Friday, 20 October 2017

RIP Julian May

Science fiction author Julian May has passed away at the age of 86.

Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1931, May became a fan of science fiction in her teens. She sold her first short story, "Dune Roller" (filmed as The Cremators in 1972 by Harry Essex) to Astounding Science Fiction in 1951; like many female writers of the period, she adopted a pseudonym, J.C. May. This may have proven unnecessary, as her first name meant she was often assumed to be a male writer anyway. She met SF editor and anthologist Ted Dikty in 1951; they married in 1953. Inbetween May chaired the 1952 Worldcon in Chicago, becoming the first woman to chair a World Science Fiction Convention.

May and Dikty had three children and May dropped out of the SF field after publishing her second short story, "Star of Wonder", in 1953. She worked as a prolific editor until the early 1980s, publishing more than 250 books aimed at children which explored topics such as history, sports and music.

She rejoined SF fandom in 1976, attending the Los Angeles Worldcon and writing a gazetteer of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian world (under the pen name Lee N. Falconer), and began planning a return to writing adult SF. The result was the Saga of Pliocene Exile (or the Saga of the Exiles), a four-volume series in which a group of people travel back in time from a future Earth to seek a simpler way of life in the Pliocene epoch, some five million years in the past. Upon their arrival, they are shocked to discover that the Earth of this era has been invaded by aliens who are interfering with the native species for their own ends. Conflict results. The series consists of the novels The Many-Colored Land (1981), The Golden Torc (1982), The Nonborn King (1983) and The Adversary (1984), as well as a reference work, The Pliocene Companion (1985).

The series sold well and attracted significant critical acclaim, with the first book winning a Locus Award. May returned to the setting with Intervention (1987) and a further trilogy consisting of Jack the Bodiless (1991), Diamond Mask (1994) and Magnificat (1996); the four books together are often called the Galactic Milieu Series. This series acts as both sequel and prequel to the Saga of Pliocene Exile.

May also wrote a shared world fantasy sequence, Trillium, with Marion Zimmer Bradley and Andre Norton. The three authors together wrote the first novel, Black Trillium (1990), with May alone contributing the second and fifth volumes, Blood Trillium (1992) and Sky Trillium (1996).

May also wrote the Rampart Worlds SF trilogy, consisting of Perseus Spur (1998), Orion Arm (1999) and Sagittarius Whorl (2001), as well as the Boreal Moon fantasy trilogy: Conqueror's Moon (2003), Ironcrown Moon (2004) and Sorcerer's Moon (2006).

In 2015 May was inducted into the First Fandom Hall of Fame at the Spokane Worldcon. The same year, she confirmed that her Pliocene Exile/Galactic Milieu novels had been optioned for Hollywood, but no further announcement on that front has been made.

May's agent Russell Galen said:
"My client Julian May has died at the age of 86. She was a force of nature, a fighter, and a taker of no bulllshit, working right up to the last minute on a TV adaptation of her best-known work, the "Saga of Pliocene Exile" series. And she introduced me to single malt Scotch at her home on Bainbridge Island, WA years ago. Lifting a glass of Talisker in her honor tonight."

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 17-18

B17: In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum
Airdates: 10 May 1995 (US), 23 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by David J. Eagle
Cast: Morden (Ed Wasser), Sergeant Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Pierce Macabee (Alex Hyde-White), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain)

Date: 24 September 2259.

Plot:    Following his recent vision of the destruction of the Icarus (B16), Sheridan has decided to finally sort out the belongings of his dead wife, Anna. Garibaldi comes along just as Sheridan is playing the crew roster from the Icarus and is shocked to see someone he recognises: Mr. Morden, Londo’s erstwhile ally. Sheridan is enraged that someone survived the Icarus explosion and no-one ever told him. Realising from entry records that Morden is on the station, he orders Garibaldi to find Morden and bring him in for questioning immediately.

Pierce Macabee arrives on Babylon 5. A representative of the newly-formed Ministry of Peace, he announces the founding of a new organisation called Nightwatch. Nightwatch’s job will be to help people in trouble, intervening in social problems in the way that military forces and the police cannot. Garibaldi’s second-in-command, Sergeant Zack Allan, joins up, although mainly for the extra 50 credits a week than out of any sense of civic duty.

A large number of Narns pass through Medlab, most badly wounded by heavy fighting. Franklin treats them, but is increasingly using stims to keep going without the need for sleep. Ivanova forces him to get some sleep and food.

Morden is placed in a holding cell and quizzed mercilessly by Sheridan. Morden agrees that he was on the Icarus, but was working EVA when the ship was destroyed. He was picked up by a passing transport and dropped off at the Vega colony. It was months before he could remember what happened. Sheridan tells him he is lying: there is no record of Morden ever visiting the Vega colony or reporting his condition to Earth. He promises to keep Morden in holding – even without charge – until the truth is revealed. Garibaldi, astonished by Sheridan’s abuse of the law, refuses to cooperate and resigns. Sheridan even refuses to listen to Ivanova. Vir tells Sheridan that the Centauri government is extending their diplomatic immunity to cover Morden, but Sheridan ignores that as well. He tries to get Talia Winters to scan Morden against his consent but she refuses. Sheridan arranges for them to pass in the corridor and Talia sees two dark, insectoid shapes rearing up next to Morden. She screams and almost passes out, confirming Sheridan’s guess that something is seriously wrong. Finally, Delenn and Kosh confront Sheridan and agree to tell him what he needs to know.

Millions of years ago races so powerful they make humans look like insects colonised the Galaxy. As the aeons passed they raised lesser races to positions of power and then passed beyond the Galactic Rim. These “First Ones” became embroiled in a war against one of their own races, a species known only as “the Shadows” and after a devastating conflict ten thousand years ago, most left the Galaxy. The Shadows and another race, the Vorlons, remained behind. A thousand years ago the Shadows returned and waged war again, but were stopped by an alliance of races led by the Minbari and guided by the Vorlons. The Shadows were defeated but not destroyed. They went to ground, going into hibernation to ride out the next millennia before arising again. Almost three years ago the Interplanetary Expeditions science vessel Icarus landed on Z’ha’dum, the Shadow homeworld. From what Delenn and Kosh can gather, they stumbled across or even directly awoke the Shadows, who in turn destroyed the Icarus and murdered the entire crew bar Morden, who agreed to serve them. Since then the Shadows have been moving, rebuilding their ships and marshalling their forces quietly, in secret. For the past year the Minbari have also been preparing, but are far from ready. Kosh and Delenn tell Sheridan that if he forces Morden to tell him the truth about his fate then the Shadows will attack now, before the Minbari and Vorlons are prepared to fight them, and billions will die.

Sheridan is unsure what to make of the story until he scans Morden’s cell with infra-red and ultraviolet sensors and catches a brief glimpse of two Shadow aliens guarding Morden. He has Morden released and Garibaldi returns to work. He then goes to Kosh and asks to be taught about how to fight the Shadows and how to kill them. Though Anna is probably dead, he will never rest easy until he knows for sure. One day, he promises Kosh, he will go to Z’ha’dum. Kosh tells him that if he goes, he will die. Sheridan says that if that is so, he will not die alone.


Monday, 16 October 2017

RIP Roy Dotrice

Roy Dotrice, a veteran actor of stage and screen who achieved a new level of late-life fame through his collaborations with George R.R. Martin, has passed away at the age of 94.

Dotrice was born in Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands, in 1923. When the Germans invaded in 1940, he escaped in a rowboat to the south coast of Britain. Aged just 16, he entered the Royal Air Force as an AA gunner before being assigned as a gunner on board aircraft. He was imprisoned for three years in a German prisoner of war camp. Released at the end of the war he started acting almost immediately, appearing a play later in 1945 called Back Home about ex-POWs reintegrating into civilian life.

Dotrice cultivated an extensive stage career in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He began appearing on television and in film in the early 1960s, but his heart remained with the stage: his one-man performance of Brief Lives, starting in 1967, eventually wracked up 1,782 performances and earned him his first Guinness World Record.

During the 1980s he gained renewed fame in the United States, first through appearing in Amadeus in 1984 in a celebrated supporting role playing the title character's father. He was then cast as Father, the mentor and leader of an underground community in New York City, in the urban fantasy series Beauty and the Beast. During his three-year stint on the show, he met and befriended George R.R. Martin, who worked on the show as a producer and writer.

After Beauty and the Beast was cancelled, Martin began working on a fantasy novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire. When the first book, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, he personally requested that Dotrice perform the audio book version. Dotrice agreed, voicing 224 distinct characters in the novel, earning him his second Guinness World Record. Dotrice returned to voice the audio books for each successive novel in the series; A Storm of Swords saw him break his own record for the largest number of distinct characters voiced. Dotrice was unavailable (due to ill health) to voice A Feast for Crows in 2005, but returned by popular demand. In 2014 he voiced the audio book version of The World of Ice and Fire.

Dotrice continued to appear in television and on film, including a recurring role on Picket Fences. He also wracked up other genre credits, playing Frederick Lantze in the Season 2 finale of Babylon 5, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce's overbearing father on Angel and Zeus on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Despite advanced age, he continued to act on stage and on screen. In 2011 he was cast in the role of Grand Maester Pycelle on HBO's Game of Thrones, the TV adaptation of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels. Ill health forced him to pull out of the role at the last minute; his friend and occasional colleague Julian Glover agreed to take the role over partially as a favour to Dotrice. Recovered, Dotrice did appear in the series as Pyromancer Hallyne in two episodes of Season 2.

A tremendously gifted and talented actor, with a career spanning a remarkable eight decades, he will be missed.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 15-16

B15: And Now For a Word
Airdates: 3 May 1995 (US), 16 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Mario DiLeo
Cast: Cynthia Torqueman (Kim Zimmer), Ronald Quantrell (Christopher Curry), Psi Cop (Granville Ames), Johnny (John Christian Graas), Mother (Leslie Wing), Eduardo Delvientos (José Ray), Lt. David Corwin (Joshua Cox)

Date: The ISN report is aired on Earth on 16 September 2259. It was filmed “recently”, presumably within a couple of weeks previously.

Plot:    ISN broadcasts 36 Hours on Babylon 5, an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the controversial diplomatic space station, with interviews with diplomatic staff, station personnel and Earth politicians who are uncertain about the future of the Babylon Project. The ISN team arrives during the middle of a fierce argument between the Narn and Centauri. G’Kar accuses the Centauri of transferring weapons through Babylon 5 in clear violation of interstellar law. Londo denies it, but points out that since all cargo transfers take place outside the station, ship-to-ship, B5 legally cannot intervene. Narn and Centauri cargo ships start firing on one another outside and Sheridan impounds the ships on both sides. Londo tells Sheridan that if any of the Centauri ships’ cargo holds are opened the Centauri government will not be pleased. Sure enough, a Centauri battlecruiser arrives and blockades the station until their equipment is handed over, unopened. Sheridan decides to call the Centauri’s bluff by sending an unmanned cargo ship through the jump gate. The Centauri do not fire and agree to reopen negotiations. At that moment a Narn heavy cruiser jumps out right on top of the station and fires on the Centauri cruiser. Taking the Centauri by surprise, the Narn manage to destroy the Centauri warship, despite taking heavy damage. However, when the Narn ship activates its jump engines the ship explodes. After the battle Sheridan confirms that the Centauri were shipping weapons of mass destruction though the station and the Earth Alliance files an official complaint against the Centauri government, although again it is insufficient to get Earth to take sides against the Centauri.

On Earth senior senators question the need for Babylon 5 and an especially arrogant senator claims that diplomacy is unnecessary, since recent developments in Earth technology means that even if another war with the Minbari took place Earth could win with ease (!). The ISN reporter questions Delenn on why she has changed her appearance and wonders how the families of those killed by the Minbari during the war will react to this apparent insult. Delenn is left speechless.

In a final interview Sheridan tells ISN that Babylon 5 is essential if Earth and the other worlds are to be brought together in peace.


Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle between Marvel & DC by Reed Tucker

In 1961 DC Comics was the biggest comic company in the United States. Its superhero comics - Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman - were the most popular in the world and it had absolutely no competition of note. But that same year Atlas Comics was branded Marvel and its editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby released a new comic called The Fantastic Four. Within a decade Marvel had displaced DC as the biggest comics company in the US and snatched away a lot of talent and critical acclaim that had gone to DC. DC fought back, starting formidable Superman and Batman movie franchises and releasing a series of artistic, critically-acclaimed comic books in the 1980s and 1990s from the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. But in the early 2000s Marvel finally entered the movie scene in force with X-Men and Spider-Man, and never looked back.

This non-fiction book looks into the 50-year competition between DC and Marvel, the two titans of comic book publishing. Reed Tucker has exhaustively interviewed many key players involved and scoured the archives for interviews with those who are no longer with us. The result is a potential interesting book that examines the corporate battle between the venerable establishment figure and the plucky upstart newbie.

Or at least it's a potentially interesting book that tries to do that. The opening chapters expand on this, detailing how Stan Lee took over a moribund company and injected some 1960s inventiveness, irreverence and character development to win over young fans from the older, more moribund publisher. We're told that Marvel focused more on the characters' internal lives, on the distrust with which they are treated by the government (helping young readers identify with similarly confused and mistrusted characters) and gave their writers and artists much greater freedom to express themselves, throwing away the style guides DC saddled their readers with. Marvel also used real locations, particularly in and around New York, which excited readers more than stories set in completely fictional locales like Gotham and Metropolis.

All of this stuff is great, but Reed never really moves on from this basic assumption: Marvel was the plucky underdog with greater creative energy and freedom, and DC was the staid old man taken by surprise by what the youngster was doing and whose attempts to replicate it by "getting down with the kids" were embarrassing. That applies very well to the 1960s and the early 1970s. However, some of Reed's conclusions and anecdotage are questionable: he challenges the wisdom of DC poaching Jack Kirby from Marvel and putting them on the Jimmy Olsen comic book, but this was both Kirby's own choice (so he wouldn't cost anyone a job on another comic, as the Jimmy Olsen book didn't have a permanent artist at the time) and also allowed him to set up his own, more original books later on by introducing characters like Darkseid.

By the time the 1980s have rolled around, Reed is still expanding on Marvel being the plucky underdog beating the boring old figure of DC, but seems to contradict himself by then talking about DC's artistic achievements with books like Swamp ThingWatchmen and Sandman, as well as how Marvel had become the biggest-selling comic book company, making DC the underdogs. Aware that this is getting repetitive, he switches to studying the film business and how DC got some great movies made whilst Marvel flirted with moderately successful TV shows but otherwise couldn't get a decent movie on screen until twenty-two years later. This is interesting, with some great stories of bizarre behind-the-scenes battles and the film companies not "getting" comic books at all, but again it lacks depth.

The book is ultimately a bit constrained by its premise, and it's to Tucker's credit that he remains laser-focused on the interrelationship between Marvel and DC. It would have been very easy to get sidetracked in the internal history of the two companies and discuss more creative decisions, but Tucker stays on point throughout. This does mean the book veers towards the more corporate side of things rather than the creative one, which I think will be of less interest to those keen to learn more about the origins of superhero characters or how the books developed. But it has some value: this is an under-told aspect of the comic book story and Tucker keeps the story ticking over nicely.

Slugfest (***½) is a readable and intriguing book about the titanic competition between the two biggest comic book companies in the United States. It's also a bit on the repetitive side, with not as much depth as perhaps might be wished, and a lack of information on the creative choices as opposed to business ones. It's still a good story, well-told and interesting, but one for hardcore comic book fans only. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

StarCraft Remastered

2499, in the remote Koprulu Sector. Two centuries ago, a group of penal ships with tens of thousands of prisoners were lost in hyperspace, emerging in a distant system on the far side of the galactic core. They established an interstellar civilisation, the Terran Confederacy, which now rules the human worlds with an iron fist. A hostile alien race, the Zerg, have arrived in human space. Hot on their heels are the technologically advanced Protoss, whose main goal is to destroy the Zerg no matter the cost in human lives. A three-sided war has begun, a war which will determine the fate of three races and hundreds of worlds.

StarCraft was originally released in May 1998, rapidly becoming the biggest-selling strategy video game of all time. It became an international phenomenon, noted for its fiendishly addictive multiplayer mode, and became an unlikely cultural craze in South Korea. It took Blizzard Entertainment from a small, modestly successful studio to one of the biggest companies in the entire field, giving them the resources needed to make later games such as World of WarCraft and Overwatch.

Almost twenty years on from release (and a startling nine and a half years since I reviewed the original game), Blizzard have released a new revamp of the game. These kind of "remasters" have become extremely popular in recent years, taking old games and sprucing them up so new players who might be put off by their old graphics can see what the fuss is about and old players can enjoy their favourite games with a fresh lick of paint. How companies handle these remasters is critically important: change too much (especially making old games easier or removing key features) and old players will hate it and denounce the game. Change too little and people will, justifiably, ask what is the point?

StarCraft Remastered, which updates both the original game and its expansion, Brood War, definitely falls on the conservative change of things. This is exactly the game originally released in 1998, with the exact same user interface. The graphics have been sharpened up substantially, of course, and the sound has been pleasingly remixed, but the remaster, crucially, also carries forward all the problems, clumsy UI issues and baffling design choices that Blizzard was criticised for twenty years ago and have been annoying players ever since.

Rewinding a little for newcomers, StarCraft is a real-time strategy game. You play one of three races and have to build up a base to produce different types of military units. You then take these forces into battle and attempt to defeat the enemy. There is a lengthy single-player story campaign consisting of 56 missions, separated by mission briefings and occasional animated cut-scenes which tell a story. This story is cheesy but great fun, and is surprisingly rooted in characters on each of the three sides (divided between several sub-factions). Some of StarCraft's characters are the most iconic in all gaming, such as the divisive Sara Kerrigan (a villain to some, a tragic fallen heroine to others), the grizzled marshal Jim Raynor and the noble but constantly-misunderstood Zeratul of the Dark Templar. The story is pure pulp space opera, but is told economically and energetically (unlike the story in StarCraft II, which could often be stodgy, badly-paced and tedious), with a lot of humour.

StarCraft's ace in the hole has always been its terrific sense of asymmetric balance between the three sides. The Zerg are genetically-engineered creatures, animals from hundreds of worlds turned into biological weapons. Strongly influenced (cough) by the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000 (and the xenomorphs from the Aliens franchise), the Zerg are fast and cheap, but also extremely fragile. The key to using them is both deploying them in enormous numbers, using suicide tactics and also intelligently using support units who can scout out the enemy, entangle or poison upon their troops. The Protoss - strongly influenced (cough cough) by the Eldar from Warhammer 40,000 - are much more advanced and powerful, equipped with energy shields and using plasma weapons and telekinetic powers. The Protoss are tough but slow to move and slower to build; mastering them requires working out how to defend against early Zerg rushes to deliver an unstoppable knockout blow later on. The Terrans are jacks of all trades, falling between the two sides with a more traditional arsenal of aircraft, tanks, marines, nukes and powerful battlecruisers.

It's this balance between the three sides which was Blizzard's masterstroke, something they never quite achieved with the same degree of precision in either StarCraft II (witness the constant balance changes they are still doing seven years after that came out) or WarCraft III. The relatively small unit roster for each side also allows players to master each unit, try out difference combinations of forces and tactics. StarCraft is essentially an ultra-fast, real-time version of chess, with a fascinating array of tactics to try out. It's impossible to say which of the three sides is the best or which is the optimal strategy for winning. There's reasons why this game is still lionised twenty years after release and is widely considered superior to its own sequel, and, impressively, the game still lives up to those reasons.

The remastered version of the game maintains all of these strengths. Units now look much sharper, the up-resolved CGI cut scenes are hugely improved (although not re-rendered from scratch with Blizzard's modern level of graphical fidelity, to the surprise of many) and the sound is punchier and more evocative.

Unfortunately, it also maintains a lot of the game's problems. On release, StarCraft was widely criticised for a sometimes-stodgy control scheme, some really weird limitations - you can only select up to 12 units at one time - and a decidedly primitive control system which forced the player to micro-manage a lot of tasks that should have been automated (Total Annihilation, released a year before StarCraft, spoiled a lot of players with a far superior control scheme and better 3D graphics). StarCraft II fixed a lot of these problems and players were expecting some of these to be retrofitted to StarCraft Remastered. Bafflingly, especially as far as the single-player experience goes, these quality of life improvements have not been carried over. You can't send newly-built resource gatherers straight to a mineral patch, you can't send marines straight to bunkers and so on. This adds a lot of tedious busywork to the game that felt antiquated and tiresome in 1998, let alone in 2017.

There still isn't a difficulty slider for the single-player campaigns, which isn't a problem for the 30-mission base game, which scales very nicely in difficulty, but definitely is for the 26-mission Brood War, one of the most punishing games ever released. The Protoss and Terran campaigns are - more or less - okay but the final few Zerg missions are among the hardest single-player strategy challenges ever put in front of players and there are zero concessions for people who don't have dozens of hours into trying different strategies and approaches before finally beating them.

There's also a nice 4-mission mini-campaign meant to show off the powerful level editor, "Enslavers", but the game doesn't tell you this exists: you have to go through the custom skirmish menus before you stumble across it.

A further issue a bit of technical revisionism. Hit F5 at any time and the game will switch back to the way it looked in 1998. However, it doesn't, because makes the original version of the game look substantially worse than it did originally (confirmed by a quick re-install of my 1998 CD-ROMs). Don't get me wrong, the remaster still looks a lot sharper and nicer than the original, but the difference is not quite as great as Blizzard is trying to sell us.

The issues with StarCraft which could be - reluctantly - dismissed as niggles back in 1998 feel like bigger problems in 2017, simply because they could be fixed so incredibly easy. Even if you accept Blizzard's questionable claim they couldn't change these without offending the harshly old-skool multiplayer scene which doesn't want a single change at all, there's zero reason the sequel's better UI and control scheme couldn't be implemented for the single-player campaign alone.

This leaves StarCraft Remastered feeling underwhelming, especially in the light of the monumentally superior Homeworld Remastered, which also took a nearly-20-year-old strategy game and really did make it look like a contemporary title with a better UI and an absolutely fantastic improvement in graphical and cut scene fidelity. StarCraft Remastered feels lacklustre by comparison.

The original StarCraft (*****) and Brood War (****) are two of the finest strategy games ever released when viewed and placed in their original historical context. However, this re-release (***½) fails to update and revamp the games in a way that makes them more approachable and playable for newcomers, whilst people who still enjoy playing the original games will find this remaster only a minor improvement. Any excuse to go back and replay StarCraft is welcome, but this remaster exposes the truth that maybe this game isn't ageing quite as well as it could have done with a more thorough remaster more prepared to kill a few sacred cows in the service of greater playability.

The game is available now via Blizzard.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

After twenty years, Gollancz finally signs Steven Erikson

It's taken almost two decades, but Gollancz - the UK SFF imprint of Orion Books - have finally signed up Steven Erikson.

Erikson's new stand-alone SF novel, Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, will be published in October 2018. The novel is described thusly:
Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart tells the story of the Intervention, which begins when Samantha August, science fiction writer, disappears into a beam of light, apparently from a UFO, while walking along a busy street in Victoria, Canada.  While footage of the incident – captured on smartphones – goes viral, Samantha wakes up in a small room, where she is greeted by the voice of Adam, who explains that they are in orbit and he is AI communicant of the Intervention Delegation, a triumvirate of alien civilisations seeking to ensure the continuing evolution of Earth as a viable biome. Thus begins an astonishing, provocative, beautifully written and startlingly visionary novel of First Contact.
Back in 1998 Erikson sold his debut fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon (the first in the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence), to Transworld/Bantam UK. Gollancz attempted to lure Erikson away and the result was a fierce bidding war, which ended with Bantam signing up Erikson for nine additional books for £675,000 (over $1.1 million back then). As far as I can tell, this remains a record for a debut fantasy author.

This is Erikson's first "serious" science fiction novel, following his Wilful Child series of comic SF books.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 13-14


B13: Hunter, Prey
Airdates: 1 March 1995 (US), 2 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Menachem Binetski
Cast: Derek Cranston (Bernie Casey), Security Aide Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Sarah (Wanda de Jesus), Dr. Everett Jacobs (Tony Steedman), Max (Richard Moll), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Lurker (Damon C. Reiser), Aide (Debby Shiveley), Merchant (Robert Silver), Guard (Bryan Michael McGuire), Station One (Joshua Cox)

Date: July or August 2259.

Plot:    An Earthforce security agent, Derek Cranston, arrives on Babylon 5 alongside his team. Dr. Everett Jacobs, former the personal physician to President Clark, has gone AWOL with sensitive information which could damage the Earth Alliance. It is thought he is coming to Babylon 5, presumably to pass this information onto one of the alien governments. However, Sheridan is contacted by an agent of General Hague’s who tells him that they helped Jacobs escape from Earth. He has evidence proving that Clark didn’t really have the ‘flu when he got off Earthforce One at Mars, evidence that could help indict Clark when the time comes. Sheridan is ordered to find Jacobs and make sure Cranston doesn’t get hold of him. This task isn’t made any easier because Jacobs has an implanted beacon like all Earthdome personnel so he can be located in a hurry, although it will take some time before Babylon 5’s sensors can be adjusted to look for the signal. Sheridan despatches Garibaldi and Franklin into Downbelow to find Jacobs.

Ambassador Kosh speaks to Sheridan, confirming Sheridan’s guess that Kosh telepathically communicated with him during his recent trials aboard the Streib warship (B11). Sheridan wants to learn more about the Vorlons, but Kosh isn’t impressed by Sheridan’s attempts to interpret his obscure sayings. He decides to take Sheridan under his wing to prepare him for what lies ahead.

Jacobs is captured by two Downbelow criminals who plan to give him over to Earthforce in return for a fee, but Garibaldi and Franklin rescue him. They hide him in Franklin’s quarters but it is a temporary measure at best. Worse, Cranston has discovered that Babylon 5’s massive external sensor arrays can be recalibrated to scan the interior of the station for energy emissions (as in episodes PM and B6), such as that given out by the implant. Sheridan and Ivanova begin, slowly, reconfiguring the sensors. Ambassador Kosh’s ship leaves the station, though Cranston demands that it be scanned as well, despite the extreme unlikelihood of the Vorlons harbouring an Earth criminal. No trace of Jacobs can be found and Cranston leaves the station, puzzled. The Vorlon transport returns and Jacobs is deposited out of the ship, where he has been hidden in a comatose state. Despite his unconscious state he is sure the ship ‘sang’ to him in his sleep. Jacobs leaves the station for a safehaven prepared by Hague, but Sheridan is told that this is merely the start of the fight back. They need a lot more evidence to convince a tribunal of Clark’s guilt.


Monday, 9 October 2017


Warner Brothers have confirmed that they are remastering the classic Batman: The Animated Series from the 1990s in high definition for a 2018 release.

The project was inspired by the remastering of the animated movie Mask of the Phantasm (from the same time period) last year, which was both effective and popular. Despite some of the technical difficulties involved in updating animation cells from twenty-five years ago, the team seem to have decided it was well worth the effort to tackle the entire series.

Warner Brothers have not confirmed if this will be a single box set (which is most likely), separated season boxes or some other arrangement.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

Thirty years have passed since the Storm King's War. Simon and Miriamele have ruled Osten Ard well, keeping the peace between the nations that make up the High Ward and the noble families within them, but their life has been tinged by the tragic death of their son. Their grandson Morgan stands to inherit the throne, but he is a wastrel more interested in drinking and wenching than in learning what he needs to rule. The heroes of the old war are passing and a new generation is coming to power, one that is less impressed by stories of old conflicts that they only half believe.

But in the far north, Stormspike is stirring. The Norn Queen has awoken after a long sleep and the lust for vengeance against humanity is resurgent. A band of Norn and half-Norn warriors strikes out on a quest they only barely understand. In the far south the kingdom of Nabban is on the brink of civil war. The Sithi have gone silent, their last messenger shot with arrows within sight of the Hayholt. The long peace is coming to an end, and the fate of the world again hangs in the balance.

The Witchwood Crown is the first novel in the Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, which sees Tad Williams return to the setting of his classic original trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower) and the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, published earlier this year. It's been twenty-three years since Williams last wrote in this world, the author wary of "franchising" his earliest and most iconic work until he had a story that was worth telling.

There is much to admire about The Witchwood Crown. Williams is telling a very large story from a large number of points of view. The original trilogy was very focused in the Hayholt and told a more linear, focused narrative which only gradually expanded outwards. This novel starts with a more George R.R. Martin-esque approach of having a larger cast in disparate parts of the world. One second we are with a slave living in the depths of Stormspike and then we're a thousand miles or more away in the palaces of Nabban, riven with Byzantine plotting. Old favourite characters return, including Simon, Miariamele, Tiamak, Eolair and Binabik, but there's a lot of new characters such as Morgan, as well as the return of characters like Porto from The Heart of What Was Lost. The worldbuilding is more in-depth, with reflections on time passing (Erchester is now a real city rather than the more modest town of the previous trilogy). Epic fantasy, as a genre, is at its best when it can indulge in "long-breathed storytelling" and The Witchwood Crown certainly does that. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and Williams develops his story with surety, confidence and time.

This does mean that The Witchwood Crown is a slow-paced work. Major plot revelations are separated by many chapters in which apparently little happens (although it does, it's just a lot more subtle). Although Williams tries very hard to make this book approachable for new readers, there's some instances of self-indulgence as Simon catches up with Binabik and asks about his family and his wolf, but this is generally kept to a minimum. The reason this book is so large (700 pages in hardcover) and so deliberately paced is because he is setting up a very big story and it's only towards the end of the novel that he fires the starting pistols which really get the narrative fired up.

This slow pace could be a bigger problem - and it's certainly put some other reviewers off - if Williams didn't also take his time to explore thematic ideas of ageing, grief and the passing of the years. Simon and Miriamele are now grandparents in their early fifties and apparently slightly baffled that so much time has passed so quickly. Those of us who read the original books when they first came out or shortly afterwards can sympathise: I finished reading the first trilogy on a fine summer afternoon in the park behind my old house almost exactly twenty years before I started reading this book, and a similar shock at the passage of time went through me. The characters are also haunted by the memory of the death of their son, John, and how this has impacted not just them but his son Morgan. Ironically, the joint grief they share has also divided them, with the natural lack of understanding between the generations preventing them from reaching an understanding.

This thematic idea gives the book a somewhat melancholy aspect. We also learn a lot more about the Norns and even sympathise with them (or at least some of them): they are a slowly dying race and their constant search for blood and vengeance seems pointless, corrupting further what was once a noble people. When they gain access to a new supernatural weapon, the reaction from some of the Norns isn't triumphant but instead weariness at the idea of yet another war, yet more pointless slaughter. The Witchwood Crown, on this level, is an epic fantasy that rejects some of the martial triumphalism and blood-letting that other epic fantasies revel in.

At the end of the book, some long-standing questions are raised, some long-missing characters return and other characters are left on immense cliffhangers, their fates unclear. Fortunately, we will not have to wait to learn more: the second novel in the trilogy, Empire of Grass, is already complete and should be published in late 2018 or early 2019.

The Witchwood Crown (****) is slowly, deliberately-paced and sometimes meanders or is allowed to become self-indulgent rather than being tightened up. It's certainly a slower novel than even the original Dragonbone Chair, and Tad Williams newcomers may be put off. But it's also wonderfully well-written and explores ideas of ageing, dying and living which are universal. For the most part the new storylines are logically extrapolated from the original trilogy without lazily rehashing it and confirms that yes, the return to Osten Ard is (so far) worth it. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

On the Edge of Blade Runner

Back in 2000, British film critic Mark Kermode made a BBC documentary called On the Edge of Blade Runner, in which he investigated the cultural impact of the movie and its torturous filming process. Harrison Ford and Sean Young declined to take part, but director Ridley Scott, the writers, producers and most of the rest of the cast participate, for an insightful look at what was a very difficult movie to make. You can watch the whole thing below:

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

California, 2049. Blade Runner "K" retires an old-model replicant who is pursuing a life of peace on a remote farm. In the process he unearths a secret, something that has remained buried since before the epoch-changing event known as The Blackout. Charged by his superiors with investigating this mystery, he follows a trail that leads him from the tech-canyons of Los Angeles to the dumps of San Diego to the radioactive wastes of Las Vegas. It's also a journey into his own heart and forces him to confront the question of who he is, and what it is he lives for.

Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that should not work. Blade Runner - a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - was a movie rooted in ambiguity, in which far more was left unsaid than spoken out loud and where the still-astonishing visuals masked a strong vein of character and thematic subtlety. The film's ending seems to explicitly reject further exploration of that world, and three disappointing sequel novels (by K.W. Jeter, a friend of Philip K. Dick's and fellow traveller in SF dystopian fiction) only reinforced that idea. The announcement that Ridley Scott was helming a sequel to do to Blade Runner what Prometheus did to Alien was enough to make movie fans break out in a cold sweat, only moderately alleviated when Scott bailed and a director no-one had heard of was announced in his stead.

That director, Denis Villeneuve, had already some intriguing form in movies like Sicario, but it was last year's Arrival that made people really sit up and take notice. A beautifully-shot movie with a pace that was relaxed but intense, stand-out performances and a phenomenal sense of atmosphere, Arrival was a stand-out work, a piece of art that also worked as a strong science fiction piece. And Blade Runner 2049 is the same, but even moreso. It is a virtuoso triumph that on absolutely no level should work, but on almost every level it does.

Blade Runner took us deep into the streets of a future (and now - in two notable moments - explicitly alternate history) Los Angeles, with neon-lit grime and rain-soaked futurism. Blade Runner 2049 revisits the city - which is now larger, even more imposing and less human - but relatively briefly. Instead we spend a lot of time on the outskirts of the city, in the grey-soiled remnants of California, in a San Diego turned into an vast industrial wasteland and a Las Vegas slowly being swallowed by the desert. When you think of Blade Runner you think of those towering tech-pyramids, and for Villeneuve to minimise that imagery in the movie's sequel is a brave move, but one that exemplifies his goal with this film: to craft a successor to Blade Runner, not a retread. And it's a successor on every level, with the core question of the original movie, what does it mean to be human, taken to an even higher and more ambiguous level.

Blade Runner 2049 very quickly identifies its protagonist as a replicant and one who seems to be relatively content with his lot, complete with an AI girlfriend and a good working relationship with his boss, but a few key moments of revelation see him going down a path of self-discovery that is a reflection of Rachael (and Deckard if you subscribe to that theory, a theory that this movie cheerfully does nothing to confirm or deny) in the first film. What are the replicants? Unthinking, soulless machines or a new type of human, one that is stronger, faster and smarter than the originals? Is using them a slaves even remotely morally justifiable? The fact that human civilisation on Earth and in the offworld colonies would collapse without them makes it very easy for the "real" humans to ignore the question, and the introduction of a new breed of replicant that is 100% loyal and obedient seems to render the question moot. Enslaving a race that seems to have no qualms about being enslaved makes it easy to pretend it's not slavery at all. At least, until one very small secret is learned and turns the entire world on its head.

Blade Runner 2049 understands that the simplicity of the original Blade Runner was a key part of its success: the plot was pretty bare bones and the sequel follows suit, the main plot being a simple (ish) missing persons case. But K's following of the clues becomes unexpectedly harrowing, revealing greater depths to this world and the existence of his own kind. Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have taken the set-up from the first movie and extrapolated a storyline that follows it up perfectly, without damaging the integrity of the first movie in any way. The film even pays homage to some of the futuristic dystopian movies that have come in its way, with several brief nods to the numerous anime (but most famously Akira and Ghost in the Shell) that have borrowed the original Blade Runner's visual stylings. The film also gives us the weirdest love scene since Ghost, although one that is also altogether healthier and more positive than the original movie's rather debatable relationship between Rachael and Deckard.

This film works tremendously well. The cast is excellent, Ryan Gosling in particular doing a lot of work with his eyes and his reactions to the revelations he encounters. Robin Wright as his boss is perfect, the steely resolve we've come to expect of her mixed with several unexpected, and all the more effective, moments of real human vulnerability. Sylvia Hoeks as replicant enforcer Luv is terrifying, blank-eyed and emotionless when carrying out violence, but she also occasionally shows what she really thinks of what's going on through flashes of honest emotion. Jared Leto is okay as new tech-king Wallace, but he does get the lion's share of ripe dialogue in the film. He's only in two scenes of consequence and they're both the more interminable scenes of the movie. The film's biggest revelation is Ana de Armas, a young Cuban actress who is given a very difficult role as Joi and carries the role with charisma, sweetness and resolve (even if her storyline may make fans of the animated series Archer do a double take).

Harrison Ford shows up again as Deckard and is perfectly fine, showing charisma and cynical humour in his role. This is actually a bit distracting - Deckard was very much an un-Harrison Ford-ish role, reserved and cold and undemonstrative compared to Indiana Jones or Han Solo - since Ford plays the older Deckard more as a subdued version of Han Solo in The Force Awakens. I enjoyed his performance, but I didn't really believe I was seeing the same Deckard as in Blade Runner, just thirty years older. This would be a bigger blow to the film if Ford was actually in it for any substantial amount of time, or if his role was integral to the movie. Although Ford's presence allows for some excellent moments of reflection and soul-searching (including what may be the greatest special effect in film history, to the point where I eagerly await learning how the hell they did it), the same story could easily have been told without him.

Another negative is the score. It's certainly not bad, but it lacks a theme as memorable as anything in Arrival. Johan Johansson began composing this movie but was ousted in favour of Hans Zimmer, who then hands in a completely unmemorable Johan Johansson cover work, which is one of the more bizarre scoring decisions I've seen in recent years. I appreciate that no-one was trying to out-Vangelis Vangelis, but the decision to go in a different, more traditional direction and then make a hash of it is disappointing.

Blade Runner 2049 (*****) does the impossible: it crafts a sequel, a successor and a subversion which respects the original whilst not being afraid to be different from it, that knows what made the original film work without slavishly copying it and which raises many of the same questions in a different way. The combination of story and visuals has profound thematic and character consequences which will drive as much discussion about this story as it did the original, as will the somewhat open ending. If this film does well expect a third trip to the Blade Runner universe, and we'll probably not have to wait another thirty-five years for it. Part of me hopes the movie doesn't do well: the story wraps up well enough and the only place the story can go in a third film is a very familiar one.

Blade Runner 2049 is on general release now. Villeneuve's next movie will be the holy grail of SFF adaptations, Dune. Right now, I think he can actually do it justice.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Wertzone Classics: Blade Runner

Los Angeles, 2019. The Earth is grimy and grim, covered with vast cities of towering skyscrapers. Most animal life has been wiped out, replaced by expensive synthetic counterfeits. Counterfeit humans - replicants - also exist, carrying out dangerous, dirty work in the offworld colonies. For security their lifespans are limited to just four years. Four replicants have come back home, seeking to extend their lives. A replicant-hunter, a blade runner, is sent to stop them.

Blade Runner was released in 1982, a movie by Ridley Scott based (loosely) on Philip K. Dick's short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film had an initially mixed critical reception, but this improved with the release of the 1991 Director's Cut, which restored a subplot raising the question of if the central character of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is himself a replicant. This cut also removed a series of unnecessary voiceovers and a studio-mandated "happy ending" that Scott had hated. In 2007 this version was superseded by the Final Cut edition, which restores some more scenes and tweaks others whilst completely digitally remastering the film in proper high definition (with eye-popping results).

The power of Blade Runner does not lie in its story - which is slight - but in its visuals, atmosphere and in its thematic exploration of the nature of what it is to be human. The replicants appear to be intelligent, sentient and capable of emotion, so the decision to use them as slaves is morally dubious; on the other hand they are also capricious, child-like and do not have an innate value for human life, killing those who oppose them with ease and ruthlessness. Deckard starts the film as a man of apparent moral certainty, willing to execute replicants. His meeting and association with Rachael, a cutting-edge replicant with much more human characteristics, raises doubts in him about his certainty that the replicants are soulless machines that need to be put down.

This is mirrored in the story of Sebastian (William Sanderson), who has a terminal disease and is spending his dying days creating new replicant technology for the Tyrell Corporation. This gives him tremendous empathy with the replicants, who are likewise doomed to die far before their time, and explains why he wants to help them (a decision he later comes to regret). This storyline is not as explored in as much depth in the novel - where a character named Isidore plays the same function and has a bigger role - but it does give some humanity to the replicants.

These themes of using artificial life to question what it means to be human would be revisited just a few years later in the character of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but much more powerfully in the 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica (which also inherits Edward James Olmos as an actor and the term "skinjobs" for its replicant-like artificial lifeforms).

The movie's most enduring quality is its startling visuals: the vast, towering blocks of Los Angeles, the flames roaring into the sky from towers, police cars flying in front of colossal advertising hoardings. Disregarding realism (even in 1982, the idea of earthquake-prone Los Angeles looking like this just thirty-seven years later was a stretch), these visuals have lost none of their power and have even gained new power through their high definition remastering. Backed by Vangelis' haunting score, the sweeping effects shots of the city remain powerful and arresting in a way that the disposable CG cityscapes of modern SF movies cannot match. But beyond the effects footage is the minimalist way Scott shoots his futuristic, dystopian city, with dusty offices, bustling street markets and sparse apartments all looking amazing.

Performances are stripped-back, honest and raw: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer all give career-best performances, whilst Edward James Olmos does a huge amount with a small amount of screen time. The film is sparsely-written, sparing with dialogue but making sure almost every conversation is important and memorable. This culminates in the movie's ambiguous and much-debated final confrontation between Deckard and Batty (Rutger Hauer), and Batty's soliloquy on his impending death and the loss of his memories, although he tries to impart some of these to Deckard through his "tears in the rain" speech.

For those who like their movies to be clear and unambiguous, Blade Runner will likely frustrate. This is a film designed to raise questions, engage in philosophical debates and have viewers revel in its slow-burn atmosphere and visuals. There are action sequences, but they are awkward, ugly and brutal rather than visceral and exciting. The so-called love story element is strange and questionable. The ending is ambiguous and, for some viewers, abrupt. But it's also a supremely assured film that is confident in its own ambition and executes it perfectly.

Blade Runner (*****) is strange, haunting and utterly compelling. There are numerous versions available, but arguably the Final Cut - DVD (US,UK), Blu-Ray (US, UK) - is the strongest, representing the director's clearest vision of the story.

A sequel, Blade Runner 2049, will be released on 5 October 2017 in the UK and a day later in the US. There are also three sequels in book form, written by K.W. Jeter, but these have been superseded by the new film.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Anniversary Triple Bill: Fallout, Homeworld and Star Trek: The Next Generation

Three SF franchises have celebrated anniversaries this week.

The highest-profile anniversary is the 30th of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show debuted on 28 September 1987 with its two-hour pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, and lasted for seven years, 178 episodes and four feature films. It utterly transformed the fortunes of both Star Trek and science fiction in general, inspiring the boom the genre saw in Hollywood in the 1990s.

Related articles: ST:TNG during my "Star Trek at 50" article series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
Reviews: Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, Season 5, Season 6, Season 7.

Celebrating its 20th birthday this week is the Fallout video game franchise. The original Fallout was released by Interplay and Black Isle on 30 September 1997, and to celebrate you can pick it up completely free for the weekend. A sequel, Fallout 2, followed a year later, along with several spin-off games. After Interplay's collapse, the licence was bought by Bethesda, who developed Fallout 3 and released it in 2008 to huge acclaim, taking an obscure franchise and transforming it into one of the biggest brands in gaming. Two sequels, New Vegas (2010) and Fallout 4 (2015) have followed.

Related articles: Fallout Franchise Familiariser.
Reviews: Fallout 3, Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, The Pitt & Broken SteelFallout 3: Point Lookout & Mothership ZetaFallout: New Vegas, Fallout: New Vegas expansionsFallout 4, Fallout 4: Far Harbor.

Celebrating its 18th birthday is the Homeworld game franchise. The original Homeworld was released on 28 September 1999 and revolutionised video gaming with its full 3D interface and graphics. The game an enormous success and was followed by Homeworld: Cataclysm a year later. However, Homeworld 2 performed unsatisfactorily in 2003 and the franchise was put on ice for a decade. Gearbox picked up the Homeworld licence and released Homeworld Remastered in 2015, followed by a full prequel game, Deserts of Kharak in 2016. There have been hints that the franchise may continue.

Related articles: Map of the Homeworld Galaxy.
Reviews: Homeworld. Homeworld: Cataclysm. Homeworld 2. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 11-12

B11: All Alone in the Night
Airdates: 15 February 1995 (US), 18 April 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Mario DiLeo
Cast: Lt. Ramirez (Nick Corri), Narn (Marshall Teague), Satai Hedronn (Robin Sachs), Satai Neroon (John Vickery), General William Hague (Robert Foxworth), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Station One (Joshua Cox)

Date: Late June or early July 2259.

Plot:    General William Hague, one of the Earthforce Joint Chiefs of Staff and the officer who informed Sheridan and Ivanova of the change in command six months ago (B1), is paying a visit to the station to see how things are going. It will be several hours before he arrives, however, and Sheridan decides to get in some more flight-time. After hearing of strange occurrences in Sector 92, including several ship disappearances, he takes out a patrol of Starfuries to investigate. An alien vessel appears, wipes out most of the patrol and cripples two of the Starfuries. Sheridan manages to bail out in his Starfury’s escape pod and is promptly taken prisoner. The other pilot, Lt. Ramirez, manages to effect repairs to his ship and heads back to Babylon 5. Unfortunately, he has been subjected to a massive, lethal amount of radiation and dies in Medlab shortly afterwards. Ivanova analyses the sensor logs from his Starfury and discovers what has happened to Sheridan. General Hague arrives and decides to call in some heavy support in their search for Sheridan.

Meanwhile, Delenn is summoned before the Grey Council. Before she leaves Lennier decides to join her. They rendezvous with the Minbari flagship and Delenn is confronted by Hedronn (from B1). He tells her that the Grey Council have decided she is no longer worthy to sit in a place prepared by Valen himself. She disobeyed their direct order (in A20) not to pursue the prophecy instead of just waiting for it to unfold. She has been removed from the Grey Council and been replaced. Delenn demands to address the Grey Council as is her right and her request is granted. The Council agrees that she can retain her position as Ambassador to Babylon 5 but Delenn is horrified that her place on the Council has been taken by Neroon (A17), a member of the warrior caste when her replacement should have come from the religious caste. This gives the warrior caste unprecedented power in the Grey Council. Neroon tells her that if a great darkness is coming, then the warrior caste must lead the war against it. Delenn and Lennier leave for Babylon 5.

Sheridan recovers on the alien ship and finds himself pitted against a Drazi in combat. He kills him and notes that he has some sort of cybernetic implant in his head. A similarly mind-controlled Narn attacks, but Sheridan manages to knock him out and remove the implant. When he recovers the Narn suggests that they work together to escape. The aliens have captured representatives from many species to see which ones are weak enough for conquest. Sheridan and the Narn attempt to lever open the door, but cannot find a crack to get enough leverage.

The EAS Agamemnon, Sheridan’s old command, arrives at Babylon 5. Ivanova takes out Delta Wing and the cruiser and fighters wait for any word from their search parties. Delenn contacts Babylon 5 ahead of her arrival to clear the way for docking and learns about Sheridan’s capture. Analysing the design of the alien ship, Delenn reveals the aliens are called Streibs. They attempted to invade Minbari space centuries ago and were taught a humiliating lesson. She rendezvouses with the B5 forces and leads them to the Streib homeworld.

Whilst on the Streib ship, Sheirdan has an odd dream. He sees Ivanova with a raven on her shoulder. He then sees Garibaldi with a dove on his shoulder saying “The man in between is searching for you.” Ivanova, dressed as if for a funeral, says “You are the hand.” Sheridan is then confronted by himself, dressed as a Psi Cop. Kosh appears and Sheridan asks him why he is there. Kosh tells him, “We were never away. For the first time your mind is quiet enough to hear me.” Sheridan asks, “Why am I here?” and is told, “You have always been here.” Sheridan wakes up as the cell door opens slightly, apparently due to a malfunction. He manages to open the door and he and the wounded Narn escape.

The Streib ship comes out of hyperspace and approaches their homeworld, but comes under fire from the Agamemnon. The Streib ship is crippled and Delen orders them to surrender their prisoners at the risk of reprisals by the Minbari. The Streib instead dump the alien prisoners into space, killing them. Enraged, Ivanova orders the Agamemnon to destroy the Streib vessel. She picks up an SOS and confirms that Sheridan and his Narn associate managed to escape in a lifepod. The pod is recovered and they return to Babylon 5. The Agamemnon heads back to Earth space and Sheridan recovers from his experiences.

Later General Hague comes to see Sheridan and asks what he has to report. Sheridan confirms that over the past six months he has come to trust Franklin, Ivanova and Garibaldi and their loyalty to Earth is beyond reproach. Hague updates Sheridan on what he has learned about events on Earth. He is certain that President Clark arranged the murder of Santiago so he could ascend to power. He is also certain that Psi Corps and at least some high-ranking Earthforce personnel were involved. Hague orders Sheridan to expose Clark’s betrayal by any means necessary. Clark seems to think that Sheridan is a patriot who will put his loyalty to Earth above any doubts about Santiago’s death, so Sheridan won’t be watched as closely as some other officers. Sheridan agrees to do his best. Hague leaves the station and Sheridan brings Garibaldi, Ivanova and Franklin into the counter-conspiracy and they agree to help. Sheridan then sees Ambassador Kosh passing in the corridor, who says, “You have always been here,” just as in his dream.


TABOO renewed: Tom Hardy's Hat will return

Splendid news for fans of Tom Hardy and the Greatest Hat in the World: BBC grimcamp romp Taboo has been renewed for a second season.

Airing at the start of the year, the drama starred Tom Hardy as James Delaney, an enigmatic guy in a hat who inherited some land in Vancouver that the East India Company wanted and was willing to do anything to steal. The drama was magnificently nonsensical, but as a slice of watchable hokum it was thoroughly enjoyable. The series only did okay in ratings for the BBC, but attracted a more impressive audience on FX in the States and also picked up a lot of views on the BBC iPlayer service.

The second season will pick up on the adventures of Tom Hardy, his hat and his crew of misfits and scoundrels as they arrive in the New World to investigate his newly-acquired land and, presumably, uncover some more of Delaney's Dark Past. Season 2 of Taboo will likely air in late 2018 or early 2019 on the BBC and FX. Hardy and writer Steven Knight are apparently already planning a third season as well.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 4

Earth has survived an attack by the alien Xindi. The crew of the NX-01 Enterprise have been hailed as heroes, but Earth is also in the grip of anti-alien xenophobia, fanned by a terrorist organisation known as Terra Prime. There's also growing tensions between the Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites, with Earth caught in the middle...and an unseen enemy manipulating events from behind the scenes.

The fourth and concluding season of Star Trek: Enterprise is the moment when the show finally starts fulfilling its premise. For its first two years the show seemed to too often disregard the potential of its setting in favour of doing too-traditional Star Trek stories, just with less advanced technology. In the third season the show adopted more long-form storytelling that made it more dynamic and interesting, but still had problems with pacing, not to mention telling a story that had nothing to do with the show's reason for existing. This final season finally lines everything up just right to deliver the most consistently excellent season of Trek since the end of Deep Space Nine.

The season is divided up into several multi-episode arcs. The first quickly disposes of the Temporal Cold War, an ill-thought-out plot device that hamstrung the first two seasons of the show. Very quickly the show moves into stories tying together the augments (the genetically-engineered descendants of Khan) into the humanoid-looking Klingons of the original series (a story that really didn't need to be told, but isn't awful) with other stories bringing in the Romulans as masterminds of a plot to thwart the growing relations between the eventual founders of the Federation. Other episodes involve a social revolution on Vulcan (including an appearance by a young T'Pau, a fan-favourite character from the original Star Trek) and, most effectively, a two-parter entirely set in the Mirror Universe. Another multi-part story revolves around the last gasp of fascism on Earth and its final defeat, setting the scene for Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision to come to pass.

The result is a relentlessly enjoyable season of television. It's still not the sharpest-written season of Star Trek, let alone SF in general, and the fact this season aired alongside vastly superior first season of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica probably did it no favours, but removed from that context it stands up pretty well. This Enterprise as it should have been from the start, deftly mixing together original stories with the established history of the Star Trek canon and having fun in the process. The writers and cast are clearly having more fun than they have in previous seasons and that joy finds its way onto the screen.

Of course, there is a big "but" in all of this. There are a few weak episodes this season, and the few stand-alone episodes peppered between the two and three-parters are mostly forgettable. There's also some problems within the longer arcs. The augment story is too long and mostly unnecessary: it tries to explain what happened to genetically engineered humans after Khan, a story already adequately explained on Deep Space Nine, and it laboriously tries to explain why Klingons looked different in the original series, a story, er, already adequately explained on Deep Space Nine. There's also a bafflingly pointless story which tries to mine drama from Trip's decision to leave Enterprise permanently (hint: he doesn't), which is undercut by the fact that no-one cares.

Worse, and most famously, is the season and series finale, These Are the Voyages. This episode is framed as a flashback from Star Trek: The Next Generation with Riker weirdly consulting a holo-programme about Enterprise's final mission to justify some personal decisions. This is an insult to the cast and crew of Enterprise, putting too much focus on TNG characters rather than the show that is actually ending, and feels forced. The episode is ill-conceived, badly-written and lacking in tension and drama, making it easily the weakest Star Trek series finale since Turnabout Intruder (and at least the writers of that episode had the excuse they didn't know it was the finale).

Still, at least it's a single really awful episode in a season featuring some stand-out and, in the form of the In a Mirror, Darkly episodes, a genuine classic two-parter. Overall, the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise (****) is thoroughly enjoyable and shows the potential of this show that went unrealised for so long. The season is available on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and on Netflix in the UK and many other parts of the world.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Amazon developing TV versions of RINGWORLD, SNOW CRASH and LAZARUS

Amazon have announced a slate of new, high-profile projects of interest to SFF fans.

First up is Ringworld, based on Larry Niven's novel series of the same name. The series began with Ringworld (1970) and continued with The Ringworld Engineers (1980), The Ringworld Throne (1996) and Ringworld's Children (2004), before generating a spin-off series co-written by Niven and Edward M. Lerner, consisting of Fleet of Worlds (2007), Juggler of Worlds (2008), Destroyer of Worlds (2009) and Betrayer of Worlds (2010). In 2012 the two authors released Fate of Worlds, which concluded both the original Ringworld series and the latter spin-off series.

The titular Ringworld is a massive artificial structure which completely encircles a star, having the surface area of three million Earths. In the first novel the Ringworld is discovered by the bewilderingly alien Puppeteers and a low-key reconnaissance mission is sent to investigate the structure. The mission goes wrong when the ship is shot down by the Ringworld's asteroid defence system and lands on the surface, with the crew discovering that the inhabitants of the Ringworld have become primitive and are unable to help them repair their vessel. Later books in the series see the Ringworld's existence became more widely known.

The Ringworld is a (somewhat) more practical version of the classic SF Big Dumb Object, the Dyson Sphere, although it is still ludicrously huge. Iain M. Banks later created considerably more practical versions of the Ringworld, merely 3 million kilometres in diameter. The Halo video games, drawing on inspiration from both Banks and Niven, postulated the existence of rings just 10,000 km in diameter. Terry Pratchett famously satirised the Ringworld series (and the entire Big Dumb Object subset of SF) in his 1981 novel Strata, which went on (after a fantasy rewrite) to spawn the Discworld series.

The Ringworld novels are part of a much larger future history known as the Known Space universe. If the Ringworld series is successful, it is possible that other elements from this series will be brought into play.

Also in development is a series or mini-series based on Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash. A cyberpunk novel (or a pastiche of cyberpunk), the book focuses on a pizza delivery boy named Hiro Protagonist who discovers a conspiracy which threatens humanity. The story takes in cyberpunk themes but also ideas about language, the origin of modern human consciousness and cognition. Hollywood has shown an interest in Stephenson for a while, as his books are bestsellers, but has struggled to find ways of adapting his massive and complex stories for a wide audience. Snow Crash, being a relatively short and approachable book, is the first attempt to bring his work to a visual audience.

Also in development is Lazarus, a futuristic thriller based on the comics written by Greg Rucka (Gotham Central). The story is set in a world dominated by sixteen families, who have turned future Earth into their domain. The families use a representative warrior known as a Lazarus to fight on their behalf, ending disputes without the need for costly wars. Forever Carlyle, a Lazarus, begins to question this system and the bleak, dystopian world it has engendered.

All three projects are officially "in development" with Amazon to decide on which (if any) to formally greenlight.