Wednesday 30 June 2021

WHEEL OF TIME TV series reveals logo and confirms 2021 release

Amazon Prime Television have unveiled the logo for their Wheel of Time TV series and confirmed the previously-strongly-rumoured 2021 release date.

It was previously revealed that Orbit Books are preparing to release their TV tie-in editions of The Eye of the World, the first Wheel of Time novel and the one the first season of the TV show is expected to adapt, on 4 November. Other rumours have suggested that Amazon is targeting Friday 26 November - Black Friday - as a possible launch date, which seems reasonable.

The TV version of the Wheel of Time logo starts off with a spinning disc - which rapidly reveals itself as the sigil of the Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends, what we known of as the yin-yang symbol of balance and dualism, which then turns into the ring version of the ouroboros symbol, of a snake eating its own tail, a symbol in the books representing eternity.

The Wheel of Time is one of the most successful epic fantasy series of all time, selling just under 100 million copies since the first novel was published in 1990. Robert Jordan wrote eleven novels in the series before sadly passing away in 2007; Brandon Sanderson completed the final three books in the series from Jordan's notes and outlines. Set in both a distant future and a distant past (since time is cyclical in the books), the books tell the tale of the rise of the Dragon Reborn, the first man in three and a half millennia able to wield the One Power. Only women have been able to use the One Power safely since every man able to use the Power was cursed to go mad and die. Prophecy states that only the Dragon Reborn can save the world again, but many Aes Sedai - the main organisation of women wielders of the Power - believe that the Dragon Reborn should be destroyed or imprisoned when he is identified. The novels and TV series begin when an Aes Sedai named Moiraine arrives in a remote village called Emond's Field, having believed she has identified three possible candidates for the Dragon Reborn. But she also discovers unexpected secrets in the village and it's a much larger party that sets out for the Aes Sedai stronghold, Tar Valon.

The Wheel of Time TV series stars regular actors Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, Daniel Henney as Lan, Madeleine Madden as Egwene, Zoe Robbins as Nynaeve, Josha Stradowski as Rand, Marcus Rutherford as Perrin, and Barney Harris as Mat. Guest stars include Michael McElhatton as Tam, Alvaro Morte as Logain, Hammed Animashaun as Loial, Alexandre Willaume as Thom, Johann Myers as Padan Fain, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Illa, Kate Fleetwood as Liandrin, Abdul Salis as Eamon Valda, Stuart Graham as Geofram Bornhald, Kae Alexander as Min and Sophie Okonedo as Siuan.

Tuesday 29 June 2021

GOOD OMENS renewed for a second season at Amazon

In somewhat surprising news, Amazon Prime Television has renewed Good Omens for a second season, despite the first season adapting the novel in its entirety.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett co-wrote the original novel for publication in 1990. However, even before the book hit shelves they sat down and mapped out a potential sequel, producing an outline. Their subsequent stratospheric career trajectories made it impossible for them to write the book, despite periodically hoping to look at the project again. The second season of Good Omens sounds like it will draw upon this material for inspiration.

Neil Gaiman will again produce, co-showrun and co-write the series, this time alongside John Finnemore. Gaiman confirmed the show is already in pre-production with sets being built, and will shoot in Scotland. David Tennant and Michael Sheen will reprise their starring roles.

Season 2 of Good Omens will shoot later this year for a 2022-23 debut on Amazon.

Monday 28 June 2021

Apple TV's FOUNDATION TV series gets airdate and new trailer

Apple TV's Foundation series, based on the novels by Isaac Asimov, now has an airdate. The TV show will debut on 24 September this year.

Set more than twenty thousand years in the future, the Foundation novels depict the fall of the Galactic Empire. After twelve millennia of rule, the Empire has become corrupt, decadent and ripe for collapse, a fact not fully appreciated by its rulers. Mathematician Hari Seldon has created a form of statistical analysis he calls "psychohistory," which can predict the future within remarkable degrees of accuracy. Seldon's discovery predicts the collapse of the Empire and thirty thousand years of barbarity. But Seldon believes the interregnum can be reduced to just one millennia if a repository of lore and scientific knowledge is created: a Foundation for the next era of human existence. Much of the tension in the early part of the story comes from those in the Empire who believe Seldon's predictions and want to help him, and those who believe that Seldon is a liar and doom-monger who is bringing about the very apocalypse he has merely predicted.

Asimov started writing the series as a short story sequence in 1942, collecting the original stories and novellas into three fixup novels: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), collectively known as The Foundation Trilogy. The trilogy sold extremely well and became one of the biggest-selling science fiction series of the age, winning a special "Best Series" Hugo Award in 1966. Asimov only returned to the series with Foundation's Edge (1982) after a publisher offered him a staggering sum of money to do so. The story continued in Foundation and Earth (1986), the chronologically-final Foundation novel. It left the story unresolved, but did reveal that the Foundation universe was the same as the Robots universe, creating a much bigger shared universe spanning more than a dozen novels and twenty thousand years of future history. Asimov struggled to come up with a way of continuing the saga before instead choosing to rewrite a prequel duology about Hari Seldon, comprising Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993). Asimov died in 1992, shortly after completing Forward the Foundation. Other writers continued the Foundation saga in authorised prequels and sequels of varying quality.

Foundation has been hugely influential on later franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars; the city-planet of Coruscant in the latter is a nod at the city-planet of Trantor in Foundation.

The Foundation TV series stars Jared Harris as Hari Seldon; Lee Pace as Brother Day, the Emperor of the Galaxy; Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick; Leah Harvey as Salvor Hardin; Laura Birn as Eto Demerzel; Cassian Bilton as Brother Dawn and Terrence Mann as Brother Dusk. The series has been executive produced by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman and was shot in Limerick, Ireland. The first season will consist of ten episodes. The first season seems to draw on elements in Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation and Foundation, as well as some significant changes to the story (such as the ruling Emperor replacing himself through cloning).

Wertzone Classics: Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is getting married. It's an occasion of great happiness and joy, marred by a massive explosion at the Assassins' Guild and the theft of an unknown artefact. The Guilds don't want the Watch involved and the Patrician doesn't want Vimes involved, but bodies are soon piling up. Someone out there has a weapon that kill people instantly at a long, long range and its up to the City Watch and their new intake to stop them. Somehow.

When Terry Pratchett introduced the City Watch in the classic Discworld novel Guards! Guards! it always felt like he was deliberately setting up a premise and cast of characters who could go on to recur regularly through the series. It's a bit surprising that it took him seven novels to get back to the Watch and their adventures, but when he did, he did it with style.

Once again, Pratchett engages with amusing cliches - Captain Vimes is only three days from retirement and we all know what that means in a police procedural - and once again also undercuts a simple satire with some outstanding character and story depth. There's a harder edge to this story than most Discworld novels, with a somewhat higher body count (including among some of the sympathetic protagonists), all arranged around a genuinely intriguing mystery. There's a great nod to hardbitten detective stories, with Sam Vimes as the cynical, weathered old cop doggedly pursuing the case in the face of opposition, with Corporal Carrot as his enthusiastic young sidekick. As you'd expect, though, Pratchett subverts this setup early on and takes the story in more interesting directions.

The novel benefits from being the first one written with Stephen Briggs' Streets of Ankh-Morpork guidebook to hand, meaning that Pratchett could plot things like rooftop chases and the routes of various characters on a big map of the city. This immediately gives the city more of a lived-in feel. But the writing is far more important in giving Ankh-Morpork a lived-in reality to it. Previous to Men at Arms, Ankh-Morpork was simply a great setting. From this novel onwards - and to this very day - it simply became the greatest metropolis ever presented in a fantasy series, a city that absolutely convinces from the tip of the Tower of Art to the depths of the sluggish River Ankh and from the office of the Patrician to the lowliest criminals on the streets. For the backdrop to an ostensibly comedic series, that's quite an accomplishment.

On top of this, Pratchett brings a rich level of characterisation. Both Vimes and Carrot take a step up, and the troll-and-dwarf pairing of Detritus (returning from Moving Pictures, as does Gaspode) and Cuddy is absolutely fantastic. Angua is also a very fine addition to the cast. Pratchett also uses the novel to intelligently investigate ethnic tensions in a divided city as well as political intrigue between the guilds and the government, as well as analysing the dangers of those who live in the "glories" of the past rather than trying to help the present.

Pratchett also still brings the funny. As usual there is intelligent wordplay, some smart references (Detritus's swift promotion to a Full Metal Jacket-style drill sergeant is as terrifying as it is funny) and, when called for, some more straightforward gags peppered through the book.

The real success of Men at Arms (*****) is Pratchett taking things he'd previously been good at in isolation and here combining them into an outstandingly successful combination, furthering the run of the Discworld series' first "imperial period" of quality. The novel is available in the UK and USA and I previously reviewed it here.

Saturday 26 June 2021

BattleTech: Mercenary Collection

AD 3022. The Inner Sphere of human space is embroiled in the closing stages of the Third Succession War, a series of conflicts between the Great Houses for power and territory. Largely unaffected by the conflict is the Aurigan Coalition, a minor power among the Periphery States which has flourished under the rule of House Arano. Lady Kamea Arano is about to take her place as the head of the house when her uncle launches a brutal coup. Kamea disappears and one of her guardians, a MechWarrior of impressive skill, is rescued by a band of mercenaries. Three years later Kamea re-emerges with an offer to her former allies to help her reclaim her throne.

Originally released in 2018, BattleTech is a turn-based strategy game set in the shared BattleTech and MechWarrior universe. That universe began as a tabletop wargame but expanded into board games, novels, video games and even a short-lived animated series. Created by Harebrained Schemes and with the original BattleTech co-creator Jordan Weisman in charge of development, it was the first BattleTech video game that got close to the franchise's original roots.

It was reasonably successful, and has since been re-released with its three expansions (Flashpoint, Urban Warfare and Heavy Metal) included. So the question is it worthwhile picking up the game with these additions included? My original 2018 review of BattleTech can be found here.

To recap, the game has you playing a MechWarrior, the pilot of a BattleMech, a massive, building-sized walking death machine. MechWarriors are the elite troops of the 31st Century, a time period when five great powers and numerous smaller ones and mercenaries fight for control of the Inner Sphere, the vast region of space claimed by humanity (there are no aliens in the BattleTech universe). Over the course of a lengthy story-driven campaign, interspersed with huge numbers of side-missions and procedurally-generated jobs, you build up a mercenary company from scratch, hiring pilots, training their skills, buying or salvaging more BattleMechs, equipping them and fighting in detailed, tactically tense engagements on a variety of planets. The game contains a number of interesting, interlocking systems which gives rise to an immense amount of satisfying player choice, realised via chunky, engaging combat missions. The game is effectively XCOM: Pacific Rim, and is every bit as fun and compelling as that sounds.

The original game did have problems, though, with too-long animations and a difficulty curve that was less of a curve and more of a barbed-wire wall, with occasional spikes making progress difficult without a lot of tedious grinding.

The Mercenary Collection, via the three expansions included within, immediately eliminates these problems via a host of new features. The most notable is that the game's engine has been reworked and a number of new options presented, which dramatically speed up gameplay by allowing you to skip more tedious animations or remove mid-battle animated sequences altogether. There is a more granular difficulty setting for those who find the game too much of a cakewalk or too tough. There are more mid-game special events to liven things up, and the DLC missions and features integrate into the campaign, giving you a greater variety of maps to fight on, as well as more mechs and weapons to deploy in battle.

The game also gives you the opportunity to start in "Career Mode," which jettisons the storyline altogether in favour of a new setup with you taking on the task of setting up your mercenary company from scratch and guiding them across the Rimward Periphery without any story material to worry about. This mode is fun for veteran players who know what they are doing, as they can immediately access some of the DLC material that is otherwise gated until you finish the campaign. For newcomers I'd recommend following the story, which does a better job of managing the difficulty curve of the game.

The first DLC, Flashpoint, adds a number of new story-based mini-campaigns (aka flashpoints) to the game. These campaigns have their own stories, characters and twists and turns, and can give you a lot of rewards and experience. There's some fun elements in these missions, and they add a fairly large number of handcrafted missions which relieve the occasional grind of procedurally-generated, somewhat bland missions. However, the flashpoints oddly don't trigger until you've finished the story campaign, which oddly leaves you too heavily levelled for the low-level flashpoints (which will become a cakewalk). The flashpoints are best experienced in Career Mode, but the tougher missions do have some twists that may check even experienced MechWarriors, such as missions that force the player to use Light or Medium 'Mechs, forcing them to leave the Assaults at home.

The second DLC, Urban Warfare, introduces the new city environment which is a huge amount of fun to play in. Skyscrapers break sightlines, and jump jet-equipped 'Mechs can suddenly find themselves with a lot more tactical options than before (though also run the risk of the building they are standing on being shot out from under them). Ten more flashpoints are added with interesting new storylines.

The third DLC, Heavy Metal, adds multiple new BattleMechs, including the mobile artillery Bullshark 'Mech, and tons of new weapons, including the COIL laser which can make Light 'Mechs much more formidable weapons platforms. The expansion also features a new story campaign that ultimately pits the player's company in the middle of a showdown between two of the BattleTech universe's most formidable warriors, the Bounty Hunter and the Black Widow.

These expansions add a lot more content and variety to the game and, like the Enemy Within expansion for XCOM: Enemy Unknown or the War of the Chosen expansion for XCOM 2, they improve on the original game as well, taking something that was already very solid and making it richer, more interesting and more compelling. This version of the game also allows for much greater modding capability, and the mods available via Nexus are impressive, with some extending the game's setting to incorporate the entire Inner Sphere and extending the timeline to bring in those old BattleTech favourite antagonists, the Clans.

BattleTech: Mercenary Collection (****½) is, at least for now, the definitive version of the BattleTech experience and an outstandingly rich, turn-based strategy game. It is available on PC now (and is currently on a reasonably generous deal on Steam).

Tuesday 22 June 2021

Wertzone Classics: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Returning to their home kingdom of Lancre after travelling across the Disc, witches Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax discover that a new coven of hip, young witches has arisen in their absence. Magrat is disconcerted to discover that plans for her marriage to King Verence are steaming ahead without her involvement, with guests arriving from all over. On top of those issues, an invasion of beings from another dimension is at hand. It falls to the witches of Lancre and an unlikely assortment of allies - an annoyed orangutan, a legion of ninja morris dancers and a terminally frisky dwarf in a wig - to rise to the occasion.

Lords and Ladies is intriguing as the first Discworld novel to rely heavily on pre-existing continuity, a point Terry Pratchett was so concerned about he includes a warning about it (and a quick recap of prior books) in the start of the novel. The book is the fourth in the "Witches" sub-series following on from Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad, but it also intersects and crosses over with the "Ankh-Morpork Wizards" sub-series, previously established in Moving Pictures and Reaper Man. Think of it as The Avengers of the Discworld Literary Universe, or something.

Those fairly moderate (and likely overstated) continuity concerns out of the way, Lords and Ladies is a fun romp which fairly effortlessly fits into the upper tier of Discworld novels. By this point in the series, Pratchett had moved on from satirising fantasy as a whole and was far more interested in examining the human condition through the idiosyncratic lens of the Discworld. However, he was fairly regularly being bombarded (or at least lightly shelled) by fan letters asking where the elves* were. The Disc had dwarfs, trolls, pixies and fairies after all, so elves should be around. Their only mention thusfar had been The Light Fantastic, where Twoflower mooned over elves as being beautiful and graceful and Rincewind reacted the same way as when someone says, "Well, say what you will but that Mr. Hitler had some good ideas." That idea had clearly been rattling around for a while before Pratchett finally decided to give it a good airing.

The modern epic fantasy idea of elves as graceful, noble beings was a somewhat unusual one when compared to folklore, where elves are presented more as mischievous tricksters, if not outright evil. Pratchett decided to tap that field of inspiration for his elves here, who as much more Aes Sidhe than noble Legolas, and all the more interesting for it. The Aes Sidhe - the elves of Irish mythology - are a fascinating study in cruelty and alieness, and Pratchett's exploration of them here in a fantasy context would remain unmatched until, arguably, Peadar Ó Guilín's recent and hugely enjoyable Call duology.

The novel is divided into two halves. The first is fairly familiar, with the witches dealing with more mundane concerns in Lancre, Magrat getting annoyed at finding out people are trying to arrange her life without asking her and Nanny and Granny trying to deal with the fact that they're not getting any younger and they are risk of being out to pasture by fresh, new blood (with some very odd ideas). This sequence feels slight but still funny, and quite clever (how Granny Weatherwax defeats the younger witch trying to take her down a notch is both), interspersed with a road trip as the Ankh-Morpork wizards travel to Lancre through a series of increasingly bizarre adventures, culminating in one of the funniest scenes in the entire series as their coach is held up by noted lowwayman Casanunda (here returning from Witches Abroad).

The second half of the novel, after the elves show up, abruptly shifts gears into the rather unexpected Die Hard with an Elfgeance as the Lancre regulars have to tool up and take down the elves with a gusto that Professor Hugo Dyson (a noted elf-hater who mocked his friend JRR Tolkien about them rather gleefully) would no doubt approve of. In fact, given Pratchett's general reluctance to use violence as the ultimate solution to problems, the transformation of the story into what is possibly the closest he gets to writing an all-out action novel is rather surprising, even moreso for how accomplished it is. Pratchett being Pratchett, he also has to throw in some clever references to quantum theory along the way, culminating in his unique solution to Schrodinger's Paradox.

Characterisation is solid throughout and Magrat gets fleshed out a lot more than in previous books, whilst Granny Weatherwax continues her evolution into arguably Pratchett's finest protagonist. The book also gives much-needed depth to Ridcully, whose character could formerly be defined as "blusteringly pompous," but here emerges as a smarter, shrewder and more romantic character than previously. There's also some subtle foreshadowing of later novels as Ponder Stibbons' experiences here set up his investigation of other-universe theory, leading to further shenanigans down the road. A slight crack here is the continued degeneration of the Bursar into mental instability and illness and it being played solely for laughs, which feels a bit obvious and risks becoming stale (Pratchett just about  maintains it here, but by Interesting Times the joke has worn thin).

In overall terms, Lords and Ladies (*****) emerges as one of the strongest books in the series, and the second part of a formidable one-two punch after Small Gods. Pratchett shows he can play a story more strongly for laughs and even action, and still craft something as entertaining and memorable as that earlier, slightly more serious book about the exploitation of religious faith. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. I previously reviewed the novel here.

* Throughout the Discworld series Pratchett uses the more grammatically correct "dwarfs" rather than Tolkienian "dwarves" for the plural of that species, but even he had to admit that "elfs" looks weird and went with Tollers on that one.

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.