Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Saturday, 25 March 2017

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

They called it the Second Pulse: an unexpected collapse of glacial valleys in Antarctica that poured billions more tons of ice into the world oceans than was ever expected. Global sea levels rose by fifty feet in a few years, displacing hundreds of millions of people and triggering an economic meltdown. The world recovered, but it had to adapt.


In New York the lower half of Manhattan was inundated, becoming a "Super-Venice". New Yorkers are a hardy breed and they keep trucking along, taking skybridges and boats to work instead of taxis and trains, and still grumbling about the weather. For the inhabitants of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Square, life continues in this changed world. But when two residents are kidnapped and the city is threatened by a tropical storm, the tower becomes the centre of a sequence of events which could change the world.

New York, New York, so great they named it twice. In novels and on screen, it's been blown up, hit by meteors, invaded by aliens, attacked by Godzilla and King Kong and been subjected to every disaster that the human mind can conjure. Kim Stanley Robinson is the latest author to take a crack at subjecting the city to catastrophe, but his one is both much simpler and more plausible: a significant rise in sea levels. Lower Manhattan is transformed into a series of islands, buildings connected together by bridges and boat taxis, the city at considerably greater risk from storm surges and hurricanes but New Yorkers carrying on as normal because that's what they do.

Robinson is one of SF's most interesting voices, mixing realism with a healthy optimism with real scientific vigour with an interest in macroeconomics. His work veers from the large scale to the intimate: his Mars Trilogy remains the final word on the colonisation of the Red Planet, whilst Galileo's Dream, Shaman and the Science in the Capital trilogy have been more down-to-earth works. Generation ship drama Aurora and his state-of-the-Solar-System epic 2312 have shown a general trajectory back to large scale events, as will his next novel (in which China colonises the moon). New York 2140 takes a different tack, depicting a vast, complex and changed world through the prism of the (now very soggy) Big Apple. There's some interest to be found from parsing the ultra-cynical, profit-driven city through the eyes of Robinson, a Californian utopian scientist through and through.

So this is a book which examines the future of human society through the greatest city humanity has ever built (and maybe ever will build), but the book zooms in even further than that, concentrating on the inhabitants of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Square (the one with the impressive giant clock), now, like so many other buildings, an island rising from the waters. The main characters include NYPD office Gwen, a lawyer named Charlotte, a hedge fund manager, two homeless kids, the building's supervisor Vlade (whose tasks involve making sure the building doesn't sink or collapse from waterlogged foundations) and a cloud video star named Amelia who has her own web channel covering her attempts to save endangered species using an airship. The plot initially appears rather diffuse, with the kidnapping of two computer programmers from the building providing a dramatic spine but the book moving away from this for lengthy tangents on matters material, political and financial, but eventually the sprawling plot threads come together for a fascinating conclusion.

Robinson is that rarest of beasts, a hard SF author who can actually write. His prose is vivid, flows well and changes tonally between narrators (hedge fund manager Frank gets his chapters written in first person, unlike everyone else, just because Robinson likes mixing things up a bit). New York 2140 is simply a tremendous pleasure to read from start to finish for this reason. Robinson is also a bit on the light-hearted side of things here. That's not to say there isn't serious drama and incident (there is, especially when a tropical storm hits the city), but Robinson mitigates this with a sense of humour and an genuine outsider's appreciation for the city.

Really, New York 2140 is a love letter to a city that you'd think doesn't need any more, but works anyway. The city is peppered with anecdotes from the city's history, most of them true. It's startling to learn that Met North (the building adjacent to the Met Life Insurance Building) was supposed to be a supermassive skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building but was abandoned after 30 floors for financial reasons, or that in 1903 an elephant made a break for freedom from Coney Island and swam three miles across the Narrows to Staten Island before being recaptured. Robinson's list of sources and stories will have readers hitting the internet to check out the awesome 18th Century British topographical surveys of the mostly-unsettled Manhattan Island, or confirm that Manhattan is actually sloped with the southern part of the island much lower than the northern. Most insane is the story that a British warship carrying gold to pay its troops, HMS Hussar, sank in New York Harbour and was never recovered. The money on board would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today, but since the Bronx has been extended over the site of the wreck it can't be recovered. Implausibly, but entertainingly, this becomes a major plot point in the novel.

The book is mostly successful but occasionally flounders: the novel is a little too consumed with economic history and a few jokes wear thin ("sunk costs" is a term that takes on a new meaning), but these points remain minor.

New York 2140 (****½) is more than a well-written profile of the city. As the book continues it gains drama and urgency and ends on a note which moves the story far beyond New York's borders to take in the entire world. It's a little bit too neat and maybe too optimistic, but the book's (unnamed) narrator acknowledges this and points out that the great social transformation which results from the book's events may be temporary. But overall New York 2140 is Robinson at his best: brimming with verve and humour and hope, taking all the knocks that politics and economics and cold science can throw at us and showing that humans can always adapt, change and prosper. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Storyline of The Solo Han Solo movie revealed

The Solo Han Solo Movie (which should really be its title) now has a storyline. Well, you'd hope it already had one given they're shooting it now, but the story has now been made public.


The film will span six years in the life of everyone's favourite smuggler, starting with him on Corellia as a 18-year-old and ending eight years later with him in possession of the Millennium Falcon, having met Lando and Chewbacca along the way. This is an interesting new turn for the Star Wars movies, which have typically been tight, focused affairs. This new, multi-year epic is a new approach.

The Solo Han Solo Movie is currently scheduled for release in May 2018. It is directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) and written by Jake Kasdan and his father Lawrence (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Alden Ehreneich stars as Han Solo, with Donald Glover as Lando, Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca, Woody Harrelson as Beckett (Han's mentor) and Emilia Clarke, Michael K. Williams and Thandie Newton is as-yet-unnamed roles.

Chris Wooding announces major new fantasy trilogy

Chris Wooding, the author of the Tales of the Ketty Jay and Braided Path series (amongst many others, like the superb The Fade), has confirmed that his new fantasy trilogy will be published by Gollancz. The series starts with The Ember Blade, which will be published in February 2018.


Wooding has been working on this novel for over two years and seeks to meld the complexity and nuance of modern fantasy with the adventure of the classic late 20th Century genre. The blurb is as follows:
A land under occupation. A legendary sword. A young man’s journey to find his destiny.Aren has lived by the rules all his life. He’s never questioned it; that’s just the way things are. But then his father is executed for treason, and he and his best friend Cade are thrown into a prison mine, doomed to work until they drop. Unless they can somehow break free . . . 
But what lies beyond the prison walls is more terrifying still. Rescued by a man who hates him yet is oath-bound to protect him, pursued by inhuman forces, Aren slowly accepts that everything he knew about his world was a lie. The rules are not there to protect him, or his people, but to enslave them. A revolution is brewing, and Aren is being drawn into it, whether he likes it or not. 
The key to the revolution is the Ember Blade. The sword of kings, the Excalibur of his people. Only with the Ember Blade in hand can their people be inspired to rise up . . . but it’s locked in an impenetrable vault in the most heavily guarded fortress in the land. All they have to do now is steal it. . .

On a Reddit AMA a couple of months back, he described it thusly:

The new book is my first attempt at doing, er, I suppose you'd call it 'traditional' fantasy. I grew up on ShannaraLOTRDragonlance and that kind of thing; they were the books that got me into fantasy. And I realised in almost 20 years of writing I'd never actually tried a fantasy story in that kind of world: the kind of pseudo-European environment that most readers identify as fantasy. My big series were always set in weird environments: in Broken Sky everyone had a 'superpower' through their spirit-stones; The Braided Path was Oriental flintlock fantasy shading into science fiction; Ketty Jay was dieselpunk fantasy. This new one, I'm not throwing out all the tropes at the start as I usually do. I want this one to feel like a fantasy, like the books I loved when I was a kid. And then I'm going to tell a story working within that format, and try to make it all fresh and new, using all the ensemble casting and characterisation skillz I honed during the Ketty Jay books. It's not going to be like the fantasy of the 80s and 90s, with its black and white morality and clear-cut heroes and villains; nor is it going to be grimdark. It's a pretty lo-magic setting. Beyond that, all I can tell you is that I'm having a total blast writing it. There's a certain freedom in being able to employ the assumptions and traditions of fantasy fiction and concentrate on story and character, instead of starting everything from scratch.
Wooding is currently working on the sequel. Given the very high quality of Wooding's previous novels, this immediately joins my "most wanted" queue.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Movie poster for THE DARK TOWER revealed

Columbia Pictures has released the first poster for The Dark Tower, its upcoming movie adaptation of Stephen King's eight-volume novel series of the same name. The film stars Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, and Matthew McConaughey as Walter Padick, the Man in Black (in this version of the story, anyway). The film is flippable, focusing on Roland from one angle and on the Man in Black from the other.


The film is both an adaptation of, and sequel to, King's books* (see below, but SPOILERS). The plan is for this to be a multi-film project, with the first film drawing on elements from the first three novels in the book series. There will also be a TV series exploring Roland's backstory as revealed in the fourth novel, with Elba appearing in framing sequences for the flashbacks and a younger actor playing the teenage Roland.

The film is directed by Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) and also stars Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick and Jackie Earle Haley. It will be released on 28 July. The TV series will air in 2018.


SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP

A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE tabletop wargame announced

Dark Sword Miniatures, who have been producing high-quality miniatures based on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels for a decade, are now working on a tabletop wargame with CMON Games.


The new game will initially pitch Houses Stark and Lannister against one another. Later expansions will add the other houses and factions. The game will feature military units but also "heroes" (characters from the novels) who will add bonuses and special abilities to their armies.

This is the second ASoIaF miniatures game. The first was Battles of Westeros, based on the BattleLore rules and released by Fantasy Flight Games. Despite FFG's high profile and their proven success with the ASoIaF board game and collectable card game, Battles of Westeros never really took off, was fairly low-key and is no longer available. Dark Sword and CMON are promising much greater support for their new game.


There will be a Kickstarter campaign later this year for the game and a full release is expected in Spring 2018.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 3

Earth has been attacked by an alien superweapon. Florida and the Caribbean have been left in flames and over seven million people are dead. The alien attackers are traced to a mysterious region of space known as the Delphic Expanse and an alien race known as the Xindi, so Starfleet sends the NX-01 Enterprise to the region to investigate further and stop the Xindi before they can launch a second attack.


According to conventional wisdom, Star Trek: Enterprise gets a lot better with its third season. The show's best writer, Manny Coto, was promoted to producer and given more creative freedom. The entire season also has a strong, ongoing story arc. It's still not full-on serialisation - many episodes are still stand-alone, just with more frequent mentions of the ongoing storyline - but it's closer than Trek has gotten before across a whole year. There's also more attention paid to character growth, such as T'Pol developing an addiction to a chemical and then going through withdrawal, leaving her permanently emotionally damaged, whilst the human crewmembers initially hunger for revenge against the Xindi before learning more about them and how they've been manipulated by another alien race.

It is certainly true that Enterprise's third season is more interesting than the first two. There is more of a sense of tension and drama and the show feels more experimental. Long-term Trek producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, criticised by many fans for presiding over the long-term decline of the franchise, seem to have backed off and given Coto more freedom to innovate. The producers cleverly realised that their storyline, although it had legs, was still insufficient to fill 25 episodes, so were still able to bring in side-stories to expand the texture of the new setting of the Expanse. Although some of these episodes are undeniably filler (Extinction and Rajin are groan-inducingly boring), there seems to be a far higher hit rate than in previous seasons.

The season also gives us Enterprise's first truly classic episode. Twilight riffs on previous episode ideas but also takes a strong influence from the movie Memento, with Archer affected by a neurological problem which prevents him from forming long-term memories. The episode unfolds as an alternate view of what happens if the Enterprise's mission fails and, although we know it won't, the episode is well-written and directed enough that it doesn't matter too much.

Other strong episodes include Proving Ground (even if the arrival of Andorian occasional semi-ally Shran is a little implausible), Strategem and Doctor's Orders (an excellent showcase for John Billingsley's acting). The season also ends with a strong arc starting with Azati Prime, where Enterprise takes incredibly heavy damage and is left crippled for the rest of the season. The crew have to find a way of destroying the Xindi weapon without having their normal resources to call upon, so have to resort to a diplomatic solution. In a post-9/11 world and with the far darker Battlestar Galactica reboot hitting screens at the same time, Enterprise takes a very different approach is still very true to the ethos of Star Trek, and does so reasonably well. The season-ending cliffhanger is less than compelling, however.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise (****) is indeed better than the first two and the finest season of Star Trek since the end of Deep Space Nine. It's not perfect and occasionally resorts to tiresome Star Trek standbys, but it entertains and successfully finds a solution to the season-long arc that channels Star Trek at its finest. The season is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Iron Fist: Season 1

Fifteen years ago a plane crashed in the Himalayas. The only survivor, 10-year-old Danny Rand, was found by monks from the otherworldly stronghold of K'un-lun. Trained in their ways of combat, meditation and mysticism, Rand became the Iron Fist, a warrior beyond compare, destined to protect K'un-lun from their mortal enemies, the Hand. Now he has chosen to return home to New York City, to find his father's company is making money from unethical sources. With the city threatened by the Hand, Rand steps up to save the world and his parents' legacy.


Iron Fist is the fourth collaboration between Netflix and Marvel, following on from Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It's also the final set-up series before the whole gang gets together for an event mini-series, The Defenders, which will air later this year.

Netflix have batted high so far in this collaboration: the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones were excellent, the second season of Daredevil was less accomplished but still watchable and the first season of Luke Cage opened well but fell apart later on as it ran out of plot and interesting characters long before the season ended, but those early episodes were still great. All of these shows have been stylish and well-written with excellent action sequences, but have struggled at times with structure and pacing. Iron Fist is, contrary to some early reviews, not the weakest Netflix/Marvel collaboration (I'd say that goes, by a whisker, to Luke Cage, despite the stronger main character) but it is the most maddeningly inconsistent.

An early weakness is that the show tries to get us interested in the doings of Rand Enterprises and then doesn't do that (exactly what the company does and makes is left unclear as well). Danny Rand (Finn Jones from Game of Thrones) returns home to find everyone thinks he is dead and struggles to convince everyone he is who he says he is, particularly the people now in charge of the company, Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and his sister Joy (Jessica Stroup). Aided by superstar lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss, returning from Jessica Jones), Danny eventually gets recognised and his foot back in the door. But he then promptly loses interest in the company for most of the rest of the series and the corporate dealings of the firm are deeply dull, not helped by Tom Pelphrey's uninspired performance in a mediocre role. More interesting is David Wenham - Faramir from the Lord of the Rings movies - as the Meachum patriarch, Harold, who has faked his own death and is overseeing things secretly from afar for initially baffling reasons. Wenham is charismatic, unpredictable and ambiguous, but goes from dominating episodes to barely showing up. In addition, having a second character who everyone thought was dead feels redundant and repetitive.

The corporate storyline never flies, but far more successful is the character arc of Colleen Wing, played with energetic gusto and charisma by Jessica Henwick (late of both Star Wars and Game of Thrones). Colleen is a martial arts instructor who faces having to close down her dojo due to financial problems before getting caught up in Rand's story. Colleen's storyline is very well-handled to the point where you start wishing she was the protagonist rather than Danny. Finn Jones does okay with the material he is given, but his character is less interesting, more rooted in standard tropes and the show constantly finds excuses why he can't use his superpower, which gets dull quickly.


I was bracing myself for the later confrontations with the Hand, since the Hand were absolutely terrible on Daredevil. Fortunately, the traditional Hand we are familiar with are soon out of the action and a different faction within the organisation emerges, one which contains actual characters with something approaching credible motivations. At first this nicely makes the organisation more morally murky and interesting, but eventually they return to base villainy.

Rosario Dawson also returns as Claire Temple from the other Netflix shows and she gets a lot more to do here, having been trained by Colleen in the ways of combat, so she actually gets mixed up in the action and feels more like a character contributing to the narrative than a random and incongruous cameo (as she was on Jessica Jones). The only thing that is a bit weird is that Claire does mention several times that she's been hanging around with other superheroes but Danny and Colleen are completely uninterested and no-one suggests recruiting these other guys to help them out against the Hand.

Iron Fist avoids the problem of Luke Cage and Daredevil S2, which both started off strongly and then fell of a cliff in quality and never recovered, by actually starting off a lot weaker and getting better as it goes along (particularly Colleen's story, which takes an unexpected turn which adds greater depth to the character). But there are problems which are constant: the show's moral message is murky and bizarre (at one point saying it's bad to kill but okay if someone else kills the person instead, as it gets you off the hook), dialogue can be thunderously clunky and the Hand go from being an omnipotent villain who is everywhere to being easily-defeatable goons. Finn Jones also gives the most pedestrian performance of the four Netflix leads (five counting the upcoming Punisher series).

Most damaging for an action show about a martial arts character, the action scenes are subpar. Some scenes use unconvincing stunt doubles and some - shockingly - resort to CGI blurring the stunt doubles' faces when they are too obviously not the right person. Given the absolutely brilliant action scenes achieved in Daredevil (that hallway fight in Season 1 remains the highwater mark for physical combat scenes in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date), Iron Fist's are startlingly bad, not helped by Jones's rather obvious lack of martial arts skill. Henwick's scenes are far more brutal and convincing and her two cage match fights are the most intense and believable action scenes in the series.

In the final analysis, Iron Fist (***) is nowhere near as bad as the early reviews make out but is still far from ideal. It's mostly okay, but never rises above the watchable. It doesn't outstay its welcome to the extent that Luke Cage and Daredevil's second year did, mainly because it knows when to introduce new elements and characters to explore to keep the story wheel turning more effectively. But it does suffer from some weak opening episodes, an uninteresting corporate subplot and some very underwhelming action scenes. It's also hard to shake off the feeling that the series is about the wrong character. Hopefully Netflix considers adding a Colleen Wing (either solo or teamed up with her traditional comics sparring partner, Misty Knight from Luke Cage) show to the roster at some point in the future.

Friday, 17 March 2017

THE EXPANSE renewed for a third season

The Expanse has been renewed for a third season by SyFy.


The news came after an exceptional critical response for the second season of the show, currently airing in the United States, and after the show was picked up for international distribution by Netflix, widely increasing its worldwide profile.

The first two seasons adapted the first two books in the series, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War. The third season will presumably cover any elements left over from Caliban's War and move into the events of the third book in the series, Abaddon's Gate.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

First thoughts: STAR WARS REBELLION

When I was a kid I enjoyed playing board games. There was the Pac-Man board game and Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs and Escape from Atlantis, amongst many others. When I got a bit older there was the epic Hero Quest and Space Crusade and Axis and Allies. As a teenager I stopped playing them: the UK board game market dried up and I moved on to roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, Deadlands and Star Wars.


But now board games are back, and in a big way. For the last few years there's been an explosion in the market. It's growing at an exponential rate and very few months pass without another game smashing Kickstarter targets or getting a few more expansions. Some of the better games of this latest explosion include Descent, Flash Point and of course the epic Pandemic and its recent Legacy reiteration. Epic fantasy is also getting in on the act, with Games Workshop now in its sixteenth year of its Lord of the Rings tabletop wargame and Fantasy Flight's A Song of Ice and Fire board game being one of the best-regarded in the business (and CMON Games are looking to introduce a tabletop wargame based on the books soon).

I recently picked up my first board game in over a decade. Star Wars: Rebellion shares a name with the 1998 strategy video game of the same name (released as Supremacy in the UK) and has a broadly similar set-up. The Rebel Alliance is trying to foment a galaxy-wide uprising against the Empire and needs both time and allies to achieve that. The Empire is is trying to crush the Rebellion before it can really get going by destroying its hidden base. The Empire has overwhelming superiority of strength but the Rebellion is more mobile and capable of sabotaging the Empire's war machine.

The game is played on an enormous board featuring thirty-one star systems from the Star Wars universe: Coruscant, Corellia, Ord Mantell, Dagobah, Yavin, Hoth, Tatooine and more are present and correct. One of these planets is home to the Rebel Base, but the Imperial player doesn't know where it is. Using probe droids and manually searching each planet, the Empire has to eliminate the possibilities until they find the base and destroy it. The Rebels can slow down the Empire's advance by undertaking sabotage missions (essential if you don't want a wall of Star Destroyers advancing across the map by the fifth turn) and also engaging in misinformation, getting the Empire to send troops to the wrong planet or diverting their forces by mounting a military attack elsewhere.

The game features an impressive array of counters, dice, cards (so many cards) and miniatures. There are tiny stormtroopers and Rebel troopers, snowspeeders, AT-ATs, AT-STs, TIE fighter squadrons, X-wings, Y-wings, Corellian Corvettes, Star Destroyers, Super Star Destroyers, Mon Calamari Star Cruisers and even three Death Stars (the Empire's ability to have multiple Death Stars flying around is the most notable callback to Supremacy). The miniatures are small but being able to assemble a fleet of six Star Destroyers led by Darth Vader's Super Star Destroyer and send it to crush a Rebel planet is still an awesome feeling.


Key to the game are characters. Each side has a plethora of characters to send on missions. The Rebels can call upon Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Lando, Chewbacca, Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar (amongst others) whilst the Empire can call on Darth Vader, the Emperor, Grand Moff Tarkin, Admiral Piette, General Veers, as well as various other characters. You can assign characters to missions but also use unassigned characters to disrupt the missions of other characters. The Empire also has the ability to try to capture Rebel leaders and interrogate them, whilst the Rebels then have the ability to rescue them. You also use characters to take command of fleets and guide them from system to system, but they can't both command a fleet and disrupt enemy operations, leading to interesting strategic missions. If the Empire has a massive fleet waiting to move on a Rebel system, the Rebels can send multiple agents to commit sabotage or operations in that system. The Empire can choose to disrupt those operations with their leaders in that system, but won't then be able to move their fleet. If they choose not to disrupt those operations, the Rebels might win significant advantages.

The result is an intricate game based on outright military action, covert operations and diplomatic games of bluff and double-bluff, all drenched in Star Wars flavour. The result is a game that does what modern games do best: generate stories from your actions, stories that shift and change each time.

Rebellion does have several issues, although these may be features to some players rather than bugs. It's a Fantasy Flight game, so that means that the rules are not always tremendously clear. The "quick start" manual omits about half the game rules whilst the main rulebook is not tremendously detailed. Expect to spend a lot of time studying errata and forum posts to explain more bizarre rulings. There's also the fact that the game is not a quick play. In our first game, it took four hours to run through about five turns (out of a possible fourteen). That was our first time and a lot of that was taken up going through the rules, but looking at board game sites, games lasting six hours or more are not uncommon (although games in three or four are certainly quite achievable as well).

Rebellion is also strictly a two-player game. There is a team option, with two players on each team, bu it's pretty thin stuff. Those who want a grand space strategy game with multiple players is directed to Fantasy Flight's Forbidden Stars (if you can find it before the final copies are sold), which scratches some of the same itch. Of course, if you regularly have entire weekends freed to dedicate to one game, there's always Twilight Imperium (cue readers screaming and running for the hills).

I'm still yet to complete a full game, but so far Rebellion is a fine and engaging strategy boardgame that makes excellent use of the Star Wars mythos.