Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Fringe: Season 5

2036. Earth is under the control of the Observers, time-travelling, genetically-engineered and cybernetically-enhanced humans from a distant future in which the planet has become uninhabitable. During their previous observations of the Fringe team and their investigations, they have confirmed that it is possible to rewrite the timeline and create a new reality, so now they plan to create a new world for their benefit...but not for that of the humans who are already there.



Frozen in amber for twenty-one years, the Fringe team awaken with one goal: to stop the Observers from fulfilling their mission. But with a vastly superior foe tracking them remorselessly, the team need every ally and every resource they can call upon in order to succeed.

For its final season, Fringe changes things up a lot. What had once been a procedural, investigative drama about the paranormal and pseudoscience has become a full-on nightmare dystopia, throwing in some elements of post-apocalyptic drama for good measure. These thirteen episodes form a tightly serialised drama (the writers deciding the sops to the casual viewer are no longer necessary) taking in questions about what it means to be human and how far you will be prepared to go to save your existence.

There are a few problems with the situation. First off, a fair bit of important stuff happens off-screen: four years pass between the end of Season 4 and the moment the Observers actually invade, including some important character development and also further developments involving William Bell. Bell's character arc simply disappears and we don't find out the fate of his character or what happened since the last time we saw him to explain his changed relationship with Walter and the rest of the team. Some hasty exposition from other characters doesn't really help. It's a problem that can be ignored for the most part, but the lack of resolution for this key character at a moment when pretty much everyone else gets wrapped up nicely feels a bit of an oversight.

More of an issue is that the compressed storytelling and the near-omnipotence of the Observers results in what feels like plot holes. The ability of the Observers to foretell the future and how far they can do their teleporting trick shifts episode from episode based on the requirements of the plot. It's not quite as bad as the tricks some shows go to in order to nerf overpowered villains (the Borg, anyone?) but it again feels a little too inconsistent even given Fringe's elastic standards of plausibility.



Fortunately, most of that can be ignored. The final season of Fringe is a bold, experimental one that throws out the standard format, changes dynamics all over the place and tries to be the biggest, most epic season on a reduced budget. Thanks to some excellent CGI (the paved-over Central Park is an impressive achievement), some very strong writing and some brilliant performances from the regulars and newcomers alike, the season is pretty gripping. By now it's gotten redundant to say that John Noble is fantastic in every scene he does (although a scene at the end of the first episode involving early 1980s electronica is particularly outstanding), but it's good to see Joshua Jackson stepping up to the mark. Jackson has pinballed between Plot Device and Exposition Giver for most of the previous four seasons (although always played gamely), but in Season 5 he gets a bit more material to play with and handles it well. Blair Brown also gets a terrific story arc as Nina this season, possibly by way of apology from the writers for giving her some pretty bad material in the Season 4 finale to work with. Georgina Haig also does some great work, stepping into the established cast as Henrietta.

The biggest success of the season, though, is giving a definite sense of closure to the series. Coming from some of the same creators as Lost and being heavily influenced by The X-Files, the fear was that Fringe would, like those shows, have a muddled and unsatisfactory resolution to a long-running and confusing story arc. It doesn't. Instead Fringe nails the landing more than satisfactorily, giving a good sense of closure as well as explaining most (but not all) of the show's long-running mysteries.

The final season of Fringe (****½) concludes the series with style, giving a satisfying resolution to the show, its mysteries and, most importantly, to the characters. Fringe, tragically, is one of the more obscure SFF shows of recent years which is a shame, as it is also one of the best. The final season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Monday, 31 August 2015

Justin Cronin completes the PASSAGE TRILOGY

Via Facebook, Justin Cronin has confirmed (actually a couple of months ago) that he has completed the manuscript for The City of Mirrors, the third and concluding volume in his Passage Trilogy.



The trilogy began in 2010 with the publication of The Passage, a well-written, post-apocalyptic vampire novel with a story divided between three different time periods. The more concise sequel, The Twelve, was released in 2012. The City of Mirrors will be released in 2016.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 5

Not so much a continuation of the series, but a pause for definitions. The Lord of the Rings did not create epic or secondary world fantasy, but it did sum it up, defining it so strongly that every work of fantasy released for the next fifty years would be compared to it. We've seen how it was written, but what influence did it have on what came after?

Tor's one-volume omnibus edition of The Wheel of Time proved surprisingly unpopular with booksellers.



Length

The Lord of the Rings was, for its day, unusual in its length. At 470,000 words it massively outsized The Hobbit at 97,000 words, and The Hobbit was considered long for a children's novel. However, that length allowed Tolkien to explore his fictional world in some depth, treating it like a place that had actually existed, and putting a lot of detail into the people and places. Whilst writing such long books is time-consuming and publishing them problematic, Tolkien's achievement meant that length came to be a feature of the epic fantasy subgenre.

Indeed, many later series are so huge that individual volumes are almost as long as The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. To Green Angel Tower, the concluding book of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams, is over 520,000 words in length, making it the longest epic fantasy novel ever written and one of the longest-ever books written in English. Two volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire - A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons - exceed 420,000 words in length. Two recent epic fantasy novels, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson, just go over 400,000 words. The Wheel of Time, in its entirety as one story, is over 4,360,000 words. This shows that while writing long novels may give publishers a headache, it can pay off.

However, some authors have reacted against such huge lengths. Joe Abercrombie's First Law novels crept over 200,000 words with Last Argument of Kings and he pulled back the length with Red Country. His recent Shattered Sea novels are considerably shorter, resulting in a more focused narrative and also faster turn-around times. Terry Pratchett, disdainful of both unnecessary doorstops and cliffhangers, didn't even get above 100,000 words until he was twenty-three books into his Discworld series. Paul Kearney, the author of The Monarchies of God, The Sea-Beggars and The Macht Trilogy (and some very fine stand-alones), writes very slim volumes which have occasionally been cited as a reason for his relative obscurity, with some fantasy readers preferring big doorstops and passing over short novels on the bookshelves.

Ironically, given that by modern fantasy standards it's quite short, the precedent of The Lord of the Rings gave authors the freedom to write long stories with the confidence that readers would stay with them. This has been both a good and bad thing for the genre.

Sometimes less is more when it comes to creation myths.


Worldbuilding

J.R.R. Tolkien began consciously creating Middle-earth in 1917 (and subconsciously several years earlier). By the time The Hobbit was published, he'd already been working on it for over twenty years. By the time The Return of the King was released, Middle-earth had existed in Tolkien's head and on numerous pieces of paper for just shy of forty years. In that time Tolkien had expertly crafted the history, geography and languages of his fictional world, giving him an immense reservoir of material to draw on.

This also gave readers and budding fantasy authors an appetite for "worldbuilding", expertly crafting a world so convincing in its solidarity and background that the reader would be fully immersed in the experience.

Of course, most fantasy authors don't have twenty years to prep their world ahead of writing the book, so they tend to do both the novel-writing and the worldbuilding at the same time. This is actually in keeping with what Tolkien did. Although Tolkien had created Middle-earth twenty years before starting The Lord of the Rings, all of that action and focus had been in Beleriand, the lands west of the Blue Mountains destroyed at the end of The Silmarillion, or on the western continent of Aman. For The Lord of the Rings itself Tolkien had to create Third Age Middle-earth as he went along. Gondor, Rohan and Mordor did not exist in his mind before he started writing the book, and indeed he took lengthy breaks from the writing to fill in their histories, develop their cultures and draw maps (see below).

Years later George R.R. Martin would allude to this. When he started writing A Game of Thrones, he had no idea who any of these people were or what they were doing. He didn't draw a map until he was a hundred pages into the writing, and never created a language for the books: when he needed a Dothraki word, he'd create it and try to remember it in case it cropped up again. He made it up as he went along, with the history of Westeros accumulating in stages. It was only later, and after some errors and inconsistencies were pointed out by fans, that Martin sat down and did worldbuilding in serious detail, but again nowhere near that practised by Tolkien (at least, not until he knew it was going to be published in The World of Ice and Fire and the planned Fire and Blood volume). In Martin's parlance, Tolkien created a vast iceberg of detail, with only a small amount showing above the surface in the novels but much more remaining out of sight. Martin and many other modern fantasy authors prefer to create the illusion of the iceberg, without the time-consuming job of actually creating things that would never be seen but giving a sense that they are still there.

An exception to this would be Ed Greenwood. In 1967 (at the age of eight!) Greenwood began creating a fantasy world in which he would set various short stories. This was soon replaced by creation for creation's sake, with a purpose given to it when he began setting Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying games there a decade later. In 1987 TSR, the publishers of D&D, were so impressed that they bought the setting for commercial release. Today the Forgotten Realms stands the most detailed, exhaustively-researched fantasy world ever created, and one where the published materials in the Realms (now spanning 300 or so novels, more than two dozen computer games, 100+ gaming materials and a forthcoming feature film) are apparently still outmatched by Greenwood's private notes.

Tolkien made worldbuilding a cornerstone of fantasy, but also warned of getting carried away with it and neglecting the story and characters in favour of "subcreation".

Diana Wynne Jones's map of Fantasyland for The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. As you can tell, an enormous amount of thought and originality went into this map, carefully constructed to reflect that of a lot of contemporary epic fantasy novels.


Maps

Maps in fantasy novels did not begin with Tolkien. Jonathan Swift's 1726 classic Gulliver's Travels has maps of the various islands Gulliver travels to, whilst The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Worm Ouroborus and Robert E. Howard's Conan stories all had maps accompanying the text, as did C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Tolkien did perhaps go a bit further than most, though. The Lord of the Rings has a big frontispiece map showing the whole of western Middle-earth. There is also an additional map of the Shire, and then, accompanying The Return of the King, a more detailed map of Rohan, Gondor and Mordor. And although he did not publish them in his lifetime, Tolkien also drew illustrations and maps of locations in the books, such as Isengard and Minas Tirith.

For a while after Tolkien, maps ruled the fantasy roost. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, set in the Four Lands, features a map of the entire landmass. The two sequels, set in the Westland and Eastland respectively, feature more detailed maps of those locations. Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen Donaldson is intended (at least partially) as a literary deconstruction of fantasy, but Donaldson knew he still needed to have a map of the Land at the front of the book. Raymond E. Feist had two maps, one of each of the two planets his novel Magician takes place on. David Eddings, who was cheerfully and openly inspired to write The Belgariad because of the success of The Lord of the Rings, doubled down on maps. His fantasy series would visit a new kingdom or region almost every other chapter, and zoomed-in maps would appear when required (or even when not required). Tad Williams did the same in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, sometimes showing maps of regions completely different to where the action in that section was taking place.

The presence of the map was soon apparently mandatory in fantasy novels, leading some to rebel against it. David Gemmell refused to include a map of the Drenai Empire in Legend, feeling it would limit creativity. Many years later, tiring of reader requests for a map, he selected the fan map he liked best and used that. Richard Morgan did the same with his Land Fit For Heroes series, not including a map in the first book and challenging fans to produce one for later volumes. Glen Cook did not include a map in his Black Company novels, although he later allowed a roleplaying company to create one (grudgingly, it appears, approved by himself) for a rulebook. Terry Pratchett was absolutely dead-set against maps appearing of the Discworld, believing that maps inhibited creativity. Stephen Briggs changed his mind by producing a coherent, detailed map of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett found just studying the map gave him ideas for future stories and, reluctantly, allowed an official map of the Discworld to appear in The Discworld Mappe, published in 1995 some twelve years after the first novel in the series was published.

Some authors seemed to enjoy even mildly trolling readers over the matter. Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont's Malazan novels features many splendid maps, but sometimes and inexplicably of completely different continents to where the action in the novel actually takes place. Large swathes of action falls outside the boundaries of any map. Ian Esslemont, notably, has lots of events happening in Stratem, the home of the Crimson Guard, but has never released a map of the continent. Details and directions in the books themselves can also be highly contradictory (the eventually-confirmed location of the Lether continent, for example, seemed to directly contradict statements in earlier novels). Joe Abercrombie also refused to provide a map of the Circle Sea region in his First Law trilogy, but later relented and released maps of the locations in Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country. Amusingly, he still declined to release maps for the earlier books, but did sneak a map of the entire known world into a single frame of the comic book adaption.

At other times, authors liked to hedge their bets. George R.R. Martin provided maps for Westeros in A Game of Thrones, but decided against releasing a map of the eastern continent, aside from a small portion in A Storm of Swords. It took twelve years for the eastern continent to even get a name (Essos) and a further four beyond that for HBO to release the first map of the known world. And even then Martin wasn't happy with it, almost completely redrawing and reconceptualising it for The Lands of Ice and Fire.

So, maps. Some readers will put a book down if they don't have a map in them, some won't touch them with a bargepole if they are present. But we have Tolkien to thank for their seeming omnipresence in the genre.




Language

Tolkien's motives in writing The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings stem, in part, from his love of language and of creating new languages. During his lifetime Tolkien developed two languages in detail, these being Quenya and Sindarin. He also sketched out several other languages in a less-developed form, including Dwarfish and the Black Speech of Mordor. Needless to say, this took quite a long time.

Modern fantasy authors, generally speaking, don't have time or knowledge or background to sit down and create entire languages from scratch. As mentioned above, most authors simply invent a word or two and try to remember them for later on if needed again.

Some exceptions exist. M.A.R. Barker created the language of Tsolyáni in the 1940s, which eventually saw publication in the Empire of the Petal Throne roleplaying game in 1975. Marc Okrand also created a working Klingon language for the Star Trek films in the 1980s. However, it wasn't until The Wheel of Time in 1990 that a major work of epic fantasy employed a functioning fictional language. Robert Jordan developed a vocabulary of over 1,000 words for the Old Tongue used in the novels and rules to go along with it. Only a small amount of this material ever made it into the novels, but a more comprehensive account of the language is planned for The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia.

In more recent times, it has become more fashionable to create entire languages for works of fiction. James Cameron commissioned linguist Paul Frommer to create a language for the Na'vi in his 2009 film Avatar. When HBO created the Game of Thrones TV series, based on George R.R. Martin's novels, they hired linguist David Peterson to create a working Dothraki language for the show. Later on he expanded this with Valyrian and elements of other languages. Peterson also went on to create more fictional languages for Thor: The Dark World, Defiance and The 100.

Still, it is relatively unknown for epic fantasy writers to create entire languages for their novels, this being an area that Tolkien was uniquely suited to deal with.



Peoples

Tolkien also popularised the use of the "traditional" fantasy races: elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, monstrous wolves and so on. Whilst the use of these races did not originate with Tolkien, he did shape them into their most familiar form, where the elves are long-lived, semi-immortal and graceful, the dwarves are miners fond of drinking and battle, and orcs are marauding, malevolent raiders. Tolkien drew on mythology for his sources, although he did change things around: elves in fairy tales and myths tended to be more mischievous or even capriciously evil races (in which form Pratchett deploys them in his Discworld novels Lords and Ladies and The Shepherd's Crown).

Amusingly, Tolkien originally considered using the word "gnome" for his long-lived, immortal species, drawing on its association with wisdom and knowledge ("gnomic", "gnosis"). However, in the 1920s and 1930s there was a boom in the popularity of garden gnomes (a fad imported from Germany) and Tolkien seems to have decided that the word was no longer appropriate. Gnomes would go on to appear in Dungeons and Dragons, but the only epic fantasy writer of note who would make major use of them would be Terry Brooks, who employed them as an antagonistic race in The Sword of Shannara.

Many fantasy writers would go on to use the races in their Tolkien-esque mode, although sometimes not using the same name. Elves and dwarves would show up pretty much as described in Tolkien in Raymond E. Feist's work, although later Riftwar books would stop using them (to the point where readers began to wonder if Feist had forgotten there were even dwarves on Midkemia). David Eddings, despite his publicly-state desire to make money from cashing in on the Tolkien crazy, actually eschewed using any of the familiar races. Tad Williams used them in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn but changed the names: the elves became the Sithi (a common alternate name for the elves, borrowing from the Irish Sidhe) and the dwarves and hobbits became mixed together a little to form the Qanuc (confusingly described as "trolls" in the novels). Dennis L. McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy employs both elves and dwarves in the standard mode.

More recent epic fantasy either dispenses with the elves and dwarves together (such as Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, although the latter's Children of the Forest do have some elf-like qualities) or changes them much more substantially. Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen features the Tiste, an elf-like immortal species famed for their skills in battle and with sorcery who have become divided into several, occasionally warring factions. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse mega-series features the very elf-like Nonmen, who have been driven insane by their longevity and the horrors they have witnessed over the course of thousands of years.

What is slightly more unusual is the lack of appearance of hobbits in later fantasy work. The word "hobbit" itself is copyrighted (unlike the very generic terms "elf" and "dwarf"), but Tolkien drew on pre-existing ideas in the creation of the race. Dungeons and Dragons would in fact develop two successors to hobbits, in the form of halflings (a word Tolkien himself deploys in The Two Towers) and, in the Dragonlance world, the fearless kender. McKiernan's Iron Tower series, itself originating from a failed attempt to write an authorised sequel to The Lord of the Rings, features the diminutive Dwarrows. However, most subsequent fantasy authors have preferred to use actual humans (usually callow youths from a rural background) in place of hobbits: Rand, Mat and Perrin in The Wheel of Time, Simon in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, the Ohmsfords of Shannara and Garion of The Belgariad can all be seen as the successors of the hobbits, despite being human.



Themes

In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien employs a number of themes he develops through the work. He is concerned with the corruption of power, personified in Sauron and Saruman, and the effect that the One Ring has on characters such as Boromir. He also explores the idea of redemption, with Gollum, almost destroyed by the Ring, very nearly redeemed by Frodo before he finally falls under the spell of the Ring one last time. However, Bilbo's act of mercy in The Hobbit (by not killing Gollum when he had the chance) is revealed to have been crucial in ensuring the ultimate victory over Sauron.

There's also a tremendous sense of nostalgia for a bucolic past replaced by a technological future. Tolkien is often mischaracterised as a Luddite, when in fact he saw the practical value of progress, such as when in old age he learned to drive and bought himself a car for the freedom it gave him and his wife, despite his dislike of the environmental damage wrought. However, Tolkien did strongly believe in the dehumanising effect that technology brought to warfare, seeing for himself the impact of industrial slaughter on the Western Front of World War I. He was later repulsed by the idea of mass aerial bombardments of civilian targets and the deployment of nuclear weapons. This disdain for technological warfare shows up in The Lord of the Rings through elements such as the Scouring of the Shire and Saruman tearing down the woods and groves of Isengard to create weapons factories.

Tolkien also wrote The Lord of the Rings as a bittersweet tragedy. Yes, Sauron is defeated but the world is forever changed. The elves and dwaves have no place in the world any more and Frodo is so traumatised by his experiences he must leave his home forever and seek succour in the west. Tolkien believed that change was a fundamental part of human life and you could never step back, a core theme of his work that is curiously often misunderstood or ignored (most notably in Michael Moorcock's well-written but poorly-supported "Epic Pooh" essay).

Later works of fantasy would, for the most part, abandon any kind of substantial thematic development in favour of being purely entertaining: there's not too much literary depth to be found in the Shannara or Belgariad books, which exist really as popcorn novels (not that there's anything wrong with that). However, some of the stronger and better works of epic fantasy do engage with ideas and themes beyond being entertaining, and emerge the better for it. The Black Company studies the morality of evil in a way few works (fantasy or not) manage. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn ponders the idea of inherent racism in works of fantasy. Legend and much of David Gemmell's work asks what exactly heroism actually is. The Wheel of Time concerns itself with gender issues, sexual equality and how the "chosen one" may fall to evil due to the stresses placed upon him or her. A Song of Ice and Fire is primarily concerned with power, who wants it, who disdains it, who takes it up reluctantly and who hungers for it. The Malazan series engages with a whole host of themes, running from capitalism to mercy, and, for all of its myriad faults, at least The Sword of Truth aspires to socio-political ideas (if often in a morally questionable form). However, the greatest explorer of themes in fantasy was Terry Pratchett, who used his Discworld books to examine everything from religious fanaticism to the development of steam technology to the power of propaganda.

So the influences Tolkien brought to epic fantasy were many and varied. The impact of The Lord of the Rings was so immense that it took a surprising amount of time for other writers to begin exploring some of his ideas and bring their own to the table.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 4

In any discussion of the development of epic fantasy one work looms over the rest to such a titanic extent that, for years, the subgenre was often said to consist of just it and a few pale imitators: The Lord of the Rings. That perception has changed over the last two decades, but it remains the most important book in the development of the field.

 J.R.R. Tolkien towards the end of his life, having completed Lord of the Rings and while he was still working on The Silmarillion.


As mentioned in Part 2, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had begun writing "The Hobbit II" in December 1937. He envisaged the book as a short sequel to The Hobbit, written in a similar, jovial tone and focusing on Bilbo's nephew Bingo. The storyline would focus on the magical ring that Bilbo had found in Gollum's cave and would feature the Necromancer (an off-screen villain in the prior book) as the main antagonist.

Despite sketching out a few chapters in that mode, Tolkien seemed to find it limiting. He'd already written The Hobbit and writing it again did not seem particularly interesting. There was also a change in his structuring of the story. The Hobbit had started off a self-contained tale, but it had "strayed" into Middle-earth, the setting for Tolkien's massive mythological cycle The Silmarillion, which he'd been working on since 1917. Although that change had come too late to really change the tone and direction of The Hobbit, it was something he was acutely aware of when starting the sequel. He realised early on that the Necromancer could be Sauron, the chief lieutenant of the Dark Lord Morgoth from the earlier work. Although Morgoth had been defeated at the end of The Silmarillion and cast into the void, Sauron's fate was not mentioned, allowing Tolkien to redeploy him for this new work.

This resulted in a shift and transformation in the tone of the story, a move away from another children's adventure into something grander, bigger and more sophisticated. Tolkien kept modestly referring to it as "The Hobbit sequel" long after it had passed the earlier work in word count (the new book would end up being five times the length of the earlier), but eventually he revealed a more epic title: The Lord of the Rings.

Work on the book proceeded for ten years. There were many interruptions. Tolkien lost the thread of the story on several occasions, at one point pausing the writing for over a year. The complexity of dealing with two separate narrative strands (Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor and the rest of the Fellowship in Rohan and Gondor) stymied him for a while until he hit on the idea of writing the two stories sequentially and separate from one another, reuniting them only at the end: a device unconsciously, perhaps, echoed in later fantasy authors who would rest characters and storylines for a book or two and pick up with them later on. At various points he'd stop and rename characters: Bingo was switched to Frodo fairly early on. Worldbuilding also became a concern: Tolkien drew a map that was, by the end, so heavily annotated and amended that his son Christopher had real problems when it came to deciphering it to produce a version for inclusion in the book itself. Tolkien also found himself bogging down the narrative at key points with lengthy infodumps about the history of his invented countries and languages. Most of this was removed to the appendices in the writing process, allowing the narrative to (despite its eventual bulk) remain focused on the core storylines.

Tolkien completed writing The Lord of the Rings in 1947; revisions and typing up the massive manuscript took a further two years. However, publication was delayed due to Tolkien's decision that he also wanted The Silmarillion published as well. This proved difficult because it wasn't finished. The publishers of The Hobbit, Allen and Unwin, were unwilling to consider the manuscript since it was incomplete, but also had doubts about its commercial potential compared to the more traditionally-structured Lord of the Rings. Unwisely, Tolkien saw this report and was unimpressed. In 1950, he offered both books to Collins, who were more willing to entertain both works and also had more capacity to print them: paper was still being rationed in the aftermath of WW2 and Collins, as a stationary company as well as a publisher, had access to larger stocks. Unfortunately, delays and a late decision to edit the two books down led to Tolkien abandoning his relationship with Collins in 1952.

Tolkien returned to Allen and Unwin and they agreed to publish The Lord of the Rings - which was complete apart from the appendices - and hold fire on The Silmarillion until it was actually done. Further delays, issues with the printers and a late completion of the appendices meant that the book was not finally out, in full, until three years later. Ongoing paper shortages meant that the book had to be split into three volumes, with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers being published in 1954 and The Return of the King in 1955. Tolkien had just inadvertently created the Traditional Epic Fantasy Trilogy, despite his strenuous later protests that it was one novel.

Early reactions were mixed, with enormous praise from the likes of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden muted by a lot of dire reviews. Despite the mixed reception and the fact that the books were more expensive than most, sales were buoyant and Tolkien soon found himself receiving royalty cheques dwarfing his annual income from teaching. He soon began receiving fan mail, some of it written in his own Elvish languages (to his delight), from people all over the world.

Yet, The Lord of the Rings remained only a modest success. It was known in SFF circles, certainly, but it was not immediately obvious that it was a gamechanger in the genre. For that to happen took an act of piracy.

The unauthorised 1965 Ace Books editions of The Lord of the Rings. Despite being unauthorised, they were actually more faithful to the original text than the authorised ones, having less typos and much better cover art.

In 1965 Ace Books in the United States released their own copy of The Lord of the Rings, citing a failure by Houghton Mifflin (the authorised US hardcover publisher) to copyright the book. The Ace Books paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was wildly popular, selling 100,000 copies in just a few months and exposing a hunger for a paperback edition of the work. Houghton Mifflin corrected their error and released an authorised paperback, but it was more expensive than Ace's. To everyone's surprise, Tolkien himself then joined the fray. Despite having little to no interest in SFF fandom (he was a fan of Isaac Asimov, but little else) and having declined multiple times to visit the United States, he began a letter-writing campaign, calling upon his fan and author connections built up over a decade. Soon fans were demanding that the unauthorised edition be pulled from sale, and bookstores began to refuse to stock it. Aware of the negative PR, Ace apologised and made Tolkien several royalty payments. "The War Over Middle-earth", as it was dubbed in the press, had ended but it had been a reasonably big news story for several months.

The result was less of a boom in sales than a titanic explosion of popularity. Suddenly, everyone was reading Tolkien. Everyone had an opinion on it, Tolkien was receiving requests from fans urgently demanding a sequel (he placated them with news that he was revising The Silmarillion and working on new background information and stories, which later ended up in Unfinished Tales) and, most bizarrely, Leonard Nimoy relased a music video about Bilbo Baggins. Even the Beatles expressed interest in buying the film rights.

Tolkien was bewildered by this turn of events, but was not totally dismayed by the "grosser forms of literary success". It allowed him and his wife to live comfortably and to provide for their children and grandchildren. It also allowed him to buy a car (which given his hatred of the internal combustion engine was remarkable) and got him interviewed by the BBC.

Tolkien died in September 1973 at the age of 81. He left behind The Silmarillion in an incomplete state, but he had been working with his son Christopher to get his notes in an orderly state and to arrange for the book to be finished in the light that he would not be able to do it. He also left behind other stories, notes and fragments which later saw the light in other books. Tolkien even left behind recollections and some notes on his childhood, perhaps feeling that if someone was going to write his life story they should have as much information as possible (this helped Humphrey Carpenter immensely in his writing of Tolkien's biography).

The influence he left behind was seismic. In fact, it was so seismic that no other writer seemed to know how to respond. It would be over twenty years after publication that the first works written in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings would start to appear. But its impact was notable early on: in a review of Dune, Arthur C. Clarke stated that he could compare it to nothing other than Lord of the Rings (Clarke was a fan of the book, also referencing it in his novel 2010 when he compares the hellscape of Jupiter's moon Io to Mordor). Other writers decried it, with Michael Moorcock in particular lambasting it for its conservatism and safety at a time of increasing literary experimentation. But it was clear that something had changed in the fantasy genre as a result of the book, and the impact of that was going to be remarkable.

China Mieville's THE CITY AND THE CITY to become a TV series

The BBC has announced that it will be adapting China Mieville's 2009 novel The City and the City as a four-part mini-series.


The series will air on BBC2 and is being written by Tony Grisoni, known for co-writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tideland with Terry Gilliam, as well as TV series such as Red Riding and Southcliffe. Grisoni is an offbeat and interesting scriptwriter, and would seem a perfect match for the novel.

The book is set in the city of Besźel, which coexists at the same point in space and time with the city of Ul Quoma; residents of the two cities have to ignore one another, can't go into buildings that are in the "other" city and have to cross over at specially-designated border posts. Any transgression of these rules is retaliated against by a (possibly) supernatural force. A murder in one of the cities leads the investigating detective on a dizzying journey which incorporates both cities and the forces which control them.
"We are thrilled to be bringing China's dazzlingly inventive novel to BBC Two. It's a 21st Century classic - a truly thrilling and imaginative work which asks big questions about how we perceive the world and how we interact with each other."
No airdate for the series has yet been set, although at this point it'll likely be late 2016 or some time in 2017.

Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold

Winterfair on Barrayar and the unthinkable is happening: Miles Vorkosigan is getting married. For his family this is a time of great happiness and joy. For Armsman Roic, one of Miles's long-suffering security officers, it's a time of paranoia, vigilance and stress. When things start to go wrong, Roic joins forces with one of Miles's old Dendarii comrades to ensure that the wedding goes off without a hitch.


Winterfair Gifts is a short novella set after the events of A Civil Campaign. It centres on Roic, a minor supporting character most notable at this point for engaging in combat with overzealous offworld security officers whilst half-naked and covered in butter (produced by insectoids from another planet, but that's another story). The novella actually feels a bit like an apology from Bujold to her character, giving him a chance to shine in his own story.

It's an enjoyable piece, with some laughs, some drama and some pathos in the relationship between Roic and Taura, the genetically-engineered soldier Miles rescued from Jackson's Whole. The drama part of the novel - including an assassination attempt and a dramatic arrest - feels almost tacked on, with much of the pivotal action happening off-page. Bujold's focus is on the two main characters, their development and their unexpected relationship, which is effective and touching.

A minor interlude in the overall Vorkosigan Saga, then, but one that is enjoyable and worth reading. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

Saturday, 29 August 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 3

Seventeen years passed between the publication of The Hobbit and its much larger and longer sequel, The Lord of the Rings. However, this period was not without significant works of fantasy being published.


One of the more interesting fantasy works to emerge in the immediate post-Hobbit era was a series of short stories by the American author Fritz Leiber. Leiber, in collaboration with his friend Harry Otto Fischer, had created two characters loosely based on themselves, but also intended to subvert expectations of what fantasy characters could be. These characters were, of course, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The duo appeared in thirty-six short stories and a full-length novel, published between 1939 and 1988. Initially they appeared in magazines such as Unknown and Fantastic, but in 1968 the stories began to be packaged in omnibus editions, at which point their sales began to take off impressively.

Leiber is, lamentably, not a household name but his influence was huge. Both Gary Gygax (the creator of Dungeons and Dragons) and Terry Pratchett read his stories whilst younger and found them hugely influential. Gygax even later licensed Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's world of Newhon as an official D&D campaign world, whilst Pratchett's first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, is as much an affectionate satire of Leiber specifically as it is of fantasy as a whole. In particular, before taking it in its own direction in later books, the city of Ankh-Morpork in the earlier novels can be seen as a direct riff on Lankhmar, the most notable settlement of Newhon. Indeed, Lankhmar can be seen as perhaps the first archetypal fantasy city, a place of narrow alleys, raucous inns and rooftop chases.



There was another author engaged in a spot of worldbuilding and subcreation closer to home as well. In 1938 C.S. Lewis published Out of the Silent Planet, a science fiction novel borne out of a conversation with his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. The two authors had agreed to write a series of complementary stories about space travel and time travel; Tolkien's story, The Lost Road (about the downfall of Numenor), was never completed as he prioritised work on The Lord of the Rings, but he did make use of the material he created for it for backstory to the new novel. Lewis not only finished his book but published two sequels (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength), creating the Space Trilogy. When looking for a new writing project, Lewis recalled an experience in 1939, at the outset of the Second World War, when his family home had to host three girls sent out of London in fear of bombing. Lewis used this as the seed to write a fantasy series set in a fictional world called Narnia.

The Chronicles of Narnia spanned seven fairly short novels, published between 1949 and 1956. The land of Narnia was described in some detail and Lewis used the fantastical setting to explore Christian themes of sacrifice and redemption. The series was critically acclaimed upon release, bringing Lewis fame and fortune that (for a time) eclipsed that of his friend Tolkien. However, Tolkien himself was cool on the series, in part because he couldn't help the suspicion that Lewis had modelled Narnia on Middle-earth and been inspired by the still-gestating Lord of the Rings, which he had been reading to his writing friends as work progressed (in particular, he was irritated by Lewis using the name "Numinor", despite it apparently being used as an affectionate nod at Tolkien).

As well as its worldbuilding and religious themes, Narnia was notable for its non-sequential, non-linear storytelling. Each book was self-contained, but jumped around in time and space, with some of the later books being prequels and interquels and the primary cast of characters changing with each novel, both ideas used in later fantasy series to keep things fresh for the author.


The other major key work of this period was written by another English author and illustrator: Mervyn Peake. In 1946 he published Titus Groan, a novel about the inhabitants of a colossal, crumbling castle called Gormenghast. The novel was dense and complex, but featured at its core a villainous point-of-view character called Steerpike, who was determined to bring down the ruling Groan family and take power himself. The story was too big for one volume and Peake continued the story in Gormenghast (1950), which concluded Steerpike's story rather definitively. Peake planned to continue the series, at one point considering no less than ten volumes set in the same world. He started writing a third book, Titus Alone, and made plans for two more (tentatively entitled Titus Awake and Gormenghast Revisited), but died at the tragically early age of 57. Titus Alone was published in 1959, but in rather butchered form. A proper edition was released in 1970, whilst Peake's widow wrote her own version of Titus Awakes that was eventually published in 2011.

The Gormenghast Trilogy is best-known for its setting, an ancient edifice of crumbling stone whose physical disrepair matches the declining state of the family that rules it. It is certainly not an epic fantasy, being more reminiscent of Gothic drama. However, the idea of impossible, vast castles - the Big Dumb Objects of epic fantasy - would live on in later works: the Hayholt of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Winterfell and Harrenhal (among others) in A Song of Ice and Fire owe some of their inspiration to Peake's work.


Back in the United States another author decided to start writing a series of short stories while at sea as part of the Merchant Marine. His name was Jack Vance, and starting in the early 1940s he began penning stories set in an unimaginably distant future when the Earth is dying and the sun is about to go out. Despite the alleged SF backdrop, Vance populated his far future setting with rogues, thieves and wizards. Although not epic fantasy as such - The Dying Earth (1950) and its three sequels instead creating a subgenre of their own - many of the touchstones of epic fantasy can be found in this series. There's the vigorously scientific approach to magic, giving the fantastic a set of reliable rules and limitations. These proved so strong that Gary Gygax later lifted them wholesale for his Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. There was also the use of post-apocalyptic Earth as the setting for the story. Many later epic fantasies, from Shannara to The Wheel of Time to the recent Shattered Sea, would do the same thing. There's also the impact Vance had on later writers, most notably Gygax and Pratchett but also George R.R. Martin (Vance is Martin's favourite author). In 1983 Vance himself penned a more traditional epic fantasy, The Lyonesse Trilogy, one of the all-time finest works of the genre.

Throughout all of this time J.R.R. Tolkein had been busy at home in Oxford, writing, re-writing, editing and re-editing The Lord of the Rings. The impact it would have when finally published is something the author, and the SFF world, was not expecting.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Bethesda re-release some classic games on GoG

Bethesda have joined the GoG bandwagon by releasing some of their older, classic RPGs and some other games inherited from other companies onto the service.



Of interest to fans of Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls Online will be the older games in the Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is by far the most critically highly-acclaimed game in the series and the most unusual, with taxi services provided by giant stilt-legged monsters, very few traditional fantasy cliches and the constant threat of being killed by annoying cliff racers. Far more obscure are the two action-oriented spin-offs, the dungeon crawler Battlespire and the third-person action game Redguard.

As a bonus, anyone buying any of these titles also gets The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall added to their collection for free. These games have been free for years on Bethesda's website, but it's nice to see them being put out on GoG. Certainly playing Arena in 2015 - 21 years after it was originally released - is an, er, interesting experience when comparing it to Skyrim.

Bethesda have also released Fallout, Fallout 2 and Fallout Tactics on the service, likely to help set the scene for the release of Fallout 4 in November. In addition, they have also released some of id's back-catalogue, via special editions for Doom, Doom II and Quake.

DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN II arrives on Kickstarter

Larian Studios have commenced the Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin II. This is the sequel to last year's hit RPG.



The new game has sailed past its Kickstarter target of $500,000 less than 24 hours after the appeal went live. With 34 days still left in the campaign, I think we can comfortably expect the final total to be well into the seven figures. However, the video game record set by Shenmue III with $6.33 million would appear to be safe for now.

The new game is very similar to the original, but with the party now expanded to four fully-controllable heroes (as opposed to two fully-controllable ones and two NPC allies in the original). The game will retain its focus on high-quality graphics, physics-assisted battles and open freedom, but this will be joined by the idea of the party occasionally splitting up and engaging in separate, simultaneous narratives. The designers are also working on the idea of furthering roleplaying in video games in multiplayer mode by allowing the players to work at cross-purposes to one another. This is fascinating, although only time will tell how successful they will be.

What is interesting is that, this time around, the basic underlying tech is already in place (and Original Sin II is clearly in a much more advanced state of prototyping than the original was at the same point) so the Kickstarter money this time can go more towards, writing, art and the development of these intriguing ideas of consequence and competing narratives. If Larian pull off what they are promising, this game could be something very special indeed.

Monday, 24 August 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 2

It would be fair to say that J.R.R. Tolkien did not create epic or secondary world fantasy. He stood on the shoulders of those who came before, bringing a new perspective to old ideas and creating a variant form of storytelling out of existing approaches. But The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) define the subgenre of epic fantasy in a way that very few other works so completely define their fields. Every work of fantasy in that mould - and, to the irritation of their authors, many of fantasy outside of it - is seen in the light of Tolkien. In more recent years other defining figures have appeared such as Rowling and Martin, or older ones have been reappraised, such as Howard and Dunsany, but Tolkien was for many years the author who summed up, coined and personified the field, and his life story and the stories that grew out of it are important to understanding it.

John Ronald Reul Tolkien in 1916, shortly before beginning what would become The Silmarillion.

John Ronald Reul Tolkien had been born in Bloemfontein's, South Africa, in 1892 to British parents. His father died when he was just three years old whilst the rest of the family were visiting the UK on holiday. Remaining in the UK, Tolkien and his brother were raised by their mother in and around Birmingham, in conditions of some financial distress. Tolkien's mother died when he was twelve from complications arising from diabetes and he was raised by a priest who had been a friend of the family. Tolkien attended Oxford University and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt, after a courtship complicated by interference from both their families on religious grounds (Tolkien was a Catholic and Edith a Protestant; she later converted, with some regrets).

In 1916 Tolkien was deployed to the Western Front to fight as part of the British Army in the First World War. Tolkien spent just four months in the trenches, although the horrors he saw during that time never left him: those four months included the bulk of the Battle of the Somme. In October of that year Tolkien came down with trench fever and was invalided back to England. Repeated bouts of sickness kept him confined to the home country. With Edith only able to visit occasionally, Tolkien was bored out of his mind. He was already a keen writer, poet and artist, and had already used fantastical imagery in his amateur works: he had already painted a great blazing tree of light in 1916 and had written a poem called The Lonely Isle. He had also started developing his own imaginary languages, driven by a love of philology inherited from his mother (who had taught him Latin as a young child). He had no greater plan in mind for these works but during his convalescence he decided to start writing an actual story, about the arrival of a great warrior at a glorious city called Gondolin, one of the few surviving strongholds in the midst of a great war. The Fall of Gondolin was the first of what he came to call The Book of Lost Tales, consisting of stories drawn from a common backdrop but varying immensely in tone and content.

Ted Nasmith's rendition of the meeting of Beren and Luthien, the most personal and favourite of Tolkien's own stories.

Others soon followed. A few months later Tolkien and his wife went on a picnic and Edith danced for him among the flowering hemlock. This inspired Tolkien to write his epic romance, The Lay of Leithian, better-known as The Tale of Beren and Luthien, which became a core part of Tolkien's developing legendarium.

With the war ending, Tolkien took a job working on the Oxford English Dictionary before becoming a university lecturer and professor, first at Leeds and then back to Oxford. He became Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College in 1924. During this time he continued working on The Book of Lost Tales, adding many more episodes to the book and developing a vast, mythological backstory. In this story supernatural beings known as Valar (servants of the One God Eru, also called Illuvatar) create the world and rule it as a paradise, until one of their number, Melkor (later Morgoth) turns against them and brings disquiet and corruption into paradise. Melkor is responsible for numerous conflicts, culminating in him seizing control of three powerful, magical jewels and securing them in a stronghold in the central continent of the world (hence, the "Middle of the Earth", although the name also drew on Midgard and other mythological roots). During his villainous antics, Melkor had betrayed the immortal "gnomes" and suffered their retribution in the form of a bloody crusade launched against his forces in Middle-earth over the course of centuries. Deciding that "gnomes" wasn't quite right, Tolkien recast them as the heroic and otherworldly elves, to the relief of the many imitators who came after. Eventually, with the assistance of the supposedly "lesser" races of dwarves and men (not to mention the intervention of the Valar), the elves defeat Melkor and he is driven from the world in defeat, although only at the cost of the annihilation of parts of Middle-earth in a titanic flood.

Tolkien's grand mythological cycle was complete in concept, but Tolkien found structuring it and making it more comprehensible to general readers to be difficult. He tried creating a framing structure in which a shipwrecked mariner from the modern age washes ashore on the Lonely Isle of Tol Eressea (having somehow found the "Straight Road" from our world to that of Valinor, the land of the Uttermost West) and hears about the Lost Tales from his hosts, but found this unsatisfying. He continued working on the legends and polished them into a more familiar form, changing names and races and events and even the book's title - by 1930 The Book of Lost Tales had become The Silmarillion - but still could not find a satisfying way of presenting his world of Middle-earth as he wanted. But, as is usually the way, inspiration struck from an unexpected quarter.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, published in 1937 and a vital moment in the development of the epic fantasy genre.

In or around 1930, Tolkien was marking papers when he found a blank sheet of paper left in the middle of an essay. On a whim, he wrote down "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," and put the paper aside. Later, he picked it up and became intrigued by what exactly a "hobbit" could be. He resolved to find out.

Over the course of the next six years, whilst working hard as an academic and tinkering with The Silmarillion, Tolkien fleshed out his new story by inventing episodes for it as bedtime tales for his four children (who successively grew up hearing it). He set it down on paper, and later a typewriter, before leaving it unfinished. It was only because a former student-turned-friend, Susan Dagnall, had become employed by George Allen and Unwin, a London publishing house and had heard about the book, that it was ever finished.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, was published in September 1937 to considerable critical acclaim, winning Tolkien several awards and selling well in both the UK and the United States. Tolkien's publishers quickly asked for a sequel but Tolkien had not planned one, and had ended the book by saying that Bilbo Baggins lived long and happily to the end of his days. He could not think of a way of writing a sequel that did not contradict this. Nevertheless, he tried and by Christmas had started The Hobbit II, another light-hearted adventure about hobbits. Among the ideas he had placed in the first novel but had not developed fully was an off-page, secondary villain called "The Necromancer" and the backstory for a curious magic ring, discovered by Bilbo and granting the bearer the ability to become invisible. Keen for the second book to develop naturally from the first, Tolkien followed up on these plot points and made them more central to the narrative, eventually hitting on the idea that the Necromancer was the creator of the ring and that he was looking for it. The story took a darker turn when Tolkien had his band of hobbits chased across the Shire by a sinister Ring-wraith, with the language and atmosphere both becoming more adult and oppressive. Tolkien chose to remain in this mode. A final element clicked into place when Tolkien suddenly realised that the Necromancer could be Sauron, a minor villain in The Silmarillion (although a primary antagonist in The Tale of Beren and Luthien) whose fate had not been revealed at the end of that story. Tolkien's new story was not going to be just a sequel to The Hobbit, but also The Silmarillion itself, elevating it to a new level in Tolkien's eyes and also resulting in its new and decidedly more epic title: The Lord of the Rings.

In the event, it would be seventeen years before the new book would be published and the rest of the SFF field was not standing idle.