Sunday 31 March 2024

Ciaphas Cain: The Greater Good & Old Soldiers Never Die by Sandy Mitchell

The Imperial planet of Quadravidia has come under attack by the Tau. Commissar Ciaphas Cain arrives to advise on the defence of the planet, after several previous encounters with the untrustworthy species. However, the Tau call an unexpected ceasefire in the face of a greater, mutual threat: an incoming Tyranid Hive Fleet. Cain's mission moves from combat to diplomacy as he has to broker a deal between the Tau and Imperium - the latter not known for its interstellar diplomacy - and then help defend the planet from the new alien menace.

We're back in the mayhem with the ninth novel of Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain series, in which the grim darkness of the far future is alleviated by the presence of the most self-preserving and undeserved glory-receiving specimen in the Imperium of Man.

The Greater Good puts Cain's reputation front and centre as he has to negotiate a peace deal between the Imperium - whose entire ideology is "shoot aliens in the face and never, ever talk to them," - and the Tau, a race dedicated to the somewhat nebulous concept of "the greater good." There's a degree of a comedy of manners here as the two species' highly incompatible ways of working clash with Cain trying to avoid war in the face of the greater Tyranid threat.

This stuff takes up a few chapters and then we're back to the battle front as bullets fly and large things explode spectacularly. Mitchell is accomplished at both the action and the black comedy sides of the setting (Cain sometimes feeling like the Only Sane Man in the entire barmy Warhammer 40,000 universe) and serves up both with aplomb here. Particularly entertaining are the deranged human scientists who think experimenting on live Tyranids is a good idea (spoiler: it isn't) and the Space Marines who worryingly agree with them.

There's a nice amount of variety to the story, as it moves from diplomacy to grim humour to action, although it does feel some ideas are left under-explored, such as the human inhabitants of the Tau Empire and how they regard the Imperium from a human, outsider perspective. There's also the usual advice that, although the omnibuses are most economical way to enjoy Cain's story, it's perhaps a good idea to read other things between the books, as Mitchell is perhaps less concerned than other authors in the setting with varying his prose style or characterisation between stories.

Still, this is an exciting action story with some laughs and some brief moments of thoughtful discussion. The Greater Good (****) is definitely one of the stronger entries to the series.

Also included in the Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium omnibus is the long novella/short novel Old Soldiers Never Die (****), which is a fast-paced zombie story as Cain and his trusty Valhallan allies find themselves stuck on a planet beset by a particularly nasty Chaos curse. Ciaphas Cain vs. Zombies is just as good as it sounds on the tin, and the short format means the story doesn't outstay its welcome.

Ciaphas Cain Novel Timeline

919.M41 (40,919 CE)Fight or Flight (Novella). Cain meets Jurgen, deploys with the 12th Valhallan Field Artillery to Desolatia IV.

924Death or Glory (Book #4): Perlia campaign.

928Echoes of the Tomb (Short Story): Adeptus Mechanicus mission, fights necrons.

928The Emperor’s Finest (Book #7): Cain joins Reclaimer Space Marines, aids in Space Hulk retrieval mission.

931For the Emperor (Book #1): Gravalax campaign, formation of the 597th Valhallan Regiment.

932Caves of Ice (Book #2): Simia Orichalcae campaign.

932: Duty Calls (Book #5): Periremunda campaign.

937: The Traitor’s Hand (Book #3): Adumbria campaign.

938: Old Soldiers Never Die (Novella): Lentonia campaign.

942The Last Ditch (Book #8): Nusquam Fundumentibus campaign.

c. 951-954Choose Your Enemies (Book #10): Ironfound campaign.

992The Greater Good (Book #9): Siege of Quadravidia.

c. 993Vainglorious (Book #11): Eucopia engagement.

999 (40,999 CE)Cain’s Last Stand (Book #6): Thirteenth Black Crusade. Chaos assault on Perlia, Cain comes out of retirement to lead defence.

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Sunday 24 March 2024

Dune: Part Two

House Harkonnen, aided in secret by the Emperor and his elite Sardaukar terror troops, has destroyed House Atreides and taken back control of the desert world of Arrakis, source of the spice melange, the most valuable substance in the universe and the cornerstone of the galactic economy. Unbeknown to the Harkonnens, Paul Atreides has survived and struck an alliance with the Fremen, aided by a prophecy deliberately seeded millennia earlier by the Bene Gesserit. Paul and the Fremen strike at spice production, threatening to throw the galaxy into chaos. The Emperor has no choice but to personally intervene.

Two and a half years ago Denis Villeneuve delivered his first take on Frank Herbert's Dune, the most popular science fiction novel of all time (if only just, with The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy always sniffing at its heels). Two prior adaptations of Herbert's 1965 novel had been arguable failures, stymied by a lack of run-time (David Lynch's 1984 movie) or a lack of budget (John Harrison's 2000 mini-series).

Villeneuve's effort was undeniably superior, with a visual eye that made almost every frame a work of art and the time to allow the story to breathe. However, Villeneuve made the curious choice to eschew his superior run-time's allowance for greater worldbuilding and characterisation in favour of epic imagery and mood shots. This meant greater emphasis on shots of the sandworms destroying harvesters or Zendaya walking on sand dunes, but also meaning that vital character arcs - like Dr. Yueh's betrayal of the Atreides - are given short or no shrift.

This successor - less of a sequel than a direct continuation of the first film, picking up minutes later - does try to course-correct. The latter part of Frank Herbert's novel, focusing on Paul amongst the Fremen and his unifying of them into a huge army, is curiously underwritten, giving Villeneuve a tremendous amount of leeway in telling this part of the story in more depth. He refocuses the story tightly on four protagonists: Paul as he struggles with the need to unify the Fremen into a fighting force to destroy the Harkonnens, but desperate to avoid becoming a religious figure who will abuse them; Chani, as Paul's love who believes in his leadership but despises the idea of him becoming a religious figure; Stilgar, as Paul's greatest believer and first apostle; and Jessica, Paul's mother who becomes a Reverend Mother of the Fremen and fanatical in her manipulations of raising the Fremen in the name of her son. The interaction and intersection of these character arcs gives the film a lot of tension: Paul's internal debate, externalised in the debates and arguments between Chani and Stilgar, is very well-played, if different from the novel (where Chani harbours relatively few, if any, doubts about Paul's path).

Villeneuve also skirts the weirdness of the book which Lynch jumped into with enthusiasm. Dune is in an incredibly internalised book where the major, game-changing moments happen inside characters' heads whilst they look vaguely constipated, staring into the middle distance whilst coming to mental realisations about how to proceed. Lynch addressed this issue by allowing us to hear characters' thoughts, a somewhat cheesy device that feels outdated in 2024. Villeneuve has to externalise these debates through dialogue, although he does hit on an interesting halfway house by having Jessica debate strategy with her unborn daughter (Alia, although perhaps better known as "Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film," for the most part).

Dune: Part Two remains visually powerful, with some outrageously fantastic imagery like the gladiatorial fight on the bleached black-and-white surface of Giedi Prime. Like the first film, there's lot of fantastic imagery, and Hans Zimmer's score is somewhat less intrusive than in the first movie meaning you can enjoy the film without worrying about your skull bursting like that THX gag in The Simpsons. Also like the first film, there's a lot of excellent actors giving superb performances. Timothee Chalamet gives great Paul Atreides, and Zendaya excels in having to pick up a larger amount of the plot as Chani then in the novel. Jessica Ferguson gives 150% as Jessica, and Josh Brolin's world-weariness as Gurney Halleck remains compelling. Léa Seydoux gives a superb performance and steals the scenes she's in (possibly channelling her "weird WTF" energy from Death Stranding) despite only being in the film for five minutes. Austin Butler is the stand-out of the newcomers, with an outrageously charismatic, evil energy as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. Florence Pugh is also great as Princess Irulan, despite having not a lot to do.

Javier Bardem has some of the film's best moments as true believer Stilgar, and is responsible for the majority of the film's surprisingly not-non-existent humour, although I worry that he and Villeneuve go too far and make Stilger a little bit too much of an avuncular comedy figure, something he very definitely is not in the books. Stellan Skarsgård remains imposing as the Baron, but doesn't have much to do, and in the finale he feels too much like a chump (to be fair, a problem of the book and the Lynch movie as well). Also, casting an actor of Christopher Walken's stature as the Emperor only for him to have maybe four lines and just look imperious feels a little like a waste. Also, those looking forwards to seeing Thufir Hawat again will be profoundly disappointed.

The first half of the movie is excellent, with some great character beats and action sequences. A scene where Paul and Chani team up to take down a Harkonnen harvester under fire from a sniper in an ornithopter is outstanding. But the film's epic finale feels rushed, bordering on the implausible. A bit more explanation of why Paul's plan works would not go amiss. A lot of these problems have obvious causes: the total absence of the Spacing Guild from the second movie when their machinations drive a lot of the background events causes way more problems than simply including them. The absence of Alia also causes story issues, even if the reasoning is sound (i.e. having a two-year-old wandering around killing people and talking weirdly looked deranged in the Lynch movie).

Part of the problem I think is Villeneuve skirting around the edges of Dune's fundamental weirdness but not fully engaging with it, and the rest is the realisation in the making of Part Two that he'll probably adapt Dune Messiah, so either punts off some elements to that story or even engages in a lot of setup work for that story that feels incongruous here.

As a result, Part Two feels a little bit undercooked from a character and thematic angle. But, as sheer cinematic spectacle, it is preposterously impressive. Huge (and real!) desert landscapes, crazy gladiatorial arenas, vast sandworms, immense Fremen hideouts and a massive (and not unnecessarily-drawn-out) concluding battle all combine to mount a sustained assault on the senses. Dune: Part Two (****) is worth seeing on the biggest screen possible and enjoying the sheer wonder of it. But the weaker elements are irritating, and make a persuasive argument that, despite Villeneuve's successes, we have still to see the definitive version of Dune in live action. Fourth time lucky?

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Halo: Season 2

The war between the Covenant and the United Nations Space Command is continuing to escalate. Frontier colonies continue to fall, whilst both sides are desperate to track down the mysterious artifact known as "Halo." The Covenant's advance soon brings Reach, the largest planet in the outer colonies, within range, sparking the biggest battle of the war so far.

Halo is a military science fiction franchise about people and aliens shooting one another, understandable as its primary instalments have all been first-person shooter video games. But as it has gone on, the series has built up a loyal following for its surprisingly deep background material (partially worked out by "proper SF author" Greg Bear) and extended cast of characters, despite them being mostly relegated to cut-scenes and secondary media.

Halo TV series therefore isn't quite as batty an idea as it sounds, as the universe contains enough interesting ideas to be fleshed out in a dramatic format. Unfortunately, the first season of the show proved divisive, at best. Elements of the lore and setting were jumbled up and delivered in an odd order, established canon characters were either nowhere to be seen, showed up in different roles or were killed off in short order, and Master Chief spent most of the season without his helmet on (Chief, like Judge Dredd, is never seen in the games without his helmet). Some fans were livid, whilst more casual viewers found the show watchable but underwhelming.

This second season, like a lot of recent second seasons for adapted shows with iffy openings (see also Foundation and Time, Wheel of), is an improvement, but again, a qualified one. The show is more focused this year with the search for Halo being a driving force in many episodes, at least for Master Chief. Early episodes complicate this with internal UNSC politics and internal shenanigans with those space pirates nobody really cares about, but the writers are at least determined to bring all the storylines together mid-season on Reach for a massive showdown with the Covenant. This war episode is mostly impressive, but it does strain the limits of even this show's generous budget. The second half of the season unfortunately engages in some wheel spinning and makes the crucial error of thinking the audience gives even 10% as much of a toss about Soren's family than the writers do. Things do pull back together to deliver a very satisfying finale which finally, after seventeen episodes, does catch us up to where we really should have been in Episode 1 of Season 1. Better late than never, I guess?

The cast deliver good performances, with Pablo Schreiber doing a good growly Master Chief (although he somehow spends even less time in Season 2 with his helmet on than in Season 1), Kate Kennedy making Kai-125 both a sympathetic character and a badass, and Natascha McElhone's walking moral vacuum of Dr. Halsey being delightfully conniving in every scene she's in. Kwan (Yerin Ha) and Makee (Charlie Murphy) are still here, but are much better-served than the scripts they had in Season 1, and the finale finally makes us realise why Kwan is important and it nicely ties into the established Halo backstory. Bokeem Woodbine continues to have more fun than anybody else in the cast as Soren-066 (since Burn Gorman sadly left the show in Season 1), although even he seems to get bored of his "family kidnapping" plot after the interminable-feeling number of episodes it takes up. Particularly welcome are newcomers Joseph Morgan as Colonel Ackerson and Cristina Rolo as Talia Perez, who both add some surprisingly good scenes to the show, the former as an apparent new antagonist and the latter as an ordinary UNSC soldier dragged into Master Chief's orbit.

It does feel like maybe Season 2 has had a little bit of a budget trim: there's a lot of re-use of the same sets (one hallway on Reach becomes incredibly familiar) and there's very few of the all-Covenant CGI scenes we had in the first season. The action is mostly good, with the highlight being a one-on-one duel in the finale and several parts of the fall of Reach, but some of the effects are definitely iffy, like muzzle flares looking like they were made in MS Paint and copy-pasted over the guns. Obviously and correctly Hollywood is being ultra careful with weapons on sets these days, but it feels like the vfx for that could have been a lot better (especially as after-added muzzle flares is something people have been doing for decades at this point).

For those wanting an accurate retelling of the video games, Season 2 is better, but marginally. Seeing the fall of Reach, the iconic backstory moment of the franchise, later fleshed out for a prequel novel and game, is cool, but the absence of the many of the characters and events from both the Fall of Reach novel and the Halo: Reach video game may be frustrating. Some elements that don't show up until much later in the storyline turn up surprisingly early here, which feeds into the feeling that the TV writers don't seem to want the story to unfold as naturally as it did in the games, instead feeding in deep cuts from the lore when the people who really care will be annoyed by the show's deviation from the source material, whilst newcomers will likely be bewildered or not notice/care. Including an Arbiter, but not the Arbiter (the co-protagonist of Halo 2 and one of the franchise's most popular characters after Master Chief), but not making that clearer, is a good example of the writers tapping the game material but in an unnecessarily obtuse way.

Still, making a nine-hour TV show based on corridor shooting and occasionally driving a Warthog (or is it a Puma?) was clearly never going to work, so changes were necessary in the transfer of medium. It'll be up to each viewer to determine if this level of change works for them, and if they're unfamiliar with the games, whether the show works as a stand-alone experience.

For this non-hardcore Halo fan (casual appreciator might be a better descriptor), the sophomore season of Halo (***½) is better than its first, and moves up from "worth watching if there's nothing else on" to "solid sci-fi pulp action." It feels like a lot of potential from the source material is being left on the table here, but the show is at least moving in the right direction. Halo is available to watch worldwide right now on Paramount+.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Thursday 21 March 2024

RIP Vernor Vinge

News has sadly broken that science fiction author Vernor Vinge has passed away at the age of 79. Vinge was best-known for popularising the idea of the AI Singularity, and writing two of the best-regarded SF novels of all time, A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky.

Vinge was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1944, and attended the University of California, San Diego, where he later returned to teach mathematics. Vinge published his first science fiction story, "Apartness," in 1965 in New Worlds. He became a prolific short story writer in the 1960s and through the 1970s, and published his first novel, Grimm's World, in 1969.

His early work was interesting and reviewed promisingly but did not generate significant amounts of buzz. This changed with his 1981 novella, True Names. This book was notable for being the first depiction of cyberspace in an American SF novel. It was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula and saw a change in Vinge's profile; he next two novels, the duology of The Peace War (1984) and Marooned in Realtime (1986), were both nominated for the Hugo Award.

Vinge's next novel was A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) and immediately saw him become an SF author of prominence; the novel won the Hugo Award and was nominated for the Nebula. Set in a distant future, the novel postulates a galaxy divided into "Zones of Thought," areas close to the galactic centre where human intelligence and FTL cannot exist and areas towards the galactic rim where superintelligence and near-instant travel systems exist; Earth is caught in the "slow zone" between. The novel operates on a massive scale, involving human, posthuman and nonhuman intelligences dealing with the threat of a superintelligent AI which is inadvertently released from an ancient date archive. The novel combined brash space opera with hard SF thinking about ideas, including artificial intelligence.

The following year, Vinge drew on some ideas from the novel to write the essay "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era" (1993). The essay postulates the arrival of true artificial intelligence which is able to create new versions of itself and better itself exponentially in a very short timeframe, effectively ending the world as we know it, and creating a new world or reality which is as fundamentally unknowable to us as what lies beyond the singularity at the heart of a black hole. Ray Kurzweil drew on Vinge's work for his own writings on the Singularity, most notably in 2005's The Singularity is Near. Vinge postulated that the Singularity would take place by 2030, but Kurzweil allowed for a later date of 2045.

Vinge returned to the Zones of Thought universe to write a prequel, A Deepness in the Sky (1999), set tens of thousands of years earlier. The novel won the Hugo Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Prometheus Award. A sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, The Children of the Sky, was released in 2011 but did not attract the praise of the earlier books.

Vinge's last standalone novel was Rainbows End, set in a near-future San Diego, released in 2006. The novel also won a Hugo Award, making him one of the more successful authors at the awards, with three wins from five nominations.

Vinge was married to fellow science fiction writer Joan D. Vinge from 1972 to 1979. After their separation, they remained on good terms and Joan wrote several works set in the Zones of Thought universe, with his approval. Vinge was good friends with fellow SF author David Brin, who made him an honorary member of the "Killer Bs," a trio of hard SF authors active from the 1970s to 2010s; Brin himself, Greg Bear and Gregory Benford. Brin judged his work superior enough to overcome the lamentable deficit of not having a surname starting with "B."

Vinge wrote hard science fiction, sometimes dealing with quite complex ideas, but did so in a clear manner, and always remembered to incorporate interesting characters with recognisable motivations. In this manner he exemplified one of the strong spirits of good science fiction, thought-provoking ideas made accessible.

Vinge was not the most prolific of SF authors, but his small body of work is notable for how almost every part of it is interesting, influential and, at least three times, quietly revolutionary. He will be missed.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

RIP James M. Ward

News has sadly broken that tabletop roleplaying pioneer James M. Ward has passed away at the age of 72.

Born in 1951, Ward was an acquaintance of Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and agreed to help him road-test a new game he was developing in 1973. This game became Dungeons & Dragons, with Ward as one of the early players. Gygax created the wizard Drawmij of Oerth in Ward's honour. When Gygax started TSR in late 1973 and published D&D in January 1974, he recruited Ward to help work on the game as a writer and designer.

Ward collaborated with another of the original plays, Rob Kuntz, to create Gods, Demigods & Heroes (1976), a D&D sourcebook that introduced gods and religion to the game. Back when TSR was trying to publish a number of different systems, Ward created the first science fantasy roleplaying game, Metamorphosis Alpha (1976). Drawing on this work, Ward then co-created (with Gary Jaquet) the better-known Gamma World (1978).

Ward continued working as a staffer at TSR, contributing to different projects. He wrote Deities & Demigods (1980), an effective update of his 1976 book to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Edition rules.

In 1988 Ward drew on his background playing in Gygax's home games to write Greyhawk Adventures, which updated Gygax's signature home setting for the upcoming Advanced D&D 2nd Edition rules. Ward contributed to the design of AD&D 2E and was responsible for the removal of the assassin class, something he noted did not go down well with many fans.

Also in 1988 Ward worked on Ruins of Adventure, the tabletop supplement based on the Pool of Radiance video game set in the Forgotten Realms. Ward further developed the story and scenario into a trilogy of novels, published as Pool of Radiance (1989, with Jane Cooper Hong), Pools of Darkness (1992, with Anne K. Brown) and Pool of Twilight (1993, with Anne K. Brown).

Ward developed Spellfire, TSR's answer to Magic: The Gathering, in 1994. After an initially strong start, the game suffered from a lack of budget (resulting in a considerable reuse of art from existing projects, to fans' dismay).

Ward left TSR in 1996 during the major financial upheavals caused by Random House returning unsold stock to the company for refund, which the company could not afford to pay. This triggered the company's collapse and its subsequent buy-out by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. After departing, Ward worked as a freelancer on various projects (including a Metamorphosis Alpha reboot) before joining Troll Lord Games to work on their Castles & Crusades game line. Ward continued to work on Metamorphosis Alpha material - of which he retained full ownership - until the late 2010s.

As well as the projects with his name on it, Ward contributed in an enormous number of ways to other projects in a variety of roles, from proof-reading the Planescape Campaign Setting (1994) to providing additional design support for the Serenity roleplaying game (2004).

Ward produced new material under his solo companies, Fast Forward Entertainment and WardCo.

Ward was diagnosed with a serious neurological disorder in 2010, for which he received treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Friends, colleagues and fans rallied around with crowdfunding campaigns that ultimately helped him receive the treatment he needed to considerably extend his quality of life.

Ward passed away on 18 March 2024, and is survived by his wife and three children.

Monday 18 March 2024

MACROSS and ROBOTECH to join Disney+, with some caveats

The history of the Japanese anime series Macross and its American adaptation, Robotech, is a frightening cobweb of rights, lawsuits and legal shenanigans that have persisted for a large chunk of the forty-two years the franchise has existed. A few years ago, the Japanese consortium of companies that created Macross signed a new deal with American rights-holders Harmony Gold that would allow Harmony Gold to develop new Robotech projects (including the long-mooted live-action movie) whilst the numerous Macross sequel and prequel shows that Harmony Gold had been blocking from reaching the west would finally be released.

It's taken a while for that to be fully sorted out, but now we have the information on how the initial release will be handled.

Harmony Gold and Big West/Studio Nue have reached an agreement with Disney+, which will become the official home of both the Macross and Robotech franchises.

Globally, the following shows will be included on the service:

  • Super Dimension Fortress: Flash Back 2012 (music video collection)
  • Super Dimension Fortress Macross II: Lovers, Again (6-episode mini-series, non-canon)
  • Macross Plus Movie Edition (115-minute movie cut of the original 4-episode TV show)
  • Macross 7 (49-episode animated TV series)
  • Macross 7 The Movie: The Galaxy's Calling Me! (animated film)
  • Macross Dynamite 7 (animated film)
  • Macross Zero (5-episode prequel series)
  • Macross Frontier (25-episode animated TV series)
  • Macross Frontier: The False Songstress (theatrical adaptation of the TV series)
  • Macross Frontier: The Wings of Farewell (animated film)
  • Gekijo Tanpen Macross Frontier Toki no Meikyu (short film)
  • Macross FB7: Ore no Uta o Kike! (animated film)
  • Macross Delta (26-episode animated TV series)
  • Macross Delta the Movie: Passionate Valkyrie (theatrical animated adaptation of the TV series)
  • Macross Delta the Movie: Absolute Live!!!!!! (animated film)

There will then be a divergence based on location.

In Japan, this list will be bolstered by:

  • Super Dimension Fortress Macross (36-episode animated TV series, the OG entry in the franchise)
  • Super Dimension Fortress: Do You Remember Love? (animated feature film)
In much of the rest of the world, it is believed (but so far not 100% confirmed) that these will be replaced by:
  • Robotech (85-episode animated TV series, including the Americanised version of Macross plus the unrelated anime series Super Dimension Fortress: Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada, edited into one single story spanning three generations)
  • Robotech II: The Sentinels (3-episode animated TV series)
  • Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles (animated TV movie)
This news does seem at odds with the announcement of friendly relations between Harmony Gold and Studio Nue in 2021, which seemed to indicate that all Macross shows including the original would be available outside of Japan for the first time, and the possibility that Robotech might be available in Japan (for the minuscule number of people who'd be interested), and the more important idea that the mooted Robotech movie could be eventually released in Japan.

The live-action movie remains in development at Sony Pictures. A big 2016 push with director James Wan (the Fast and the Furious franchise) stalled when Wan decamped for other projects, although it gave us some excellent concept art. Andy Muschietti, hot off his two-part adaptation of Stephen King's IT, then took over and spent several years developing ideas before bailing himself. Hawkeye's Rhys Thomas took over and remains at the helm of development. 

Some other ideas have been rumoured, including Netflix doing a new animated version of the franchise similar to Voltron, but that's never been officially confirmed.

Both Robotech and Macross start with the same premise: the human race is on the verge of annihilating itself in nuclear war when a colossal alien spacecraft warps into our solar system and crash-lands on Earth, coming to rest on a remote island in the South Pacific. The human race, sobered by the realisation they are not alone, bands together and rebuilds the alien spacecraft, dubbing it the SDF-1 (Super Dimensional Fortress One) and building a huge city to support the effort. In the Japanese version, the ship also has a name, the Macross, whilst in the American version Macross the name of the island the ship crashes on, the civilian city in its cavernous hold and later a rebuilt version of that city near the US-Canada border. In both versions, the ship is being prepared for launch ten years after its arrival when the alien Zentraedi - towering giants with advanced spacecraft and war machines - attack in an attempt to reclaim the SDF-1. However, humanity has reverse-engineered technology from the alien ship to build their own formidable defences. The SDF-1 hyperjumps to try to outflank the alien fleet but accidentally warps itself and the civilians of the island to the orbit of Pluto, burning out the hyperdrive in the process. The SDF-1 returns to Earth under constant attack, but the Zentraedi are stymied by the need to recapture the ship intact rather than destroy it. During the battles, various infiltration efforts and even some limited communications, the Zentraedi are exposed to human culture and become fascinated by it, particularly by singing sensation Lynn Minmei, who becomes a major star both on the SDF-1 and later on Earth. The Zentraedi later split into factions and some join forces with humanity. Events climax in a major battle with the Zentraedi Grand Armada in Earth orbit, followed by a two-year mopping-up exercise on Earth.

The two franchises diverge significantly at this point. In Robotech, the action splits between deep space, where the newly-built SDF-3 goes in search of the Zentraedi homeworld and a showdown with the enigmatic Robotech Masters, and Earth, where a military dictatorship takes control of the planet but is ill-prepared to fight a war against the Robotech Masters when they unexpectedly attack. Further battles see the arrival of the Invid, the shapeshifting aliens who are the source of much of the technology and energy sources that are being fought over by the three other species, who then occupy Earth, leading to the development of a resistance effort. Robotech II: The Sentinels (the curtailed sequel series to the original) was supposed to tell the story of the SDF-3 crew as they united various alien races into a coalition to fight the Invid and then return to liberate Earth, although the show was never completed.

Macross takes a divergent view, with humanity and Zentraedi joining forces to build massive colony ships and sending them into deep space, where they encounter new alien threats. Another show, Macross Zero, acts as a prequel to the original show, set between the SDF-1's crash and the arrival of the Zentraedi. The Macross franchise is considerably longer and more prolific than Robotech, with the most recent new entry in the franchise being released in 2021.

There has been ill feeling over the differences for many years, with anime purists and the original Japanese creators being unhappy with the show being cut up and edited with unrelated shows to create something different. However, it is the Robotech version of the franchise that most Americans (north and south) and Europeans are familiar with, and is by far the better-known brand name. Several attempts to release the Macross version of the show on DVD met with financial failure, whilst Robotech was a perennial bestseller for the various companies that released and re-released it. These ill feelings have complicated work on the live-action movie, with fans divided on whether it should follow the Macross version of the story or the Robotech version, and the original Japanese creators (who still control some rights to mecha likenesses) seem unwilling to work or advise on something based on the Robotech version of the story.

Expect the confusion to run and run, but at least people outside of Japan can experience most of the Macross franchise for the first time when it launches on Disney+ later in 2024. Hopefully the original incarnation will follow suit.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER renewed for two more seasons at Netflix

Netflix has renewed its live-action take on Avatar: The Last Airbender for two more seasons, which will also conclude the story. With each season mirroring that of the original animated series (2005-08), which also only lasted for three seasons, that's hardly surprising.

Avatar: The Last Airbender dropped two weeks ago on Netflix to a mixed reception from fans and critics. However, casual viewers seemed much happier, with the show jumping to the top of Netflix's "most-watched" list. The show has also maintained a healthy viewership for a second week, comparable to earlier animation-to-live-action hit One Piece.

The renewal will allow the team to complete the story in full, which is sure to be a great relief for viewers frustrated by Netflix constantly cancelling shows before their time.

Although the original series concluded after three seasons, spin-off show The Legend of Korra, set seventy years later, lasted for four seasons (2012-14) and could provide material for a similar adaptation. There are also substantial numbers of Avatar spin-off comics and novels, and the original creators are producing an original animated movie for release in 2025 featuring the original characters as adults.

Ciaphas Cain: The Last Ditch by Sandy Mitchell

Commissar Ciaphas Cain and the Valhallan 597th are deployed to Nusquam Fundumentibus to deal with an incursion of orks. The campaign promises to be standard, although still dangerous, until Cain learns of a far greater threat lurking on the planet, one which sees both the humans and orks as enemies.

The redoubtable Ciaphas Cain - the science fantasy by-product of an unholy union between Flashman and BlackAdder - returns in his eighth novel. Once again, Cain is deployed to a trouble spot which seems a bit iffy, but practical to deal with. Also once again, complications ensure which gives Cain an enormous headache and results in a highly enjoyable adventure for the reader.

The previous Cain novel, The Emperor's Finest, was solid but did not represent the series at its best, with too much of Cain and Jurgen running around in isolated corridors where the opportunities for Cain - and Mitchell - to show off their skills with entertaining dialogue and character observations were limited. Fortunately, The Last Ditch is a return to form. Whilst we once again get a lot of action sequences, we also get a lot more character development and even politics, as Cain has to balance the needs of the 597th in fighting the ork incursion with the civil administration of the planet, who are trying to hold things together in the face of collapse. Of course, Cain (and the aromatic Jurgen) ends up at the hot end of the fighting despite desperately trying to find reasons to stay behind the lines.

The timeline means we get to spend more time with the characters of the 597th, including the batty Sulla, whose insane hero worship of Cain (further enhanced by excerpts from her later-published, badly-overwritten memoirs) remains extremely amusing. However, by this time Cain has been fighting (successfully) alongside the 597th for so long that Colonel Kasteen and Major Broklaw just go along with anything he suggests, which means relatively little tension in that quarter.

Tension is restored by the difficult relationship between the 597th, Cain and the planetary governor, who for once is (relatively) immune to Cain's charms and tries to continue politicking even in the face of an overwhelming alien threat. This is promising, but Mitchell punts off this storyline for Kasteen and Broklaw to deal with off-page, meaning we only get edited highlights from the subplot whilst Cain is off elsewhere.

Another potential source of rich conflict is Cain encountering a younger, more gung-ho Commissar fresh out of the academy, all too eager to start executing Imperial troops the nanosecond they slack off. Cain's more pragmatic, cooperative approaching clashing with the raw orthodoxy of the Commissariat would again be an interesting storyline, but again it's cut short by Commissar Forres relatively quickly coming around to Cain's way of thinking and becoming a useful ally.

Still, if Mitchell dodges these potentially engaging storylines, what we have is fun enough. A relatively epic narrative featuring a raging war across an entire planet told in a commendably concise number of pages, with enough plots twists, reversals, action sequences and wry humour to satisfy fans of the series, The Last Ditch (****) is entertaining. The novel is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium omnibus, along with the preceding and succeeding novels and several short stories.

Ciaphas Cain Novel Timeline

919.M41 (40,919 CE)Fight or Flight (Novella #1). Cain meets Jurgen, deploys with the 12th Valhallan Field Artillery to Desolatia IV.

924Death or Glory (Book #4): Perlia campaign.

928Echoes of the Tomb (Short Story): Adeptus Mechanicus mission, fights necrons.

928The Emperor’s Finest (Book #7): Cain joins Reclaimer Space Marines, aids in Space Hulk retrieval mission.

931For the Emperor (Book #1): Gravalax campaign, formation of the 597th Valhallan Regiment.

932Caves of Ice (Book #2): Simia Orichalcae campaign.

932: Duty Calls (Book #5): Periremunda campaign.

937: The Traitor’s Hand (Book #3): Adumbria campaign.

942The Last Ditch (Book #8): Nusquam Fundumentibus campaign.

c. 951-954Choose Your Enemies (Book #10): Ironfound campaign.

992The Greater Good (Book #9): Siege of Quadravidia.

c. 993Vainglorious (Book #11): Eucopia engagement.

999 (40,999 CE)Cain’s Last Stand (Book #6): Thirteenth Black Crusade. Chaos assault on Perlia, Cain comes out of retirement to lead defence.

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