Monday, 24 October 2016

RIP Sheri S. Tepper

Renowned and critically-acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Sheri S. Tepper has passed away at the age of 87.

She was born near Littleton, Colorado, in 1929. She wrote several essays and poems in the 1960s, but her writing career was put on hold as she concentrated on raising her family. It resumed in 1983 with the publication of her first novel, King's Blood Four. This marked the start of a trilogy of trilogies known as The True Game. Her later Plague of Angels trilogy crossed over with this work, which concluded with her last-published novel, Fish Tails, in 2014.

Inbetween she wrote twenty-three other novels. Beauty (1991) won the Locus Award and Gibbon's Decline and Fall (1997), The Family Tree (1997) and The Margarets (2007) were all nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Sideshow (1992) was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award, whilst The Fresco (2000), The Visitor (2002) and The Companions (2003) were all nominated for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

However, Tepper's best-known and most critically acclaimed novel is Grass (1989), which was nominated for both the Hugo and the Campbell. A novel melding feminist, ecological and hard SF concerns, the book was inducted into the SF Masterworks list in 2002. It was followed by two sequels: Raising the Stones (1990) and Sideshow (1992), the three books collectively known as The Arbai Trilogy.

Tepper's work is thoughtful, well-characterised and intelligent. She deservedly won a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.

Vikings: Season 1

Ragnar Lothbrok is a great Norse warrior. He has discovered a means of navigating across the open sea between Scandinavia and the rich western lands of England, but his chieftain, Earl Haraldson, is unimpressed and plans to raid east into the Baltic lands. Ragnar defies his chief to lead a raid in an English monastery named Lindisfarne. Returning home with gold and Christian monks taken as slaves, Ragnar is acclaimed a great hero...and an enemy and rival of Haraldson.

Vikings is a TV show about Vikings, doing Viking stuff like raiding, fighting, carousing and sailing. As far as TV shows go, Vikings does exactly what it says on the tin.

It's also made by the History Channel, which means that it strives to be historically more accurate than most shows about Vikings. It does feature the required amount of raiding, killing, blood-spurting, drunken partying and prayers to Thor and Odin, of course, but it also makes it clear that the Norsemen only raid during the summer and spend the rest of the year fishing, farming or engaging in other trades. The Viking code of law, which sees murder grievously punished and a robust (if primitive) form of jury trial in place, is given a nod and the more-or-less equal nature of women in Viking society as the keepers of the home and hearth, as well as occasionally joining raiding parties as shieldmaidens, is explored.

This first season is nine episodes long and unfolds with verve and vigour. Early episodes focus on Ragnar Lothbrook, played with wild-eyed charisma by Travis Fimmel (also recently seen in the lead role of the WarCraft movie) and his family, particularly his wife Lagertha, played with gravitas and barely-restrained fury by Katheryn Finnick. Clive Standen plays Rollo, Ragnar's older-but-less-capable brother who is deeply loyal to his family but also resentful of his brother's wits and jealous of his wife. Gustaf Skarsgard plays Floki, the builder of Ragnar's ship and the only person around capable of out-crazy-eyeing him. It is hinted in the series that Floki may be touched by the spirit of the trickster god Loki, as his crazy and unpredictable antics show. George Blagstan gives an interesting performance as Athelstan, the Christian monk enslaved by Ragnar but later becomes a friend and "our" viewpoint into the alien world of the Vikings. Rounding out the first season cast is the best-known face, Gabriel Byrne as the main villain, Haraldson.

Given that - Byrne aside - the entire cast is made up of newcomers and lesser-known faces, it's impressive that they all give incredibly convincing and passionate performances. In fact, given that it's from the same makers as the fun-but-cheesy-and-lightweight The Tudors, Vikings impresses all around for the weight and gravity with which it approaches the story. Character motivation is established early on and develops naturally, the Viking culture is portrayed with greater depth and complexity than almost any previous televised depiction and battle sequences (which the show does not shy away from) are visceral, bloody and convincing. The political machinations are fairly straightforward but nevertheless unfold with dire inevitability. Given the short run time, the series enjoys a strong variation in tone (from action to mystical religious stuff to good-hearted fellowship to romance to intrigue), location and character.

The show is reasonably historically accurate - to what we know of anyway - but some decisions are questionable. The idea that the Northumbrians don't know about the Vikings and have enjoyed a long period of peace so don't really know how to fight is somewhat questionable: the Anglo-Saxons weren't exactly shy about fighting and raiding one another and probably knew how to form a shield wall. The show's early episodes also establish a well-respected legal system which everyone is careful to obey, even Earl Haraldson, but later in the season he goes into full-on tyrant mode which is both disappointing from a character perspective and also conflicts with the earlier tone.

Overall, however, the first season of Vikings (****½) is enormous fun. It's well-written, well-acted all around, more subtle and nuanced than you'd expect and delivers tremendously good battle scenes. It's available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Rick and Morty: Season 1

Rick Sanchez is a brilliant but morally dubious inventor who has the ability to travel through time and space. Forced to move in with his daughter Beth and her "normal" family, Rick has soon embroiled them in his misdeeds, particularly his easily-influenced and hyper-sensitive grandson Morty. Rick and Morty set off on intergalactic adventures, but things soon become odd at home, as Morty's sister Summer gets a job with the devil, and Beth's husband Jerry gets fired after being inadvertently kidnapped by aliens and placed in a low-AI VR simulation of his own life.

Rick and Morty is an animated series airing on Adult Swim in the USA. It's the brainchild of Justin Roiland, a voice actor and writer, but given some additional creative firepower by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and recent projets including the excellent HarmonQuest.

To sum up, Rick and Morty is a mash-up of Back to the Future, Futurama, South Park and an everyday family sitcom, with a light sprinkling of Archer over the top. The series is ribald, madcap, zany but it is also surprisingly restrained and occasionally even reaches pathos, especially when it deals with Jerry and Beth's strained relationship, and the fact that Morty was once diagnosed with learning difficulties. It can also occasionally be rather unsettling, going for a funny gag that then becomes outright disturbing, such as the encounter between Morty and a sexually-frustrated royal jelly bean in a toilet that has you reaching for the remote in horror before, fortunately, the scene ends on a non-vomit-inducing note.

It's an interesting mix of the cynical and post-cool (particularly with Rick's apathetic, amoral attitude to life) with the genuinely heartwarming and optimistic. The comedy mixes toilet humour with much cleverer and more subtle gags about genuine scientific issues (the planet/not-planet status of Pluto fuels one of the stronger instalments of Season 1), catchphrases you'll soon be yelling at uncomprehending non-viewers and some wry observations on school, work and home life. It also has giant space genies which can be summoned to perform simple tasks but then meet a totally insolvable problem (how to make Jerry a good golfer) which turns them into rampaging psychopaths.

Rick and Morty's greatest asset is that it is simply hilarious, employing a wide variety of mundane and science fiction inspirations to generate humour from almost every scene and line of dialogue. But, like all of the best comedies (and especially SFF comedies, which often settle for lazy stereotyping), it generates that comedy from having very well-defined, conflicted and interesting characters. This is a well-judged comedy with brains and heart to offset its cynicism.

Season 1 of Rick and Morty (****) is available now on DVD (USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA). It is also now available to watch on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 1

AD 2151. Earth has spent a century recovering from a devastating global war and developing new technologies, such as the ability to travel faster than light through Zephram Cochrane's warp drive. The alien Vulcans have taken taken humanity under their wing, seeing in them great potential but also great dangers linked to their rashness. Now Starfleet's first Warp 5-capable starship, the NX-01 Enterprise, is ready for launch under the command of Jonathan Archer. But the Vulcans are still uncertain about their allies and place one of their own on board to monitor events.

Back in 2001 Star Trek was suffering from a bad case of "franchise fatigue". Rick Berman had produced 21 seasons of television, none shorter than 20 episodes, spanning three different series in fourteen years. His feeling was that the franchise needed to be rested to come back stronger, but Paramount were adamant that they wanted to keep the Star Trek gravy train afloat. Wearily, Berman and Voyager producer Brannon Braga agreed to create a new show but only on the condition that they could be more experimental and bold with it.

The result was Enterprise, a prequel series set 115 years before Captain James T. Kirk's original five-year mission, and about 90 years after the time travel events of the movie Star Trek: First Contact. The idea was to strip away all of Star Trek's convenient and "easy" technology - the transporter, photon torpedoes, shields, the universal translator, replicators - and make something much grittier and more "real", with less pure and ideologically-motivated humans and the making of space into a much darker and more threatening place.

It's a nice idea which, intermittently, works. Enterprise's main problem in this first season is that it kind of pulls its punches. Not as much as Voyager did, but still a lot more than it should. Enterprise doesn't have shields, but instead it can "polarise the hull plating". It doesn't have torpedoes but it does have missiles which are almost as good. It does have a transporter, but it's "risky" to use (albeit it works perfectly when the script needs it to and not when it doesn't). The universal translator is an advanced version of Google Translate and about as reliable, but they have a linguistics genius on board who can straighten it out, so that's fine. All of the less-than-scientific facets of the Star Trek universe - artificial gravity and sound in space most notably - remain intact.

Still, Enterprise remains a big improvement over Voyager. The show deliberately hearkens back to the original series's sense of adventure, with Archer as a bold, curious scientific explorer (who's not afraid to get his hands dirty when needed) in Captain Kirk's mould. It's also fun to see what mischief the crew can get up to without the Prime Directive holding them back (even though by the end of the season the need for it becomes clear). Unlike Voyager's crew of dysfunctional, depressed bores, this crew is a bit livelier and funnier, with a generally much higher standard of acting ability (Dominic Keating being the weakest link, and he improves significantly as the season progresses). Scott Bakula, possibly the most likable person on Earth, makes for a great captain, Jolene Blalock overcomes some dubious costuming choices to deliver a smart and nuanced performance (her deadpan sense of humour comes more to the fore in later episodes) and Linda Park is great - if not given enough to do - as linguistics expert Hoshi. Connor Trinneer's engineer (who seems to be a mash-up of Scotty's engineering genius and McCoy's Southern charm) Trip is less interesting but kind of harmless. Anthony Montgomery's Travis probably gets the rawest deal in terms of having anything to do. The strongest performance on the show is given by John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox. Early fears that he might be Neelix Mk. 2 never materialise and he goes on to give a nuanced performance throughout the season (apart from a comedy plotline in which he is woken up early from his annual hibernation, which is irritating).

Enterprise may be better than Voyager at this early showing, but that certainly doesn't make it perfect. Individual episodes vary immensely in quality, with some very strong and entertaining episodes like Dear Doctor and The Andorian Incident having to make up for a lot of typical, semi-Star Trek filler pap. For a first season, Enterprise tests its viewers' patience a lot. Maybe not as much as the first seasons of TNG and Voyager, but there's a still an fair bit of tedium to get through to get to the good moments.

More questionable is the insertion of a storyline in which time-travelling operatives from the far future are engaged in a "temporal cold war" with one another. Having a Star Trek prequel series building naturally to the universe we know is a good idea. Having one in which some guy from the 31st Century shows up and tells Archer that he's special and his actions will lead to the founding of the Federation is a lazy shortcut. The main alien race in this storyline, the Suliban, is also not one of Star Trek's more interesting antagonist races, it has to be said.

But, ultimately, Enterprise ends up being diverting and entertaining. It's also interesting as a historical artifact: shortly after this season began, 9/11 took place and American SF took a turn for the darker and more cynical. That gave us some great TV like the new Battlestar Galactica, but it also may have taken things down too dark a path. Enterprise's overwhelming feeling of optimism, adventure and exploration is, when done well, a refreshing tonic to the grimness that would come after it.

The first season of Star Trek: Enterprise (***½) is watchable, harmless and occasionally very cheesy fun. It's not the franchise at its best, but it's a long way from it at its worst. It does have a lot of potential, but it needs to up its game in future seasons. The season is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

RIP Steve Dillon

Legendary comic book artist Steve Dillon has passed away at the age of 56.

Dillon was a comic book prodigy. He sold his first professional work at the age of just 16, for the UK Hulk Weekly comic. He later drew the Nick Fury strip in the same comic. In 1980 he designed the iconic Doctor Who Magazine comic character Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer, and went on to draw many of his appearances in the title. He also worked on the 2000AD comic, particularly the Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and ABC Warriors strips.

In the 1990s Dillon formered a working partnership with writer Garth Ennis, first on a run on Hellblazer and then in their own collaborative title, the enormously popular and critically-acclaimed Preacher (which has recently transitioned to TV as an AMC series). Dillon has also been acclaimed for his long-running work on The Punisher.

Dillon's work was straightforward but packed with character, incident and detail. I'm less familiar with his US work, but I was a big fan of his work on the Doctor Who comic, particularly his creation of Abslom Daak, and his 2000AD period. He will be missed, as he has gone far too young.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Donald Glover cast as Lando Calrissian in 2018's STAR WARS movie

Actor, writer and musician Donald Glover has been cast as the young Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo-focused Star Wars spin-off movie, currently due to hit cinemas in 2018.

Donald Glover is best-known for his role as Troy Barnes in the comedy series Community. He currently stars on Atlanta, which he also co-writes. He is also a double-Grammy Award-nominated musician for his work under the moniker Childish Gambino.

Glover, a major Star Wars fan, has been long a fan-favourite for the role of the young Lando. He will also be appearing in the new Spider-Man movie, Homecoming, due next year.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

J.R.R. Tolkien to release new book, despite deceased status

J.R.R. Tolkien will release a new book in 2017, despite having died in 1973.

An illustration of Luthien by Ted Nasmith.

The new book is entitled Beren and Luthien and relates the story of the star-crossed lovers from the First Age of Middle-earth.

The news has caused brows to furrow across fantasy fandom. The story of Beren and Luthien is one of the central legends in Tolkien's The Silmarillion and Tolkien wrote several extended versions of it whilst he was alive, but nothing on the order of the story of Turin Turambar which allowed that story to be published as a short book in 2007, under the title The Children of Hurin.

Indeed, a more likely candidate for the same kind of treatment would be The Fall of Gondolin, the very first full-length narrative of Middle-earth that Tolkien wrote in 1917. Not only is there there original prose story (albeit in a very archaic form), previously published in The Book of Lost Tales, but there is also an updated (if incomplete), post-Lord of the Rings version from Unfinished Tales and the unfinished poem The Lay of the Fall of Gondolin.

Beren and Luthien will open with the Tale of Tinuviel, the very first version of the story written circa 1917-18 and previously published in The Book of Lost Tales. It is expected that the book will also contain The Lay of Leithian, a nearly-finished poem version (previously appearing in The Lays of Beleriand), the summarised version from The Silmarillion and the account that appears in The Lord of the Rings. It will still be probably quite a short book, but will be fleshed out with new illustrations by master Tolkien artist Alan Lee. As usual, Tolkien's son Christopher is on editorial duties.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

First footage from the new TWIN PEAKS

Showtime have unveiled the first material from the new Twin Peaks TV series.

This behind-the-scenes video sees the returning actors explaining how much fun the new series has been to make and, er, not a lot else. But given how secretive the project has been so far, that's perhaps to be expected.

The new Twin Peaks will air on Showtime in early-to-mid 2017. The series will consist of approximately eighteen episodes, although this is yet to be confirmed and could change in editing. David Lynch and Mark Frost have written the new series (after writing all of the original series and the Fire Walk With Me movie spin-off) and Lynch has directed the entire series.

It was also recently confirmed that the show's iconic composer Angelo Badalamenti will return to score the new series. It's unclear if the new show will use the original's haunting theme tune, but I'd say it's reasonably likely.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Quantum Break

Jack Joyce is called home to Riverport by his best friend Paul Serene. His brother William has created time travel technology, but in the process has apparently become unhinged. Paul wants Jack to help him complete William's experiments and calm his brother down. However, the experiment goes horrendously wrong, causing a fracture in the space/time continuum. As the fracture grows worse, Jack gains powers over time and space...but so does Paul, who has been flung seventeen years into the past. When he catches up with Jack he is now a different man, with enigmatic motivations...and the same powers Jack has.

Quantum Break is the latest game from Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment. Way back in 2001 Remedy released the iconic action game Max Payne, an epoch-marking title which transformed the action game into a balletic display of violence, bullet time and gritty, noir storytelling. Its sequel, Max Payne 2, remains one of the vanishingly few decent examples of a video game romance ever attempted (and pretty much the only one in an action game). Their 2010 title Alan Wake fused action with survival horror, again set against the backdrop of rich storytelling and a wry sense of humour. Remedy aren't quite like any other developer out there, which is why their games are Day One purchases for me (on PC, anyway).

Quantum Break is very definitely a Remedy game. It's action focused, combat-heavy and uses state-of-the-art graphics technology. The game's propriety Northlight Engine is a technological marvel, offering up both astonishing visuals, (mostly) fluid action and impressive optimisation. I particularly appreciated the fact that the game didn't make my PC run as hot as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided recently did, despite offering superior visuals.

Quantum Break is also a storyline-heavy game, telling its twisting narrative of time loops through both gameplay, in-engine cut scenes and, remarkably, over an hour of live-action video. These videos take the form of TV mini-episodes, filling in the backstory and narrative of what's going on with the antagonists at the same time that Jack is going through his adventures in the gameplay. To maintain continuity, the game features the same actors playing the roles in the live-action pieces as well as lending their appearances and voices for the in-game sequences. These aren't unknowns either, with Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire), Lance Reddick (Fringe, The Wire), Dominic Monaghan (Lost, Lord of the Rings), Amelia Blaire (True Blood) and Brooke Nevin (The 4400) all playing major roles.

The game unfolds through gameplay sequences where you investigate a scene or solve puzzles, which often segues into a combat sequence. Fighting consists of standard cover-based shooting (with a rather elegant cover system which simply sees you automatically take cover if you're standing behind something that can be used as such) and also the use of your temporal powers. Interestingly, given Remedy's pioneering use of bullet time, you can't use bullet time as such but you can create temporal shield to freeze bullets in mid-air, trap enemies in stasis bubbles (which you can fire into, so they're instantly hit by hundreds of bullets when time resumes) and set off temporal blasts to throw people through the air. Later in the game enemies appear who can generate their own temporal fields and gain some immunity to your attacks, forcing you to adapt new, more complex strategies. Combat is, mostly, tactical, satisfying and fun.

The game is very narrative-heavy, so if you're after fact action game with limited story, you may want to steer clear. The story is well-told, with a reasonable engagement with the complexities of time travel and temporal paradoxes. There are some plot holes if you think about things too much, but overall the story is an entertaining slice of pulp SF fun with characters you do end up caring about.

It's not a perfect game. There's some jankiness to the controls and occasionally dubious collision detection. The game also severely restricts where you can climb up walls and over obstacles but doesn't give you any way of differentiating these from the areas where you cannot, occasionally leaving you frustratingly bouncing up and down in front of a ledge you really should be able to grab hold of. The game also triggers your frequently-used "time surge" power (which sees you jump forward a dozen feet or so in one go) in the direction your character is facing, not that the camera is facing, occasionally resulting you in hurtling off in unexpected directions. Once you learn to leave a few moments for your character to turn around, it's not really a problem. The live-action TV sequences are also pretty decent - easily the best such things ever created for a video game - but whilst the main cast are excellent (especially Aidan Gillen, who turns in a better performance in the game than he's done in six seasons of Game of Thrones) some of the supporting actors are more enthusiastic than skilled. Oddly, it all fits in with the pulp B-movie feel of the piece.

The game also suffers a little from having a generally smooth difficulty curve, but then featuring several quite ridiculous spikes, with no information context or information being given on how to defeat boss enemies. The final battle with its insta-death enemy attacks, which is easily ten times harder than any other fight in the game, is particularly guilty of this. It's certainly survivable, but it does interrupt the flow of the game.

More impressively, the game has four different "junction" points. At each one of these junctions you have an important decision to make which will change the course of how the story unfolds. Using a temporal vision, you can see some (but not all) of the impacts your choice will make. The game signposts these moments quite clearly, allowing you to note which choice you've made so you can choose differently on a replay. For a linear action game with no multiplayer, such a system is vital to maintain interest and replayability to the game.

Quantum Break (****) is a visually impressive game with dynamic, fun combat and a reasonably good story delivered through sympathetic characters (even the villains are quite well fleshed-out). There's some iffy performances and occasional insane difficulty spikes, but overall this is a very impressive, atmospheric and well-made game. It is available now on PC and X-Box One (UK, USA).

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Wertzone Classics: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

The Bingtown Traders have grown rich from the use of the liveships, great, sentient sailing ships made of the fabled wizardwood. After three generations of captains die on their decks, they quicken into life. Epheron Vestrit's death brings the liveship Vivacia to life, but the jubilations of the Vestrit family are cut short when it is revealed that the ship will pass into the ownership of Kyle Haven, the husband of Epheron's eldest daughter, rather than to his younger daughter Althea. Furious at this betrayal, Althea vows not to rest until the Vivacia belongs to her again. This resolve only hardens when Kyle decides to use the Vivacia to carry slaves, to the horror of his family.

Meanwhile, an unusually eloquent and cultured pirate captain named Kennit schemes to become King of the Pirate Isles. His plotting involves liberating slaver ships, winning the hearts and minds of the people...and finding and capturing a liveship.

Ship of Magic is the first novel in the Liveship Traders trilogy, which takes place in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy but in the lands to the south. There's an almost completely new cast and setting (one major Farseer character does show up in disguise), with most of the action taking place on ships or in dingy port towns. This shift to a nautical setting is refreshing and makes for a very different-feeling novel to the previous books.

The structure of the book also changes. Farseer was told in a first person point-of-view from FitzChivalry Farseer, but The Liveship Traders is told from a rotating POV structure. The major characters are Kennit, Althea, her mother Ronica, sister Keffria, niece Malta and nephew Wintrow, but other POV characters include the Vivacia herself, the beached, mad liveship Paragon and Brashen, another crewman on the Vivacia. This immediately makes for a grander, more epic story as the author moves between different characters.
Whilst this loses the immediacy of the Farseer books and the deep connection with Fitz, it does allow Hobb to cover the story from more angles and explain things more clearly rather than filtering all of the exposition and information through Fitz alone. It's a good move, justifying the novel's impressive page count (over 870 pages in paperback) rather more convincingly than the Farseer books, which felt rather padded out to reach such lengths.

Indeed, although I've only to date read Hobb's first six novels, Ship of Magic is easily the best. The story is epic, but it feels tight with naturalistic character development of a large cast and events proceed at a steady clip. Hobb's main skill has always been in the development of a convincing emotional connection to the characters and that skill is in impressive form here. We share Althea's frustration and betrayal, Wintrow's shock and hurt at his relationship with his father Kyle and the casual betrayal of his calling, Ronica's uneasy dealings with the Rain Wild Traders as she tries to protect her family's holdings and Kennit's ambitions as he strives to make his people more than what they are.

Kennit is easily Hobb's most fascinating character to date. He is greedy, selfish and arrogant, but he also has a fast-moving intelligence and wit and altruistic outcomes see to flow from his self-centred acts. Kennit's ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances on the fly and ensure that he always comes out on top is impressive. Kennit clearly has negative characteristics, but it's not entirely clear in Ship of Magic if he is supposed to be a villain. Indeed, it is Kyle Haven who more readily fulfils that role in this book.

Ship of Magic (*****) is an outstanding fantasy novel, and an impressive return to form after the disappointing slog that was Assassin's Quest. The book moves with pace and vigour despite its length, the cast of characters is fascinating, the worldbuilding subtle but convincing, the background politics intriguing and the book moves with tremendous purpose. The ending will leave you eager to read the next book, The Mad Ship, immediately. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.