expense of the masses, who use what technology they can to fight back. Utopian cyberpunk is an oxymoron, with some holding that the closest would be something like Star Trek, in which advanced technology is available to everyone and is genuinely used to improve the lifestyles of all humanity, which in this setting has abandoned capitalism and the acquisition of wealth and power as personal motivations.

Cyberpunk is also often said to be a direct successor to the noir thriller genre, often employing a detective – either a traditional gumshoe, a police officer or a hacker analogue – as the main character or in a supporting role. If the main character is a police officer, they frequently become disillusioned by the corruption exposed during their investigation and quit in disgust, or come into conflict with the system and go rogue. Director James Cameron in fact proposed “technoir” as an alternative name for the genre in his 1984 film The Terminator, but it never really caught on.
 
Doctor Who's Cybermen in their 1966 debut appearance, in The Tenth Planet.


Protocyberpunk

Antecedents of cyberpunk are numerous and arguable. A key early ancestor is Alfred Bester’s Tiger! Tiger! (1956), better-known under its revised title of The Stars My Destination. The novel predicted a world where corporations would become more powerful than governments and that the human body would be enhanced by machine implants. The protagonist is, unusually for science fiction of the era, an antihero, a ruthless man named Gully Foyle who is driven arguably sociopathic after he is left to die, marooned in space. His unwavering commitment to destroying his enemies leads him to commit numerous crimes under the justification of his own righteousness; his faith wavers at key moments but at the end of the story he has become a religious icon for his commitment and his revelations about the nature of reality. Foyle is not a laudable figure – he is a rapist and murderer – but his status as an antihero and one-man force of destruction has made him something of a progenitor of later cyberpunk protagonists (or antagonists).

Other works contain elements of later cyberpunk without perhaps fully committing to them: William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine (1961) features cyberspace-like rationalised hallucinations, albeit achieved through drugs and biological means (a theme revisited in Jeff Noon’s popular 1993 quasi-cyberpunk work Vurt). Isaac Asimov’s Robots saga, beginning with I, Robot (1950), asks hard questions about the morality of creating artificial intelligence and what limitations should be put on them, whilst Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968) features cyborgs hanging out on the street. British SF TV series Doctor Who several times addressed the issue of merging biological and machine life, with first the Daleks (debuting in the serial The Dead Planet in 1963) and then, more relevantly, the Cybermen (The Tenth Planet, 1966) addressing what happens when man becomes more machine than biological.
 
Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), a key cyberpunk progentior.


Early and Semi-Cyberpunk

The first work which is often cited as cyberpunk is Philip K. Dick’s 1968 short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel revolves around a bounty hunter named Deckard who is contracted to terminate six androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and fled to Earth to live normal lives among the population. Deckard pursues them across a post-apocalyptic, semi-dystopian North America where the populace huddles in futuristic cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. A common pastime is using “empathy boxes” to link to a communal virtual reality centred around suffering and martyrdom. It is also revealed that almost all animals have been wiped out in a nuclear war, leading to people acquiring robotic animals as pets, with only the ultra-rich able to afford real animals.

The status of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – and its later loose film adaptation, Blade Runner (1982) – as cyberpunk remains contentious as many elements of the genre are missing, such as the role of ultra-powerful corporations. Deckard is also very much not a punk hero, lacking idealism at all and in fact suffering existential ennui which he hopes to assuage by acquiring a real goat to replace his robot sheep. He later has an affair with an android, and experiences doubt over whether he himself is an android or a real human. The novel has a somewhat surreal ending where he finds himself performing the same tasks as the martyr in the empathy boxes’ virtual reality and finds a wild toad, which later turns out to be a robot.

Some of Dick’s later work also employs cyberpunk tropes, perhaps most notably Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974). Set in a dystopian near-future where the US democratic system has collapsed after a second civil war, it concerns a protagonist, Taverner, who status as a genetically-engineered TV star is abruptly lost when his identity is somehow erased from existence. Trying to desperately avoid being identified as a non-entity, which would reduce him to one of the near-starving, poverty-inflicted majority whose rebellious instincts are only kept in check by television and vacuous entertainment, he goes on the run and eventually is able to restore his identity. The story and background themes, particularly the student-led revolution which is gathering against the technologically superior elite, are at least cyberpunk-adjacent.

Alice Sheldon explored themes which would later be labelled as cyberpunk in her 1973 novel The Girl Who Was Plugged In, published under her pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. The novel takes place in a dystopian future where powerful corporations create genetically-engineered celebrities, who are controlled by operators via a neural interface. These celebrities engage in elaborate games of product placement to get around strict laws on corporate advertising. The book delves deeply into the idea of identity and the idea that the face a person wears is not necessarily their true one, here taken to extremes through technology.

J.G. Ballard explored societal alienation – a common theme in cyberpunk – in numerous works, but a particularly interesting take was in Concrete Island (1974), where a car accident leaves the protagonist stranded on a median strip, the titular concrete island, between several motorway intersections where traffic is constantly moving at dangerous speeds. Unable to leave without being killed, the protagonist joins the subculture of the concrete island, where other rejects from society have gathered, which soon devolves into conflict. The book recalls the spaces outside the city or between the lines of civilisation in cyberpunk, where characters fall and it is questionable if they will emerge again. More directly evoking cyberpunk is Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), where the main character Robert moves into a high-rise apartment block on the outskirts of London. The apartment is a self-contained city in itself, with its own bank, supermarket, shopping mall, gym and school. The high-rise provides so many amenities that its inhabitants can choose to never leave. Some, fearful of reports of crime outside the block, take up that option. Power failures and social and class stratification soon set in, with the richer inhabitants of the upper floors hoarding their wealth against the poorer (but more numerous) inhabitants of the lower levels, leading to a highly localised civil war and revolution (of which the outer world proceeds in apparent ignorance). The novel foreshadows the arrival of the mini-arcology or self-contained “megablock” that becomes a key feature of many cyberpunk stories, whilst thematically the idea of an “ideal society” rapidly devolving in class warfare is pure cyberpunk, with technological warfare (in this case, exemplified by the building’s lifts becoming strategic chokepoints) being a key part of the struggle. The novel was filmed in 2015 by Ben Wheatley with Tom Hiddleston in the title role, to great effect.

In 1976, Doctor Who tackled a key cyberpunk theme in the serial The Deadly Assassin, when it had the Doctor return to his homeworld of Gallifrey to do battle with his arch-nemesis, the Master. At a key point in the narrative, the Doctor has to seek information in the repository of all Time Lord knowledge, the Matrix (a not-uncommon name for such a database). Because the repository is so vast and complex, the best way to use it is via a neural interface to generate a virtual reality through which the Doctor can move in an illusion of the computer system being an actual place. This is one of the earliest examples of such a conflation of computer systems, virtual reality and brain interfaces being used in a manner that would later become extremely common in cyberpunk.

An interesting take on the genre appeared in 1977, when Christopher Priest published A Dream of Wessex. Much of Priest’s work is concerned with layers of reality, doubles, shifting or blurred existences and identity surviving across universes. Given this interest, it is remarkable that only once, in Wessex, he used technology to explore the idea. In this novel an elite group of thinkers create a virtual reality interface which can transport the collective unconscious of some of Britain’s greatest minds into an illusory world where their intelligence and experience can be mined for ideas on how to ensure humanity’s long-term survival. The idea of forcibly transporting people into a cyberspace against their will as a way of extracting information is a common cyberpunk trope, but the idea of doing it stealthily so the target is unaware of what is happening is intriguing.

In 1978, the BBC launched a new science fiction TV show, Blake’s 7. Blake’s 7 is primarily a space opera about a band of plucky rebels trying to bring down the dystopian Terran Federation, but some cyberpunk themes do proliferate. The rebels are a mixture of genuine idealists, profit-driven criminals and career sociopaths (reflecting the often-mixed band of protagonists encounter in cyberpunk fiction). The population on Earth (apparently reduced by atomic war) are kept under constant surveillance and control in domed mega-cities, made docile by drugs and ruled over by corrupt officials. The war with the Federation often takes the form of a game of technological one-upmanship, with Blake’s early advantage of finding an advanced alien starship swiftly matched by the Federation’s improving spacecraft and weapons technology, particularly in the field of AI where many of Blake’s victories are helped by his securing of the ORAC supercomputer. Memory and personality alteration through technology, drugs and brain implants abound. Blake’s 7 is notable for its mature exploration of such themes (as compared to its American contemporary, Star Wars, and its much more superficial and heroic struggles) and also its nihilism: in the final episode the much-reduced crew are betrayed and brutally gunned down by the enemy after their erstwhile leader, the cynical Avon, had effectively had a personality breakdown.
 
John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975), arguably the first novel to fully embody the key themes of cyberpunk.


Cyberpunk’s Forgotten Visionary: John Brunner

In 1968, British SF author John Brunner published the first of three thematically-linked novels which would effectively set the stage for cyberpunk. The first of these novels is the best-known, Stand on Zanzibar, set in an overpopulated world which is threatened with ecological catastrophe by population pressure. Overpopulation is a key plot point in cyberpunk (often explaining the vast cities where the action tends to unfold), but beyond that Brunner engages with other ideas: a powerful supercomputer forms an important part of the plot, whilst television has become interactive, with viewers becoming part of the programme itself. Genetically-engineered bioweapons proliferate, and nightmarish supercorporations dominate the world.

The Sheep Look Up (1972) explores further the notion of the Earth becoming uninhabitable due to toxic waste, pollution and climate change. The declining quality of the environment sparks societal collapse and war. Attempts to regulate ecological damage are watered down for economic reasons. Ecological protestors turn to violence when their peaceful protests are ignored, eventually sparking a terrorist campaign against the US government. The "cyber" is missing from the argument, but the "punk" is very much present, and the novel's depiction of ecological catastrophe would become a familiar cyberpunk trope.

The third of the three works is The Shockwave Rider (1975), a novel which is less proto or early cyberpunk, but actually just proper cyberpunk. The book takes place in a near future dystopian city where the protagonist uses his computer hacking skills to escape detection and avoid pursuit. The term "worm," for a computer virus, was first coined in this novel. The book's story is pure cyberpunk, where the protagonist, Nick, is a computer programmer who becomes aware that an education program reported as educating children is in fact indoctrinating them to further the interests of the state (effectively a criminal oligarchy), as well as genetically-engineering children to their own ends. Nick rebels and goes up against the state in an escalating battle that ends with them trying to drop a nuke on him; his response is a powerful computer virus that exposes their schemes and plans and blows open the government's duplicity. The novel, unusually for Brunner and for a lot of cyberpunk, ends optimistically.
 
Judge Dredd (1977-present), a key satire of cyberpunk tropes told from the POV of the fascist enforcers of the corrupt government's laws.


The Anti-Cyberpunk

A strong early example of cyberpunk, or at least an example of anti-cyberpunk (or even a satire of the genre), is the British comic book character Judge Dredd. Debuting in the pages of the 2000AD in 1977, Judge Dredd is a law enforcement officer on the streets of Mega-City One, a vast super-metropolis stretching along the Eastern Seaboard of the former United States. The Judges are judge, jury and sometimes executioner all in one, able to dispense summary justice to the half-billion inhabitants of the crowded streets of the city, sometimes getting it right and sometimes (in the case of some Judges, maybe almost always) getting it wrong. Dredd and his fellow Judges are, effectively, the fascist enforcers of a totalitarian, unelected state who are not above using corporations and their latest gizmos and entertainment products to keep the population quiescent. Revolutionary fervour intermittently burns but is expertly redirected by a form of ultra-local nationalism: people are extremely loyal to the mega-blocks they live in, and rather than directing violence against the police state which keeps them cooped up all day (the unemployment rate runs at something between 92% and 98%, due to robots, AI and automation running almost all services), they instead tend to declare war on neighbouring blocks, resulting in psychotic “block wars” which act as pressure valves on the city’s malcontents. Dredd is unusual in that he believes absolutely the propaganda of being an unwavering avatar of the law, sometimes leading to him siding with the people against their oft-corrupt rulers, but more often than not unquestioningly following their orders.

If Joe Dredd is not a cyberpunk protagonist, he at least illuminates cyberpunk themes, and in fact arguably has done so more consistently and more frequently than any other character: the comic and Dredd himself continue to run today, with the timeline advancing in realtime, so forty-four years have passed in the story and for the character. Dredd himself experiments with rebelling against the system, at one point betraying his fellow Judges to support a pro-democracy call for election…which formally elects for the oppressive status quo to continue. Judge Dredd’s relentless cynicism and satire makes for one of the most interesting explorations of hte genre, if one that too many readers seem to take on face value as a mindless action story.

Ridley Scott's seminal 1982 film, Blade Runner, which gave cyberpunk both its key visual and musical identities.


Visualising the Genre

In 1982, two major works were released which had a profound impact on the nascent genre, particularly its visuals. Most notable was the film Blade Runner, a very loose adaptation of Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Like the novel, the film features a bounty hunter named Deckard (here played by a taciturn Harrison Ford, keen to shed the wisecracking image of Han Solo and Indiana Jones) who is commissioned to track down a band of rogue androids. Unlike the novel, the action does not criss-cross the western United States, instead being restricted to just one location, Los Angeles in 2019. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles would become perhaps the most definitive visual take on a cyberpunk city ever: a sprawling urban landscape of endless industrial complexes surrounding a conglomeration of vast skyscrapers emblazoned with familiar logos, whilst the techno-pyramid of a monstrously powerful super-corporation squats menacingly above the poor masses just trying to get by on the streets.

The film’s status in cyberpunk is sometimes disputed. There’s nary a brain/AI interface in sight and if Deckard becomes a rebel against the system, it’s something of a reluctant one. But so much cyberpunk draws on Blade Runner’s aesthetics, and its central question of what it means to be human in the midst of so much existentially-overloading technology is so core to the genre, that such arguments feel forced. Blade Runner is almost the last work in the visual imagery – if only superficially – of cyberpunk. It also had a strong impact on the audio perception of the genre: Vangelis's synth-heavy soundtrack inextricably bound cyberpunk to the sound of synthesisers and any cyberpunk work which suggests that maybe people in the future won't be in love with a 1980s musical fad faces an uphill struggle gaining acceptance with some fans (particularly Cyberpunk 2077 and its apparently controversial idea that people might have a more eclectic and wide-ranging musical taste by the late 21st Century).

The other work would come from Japan. Katsuhiro Otomo had already been playing with cyberpunk forms in his debut manga, Fireball (1979-81). Set in a future city secretly ruled by the ATOM supercomputer though human proxies, the story follows a band of rebels who are trying to expose the truth and inspire a revolution. Otomo quickly realised that the setup was too simplistic and hurriedly wrapped the story up to explore another idea. This resulted in Domu (1980-81), a more contemporary story exploring the psychic link between an old man and a child. Although more satisfied by this story, Otomo realised that there was scope for a much, much more ambitious story combining the two elements into one.

On 6 December 1982, Otomo published the first issue of a new serial in Young Magazine. The story appeared under a very simple, short name: Akira.

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Wednesday, 27 January 2021

OBLIVION remaster inching towards completion

A fan-made remaster of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has released a major update on progress, for the first time making positive noises about completion in the not-too-distant future.


The remaster is called Skyblivion, although that's become a bit of a misnomer. The starting point was remaking Oblivion in the somewhat updated engine of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but in the years since then they have also redone the lighting and rendering engine, so it's even better than Skyrim and looks a lot more modern.

At the moment the exterior worldspace is almost complete and the team are working on the dozens of dungeons and shops in the game. For the dungeons they are going beyond just recreating locations but also redesigning dungeons to be larger and more interesting (Oblivion's dungeons were infamously tiny, often not being more than very modest caves). They are also creating new art assets for the entre project and have integrated every quest from the original into the game, although there are lots of issues and bugs they are tracking down and resolving.

No timeframe for completion is given, but from the look of it and bearing in mind this is a small team working in their own time, this may now be down to a couple of years away. Impressive given the mod's long, long-gestating status.

Bethesda themselves have been supportive of mods, especially mods that update and upgrade their older games. Despite re-releasing Skyrim on multiple platforms with updated graphics, Bethesda have indicated a reluctance to go back and update Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, noting that the technical compromises they made to get those games out were severe and they'd feel the need to completely remake them, which would be a huge amount of work they'd rather divert to working on their new games.

Bethesda are currently working on a new game in a new franchise, Starfield, and Oblivion's successor, The Elder Scrolls VI. Neither project has a timeframe for release at the moment.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

A semi-HD version of BABYLON 5 has been released to streaming services

A high-definition version Babylon 5 has been released on HBO Max in the US today, until the title of "Babylon 5 Remastered." The international Amazon and iTunes version of the show have also been updated to the new format.


I previously reported last year that a "remastered" version of Babylon 5 had been released on some streaming services, although it was released in standard definition only and the only major change had been shifting the format back to the 4:3 (non-widescreen) image that the show had been originally broadcast in. This change in format was good news because it meant restoring the show's pioneering CGI to its original format. The show had originally had its live-action footage shot in and protected for widescreen, but the CG and composite (live action/effects combinations) shots were only created in 4:3. To overcome the problem, the show's previous widescreen releases (such as on DVD) had cropped the effects footage by zooming into the image until it filled the screen, resulting in a loss of image quality. However, the "remaster" in standard definition otherwise seemed a bit pointless.

Today's move significantly improves the live-action image quality, with that footage now in higher definition. Warner Brothers report that they rescanned the original film negatives to create HD live-action shots (complete with colour correction and removing damage and problems) and have improved the CG footage by reverting to the original 4:3 image and applying some up-resolution techniques. These techniques have limits - the CG and composites still look lower-resolution and somewhat blurrier than the live-action footage - but they do look moderately better than before. The biggest problem is the credits at the start of each episode which now look somewhat washed out. Also the title sequence was natively created in widescreen even in the 4:3 cut, making the titles look almost comically tiny in the centre of the screen, which is a shame but unavoidable without remaking them from scratch.

The result is, having watched one episode to completion (Season 3, Episode 10, Severed Dreams) and sampled scenes from several others (And Now For a Word, Intersections in Real Time), probably the best the show has looked to date. The live action scenes are much better and the CG, although definitely still blurrier than is ideal, is at least hugely improved over the DVDs and the previous streaming releases. The loss of the widescreen live-action footage is a shame, though, and I suspect will annoy some fans, even as the improvements to the effects shots will please many others.

The new HD-ish version of Babylon 5 is also apparently headed to Blu-Ray, with various news sites and international sellers claiming that a box set release could happen as early as March, although some sites have since changed their dates to December, suggesting a date is not fully fixed.

There are several problems with the remaster. The first is that whatever technique they used to re-scan the original footage was clearly not on a par with the excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation remaster undertaken in 2012-15. The live-action footage from that remaster looks like it was shot yesterday, the footage in Babylon 5 does...not. It's still a big improvement on what we've seen before, but it's clearly not in that league. There are still artifacts particularly in dark scenes where pixilation is clearly occurring, probably not helped by the bitrate most streaming services use; these issues may not be present on a Blu-Ray transfer.

The pilot episode, The Gathering, has also not bee remastered; the original film footage was either lost completely or badly damaged in flooding in the studio (one rumour back in the day was that the film had also been nibbled on by rats), so it is presented in standard definition.

More concerningly, there are about three minutes of material missing from Season 1, Episode 20, Babylon Squared and around two minutes missing from Season 4, Episode 1, The Hour of the Wolf. Hopefully this will be fixed soon and will not be on the Blu-Ray release.

It is clear, unfortunately but understandably given Babylon 5's relative obscurity, that Warner Brothers are not prepared to spend the ~$20 million or more it would cost to completely remaster the show properly, that is do a high-quality scan of all of the film footage and then re-render the CGI at native HD resolution in widescreen (although one fan has recently recreated some scenes using the original CG models and scene data files at a much lower cost, with impressive results).

It looks like this might be the best we're ever going to see the show looking. If so, it's a reasonable compromise and will make attracting new viewers a bit more palatable.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman confirm new DRAGONLANCE trilogy

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have confirmed that a new Dragonlance trilogy is to be published by Random House, starting this year.

The news comes after a lawsuit between the authors and Dragonlance IP owners Wizards of the Coast (and their parent company Hasbro) in October revealed the existence of the trilogy. The authors, Random House and Wizards had negotiated a deal for three new Dragonlance books and were halfway through writing the three volumes when Wizards put the series on indefinite hold. According to the filings, Wizards were experiencing problems with PR and image after a string of controversies and had decided that pursuing another legacy project was something they didn't want to deal with. However, this meant them breaking their contract with Weis and Hickman.

With Weis and Hickman suing for $10 million and Wizards in hot water with various other controversies going on, the two parties reached an out-of-court agreement in December and the lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice (meaning that Weis and Hickman could renew the lawsuit later on if there are further issues; usually a sign that the other party has surrendered without argument).

Dragonlance is a campaign setting for the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, which has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years. Many of the basic Dragonlance concepts were created by Tracy Hickman and his wife Laura in 1983, then fleshed out by a team of writers and editors who turned the basic idea into a series of adventure modules for the D&D game. Hickman teamed with editor Margaret Weis to write the original Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy novels, followed up by numerous more books in the same world. The Dragonlance Chronicles (1984-85) and Dragonlance Legends (1986) trilogies sold over four million copies before the end of the decade, making them one of the biggest-selling fantasy series of the decade. To date, the Dragonlance novels penned by Weis and Hickman have sold over 30 million copies worldwide, making them the second-biggest-selling authors of D&D fiction (only slightly behind R.A. Salvatore and his Legend of Drizzt series) and among the top fifty best-selling SFF authors of all time. Weis and Hickman have also worked widely in other settings and with original material, including the Death Gate Cycle, Rose of the Prophet Trilogy and Darksword Saga.

The setting has previously seen some controversy. In 2008 urban fantasy author Jim Butcher was approached by WotC to spearhead a full reboot of the entire Dragonlance saga, including rewriting the original trilogy as a five-book series. Butcher would only proceed with Weis and Hickman's blessing and, when that was not forthcoming, the project was abandoned.

Dragons of Deceit (working title) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, will be published this year. Although ordinarily a new Dragonlance book or trilogy might not attract a huge amount of attention (the last few books were not well-reviewed), the combination of the lawsuit and a dearth of recent official D&D fiction (this will be only the fourth D&D-branded novel to be published in the last five years) should mean that this does rather well.

Ron Howard returns to direct WILLOW

Ron Howard has stepped up to replace Jon M. Chu as the director-producer of the upcoming Disney+ series Willow, based on the 1988 fantasy movie of the same name.

Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians and Now You See Me 2, is stepping away from the project after repeated delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic caused scheduling conflicts. Ron Howard, who directed the original movie, has agreed to take on the project at short notice. It marks the second time that Howard has stepped in to help out a Disney project that had lost its directors, after his work on the 2018 movie Solo, although this time around at least shooting had not already commenced.

The new Willow TV series is set thirty years after the original movie and once again stars Warwick Davis as Willow Ufgood. Jonathan Kasdan, the writer of Solo, has written the pilot and is working as showrunner with Wendy Mericle (Arrow).

Howard will now direct the opening episode and potentially several more instalments of the first season. It is unclear if the other surviving stars of the original film, Joanne Whalley or Val Kilmer, will appear in the series, although Kilmer has suffered extensive health issues in recent years which may preclude an appearance.

Willow is expected to start shooting in the UK in the coming months and will debut on Disney+ in 2022.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season 1

2380. The California-class USS Cerritos is a Starfleet vessel specialising in second contact: turning up to fill out the paperwork and pick up the busywork that more prestigious ships don't have time for as they are on their way to their next adventure. A group of "lower decks" ensigns on Beta Shift are assigned to the most tedious jobs on the ship, but find themselves becoming indispensable to the operation of the vessel.

When a new, animated Star Trek series was announced a couple of years back, some serious grimacing took place among the fanbase. Alex Kurtzman's resurrection of the franchise with the live-action series Star Trek: Discovery had been a mixed bag, at best, and the fear that the new show might be Rick & Morty with a Star Trek rebranding was high. Rick & Morty head writer Mike McMahan being put in charge of the project did little to alleviate those fears.

Fortunately, those fears have been proven groundless. Star Trek: Lower Decks is, genuinely, a fresh and enjoyable take on the Star Trek mythos whilst also paying its dues to the shows and movies that have come before it. Whilst Discovery and Picard have served up some solid instalments and had good ideas, they have also more frequently felt like shows whose writers have never watched a single episode of Star Trek in their lives, serving up generic and all-too-often lifeless adventures which are a disservice to their talented casts. Lower Decks avoids these pitfalls.

There is still much here that the Star Trek hardcore purist will recoil from - the very idea of a comedy series taking place in this universe is enough for that - but on almost every level Lower Decks is a winner. The writing is sharp and funny, the storylines benefitting from the shorter, more focused run-times and, despite the gags, the tone and atmosphere is much more in line with The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (shows which managed to frequently produce, very successfully, comedy episodes like Qpid and In the Cards).

Most episodes feature classic Trek set-ups, such as the crew clashing with an alien race who have claimed salvage rights over Federation technology or a cultural misunderstanding leads to hostility with a race the Federation is trying to diplomatically win over. The twist here is that the adventures are not told from the POV of the pioneering and brave bridge crew of the Federation flagship, but from the perspective of the lowest-ranking four ensigns on a ship dedicated to paperwork and bureaucracy. The USS Cerritos is an old, ill-maintained vessel which has the dirty job of popping along to planets after much more glamorous vessels have already made first contact and headed off to their next adventure. 

The core castmembers are excellent: Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome, Space Force), an experienced officer with good instincts who has been promoted several times, but demoted again due to her irreverent attitude; Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid, The Boys), a stickler for the rules who has excellent book knowledge but is inexperienced in the field; D'Vana Tendi (Noël Wells, Master of None), an enthusiastic fan of Starfleet with an irrepressible appetite for adventure; and Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero, The Good Place) a human engineer adjusted to life with a new cybernetic implant. This foursome is key to most of the adventures, either together or divided into two teams (usually Mariner/Boimler and Tendi/Rutherford). A subplot also usually follows the bridge crew of the Cerritos as they also try to deal with whatever crisis is going on, usually with less success.

The upstairs-downstairs dynamic between the bridge crew and the lower deck officers is entertainingly handled and used as a way to comment on Star Trek tropes. So yes, the show confirms that "most" people use the holodeck for sex, not for playing poker with Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton, and that whilst some officers might like to do a jazz or classical recital in the bar, some other crewmen want to form a 1970s punk rock band instead. The show also reveals that the adventures of the most powerful and advanced ships sometimes leak out to the rest of the fleet, Starfleet Security be damned, leading to confused crewmen on other ships learning about Lore teaming up with the Borg or Dr. Crusher having a relationship with some kind of space ghost.

There is a tension in Lower Decks between self-referential humour for hardcore Star Trek fans (the sort of people who jump up and cry "WE NEED ENGINES TO MAKE US GO!" when the Pakleds show up) and making the stories and humour work for people who've never seen an episode of Star Trek in thier life. I suspect people in the latter category may occasionally be left behind by rapid-fire references to the the joggers of Rubicun who murder people for walking on the grass, cameo appearances by Q and debates over the racial stereotyping of the Ferengi (a reference to the heated, real-life debate about the Ferengi being racial stereotypes of Jews or not). But the show also does a good job of rooting the conflict of any episode in contemporary issues related to characterisation: Boimler's perfectionism, Mariner's fun-loving hyper-competence being undermined by her lack of confidence in pursuing a Starfleet career and so forth. This allows episodes to stand alone even when they are fair to brimming with references to quasi-obscure episodes of a TV show that aired the better part of forty years ago (or even to the original series more than fifty years ago).

Aside from the self-referential tics, there aren't too many negatives. A few of the episode premises are stronger than others, and a few gags threaten to feel tired: a holodeck version of Microsoft's Clippy feels like a gag unearthed by archaeologists and carefully chiselled free, although it does then result in one of the show's finest, extended comedic sequences, so it's hard to be too down on that. The show also makes the Discovery/Picard mistake of feeling a little too reliant on bringing in characters and events from other Trek shows to save the day rather than letting our heroes stand alone. These minor issues are offset by the entertaining tone of adventure and exploration.

The first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks (****½) is easily the finest slice of Trek to emerge since the 2005 hiatus, and the most enjoyable season of Star Trek to air this century. With breezy writing, fun characters and a comedic tone set over genuine Star Trek ideals, it shades its recent live-action siblings. The season is available to watch now on CBS All Access in the USA and on Amazon Prime in much of the rest of the world. A second season is currently in production and should air later this year.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Seinfeld: The Complete Series

Jerry Seinfeld is a comedian in New York City who is constantly searching for new material. He finds it in the minutiae of everyday life, particularly his interactions with his old friend George Constanza, ex-girlfriend-turned-friend Elaine Benes and next-door neighbour Kramer. The foursome's increasingly odd adventures provide material for Seinfeld's career, but their lack of "hugging and learning" eventually spells their own downfall.


Airing between 1989 and 1998, Seinfeld is an odd entry in the pantheon of Great American Sitcoms. Most American sitcoms had and still have elements of heart-warming effusiveness, friendship and emotion. Characters may screw up or cause mayhem, but at the end of the day their problems would be resolved with the help of their friends or family. Some shows had started experimenting and playing around with this formula (M*A*S*H* with its wartime storytelling, Cheers with its serialised, soap-like character arcs) but Seinfeld was the first one to come along and, if not outright reject, then downplay those elements. One of the show's unofficial mottoes was "no hugging, no learning." Characters would frequently cause untold mayhem through their actions, words or inaction and go on to do exactly the same thing. Seinfeld acknowledged that a lot of lives don't really have an arc of growth and change but instead people finding a way of spinning their experiences into self-validation, even in the face of obvious truth that they've hurt others or themselves.

In this sense the "show about nothing" was really the "show about everything." No anecdote, story or idea was too small or too trivial not to be considered for a storyline. NBC famously blew a fuse early on when an entire episode was spent waiting in the line for a Chinese restaurant and writer-producers Seinfeld and Larry David had to stare them down to get the episode made. Entire episodes revolved around parking spaces, soup and the annoyances of just traversing the subway. Continuing storylines revolved around relationships, family and jobs, in particular George and Elaine's struggles to find interesting jobs that would reward their laziness and dislike of other people.

Unlike many sitcoms, the show did not take too long to find its feet. After a somewhat indifferent pilot, the short-run second season almost immediately established the familiar character dynamics and tone. An "imperial period" of top-quality would extend from at least the third season to the end of the seventh, with the fourth year being particularly impressive for its introduction of a season-spanning arc. An early example of metahumour, the season is about George (Larry David's obvious author-insert character) and Jerry being hired by NBC to make a sitcom Jerry's life. The development of the sitcom-within-a-sitcom allowed the writers to make jokes about the show's own catchphrases, cliches and some of its real off-air drama (such as Larry David's real next-door neighbour who'd become incensed when he based Kramer on him without letting him audition for the role). Arguably no other sitcom would tackle the actual issues of making a sitcom until Episodes in 2011-17, and that was a patchier show.

Likewise, the seventh season opens with George realising he's doomed to a life of loneliness and he quickly tries to rekindle a relationship with his ex, Susan, which then goes overboard and he ends up getting engaged...just before remembering why they split up in the first place, leading to a season of increasingly desperate moves as George tries to escape his fate (the highly-memorable conclusion being the departing Larry David's last-minute hail Mary when he couldn't think of another ending).

David's departure at the end of Season 7 created a creative void in the show which it initially struggled to fill; the first half of Season 8 is the nadir of the show, with bizarre premises and a lack of the detailed, slice-of-life stories that made the show such a success. The show undergoes a creative resurgence in the latter part of the eighth season and into the ninth, however, as the new writing team get to grips with the situation. Infamously, David's return for the finale would prove to be highly controversial, with the episode seemingly determined to make the four friends out to be rather more selfish, amoral and reprehensible than they were usually depicted as being.

Seinfeld's strengths remain its writing, which is still sharp and funny. Guest characters are usually well-drawn and intriguing, with many becoming recurring players as the writers found additional ways of mining them for more stories. In this sense the unusually small regular cast became a bonus, allowing them to thread in other characters as needed without having to balloon the weekly cast out to a huge size (a problem faced by Cheers towards the end of its run). If the writers had material for George's monstrous parents, Elaine's unhinged boss or Jerry's arch-nemesis Newman, they could bring them in and if not, leave them out. The actors mostly do a good job, with Seinfeld himself being the weakest link (by his own cheerful admission) and a key reason why Seinfeld is usually more reacting to the craziness that his three friends have gotten into than driving storylines himself. This kind of generosity in ostensibly the leading man of a successful TV show is quite unusual.

Like any show which runs for nine years and 180 episodes the series does have repetitive tropes which occasionally become wearying: Jerry and George's problems often revolve around their latest girlfriend or relationship issue, with a seemingly never-ending revolving door of attractive actresses passing through the show. It's notable that these relationship stories become better when the partners actually stick around for a bit longer and get better-defined characters. There's also a few episodes where Kramer's latest "whacky hijinks" feel stretched past of the point of lunacy. The continuous character clashes between George and Elaine also make it hard to swallow that these people would be friends and hang out, at least without Jerry being around. These issues do become more marked in the final two seasons, when the show's creative juices are starting to run dry. Some may also find subsequent events - such as Michael Richards' racist-filled tirade against audience members during a standup performance many years later, or Seinfeld dating a teenager at the height of his fame - colour their appreciation of the show in retrospect.

Seinfeld (****½) is an often hilarious, smart and well-played comedy series, arguably the greatest of its time, and one that paved the way for many shows that have come since. Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO takes the Seinfeld formula and propels it into the stratosphere. Similarly, FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia seems to ask what would happen if you made the actual show that Seinfeld is often accused of being, a dystopian nightmare of several hateful characters forced to live and work together and getting into at-times nihilistic misadventures. Some patchy later seasons and over-used tics are minor weaknesses for a show that's aged well. The show is available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK and USA. Netflix will begin streaming the show in its entirety later in 2021.

RIP Mira Furlan

In tragic news, actress Mira Furlan has passed away at the age of 65.

Furlan was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in the former Yugoslavia. She became interested in acting as a teenager, and learned English due to being a fan of American and British music. She studied acting at college and made her TV debut in 1976 in a TV movie, Knez. She became a regular on television in the series Velo Misto in 1980-81 and gained acclaim for her performance in the 1985 movie, When Father Was Away on Business.

Furlan married her Serbian husband, director Goran Gajić, in the late 1980s and commuted between Zagreb and Belgrade where he was directing plays. She appeared in productions in both cities. Although Furlan considered herself a Yugoslav first and foremost, this became an unpopular position as the country was riven by fierce nationalism between its constituent parts. In 1991, after the civil war that would lead to the break-up of Yugoslavia began, she was fired from the Croatian National Theatre for refusing to stop acting in Serbia. After some discussion, she and her husband fled the country and moved to New York City.

A year later, they relocated to Los Angeles when Furlan was cast in her most famous role, that of Minbari Ambassador Delenn in Babylon 5. The role was challenging, as Furlan had to act through significant prosthetics. In addition, she had to play a character whose gender was indeterminate, who would undergo a metamorphosis at the end of the first season to become female. Although she was fine with the prosthetics, she was less happy when she learned her voice was going to be electronically distorted to hide her gender as well. It was decided to drop this idea for the pilot. When the show was renewed for a full season, it was also decided to modify her makeup to be less restrictive. The metamorphosis saw the makeup reduced further, which helped make Furlan more identifiable with her character.

Furlan played Delenn in all five seasons of Babylon 5, becoming one of the show's leading players, and in several spin-off TV movies based on the series, as well as an unreleased video game.

She also voiced the role of Silver Sable on the Spider-Man animated show and was a guest star on several other shows.

In 2004 she was cast on the television series Lost, the biggest show on American TV, playing the role of French castaway Danielle Rousseau. She appeared in twenty episodes spanning the whole show; her character was killed off in the fourth season, but she was able to reappear in the final season thanks to flashbacks, time travel and parallel universes.

In addition to acting on stage and screen, she did voice work for several video games: Payday 2 (2013), Elite: Dangerous (2014), Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016) and Mafia: Definitive Edition (2020). Her recent roles include Vonn Odara on Space Command and the Traveller on Just Add Magic. During recent years, Furlan was a frequent attendee at Babylon 5 fan conventions.

Furlan had been ill for some time, although there had been hopes of improvement recently. Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski confirmed her passing on social media. She is survived by her husband and son. An intense and skilled performer, she will be missed.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

GAME OF THRONES prequel series based on Dunk & Egg in development at HBO

In surprising news, Variety has learned that HBO are developing another Game of Thrones prequel series, this time based on George R.R. Martin's Dunk & Egg series of novellas. This is in addition to House of the Dragon, which is currently in pre-production and casting, and the Long Night pilot, Bloodmoon, which was shot in 2019 but HBO declined to pursue to series.

The Dunk & Egg stories begin eighty-nine years before the events of Game of Thrones (or the first Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Game of Thrones) and chart the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, a newly-minted common or hedge knight, and his squire, "Egg," a young boy who is more than he seems. George R.R. Martin has so far written three novellas about the characters: The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2010), with these three stories combined and released as A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms in 2015. Martin had planned for around twelve stories in total spanning some fifty years, with the next two, The She-Wolves (not the final title) and The Village Hero, already sketched out and partly written, but on hold until he completes the next Song of Ice and Fire novel. He also alludes to Dunk and Egg's further adventures in his companion book, The World of Ice and Fire (2014), as well as seeding mentions of their adventures in the mainline series novels. Duncan is also mentioned several times in the Game of Thrones TV series.

The Dunk & Egg stories are extremely popular with fans and have seemed ripe for adaptation for many years. Martin has downplayed such a possibility due to his disappointment that HBO overtook him with the main TV series and did not want to repeat the process with Dunk & Egg. Martin has reiterated this many times over the years, to the point of refusing even to hear pitches about the idea. Martin's contract with HBO gives Martin veto over future Game of Thrones spin-offs that do not meet his approval (at the cost that he cannot take material set in the same world to other networks or studios).

The fact that a series is now in development indicates that Martin has changed his mind. It may be that Martin has concluded that with The Winds of Winter already nine years in the works and a further novel to follow, it will simply be far too long before he is able to focus on Dunk & Egg and the stories will not get written in a reasonable timeframe if he continues to wait. This way, he can provide outlines for each of the twelve stories and have other writers develop them into scripts, and they can reach fans much more quickly.

From HBO's point of view, there is tremendous value to the project. It is much closer to the timeframe of Game of Thrones itself and characters from the earlier series can actually appear (the notorious Walder Frey actually appears as a baby in The Mystery Knight). The stories are more straightforward, eschewing the high-budget magic and massive battles of the parent series in favour of more focused adventures on the roads of Westeros. A more episodic road-trip of a series would also contrast favourably with House of the Dragon, which is likely to be very expensive and complex in its storytelling.

The project is in very early days at HBO and HBO have not yet made a pilot or series order, and it may yet not make the grade. However, it sounds like HBO are very keen to get the ball rolling on a series. If so, we should hear more news later this year.

Meanwhile, House of the Dragon is currently knee-deep in casting. It recently added Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen, Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Olivia Cooke as Lady Alicent Hightower, along with Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen. Shooting is expected to begin at the Warner Brothers Studios, Leavesden, in the next few weeks for a 2022 debut.

EDIT: James Hibberd at Entertainment Weekly has added more information, confirming that a number of other Game of Thrones-related pitches are currently circulating at HBO and that the network is looking to woo back Bruno Heller, who created and ran the series Rome for them in 2005-07, to get involved. Apparently one pitch under discussion is a show based on Robert's Rebellion, the civil war that brought King Robert Baratheon to power, and is set only seventeen years before the events of Game of Thrones itself, with younger versions of characters like Ned Stark, Littlefinger, Ser Barristan Selmy and Jaime and Tywin Lannister playing key roles. George has been much more vociferous that a Rebellion-era series is unnecessary, which makes me wonder if all these reported pitches are actually pitches to George rather than having already consulted with him. If so that may cast the likelihood of a Dunk & Egg series in some doubt (although I could see George relenting on D&E long before the Rebellion).

Hibberd reports that HBO are looking at Game of Thrones as a streamer-establishing franchise for the HBO Max service, hoping to replicate the huge success of the various Star Wars and MCU shows (so far) on Disney+ and the multiple Star Trek shows on CBS All Access, and it sounds like projects are also in development.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

HBO Max reportedly planning a continuation of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES

According to Kevin Smith and other sources, HBO Max are planning a continuation of the classic Batman: The Animated Series.


Batman: The Animated Series aired between 1992 and 1995, producing 85 episodes and spawning a number of spin-off shows and series set in the same continuity. The series is one of the most highly-acclaimed animated and superhero TV series of all time and has recently reached new audiences through a HD remaster and appearing on streaming services.

The show drew on Tim Burton's live-action movies Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) for artistic inspiration, although it also charted its own course with unique characterisations for Bruce Wayne/Batman, Robin and Joker. The vocal performances by Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn) have also become regarded as iconic, if not definitive. The show is also highly notable for its additions to the Batman mythos, most infamously the character of Harley Quinn who was introduced in the animated series before migrating to the comic a year later. Renee Montoya, Lock-Up and Simon Trent are other characters originated on the series to play a role in other versions of the mythos later on.

The Animated Series version of the mythos directly inspired the storylines and characterisation in the Arkham series of video games, which also starred Conroy, Hamill and (in the first game, at least) Sorkin.

Smith indicates that Bruce Timm, the original showrunner and co-creator, is involved in the new series. It's unclear if writer Paul Dini is also on board, or if the original vocal cast will return; Hamill, at least, has said that his version of Joker has been retired (although he's also been tempted out of retirement in the past).

If the continuation is confirmed, it is unclear if it would be a reboot in the same art style or if it would continue the storylines from where the animated show left off. This might be complicated by the sheer number of other series which have followed on from The Animated Series (including a contemporary Superman series and the SF-tinged Batman Beyond).

HBO Max has not yet formally confirmed the news.

Valve Corporation considering a move to New Zealand

Valve Corporation, one of the biggest video game companies in the world, are considering at least a partial move to New Zealand.


Valve's CEO Gabe Newell was in New Zealand on holiday when the COVID pandemic erupted and decided to stay in the country whilst the crisis unfolded. He has since been granted residency and is pursuing citizenship. He reports that many Valve employees have expressed interest in moving the company to New Zealand.

Valve was founded in Kirkland, Washington in 1996. It has since moved its headquarters to the neighbouring city of Bellevue, both located close to Seattle. Valve made its name with developing video games, particularly the Half-Life, Team Fortress, Counter-StrikeLeft 4 Dead and Portal series of acclaimed first-person shooters and puzzle games. More recently they have branched into online multiplayer games like Dota 2. Their most recent release was the highly-acclaimed VR game Half-Life: Alyx, released last year.

They are, however, much more significant for creating and maintaining the online distribution platform Steam. Launched in 2003, Steam has become the de facto primary digital distribution platform for PC gaming in the world despite a strong challenge from rival services such as GoG, Origins, UPlay and Epic Games Store. Their annual income is in the billions of dollars, with well under 500 employees which makes them probably the most profitable-per-employee company in the entire United States.

Newell has noted that New Zealand's healthcare system, success at handling the pandemic (with one of the lowest infection and death rates in the world) and general quality of life make moving the company the company there an attractive prospect. He does note that many employees have family ties in the Washington state area that makes a wholesale move of the entire company less likely, but a possible move of headquarters to New Zealand whilst keeping the Bellevue office open as a satellite operation might be an option.

Newell also opined that hosting eSports championships in New Zealand could also be an option whilst other countries are struggling with the pandemic with greater difficulty. The annual Dota 2 championship has the most lucrative prizes in eSports, with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive not far behind.

As usual, Newell refused to be drawn on news about Half-Life 3 or Portal 3, but noted that the success of Half-Life: Alyx had reinvigorated the company and they do have new, single-player games in development.

Metro: Redux

In 2013, a nuclear war devastated the Earth. The city of Moscow was destroyed by several direct nuclear hits, the few thousand survivors being driven literally underground to seek refuge in the Moscow Metro. Twenty years later several competing factions have arisen, with the Spartan Rangers, the Fourth Reich and the Red Line fighting whilst several independent city-states try to survive in the crossfire. And above their heads, strange creatures have arisen to take control of the surface world.

Originally released in 2010 and 2013, the first two instalments in Ukrainian 4A Studios' Metro series of first-person shooters were accomplished games. Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light told an intriguing story of survival, horror, war, love and loss against a superbly-realised background, provided by Dmitry Glukhovsky's trilogy of source novels (Metro 2033, Metro 2034 and Metro 2035). The developers have form from working on the earlier S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games, although the Metro series eschews those games open-world settings for a much more linear and focused experience.

In 2014 both games were reworked and re-released in "Redux" editions. These editions of the games rework graphics, AI, controls and difficulty to provide a more consistent and linear experience across both games. Minor differences in controls, interfaces and enemies are smoothed out to form what is effectively one large game.

Being the older game, Metro 2033 benefits much more from the upgrade. Graphics, physics and lighting are much-improved and things like the games' stealth system is now more reliable and works better. Best of all is the evening out of the first game's infamously punishing difficulty. The original game's "normal" is now "hard" and a newer, normal difficulty level has been imported from Last Light, which makes ammo easier to find. In contrast, Last Light has inherited 2033's more punishing optional difficulty levels to turn it more into a survival game. The disparity between the two titles is gone and you can now play both as either a hardcore survival shooter or a more relaxed and forgiving action title.

Both games have aged well, and their at-the-time impressive focus on stealth has become all the more impressive. The games don't do a great job of telling you about the stealth system though. Basically, enemies, no matter how tough, can be killed with a single thrown knife as long as you take them unawares. You can also sneak up behind them and knock them out or kill them in close proximity without alerting their friends. If one enemy does spot you, instead of magically letting everyone else know your precise location via telepathy, you do have a narrow window of opportunity to disable them before they can alert other guards, allowing you to recover from serious errors. You can also use muffled weapons to take down enemies, extinguish lights, although causing too much mischief from the shadows can lead to the enemy getting suspicious and switching to a higher alert state.

Both games retain impressive action set pieces and the storytelling remains intriguing. The environmental storytelling, reliance on NPC companions and your status as a silent protagonist all make for positive comparisons with the Half-Life series. However, the games suffer a little from their morality system, which they don't tell you about. Basically, the less mayhem you cause, the more guards you knock out rather than kill, the more you go out of your way to avoid killing (even mutants), the higher your morality score. This unlocks secret endings for both games. For Metro 2033, to be honest, this is a bit pointless as the secret ending is not canon (Last Light starts the "negative" ending from the first game, which is off-putting if you're playing both games together), but for Last Light it's more important because the "secret" ending in Last Light is the canon one and sets up the third game in the series, Metro: Exodus. Unfortunately, some of the high-moral outcomes in Last Light are a bit obtuse, requiring you to uncover secret caches and avoid killing even when it appears fully justified to do so.

These vagaries are minor annoyances, and made up for by the package's impressive amount of side-content. All of Last Light's generous DLC is included, including more missions expanding on background events in Last Light (focusing on various side-characters and their own storylines), a solid single-player survival mode set on an open world map with you scavenging for supplies at a huge library, and a specialist (and punishingly hard) sniper map.

Metro: Redux (****) takes two strong, older games and makes them sharper, better and more enjoyable for modern gamers. The morality and stealth systems feel a bit under-explained, but once you get to grips with them, they enhance an atmospheric and accomplished pair of shooters. The package is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and X-Box One.