Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Sunday, 17 December 2017

To Dream in the City of Sorrows by Kathryn M. Drennan

Jeffrey Sinclair is a soldier, a decorated fighter pilot and station commander. To his surprise, he has been reassigned to the Minbari homeworld as the Earth Alliance's first ambassador afforded permanent residence there. But his post is treated as a joke back home and the Minbari are unwilling to explain to him what is going on. Eventually he learns the truth, which will completely transform his life.

Meanwhile, Sinclair's fiancee Catherine Sakai is on a five-month surveying mission to the rim of known space, unaware of Sinclair's change in circumstance. Out on the rim she finds evidence that something very disturbing is happening, entire planets destroyed and strange shapes moving through hyperspace. One planet to fall victim to this force is a remote Earth mining colony, Arisia III. Its sole survivor, Marcus Cole, finds his way to Minbar, planning to avenge his brother's death and find out what is going on.

To Dream in the City of Sorrows is the second Babylon 5 novel (after Jeanne Cavelos's The Shadow Within) to be accepted as fully canon by franchise creator J. Michael Straczynski. He came up with the basic story arc and assigned it to the writer, who was also his then-wife, Kathryn Drennan (who also wrote the decent episode By Any Means Necessary).

Work-for-hire novels are often awful, written to tight deadlines and with little opportunity for rewrites or thorough editing. Not in this case, though. Like The Shadow Within, To Dream in the City of Sorrows fleshes out a vitally import part of the overall Babylon 5 story arc that the TV show couldn't get around to because real life interfered, in this case actor Michael O'Hare (Commander Sinclair) leaving the show due to mental health issues. In the TV show, Sinclair was sent to the Minbari homeworld to set up the Rangers whilst Captain Sheridan took command of Babylon 5 and the focus remained squarely on the station.

A novel, however, can continue this storyline and this one does with aplomb. The book works well with a tight focus on three characters: Sinclair, his lover Catherine Sakai and Marcus Cole. Fans of the TV series were mystified when Catherine Sakai was just dropped from the series, feeling that her character needed a better plot resolution. The introduction of Marcus Cole in the first episode of Season 3 also felt a bit abrupt, with a major new character introduced at a moment when there was a lot going on in the storyline. This book gives us a better understanding of his backstory and the events that led to him joining the Rangers.

Unlike The Shadow Within, To Dream in the City of Sorrows doesn't work as well as a stand-alone book. It intertwines with the second season of Babylon 5 (and flashes forwards to the end of the third) and references events from the comic books as well as the TV show, featuring cameos and mentions of characters which will be meaningless to those who haven't seen the series. This is very much a companion to the TV series rather than a self-contained prequel (like The Shadow Within), and should be read as such. Drennan is a very good writer, having worked extensively in animation as well as writing for B5, and she nails the "voices" of the characters superbly. You can imagine the actors saying this dialogue, which isn't always the case in spin-offs.

The story is pretty good and is fleshed out by a ton of new background details on Minbari culture, history and religion. The Minbari are one of the more interesting Babylon 5 races but their focus on honour did occasionally make them a bit Klingon-like. This novel gives them much more depth, especially to the very-underserved worker caste, and makes their attitudes to life, death and war a bit more understandable.

By its nature, though, the book is a little episodic. Sometimes months pass between chapters and this isn't always spelled out very well. The ending is also a little unsatisfying, lacking the resolution that is still to come in the TV story War Without End and the comic book series In Valen's Name. But the book is well-written, ties up a lot of character arcs and answers a whole host of unanswered questions from the TV show.

To Dream in the City of Sorrows (****) is a good read for established Babylon 5 fans but isn't as welcoming a place for new readers. For those invested in the story of the series, it's good stuff which expands on the background as well as tying up some niggling plot threads the series itself couldn't address. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The Shadow Within by Jeanne Cavelos

November, 2256. Anna Sheridan, an archaeologist working for Interplanetary Expeditions, is investigating an ancient alien artefact recovered from a remote planet. When the artefact scrambles the brain of a telepath, Psi Corps becomes very interested in where the device came from and what it means. Improbably, Interplanetary Expeditions rapidly discovers a candidate for the machine's homeworld - "Alpha Omega III", on the rim of known space - and dispatches a ship, the Icarus, to investigate. Anna joins the crew and discovers a seething mess of corporate espionage, competing interests and hidden secrets hinting at how this planet was discovered so quickly. Anna feels the only person she can trust is an archaeo-linguist suffering a profound grief and trauma: Dr. Morden.

When J. Michael Straczynski started planning his Babylon 5 television series in the late 1980s, he had the idea of creating the first-ever genuinely multimedia franchise. His idea was for the tie-in novels and comic books to be just as important and canonical to the setting as any episode of the television series (Star Wars later tried to do something similar with its Expanded Universe, which ended in failure). In the event this proved challenging: the publishers did not want to spend a lot of money on quality writers and their production schedules for the books was ridiculous. John Vornholt had a month apiece to write his two books in the series and found that so tough he refused to write any more.

After the first six novels came out and, with the honourable exceptions of Vornholt's Voices and Jim Mortimore's Clark's Law, turned out to be terrible, there was a reset of the line. Straczynski assigned the next three book outlines and premises personally and tried to find better writers. The result gave us another awful novel - Betrayals by the normally-reliable S.M. Stirling - but it did finally provide two books which finally fulfilled the potential of the idea by giving us novels that told stories the TV series was unable to. These two books - The Shadow Within and To Dream in the City of Sorrows - are both considered fully canon for the TV show and are pretty decent SF novels in their own right.

The Shadow Within is the more self-contained of the two and can be read without any pre-knowledge of the Babylon 5 setting, especially since the titular station and the regular TV characters barely appear. Instead, the focus is on Anna Sheridan and the mission to Alpha Omega III. This storyline is well-played, although modern readers may draw parallels with the 2012 movie Prometheus. Fortunately, The Shadow Within is far better-written and more plausible in how it depicts the behaviour of the team of scientists and engineers. Jeanne Cavelos is an actual former NASA astrophysicist, which helps with the description and outfitting of a scientific mission.

The book also has a significant subplot, with Captain John Sheridan assuming command of the Omega-class destroyer Agamemnon. To his horror, the crew is lackadaisical and insubordinate, the result of the corruption of the previous captain. This subplot sees Sheridan having to uncover what happened with the previous captain that corrupted so many of the officers and trying to bring the crew up to Earthforce standards, just as the ship is dispatched on an urgent mission. This subplot is pretty decent but feels a little incongruous when contrasted to the Anna story, which is much more interesting.

This storyline also begins to cross-bleed into the horror genre, especially when the Icarus reaches the alien planet to find it is not as dead as was previously indicated. Strange things start happening, crewpeople start going missing, people start behaving weirdly and a growing feeling of doom envelops the story. But there's some big surprises here even for seasoned Babylon 5 fans. The ending in particular transforms Mr. Morden from an evil snake-oil salesman into a much more tragic figure, destroyed by circumstance and grief, which makes you re-examine the character from the TV series.

The Shadow Within (****) is a decent and solid - if rather short - SF novel which works well as a Babylon 5 tie-in and as an introduction to the entire franchise for newcomers. It also serves a prequel to Cavelos's later Passing of the Techno-Mages Trilogy, which picks up on some of the story threads left dangling from this novel and the TV series. The book is available in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 19-20

C19: Grey 17 is Missing
Airdates: 7 October 1996 (US), 1 September 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John C. Flinn III
Cast: Jeremiah (Robert Englund), Neroon (John Vickey), Rathenn (Time Winters), Supervisor (Katherine Moffat), First Man (Eamonn Roche), Maintenance Worker (Thom Barry)

Date: October or November 2260.

Plot:    Telepaths from many races are arriving at Babylon 5 in response to Sheridan’s plea for help from humans and aliens with psi-abilities. He is trying to put telepaths willing to fight the Shadows on as many League, Minbari and Narn rebel ships as possible to slow down the Shadow advance. However, many telepaths are simply unwilling to go up against the Shadows. Ivanova goes Downbelow and finds Franklin, now deep in the grip of stim withdrawal. Despite this, she gets him to hand over his database containing information on the whereabouts of the rogue telepaths he helped to escape Psi Corps (B7). They should be more willing to repay the debt they owe to Babylon 5.

A maintenance worker goes missing in Grey Sector and Garibaldi investigates. He discovers that a religious sect has taken over level Grey 17 and is using it as a hiding place. The sect believes that they spiritually one with the universe and should return to the universe through one act of purity, namely getting killed by the Zarg they have hidden down here. Garibaldi manages to kill the Zarg and (presumably) has the nutters thrown off the station.

Rathenn, Sinclair’s former aide on Minbar, arrives on Babylon 5 with Sinclair’s belongings, which Delenn arranges to be sent on to his family on Earth and Mars. There is another purpose to Rathenn’s visit as well: Delenn has been almost unanimously elected as the new leader of the Rangers. She is startled but agrees to accept the honour. The Rangers begin gathering at Babylon 5, but another familiar face arrives as well: Neroon of the warrior caste, formerly of the Grey Council. He tells her that the religious caste is treading too much on the toes of the warriors by building ships and arming the Rangers. He suggests she surrender control of the Rangers to the warrior caste - him in particular - and when she refuses he indicates he might take the role of Entil’zha by force. Lennier, concerned for Delenn’s safety, goes to Marcus and tells him of Neroon’s presence. Marcus confronts Neroon and they battle one another, Neroon puzzled as to why the human is intervening in Minbari affairs. After the battle is over - with Marcus almost dead - Neroon realises that the Rangers respect Delenn in a way they would could for him and agrees to accept Delenn as Entil’zha.


Friday, 15 December 2017

ALTERED CARBON "amberlit" for Season 2

Netflix seem to be showing a lot of confidence in their new science fiction series Altered Carbon, as they have already ordered preparatory work to begin on a potential second season of the show.

This isn't quite a greenlight for a second season as some venues are reporting - which would need to be formally announced, probably within a few weeks of the show's debut date - but could be called an "amber light", which means that the studio orders scripts, books studio space and invokes holding clauses in actor contracts but these can all be cancelled if they decide not to renew. In the case of Netflix, they tend to give their shows two seasons to prove themselves, so in this case it's less of a gamble. Also, contrary to some reports that have had Altered Carbon cited as Netflix's most expensive show of all time, the series budget is actually around $7 million per episode, the same as Sense8's first season three years ago (so with inflation it's slightly less). Although certainly not cheap, that's well down on Marco Polo's $10 million per episode or The Crown's $12 million.

Season 1 of Altered Carbon arrives on Netflix on 2 February 2018. Meanwhile, you can meet some of the cast via this panel from Brazil's Comic-Con.

Ronald D. Moore developing new SF series for Apple

Ronald D. Moore is developing a new space-set science fiction series for Apple TV.

Moore began his career as a writer and producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season in 1989, before becoming an executive producer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1996-99. He wrote or co-wrote many of the most acclaimed episodes of both series, and also wrote and produced the Star Trek movies Generations and First Contact. After leaving the franchise he worked on Roswell before becoming the showrunner, executive producer and head writer on the Battlestar Galactica reboot (2003-09). Since 2014 Moore has been the executive producer and showrunner on Starz's Outlander, which was recently renewed for a fourth season.

The new series, unnamed at this point, will be set in a parallel history where the Space Race did not end with the moon landings in 1969-72. Instead, the competition between the United States and Soviet Union continues, resulting in the colonisation and commercial exploitation of space at a much earlier point in time than has transpired in reality. It is unclear if the new series will be set earlier in the timeline or in the present, just in this more advanced alternate history.

The premise is not a new one in science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke noted that the Vietnam War threw the Space Race off-track and, without the Cold War heating up, everything he'd predicted in the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey would have transpired by that date. Stephen Baxter also wrote a novel based on the same premise, where the United States sends a manned mission to Mars in the mid-1980s as it continues trying to outdo the Soviet Union's accomplishments in space.

This is a bit of a coup for Apple, who previously poached Bryan Fuller from Starz's American Gods to work on their Amazing Stories anthology project with Steven Spielberg. It is unclear if Moore will be leaving Outlander or will work on both projects simultaneously.

New BLACK COMPANY novel confirmed for 2018

After many years of rumours, raised expectations and blind hopes, Tor Books have finally confirmed that a new Black Company novel will drop in 2018.

Written by genre stalwart Glen Cook, the Black Company novels began in 1984. There are nine books in the series and Cook has long been promising two more, Port of Shadows and A Pitiless Rain. Port of Shadows, a new "interquel" book taking place between The Black Company and Shadows Linger, is now done and will be published on 25 September 2018. The blurb is as follows:
Years into a campaign against the rebels who have rallied behind the White Rose have left the Company jaded and the fact that the Lady seems to have taken particular interest in Croaker since his stay in the Tower hasn't exactly made his life easier.
Now it looks like The Limper is up to his old tricks and is doing what he can to separate Croaker and the Black Company from The Lady's favor. Now Croaker finds his fate tied to a brand new taken. One claiming to be something impossible but feels uncomfortably familiar. It's going to take all of Croaker's cunning to insure that the mechantions of The Lady and her "loyal" taken, The Limper, don't destroy the company once and for all.
The Black Company has been a hugely influential series, with both George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson citing it as a major influence on their works.

The Black Company was optioned as a television series earlier this year by David Goyer and Eliza Dushku, but no further news has emerged on it.

Deadhouse Landing by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Empires are usually born from great deeds and mighty events, order and victories rather than chaos and shadows. But a new power now stands on the brink of realisation. A crew of renegade Napans have washed ashore on remote Malaz Island and formed an  alliance of convenience with a mad mage and an assassin. From the mainland comes a swordsman without equal. On neighbouring Kartool Island a high priest in the cult of D'rek is betrayed and seeks a new home where he can belong. Great powers are drawn to Malaz City, where a new empire will be born when it is least expected and, at its heart, lies the mysterious ruin known as the Deadhouse.

Dancer's Lament, the first novel in the Path to Ascendancy series, introduced the characters of Wu and Dorin, whom history will remember as Kellanved and Dancer, Ammanas and Cotillion, Shadowthrone and the Rope. That book chronicled their first meeting, their first acquaintance with Dassem Ultor, the Mortal Sword of Hood, and their first explorations of the mysterious Realm of Shadow. Deadhouse Landing is its direct sequel but in many respects is the book that I think more established Malazan fans were expecting first time out.

Deadhouse Landing is, simply put, the story of how Kellanved and Dancer recruited their "old guard" of friends and allies and took control of Malaz Island. It turns out this was less pre-planned than previous novels indicated, with Kellanved and Dancer's rise to power emerging from a sequence of improvisations, holding actions and comedies of error, most of them stemming from the idiocy of those who try to oppose them.

This is, remarkably, a slightly shorter book than Dancer's Lament (already one of the shortest books in the Malazan canon) but one that has a much bigger cast. As well as Dancer and Kellanved, the book focuses on the Napan refugees led by Princess Sureth (now reduced to a reluctant barmaid named Surly), Dassem Ultor's journey from Li Heng to Malaz City via a chance meeting with the Seguleh, the misadventures of the priest Tayschrenn in Kartool and the long-suffering indulgences of Tattersail, the mage-mistress of Mock. These are all major figures from the Malazan novels, legends we meet now in their younger days when they were far less wise, less seasoned and more human. We also see some pretty major events alluded to in later books, such as Kellanved's first entry to the Malaz Deadhouse and the running battles through the streets of the city with various criminal gangs.

These struggles in the Malaz City criminal underworld feel a bit overindulged, but at the end of the book makes it clear why we are spending so much time with these knife-hands and thugs, as many of them also show up in Steven Erikson's novels (particularly the early ones), almost all under different names.

Prequels can often feel creatively stifled, the author stymied by the import of actually depicting events which later books talk about as hushed legends. Esslemont has no such reluctance here. Instead, as with Dancer's Lament, this book fairly overflows with enthusiasm and energy. We lose the tight focus of the earlier novel on just three core characters, with the story rotating through a larger number of characters, with less time for each one. But Esslemont makes this work with short and punchy chapters which relate the story with relentless inevitability.

The book doesn't have too many weaknesses. One Malazan fan-favourite villain shows up but doesn't really accomplish anything. His story feels like it could have been dropped in favour of more focus on one of the other storylines, but then this isn't a long book and his total number of pages in the novel isn't very high. Others may complain that too many characters in this book show up to be previously-established Malazan characters from the chronologically later novels, but then that's kind of the point. These are the events that drew the "old guard" and many other famous faces together, so that's less of a bug and more of a feature.

Ultimately, Deadhouse Landing (****½) is another tight and enjoyable read, all the best for its focus and short length even as it describes the mighty events that shaped the Malazan Empire. It builds on the very fine foundation stones laid by Dancer's Lament. It is available now (UK, USA). The third book in the Path to Ascendancy series has the working title Kellanved's Reach and should be out in late 2018 or early 2019.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Disney acquires 20th Century Fox

Disney has agreed to buy out 20th Century Fox from its parent company, 21st Century Fox (formerly News International), and chief executive Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch has been looking to offload 20th Century Fox to focus instead on his sports and news brands in the United States.

The deal is one of the largest entertainment mergers in history, worth over $68 billion (once debts are taken into account). It sees Disney take control of the vast back catalogue, current film slate and future greenlit film projects from Fox and numerous (but not all) TV properties. These include franchises ranging from Alien, Planet of the Apes and Avatar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Simpsons.

Particularly of value to Disney will be the re-merging of properties. As a result of this merger, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (aka “the original one”) is now reunited with the rest of the Star Wars franchise for perpetuity. Previously Fox had permanent ownership of the film (in a deal done with George Lucas to finance budget overruns on The Empire Strikes Back in 1979). More interesting is that the deal also reunites all the characters licensed by Marvel to 20th Century Fox back in the late 1990s, including the X-Men and Deadpool franchises and the upcoming X-Force and Dark Phoenix movies. It also gives Disney distribution rights to the Fantastic Four franchise, although production rights remain with a third party (although without Disney’s cooperation they wouldn’t be able to release any more movies, so this is likely not a major issue). Whether the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters will now be integrated into the upcoming Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (with rumours circling that Phase Four will be a clean-slate reboot, which needs to be confirmed) remains to be seen, but it’s known that Marvel Studios exec Kevin Feige has been particularly eager to get his hands on the X-Men and Fantastic Four roster of villains.

One of the big winners out of this will be Disney’s new streaming service, planned to launch in 2019. This streaming service will now, presumably, have access to 20th Century Fox’s entire back-library of films and TV shows (at least as those licenses with other distributors such Netflix and Amazon expire). In addition, Disney will acquire Fox’s share in online streaming service Hulu, giving them control over the operation. It may even be that Hulu will be transformed into the new Disney streaming service (which will likely have a Disney-branded children’s stream and differently-branded adult service), allowing Disney to build on a successful base rather than starting everything from scratch. Disney’s animation wing will also be strengthened by the addition of The Simpsons, as well as getting an adult-oriented slew of animation programming including Family Guy and Archer.

The deal includes not just 20th Century Fox but also the FX Network Group, National Geographic and Fox’s stake in Sky TV in the UK. Fox’s total buy-out of Sky is more likely to succeed now, with Disney seen as a less controversial choice by the UK government. The Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Television Studios, the Fox News Channel, the Fox Business Network and Fox Sports are excluded and will form their own new, independent company.

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

The Resistance has destroyed Starkiller Base but has failed to prevent the First Order from toppling the Republic. The new rebels are now on the run. On a distant planet Rey has found Luke Skywalker and asks for his help for the Resistance and for herself, as her Force powers are growing exponentially. But Luke has been broken and demoralised by the betrayal of Kylo Ren. Rey and the Resistance both face their lowest ebb as Supreme Leader Snoke himself arrives to oversee the final battle...but there is still the possibility of hope.

Back in 2015, The Force Awakens had the unenviable task of resurrecting a Star Wars franchise that had been let down by three disappointing prequel movies. It succeeded mainly by creating and developing an intriguing new cast of characters, all played by great young actors, whilst furthering the themes of the Force, heroism and self-sacrifice and adding an interesting major new theme of redemption in the shape of Adam Driver's new villain, Kylo Ren. Unfortunately, the film was also highly derivative of what came before, with a new Death Star and a few too many nods at the previous Star Wars movies that were less homages and more re-stagings. Still, it was fun, pacy and energetic and this overwhelmed many of the movie's weaker moments.

The Last Jedi is, fortunately, not as derivative of The Empire Strikes Back as its forebear was of A New Hope, although there are some similarities. It has a similar underlying structure - our Force novice hero (or heroine, in this case) is off training up as a Jedi whilst our other characters are on the run from the Empire - but these plots go in very unexpected directions. A battered, post-traumatic Luke is reluctant to train Rey following his own failure with Kylo Ren and the movie delves deep into this relationship and backstory, as well as expanding on Ren's fascination with Rey and Snoke's desire to train Ren as his heir apparent. This dynamic is compelling, fantastically well-acted (Driver and Daisy Ridley holding their own against a never-better Mark Hamill and another astonishing digital performance from Andy Serkis) and takes several turns which are surprising, refreshing and fascinating. We're light-years from the simplistic "corruption of Anakin" story from the prequels here, and we get several outstanding lightsabre battles along the way.

This is handy, because of the rest of the film is a little bit more variable in quality. It's good to see Finn (John Boyega) back on his feet and he's soon off on a solo adventure with Resistance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who is a breath of fresh air in the franchise. Their story is fun and - rather unexpectedly - taps into weighty issues like capitalist exploitation of disenfranchised workers (although we still don't get any discussion of why enslaving sentient droids is okay). Benicio Del Toro shows up and does vaguely Benicio Del Toro things before abruptly disappearing from the narrative. It's all okay and vaguely amusing but at the end of the movie you realise that Finn's entire story could have been jettisoned from the film without losing anything (other than a couple of dozen minutes from the film's overlong running time) other than a few discussions about the value of friendship and family which, whilst nice, aren't exactly revelatory.

The biggest problem lies in the movie's core chase sequence, where the First Order fleet relentlessly hunts down the last remaining Resistance warship. This creates a rather major plot hole where the storyline could have been resolved at any moment by a couple of the First Order ships making a micro-hyperspace jump ahead of the Resistance and cutting them off, which they don't do because...well, it's never explained. Later on the Resistance use a hyperspace manoeuvre in battle which is, as established in the previous movies, physically impossible (and, if it was possible to do it by tweaking a ship's drives somehow, it would have been used frequently before). Given that this storyline forms a large chunk of the movie's running time and is where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher), along with Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), are hanging out, along with a welcome expanded role for Lt. Connix (Billie Lourd, Fisher's daughter), it's quite a big issue for established Star Wars fans who know the background and canon quite well. Casual viewers likely won't care.

The film brings all the characters back together for a surprisingly twisty climax, complete with at least two stand-out musical homages to the original trilogy and some moments of real humour. Much has been made of the "surprises" in the movie and there are a few things that definitely don't go the way people will be expecting. But ultimately this is Star Wars and there are limits to Lucasfilm's conceptual boldness, even if they do press up against them from time to time.

The Last Jedi (***½) is, once again, energetic, well-directed and has some great dialogue and fantastic performances. Also once again, the central storyline is more than a little stupid and there are plot holes big enough to pilot Supreme Leader Snoke's 60km-wide Super Duper Star Destroyer through, which grate a little bit more this time around (since I think Rian Johnson is a better writer and director than Abrams, but he doesn't knock it out of the park here). The best Star Wars movie since Empire? No. The best once since Rogue One, and that's still entertaining enough for now. But Episode IX will really need to up its game. The film is on general release now.