Wednesday 31 March 2021

Modiphius unveil the FALLOUT tabletop roleplaying game

Modiphius Entertainment have unveiled the official Fallout tabletop roleplaying game. Remarkably - because the original video game was inspired by a homebrew tabletop campaign - this is the first official tabletop roleplaying version of the franchise in its almost quarter-century history.

The game will allow players to take on the roles of vault dwellers, ghouls, super mutants and robots, and will allow for GMs to create campaigns set anywhere in post-apocalyptic North America (and, with some imagination, elsewhere). The game will ship with a default setting based on Boston and the surrounding Commonwealth, from the video game Fallout 4, but it should be easy enough to adapt to any other settings.

The core rulebook is enormous at 438 pages and will be accompanied with custom dice, handouts, character sheet pads, Nuka Cola Cap coins and the possibility of incorporating their enormous miniatures range from the Fallout: Wasteland Warfare game into their core game. The game will also ship with a limited edition based on the GECK (Garden of Eden Creation Kit) from the video games, and a larger table bundle incorporating numerous extras.

The game uses the popular 2d20 rules system from Modiphius's other games, including Star Trek Adventures and Dishonored.

The game has a release date of "summer 2021," although given Modiphius's infamously vague release windows, it might be better to circle autumn before you get a copy in your hands. Additional expansions for the game should follow the initial release.

Tuesday 30 March 2021

GAME OF THRONES stage play will tell the true story of the Great Harrenhal Tourney

In slightly bemusing news, a Game of Thrones stage play is headed to Broadway and the West End. The play will tell the full story of the Great Harrenhal Tourney in the Year of False Spring, the legendary event that spurred Prince Rhaegar Targaryen to "abduct" Lyanna Stark, the sister of Eddard Stark and betrothed of Robert Baratheon, and triggered the civil war that destroyed the Targaryen dynasty.

The play will be written by Duncan MacMillan and directed by Dominic Cooke. MacMillan's script will be based on a story outline provided by George R.R. Martin.

The project is notable as the first Game of Thrones-related project featuring a new story that will draw on established characters. Ned Stark, Tywin Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Barristan Selmy play major roles in this story, as do the briefly-appearing Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. However, these roles will be played by new (and, given the medium, regularly changing) actors.

The project is also interesting because it may indicate a change of direction from George R.R. Martin, who had previously shot down all suggestions for a spin-off or prequel about the Great Harrenhal Tourney or the succeeding Robert's Rebellion. Clearly he's now - at least partially - changed his mind on that, making a spin-off TV show or film about the Rebellion itself potentially more likely.

The stage play is expected to arrive in Broadway (New York City), the West End (London) and Australia in 2023.

AMERICAN GODS cancelled at Starz

Starz has cancelled American Gods, its fantasy TV show based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, after three seasons, citing declining ratings.

The TV show, based on Gaiman's bestselling 2001 novel, has had a raucous and uncertain behind-the-scenes production. Original writer-showrunner Bryan Fuller drove the first season an astonishing $30 million over budget before clashing with executives over the budget for the second season. He was fired and replaced with Jesse Alexander, with Gaiman himself stepping up for an increased, unofficial role in the second season. Alexander exited the show before Season 2 aired, being replaced by producing director Chris Byrne and line producer Lisa Kussner on an interim basis. Charles Eglee  replaced them for the third season.

The show also experienced a high cast turnover, with Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth departing after Season 1 and Pablo Shreiber and Orlando Jones departing after Season 2 (the former after being cast as the lead in the Halo TV series), although the core cast of Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Emily Browning, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley and Yetide Badaki remained intact.

Although the show was applauded for its performances and rich visual style, it was heavily criticised for stretching a single 500-page novel out across at least four seasons, resulting in a somnambulantly glacial pace. Its critical acclaim significantly dropped after the first season and ratings tumbled, with only around a third of the Season 1 audience sticking around for a third season.

Production company Fremantle are now in talks for a TV movie to wrap up the story (Season 3 ended barely 40 pages from the end of the novel, allowing for a relatively speedy wrap-up), although Starz are reportedly lukewarm on the prospects.

Gaiman is currently producing an adaptation of his Sandman graphic novel series for Netflix.

HBO renews George RR Martin development deal

HBO has renewed its exclusive development deal with George R.R. Martin, originally signed back in 2013.

The deal continues to give HBO the exclusive right to tap Martin for ideas for new TV shows and movies. These ideas may be based directly on Martin's own works (including further works in the Game of Thrones settings of Westeros and Essos) or on other authors' works which Martin recommends to them.

Martin has already been doing this for seven years, developing Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death as a TV show (which is now moving forwards with Tessa Thompson producing and Aïda Mashaka Croal showrunning) and Roger Zelazny's novel Roadmarks (with Kalinda Vazquez showrunning). During this time HBO has considered a number of other projects proposed by Martin, including a potential adaptation of Martin's earlier novel Tuf Voyaging and a number of classic SFF novels (rumoured to be from the likes of Robert Silverberg, Nancy Kress and Robert Heinlein). They also filmed a Game of Thrones spin-off pilot which did not move forwards, before greenlighting the series House of the Dragon, which is due to start shooting imminently.

As well as House of the Dragon, HBO are considering multiple spin-off shows based on Game of Thrones, including Nine Voyages (based on the life story of Corlys Velaryon), Ten Thousand Ships (based on Queen Nymeria's flight to Dorne) and Flea Bottom. They have also proposed series based on the Dunk and Egg novellas and on Robert Baratheon's rebellion, with some reports that one of these series will be adapted as an animated series rather than in live-action.

Martin will be named as a producer or executive producer on these projects, but will not be writing directly for any of them due to his commitment to finishing the next Song of Ice and Fire novel, The Winds of Winter. Martin reported in November making strong progress on the novel through last year, with a hope that the ending may be, if not imminent, then at least lurching unsteadily into distant view.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

The Unseen University, the centre of magical learning on the Discworld, a building whose endless rooftops make Gormenghast look like a toolshed on a railway allotment and whose faculty are the guardians of magic for the whole world. Of course, wizards are renowned for being incredibly intelligent but not very smart, and when Drum Billet realises his time is almost up he decides to pass on his staff to the eighth son of a poor blacksmith, himself an eighth son, and thus a potential great wizard. Unfortunately, he neglects to check the baby's gender first...

After two unexpectedly bestselling novels, Terry Pratchett changed gears in his writing career. He quit his day job as a press officer for a nuclear power station and became a full-time writer, churning out two volumes a year for more than a decade. He also adjusted his vision of what the Discworld series could be. No more a series of satires of fantasy or fairy tale tropes, he decided that he could take any subject and make a Discworld novel about it.

Equal Rites is the first novel to employ this approach. No previous characters from the first two books turn up (with one orange-furred and banana-stained exception), and there isn't even any mention of those events. Instead we have new characters having new adventures. Pratchett also starts to use his creation to address real-world concerns here, in this case, well, equal rights for those of a nonmale persuasion. The humour remains fairly broad, but you can almost sense the author thinking at this point that maybe the funny planet with the turtle and elephants can be used for something more interesting than just poking fun at Lovecraft and Conan the Barbarian, amusing as that may be. Unfortunately, this idea falters a bit since Esk's story is meant to make Unseen University a co-ed establishment, bringing in female wizards and making it more equal. As later books show, none of this happens, Esk doesn't show up again until more than thirty books down the line and UU remains a male-only establishment in the later novels. Given how well Pratchett develops his world, this lack of evolution is mildly disappointing.

That's more a problem with the later books than this one, though. As with several other early Discworld books, there is something of a lack of focus here. The book starts off as a travelogue, with Granny Weatherwax and Esk travelling to Ankh-Morpork from the tiny Ramtops village of Bad Ass (later retconned into the Kingdom of Lancre, the setting for many later books), though the limited page count (Equal Rites barely cracks 200 pages in paperback) and the need for a Big Finale in Ankh-Morpork curtails this element just as it's getting interesting and we quickly (via a jump-started, second-hand broomstick) move to the city and the ending which - and stop me if you've (already) heard this one before - involves the threat of Unspeakable Things from the Dungeon Dimensions erupting through the skein of reality to destroy the universe. Again.

In terms of character, it's hard to argue with the book: Esk is a well-defined protagonist and Granny Weatherwax, of course, is one of Pratchett's signature characters, a formidable and solid figure whose common sense sometimes feels a bit adrift in a world as off-kilter as this one (Pratchett uses the Only Sane Person idea a lot in the series, but none are saner than Granny Weatherwax). This is still very much a proto-Granny, not the much more complex and sophisticated character of the later novels, but it's fun to revisit the somewhat simpler village witch and see her evolution and growth into a stronger and more interesting figure. Among Discworld characters, only arguably Sam Vimes of the City Watch can match this kind of evolution. We also get our first sympathetic Archchancellor of Unseen University, Cutangle, and it's rather a shame he doesn't show up again (though given the events of Sourcery, that might be for the best, for him at any rate). 

Equal Rites (***½) is important as the first Discworld novel where Pratchett changes gears and realises he can tell self-contained stories about this world not involving Rincewind and Twoflower, and use the Discworld as a reflection for real-world concerns as well as simply being funny. It's still Early Pratchett, with a bit of a reliance on standby ideas, but you can see the growing ambition and craft on display here. The novel is available in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the book here.

Monday 29 March 2021

STAR WARS: OBI-WAN announces main cast

The Disney+ mini-series Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi has confirmed its main cast and it's both intriguing and impressive.

Obviously, Ewan McGregor reprises his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars prequel trilogy (the late Sir Alec Guinness originated the role in the original Star Wars trilogy). Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) also joins the party, presumably reprising the role of Anakin/Vader in flashbacks, if not putting on the big black suit himself.

Also reprising their roles from the prequel trilogy are Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse, who of course played Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and were given the care of the young Luke Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith. The late Phil Brown and Shelagh Fraser played the two characters in Star Wars (1977).

Joining them are Indira Varma (Rome, Game of Thrones), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton), Kumail Nanjiani (Eternals), Sung Kang (The Fast and the Furious), Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems), Simone Kessell (Terra Nova, Of Kings and Prophets), Rupert Friend (Homeland) and Moses Ingram (The Queen's Gambit).

Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi starts shooting in April 2021 and will air on Disney+ in 2022.

Lucasfilm are also producing The Book of Boba Fett (shooting at the moment) for a late 2021 bow and Season 3 of The Mandalorian for an early 2022 debut, alongside the mini-series Andor. Ahsoka and Rangers of the New Republic are also in the planning-stages, whilst the next Star Wars feature film, Rogue Squadron, is currently in pre-production for a late 2023 debut.

Friday 26 March 2021

Chris Wooding's EMBER BLADE sequel on temporary hold

Chris Wooding has provided an update on the status of The Darkwater Legacy, his "classic throwback" fantasy trilogy that began with 2018's accomplished The Ember Blade.

On Twitter, Wooding reports that the second book is about 70% complete and now on hold, as another top secret project has taken precedence. Like many SFF authors, Wooding isn't a full-time novelist but has a day-job, in his case as a scriptwriter for film, TV and video game projects. Initial work on the Ember Blade sequel was slowed by another top secret project that turned out to be Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, where Wooding provided writing and dialogue for various characters.

With the book in a reasonably advanced stage of completion, it hopefully won't take too long to complete once Wooding is able to resume work on it. In the meantime, we have a bit of a wait to find out what happens with both the book and also what the top secret project he's working on is.

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

For reasons that are not immediately clear, Great A'Tuin the World Turtle (sex unknown) has decided to put itself on a collision course with a red giant star. Which is inconvenient and vexing for the inhabitants of the Discworld, the flat planet it carries on its back (via the intermediary form of four giant elephants, but that's not important right now). The wizards of Unseen University meet and conclude that catastrophe can be averted if the Eight Great Spells of the Octavo are united and spoken, which is complicated because one of the spells has lodged itself in the head of the charitably-designated wizard Rincewind, who has lately been seen plummeting over the edge of the Disc towards certain death.

Controversially and in defiance of spoiler norms, it's perhaps not too outrageous to reveal that Rincewind and his companions do in fact manage to avert their certain deaths and find themselves back on the road again, this time pursued by various special-interest groups who want to extract the spell from Rincewind's brain by whatever means possible.

The Light Fantastic is the second novel in the Discworld sequence and is the only book in the series to act as a continuation of the prior book. The Colour of Magic's storyline continues directly into this volume, creating an odd mismatch in tone, as The Colour of Magic is very much an atypical Discworld book whilst The Light Fantastic is starting to slowly transition the series into a more familiar format. There's only one narrative here, not the four novellas combined into one story structure form the first book, and Pratchett's voice and humour is already settling into a more familiar mode. There's much less riffing on prior fantasy tropes (a second Conan the Barbarian parody and a very brief shout-out to Tolkien aside) with fairy tales instead getting more of a satirical once-over here. Pratchett also abandoned the chapter structure at this point, which earned him much ire at the time from critics but also from fans, whose "just one more chapter" plans not to stay up all night reading were disrupted by there not being another chapter and invariably staying up to read the entire novel.

For the first time, though, we do get a subplot, with the action occasionally cutting away to the wizards of Unseen University and their various attempts to solve the crisis. The wizards are able to employ their vast resources to help, but these are invariably are proven useless by the actual protagonist, but nevertheless provides much comedy along the way. The effect here is slightly dimmed by none of the familiar wizard characters from later volumes appearing, with the exception of the Librarian, one of the series' most iconic and fan-favourite characters. We even get the Librarian's origin story here (orang-igin story?), albeit in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it manner.

There's also, intriguingly, plot-laying for later books, with a visit to Death's home introducing his adopted daughter Ysabel (foreshadowing the events of Mort) and the other Horsemen of the Apocralypse, who will become more important in Sourcery.

Early Discworld had a tendency for Pratchett to fall back on "nasty things from the Dungeon Dimensions threatening to break through the walls of reality and kill everyone in inventive ways with tentacles" as the default threat, even though it's not very interesting, and that issue is present here, as is the occasional loss of focus as Pratchett (who famously did not outline his books, at least not to start with) tries to organically steer the narrative towards a conclusion. However, the book does benefit from being one  continuous story and Pratchett is more interested in characterisation here, with Rincewind and Twoflower both growing and changing as a result of their experiences after being painted fairly broadly in the first novel.

The Light Fantastic (***½) sees the author still finding his feet and confidence, but still crafting a funny and enjoyable novel, with hints of the greatness to come starting to appear.

The novel is available in the UK and USA now. I published a previous review of the book here.

Thursday 25 March 2021

ROME: TOTAL WAR REMASTERED announced for release next month

In surprising but very welcome news, Creative Assembly and Sega have announced the almost-imminent release of Total War: Rome Remastered.

Rome: Total War (as it was then called) was the third game in the Total War series and was released in late 2004. It immediately became the biggest-selling game in the series and its graphics engine even powered a historical re-enactment TV show, Time Commanders. Rome's success was all the more impressive given it launched at the same time as Half-Life 2, World of WarCraft and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and still managed to be a huge success.

Rome: Total War introduced series staples such as 3D battle and strategy maps, enhanced UI and finer control of units. It also had features oddly missing from later games, such as the ability to view your cities at will in 3D to see how they looked in peacetime with civilians wandering around, and that sites of interest on the campaign map would appear on the battle-map if combat erupted in that area (so if you fought near the Pyramids, the Pyramids would appear on the actual battle map, even though you could easily play a hundred games with that eventuality never arising).

Rome: Total War massively expanded the scope of the series beyond any game before or after (at least until the 2016 release of Total War: Warhammer) and is still-regarded by a hardcore contingent of old-skool fans as the best game in the series.

The remaster upgrades all of the graphics to 4K standards, reworks the UI to something a bit more contemporary and will also take full advantage of modern hardware, overcoming hardcoded engine limitations that mean that both Rome and its successor, Medieval II: Total War are unable to fully use modern amounts of RAM and VRAM (meaning that Medieval II in particular can still chug even on modern machines with preposterously more power than it was ever designed for). You will also be able do unnecessary-but-cool things like fully rotating the battle map and render the game on ultrawide monitors.

Gameplay will mostly be kept the same - which makes sense as change that too much and you might as well just make Rome III - so there won't be any 3D naval battles or armies magically turning into boats, but there will be some tweaks, such as a new roster of civilisations (possibly replacing the generic "Rebels" of the original) and some tweaks to the old ones. It is unclear if the controversial "Fantasy Egypt" faction will be included or replaced by a proper, age-appropriate Greek-Egyptian faction. Merchant agents from Medieval II will also be available for use in Rome.

The game will include both the Barbarian Invasion and Alexander expansions, the latter presumably retaining the appropriately epic narration of Brian Blessed.

One question is mod support. The games released after Medieval II have severely curtailed modding, allowing unit tweaks and reskins but not the "total conversion" mods of Rome and Medieval II that transformed them into completely new, fantastic games like Third Age: Total War (a Middle-earth mod), Call of Warhammer: Total War, Hyrule: Total War and Westeros: Total War. The official PR copy confirms there will be mod support, but not if total conversions will remain supported.

The remaster is being handled by Feral Interactive, who have handled the mobile remasters and ports of other Total War games for the past few years.

Total War: Rome Remastered will be released on 29 April. Those who already own Rome: Total War will get a 50% discount until the start of June.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Peter S. Beagle regains control of THE LAST UNICORN and other works

Author Peter S. Beagle has regained control of his intellectual property following a lengthy legal battle with his former manager.

Beagle is best-known for his 1968 novel The Last Unicorn, widely-regarded as one of the finest works of fantasy ever published. Connor "Freff" Cochran, the owner of Conlan Press, had acted as Beagle's manager for many years but in 2015 was fired and then sued for $52 million by Beagle for fraud and elder abuse. The case was found in Beagle's favour in 2019, but Cochran immediately declared bankruptcy, leaving the IP status of Beagle's work in limbo.

Today's judgement restores ownership of Beagle's IP to a group including Beagle himself. Beagle plans to bring to widespread publication a number of other works and move forwards with interest in a live-action television or film adaptation of The Last Unicorn. He also plans to publicise the issues surrounding elder abuse to help prevent it happening again in the future.

During the legal row, the audiobook of the novel became unavailable and several other publication issues arose, which should now be easily solved.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Marvel announces simultaneous cinema-streaming release for BLACK WIDOW

After more than a year of speculation and delay, Disney and Marvel have thrown in the towel and confirmed that the next Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Black Widow, will get a simultaneous cinema and Disney+ release on 9 July.

The film was originally set for release on 1 May 2020, but the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to those ideas. The film was initially delayed until November 2020 and then May 2021 as the pandemic continued to unfold.

However, the continuous delays caused significant headaches for Marvel, who had a whole raft of additional MCU movies in production for release after Black Widow. Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings both also saw their originally-scheduled release dates shifted back due to the pandemic, with another three films currently shooting (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder) and three more in pre-production for filming to begin soon (Black Panther II, Captain Marvel 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania).

Further complicating matters was a raft of MCU-set TV shows, some of which are due to tie in with the upcoming movies. The recently-aired WandaVision, for example, sets up plot points that will be further explored in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, whilst a character introduced in Black Widow will recur in Hawkeye, due to air at the end of this year. Delaying the films continuously risks breaking the ties of continuity between the various Marvel projects.

Although the vaccination programme is proceeding apace in several countries, such as the UK, USA and Israel, it is off to a much slower start in mainland Europe, and even in countries where vaccinations are proceeding well, it's far from clear if cinemas will be able to open in May (the UK is not expecting to reopen cinemas until June at present). Delaying the film to July gives countries more time to proceed further in vaccinations and the Disney+ option gets the film in front of fans who will still be unable to see the film in cinemas.

This will be a Disney+ Premier Access release, so an additional payment will be required on top of the standard Disney+ subscription, in line with other Disney+ premier movies like Mulan.

Disney have also confirmed that Cruella will also have a joint cinema/Disney+ launch on 28 May, whilst Pixar's Luca will launch exclusively on Disney+ on 18 June.

The shuffles have also dropped Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings back to 3 September. At present it is listed only for a cinema release. The release dates for the remaining Marvel Phase 4 films remain unaffected, although industry experts are now wondering if Marvel will want such a rapid release of films: Black Widow on 9 July, Shang-Chi on 3 September, Eternals on 5 November and Spider-Man: No Way Home on 17 December. However, with Doctor Strange 2 locked in for March 2022, Thor 4 due in May, Black Panther II in July and Captain Marvel 2 in November, they don't have much room to maneuver.

A Potted History of Cyberpunk: Part 2

Part 1.

Neo-Tokyo is About to Explode

The backstory to Akira has Tokyo destroyed by an unknown phenomenon in 1992. Hours later, World War III begins and devastates the world, leading to the annihilation of most of the world’s major cities. Thirty-eight years later, the city of Neo-Tokyo has arisen out of the ashes of the old world, a city of gleaming mega-skyscrapers surrounded by the desolate ruins of the old city. The story follows a biker gang led by the charismatic Kaneda and backed up by his best friend Tetsuo. Tetsuo becomes afflicted by strange abilities, the result of a government experiment into psychokinetic energy, and loses control, going on a murderous rampage that attracts the attention of the government. Kaneda’s attempts to help his friend are complicated by the growing danger that Tetsuo presents to his friends and to innocents, and by a government conspiracy to cover up their culpability for these events.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was a cyberpunk epic, more than 2,000 pages long, (both drawn and written by Otomo) serialised in Young Magazine over eight years. It began in 1982, attracting immediate critical acclaim and attention, with Otomo soon being courted to develop a film adaptation. Otomo rejected initial overtures, insisting on having full creative control and being allowed to use a fluid animation style far beyond that seen in most anime productions, which necessitated a massive budget. The rising fame and acclaim of the manga saw his requirements eventually met and the feature film version of Akira (featuring a hugely compressed version of the manga’s storyline, with many subplots and characters omitted) was released in 1988, more than two years before the manga itself concluded. A phenomenon at home and in the West, Akira played a key role in the rise in popularity of anime outside Japan and also the rise of the cyberpunk genre in Japan.

The manga even improved real-life technology: a colourised version of the comic was the first comic to ever use digital colouring techniques, which would later become standardised in the industry.

Akira was hugely influential and important in the development of cyberpunk, but its influence was not felt outside of Japan for some years.

The Cyberpunk Visionaries at…Disney?

Disney were an unlikely choice to produce the second movie to expand on cyberpunk’s visual identity. As it happened, the development happened almost by accident. Animator-director Steven Lisberger had grown fascinated by computer graphics in the late 1970s and had become intrigued at the idea of creating a film completely based around them. Computer graphics were increasingly used in films – such as the targeting computers and simulation of the Death Star trench run in Star Wars (1977) – but the hardware was simply not up to the task of rendering an entire movie in anything like a reasonable time frame, or at an acceptable level of detail.

Lisberger was frustrated, but decided that traditional forms of animation could be used to simulate computer-generated imagery, in particular the use of backlit animation, which was seen as a bridge between the disco aesthetics of the late 1970s and the computer-driven effects that started coming into more widespread use in the 1980s. He took the idea to several studios, but none bit apart from Disney. Disney wanted to make more daring and interesting films, and took a chance on the idea after being impressed by test footage. However, Lisberger quickly discovered that Disney was incredibly cliquey. The animation division was less-than-friendly to outsiders and he was unable to recruit any Disney animators to work on the project, having to outsource to a Taiwan studio instead.

The resulting film, released in 1982, was TRON. An oddball film, it features a man who is literally teleported into a computer system controlled by a hostile AI. Inside the computer system he finds programmes trying to “rebel” against the dictatorial control of the AI and helps them in their struggle, eventually succeeding despite incredible odds. The film was a modest success and its dazzling visuals – particularly the lightcycles and tanks – were acclaimed. The story wasn’t entirely coherent and perhaps a tad too fantastical to be hugely influential on the nascent subgenre, but it did overcome the perception that cyberpunk could be more cerebral than visually spectacular.

In the meantime, it fell to a batch of American literary authors to bring the idea to a wider audience…and give it a name.

Enter Cyberpunk!

In 1980, American SF author Bruce Bethke wrote a story about a young man, Mikey, who is a troublemaking computer hacker who has online friendships and interfering parents. Mikey uses his skills to overcome interference from his parents in his life. Bethke pondered various titles for the story but settled on “Cyberpunk” – or, in the novel-length version, Cyberpunk! – as a name to sum up his rebellious protagonist.

“Cyberpunk” did the rounds of various magazines and collections before being finally published in 1983 in Amazing Stories. Though the story was delayed before being published, the title became known in editorial circles and started being used more widely; editor Gardner Dozois is credited with helping spread and normalise the term in discussing an increase number of stories utilising the same approach: near future, computer-heavy, usually involving an interface between human and machine and featuring rebellious protagonists. A key moment came in 1984 when Dozois wrote an article for The Washington Post which popularised the movement to the masses for the first time.

Cyberpunk had a visual and audio aesthetic, thanks to Blade Runner. It had a name, thanks to Bruce Bethke. But what it was still lacking was a work that codified and summarised the movement, a Lord of the Rings which everyone could point to and say, “Yes, that’s what this is all about.”

Dead Televisions

William Ford Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina, in 1948. Mostly raised in Virginia, his family moved around a lot when he was young. After the abrupt death of his father, he found his home town confining and small-minded, and escaped by reading a mixture of science fiction and Beat literature. He moved to Canada in 1967, ostensibly to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War, but he later noted he wasn’t in much danger of being drafted after he spent an interview with the draft board talking about an ambition to imbibe every “mind-altering substance in existence.”

In 1977 Gibson published his first story: “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” The story relates the experiences of a jilted lover who relies on artificial dreams to sleep in a polluted, enigmatic story. Gibson’s output was limited and his discontinued writing for several years, until he attended an SF convention and met author John Shirley, who shared his interest in punk music. Shirley introduced Gibson to Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. All four were interested in the idea of fusing science fiction with postmodernism to bring more contemporary ideas to the genre, a furthering of the “New Wave” of the preceding decade but on a greater scale. Inspired and fired up, Gibson wrote a short story called “Burning Chrome,” a story of two freelance hackers who fall in love with the same woman. They undertake various crimes using advanced software called “icebreakers” to operate in “cyberspace” – the first time the term ever appeared in print – against the backdrop of the Sprawl, a massive mega-city that has accumulated out of the Eastern Seaboard metropolises. Gibson had preceded that story with “Johnny Mnemonic,” a story about a man with a cybernetically-enhanced brain carrying password-protected information, the contents of which he has absolutely no idea.

A key moment came at ArmadilloCon, a science fiction convention held in Austin, Texas in late 1982, when Gibson, Shiner, Sterling and Shirley appeared on a panel called “Behind the Mirrorshades: A Look at Punk SF.” On the panel and in discussions in rooms and in bars afterwards, the foursome and assorted other writers and fans thrashed out the idea of a new form of SF which mixed fashion, drugs and politics, whilst embracing some of the new, cool aesthetics of the time: Japan, MTV and early experiments in CGI.

The development of Gibson’s writing abruptly curved upwards in 1982 when editor Terry Carr of Ace Books offered to publish Gibson’s first novel, an offer which Gibson was both awed and slightly confused by, as he didn’t have a novel in development. In fact, he considered himself to be at least five years away from being capable of writing a novel, but scrambled to meet Carr’s request, recognising that the opportunity was not to be squandered. Gibson continued to develop ideas from his short fiction, setting the novel in the Sprawl which both “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome” had inhabited, but expanding a story across a grander scale. Gibson suffered reversals of confidence during the writing process – panicking after a viewing of Blade Runner that he’d be accused of ripping the film off – but ultimately completed the novel after rewriting it a dozen times.

The novel, published in July 1984, was entitled Neuromancer, the title being a play on “necromancer,” a term for someone able to raise the dead. The novel follows computer hacker Henry Case, a washed-out computer hacker hired for one last case – heavy shades of noir fiction – and encounters mysteries and events culminating in the discovery of a powerful AI straining to overcome the limitations placed upon it by humanity.

Neuromancer was an immediate critical success, winning the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards on publication, and Gibson was encouraged to write a sequel (despite trying to sabotage the prospect during the writing of Neuromancer itself by closing down narrative avenues for the story to continue). Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive(1988) were almost as well-received as Neuromancer itself, the three books becoming collectively known as The Sprawl Trilogy. A collection of Gibson’s short fiction, Burning Chrome, was published in 1986 as an addendum to the trilogy.

No sooner had Gibson completed the work, then he distanced himself – somewhat – from the subgenre he’d helped popularise and moved into the realm of alternate history, joining forces with Bruce Sterling to write a novel set in an alternative, more advanced Victorian setting. The result was The Difference Engine, which helped give rise to the “steampunk” genre.

Dicing on the Edge

In 1986, Walter Jon Williams released the novel Hardwired. Williams was an author in the right place at the right time: he was halfway through writing his novel about futuristic rebels equipped with neural interfaces fighting corporations based in Earth orbit when Gibson dropped Neuromancer, and the book was well-placed to capitalise on the booming interest in cyberpunk that followed. Whilst cash-in books in the wake of cyberpunk of were not uncommon, Williams found that Hardwired garnered a much more positive reception, with strong sales and critical praise.

Williams was also a tabletop gamer, and for some years had been playing in a postmodern superhero roleplaying game run by his friend George R.R. Martin and also including members of an informal Albuquerque-Santa Fe SFF author collective: Melinda Snodgrass (who was about to start work on Star Trek: The Next Generation), Victor Milan, and John J. and Gail Gerstner-Miller. Martin had the brainwave of turning the roleplaying game into an anthology series, resulting in the Wild Cards series, with a number of authors from the nascent cyberpunk movement getting involved, including Pat Cadigan and Lewis Shiner. Wild Cards wasn’t cyberpunk, but used some of the same literary languages and weaponry to invigorate the superhero genre (across the Atlantic, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had the same idea in a new comic series they were writing for DC, Watchmen) in the same way that cyberpunk had done for science fiction.

Influences extend backwards and forwards, and even as Williams took part in the direction of moving from a tabletop game to writing fiction, another group of writers took the ideas he had put forwards in Hardwired and translated them into a tabletop roleplaying game. Most notable in this group was Mike Pondsmith, who had worked in board games and tabletop roleplaying games for many ears. Pondsmith had played Dungeons and Dragons (1974), which he was cool on, and Traveller (1977), a space opera roleplaying game which he was much more enthusiastic about, going as far as rewriting the rules to his own specifications as a game called Imperial Star (which he kept to himself for legal purposes).

Pondsmith’s first solo-developed game was Mekton (1984), which replicated anime-style mech combat in an original setting (albeit one based, in aesthetics at least, on Mobile Suit Gundam). The game was a success and he founded his own company, R. Talsorian Games, to exploit it further.

Pondsmith had heard news about the growing cyberpunk movement but had not read any of the work coming out of it. As well as working on his own games, he was providing support to TSR on their Forgotten Realms adventure line and was also consulting with West End Games on their Star Wars licence. However, a group of friends and co-designers (including Mike Blum, Colin Fisk, Dave Friedland, Will Moss and Scott Ruggels) suggested they work on a cyberpunk game and encouraged Pondsmith to read Hardwired. Impressed by the novel, Pondsmith and his friends set about re-engineering it into an original setting: a futuristic Californian metropolis called Night City in the improbably distant future of 2013. Perhaps a tad cheekily, they realised the genre name “cyberpunk” had not been trademarked and snatched it up for their game.

Released in 1988, Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future (the first edition of the Cyberpunk RPG line) was an immediate smash hit success in the world of roleplaying games. Whilst tabletop roleplaying games had expanded from their fantasy origins to incorporate a number of different genres and ideas, Cyberpunk’s emphasis on a near-future setting, complete with familiar (if enhanced) weapons and politics was refreshing. The rules for hacking and cyberspace also added a different feel to the game.

Cyberpunk was a hit and numerous expansions and supplements followed. Pondsmith repaid Walter Jon Williams for the original idea by licensing Hardwired for a series of supplements incorporating its setting and ideas into the game. The second and arguably definitive edition of the game, Cyberpunk 2020, was published in 1990. The fourth and more recent edition, Cyberpunk Red, was published in (appropriately) 2020.

Cyberpunk’s success inspired other games to dive into the same genre. The popular universal rules system GURPS (1986) developed several cyberpunk spin-offs, but arguably the biggest and most successful derived game was Shadowrun (1989), which somewhat bizarrely fused Cyberpunk with Dungeons & Dragons.

By the start of the 1990s, cyberpunk had become more widespread and popular, but also seemed to be running out of steam. Gibson had moved on to other genres, and space opera was making a resurgence. Articles and thinkpieces asking if cyberpunk was dead started appearing. It was clear that cyberpunk was not dead, but it was going to have to evolve to survive.

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The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Ankh-Morpork is the greatest city on the Discworld - a flat planet carried through space on the back of four elephants standing astride a giant turtle - and has seen fire, flood, famine and even the odd barbarian invasion during its long history, but even it is unprepared for the arrival of a much more devastating threat: tourism. Twoflower is the first visitor to the city from the distant Agatean Empire, and is happy wandering around taking "pictures of the sights" with a magic box and soaking up the authentic atmosphere. This behaviour in Ankh-Morpork would normally result in him having the lifespan of a mayfly confronted by a supernova, but luckily the wizard Rincewind has kindly volunteered to be his guide and protector in return for not having his extremities removed by the city's Patrician, who is anxious to avoid insulting a foreign power with an army in the millions.

Unfortunately, Twoflower's attempts to introduce the concept of fire insurance to the hardy and creative business-owners of Ankh-Morpork results in an enforced flight from the burning metropolis and the beginning of a long and very strange journey across the Disc, taking in dragons, spaceships and the fabled temple of Bel-Shamharoth along the way. All the while the only spell that has ever managed to lodge itself in Rincewind's mind is very keen to get itself said, which could be a very bad idea indeed... 

There is no more disheartening notion than the one which has sadly been reality for the past six years: the Discworld series is complete. There will, never again, be a new Discworld novel (or any other) published by Terry Pratchett. This state of affairs was once unthinkable: almost annually between 1983 and 2015 - and sometimes two or even three times a year - a new Pratchett book would be released and cheerfully climb to the top of the bestseller lists, glowing in critical acclaim and adulation. It was easy to take Pratchett and his books for granted, that is until there were no more.

But whilst that state of affairs is sad, it does mean we can now sit down and consider the Discworld series as a whole, and its position in the wider fantasy and literary canons. Pratchett was a funny, human writer, a reluctant (but accomplished) worldbuilder, a canny satirist and a fierce critic of human nature. His books fairly overbrim with intelligence, vigour and, occasionally, genuine anger at the state of the world. Discworld was the mirror he used to shine a light on real-world concerns, sometimes just to gently poke fun at them and sometimes to eviscerate them with savage, forensic analysis. If he occasionally faltered - there's a few (and only a few) books he wrote mid-series which sometimes felt a bit too reminiscent of earlier books - it was only briefly and usually still entertainingly.

A lot of that came later, though. The first book in the series, The Colour of Magic (1983), was conceived as a one-off, an attempt by Pratchett to improve his writing career that was, if not in danger, than certainly faltering. His debut novel, The Carpet People (1971), had been a successful children's book but Pratchett had been reluctant to get typecast as a kids' writer. His next two novels, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981), had been adult-aimed science fiction, with a more serious edge. They'd been greeted with near-total bafflement and faded into obscurity almost instantly. Despite that, Pratchett had been tickled by the idea in Strata of a flat planet and, having failed to make the subject sing in SF, reworked it into a satire of fantasy tropes. This proved much more successful and The Colour of Magic became a near-instant, surprise hit.

The Colour of Magic exists in a bit of an odd state when viewed from 2021. As a satire of fantasy, it works. It's funny and breezy and succeeds because it has a serious edge to it as well. Pratchett is smart enough to know that it's much better to satirise something you love, and that a lot of comedy that despises what it's poking fun at just ends up being obvious and mean-spirited. Pratchett was a deep-seated, genuine fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Anne McCaffrey, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and the book overflows with affectionate pastiches of those authors (well, apart from Tolkien, which Pratchett thought was too obvious). So Rincewind and Twoflower meet barely-concealed analogues of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, with Ankh-Morpork here feeling like Lankhmar with the serial numbers filed off, before teaming up with Conan the Barbarian Mk. II and getting into trouble with Budget Cthulhu and an entire civilisation of Dragonriders of Pern-wannabes. A few Zelazny-isms get trotted out, with Ankh-Morpork being apparently the ur-fantasy city, the one all other fantasy cities are but shadows of, like Amber if Amber had a massive homelessness and civic disorder problem. Pratchett's erudite wordplay also recalls Vance's Dying Earth, although even Pratchett struggles to match the sheer vocabularic firepower of on-form Vance.

Taken on its own merits, this is all entertaining, if risking being dated horribly: the authors who were the touchstones of any self-respecting fantasy collection in 1983 certainly are not in 2021. Fortunately, Pratchett uses the satirical strokes of the setting to propel his own narrative and his own characters. Rincewind, a wizard who can't use proper magic due to a powerful uber-spell sitting in his brain, scaring off all other comers, works as the Only Sane Man protagonist who frequently responds to any given situation exactly how most people would (i.e. running like hell) and only finds himself motivated to apparently heroic action through the threat of an even worse punishment or by coincidence. Rincewind isn't quite at the Harry Flashman/Ciaphas Cain level of "selfish coward whom things work out for anyway," but he's at least nodding in that direction. Twoflower is also an engaging character, his early appearance as a hapless buffoon quickly replaced by his characterisation as an intelligent observer of events unfolding around him, which he sometimes feel doesn't apply to him as a tourist (despite no-one else knowing what a tourist is).

Of course, The Colour of Magic also has to be contrasted against the later Discworld novels. In that light, the novel may be considered an absolute primal example of Early Instalment Weirdness (warning: TVTropes link), with a lot of things that clash with later books. Pratchett's writing style is much less polished here, his sense of humour a bit broader and more obvious than normal, and character development is less-assured. Both the Patrician and Death are characterised much more differently to their later appearances (with Death's motivations and character being heavily retconned just three books later, in Mort), to the point that some fans have pondered if it's actually a different Patrician here. The book is solid, but also a bit disposable. Readers approaching the novel from the knowledge it has forty successor books which have cumulatively sold a hundred million copies and is one of most critically-acclaimed fantasy series of all time, may feel a bit baffled at the slightness of this work.

The book is also oddly-structured, in being four self-contained, episodic narratives that have been combined to form a novel-length work, like a fixup novel. I'm not sure why - Pratchett never seems to have considered individually publishing the four episodes as short stories in magazines - but it both gives the novel a feeling of pace but also of being rushed, with each of the sections of a very short novel (which is barely 280 pages long in paperback as it is) roaring along at manic speed before transitioning to the next episode.

If you want to find out why Pratchett is one of the 20th Century's best-selling British authors and most popular fantasy authors of all time, The Colour of Magic (***½) may disappoint or leave you a bit puzzled. This is embryonic Discworld, slotting pieces to place to serve as the foundations for later greatness. But as a stand-alone, affectionate satire of fantasy, and not just the usual suspects, it remains quite entertaining. The story continues (for the only time in the series) directly into the sequel, The Light Fantastic. The novel is available in the UK and USA now.

Note: I published an earlier review of the book here.

Monday 22 March 2021

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

The great Phene Empire once ruled a vast swathe of space, but it has been beaten back by the Yele League and the small, powerful nation of Chaonia. The Republic of Chaonia, long disregarded as a flyspeck irrelevance, has risen to greatness under Queen-Marshal Eirene, a gifted military strategic and politician who has united her people, brought the League to the negotiating table and now plans a bold move against the Empire which will grant Chaonia immense power. But the Empire is aware of her ambitions and moves to forestall her. Internal politics also threaten the Republic, and at the heart of them is Princess Sun, the Queen-Marshal's daughter and presumed heir who burns with the need to prove herself, earn her mother's respect and bring defeat to her enemies.

Unconquerable Sun is the first novel of the Sun Chronicles, a military space opera from Kate Elliott, one of SFF's most consistently rewarding authors over the past thirty years. Elliot started her career in space opera with the Jaran series but has become best-known for her accomplished epic fantasy series: Crown of Stars, Crossroads and Spiritwalker. Unconquerable Sun is both a genre homecoming but also an impressive historical analogue, an attempt to retell the story of Alexander the Great in a far-future, SF context.

Going into Unconquerable Sun, there were things I was expecting as normal from a Kate Elliott novel: impeccable worldbuilding that takes from a wide range of influences and merges them in original ways; excellent characterisation; richly-detailed political intrigue; and a canny and knowing sense of humour. These are all present and correct. What I wasn't quite expecting was the novel to be as foot-slammed-on-the-accelerator action-packed as it is. Elliott's always done well with battle sequences, military maneuvers and tactical elements in her prior fiction, but it's always previously felt like a secondary element, with the characters more more emphasised. Character remains foregrounded in this novel, but they are generally explored and developed whilst under fire (either on the ground or on starships). This isn't just space opera, but full-on military SF, and Elliott does it proud.

The worldbuilding is pleasingly complex, with the Chaonia Republic (here presumed to stand in for Macedonia) squashed between the Yele League (a guessed analogue for the Hellenic League of ancient Greece) and the Phene Empire (Space-Persia) and still bristling from its occupation by the Empire some decades previously. There's also the rules on interstellar travel, which can be conducted (albeit at still-achingly-slow speeds) by standard FTL engines (here called knnu drives) but mostly by beacons, fixed wormhole-gates linking systems together. Centuries previously, the beacon network suffered a catastrophic failure which destroyed most of the beacons, leaving only the periphery intact. Chaonia, Yele and Phene (among other, more distant powers) are therefore great powers still dwelling in the shadow of a vast vaster, older history, most of which was lost in the collapse. Readers keen to discern the relationship of these powers to Earth will find a few scattered clues to what happened, but not much more than that. Hopefully, this element will be explored further in later books.

Each of the major powers is also explored in depth, with the Empire being ruled not by a single ruler but a council of enigmatic "Riders," who are somehow telepathically-linked at all times (even over interstellar distances) in a way no one else understands. This gives the Empire a tremendous strategic advantage in warfare (since FTL communication is otherwise impossible) which the Chaonians hope to overturn by other means. Another key element is the space-borne civilisation of the Gatoi, who dwell on vast fleets constantly moving between the stars. The Gatoi serve the Empire as apparently-honoured mercenaries, but the Chaonians believe there may be more to this service than appears, leading to an alliance between the Queen-Marshal and a Gatoi renegade which Eirene hopes will bring the Empire down. The alliance is controversial, given it produced Princess Sun (whose legitimacy is constantly challenged because she is thus only half-Chaonian) and the long-term effectiveness of the project is in doubt. Political intrigue follows, particularly between Sun's father and House Lee, loyal servants of the Republic who are dubious of the alliance. Other worldbuilding elements feel more whimsical, such as a Chaonian reality TV show which has real power in terms of PR and politics, but is surprisingly well-developed.

On the character front, the book is told predominantly through three POVs: Princess Sun herself, through whose eyes we also get to know her retinue of allies and friends, the Companions; Persephone Lee, who tried to flee her family's smothering control five years ago to enlist in the military under an assumed identity; and Apama, a Phene pilot who is assigned to a military taskforce with a bold agenda and gradually discovers that she is far more important than anyone first suspected. Persephone tells her story in the first-person, whilst the other two stories are told in the third, an intriguing narrative device which breaks up the structure nicely (and leads to the suspicion that maybe Persephone is telling the whole story in flashback, with the other chapters being compiled from other accounts).

Unconquerable Sun is a novel of immense richness: excellent characters, terrific and detailed worldbuilding and a high concept (genderswapped Alexander the Great in spaaaace!) which in lesser hands would have been superficial but here is developed and explored in some depth. It's also a face-paced space opera with more spectacular space battles than you can shake a Star Destroyer at. Perhaps the only negatives I can consider is that perhaps a tad more build-up of the factions and players could have been accomplished before all hell breaks lose and stays loose for the rest of the book (around 150 pages into this 520-page novel), and Elliott's tendency for characters to engage in gossip, sartorial discussions and comical banter in the face of imminent death occasionally feels incongruous. That said, this isn't a book that's interested in realism more than it is in myth-making, and the feeling that you're dealing with Greek heroes transplanted in time and space makes this element more engaging.

Unconquerable Sun (****½) is original, fast-paced, action-packed but also rich in character and fascinating in its worldbuilding. It is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel, Furious Heaven, is due out in September 2021.

Friday 19 March 2021

HBO developing numerous additional GAME OF THRONES spin-off projects

HBO has put three more Game of Thrones spin-off shows into development.

As is well-known, HBO developed six spin-off projects before the original show even finished, fielding ideas including a prequel set in the Valyrian Freehold before its collapse, before settling on a show about the rise of the White Walkers, set between four and five thousand years before the events of the original show and books. However, that project (The Longest Night) only made it to the pilot stage before a changing regime at HBO decided to drop it.

The new regime subsequently greenlit House of the Dragon, an epic story set just under 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones and relating the events of the Dance of Dragons, a bloody civil war within House Targaryen, with both sides armed with dragons. That show is due to start shooting in the next few weeks.

It sounds like the prior plan was to see how House of the Dragon does before considering additional Westeros-set projects. However, the advent of American streaming service HBO Max, which has been slightly underperforming in terms of subscribers, has seen a desire to get more buzz-worthy shows on the screen and Warner Brothers have seen George R.R. Martin's novels, short stories and source material as a potential goldmine if they can exploit it correctly.

As a result, back in January it was reported that HBO were developing proposals on both the Dunk & Egg short story series and on Robert's Rebellion, despite Martin previously shooting down proposals for both ideas (Martin has a veto on any HBO project set in Westeros). It may be that HBO are developing these ideas to convince Martin of their merits.

The three new ideas announced in the last day or so are more like the original pitches, being prequels set earlier in the history of Westeros.

The first idea is a show with the working title Nine Voyages. This would be a naval-based show focused on Lord Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, who is being played by British actor Steven Toussaint. The pitch seems to be for a show based around a much younger Corlys, who as a young man embarked on nine ambitious voyages around the world. These took him to fabled places such as Qarth, Yi Ti and Asshai-by-the-Shadow, the distant island of Ib, the Thousand Islands and the mysterious city of Nefer. He also undertook a voyage to find a "northern passage" around Westeros through the frozen Lands of Always Winter, to no avail.

There is plenty of material to be mined in such a show and there's an added bonus in that it re-teams HBO and producer Bruno Heller, with whom they had a fruitful collaboration on Rome (2005-07), the show that arguably paved the way for Game of Thrones. Although if I'm honest, I think I'd rather that Heller work on a "next generation" Rome series for HBO, perhaps the I, Claudius narrative that's been mooted a few times over the years (and which HBO held the rights to for a time in the early 2010s).

The second project may be a revival from the original six projects HBO developed a few years ago, with a story revolving around Princess Nymeria of Ny Sar. Nymeria was the warrior-queen of the Rhoynar who led her people in a grand exodus across the Summer Sea after her homeland was destroyed by the Valyrians. Eventually her people settled in Dorne, becoming the ancestors of House Martell and the Sand Snakes. It's possible that this was the show that Carly Wray was developing for HBO in 2017-18. This show has the working title Ten Thousand Ships.

The third project is the least-fleshed-out. The show has the working title Flea Bottom and will apparently be set in the poor district of the city of King's Landing, and will provide a "bottom-up" view of Westeros from the POV of the poorest and most destitute people in the kingdom. It's unclear what time period this would be set in, or if it would involve established characters (both Ser Davos Seaworth and Gendry were born in Flea Bottom and grew up there) or a whole new cast.

These are all development ideas at the moment, with HBO not having committed to anything so far. If I had to guess, I'd say that the Nine Voyages idea is the one most likely to move forwards.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

First glimpse of Rosamund Pike as Moiraine in WHEEL OF TIME TV show teaser

Amazon have released a new video teasing the appearance of a character in their TV adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Rosamund Pike, fresh off winning a Golden Globe, appears for the first time in the iconic role of Moiraine Damodred from the books.

The Wheel of Time's first season has completed filming the bulk of its material, but still has some material that needs to be picked up. How quickly they can resume filming in the Czech Republic will govern when the show can air, but at present it's looking like it might be closer to the end of 2021.

Tuesday 16 March 2021

Shooting on first season of live-action COWBOY BEBOP wraps

Filming has wrapped on the first season of Cowboy Bebop, Netflix's live-action remake of the hugely successful anime series of the same name.

It's been a very long road getting to this point. The original show ran for 26 episodes back in 1998, airing to massive critical acclaim. Unusually for such a popular franchise, the show was not added to in sequels, remakes or spin-offs, with its sole concession to franchise-dom being a single spin-off animated movie in 2001 and some manga spin-offs.

Netflix announced it was developing a live-action show in June 2017. Shooting began in October 2019 but was almost immediately - eleven days later! - shut down after star John Cho suffered a serious on-set injury to his foot. Between Cho's injury and the COVID-19 pandemic, shooting was delayed by almost a full year, only resuming in September 2020.

Fortunately, Bebop is shooting in New Zealand, which has handled the COVID pandemic better than almost any other country, and there were no further delays in shooting. Indeed, the show has wrapped earlier than some were anticipating.

The series is now in-post, but it looks pretty good that Cowboy Bebop could air well before the end of 2021. Whether it's any good or not is another question, but the cast looks solid and original composter Yoko Kanno is on board for the remake, so we can but hope.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: DARK ALLIANCE gets release date and trailer

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance has gotten a surprisingly imminent release date. The game will launch on 22 June this year.

D&D: Dark Alliance is a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (2001) and Dark Alliance II (2004). Like those games, this is an action title set in the Forgotten Realms world and emphasising combat over roleplaying. The game sees the players taking control of the infamous Companions of the Hall - drow ranger Drizzt Do'Urden, human archer Cattie-brie, dwarven warrior Bruenor Battlehammer and human barbarian Wulfgar - in a struggle against an army of invaders that swarmed into Icewind Dale in search of the infamous magical artifact known as the Crystal Shard. These characters and events were made famous in R.A. Salvatore's bestselling novel series, The Icewind Dale Trilogy, although the game does not appear to be a 1:1 adaptation of the novels, featuring as it does both beholders and wights (which are nowhere to be found in the books).

The trailer makes some bold choices with bombastic visuals, a heavy rock soundtrack and very generic-looking action. Hopefully the game will be better than it appears.

The game will launch on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, X-Box One and X-Box Series X, as well as, pleasingly, PC (the original Dark Alliance games were not released on PC).

Saturday 13 March 2021

Wales' biggest superhero being developed for a reboot

The most successful superhero franchise to come out of Wales - SuperTed - is set for a reboot.

Created in 1978 by Mike Young, SuperTed was a highly successful, multi-media franchise consisting of books, comics and a successful Welsh-language animated series which ran for three seasons and 36 episodes, from 1982 to 1986. There was an American animated continuation in 1986, although that was cancelled after half a season.

The series was inspired by Young's son, who had trouble falling asleep without a light on. Young made up stories about how his teddy bear was secretly a superhero who was waiting for him to fall asleep so he could get on with saving the universe. Young developed the idea further by adding allies - such as the alien "Spotties", including SuperTed's best friend Spotty Man - and villains such as Texas Pete. Young wanted to avoid overt violence so had Ted and his friends overcoming obstacles by using their wits rather than blowing things up.

The animated series was hugely successful in the UK, with the vocal performances of Derek Griffiths as SuperTed and the late Jon Pertwee as Spotty Man in the English dub were particularly praised.

SuperTed's popularity waned in the 1990s once the animated series was no longer in production.

Young and Abbey Home Media are developing a new series which will involve CG animation and will re-envision the characters for a new audience. However, Young wants to avoid making the animation too glossy and is also keen to remain true to the roots, particularly the focus on younger children and not using overt violence.

AVATAR reclaims box-office crown from AVENGERS: ENDGAME

After twenty months on top, Avengers: Endgame has lost the crown of the highest-grossing movie of all time (unadjusted) back to James Cameron's Avatar, which has reclaimed the prize it held for a decade from 2009-19.

The move comes courtesy of a reissue of the film in China, which has added $9 million to the 2009 3D movie's total. Although not much in the large scale of things, the gap between the two movies was only $7.8 million. With the reissue expected to remain in cinemas for several more weeks, Avatar may be able to pull out a stronger lead as well, with its total re-release haul anticipated to be around $50 million. Both films have grossed just under $2.8 billion worldwide.

James Cameron will be pleased to retake the crown he'd held of being the world's highest-grossing director for two films back to back. Avatar displaced Cameron's own Titanic, originally released in 1997.

These figures are unadjusted for inflation; so adjusted, the highest-grossing movie of all time would still be Gone with the Wind (1939), although Avatar would still be an impressive second place, ahead of Titanic, Star Wars (1977) and Endgame.

The news will be encouraging to Cameron, who recently wrapped back-to-back shooting on Avatar 2 and Avatar 3, which are scheduled for release on 16 December 2022 and 20 December 2024 respectively. Avatar 4 and 5, which have had some material shot for them during production of the preceding two movies, are also greenlit with anticipated release dates in December 2026 and 2028.

Disney, which now owns both the Avatar and Marvel franchises, is of course very happy with the situation.

REM's Out of Time turns 30

In another reminder of the relentless onward march of linear time, the REM album Out of Time has somehow turned thirty years old, sparking lots of nostalgic reminiscence.

The lengthy thinkpieces and flashbacks to the album are perhaps surprising: Out of Time is neither REM's best album, nor their most successful, nor their most critically acclaimed. It is, however, often cited as Ground Zero for REM's ascent into absolute mega-stardom and features arguably their two best-known singles (one a candidate for their best, one a candidate for their most whimsical).

REM was founded in Athens, Georgia in 1980 and comprised vocalist Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry. Between 1983 and 1988 they released six albums, almost all critically acclaimed and each being rewarded with growing sales: Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the ReconstructionLifes Rich Pageant, Document and Green. The band spent almost that entire time on the road, extensively touring each album (internationally from the third onwards) before hurling themselves back into the studio for a condensed session and then a new tour in support of the next record. One of the hardest-working bands of the 1980s, they finally called a time out after the Green tour concluded.

The three-year gap between records concerned their new label, Warner Brothers, who'd signed the band for a reported $12 million in 1988 for a five-album deal. However, the gap was somewhat shorter than it first appeared. The Green tour didn't end until well into 1989 and the band began work on the follow-up in September 1990, leaving only a single year of rest and relaxation between.

The gap year turned into more of a busman's holiday for Peter Buck, though, who decided to expand his musical repertoire by experimenting with more acoustic string instruments. He bought a mandolin, played a few basic chords, spontaneously wrote the opening riff to one of the biggest rock songs of all time, and then immediately forgot about it. The course of REM's history might have been rather different if he hadn't fortuitously recorded his strumming and played it back the next day.

Out of Time is a record that is aptly-named, for it's possibly REM's most diverse album in terms of style and influence whilst also retaining a core dedication to being a pop record. The basic theme going into the session was that the band wanted a "less political" cut than Document and Green, which had both been informed by concerns over American politics, the Cold War and environmentalism. Stipe promised a record of "love songs, nothing but love songs," although in truth he'd barely written any lyrics at all and had a rare bout of writer's block which completely stopped him working on three of the tracks. The band also decided to embrace humour, after the success of the somewhat silly and comedic single "Stand" on Green, and also collaboration, asking friends and professional contacts to help out on the record.

The record opens with the decidedly goofy "Radio Song," echoing its predecessor Green which opened with "Pop Song '89." A comical song about selling out and the mass commercialisation of music, the band brought in rapper KRS-One (best known for his monster track "Sound of da Police") to provide wry commentary over the track. REM's hardcore OG fanbase, who'd been increasingly sceptical over the band's growing popularity, were left bemused. Their hopes this might be the album's goofiest moment were decidedly disappointed a few tracks later.

The second track, of course, is "Losing My Religion," the greatest rock anthem in human history propelled by a mandolin. The record company furiously tried to get the band to change their mind about releasing it as the lead single but eventually admitted defeat, and were completely unprepared for the reaction. The Gabriel Garcia Marquez-influenced video (directed by Tarsem Singh, the first person to ever get Michael Stipe to agree to lip-synch) lodged into permanent rotation on MTV and the song exploded everywhere, scoring them their first US Top Ten single and hitting the #1 spot in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland. Weirdly, it didn't do very well in the UK, only peaking at #19.

The record settles down a bit with "Low," fittingly the album's darkest moment, a sombre minimalist anthem with a powerful chorus, before perking up again with "Near Wild Heaven," a refreshingly breezy pop song. Stipe hit a brick wall with the lyrics, giving up entirely, so Mike Mills crafted a lyric which worked. Stipe insisted that Mills sing lead with him supporting, their normal roles inverted, and the results so pleased the record company that they released the track as the third single from the album, marking the only original song ever released by the band with Stipe not singing lead (Mills had previously led the "Superman" cover from Lifes Rich Pageant, surprise-released as a single over Stipe's objections).

After an instrumental break for "Endgame", the album picks back up with an avalanche of dramatic strings that promptly explodes into "Shiny Happy People." Stipe had written the song specifically for eight-year-old children and as a fun collaboration with his friend Kate Pierson from fellow Athens band the B-52s. The band enjoyed recording the song, but when the song was picked as the second single from the album and a "quirky" comedy video was shot for it, they quickly found themselves getting sick of the song. Stipe later said he didn't like the song - refusing to sing it during a guest spot on an animated kids' show - and the band infamously never performed it live aside from a single talk show appearance and a guest spot on Sesame Street, and even then changed the lyrics to make it technically a different song. But it's hard to resist the song's infectious energy. REM had a bit of a reputation as a moody art band without a sense of humour on earlier records and Out of Time did a good job of demolishing that by showing their funnier side...even if maybe the song did teeter on the edge of being a corn supernova.

The back half of the record is less contentious, with "Belong" featuring a surprising semi-spoken-word lyric by Stipe and "Half a World Away" and "Me in Honey" (again featuring Pierson) being the kind of excellent, semi-acoustic pop songs that REM could turn out in their sleep by this point. But the back end of the album does feature two of REM's best and most underrated tracks: "Texarkana" is the album's rockiest number, propelled by an explosive bass riff and pounding drums. Surprisingly, it's the second track on the album written by the normally laidback Mike Mills, again with Stipe having bailed on the lyric due to writer's block.

"Country Feedback" is maybe the album's absolute masterpiece of a song. Stipe again rolled into the studio without any lyrics to hand but, perhaps a bit embarrassed by how many times he'd done this, he decided to wing it and sang lyrics he'd made up on the spot. The band decided they'd nailed it in one take and never revisited the song, or apparently even wrote the lyrics down, perhaps explaining why Stipe's live performances of the track tend to feature lyrics that are all over the place. John Keane's pedal steel guitar adds a decidedly different air to the song quite unlike any other REM track (BJ Cole replicated and improved on the sound for European tours in the late 1990s). More than once, Stipe has said it's his favourite REM song, and it was used as the centrepiece of a BBC live special about the band in 1998.

In the REM canon, you can really judge their career as Before Out of Time and After Out of Time, and perhaps more specifically Before "Losing My Religion" and After. Before this album and that song, they were a moderately successful, cult indie guitar band from Georgia who'd scored a number of minor radio songs and British music fans name-dropped to prove they were "with it." Afterwards, they were the Voice of a Generation, the American national flag-bearers of alternative rock (whatever the hell that is; we in the UK never quite figured it out) and MTV-dominating acoustic demigods who rubbed shoulders with world leaders, led by an enigmatic, ambiguous and charismatic frontman. A lot of their old fans who'd been with them since debut single "Radio Free Europe" and their first album, Murmur, felt left behind; others rejoiced that the whole world now seemed to be in on the best-kept secret in rock.

To the utter horror of Warner Brothers, REM decided they would not tour Out of Time. Fortunately, this being 1991, it was possible to make money from actual record sales and as the sales went stratospheric - Out of Time sold 10 million copies in its first year on sale, completely eclipsing their combined back catalogue sales to that point (which also started shooting up as more people discovered them) - Warner Brothers found the dollars pouring in faster than they could count. REM also decided that rather than have a break, they'd head back into the studio to make another record, one that would be rockier and more stadium-filling than their previous one. Instead, they made an album that was much more introspective, more claustrophobic and even darker than Out of Time, which again made the record company apprehensive. Fortunately, that record was called Automatic for the People and it ended up being twice as successful even as Out of Time, so that worked out for everyone involved.

Out of Time is a record of breezy pop songs, heartfelt emotion and perhaps a bit more cheese than the band would have wished to invoke. It's one of the band's two "summery" albums (the other being 2001's underrated Reveal) which is just great fun to whack on a sunny afternoon. It also marks the start of the band's "imperial period," when everything they touched turned to gold and would last for at least four albums afterwards. It was Out of Time but very much of its place.

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