Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

New STAR WARS movie loses directors mid-production

In an unexpected movie, the Star Wars Han Solo spin-off movie has lost both of its directors more than halfway through shooting.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who had formerly directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street and its sequel, had been employed by Lucasfilm to helm the Han Solo film (which apparently has the working title Solo) and filming began back in February. All seemed well, with cast and crew posting images from what seemed to be a relaxed and fun shoot.

It now turns out that this was not the case. Having tapped Lord and Miller for their loose, improvisational and comedic style, Lucasfilm seemed to develop issues when they approached the Star Wars project with a loose, improvisational and comedic style. In particular, writer-producer Lawrence Kasdan was unhappy with them encouraging the actors to go off-script and producer/Lucasfilm Supreme Leader Kathleen Kennedy was concerned that the film's tone wasn't in keeping with all things Star Wars.

Things came to a head when the studio began planning reshoots, with Kennedy making it clear she wanted the directors to get back on-script and curb their more chaotic sensibilities. The directors refused, apparently leading to them leaving. Some are reporting that they were effectively fired by Lucasfilm, but their own statement puts a more positive spin on things, saying the decision was taken mutually.

Directors leaving a project is hardly unusual, but about three-quarters of the way through actual shooting is unheard of in modern cinema. Lucasfilm are apparently now keen on getting a replacement on board as soon as possible, with steady hand, experienced industry veteran and past George Lucas collaborator Ron Howard looking the most likely to pick up the slack. Joe Johnston is also in the frame if Howard is unavailable, with the final choice being Kasdan himself (although this would have to be a last resort, due to Director's Guild rules on replacing directors with other personnel already on a film).

The Han Solo movie is still aiming for a May 2018 release. Expect to see this fall back to December if the producers decide more extensive reshoots - or even a full remounting of the picture from scratch - are required.

Damon Lindelof penning frankly unnecessary WATCHMEN adaptation for HBO

Damon Lindelof has been tapped by HBO to adapt the graphic novel Watchmen, by professional writer-druid Alan Moore, to television, despite this not being anything anyone really needs in their life.

Zack Snyder helmed a perfunctory but perfectly serviceable movie version of Watchmen back in 2009. Although it was a little compressed fitting the big graphic novel into just two and a half hours, it got the job done and was reasonably faithful - maybe too faithful - to the novel. However, HBO have now picked up the TV rights so they can make a new version which will probably be pretty similar to the 2009 version, since it will have an identical plot and the same cast of characters, just with different actors playing them.

Scriptwriter Damon Lindelof will be helming the new project, as he continues to play Russian Roulette with his career. He charmed millions of fans with his TV series Lost, only to annoy them with a somewhat confused ending, and then really annoyed lots of people with his scripts for Star Trek (2009) and Prometheus (2012), which were both troubled. More recently, however, he has won plaudits for his work on HBO's The Leftovers, which recently concluded a three-season run with a lot of critical acclaim and plaudits.

Meanwhile, graphic novel fans have confirmed that there are more graphic novels in existence than just Watchmen, and if maybe someone wants to take a shot at one of those instead, that would be just fine.

GAME OF THRONES Season 7 trailer

HBO have released their latest and biggest trailer yet for the seventh and penultimate season of Game of Thrones.

The seventh season of Game of Thrones debuts on 16 July on HBO in the US, with it airing on Sky Atlantic a day later in the UK.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Babylon 5 Rewatch: Setting the Scene - The Major Powers of 2257

Ahead of my upcoming Babylon 5 rewatch, it may be useful to set the scene of what is going on in the B5 universe when the series pilot episode opens. This information is not strictly necessary, but it may be helpful in reminding people in what space empire did what to whom and when.

This first article focuses on the major races and alliances. A second will focus on the B5 station and some of the underlying concepts of the show.

The Galaxy in 2257

By the beginning of the Earth year 2257, the galaxy has become divided between five major powers and a plethora of smaller worlds. A series of brutal interstellar wars has taken its toll and there is a desire in the galaxy for peace, a time of trade and diplomacy when differences can be resolved without the need for violence. To capitalise on this, the Earth Alliance has constructed an immense space station, Babylon 5, in neutral space. Representatives from dozens of worlds have gathered to meet in security to further their goals of peaceful cooperation.

It is an ambitious, expensive and controversial undertaking, many on Earth seeing it as a waste of time and demanding that the money should be better spent on the homeworld. But its potential is incredible, opening the markets of dozens of worlds for goods and allowing for the exchange of scientific and medical knowledge to help cure plagues and make new discoveries.

For the five major powers, each has its own goals and interests in the Babylon Project.

The Earth Alliance
Founded: 2085
Homeworld: Earth
Capital: Earthdome, Geneva, Switzerland
Governing body: The Earth Alliance Senate
Head of state: President Luis Santiago

The Earth Alliance is one of the youngest races on the galactic scene. It only joined the interstellar community in 2156, when a scout ship from the Centauri Republic inadvertently stumbled across the Solar system during a routine survey. The arrival of the Centauri was fortuitous, for it united a world creaking at the seams and which had been on the verge of a possibly terminal nuclear conflict. Within a few years, the Alliance had purchased jump drive technology from the Centauri and begun a remarkable diaspora, settling a dozen major colonies and many more military and scientific outposts across dozens of systems close to Earth.

The Earth Alliance established itself as a major power in 2232 when it intervened in the Dilgar War. The Dilgar Imperium had launched a lightning military campaign, scouring out a path of conquest through several minor powers, including the Abbai, Drazi, Ipsha and Vree. Earth initially refused to get involved, but the Dilgar crossed a line when they attacked the Markab Confederacy, one of Earth’s earliest trading allies. The Alliance military – Earthforce – responded with a ferocious counter-offensive that caught the Dilgar completely by surprise and threw them back to their homeworld in less than a year of heavy fighting. Just a couple of years later, the Dilgar homeworld was incinerated when its star went supernova (this being the primary cause for the Dilgar conquests, with the proud empire refusing to ask for help). The Earth Alliance was established as a major player on the galactic scene and Earth became confident and proud…too confident.

In 2245 the Earth Alliance made contact with the ancient, proud, isolationist and incredibly powerful Minbari Federation. The first contact went horrendously wrong, with the Earthforce vessels opening fire in the mistaken belief that the Minbari were going to attack. This incident triggered a war that lasted three years and finally saw the Minbari fleet mount an assault on Earth itself. During this desperate final engagement – the Battle of the Line – the Minbari abruptly ceased fire and departed. The Alliance began rebuilding, uncertain why it had been spared at the moment of final defeat. The prevailing theory is that the Minbari religious caste had objected to genocide, the mass slaughter of billions of civilians, and had compelled the end of the war, but the truth of the matter has never been revealed.

The Earth Alliance Omega-class destroyer. Introduced after the war with the Minbari, this is Earth's most formidable warship and the first to simulate gravity through the use of rotating sections.

Since the end of the Earth-Minbari War, the Alliance has pursued a less bellicose and arrogant role in interstellar affairs, proposing the Babylon Project as a forum for interstellar diplomacy so such a war might never happen again. Surprisingly, they have been backed in this project by the Minbari themselves, as well as Earth’s more traditional allies among the League of Non-aligned Worlds and the Centauri Republic.

The Earth Alliance is ruled from the custom-built administrative city of Earthdome, located near Geneva, Switzerland, on Earth. The major colonies of the Earth Alliance include Mars, Io, Proxima III, Orion VII, Vega and Beta Durani. An increasingly significant player on Earth is Psi Corps, the organisation which regulates telepaths.

The Centauri Republic
Founded: c. 1250
Homeworld: Centauri Prime
Capital: The Capital
Governing body: The Centaurum
Head of state: Emperor Turhan

The Centauri are a (mostly) humanoid species hailing from the planet Centauri Prime, located about 90 light-years from Earth. The Centauri began their expansion into space at least nine centuries before Earth’s first stumbling steps towards the stars and within five centuries had established nothing less than an interstellar empire, subjugating several vassal-races and conquering planets to strip them of their resources.

The Centauri Republic peaked about a century before they made contact with Earth (fortunately for humanity, who otherwise might have been enslaved rather than befriended); one of the last gasps of Centauri imperialism was the invasion of the Narn homeworld in 2109. Although successful, the Narn proved fractious and unwilling subjects. A century of gradually escalating bloodshed and rebellion saw the Centauri finally withdraw from Narn in the early 23rd Century. Other rebellions and economic contraction saw the Centauri abandon many of their outposts and conquests, falling back to just a dozen major colonies. The Centauri notably failed to intervene in the Dilgar War and also refused to help their allies in the Earth Alliance during the war with the Minbari. Although both actions were prudent, they were also seen as cowardly and the Centauri reputation moved from that of a bold imperial power to a decadent, corrupt shadow of its former self, little more than a tourist attraction.

Ambassador Londo Mollari of the House Mollari.

Although they have a reputation as has-beens, the Centauri remain one of the most technologically advanced civilisations in local space; only the Minbari and Vorlons are more powerful, and both are far more isolationist. The Centauri military is large and formidable, if only deployed in recent times for defence. Also, whilst the Republic has been reduced to just twelve major planets, each of these is old, long-settled and populous (compared to many of Earth’s much younger colonies, with only a few tens of thousands of settlers apiece).

The Centauri Republic is ruled by a hereditary emperor – currently Turhan – who is advised by a Council of Ministers. The Centauri noble houses meet in a vast forum known as the Centaurum to discuss matters of import.

Like many species, the Centauri possess telepaths, who are organised into a guild. The Centauri do not seem to have as many telepaths as Earth and Minbar, and seem to employ them frequently for interrogation, intelligence-gathering and corporate espionage.

The Centauri are noted for their flamboyant hair, which men wear in an elaborate crest. Usually, the longer and more elaborate the hair, the more powerful and influential the house. Elderly Centauri men sometimes wear wigs when their hair stops growing. Centauri women shave their heads (sometimes growing a single ponytail) as a sign of "rising above" such petty gestures.

The Narn Regime
Founded: c. 2220s
Homeworld: Narn
Capital: G'Kamazad
Governing body: The Kha'Ri

The Narn are a race of reptilian humanoids (with marsupial reproductive characteristics) originating on the planet Narn, located about 20 light-years from Earth. They are the youngest major power of the local galactic scene.

The Narn established a peaceful, tolerant and religious society a thousand years ago, when their formerly fractious tribes were united by the religious leader G’Quan. The Narn had only just taken their first faltering steps into space and established their first interstellar colony on Ragesh III when the Centauri Republic stumbled across them. The Republic noted that the Narn homeworld was rich in resources, so brutally annexed the planet. The Narn were enslaved, forced to strip-mine their own planet to fuel the Centauri economy. At first the Narn tried to practice peaceful, passive resistance, but as the occupation continued and the death toll climbed into the millions they turned to violence. An escalating series of increasingly brutal rebellions began in the mid-22nd Century and continued without surcease for decades. The Centauri reprisals were brutal, bloody and indiscriminate. Large stretches of the planet were laid waste, the formerly vast forests razed and the planet acquiring its noted red hue.

Ambassador G'Kar of the Narn Regime.

Eventually the Centauri realised that the cost of invading and occupying Narn had grown far greater than the return from its resources. Driven by the peace-favouring policies of the young and idealistic Emperor Turhan when he took the throne, the Centauri formerly withdrew from Narn in the early 23rd Century.

The Narn were nothing if not industrious. They seized everything the Centauri had left behind – weapons, spacecraft, equipment – and turned it to their own advantage. With an industry that was truly impressive they quickly built their own war machine and established their own interstellar alliances. The Narn quickly gained a reputation for being bellicose, aggressive and cynical (they sold weapons to Earth during the Minbari War, but only ones they had stolen from the Centauri so if the Minbari discovered them, they’d assume that the Centauri were responsible), but also capable of surprising subtlety when required.

The Narn Regime now spans half a dozen or so major colonies. They are governed by a council known as the Kha’Ri and have built a formidable military at least the equal of Earth’s in capability (if not in size). The Narn are organised as a strict militaristic hierarchy, a necessity given the harsh circumstances on their homeworld, but they also have a strong religious tradition. G’Quan remains their most venerated religious figure.

Unusually, the Narn possess no telepaths, something they see as a tremendous tactical disadvantage. Narn geneticists have been attempting to introduce the telepath gene to their species for decades, to no success.

The Minbari Federation
Founded: c. 1250
Homeworld: Minbar
Capital: Yedor
Governing body: The Grey Council
Head of state: None at present (a new one is due to be elected in 2259)

The Minbari are a humanoid species, noted for their distinctive bald heads and the large bones which extend out of their skulls (often sculpted into fearsome or aesthetically pleasing shapes). They are a study in contrasts: the Minbari are a deeply spiritual and peaceful people, given to meditation, art and music. They are also industrious builders and seekers of knowledge. And, when roused to anger, they are a formidable and utterly terrifying force, implacable and overwhelming in battle. The Minbari starfleet, centred on their elegant Sharlin-class warcruisers, is the most powerful in known space (aside maybe from the Vorlons), capable of overcoming any threat with almost contemptuous ease.

Relatively little is known of the Minbari. They hail from the planet Minbar, a somewhat cold world rich in crystalline deposits located several dozen light-years from Earth. The Minbari cut their cities directly out of crystal formations. They are ancient, establishing civilisation on their planet when humans were still living in caves. The Minbari have had spaceflight technology for over a thousand years, but they have been cautious, slow to expand and explore surrounding space and have only established fourteen major colonies (all of them far older, larger and more populous than any of Earth's). They have, however, developed technology that outstrips that of even the Centauri by centuries.

A senior Minbari of the warrior caste.

The Minbari have shared almost nothing of their past history with other races. It is known that they are divided into three castes: religious, worker and warrior, each with strict areas of responsibility and control. They do not worship gods, as such, but more the spirit of the universe itself, with their priests combining the role of historian, philosopher and spirit guide. Their most venerated holy figure is Valen, who overcame a period of disgruntlement between the three castes by founding the Grey Council, a ruling body with three representatives from each caste, approximately a thousand years ago. Remarkably, no Minbari is said to have ever killed another Minbari in anger or violence for centuries.

The Minbari have a reputation for xenophobia, although this is not quite accurate. The Minbari, particularly of the religious caste, are curious about other races but also wary of them, seeing many other races as barbarous, violent and consumed by greed and fear. The Minbari limit contact with other worlds, but they have established strong trade and scientific trades with a select few.
The Minbari, like most races, possess telepaths. Minbari telepaths serve the religious caste and are noted for their utterly formidable mental discipline and control, the result of millennia of training.

The Minbari Sharlin-class warcruiser, the primary capital ship of the Minbari Federation. During the Earth-Minbari War, only two Minbari warcruisers were destroyed, compared to hundreds of Earth vessels.

In August 2245, the Minbari made contact with Earth, when their flagship encountered a human scouting fleet on the fringes of Minbari space. Believing the Minbari vessel was about to attack, Captain Jankowski of the EAS Prometheus made the decision to open fire. A freak shot managed to penetrate the Minbari warcruiser’s hull and killed Dukhat, the leader of the Grey Council. The Minbari declared a holy war against the vastly inferior Earth Alliance. In three years of almost completely one-sided warfare the Minbari destroyed most of Earth’s space forces and destroyed several colonies before it finally located Earth and mounted a final assault. On the verge of a major victory, the Minbari abruptly turned and left, choosing to spare humanity rather than committing an act of genocide.

Since the end of the Minbari War, the Minbari have been more active in galactic affairs. To the surprise of many, they have been supportive of the Babylon Project, co-sponsoring the construction of Babylon 5. The Minbari participation in the project has gone a long way to giving it legitimacy and encouraging participation by other races.

The Vorlon Empire
Founded: unknown
Homeworld: unknown
Governing body: The Vorlon High Command

Nothing is known about the Vorlons. Or almost nothing. The Vorlon Empire occupies a vast stretch of space several hundred light-years from Earth. No ship enters Vorlon space without their permission, and they never give permission. The Vorlons are utterly immune to diplomacy, threats or bribes. They communicate with other races when they want to for reasons of their choosing. They are not interested in economics, religion or diplomacy. They speak in metaphors and gnomic utterances, sometimes revelatory in meaning but mostly baffling.

The Vorlons are suspected to employ organic technology, living starships, although both the rarity of encountering a Vorlon ship and the fact they are almost completely undetectable to the instruments of lesser races means this cannot be confirmed. Their spacecraft are extraordinarily manoeuvrable, with even the smallest apparently capable of solo jumps (an impossibility for other races, with even the Minbari struggling to fit jump drives on vessels much smaller than a destroyer). The largest Vorlon ships ever seen are approximately two miles in length, dwarfing the capital ships of most other races.

A Vorlon in its encounter suit.

Even the true appearance of the Vorlons is unknown. They only meet other races when clad in encounter suits which completely hide their true appearance. They claim this is due to their atmospheric requirements being exotic and unusual compared to other races, but this regarded with scepticism. It is unknown if they possess telepaths or not, with their encounter suits apparently blocking all telepathic impulses.

The first official contact between Earth and the Vorlon Empire came by way of a transmission from Vorlon space in late 2256, confirming that they would be sending a representative to the Babylon 5 space station, to the absolute shock of almost all the other races on the station. The reason for the Vorlons breaking their long isolation is, surprisingly, unknown.

The League of Non-aligned Worlds
Founded: prior to 2230
Member states: the Abbai Matriarchy, the Brakiri Syndicracy, the Drazi Freehold, the Gaim Intelligence, the Hyach Grand Council, the Markab Confederacy, the Vree Conglomerate, Balos, Cascor, Grome, Hurr, Ipsha, Llort, Onteen, Pak'ma'ra, Ventuki and Yolu (among others).

As well as the five major powers, local space is home to many dozens of smaller, more independent worlds. Many decades ago, the strongest of these smaller powers - the Drazi, Gaim, Brakiri, Markab, Vree and Hyach - were convinced by the Abbai to band together into an alliance which could stand united against any of the major powers, particularly the Centauri (several League worlds used to be Centauri vassals). This provided both mutual security and also provided a forum for airing grievances and resolving problems before they escalated into war.

Abbai representatives to the Babylon 5 Advisory Council. 

Although fine in practice, the limitations of the idea were confirmed in 2230 when the Dilgar Imperium invaded League space, occupying Balos XII and sweeping through several other systems. In concert, the League could have driven the Dilgar back but petty national jealousies and rivalries saw them unable to act together (in particular, no race was willing to place its military under the command of an outsider). The Dilgar exploited these rivalries expertly. The war only ended in 2232 when the Earth Alliance attacked the Dilgar fleets, taking them by surprise and driving them out of League space in disarray.

Gaim (left) and Drazi (right) representatives to the Babylon 5 Advisory Council.

After the Dilgar War, the League regrouped and has adopted a new philosophy of establishing alliances with the major powers. They have forged closer ties with the Earth Alliance, the Narn Regime (with whom they share a distrust of the Centauri) and even the Minbari, who have grown less isolationist since their own war with Earth. The League participates in the Babylon Project, with ten of the League races representing their concerns to the Babylon 5 Advisory Council. Controversially, however, the League only has one vote on the council despite representing many worlds.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's CHILDREN OF TIME optioned for film

Adrian Tchaikovsky's stand-alone science fiction novel Children of Time has been optioned for film by Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate Pictures.

The novel was originally published in 2015 and won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel. It was Tchaikovksy's first work of SF, having previously written and published the ten-volume Shadows of the Apt fantasy series between 2008 and 2014. The novel depicts humans fleeing from a dying Earth who stumble across a verdant paradise world, terraformed by explorers many years earlier. However, they also find a new intelligent species on the planet, with a major conflict threatening to erupt.

Congratulations to Adrian! Lionsgate are on a push for genre works to adapt to television and film, having recently also acquired the rights to Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle series.

Monday, 19 June 2017

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY gets air date

Star Trek: Discovery has finally gotten its airdate. The first episode will debut on CBS in the United States on 24 September.

The first season of fifteen episodes will air in two batches. The first eight episodes will air from September through November, with the show taking a hiatus over Christmas and returning in January 2018 for the back seven.

The first episode will air on CBS but the rest of the series will be exclusive to CBS All-Access in the States. The show will air internationally on Netflix, probably the day after its initial release. The limited release format for the series, a troubled production schedule and the show being yet another prequel (widely perceived as being redundant and lacking tension) have resulted in a surprising lack of excitement for the first new Star Trek TV series in a dozen years. At least now we know when it will be airing and when viewers will - hopefully - be pleasantly surprised.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

BABYLON 5 rewatch incoming

After a lot of requests, I have decided to embark on a Babylon 5 rewatch project, in a similar vein to my Lost rewatch series from last year. It might be a couple of weeks before it gets underway, if anyone fancies tagging along on the journey.

My plan is to cover everything that is officially part of the Babylon 5 canon, including things that I've never watched before (including about half of Crusade and the TV movies Legends of the Rangers and The Lost Tales) and also most of the canon books and comics. I'll be following the standard viewing order, starting with The Gathering and moving on from there.

Approximate Watching/Reading Order

The Gathering (TV movie)
Season 1
In Darkness Find Me (comic one-shot)
Season 2, Episodes 1-2
The Price of Peace (comic story arc)
Season 2, Episodes 3-4
Shadows Past and Present (comic story arc)
Voices (novel)
Season 2, Episodes 5-17
The Shadow Within (novel)
Season 2, Episodes 18-22
To Dream in the City of Sorrows (novel)
Season 3
In Valen's Name (comic story arc)
Season 4
In the Beginning (TV movie)
Thirdspace (TV movie)
Season 5, Episodes 1-21
The Legions of Fire (novel trilogy)
The Passing of the Technomages (novel trilogy)
Season 5, Episode 22
River of Souls (TV movie)
A Call to Arms (TV movie)
Legend of the Rangers (TV movie)
The Lost Tales (TV movie)

Note that whilst the canon novels and comics do expand on elements from the series a lot, and very well, they are not necessary for a thorough enjoyment of the series itself.

RIP Stephen Furst

The actor Stephen Furst has sadly passed away at the age of 63, from complications related to diabetes.

Furst rose to prominence in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), where he played the role of Flounder. He got the role during a side-job delivering pizzas. One of the film's producers saw his headshot taped to the inside of a pizza box and auditioned him. Furst reprised the role of Flounder in the short-lived TV spin-off, Delta House (1979).

Furst then became known for his role as Dr. Axelrod on St. Elsewhere (1983-88). His character was seen as jovial and bumbling, but as the series proceeded became more competent and respected. His character was killed off shortly before the series itself terminated.

In 1993 Furst was cast in his most iconic role when he joined the cast of Babylon 5 as Vir Cotto, assistant and aide to Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik). The pilot episode only had the three alien ambassadors, but writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski realised that they each needed an attache as someone from their own race they could talk to. Vir made his debut in the first episode of the first season proper, Midnight on the Firing Line. Like most of the secondary cast, he did not appear in every episode, something he appreciated as it allowed him to also appear in other shows and projects.

During the second season (1994-95), Vir became a significantly more complex and rounded character when Straczynski gave him the role of Londo's conscience, his "good angel" as contrasted to the "evil angel" of Morden (Ed Wasser). The rivalry between the two characters culminated in Vir's eventual victory and, in the final episode of the series, his succession to Londo as Emperor of the Centauri Republic. His character went on to play a major role in the spin-off novels, particularly Peter David's well-received Legions of Fire trilogy where Vir helps liberate Centauri Prime from the Drakh.

Stephen Furst played the role with vigour and conviction. A passionate liberal, he and arch-Republican Jerry Doyle (who played Mr. Garibaldi) would engage in political debates on set which other castmembers enjoyed (to varying degrees). Furst was also encouraged by his newfound fame with the show's viewers and growing health concerns (he had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes just a few years earlier) to get into better shape, visibly shedding weight between seasons.

Furst also began a new career as a director thanks to Babylon 5. He directed three of the show's best-received episodes (The Illusion of Truth, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars and The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father) as well as two episodes of its spin-off series, Crusade.

He continued to work as a director on TV movies for SyFy, as well as occasionally appearing in guest roles on other shows.

Furst's death brings the number of premature deaths of the Babylon 5 main cast to a startling six. Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin) passed away in 2004, followed by Andreas Katsulas (Ambassador G'Kar) in 2006, Jeff Conaway (Security Chief Zack Allen) in 2011, Michael O'Hare (Commander Sinclair) in 2012 and Jerry Doyle (Mr. Garibaldi) almost exactly a year ago. Other people involved in the show have also passed away, such as recurring actor Tim Choate (Zathras) in 2004 and CGI pioneer Ron Thornton last year, who created a lot of the show's distinctive visual look.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry August has a pretty ordinary life. He is born in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1919 and dies in a hospital in Newcastle in 1989. In the meantime he has different jobs, various relationships and tries to move on from his difficult family life. But when he dies he finds himself as a child again, regaining his memories of his prior life. This happens again. And again.

Harry is an Ouroboran, destined to live his life again and again. He is one of hundreds, and through the overlapping lifespans of Ouroborans it is possible to send and receive messages from the distant past and distant future. But, in Harry's eleventh life, the messages from the future start changing: the world is ending, and it is accelerating. When Harry's fellow Ouroborans start permanently dying (by someone assassinating their parents before they conceived) or having their memories wiped, and amazing technology appears decades early, he realises that one of their number has betrayed them and is using their power for their own ends, with destructive consequences for humanity.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was released in 2014 and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, as well as being nominated for the Arthur C. Clark Award. It gained surprising widespread prominence after being featured on the UK's biggest TV book show. It is written by Catherine Webb under the pseudonym Claire North, which she uses to explore protagonists with unusual abilities (The Sudden Appearance of Hope is in a similar vein).

Webb is a constantly intriguing and interesting author, shifting genres and prose styles with enviable ease as she explores different ideas and characters. At her best, she comes across as a restless, far more prolific and slightly less repetitive (but also somewhat more wordy) Christopher Priest, with her books dwelling on themes such as identity and motivation amongst shifting realities and points of view.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August may be her finest novel to date. The central premise is incredibly strong and it deals with the existential questions surrounding the idea in surprising depth and with logic. Questions are raised such as if the Ouroborans are living in the same world, changing it each time they live through it, or if they are skipping from one timeline to another, and the moral consequences of that for the timelines they leave behind upon death. The overlapping lifespans of different Ouroborans allow them to bring back knowledge from the distant future (since an Ouroboran born in say 1984 dies in the late 21st Century, is reborn, reveals that information to another one who was born in 1925, who can pass it back in their next life etc) and this raises moral quandaries about if they should hoard their knowledge or try to improve humanity's lot.

This latter question consumes much of the novel, especially when it becomes clear that trying to change things often results in far worse consequences. But the dry time travel shenanigans are contrasted against Harry's characterisation, especially the trauma he carries from his first life and his intriguing relationship with a sometimes-nemesis Vincent. The path of the Ouroboran can be a lonely, frustrating one and Harry's dislike of Vincent for his relaxed morality is tempered with respect for his intelligence and just the company of a fellow travel on a journey through their looping lives. This relationship forms the core of the novel and is developed with relish by the author.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (*****) is a smart and thoughtful reflection on life, love, loss, identity, science and the end of the world. It is available now in the UK and USA.