Tuesday, 15 June 2021

What we know about STARFIELD

Bethesda did a reveal of their upcoming CRPG Starfield on Sunday. With the game still almost eighteen months away, it was more of a prolonged teaser than a deep dive on the game's systems. Still, eager-eyed fans have been scouring the trailer (thanks to Reddit), an accompanying behind-the-scenes look at the game and various interviews done by the team over the last few days (mostly behind paywalls) and have assembled a surprising amount of information on the setting and background. A summary follows.

  • Release Date: 11 November 2022
  • Platforms: Xbox Series S/X, Xbox Game Pass via compatible devices, PC
  • Inon Zur (Fallout 3, Fallout 4, Fallout 76) providing the soundtrack.
  • Built using the new Creation Engine 2 (presumably an upgraded Creation Engine 1, which was used to make Skyrim and, modified further, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76).
  • The game is a "bit more hardcore of a roleplaying game" than Bethesda's last few games. The game brings back roleplaying systems they have not used in a while. In particular, your character's customisable background is a much bigger part of the game.
  • The game was inspired by the Traveller tabletop RPG (which Bethesda had the rights to in the 1990s, but didn't do anything with).
  • The game will feature big changes to the traditional Bethesda way of doing things (probably related to you having your own spacecraft) but will also lean hard into some of their normal approaches. The designers call the game "Skyrim in space."
  • The team did field research at Space X's headquarters and rocket factory. The art direction vibe was given as "NASApunk."
  • The game was directed to have a "more realistic" feel, with lower tech than other SF games. However, there are some conceits to space opera tropes such as sound and visible lasers in space.

The game is heavily based around your ship. It is unknown if this is the only ship you have or if you can buy/acquire others later on: 

  • The ship is called the Frontier and was either built by Nova Galactic, or it's a Nova Galactic-class vessel. Its registry is NG1350.
  • The ship is armed with two distinct cannon systems and a missile launcher.
  • The ship appears to have artificial gravity and an FTL drive, the GFLA (Graviton Field Loop Array), which is a fancy name for the theoretical Alcubierre Drive, a type of warp drive.
  • However, according to Todd Howard there are no FTL communications. So you can fly to other stars at FTL speeds, but you can't make a Zoom call across interstellar distances.
  • The ship has a big navigation table which shows gravitational waves propagating in space, suggesting the ship may harness these waves for travel and maybe artificial gravity.
  • The same table has around twenty star systems marked on it, though half the table is obscured. That may indicate 20-40 systems are visitable in the game, or only a few them can actually be reached.
  • Every switch, button, toggle and screen in the game was designed with a function. You won't be able to press every button yourself, but they have a purpose in mind.
  • The ship has a robot engineer/servant called Vasco. Obviously, the Internet already loves him.

The background lore appears to be as follows:

  • The game is set "a bit more" than 300 years in the future. A photograph in the trailer is date-stamped 2320, so it's possible the game will take place in 2321-30 or thereabouts.
  • The player-character works for Constellation, the "last" human organisation interested in interstellar exploration. This suggests that interstellar settlement and colonisation has either failed or the idea of exploration for its own sake has become unpopular.
  • The dominant government appears to the United Colonies. The United Colonies has two military wings, UC Vanguard and SysDef, presumably Systems Defence.
  • The Freestar Collective is mentioned. This may be part of the UC or a separate, external human government.
  • The Crimson Raiders and Crimson Fleet appears to be a loosely-organised coalition of pirates and bandits, possibly this game's equivalent to Fallout's raiders and Elder Scrolls' bandits as a low-level threat you'll encounter throughout the game. The Raiders seem to have been plaguing the Freestar Collective but have recently started appearing in UC space.
  • The United Colonies has an organisation or agency called MAST, the Military, Administrative and Scientific Triumvirate.
  • "Ranger" is a rank, probably in Constellation but possibly in MAST, Vanguard or SysDef.
  • Mentioned planets or star systems include Cheyenne, Sagan, Lunara and Narion.
  • A city or base called New Atlantis is located on the planet Jerrison in the Alpha Centauri star system (our nearest interstellar neighbour).
  • "Cydonia Security" is mentioned. Cydonia is a region on Mars, indicating that Mars has been colonised.
  • Various patches and emblems mention "the Livingstone Project," the "Ferrera 4 Expedition," the "New Discoveries Expedition," "The 10th Planet" and the "New Age Resolution."
  • A company called Chronomark makes watches (presumably smart watches) for use by Constellation. Chronomark was founded in 2188, seemingly confirming that Starfield does not take place in the Fallout universe (humanity is still living in the ruins of the atomic war in 2188 and is barely doing any better in 2287 in Fallout 4, only forty years before the events of Starfield) and is its own setting.
  • There are two real-life books in the ship: Sailing Alone Around the World (1900) by Joshua Slocum is about the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth (Slocum later vanished on another expedition in 1909). Omega: The Last Days of the World (1898) by Camille Flammarion is a disaster novel about the Earth being destroyed by cometary fragments. This may hint that Earth has been destroyed or too badly damaged in this future, forcing humanity to flee into space.
  • An unusual artifact/object has been discovered, which is being studied. The object may be some kind of FTL gateway, and might be the focus of the Livingstone Project. The object may be alien in origin.
  • Aliens will be in the game, but it sounds like they will not be playable, or commonplace, and the game's story may revolve around First Contact.

Bethesda will be gradually unveiling more info about the game ahead of its launch in November 2022.

Iain M. Banks's CULTURE universe to get two new companion volumes

Iain M. Banks's Culture universe is one of the most accomplished in all of science fiction and fantasy, and is now getting two companion volumes.

Iain Banks wrote copious notes for the setting, along with his own illustrations of spacecraft, people, places and hardware. Orbit Books, in collaboration with Banks's close friend and colleague Ken MacLeod, is to now present this material in two volumes. The first is entitled The Culture: The Drawings and will focus on Banks's illustrations. The second, presumably The Culture: The Notes, will be a companion guide to the series drawing on Banks's own background material and information for the setting.

The two new books replace what was originally one project, The Culture: Notes & Drawings, once it was realised the material was too large to fit comfortably into one book.

The Culture novels are Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1990), Use of Weapons (1991), Excession (1996), Inversions (1998), Look to Windward (2000), Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010) and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). Iain Banks passed away in 2013.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Star Trek: Insurrection

The United Federation of Planets is faring badly in its war with the Dominion and seeks to bolster its chances through an alliance with the Son'a, who require resources that are only available on a remote planet. The Federation agrees to help move the indigenous population so the Son'a can seize these resources. However, a malfunctioning Lt. Commander Data exposes the Federation presence, triggering an inadvertent first contact situation. Captain Picard and the USS Enterprise arrive to retrieve their errant officer and uncover a much more complex situation is unfolding, one that endangers the very morals of the Federation.

After the enormous success of First Contact, a darker action movie, Paramount decided that the next Star Trek movie should be lighter in tone. Michael Piller, renowned for writing many of the finest episodes of Trek, was called in to write a script that could serve as the "first-ever Star Trek date movie," a request that was...dubious at best. Paramount wanted a film that was closer in tone to The Voyage Home, with light comedy and a warmer feel, rooted in the character relationships.

What they ended up with was a two-hour episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not Yesterday's Enterprise or The Inner Light Next Generation, but one of those middling Season 5 episodes that is absolutely fine but you completely forget it exists until you bump into it on a full series rewatch, mildly enjoy whilst it's on and immediately forget about the second it's over.

The film starts off well with some solid humour as Picard and Worf (whose presence in the film despite being on Deep Space Nine as a regular character at the time, is briefly but effectively explained) have to gather up the errant Data by using Gilbert and Sullivan songs to distract him. The story then gets into a moral quandary as the Bak'u not only don't want to be removed, but might well die if they are moved. Since they are not native to the planet, the Prime Directive doesn't strictly apply, although basic morality does. However, the Son'a are also suffering from their own problems, which the planet holds the key to answering.

What could be a really thorny moral quandary is let down almost immediately by portraying the Son'a as repulsive in both appearance and morals, with their leader Ru'afo (a fine, scenery-chewing turn by F. Murray Abraham) being ruthless, amoral and prone to using violence as his solution to all problems. So the Enterprise crew siding with the Bak'u is pretty much a given from the start of the film. Also, the film suggests that the Enterprise crew are really going out on a limb by risking their careers to help the Bak'u, but it's more the case that the Starfleet Admiral helping the Son'a is going off the reservation by himself, so the "insurrection" of the title never really gets going.

As I said, the film is fine. It has some spectacular scenery, a few good set-pieces between the recovery of Data's shuttle and the space battle between the Enterprise-E and the Son'a in the nebula, and the supporting cast is all solid with none of them being spectacular. But the film bogs down with technobabble. The tension between the transporter inhibitor defences and the attacking Son'a drones is weak, at best, and the film never really adequately explains why the Federation are so keen to ally with the Son'a, who seem to be a small civilisation of limited use in the war with the Dominion (which gets several mentions at the start of the film and is then dropped immediately, which seems odd).

Star Trek: Insurrection (***) continues the curse of the odd-numbered Star Trek films by being, well, not terrible, but certainly inoffensive. Some reliably solid performances by Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and the rest of the cast fail to make up for a film that's simply blandly forgettable.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Obsidian Entertainment unveil THE OUTER WORLDS 2 with self-mocking trailer

Obsidian Entertainment have announced the existence of The Outer Worlds 2, a sequel to their well-received 2019 CRPG.

The trailer takes a mocking shot at hype-building announcement trailers that reveal very little about the game other than using stock concepts like "slow-motion action" and "main character silhouetted against the horizon," before doing exactly the same thing. Obsidian separately revealed that the game will be set in a new star system to the original game and will feature a brand-new cast of characters.

Unlike The Outer Worlds, which was released by Take Two Interactive who, among other things, insisted on an exclusivity period on the Epic Games Store, the sequel will be published by Microsoft (who acquired Obsidian two years ago) and should get a wider release on Steam and Xbox Game Pass. The game will also be console-exclusive to the Xbox Series X/S.

As well as The Outer Worlds 2, other teams at Obsidian are working on an Elder Scrolls-esque fantasy CRPG set in their Pillars of Eternity world, Avowed; diminutive crafting/survival game Grounded; and a mysterious new CRPG about which nothing is known.

Bethesda unveils more info and a release date for their upcoming CRPG STARFIELD

Bethesda and Microsoft have lifted the lid - at least a bit - on their new forthcoming CRPG, Starfield.

The game is notable for being Bethesda Game Studios' first new IP since the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, in 1994 (they inherited Fallout from another company, Interplay), and their first game to be released since they were acquired by Microsoft last year.

Like their previous single-player games, Fallout 4 (2015) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), Starfield appears to be an open-world game giving the player the choice on where to go and what to do, to follow a central narrative or ignore it as they see fit, in favour of side-missions or exploration.

The game pits the player as an explorer, part of a group called Constellation, with a fully-customisable spacecraft and capable of flying between different planets.The video only showcased one wild, unkempt planet environment, but concept art suggested multiple planets, including a lush jungle world, subterranean caves, factories, a low-tech outpost, a settlement on stilts located in the ocean and a huge, technological-looking city. The game takes a somewhat low-tech approach but Bethesda claim to want to present a more optimistic view of the future, rooted in our shared humanity, compared to the more dystopian vision presented in Fallout.

The game utilises the "Creation Engine 2," a significant revamp of the technology used to power Skyrim, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76. The trailer was rendered in-engine, suggesting a hefty improvement to visual fidelity over their previous games and the ability to use ladders (a lack fans have mocked Bethesda over for years).

Starfield will be console-exclusive to Xbox Series X/S and will also release on PC via Steam and Xbox Game Pass. The title is scheduled for release on 11 November 2022.

Friday, 11 June 2021

The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson

More than a decade of peace has passed since the fall of the Crippled God. The Malazan Empire, once an ever-expanding nation, has secured its borders and set about bringing stability and order to its holdings. One of the furthest-flung of its outposts is Silver Lake, an isolated town in the far north of Genabackis, still reeling from the events of many years earlier, when three Teblor descended from the mountains and brought chaos with them.

The 2nd Company of the Malazan XIVth Legion - reduced to just three squads and eighteen soldiers - is bound for Silver Lake to reinforce the garrison there. To augment its strength, it has hired the very mercenary company they were recently fighting against, a practical measure that neither side likes very much. With redoubtable allies, the Malazans have to hold Silver Lake against an implacable foe. For the Teblor of the mountains, tiring of waiting for their Shattered God - Karsa Orlong - to return to them and motivated by a growing threat to the north, have made a decision to migrate south to seek out their reluctant deity. What else are a people to do, when their god is not willing?

Well, this was a surprise. Steven Erikson's work has been called many things but "concise" and "focused" are not among them. All of Erikson's twelve previous novels in the Malazan universe are sprawling, brick-thick volumes you could use to stun a yak. The God is Not Willing, at a relatively breezy 473 pages, is easily his shortest fantasy novel to date. Erikson's work has also been called (sometimes fairly, often not) "obtuse" and "confusing." The in media res opening to the first book in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, remains fiercely debated on Reddit and fantasy message boards to this day. The God is Not Willing is instead pretty streamlined and comprehensible. The word - whisper it - "accessible" may be applicable.

But if those terms are applicable, don't go thinking this is Erikson with the training wheels on, or restrained, or (grimace) going commercial. The God is Not Willing is packed with the philosophical musings and rich worldbuilding of his prior work, it is just paced here with discipline and vigor, and an undercurrent of Erikson's distinctly underrated humour. With the exception of the late, great Terry Pratchett and maybe Abercrombie in his more whimsical moments, Erikson may be one of the funniest writers in modern secondary world fantasy, something he usually keeps under check but here lets loose a little more. This is still a dramatic and sometimes tragic story, but it's also one balanced by the kind of comedic banter between soldiers-under-duress that we've seen before in earlier novels, but here taken up a notch.

The God is Not Willing is set ten years after the events of The Crippled God, in north Genabackis. The events of the opening of House of Chains have left an ugly scar on the town of Silver Lake, with ex-slaves and ex-slavers having to find new roles after the Malazan Empire outlawed slavery. Rast, the half-Teblor son of Karsa Orlong, has been exiled from his home by his mother. The town's depleted garrison is reinforced by the Malazan XIVth Legion's 2nd Company, with the slight problem that the company has been almost destroyed in an engagement with a mercenary company, with heavy losses on both sides. Fighting the mercenaries to a standstill, Captain Gruff hits on the splendid - or barking mad - idea of hiring the mercenaries to augment his depleted forces, which is slightly undercut by the two sides disliking one another. Elsewhere, the Teblor tribes of the mountains have discovered that the fading of Jaghut sorcery from the world is about to have cataclysmic consequences, spurring a mass migration into the lands of the south, and a potential showdown with their reluctant deity Karsa Orlong, also known as Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Novel.

And that's kind of it. The novel rotates between these three storylines with a laser-like focus, with Rast's growth from a confused and terrified youth into a character of moral courage, using his Karsa-like, single-minded and utterly unbendable determination as a force for good (or what passes for it) getting a lot of focus. So too do the Malazan marines holding Silver Lake. There's only eighteen of them left after the clash with Balk's mercenary company (who also get some attention, though it's more of a subplot), allowing Erikson to explore most of their characters in a lot of detail. It's the splendidly-written Stillwater who emerges as the best character in the novel, a lethal assassin-mage who has been trying to effectively trademark the idea (and ignoring the various assassin-mage organisations we've already seen in the previous novels, not least the Claw) and whose facility with the warren of Shadow is slightly complicated by her relationship with the Hounds of Shadow. Stillwater entertains because of her determined lack of interest in the normal ongoings of the Malazan world, and her metacommentary on what is happening is the source of much of the book's humour.

The book is relatively small in scale for most of its length, being concerned with very small groups of characters, until Erikson shifts things up a gear in the last hundred pages or so, when we suddenly pull back to a widescreen view of events and discover that things are about to go south very, very fast. Entire cultures and nations are caught up as Erikson finally delivers when he nearly did in The Bonehunters - a fantasy disaster novel! - and does so with spades.

I was very surprised at this book. A dozen novels, half a dozen novellas and thirty years into writing this series (and almost forty since he and Ian Esslemont created it for gaming purposes in 1982), with the previous two-published books being commercial disappointments, you could have forgiven Erikson for writing a crowd-pleasing war story or a thousand-page recap of Malazan's greatest hits. Instead, he delivers a determined, focused, well-paced and immensely rich novel of war, peace, hubris, consequence, sorcery and compassion. He even finds time to right some wrongs from earlier in the series: the somewhat brushed-over consequences of Karsa's odyssey of destruction in House of Chains are here laid bare in full, and the logical (if long-in-unfolding) consequences of events in the main series which were outside the scope of that story are explored in depth by one of Erikson's finest casts of characters yet.

The God is Not Willing (*****) is Steven Erikson bringing his A-game, turned up to 11, and delivering what is comfortably one of his three or four best novels to date. The book will be published in the UK on 1 July and on 9 November in the United States.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

New animated LORD OF THE RINGS movie, WAR OF THE ROHIRRIM, announced

In unexpected news, New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers Animation have announced they are working on a new, animated Lord of the Rings film called War of the Rohirrim.

Set roughly 250 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, the film will tell the story of Helm Hammerhand, a King of Rohan during a terrible war with the Dunlendings and an alliance of Easterlings and corsairs from the south. Helm is mentioned in the Lord of the Rings novels and movie trilogy as the warleader for whom the fortress of Helm's Deep is named.

New Line and Warner Brothers have fast-tracked the project after developing it in the background for some time. It is believed that they wish to take advantage of the impending renewed interest in all things Middle-earth when Amazon launches its Lord of the Rings prequel TV series set during the Second Age. Voice casting is already underway.

The project is not affiliated with Amazon, meaning it is currently intended for cinemas and possibly HBO Max rather than Amazon Prime Television. The project is also not making use of any of the new deals between the Tolkien Estate and Amazon, and will instead rely solely on information from the Lord of the Rings appendices.

Kenji Kamiyama, who created the animation for Netflix's Ultraman project, will direct. Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews, who wrote the well-received Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, are writing. Philippa Boyens, who co-wrote the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies, is consulting on the project, which will be very much in the visual style and continuity of the Peter Jackson movies.

This will be no less than the fourth animated Middle-earth movie, following on from The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978) and The Return of the King (1980).

With the film only just greenlit, it is unlikely to air before 2023 at the earliest.

Orbit confirm Daniel Abraham's new fantasy novel for early 2022 release

Orbit Books have confirmed that Daniel Abraham's new fantasy novel, Age of Ash, will be published in February 2022.

The new novel is the first in a trilogy, with the entire trilogy spanning a year in the life of one city. The cover blurb as as follows:

Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.

This is Alys’s.

Alys is simply a petty thief from the slums of Longhill, but when her brother is murdered, she sets out to discover who killed him and why. But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives.

Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.

Abraham is the author of the excellent Long Price Quartet and Dagger and the Coin series, as the co-author (with Ty Franck, both writing as James S.A. Corey) of The Expanse, the final volume of which will be published this autumn.

Keira Knightley to star in ANCILLARY JUSTICE adaptation

In an interview with Harper's Bazaar, actress Keira Knightly has confirmed she will be starring in an adaptation of Ann Leckie's 2013 SF novel Ancillary Justice.

The novel focuses on Breq, the AI of a vast starship which has been destroyed. Breq's intelligence survives in one of its crew, an animated human corpse. Breq becomes an important player in the fate of the massive interstellar empire known as the Imperial Radch. The novel was well-received on release, spawning two (somewhat less-accomplished) sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, and winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Knightly notes that in preparation for her role she's reading books about dictators and conquest, suggesting she might be playing Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, rather than Breq herself, but that remains unconfirmed.

Reportedly, Ancillary Justice will start filming later this year.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Shooting on THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT wraps, production due to start shortly on THE MANDALORIAN Season 3

Star Ming-Na Wen has confirmed that Lucasfilm have completed production of The Book of Boba Fett, a spin-off TV series from The Mandalorian. Shooting began late last year on the surprise show - whose existence was only revealed in the season finale to The Mandalorian - which sees Ming-Na Wen reprise her role as Fennec Shand, alongside Temuera Morrison as the titular bounty-hunter.

The plan was to roll straight into shooting The Mandalorian Season 3, with star Pedro Pascal confirming this week that production has not yet begun, but presumably will shortly.

The Book of Boba Fett will air on Disney+ in December this year, with The Mandalorian Season 3 likely to follow in 2022. 

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Netflix confirms autumn launch date for COWBOY BEBOP

Netflix has confirmed they will be launching their live-action version of Cowboy Bebop this autumn, and also reconfirmed (after announcing it last year) that iconic Japanese musician Yoko Kanno will be working on the show. Kanno's work was an integral part of the original anime and it's good to hear she'll be on board for this new iteration.

The series, based on the hugely popular and iconic 1998 Japanese anime of the same name, had a protracted production schedule for its first season. The show had only just started shooting when star John Cho broke his foot, necessitating the suspension of filming for several months. Just as things were gearing up for the restart, the COVID pandemic struck. Fortunately, the show was filming in New Zealand, one of the countries to most successfully handle the pandemic, and was able to resume production in good order. Filming was completed in March.

The show stars John Cho as Spike, Daniele Pineda as Faye Valentine and Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black. The first season appears to consist of eight or nine episodes, which might explain why the character Ed has not been cast yet; that character only debuts in the ninth episode of the original series.

Monday, 7 June 2021

SHADOW AND BONE renewed for a second season at Netflix

Netflix has officially renewed Shadow and Bone for a second season.

The first season, based on Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse series of novels, attracted over 55 million viewers to become one of Netflix's biggest successes this year. The show didn't quite match the success of fantasy label-mate The Witcher, whose first season attracted over 76 million viewers in 2019 and is back for a second season itself later this year, but was still a big hit (especially on a likely lower budget than the older show).

The second season will enter production later this year for a likely debut in late 2022.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Wertzone Classics: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Brother Brutha of the Church is a devout believer in the Great God Om, in whose name the Omnian Empire has scythed a bloody path of conquest across the continent. The only problem is that he is the only devout believer left of the Great God Om, which Om believes is the reason he has been incarnated and imprisoned in the body of a small tortoise. Still, with Brutha's help he hopes to reclaim his former place of glory. The only problem is that Brutha has no idea how to accomplish this, not in a theocratic empire where genuine faith is seen as a threat...

By the early common wisdom, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series was a series of amusing comic fantasies parodying other genre works and then facets of everyday life, like the movie business, law enforcement and shopping malls. More serious topics had started appearing in the series, but only as an underlying theme.

With Small Gods, published in 1992, Pratchett took the more serious ideas he'd been rummaging around with, put them up front and centre, remembered to bring a moderate number of laughs, and wrote arguably his masterpiece*.

At its core, Small Gods, from its first page to its last, is a lengthy, sustained and inordinately clever examination of religious fundamentalism and blind faith and their conflict with reason, argument and science. And you barely notice, because the story itself is extremely taut, well-told and brilliantly characterised with Pratchett's occasional bursts of silliness kept to a minimum in favour of flashes of wry and at times angry humour. Small Gods is a book that both argues for the importance of personal faith and piety and vehemently against people using their religious beliefs to impose fear, pain and death on others.

Small Gods has the veneer of being just a traditional Pratchett book: there's some jokes about men in togas arguing pointlessly about philosophy (in a world where it is difficult to ask, "Are the gods real?" when a lightning bolt will come flying through the window five seconds later with a label attached saying, "YES"), Death has a couple of cameo appearances and there is a running joke about tortoises being nice to eat. But you can tell the subject matter really got Pratchett riled up. His hatred of blind faith and the idea that setting fire to people is okay because an old book says so - even when, strictly speaking, it doesn't mention it - really comes through in this novel, but in measured tones. There's also a whole bunch of other things that clearly got Pratchett's goat up, with Flat Earthers (here cast as those believing the objectively flat Discworld is a sphere, because of irony) also having a hard time of it on the sharper end of Pratchett's wit.

Character-wise, Small Gods may be Pratchett's strongest novel. Being something of a prequel to the rest of the series, most of the cast does not recur elsewhere (Death and a very brief trans-temporal appearance by a certain simian book-collector aside), but Pratchett still has time to paint them in impressive detail. Vorbis may be one of the scariest antagonists in the whole series. Brutha is certainly one of its most interesting protagonists. Om's pragmatic, tortoise-meets-deity outlook on life is amusing. Even minor characters like Didactylos and would-be rebel leader Simony are well-rounded and given good rationales for what they do.

Almost as importantly, the ending does not suck. Pratchett had a patchy record with endings in the early going of the series, with his books sometimes ending okay and others being a bit of a let-down after a strong start and middle section. Small Gods, however, has a fantastic ending, starting with possibly the biggest belly-laugh out of all forty-one books in the series and proceeding from there. Intelligent but never preachy, philosophical but never boring, Small Gods (*****) is Terry Pratchett's masterpiece (okay, one of his masterpieces). It stakes a credible claim to being the strongest Discworld novel and maybe the best thing he ever wrote, and if I had to recommend just one Discworld novel for someone to read, it would be this one. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

*Although, a decade later, Night Watch would have serious words about that, and Nation a few years later.

I previously reviewed the novel here.

Friday, 4 June 2021

George R.R. Martin becomes a canonical Marvel character

In one of the odder bits of recent news, it turns out that Marvel are canonising George RR Martin as a character within the Marvel Comics universe. GRRM will show up along with a whole other batch of celebrities in the crossover "Hellfire Gala" event, which is spanning several X-Men titles this week.

Martin is a huge fan of Marvel Comics, and his very first published work was a letter to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four #20 (August 1963), written when he was fourteen years old. He later submitted other letters to more Marvel titles (including Avengers) and attended the very first Comic-Con in New York in 1964 along with some other fans he'd met through the letters pages of the comics. Martin has cited the influence of Marvel Comics on his work, including their greater focus on characterisation and the idea of bad guys turning good (specifically the character of Wonder Man) and good guys turning bad, and many characters not fitting into either spectrum.

GRRM has appeared as fictional versions of himself before - he cameoed in Z Nation as a zombie in 2015, taking advantage of undead immortality to continue work on his novels - but I suspect him being cemented in Marvel Comics history as a character in that universe will please him greatly.

The Hellfire Gala starts this week in Marauders #21, X-Force #20 and Hellions #12.

Sony acquires N.K. Jemisin's BROKEN EARTH trilogy after major bidding war

Sony Pictures has acquired screen rights to N.K. Jemisin's multi-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy after a fierce bidding war. Sony paid seven figures for the rights to the three books and will be adapting them as a movie series, to be distributed by subsidiary TriStar Pictures (TriStar has not, so far, worked in television). Jemisin will adapt the novels herself.

Each of the three books in the series - The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016) and The Stone Sky (2017) - won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, making Jemisin the first author to win Best Novel for three years in a row and for every instalment of a series.

The trilogy is set in a distant future Earth where several landmasses have combined into a massive supercontinent, called the Stillness, and some people have the apparently magical ability to use the powers of the earth to their own ends. A massive disaster threatens the stability of the world, leading Essun and her daughter Nassun on a mission to help save the planet by finding the long-lost moon.

The trilogy has sold over a million copies to date and propelled Jemisin to new levels of fame and success. 

The creators of XCOM are making what sounds very much like MARVEL TACTICS

A leak from the upcoming E3 video game convention has revealed that Take Two and their subsidiary Firaxis are developing a licensed Marvel turn-based tactics game. It sounds like some or most of the team behind the hugely popular XCOM relaunch series are working on the title.

There's been a bit of a fad for properties spinning off turn-based tactical games and whacking the name "Tactics" after the title. This started with the classic Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) and has recently seen entries like Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics (2017) and Gears Tactics (2020). However, the more recent iterations have been somewhat lacking in depth, often featuring passable combat but no strategic metagame to make things more interesting. If the XCOM team are working on this, I'd assume they'd be putting together a really good strategic layer as well. Hell, XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen with their Avenger totally-not-a-helicarrier and increasingly colourful, semi-superhero soldiers weren't far off being Marvel games already.

The last XCOM game, Chimera Squad (notably not made by the "main" XCOM team who were working on another project, possibly this Marvel game), experimented with stronger narrative elements and fully-voiced, pre-generated squad members who could not die in the traditional manner (instead being injured, with a full squad knock-out requiring a reload), which felt incongruous in an XCOM game but makes more sense as a dry run for a licensed game.

More news should come at E3, where Take Two will be unveiling their new projects on 14 June. As well as this Marvel game, reportedly they will confirm a Borderlands spin-off and a new project from the Mafia studio (but not a new game in that series). However, don't expect any news on Grand Theft Auto VI from Take Two's other studio Rockstar, as that game is still likely two to three years off.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Star Trek: First Contact

The Federation's most feared enemy, the implacable Borg, have returned to mount an assault on Earth. The crew of the USS Enterprise lead the fight against them, but the Borg surprise their opponents by employing time travel to try to wipe out humanity by preventing First Contact between humanity and an alien species. With little choice, Captain Picard and his crew have to follow the Borg back through time to defeat them.

With Star Trek: Generations having done the heavy lifting of transferring the mantle of the Star Trek movie franchise from Kirk's crew to Picard's, it was time for the Next Generation production team to cut loose. First Contact was planned, written and filmed with many of the restrictions from Generations gone: the film had a larger budget, did not have to incorporate any of the original crewmembers and was given greater freedom. Writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga decided to bring back the Borg, the uber-terror from The Next Generation, this time with enough money to do them justice. They also incorporated a time travel storyline from a suggestion by producer Rick Berman, and incorporated Patrick Stewart's request for more action and a more heroic role for Picard. Castmember and by-now veteran Star Trek director Jonathan Frakes was also asked to step into the big chair, his familiarity with the cast and the limitations of filming on what was still a low budget for a big SF effects film (the same year's Independence Day had twice the budget and was still proclaimed a low-budget SF movie for the time).

The result is, easily, the strongest of the four Star Trek films featuring the Next Generation crew, although it is far from flawless. Central to the plot are the twin pillars of Data's desire to become more human, which the Borg Queen perverts in an effort to force Date to help her overcome the ship's systems, and Picard's guilt over his former assimilation (leading to the deaths of over ten thousand Starfleet personnel) and resulting obsession with stopping the Borg, no matter the cost. The film operates on some familiar ground to The Wrath of Khan here, with Moby Dick references getting wheeled out for a second airing, though the spin that it's our protagonist who is fuelled by ill-advised vengeance rather than the villain keeps things feeling fresh. Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Alice Krige (as the Born Queen) get the lion's share of the world in the film and are all excellent.

Other characters are less well-served. Riker, Troi and La Forge are shunted to Earth's surface in a comedic subplot where they try to convince Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) to make his famed first warp flight which triggers First Contact. This is very much a "TV episode" storyline and isn't very very fleshed out, despite a fine performance by Cromwell. It does feel like this story more exists to reduce Jonathan Frakes's screen time, freeing him up to direct elsewhere, and it takes out several other characters at the same time. It's also a bit odd that none of the characters in this subplot seem bothered about losing contact with the Enterprise for such a long period of time.

The main story on the Enterprise is stronger, with some pretty cool set-pieces (the zero-gee sequence with the crew and Borg fighting over the Enterprise-E's deflector dish is a great idea, though it does go on a bit too long) and a number of really great scenes, like a shoot-out with the Borg in a 1930s setting on the holodeck and the scenes of the Borg Queen "seducing" Data (figuratively and, slightly randomly, literally). There's also a grisly horror angle to the action and directing, with the Borg now able to assimilate crewmembers on the spot and a merging of biological and technological elements in a way that would make H.R. Giger break out in a cold sweat. Star Trek has, arguably, never been more of a horror piece than in this film.

The film is generally well-paced and doesn't outstay it's welcome. As a film taken purely on its own merits, it's a decent slice of entertainment and one of the better entries in the franchise. It was also the one that pretty much solidified the "even-numbered Star Trek films are always good!" meme). However, the film has problems when taken as a greater part of the Star Trek whole. It severely downgrades the threat level from the Borg. Multiple previous episodes of the TV show had established that the Borg were able to adapt to Starfleet weapons with contemptuous ease and their ships were now effectively immune to phasers and photon torpedoes. Yet in the opening space battle, ordinary Starfleet vessels pummel the first Borg ship with standard weapons until it explodes (making a bit of a mockery of the Battle of Wolf 359 in the process). The second is taken out by a desultory single volley of quantum torpedoes. Individual Borg drones are more dangerous with their new instant-assimilation ability and their familiar ability to adapt to incoming fire, but can also be killed in ordinary hand-to-hand combat without too much trouble. I get that the TV show had made the Borg effectively invulnerable and the choice was between never using the Borg again or downgrading them, but I can't help but feel that weakening them was the wrong move. Before First Contact, the Borg were an unstoppable force of destruction; afterwards, they are just ordinary Star Trek aliens, and their mythic power was forever lost, a feeling their subsequent over-use in Voyager did not alleviate.

Still, if that's the price we pay for a pretty good movie, so be it. First Contact (****) is a solid slice of Star Trek cinematic spectacle, Star Trek's finest nod at the horror genre and an entertaining SF action movie.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

New Guy Gavriel Kay novel gets title and release date

Guy Gavriel Kay's next novel will be called All the Seas of the World and will be published in May 2022.

The novel is set in "the world of A Brightness Long Ago," his previous novel. Most of Kay's fiction is set in that same world, starting with 1995's The Lions of Al-Rassan, but the announcement implies it may be set closer in time and space to Brightness, itself a prequel to 2016's Children of Earth and Sky.

The novel will be published by Berkley in the US, Penguin Canada and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.