Wednesday 21 February 2024

Marvel changing plans to recapture the zeitgeist

In an in-depth article for the Hollywood Reporter, it has been revealed that Marvel Studios is pivoting hard as it tries to overcome a series of recent obstacles to recapture the zeitgeist it imperiously commanded for over a decade.

In 2008 Marvel Studios launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an interconnected series of superhero films which shared a single continuity, canon and cast of characters, who could pop up in one another's movies and occasionally team up for big "event" pictures. From 2008's Iron Man to 2019's Avengers: Endgame, a mind-boggling run of twenty-two films, the series rarely put a foot wrong. It dominated the box office and the cultural discourse of the time. Even its weakest entries, like Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 2, remained watchable.

Since 2019, the franchise has faltered. Box office receipts have fallen - The Marvels became the first Marvel movie to definitively lose money at the box office in November 2023 - and critical acclaim has also dropped off sharply. Eleven further films have been released since Endgame and only a few of these - particularly Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) - have garnered the type of critical and commercial success the franchise once wracked up almost automatically. There has been much discussion over why the franchise has suddenly started faltering so badly, with several problems identified:

  • The loss of the franchise's most charismatic and best-written characters and the actors going along with them, most notably Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in Endgame.
  • The failure of most of the succeeding new heroes in making an impression that they can pick up the slack moving forwards.
  • An increasingly tiresome inability to break free from the "Marvel format," namely a lot of quips, some action, some moderate character development and then a large setpiece CGI battle at the end, which is rarely outstanding. The few films which did experiment with this, such as Eternals adopting a more serious tone, ended up doing poorly with audiences.
  • The conclusion of the mostly straightforward and well-defined Infinity Stones storyline with a well-realised villain (Thanos) and their replacement with the much murkier, more confusing Multiverse storyline and a lower-key villain (Kang) who has not resonated as strongly.
  • Simple superhero fatigue: thirty-three films and ten TV series (sixteen, if you include the recently canonised Netflix series) in sixteen years is a lot, not to mention dozens more films and TV shows about superheroes from rivals DC and numerous other studios and streamers.
  • An over-expansion into television as part of the streaming wars and then during COVID, bombarding audiences with new shows every few months.
  • The increasing feeling that keeping up with the MCU requires having to do "homework," watching shows and films that don't appeal to you because they're going to be referenced in the next Spider-Man movie that you do care about.
  • Plans to use the always-popular Spider-Man as a lynchpin for the next generation of movies hit a snag with the Sony/Marvel legal disagreement of a few years ago, which means Marvel can't use Spider-Man as a key character moving forwards when they can lose access to him at almost any time.
  • The relatively rapid transition of films from the cinema to Disney+ now means that people can sit out films that look uninteresting or middling until they hit streaming, rather than having to see them in the cinema or risk falling behind the curve.

Marvel has also had to contend with a major problem from one of its tentpole actors for the next slate of films. Actor Jonathan Majors had debuted in the TV series Loki as Kang, a charismatic villain who exists in millions of different incarnations and versions across the Multiverse, a multitude of parallel universes and different timelines. The development of the Multiverse has been a major focus of the films since Endgame and has allowed Marvel to rule that other movie series using their characters - such as the X-Men and Deadpool film series from Fox and the Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man films from Sony - exist in the same Multiverse. Kang was supposed to be the lynchpin of this story moving forwards, as different versions of the character appeared in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Loki's second season, setting up a confrontation between Kang and the Avengers in two big movies coming down the pipe.

But in March 2023 Majors was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend, whom he had met on the set of Quantumania. Marvel refused to take any action whilst legal action was ongoing. In December he was found guilty of two misdemeanour counts of assault and harassment. Marvel quickly confirmed they had terminated their relationship with the actor. Despite initial speculation that the character would be recast - previous different versions of characters across the Multiverse had been portrayed by different actors, with three versions of Spider-Man showing up in No Way Home to great success - it now appears that Marvel is moving away from the character and storyline altogether, minimising him in future projects and pivoting to another villain (speculated in other sources to be Doctor Doom) to be the "big bad" in the next two Avengers films coming down the line.

According to the HR article, Marvel are taking a number of further steps to address their issues. The first is a reduction of output: 2024 will see the release of just one Marvel movie, Deadpool and Wolverine, which will introduce the Merc With a Mouth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also cement the Multiverse connections between the older X-Men films and the MCU. Only one more TV show is expected this year, Agatha: Darkhold Diaries. 2025 is expected to focus hard on the arrival of Marvel tentpole characters the Fantastic Four in the MCU, with Pedro Pascal, Vanessa Kirby, Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Joseph Quinn recently announced in the starring roles for the film. Marvel is hoping that the integration of the Fantastic Four into the MCU, followed later by new versions of Blade and then the X-Men, will give their franchise new legs as it - improbably - heads towards its third decade of production.

Whether these steps are going to be enough to right the ship remains to be seen, or whether at some point Disney and Marvel will have to accept that the MCU's time has simply run out and it needs to be rested for a few years before the inevitable reboot with new actors playing Iron Man, Thor and Captain America.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Marvel casts the Fantastic Four

Marvel has announced the casting for their forthcoming new Fantastic Four movie. Pedro Pascal (The Last of Us, The Mandalorian, Game of Thrones) will play Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic, Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) will play Sue Storm / Invisible Woman, Ebon Moss-Bachrach (The Bear) will play Ben Grimm / The Thing and Joseph Quinn (Stranger Things) will play Johnny Storm / The Human Torch, in a film directed by Matt Shakman (WandaVision).

The film, apparently titled The Fantastic 4, introduces the team to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time. It will, however, be the fifth movie to feature the characters. Roger Corman directed the ultra-low-budget The Fantastic Four in 1994 as a rights-holding exercise. 20th Century Fox released Fantastic Four in 2005, starring Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards, Jessica Alba as Susan Storm, a pre-Captain America Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm. Despite mixed reviews, the film was financially successful and spawned a direct sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), which was less successful.

A new version of the team appeared in 2015 as Fantastic Four, starring Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Susan Storm, a pre-Killmonger Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm and Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm. The film was poorly received both critically and commercially.

Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige confirmed in 2019 that the team would be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following the acquisition of 20th Century Fox by Marvel's parent company, Disney. Originally Jon Watts was going to direct, but he was later replaced by Matt Shakman.

The team are iconic because they were the first superhero team created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics in November 1961 as part of a revamp of the company's lines, designed to compete with DC Comics' Justice League of America (which saw Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and other characters joining forces). Lee and Kirby created the Fantastic Four as a similar team out from scratch. Lee, with Kirby and other artists, later added new superheroes to the same universe, resulting in The Incredible Hulk, Spider-ManThor, Iron Man, the X-Men, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Falcon and Daredevil. He also resurrected characters Marvel had the rights to from years earlier, resulting in the comics Sub-Mariner and Captain America. Periodically these heroes would team up to fight greater threats, in a run known as The Avengers.

Fantastic Four was also notable for debuting many other characters who would go on to have huge success for Marvel Comics: Namor the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Doom, Black Panther, the Kree and Skrull, Adam Warlock, the Inhumans, Silver Surfer and Galactus. The comic ran almost without interruption until issue #645 in 2015. The comic was rested, although the characters would appear in other titles; fan speculation at the time was that Marvel was downplaying those characters whose movie rights they did not control, as they felt they were giving free advertising to competitors. However, the comic relaunched in late 2018, fans again cynically noting that the 20th Century Fox/Marvel deal was in the wind at the time so it was assumed that Marvel Studios would shortly gain control of the film rights, as was proven to be the case.

The Fantastic 4 will be released on 25 July 2025. It will be one of four Marvel movies scheduled for the year, following Captain America: Brave New World in February and Thunderbolts on 2 May and preceding Blade in November. This will mark a return in force for Marvel, who only have a single film out this year: Deadpool & Wolverine on 26 July.

Saturday 10 February 2024


Back in the mists of time, or 1998 to be precise, I bought my first-ever gaming PC (233mhz, Pentium II). The very first game I purchased for it was The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, from Bethesda Game Studios. I thoroughly enjoyed the huge, open-world roleplaying adventure with its interesting quests and main story, obfuscated as it was by a vast number of bugs and by a huge amount of jank generated by its world being so vast it had to be procedurally generated. Bethesda themselves seemed to agree this was a problem, dropping the procedurally-generated part of the game to focus on smaller, more handcrafted worlds through sequels Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006) and Skyrim (2011), as well as the similar games in their Fallout series: Fallout 3 (2008), Fallout: New Vegas (2010, not made by Bethesda but using their tech and game design paradigm), Fallout 4 (2015) and Fallout 76 (2018). I played and enjoyed all of these, some more than others.

Launched in late 2023, Starfield is Bethesda’s latest take on their traditional gaming structure, in a brand-new universe. If the Elder Scrolls series is high epic fantasy and Fallout is post-apocalyptic SF, then Starfield is full-on space opera. Set 300 years in the future, after Earth has been rendered uninhabitable and a human diaspora to other worlds has taken place, Starfield casts you as a space adventurer. You choose your gender, name, homeworld, stats, skills and even things like if you have parents or not (and if you say yes, your parents periodically show up throughout the game to offer support, with appropriate levels of embarrassment).

The game opens with you taking part in a mining operation, but it’s not long before you have encountered a Weird Space Rock™, touching which grants you mystical visions. An organisation called Constellation soon gets in touch. Other Weird Space Rocks™ have been found and they think these objects hold the key to proving whether or not sentient alien life exists elsewhere in the galaxy. Soon you find yourself with a spaceship, a credit balance and a growing arsenal of weapons as you scour the Settled Systems for more Space Rocks™. Along the way you bump into a vast array of factions, corporations and individuals who are eager to employ you to sort their problems out for them (which you do, easily and almost instantly), resulting in a vast tapestry of missions and options on how to proceed. As you complete missions you gain in experience and money, allowing you to level up your skills and get better equipment, weapons and ships.

This is all pretty standard for a computer/console roleplaying game in 2024. The gameplay loop here is also very familiar to anyone who’s played a Bethesda RPG before, as you cycle through missions, gain faction loyalty and occasionally have to make morally murky, tough decisions. You can be helped in this by a growing crew of companion characters, some of whom you meet at Constellation, others encountered throughout the game. These companions can be assigned to your ship or to outposts, bases you can build on planets through the game to mine resources at a larger scale. These in turn allow you to build better bases, ships and equipment. One companion at a time can also join you on missions, lending an extra gun and inventory space, and occasionally generating new missions.

Again, nothing shockingly original here. We’ve seen it all before, but it works, and is indeed quite a lot of fun. Customisability is a cornerstone of the game’s design and getting just the right combination of gear, ships, spacesuits, jetpacks and guns can be quite entertaining.

Where the game starts to falter is in something it can’t really afford to falter on: its core structural design. Every previous Bethesda game back to Morrowind has worked in an identical manner. You have a reasonably large map and you explore each map, going to specific locations to fulfil quests but having random encounters along the way. In a Fallout game you might be directed to go to an abandoned factory to root out some bandits, but along the way you bump into a band of rogue droids and then some Brotherhood of Steel soldiers who you have to fight or ally with, leading to other missions. In an Elder Scrolls title, you might be on your way to a cave to locate a missing magical artifact only to end up in a desperate duel with a dragon. In either, you might spot a weird-looking structure in the distance and decide to investigate, leading to more encounters. The earlier games combined hand-crafted quests with random events to generate memorable moments, what some people like to call emergent gameplay.

Starfield’s very design makes this harder to enact: you can’t walk 15 light-years to your destination, so obviously you have to traverse the distance in your spacecraft. And you do control your spacecraft directly, and you can get into space battles and boarding actions and all kinds of cool, fun stuff in the space part of the game. But this is limited. You can only fly around a small area of space before doing anything else becomes impossible, at which point you have no choice but to hyper-jump to another system, and then land on a planet’s surface wherever the mission is going to take place. Often the ship lands right next to your objective, leaving little opportunity for exploration.

Even if you do decide to strike out to explore random areas – and to the game’s credit, it does allow you to land anywhere on a planet’s solid surface, although you are restricted to a radius of around 4km from your ship – you’ll quickly start to find things getting predictable. The game dynamically generates points of interest around you, and these can vary a bit depending on the type of planet or moon, but these will quickly descend into being the same few types of caves, or abandoned installations, or a spaceship landing nearby (generating a rescue mission because the ship has crashed or combat because the ship is full of pirates, or sometimes an opportunity to buy and sell because it’s a merchant). Even worse, there seem to be very few combinations of some of these points of interest: if you encounter a randomly-generated base on a random planet, there seem to be maybe three different layouts for them resulting in extreme fatigue setting in as you keep encountering them copy-pasted everywhere.

You can do other things on planets, like gather survey data on them. This involves scanning for flora (plants), fauna (animal life) and mineral resources. However, the Settled System seem to have been pollinated from the same, relatively small pool of such things. The same animals and plants can be found repeated across planets dozens of light-years apart, which seems unlikely. Scanning each planet in full requires repeatedly scanning these elements, sometimes relocating if an animal or plant species only exists in another biome (particularly notable with aquatic species). The limitations on the game also become more obvious over time: clearly not having enough resources to develop undersea biomes, the game just makes almost every single ocean, lake and pond in the game about two feet deep, which is bizarre.

I have to admit the first couple of times I surveyed a planet in full like this it could be fun, and the game occasionally generates those moments of sparse beauty that Skyrim and Fallout 3 could be famous for, with you feeling alone in a hostile but scenic landscape. Starfield goes a step further by making you feel like you might be the only living, sentient being for many light-years in any direction (at least until walking around for another ten minutes invariably triggers a landing spaceship or a pirate base spontaneously appearing three kilometres away). As the game continues, you invariably start seeing through the illusion more and more quickly, and eventually visiting these random locations loses its lustre.

The game’s spine is its core storyline, which is heavy on the Space Rocks™. Bethesda at least have poured more time and attention into this story than some of their others. The story is not ultra-urgent, giving you plenty of time and reasons to pick up side-quests (unlike Fallout 4 where you were tracking down your recently-kidnapped son but also had time to cosplay as a 1930s pulp action hero for the sake of random comedy). But it’s also surprisingly interesting, unpredictable and the direction it goes in is way more 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar than Mass Effect. It’s a cerebral SF story that takes the game in a gratifyingly weird direction as it goes along. It’s more original than I was expecting from Bethesda, although as usual it’s not very long (maybe 20-25 hours and that’s being generous).

The meat of the game lies with side-quests and especially the faction storylines. The United Colonies, Freestar Collective, Ryujin Industries, Constellation and the Crimson Fleet pirates all have their own storylines, some of them quite long and detailed, with their own array of sub-quests and objectives. Doing each faction storyline takes some time, and allows you to level up and build up new networks of allies and assets, some of which you can continue to tap later on. These questlines have different focuses, with some on undercover operations and stealth, and others on all-out combat. For the most part they are entertaining, although there are also a few fetch quests which may make your eyes roll in boredom.

There are also the offbeat, weird quests that Bethesda have become known for, like having to negotiate a legal dispute between a generation ship crew who arrive at their destination to find it having been colonised decades earlier by FTL-equipped explorers, or arriving on a planet inhabited by clones of famous Earth figures who are having an almighty barney over who’s in charge (similarities to the classic Red Dwarf episode Meltdown are, I’m sure, purely coincidental). There’s definitely fewer of these than in some of their prior games, but their deranged nature comes as a sharp relief after so many po-faced missions lacking in humour or originality.

Combat is very solid and the best it’s ever been in a Bethesda game, with a reactive feel to weapons and a solid choice of guns and grenades. Enemy AI is slightly better than earlier games, with more attempts to flank you and flush you out with explosives, but still no great shakes. Your Weird Space Rock™ encounters grant you superpowers which nobody else has, which soon allows you to curb-stomp any opposition with ease. Space combat is less accomplished, with you simply keeping an enemy ship in your sights until they explode, occasionally executing an afterburner boost to lose missile locks or ordering an emergency repair.

Graphically, this is easily Bethesda’s best-looking-on-release game since Oblivion, with well-rendered environments. Unfortunately, people still look plasticky and firmly in the uncanny valley, with dead, bulging eyes. Character animation is also stiff and uncomfortable. NPC characters also don’t have the schedules they did in other Bethesda games, working in the day and sleeping at night, instead staying where they are at almost all times. The cities are busier than in any previous Bethesda game, but the cities are still microscopically tiny for what they are supposed to be, still feeling like the medieval towns of Skyrim rather than bustling future metropolises. The worldbuilding is also dubious, particularly merchants having tiny amounts of money on them to buy things and almost nobody having a car, mobile phone, bank account or email account, forcing you to traipse 50 light-years to just report to somebody in person that you’ve completed a mission for them.

Starfield’s problems also feel exacerbated by a very poor choice of release date. The game came out a month after Baldur’s Gate III, one of the best-written, most reactive, funniest and most characterful RPGs of the last decade. It makes Starfield feel undercooked, underwritten, predictable and flat in comparison. It also came out a month ahead of Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, whose dynamism, amazing character animation, superb voice acting and excellent first-person action all show up Starfield fairly badly. Bethesda got away with a lot of iffy design decisions on their earlier games due to a lack of competition (Fallout 4 did start to suffer from comparisons, as it came out just after The Witcher 3). In the face of high-quality alternatives, Bethesda can’t really afford to keep on pretending it’s still 2006.

Still, Starfield is very far from unenjoyable, or awful. There are some great moments, some fun quests and some very solid battle sequences. The main quest, although artificially extended and repetitive in places, goes in a cosmic, weird SF direction that is pleasingly unconventional. Some of the planets are downright gorgeous and fun to explore. The game has a very chill atmosphere which I found welcome after very intense sessions of playing Baldur's Gate III where your brain needs to be in first gear. There is enormous, untapped potential here. Whether Bethesda can extract that potential through updates and expansions remains to be seen. As it stands, Starfield (***½) is solid but underwhelming.

The game is available now on PC and Xbox. A PlayStation 5 version is rumoured for latter this year. The first expansion to the game, Shattered Space, is expected later this year.

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Saturday 3 February 2024

Concept art for abandoned ROBOTECH movie emerges

This was a few months ago now, but Kotaku published a look at some of the concept art created in 2018 for the abandoned live-action movie version of Robotech. The original source was concept artist Col Price, who has also worked on video game series like WipeOut and Battlefield.

Due to various legal issues, the film couldn't use the original design for the Veritech (aka Valkyrie) fighters, so had to create their own. I have to say, these look pretty badass as replacements. In the foreground one of the fighters is in Guardian mode for VTOL and hovering.

The artwork is mostly faithful to the original concept and premise. In the original 1985 Robotech - itself derived from the 1982 Japanese anime Macross - a massive alien spacecraft crashlands on an island in the South Pacific. The world, which is on the verge of a catastrophic war, agrees to together to explore the alien spacecraft. They then decide to rebuild it, and use the technology they loot from the remains to build a whole new military to defend the planet in case the aliens come looking for their missing ship. Over the course an entire settlement of over 70,000 people, Macross City, springs up to support the reconstruction effort.

The concept art gets across the sheer scale of the SDF-1, which is almost two miles long, with Macross City (pop. 75,000, although that starts dropping very quickly) utterly dwarfed by its bulk.

Ten years later, the worst-case scenario comes true and thousands of alien ships belonging to the Zentraedi - towering forty-foot humanoids - enter our Solar system to recover the ship, which by now has been renamed the SDF-1 (Superdimensional Fortress One). The SDF-1 and the Robotech Defence Force mount a ferocious defence of the planet, with the SDF-1 crew planning to hyperjump the ship behind the alien fleet and destroy it in a flanking maneuver. Unfortunately, they don't fully understand how the hyperjump works and end up warping themselves and all of Macross City to the orbit of Pluto. The hyperjump system vanishes in transit, forcing them to recover survivors from the (fortunately airtight) shelters and return to Earth under normal engine power, which takes almost three years. Fortunately, the alien fleet ignores Earth to track down the SDF-1, resulting in pitched battles at Saturn and Mars.

An interesting new idea is having massive rail guns located on rigs in Macross Harbour to provide AA cover for the SDF-1, as this Zentraedi gunship finds out to its cost.

The concept art is from the earliest part of the story, after the SDF-1 has crashed on Earth and the fortress is being rebuilt by humanity. This section is skimmed over in the original source material, which has a series of slides and a voiceover explaining what happened in the interim. However, Japanese prequel series Macross Zero explores this period in more detail.

The CVS-01 Prometheus, a supercarrier manned with Veritech fighters assigned to patrol the area around Macross Island. The Prometheus goes on to play a continuous role in the story (not pictured: its submersible assault sister-carrier, the Daedalus, which has an even more impactful one).

This version of the movie was never made, as James Wan decamped to make Aquaman. Andy Muschietti (IT: Chapter One and Chapter Two) stepped in to develop a different version of the film but he ultimately left as well. In 2022 it was confirmed that Rhys Thomas (Hawkeye) was developing yet another version for the screen.

It has to be said this concept art is extremely impressive, even though this iteration of the script (which reportedly was more of a generic SF flick with the Zentraedi just attacking Earth and the rebuilt SDF-1 defending against them) barely bore any resemblance to the original story outside of the premise, so from that point of view it's probably a good thing the project did not make it any further.

"I feel the need, the need for speed. And to sometimes transform into Jetfire, I guess."

This version was also stymied because Sony did not have access to the original Robotech designs due to ongoing litigation between the Japanese creators of Macross and Harmony Gold, who redeveloped the show as Robotech. Most of these legal issues were resolved in 2021, opening the door to a live-action movie using the original designs, or perhaps at least more faithful versions. It may also be the project might now have more legs due to the success of Top Gun: Maverick; a film which emphasises the fighter pilot storyline more heavily could do well (as an aside, the original Valkyrie/Veritech fighter was inspired by the F-14 Tomcat). Skull Squadron reprezent!

Robotech/Macross live-action project will probably make it to the screen at some point in the future, but who knows when.

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RIP Christopher Priest

News has sadly broken that Christopher Priest, one of British SFF's most inventive and confounding authors, has passed away at the age of 80.

Born in Cheadle, Cheshire in 1943, Priest had various jobs as a young man, including an accountant and audit clerk. He discovered an enjoyment of writing at school, and began penning fiction shortly after leaving school. His first story he was happy to have published was "Going Native" (1963), although his first work to actually see print was "The Run" (1966, in Impulse). Priest began publishing short fiction prolifically and became a familiar figure on the nascent British SFF fandom scene.

In 1968 he was able to become a full-time writer and published his first novel, Indoctrinaire, in 1970, in which an Arctic researcher is kidnapped and taken to a location in Brazil subject to bizarre timeslips. Whether the SFF elements in the story are real or a product of the character's mind is a recurring theme in Priest's work. Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) achieved a higher profile with a timely (then as now) story about a near-future Britain whose politics are pushed to the extreme by an influx of refugees from an Africa scarred by war.

The Inverted World (1974) is arguably Priest's most overtly science fictional novel, featuring the City Earth, a massive machine-city rumbling constantly across a hyperboloid world. The book won Priest his first BSFA Award, although in later years he seemed to regard its overt SF-ness with amusement, and wrote a satirical sequel short story with the memorable title "The Making of the Lesbian Horse" (1979).

The next phase of Priest's career saw him predicting the rise of major new subgenres. The Space Machine (1976) ambitiously combines the events of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and War of the Worlds into a single universe and acts as a sequel to both, with Wells himself playing a role in the narrative. The novel has a decidedly steampunk feel, some years before that subgenre became more widespread. His subsequent novel, A Dream of Wessex (1977), deals with human-machine brain interfaces and virtual reality, and was subsequently cast in the nascent cyberpunk genre, which had already been given great impetus by Priest's fellow Brit John Brunner (after early work in this mode by Philip K. Dick) and would later explode again in the United States in the mid-1980s.

In 1974 Priest penned "An Infinite Summer" as a commission for Harlan Ellison's anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, his third massive, genre-spanning anthology work. After repeated failures on Ellison's part to communicate the status of the collection or the story, Priest withdrew the story. The story became Priest's most seismic work for two reasons. The first is that that setting - a beautiful but mysterious world called the Dream Archipelago - inspired him, unusually, to write four stories set in the same milieu. These were later collected as An Infinite Summer (1979). Priest revisited the setting through his career, becoming the closest thing he had to a signature series.

The second is that Priest felt his treatment by Ellison had been unprofessional, and as he consulted other writers whose stories had vanished in the black hole of The Last Dangerous Visions, he realised some had been treated far worse than he had. He embarked on a journalistic investigation of the situation, publishing the results as "The Last Deadloss Visions" in 1987. Ellison initially reacted with bonhomie, comparing himself to Michelangelo completing the Sistine Chapel whilst "an angry Priest rants below," but his amusement was short-lived. His predictably explosive reactions as the situation continued did not deter Priest from covering the story further in new editions of the work, and in 1994 expanded this to a full volume, The Book on the Edge of Forever, which was nominated for a Hugo Award. Allegedly, Ellison would spend some time going around dealers' rooms at conventions and threatening anyone stocking the book with legal action or trying to have them thrown out.

Priest returned to novel-length work with The Affirmation (1981), one of several contenders for the title of his best novel. The novel is also partially set in the Dream Archipelago, but sees the protagonist slipping between that milieu and life in contemporary London, with the fantastic events bleeding over into the mundane and the reader left unsure about what is happening. In one of Priest's boldest moves, the novel has a looping narrative that ends where it begins, which allows the novel to be immediately reread as its own sequel. The book won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

The Glamour (1984), a spin on the invisibility trope, marks a return to a more conventional narrative, although as always this is only relative to Priest's own extremes. The Quiet Woman (1990) revisits the idea of Britain collapsing into a dystopia, with the southern countries becoming contaminated by radiation.

Not for the last time in his career, Priest undertook a career hiatus, but returned in 1995 with his best-known, most accessible and approachable novel. The Prestige is a story of warring magicians in 19th Century England which feels pretty conventional, although engrossing, until its conclusion, when Priest undertakes one of his finest finales. The novel won the World Fantasy Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was nominated for both a Clarke and BSFA award. It's non-appearance at the Hugos remains bewildering. The novel is the only one of Priest's works to be filmed, by no less than Christopher Nolan and staring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie. The Prestige is a fine film, though perhaps a tad less accomplished than the novel.

The Extremes (1998) was something of a thematic sequel to A Dream of Wessex, dealing with virtual reality, but Priest also examines the notion of what he calls "spree violence," manifesting as explosive outbursts of violence by hitherto apparently sane individuals. In 1999 he collected various short fiction as The Dream Archipelago, something of a thematic follow-up to the earlier An Infinite Summer (whose stories it also contains).

In 2002 he returned to fiction with The Separation, another contender for his best novel. The book deals heavily with duality, as identical twins take on different roles in World War II, one as an ambulance driver and the other as a bomber pilot, with a framing device set in the present day. The book is possibly Priest's most ambitious and brain-melting, and defies easy summary.

The Separation also apparently did poorly in sales, with low print runs. Priest did not publish another novel for nine years, leading to speculation of an unofficial retirement.

However, when Priest did return, it was in force. The Islanders (2011) is a confident return to the Dream Archipelago, tying in with his earlier The Affirmation but also acting a travelogue narrative somewhere between novel, gazetteer and story collection. The Adjacent (2013) is a mystery-SF novel about a mysterious weapon that kills thousands of people in an apparent terrorist attack on contemporary Britain, but also ties in with events during World War I and II, including stage magicians aircraft pilots and the Dream Archipelago. In that sense it feels a bit like "Priest's Greatest Hits" assembled as a single novel.

The Gradual (2016) and The Evidence (2020) both revisit the Dream Archipelago more directly, with a musician touring the islands experiencing temporal dislocation and, in the latter a crime novelist who finds his sojourn on one of the islands somehow embroils him in a murder that took place many years in the past.

Inbetween he wrote An American Story (2018), perhaps his weakest work, which explores how conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 emerged. Priest's novels have often challenged orthodoxy, so his examination of why people believe counter-narratives in an absence of proof is interesting, but not especially revelatory.

Expect Me Tomorrow (2022) returns to a favourite theme of twins, this time with two sets of twins in the 19th Century and the late 21st Century. The advent of an ability to communicate across time leads to intriguing ideas.

Priest's final novel is now Airside (2023), in which a film critic goes in search of a missing movie star amidst the infinitely-recessing perspectives of modern airports. Unusually, Priest includes his influences and inspirations for the novel, including the film La Jetée (1962).

In addition to the fiction penned under his own name, Priest wrote media tie-ins under a variety of pen names: he has only admitted to the 1986 novelisations of the films Short Circuit and Mona Lisa, and eXistenZ in 1999 which he penned under his own name after finding the premise intriguing (although the finished film underwhelmed). How many more stealthily Priest-penned novelisations are out there is unknown, but intriguing.

Priest wrote novels and stories that were accessible - his prose was always smooth and engrossing - but completely confounding in their approach to genre, their linearity and if the events were even really happening. Priest's friend and occasional collaborator David Langford dubbed this "The Priest Effect," the moment in a Priest novel when the reader "gets it," either what's going on or at least grasps the strand that things are not as they seem and the floor of the narrative is dropping away beneath their feet. Arguably Priest could over-indulge with this; its notable that his best-regarded novels are those which anchor the narrative on firmer ground and keep their powder dry, deploying the Effect at just the right time and with restraint, to the achieve the greatest impact. For that reason, and its very fine film adaptation, The Prestige will likely emerge as Priest's most enduring work. But all of his nineteen novels are at least interesting and thought-provoking. 

The fact that Priest also managed to pass away shortly before the actually-for-real-this-time, posthumous publication of The Last Dangerous Visions may be a sign that the universe is not entirely without a sense of cosmic irony. "An Infinite Summer" will not be among its contents.

Priest is survived by two children and his long-term partner. One of Britain's most fascinating, enduring SFF talents, working at the outer edges of the genre and occasionally reporting back, he will be missed.


  • Indoctrinaire (1970)
  • Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972)
  • The Inverted World (1974)
  • The Space Machine (1976)
  • A Dream of Wessex (1977)
  • The Affirmation (1981)
  • The Glamour (1984)
  • Short Circuit (1986, as Colin Wedgelock)
  • Mona Lisa (1986, as John Luther Novak)
  • The Quiet Woman (1990)
  • The Prestige (1995)
  • The Extremes (1998)
  • eXistenZ (1999)
  • The Separation (2002)
  • The Islanders (2011)
  • The Adjacent (2013)
  • The Gradual (2016)
  • An American Story (2018)
  • The Evidence (2020)
  • Expect Me Tomorrow (2022)
  • Airside (2023)
Short Story Collections
  • Real-Time World (1975)
  • An Infinite Summer (1979)
  • The Dream Archipelago (1999)
  • Ersatz Wines (2008)
  • Episodes (2019)