Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Dogs of Science Fiction and Fantasy

A couple of years ago, I took a look at The Cats of Science Fiction and Fantasy. However, dogs feel a bit overlooked in the SFF field. Mention cats and everyone immediately thinks of Greebo from Discworld, Jones from the Alien franchise or Spot from Star Trek. Dogs initially seemed a bit less prominent. Fortunately, a few social media appeals later and it turns out that there's a lot of dogs out there holding up the canine end in speculative fiction.

Note that this is a list of dogs only, not shapeshifting beings who take dog form or wolves (who could be a separate list altogether).

Huan battles Carcharoth, Hound of Sauron. Art by Ted Naismith.

The most powerful dog on this list (probably) is Huan, the Hound of the Valar in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium. Formerly the companion of Orome the Huntsman, he was gifted to Celegorm of the Noldor, the greatest of the elven hunters. He was an enormous dog, the size of a small pony, and a tracker beyond compare. When the Noldor betrayed the Ban of the Valar and pursued the fleeing Morgoth to Middle-earth, Huan went with Celegorm and committed many great deeds both on hunts and in battle. However, the years of war made Celegorm cruel and heartless. When he tried to subdue the elven princess Luthien during her quest to rescue her lover Beren, Huan betrayed his master and joined Luthien's quest. Many great deeds were then done, but Huan's crowning moment of glory came in the assault on Morgoth's prison, commanded by his lieutenant Sauron (yup, the same one from The Lord of the Rings). Huan defeated Sauron in combat, proving that the Fellowship of the Ring's mission would have been a lot easier had they brought a magical demigod/dog (demidog?) with them. Later, Huan did battle with his opposite number, the dark wolf Carcharoth, and saved Beren from the beast. Carcharoth was killed, but Huan was mortally wounded in battle. Using his little-used power of speech, Huan wished Beren and Luthien well before dying.

Huan appears in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien. He was a very good dog.

Gaspode the (self-proclaimed) Wonder Dog is a flea-bitten mongrel living on the streets of Ankh-Morpork. Due to too many years spent fishing food out of the back alleys behind the magical Unseen University, Gaspode acquired the power of intelligence and speech, which he used to great advantage, most notably his trademark greeting of saying the word "Woof!", which confused passers-by into feeding him. Gaspode harboured his secret carefully, but from time to time people discovered the truth about him and provided him with food and shelter. At one point Gaspode was offered a warm new home with a living family, but found that he enjoyed living on the streets so much he didn't want to leave them and ran away again.

Gaspode was friends and allies with Laddie, a beautiful and impeccably-groomed dog with a nose for finding people stuck down wells or hanging off cliffs and rescuing them at the last moment. Laddie was charismatic, handsome, dumber than a box of frogs that had eaten stupid pills (even by dog standards) and generally credited with whatever heroic feat Gaspode had masterminded, to the latter's profound annoyance. Gaspode tolerated Laddie's presence mainly because it radically increased the quality of food he could cream off passers-by.

Gaspod was named after "The Famous Gaspode", a dog noted for lying by his master's grave and howling in despair night after night before dying of a broken heart. Or possibly because his tail was trapped under the headstone and he starved to death. As Gaspode would say, "That just goes to show."

Gaspode appears in the Discworld novels Moving Pictures, Men at Arms, Soul Music, Feet of Clay, Hogfather, The Fifth Elephant and The Truth. Laddie appears in Moving Pictures. They are both good dogs.

Krypto, sometimes called "Superdog", is an ally and sometimes-described "pet" of Prince Kal-El, better known as Superman. He was test-fired into space by Kal-El's father, Jor-El, to test the spacecraft technology that later brought Kal-El to Earth after Krypton's destruction. Due to a malfunction, Krypto's spacecraft did not arrive on Earth until many years after Kal-El's arrival. Because of their shared Kryptonian heritage, Krypto gained powers comparable to Superman, including flight and super-strength. Krypto also gained increased intelligence to near-human-like levels and had a superior sense of smell to Superman.

Technically Krypto is an alien dog-analogue, rather than a dog himself. However, Smallville gives Krypto a new origin as a terrestrial dog who gets his powers from a different source.

Krypto appears, of course, in numerous Superman comics, animated series and spin-offs. His first appearance was in March 1955 in Adventure Comics #210 and he continues to appear in the comics to this day, sometimes in his own title. He is a very good alien dog.

Dogmeat is the name given to a number of canines in post-apocalyptic Earth. The first Dogmeat was encountered by the Vault Dweller in a junkyard in 2161 and became his constant companion in his mission to save Vault 13 from running out of water. In 2241 the Chosen One met another dog called Dogmeat, ostensibly the same one despite the passage of eighty years.

A third Dogmeat was found by the Lone Wanderer in 2277 in the Capital Wasteland near Washington, DC, living in a scrapyard near the entrance to Vault 108. A fourth Dogmeat was found by the Sole Survivor in the Commonwealth surrounding the ruins of Boston. This last Dogmeat could be customised with armour and accessories to be more effective in battle.

All of the Dogmeats were loyal, fierce companions who aided their masters in battle, could sniff out supplies and identify threats.

Dogmeat, of course, appears in Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3 and Fallout 4. They were all very good dogs.

Rex is a Mk. III Cyberhound, Leo Support Model, a fusion of canine and robot, living in the city of New Vegas, Nevada, as the pet/bodyguard of the King. During the war between Caesar's Legion and the New California Republic, the King allowed Rex to join the Courier during her battle to save the Mojave Wasteland. Rex was initially old and decrepit, but over the course of her adventures the Courier could upgrade and repair Rex's systems and restore him to full health.

During the Courier's visit to the Big MT she also encountered a similar Cyberdog named Roxie. Roxie and Rex later met, joined forces and constructed a litter of Cyberpuppies, a collection of Boston terrifiers that brought woe to their enemies.

Rex appears in Fallout: New Vegas as that game's stand-in for Dogmeat. Roxie appears in the New Vegas expansion Old World Blues. Both are, naturally, very good (cyber)dogs.

Dug is a golden retriever owned by Charles Muntz, capable of speech thanks to a special invention. He lives to find The Bird and is a Great Tracker. He is not keen on The Hole and dislikes being made to wear The Cone of Shame. He hides under The Porch because he loves you, even though he's only just met you.


Dug appears in the Pixar movie Up (after a cameo appearance in the preceding movie, Ratatouille). He is a very good dog.

Gromit is a beagle who is the best friend and pet of the cheese-obsessed eccentric inventor Wallace. Despite their master/pet relationship, Gromit is highly intelligent and a very capable engineer. He is also far better at thinking on his feet than Wallace and usually is the one to come up with a solution to the problems unleashed by Wallace's latest and most insane invention. Gromit shares Wallace's obsession with cheese, to the point of helping him construct a spacecraft to travel to the Moon to investigate claims of it being made of cheese (it was).

Gromit is also an accomplished pilot and driver, and has a taste for classical literature, philosophy and art. He is something of a Renaissance dog. He also has a NASA prototype rover named after him. He is also a good dog, despite his curious aversion to penguins.

Delirium, her sister Death and Barnabas. Art by Colleen Doran,

Barnabas is a dog adopted by Destruction, one of the godlike beings known as the Endless. Due to his lengthy exposure to Destruction, he gained the ability to speak and was known to have a taste for fine art that led him to being critical of Destruction's dabbling. When Dream and Delirium finally found Destruction after a long search, Destruction gave Barnabas to Delirium as a pet. Despite early misgivings, Barnabas came to love his eccentric new mistress, whilst he gave Delirium a focus and helped soothe her more troubled episodes.

Barnabas appears in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel series, first appearing in Brief Lives. He is a very good dog.

The Hounds of Darkness, Shadow and Light are canine-like beings native to the Warrens. They are incredibly powerful, savage and unreasoning in battle, but they are also focused on their objective and will generally not deviate from that to target innocents. The Hounds answer to the masters of their respective Warrens.

The Hounds of Shadow were servants of Shadowthrone (before he took control of the Throne of Shadow, they were agents in the service of the warren itself, and apparently allied to the mysterious being known as Edgewalker) and Cotillion. They numbered eight, two of whom were killed in battle with Anomander Rake. It was later revealed that they once answered to the Tiste Edur and refused to face them in battle, even when ordered to do so by Cotillion.

The Hounds of Darkness - the Deragoth - are believed to have originated as the D'ivers form of Dessimbelackis, the powerful human sorcerer and king whose downfall heralded the end of the First Empire. However, early reports of the Hounds suggest they were extant half a million years ago, long before Dessimbelackis was allegedly born. This paradox has not been addressed.

The Hounds of Light were servants of the arrogant and haughty Tiste Liosan, and may have been created by them in response to the creation of the Hounds of Shadow, due to the Tiste Liosan being terrible rip-off merchants. The Liosan managed to get most of the Hounds of Light killed in a foolish attempt to kill Anomander Rake in Darujhistan; the sole survivor turned on his former masters and allied with the Malazan wanderer Kiska for a time.

The Hounds appear in Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont's Malazan novels. They are sometimes good dogs, but are powerful and unpredictable beings who should be best treated with caution.

Vincent is one of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 when it crashes on the mysterious Island on 22 September 2004. The pet of Walt Lloyd, Vincent proved his value to his fellow survivors on many occasions, usually by sniffing out trouble or supplies.

After Walt's kidnapping by the Others (after which he never saw Vincent again), Vincent was looked after by several of the other survivors: Shannon and then (after Shannon's death) Claire and Hurley. After the Island was moved backwards and forwards in time, Vincent found his forever home with Rose and Bernard, who chose to remain on the Island (due to Rose's cancer, which the Island's powers halted from spreading).

Vincent, of course, is a regular character on the TV series Lost. Most notably, he appears in both the opening and closing scenes of the entire series, bookending the whole story. Vincent is the only character on Lost to appear in so many episodes but not get a flashback; a webisode named So It Begins is presented from Vincent's POV but is meant to be a prequel to the whole series, not a traditional flashback.

Vincent was definitely a good dog.

Porthos is a beagle belonging to Captain Jonathan Archer and a crewmember of the original NX-01 Enterprise. Noted for his love of cheese, Porthos was a surprisingly effective crewman, frequently spotting alien infiltrators and lifeforms before the human crewmembers did and facing down a Ferengi boarding party (who showed him respect due to his impressive ear size).

According to some reports, 22nd Century science allowed Porthos to live to be over a hundred years old and was present with his master when the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 was launched, although this historical fact is disputed, with some claiming that the dog in question was a descendant of Porthos's.

Porthos was a regular character on Star Trek: Enterprise and can be categorised as a very good dog. The universal translator was not effective on him.

Ein is a crewdog about the starship Bebop. He was recruited into the crew by Spike. Despite his traditional dog-like demeanour, such as his enjoyment of being petted and called a good boy, Ein possesses extraordinary intelligence. He is shown driving a car, using the Internet and plays shogi to an impressive level. He is also shown to be skilled in cyber-espionage, hacking into a complex computer system.

It's unclear how Ein become so hyper-intelligent, but he keeps his intelligence a secret from the rest of the crew. Only Ed and, later (in the manga only), Spike, become aware of his true capabilities.

Ein appears in Cowboy Bebop, both the anime and manga series, and is a very good dog.

Kemlo Caesar appears to be a humanoid dog or genetically-altered human, but in fact is an ordinary doberman who poses as a humanoid thanks to an elaborate exoskeleton (usually hidden by clothing). However, he does possess human-level intelligence and the ability to speak. A police sergeant in Precinct 10, he is noted for his kindness and trustworthiness, and often gets people to open up to him, possibly a result of the unconscious bond between humanity and dogs.

Kemlo is a recurring character in Alan Moore's comic series Top Ten. He is a very good, and surprisingly empathetic, hyperdog.

Kezef the Chaos Hound is one of the most feared canines in the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse. His precise origins are obscure, but he appears to particularly despise the Faithful, those people who venerate or extol one god above the others. Although the entire multiverse is his stomping ground, various events drew his attention to the world of Toril and the region known as the Forgotten Realms. Kezef caused tremendous damage in the Realms, including maiming the god Tyr, before he discovered his true nemesis: the god of thieves, Mask. Mask only defeated Kezef with the help of a tremendously powerful artefact, Houndsbane. Kezef is also the enemy of Gond Wonderbringer, who once imprisoned him for centuries through a ruse. Kezef also has a complex and unreliable history of alliances with the dark god Cyric the Mad.

Kezef appears in the Forgotten Realms novels Prince of Lies and Crucible: The Trial of Cyric the Mad by James Lowder, and is also referenced in numerous game materials. He is a bad dog.

The newest entry on this list, Midnight is a dog who gained the power of speech as the honourable ally of the superhero group known as the Flag Five. Midnight survived the destruction of the Flag Five by the villain known as the Terror and became a celebrity, both for his status as a talking dog but also for his struggles with his faith; his eventual embracing of atheism was related in a book and an accompanying book tour. He reluctantly allied with his former rival, Overkill, and the Tick to help defeat the Terror. After the Terror's downfall, Midnight warned the Tick and Arthur that certain forces would now be keeping their eye on them and to tread carefully.

Midnight is a brand new character in the Amazon Studios version of The Tick, although he was inspired by Speak, an animal rescued by the Tick in the 1990s animated series. After a mental episode exacerbated by hallucinogens in which he came to believe that Speak could talk and fly, the Tick discovered that Speak was in fact a misidentified capybara, the world's largest rodent. Midnight should not be confused with the Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight. He is sort of a good dog, but also kind of arrogant and annoying.

Ambrosius is the canine mount of Sir Didymus, the illogically heroic knight who guards the Bog of Eternal Stench near the Goblin City for no immediately-obvious reason. Both are recruited by Sarah during her quest to enter the city, defeat the Goblin King and rescue her baby brother.

Ambrosius is cowardly and dislikes battle and danger, which makes him a suboptimal battle steed. Ambrosius has much better common sense than his master. Despite not being able to speak and is apparently subservient to Didymus despite them being the same species, Ambrosius is fairly intelligent.

Ambrosius appears in the film Labyrinth and is a very good, if slightly unreliable, dog.

Of course, there are many other dogs in speculative fiction. Honourable mentions must go to:

  • Astro from The Jetsons.
  • Seymour from Futurama.
  • Kazak the Space Hound from the novels Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Blood from A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison (the inspiration for Fallout's Dogmeat).
  • Einstein and his 1955 counterpoint Copernicus, from the Back to the Future movies.
  • Cujo from the novel Cujo by Stephen King.
  • Rags from the Woody Allen movie Sleeper.
  • Bandit from Grant Morrison's graphic novel We3.
  • Cosmo the Spacedog from the Guardians of the Galaxy comics (with a cameo in the films).
  • Brain from Inspector Gadget.
  • Nosy, Fitz's first dog and Wit-bond in The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb.
  • Fluffy, the triple-headed guardian dog from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.
  • Toto from the Oz books by Frank L. Baum.
  • Ace the Bathound from the Batman comic books.
  • Toby the Ghost-Detecting Dog from Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London novels.
  • Mouse from The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.
  • Bear from Person of Interest.
  • The Dog of Tears from the novel Blindness by Jose Saramago and its film adaptation.
  • Rowf and Snitter from the Richard Adams novel The Plague Dogs.
  • D-Dog from Metal Gear Solid V
  • Snowy from the Tintin comics and graphic novels. Among other things, he was the first dog to fly to the Moon and successfully return to Earth.
  • The Littlest Hobo from the TV series The Littlest Hobo. Possibly slightly spurious as SF, but in one episode a scientist concluded that the Littlest Hobo had superior and possibly inexplicable super-intelligence compared to the ordinary dog.

The following are not dogs, but are dog-like or dog-appearing beings.

  • Muffit and his fellow Daggits from the original Battlestar Galactica. These are robotic dogs built to entertain the children of the Colonial Fleet, because this is a good use of limited resources. Muffit was, weirdly, played by a female chimp in a very uncomfortable costume.
  • K9, a robot dog built by Professor Marius in the year 5000. He is adopted by the time-travelling Gallifreyan Time Lord known as the Doctor. At least four distinct K9 robots have been built over the years, appearing intermittently in Doctor Who, a spin-off pilot called K9 and Company and The Sarah-Jane Adventures. A different version of the same character appeared in an Australian children's series, K9, in 2010.
  • Targs are the Klingon version of dogs in Star Trek, similarly serving variously as pets, hunting companions and (rarely) food. They first appeared in the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and subsequently appeared or were mentioned in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Both Worf and Martok had pet Targs when they were younger. Martok's Targ was "accidentally" lost when his wife Sirella moved into his house.
  • Lockjaw was an Inhuman transformed into a gigantic dog by exposure to the Terrigen mists in the Marvel Inhumans series. Weirdly, despite his origins as a sapient being, Lockjaw seems to prefer being a dog and in no hurry to be transformed back. He's probably the best thing in the terrible ABC television version of the franchise.
  • Sirius Black from Harry Potter likes turning into a dog for his own amusement. To each his own.
  • Ravage and Nightstalker from Transformers and Beast Wars are sometimes misidentified as dogs, but they are in fact jaguars.

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Amazon's LORD OF THE RINGS TV show is going to cost more than the films

Reuters have some interesting number-crunching and analysis of Amazon's foray into TV production, including some information on the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV show.

As related previously, Amazon is making a prequel television series, which will be set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is unclear if the TV series will be part of the movie canon, using a similar visual style, costumes etc, or will be a whole new screen adaptation of the series. We do know that, so far, Peter Jackson and his team have not been consulted about the new project at all, although New Line (who produced the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy) and Warner Brothers (who own New Line) are involved.

According to the Reuters report, Amazon have paid $250 million for the rights (confirming the original reports) and are potentially budgeting £250 million for the first two seasons alone. This means that the set-up costs and the budget for the first two seasons of the Lord of the Rings show will cost more than the entire Peter Jackson movie trilogy, including marketing. Which seems insane. More bananas is that Lord of the Rings is expected to run for five seasons, so the budget for the entire series will be more than twice that amount.

So far, Amazon have not announced a showrunner, any casting or any writers for the new project. Originally it seemed that Amazon wanted the show to air to help combat the expect major launch of the new Disney/Fox streaming service in late 2019, which will be propelled by the first-ever Star Wars live-action show, but that now looks impossible, so LotR will likely not air until 2020 at the earliest.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Mafia III

New Bordeaux, 1968. Lincoln Clay returns from Vietnam and, reluctantly, starts helping out his family and the criminal life he thought he'd left behind. A bank raid, pulled off with the help of the local mob, goes south and Clay is betrayed and left for dead. Surviving, he sets out to destroy the mafia family running the city and take everything over for himself.

Back in 2002, Illusion Softworks released Mafia (aka The City of Lost Heaven), one of the greatest video games of all time. Mafia had an incredible narrative focus and memorable characters, not to mention jaw-dropping graphics for the time. The game's story - of the rise, fall and escape of taxi cab driver turned mafia hitman turned state's witness Tommy Angelo - didn't break new ground, but the dialogue and voice acting certainly did. The gameplay was also quite good. Mafia achieved its feats through a strong narrative focus: the city was a backdrop with you moving directly from mission to mission. Despite some surface superficial similarities, the game was very much not Grand Theft Auto: 1930, and was all the better for it.

By the time Mafia II rolled around, Illusion Softworks had been taken over by Take 2 Interactive, the publishers of the Grand Theft Auto series, and it's clear that they wanted the team to make the game more like the GTA series, with lots of optional content, side missions and filler activities. Remarkably, the developers held their ground and, whilst Mafia II certainly had some more optional activities, it still wasn't a true open world game. Unfortunately, the game's story and characters were thin compared to the original game and it was much shorter, resulting in a less satisfying game overall (although still perfectly decent to play).

Mafia III, sadly, hoists the surrender flag on the series trying to do its own thing and not be a GTA clone. A new developer, Hanger 13, handles production duties on the game (helped by a few veterans of the first two titles) and it's clear they were told to make an all-out GTA clone...but bizarrely without anything approaching an appropriate budget. The result is a game that is extraordinarily frustrating, giving rise to some excellent gaming moments but then throwing it away with repetitive missions and a startling array of technical errors and crashes.

The game's opening is a near-unmitigated disaster. The opening few hours of the game introduce protagonist Lincoln Clay and depict him carrying out a bank raid which goes horribly wrong and leaves him betrayed and left for dead. Rather than simply tell this story, the game jumps backwards and forwards in time several times for no discernible reason, drops a ton of cut scenes into the mix and also brings in a framing device of a TV documentary in contemporary times looking back at these events. As a storytelling device this is perfectly fine (and gets a lot better later on), but the way it's presented at the start of the game is totally incoherent.

The game doesn't really get going until the city opens up and you're presented with the open world environment. This section of the game is the most interesting, but unfortunately is also the most repetitive. During Lincoln's adventures he allies with three criminals who agree to work with him to bring down the city's mafia family. As he drives the mafia out of each city district, overthrowing their crime bosses and taking over their rackets, he has to choose which ally to assign the district to. Make the wrong choice and your allies will start getting annoyed and will eventually turn on you. However, the game makes it pretty easy to avoid this: there are nine districts, so just give each ally three districts each and they'll be kept sweet forever (simply having a different number of districts that made it impossible to keep everyone sweet may have made the game more interesting).

The act of taking over each district is repetitive in the extreme: a local contact gives you intelligence on the bad guys. Once you've caused enough damage, the crime boss arrives to investigate. Then you kill them. You have to do this twice for each district (to flesh out the capo), so by the end of the game you've done this exact same activity eighteen times (twenty-seven if you count the final "boss fight" against the capo). It starts getting boring somewhere around the fifth.

Fortunately, the game breaks up the territory-control stuff with character-based side missions where you keep your allies on-side by helping them solve their own problems, and helping their lieutenants with activities such as gun-running and stealing trucks full of cannabis. There's also collectables to find (such as records and magazines), although not as many as in other games which means you might be tempted to actually do them, and activities such as street-racing which are actually quite good fun. The game also gives you a lot to do with your money, from customising vehicles to upgrading weapons.

The game also can't be flawed for its voice acting and a lot of its writing, which is very good when the story is actually allowed to move forwards. Set in 1968 and featuring a black protagonist, the game throws itself head-on into an exploration of racism and the civil rights movement, which makes for a sometimes ugly game but also a refreshingly honest one. The characters - particularly Clay and his criminal allies, plus his slightly-comical (but also psychotic) CIA friend Donovan - are really well-drawn. If Mafia III was allowed to focus in on the story, like the first two games, and drop the repetitive open-world stuff it would have been much stronger for it. The open world stuff also damages the game's attempts to be a period piece, by giving you a Satnav (not commonly found in cars in 1968) and a mobile phone (ostensibly a walkie-talkie, but it basically stands in for the mobile phone from the GTA games in most respects).

The game is all over the place in other areas. This is a game that came out three years after Grand Theft Auto V but looks like it came out three years earlier. Play this and Mafia II back-to-back and you would not be able to claim with a straight face that six years of video game development took place between them. Particularly awkward are character models: the main characters look really good but everyone else is awful. The environmental graphics are pretty decent, though, and the cars look really nice. The car handling is also pleasingly unrealistic. You can throw these cars around a lot more than the more "realistic" direction that GTA series has gone in and they're fun to drive throughout. On the audio side of things, the game has an excellent 1960s soundtrack, although the number of songs that the game licensed is surprisingly low. It's not long before the same songs and adverts start looping around again and again.

From a technical standpoint, the game is - eighteen months after release - a bit of a mess. I experienced a dozen crashes to desktop in the 33 hours it took me to finish the game, along with frequent screen tearing and clipping. Mission objectives frequently vanished on me, or sometimes took me to the wrong place, and the AI was utterly incoherent, missing me beating someone up in front of a bunch of cops whilst sending the entire city's police department after me for a tiny traffic violation. Pedestrians are also dumber than a box of frogs, often taking the novel decision to power-dive from the pavement into the middle of the street right in front of me for absolutely no reason.

The result of all of this is a bewilderingly inconsistent game, with fun driving and racing sequences, strong story missions and great music and voice-acting sitting alongside myriad bugs, dodgy AI and repetitive side content. Eventually the game gets into a rhythm where it becomes much more fun, helped by some good combat mechanics and - completely unexpectedly - a really strong stealth component. Sneaking into warehouses, and knocking out goons one-by-one before swooping out to deliver the coup de grace on a boss is extraordinarily satisfying.

Mafia III (***½) is a stronger game than Mafia II but not up to the standards of the original. As an open world game it is repetitive and dull, but it comes to life when the story and characters are allowed to breath. The driving, combat and stealth are all pretty decent, and ultimately you can have a lot of fun with the game. But those messy opening hours are a strong hurdle to get over. Mafia III is available now on PC, PS4 (UK, USA) and X-Box One (UK, USA).

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Engineer Leo Graf is assigned to an engineering project on a zero-g space habitat. To his surprise, he finds the Cay Habitat is also home to "quaddies", a genetically-engineered human subspecies which has replaced its lower two legs with arms, giving them unmatched versatility in zero gravity, as well as increased resistance to degenerative disorders: they are humans tailor-made to exist in space. When Beta Colony develops a practical artificial gravity technology, it makes the quaddies obsolete overnight...but Graf is not prepared to see them cast onto the scrapheap of history and hatches a daring plan to save them.

Falling Free is a novel set in the universe of The Vorkosigan Saga but is not part of the core series, instead being set about 200 years earlier and exploring the origin of the quaddies. As is typical for a Bujold SF novel, it is deeply concerned with both hard SF concepts - genetic engineering, Newtonian physics - and how these play out through ethical and character-based dilemmas.

In this regard Falling Free is successful: Bujold is an effective writer and, although this is relatively a minor novel for her, she still tells an interesting story quite well. The SF elements are intriguing, but the ethical dilemma feels clumsy. The legal status of genetically-engineered lifeforms is something you think that the interstellar diaspora would have sorted out by this time, and the over-arcing theme that indentured slavery is a bad thing is hard to argue with. It's also not helped by the fact that the primary antagonist, Bruce Van Atta, is a boo-hiss, moustache-twirling bad guy almost entirely lacking in nuance. Of course we're going to side with plucky engineer Leo Graf and the quaddies.

The story builds up quite well but the narrative is slight: the quaddies are in danger and Leo has to help them escape. And that's really it. The reason for the truncated storyline is revealed in the author's notes. Originally this was going to be the start of a trilogy exploring how the quaddies built up an entire interplanetary civilisation - the Union of Free Habitats - from scratch, but Bujold was side-tracked by the success of the core Vorkosigan books and never got round to writing the other two books. The novel Diplomatic Immunity, in which Miles Vorkosigan himself visits Quaddiespace, revealed the ultimate fate of the quaddie species and eliminated the need to write the other two books. So that's fine, but it does leave Falling Free as a relatively minor entry in the wider Vorkosigan 

Falling Free (***½) is a fun, readable part of The Vorkosigan Saga and has some curiosity value, but it also feels very slight. It is, however, quite short so passes the time very nicely. It is available now as part of the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus, alongside the other quaddie novel, Diplomatic Immunity (UKUSA).

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

RIP Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, the world's most famous living astrophysicist, has passed away at the age of 76.

Much has been written in eulogies today about Hawking's immense contributions to the field of physics, most notably his pioneering work on black holes and Hawking radiation, as well as his theories on the Big Bang and "imaginary time". It is perhaps lesser-known that Hawking was also a children's science fiction author, co-penning (with his daughter) a five-volume series about a young boy called George where he explores the universe in an exciting (and educational) manner. This series consists of George's Secret Key to the Universe (2007), George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009), George and the Big Bang (2011), George and the Unbreakable Code (2014) and George and the Blue Moon (2016).

Hawking himself was also a science fiction fan, particularly on television, and appeared several times on various series. The first was Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, where he appeared in the Season 6 finale, Descent, as a holodeck character playing poker with Data, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. He followed this up with an appearance on The Simpsons (They Saved Lisa's Brain, 1999) and Futurama (Anthology of Interest, 2000). In the latter he is part of a crack squad of geeks charged with guarding the space/time continuum, along with Al Gore, Nichelle Nichols, Deep Blue and Gary Gygax. Hawking would appear several further times on both animated shows, actually recording his dialogue himself (rather than letting them imitate it electronically).

Hawking also appeared several times on The Big Bang Theory and The Fairly OddParents, as well as providing his own voiceover for the biopic The Theory of Everything (Eddie Redmayne portrays him for the bulk of the movie, before he falls ill).

Contrary to some reports today, Hawking never appeared on Red Dwarf, of which he was a massive fan (particularly its episodes featuring black and white holes, and parallel universes). He did contribute to a documentary for the show's 10th anniversary in 1998, however, citing his appreciation for the series.

Of course, Hawking himself was an inspiration for many of today's science fiction novels and films, which namecheck Hawking radiation and use his ideas in how they depict black holes and singularities.

A man of tremendous mental powers who had a wicked sense of humour and was very much a geek, he will be missed.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

America City by Chris Beckett

One hundred years from now, the world is in a terrible state. Super-hurricanes blight the Atlantic, smashing the coast of North America with repeated ferocity. The American south-west has turned into a dustbowl, entire towns and cities abandoned as water supplies dry up. The United States has an immigration problem, but not one crossing the minefield-laden, fortified wall with Mexico. This one is a flood of refugees from the southern and coastal states headed north, to more temperate climes. As the northern states threaten to close their borders, a charismatic politician named Slaymaker emerges with a platform to "reconfigure" America, to reshape the United States in a way it can survive the weather catastrophe. He employs a superbly talented PR executive, a woman repelled by Slaymaker's politics but inspired by his integrity and his genuine desire to confront the problems facing America head-on instead of standing idly by.

America City is the latest novel by British SF author Chris Beckett. Although still not a household name, Beckett has been establishing himself through a very fine collection of work over the last few years, most notably the accomplished Holy Machine and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, which has also spawned two sequels. The Eden Trilogy was an SF parable set on a planet shrouded in darkness, whilst The Holy Machine was about religion, atheism and what falls between. America City is something else, a story about politics, climate change and what happens when Americans themselves become refugees by the hundreds of thousands and millions.

It's a sweeping novel, packing an entire continent's worth of stories into a breezy 350 pages. It's also a very current novel, taking place in a world where fake news has been weaponised by humanity, aided by AIs so clever they are capable of writing speeches, coming up with jokes and even posing as commentators without detection. It's a book that feels very cynical, as our protagonist Holly moves from being a die-hard delicado (a 22nd Century version of a liberal) to, frustrated by her tribe's predilection for making disapproving noises at the TV but not actually doing anything to make things better, throwing her lot in with the arch-reactionary Slaymaker. Slaymaker's views on everything from climate science (which he still doesn't believe in, even as the American Atlantic coast drowns and the south-west boils) to the death penalty repel Holly, but his insistence on tackling the problem head-on by "reconfiguring" the country (and, later and far more controversially, the continent) makes him stand out from the crowds of talking heads and hand-wringers.

The result is a process by which Holly is seduced, bit by bit, into supporting ever more draconian policies, convincing herself that each more extreme measure is justified if is to save America and its people. Holly's POV chapters alternate with those of her boyfriend Richard, who gets to see the changes in Holly - and the country - from the outside, and has to wonder if she has the right idea. Other POV chapters move between various climate refugees, people fleeing northwards from the floods in Georgia and the encroaching desert in Nevada only to find their fellow Americans turning them away (often at gunpoint), until they have nowhere left to go.

Beckett tackles a lot of topics in this novel, from climate change to politics. The old left-right paradigm mostly collapsed in the 21st Century, but the politics that have replaced it are still dealing with (or causing) familiar problems. There's glimpses of what's going on elsewhere in the world - Africa and Mexico collapsing, Britain turning itself into a fortified island outpost of paranoia and fear, and China annexing the Russian Far East for more living space - but the focus is firmly on the US and what can be done to save it.

It's not a happy or uplifting novel. The book's main message seems to be that human beings are selfish and predictable in their responses: Texans and Californians who once zealously guarded the Mexican border are now forced to cross borders themselves, only to find themselves driven off. But of course when it's them who need help, the situation is different. Politics is still a game won by those with the loudest and best propaganda, not those with genuinely the best ideas (a fascinating background SF idea - the development of carbon dioxide scrubbers large enough to start reversing the effects of climate change - is virtually ignored as it's hard to get voters excited about it).

There are moments of hope: humans are shown to be tenacious and capable of adapting: millions of people are moving north to establish new cities in the Arctic, where they hope the storms and the deserts cannot reach them. They may even be right, but the book ends (messily and inconclusively, like life) before we can find out for sure.

America City (****½) is not for the faint-hearted or those looking to escape the grimness they seen on the news every day. It's also wonderfully well-written, alternates between the grandiose and the subtle, and is unflinchingly honest. It's available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Preview: THE CITY AND THE CITY TV series

I had the great fortune tonight to be able to attend a screening of the first episode of The City and The City, a four-part BBC TV adaptation of China Mieville's 2009 novel of the same time.

In both the novel and the TV series, the setting is a fictional region of Eastern Europe, abutting the Black Sea, which is the home of two cities: Beszel and Ul Qoma. The two cities are distinct, with different languages, alphabets, styles of dress and architecture. In particular, Beszel is a slightly run-down city in decline whilst Ul Qoma is a somewhat more technologically advanced city of gleaming skyscrapers. However, for reasons that are unclear, the two cities have been fused into the same geographical space. Buildings from one city stand alongside those from the other and some streets are divided right down the middle between the two cities. Citizens of both cities are taught from childhood to "unsee" people, places and things from the other city, to ignore them and not talk to them. If someone has to travel to the other city, they must gain authorisation and cross over at a formal crossing point; even if they only want to travel geographical distance of a few metres. Any violation of this barrier is strictly punished by "Breach", a secret police force with, it is rumoured, supernatural abilities.

The story opens with a murder. Inspector Tyador Borlu is called in to investigate when the body of a young woman is discovered in Beszel. Complications arise when it is discovered that the woman is an American student who had been attending university in Ul Qoma, but no Breach has occurred. The odd nature of the death leads Borlu to cross the border and work alongside his Ul Qoman counterpart to discover what happened, and what bearing it might have on the two cities.

From left: screenwriter Tony Grisoni, actors Mandeep Dhillon and David Morrissey, producer Preethi Mavahalli

China Mieville's novel is short but complex, dense and literate. It's also relatively straightforward as a story and practical as a production: adapting, say, Perdido Street Station or The Scar would be far beyond the capabilities of anyone save perhaps Amazon or Netflix. Turning The City and The City into a visual adaptation requires a degree of exposition mostly missing from the novel (where the unusual situation is gradually unveiled over the first chapter or two) and several devices are used in the script to convey the weirdness: Tyador (played by David Morrisey) provides a brief voiceover at the start of the first episode and he occasionally narrates key moments of the action, a surprisingly old-fashioned device which is nevertheless effective. Visual effects also sell the idea: the part of the city Tyador is in is shown in perfect focus, whilst the other city is shown blurred and indistinct, like water on glass, until Tyador makes a conscious effort to "see" the other city, when it snaps briefly into legibility. The two cities are also filmed with different colour gradings, with Beszel tending towards a darker, brownish tint and Ul Qoma towards a lighter, bluer one.

The first ten minutes or so are a bit rough, especially for readers of the novel who may be surprised by how incredibly faithful it is to the novel one moment and how it goes off on its own tangent the next: there are major additions to the cast of characters and story. This makes sense: the episode was longer than the standard hour (I didn't get the exact runtime but it seemed to be around 65-70 minutes) and there are four of them, which means the TV show is in the unusual position of having more time to tell the story than the relatively short novel has (which barely scrapes 300 pages). The new material is, for the most part, well-judged and intelligently deployed. Giving Tyador a wife seemed an unnecessary change, but by having her vanish in a suspected act of Breach immediately personalises the strange situation in the city: rather than the split (and Breach) being remote forces Tyador is aware of, they are instead deeply personal affronts that frustrate him. It gives the premise an immediacy not present in the novel but which works wonderfully on screen.

Author China Mieville engaged in exchanges with the cast from the audience, and noted his approval of the project.

Once the initial hump of exposition is surmounted, the story kicks into full gear. The worldbuilding is superb: The City and The City was filmed in the distinctly un-Eastern European cities of Liverpool and Manchester, but some tremendously detailed street signage and wearing of buildings creates the illusion these are remote cities on the edge of reality. All of the street signs in Beszel are presented in English (albeit one with Cyrillic-style accents and ornamentation), with English also the spoken language, but Ul Qoma has its own alphabet and spoken language (both invented specifically for this series). Tower blocks are dirtied up, streets turned into bustling, crowded markets and technology is deliberately rolled back: people use Betamax tapes, listen to audio cassettes, watch CRT TVs, drive old cars and cordless phones have huge aerials like it's 1983. From the glimpses we get (the first episode ends with Tyador deciding he has to visit the other city), Ul Qoma is a far more advanced and modern city.

The actors are superb: David Morrissey is best-known to American audiences from his role playing the Governor in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Walking Dead, but he has an impressive resume in the UK, taking in everything from Doctor Who to Red Riding. He always brings intensity and integrity to everything he does, but in The City and The City he also invokes a rare performance of vulnerability as well. Mandeep Dhillon (Some Girls, 24, Doctor Who) plays Corwi, a police officer assigned to help Tyador, and she brings an earthy realism to the story, helped by an impressive swearing repertoire.

A narrative fan map of Ul Qoma and Beszel.

All in all, The City and The City's first episode was impressive, being atmospheric and compelling, and hopefully the rest of the series will continue in this vein. A four-minute trailer for the rest of the series looks appropriately epic.

The City and The City will debut on BBC2 in April 2018.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Blood, Sweat and Pixels by Jason Schreier

Making video games is hard work, whether you're a solo operator developing an indie game inspired by a Nintendo classic or an experienced team of 200 working with a budge in nine figures. In this book, video game journalist Jason Schreier investigates the making of ten different video games: Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, Destiny, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Star Wars: 1313.

Most people know that the making of video games is a difficult, long-winded and expensive process. But just how long-winded and expensive that task is remains mind-boggling. This book explores some of those stories. A single cancelled contract almost destroyed veteran video game studio Obsidian Entertainment, until they launched a successful Kickstarter for an old-skool RPG called Pillars of Eternity that was a big commercial hit and saved the company. Naughty Dog Studios had already delivered three critically-acclaimed Uncharted games and were a well-oiled machine, but still almost crashed into ruin whilst making the fourth game in the series. Blizzard Entertainment had been a 20-year veteran of game development with almost 100 million games sold but still managed to release Diablo III in a chaotic and divisive state, forcing them to save the game with an expansion pack that revamped a lot of how the game worked. Star Wars: 1313 was a game that looked absolutely amazing and was playing very well when it was abruptly cancelled when Disney took over LucasArts in 2012, flushing several years, tens of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work down the toilet.

Schreier recounts the story of each game in a well-researched, intelligent manner based on interviews with the people involved and, in some cases, spending time embedded at the studio in question. Arguably the most fascinating chapter is on the development of Stardew Valley, a rare modern game created by just one person (Eric Barone), showing the insane work required to bring what is apparently a very simple game idea to the masses. The most explosive is certainly about the development of Destiny, an online game created by Bungie Studios to escape the treadmill of developing Halo games until the end of time, but that was easier said then done and by the end of development most of those who had been pushing for abandoning Halo had left the company, leaving a lot of anger and bitterness behind (which is an ongoing story, through the problematic release of Destiny's expansion and sequel). The most frustrating story is that of 1313, a genuinely exciting-sounding game that was killed in its infancy.

If there are any negatives to the book, it's probably the lack of depth. The book can only give about 25 pages to each project, and often the chapter ends just as the story gets interesting and we're moving onto the next game. There could also be better context: the Diablo III chapter focuses on the expansion, but we learn nothing about the ten-year development of Diablo III itself and why the game ended up being released in such a chaotic state. The Witcher III chapter also lowballs the game's reportedly hellish crunch period, which led to many people leaving the company (also it also resulted in arguably the greatest video game of the last twenty years). You occasionally feel that Schreier pulls his punches - at least a little - to retain future access to the companies involved.

That said, if you play video games but have no idea how they're made or the workload involved, this book (****) will be revelatory. Well-written, informative and entertaining, it marks a good beginner's guide to the crazy world of making video games. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Star Wars: Rebels - Season 3

The crew of the Ghost, now full members of the Rebel Alliance, continue to wreak havoc on the Galactic Empire's forces in the Lothal sector. With the situation critical, the cunning master-strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn arrives to take charge of the situation and soon proves himself to be a formidable opponent to the rebels.

The third season of Star Wars: Rebels continues to darken and deepen the story. The first season featured the rebels getting into knockabout adventures against the Empire; Season 2 was a considerably more complex story about war, betrayal and sacrifice, ending in a bruising confrontation between Darth Vader and his former apprentice Ahsoka Tano. Season 3 goes further down this road, focusing on Ezra as he struggles between his loyalty to Kanan and the Light Side of the Force and the promise of answers to his questions provided by an ancient Sith holocron. Unfortunately, the vengeful Maul is also searching for the holocron, believing it will lead him to the hiding place of his nemesis, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Season 3 is divided between several storylines: Kanan and Ezra's further explorations of the Force (complicated by their meeting with a follower of the neutral path between light and dark); Maul's search for Obi-Wan; the defence of the rebel base; and Grand Admiral Thrawn's relentless search for the rebels as well as the ongoing occupation of Lothal. There is also a further exploration of the theme of family: Sabine spends part of the season working to win her family's support for a Mandalorian uprising against the Empire and Hera likewise plots to free her homeworld of Ryloth, aided by her father and his supporters. The family of the Ghost is also put through the wringer, split up several times before regrouping.

There's a lot of fanservice this season. Wedge Antilles and Mon Mothma are introduced as recurring character and Saw Gerrera (from The Clone Wars and Rogue One) also returns. But the fan-pleasing cameos are in service to the story and secondary to our main characters. It's good to see that the "Ezra is tempted by the Dark Side" plot is both briefer and less angst-ridden than it could have been, with less musing on whether Ezra could really fall to the Dark Side (as the show's main character, we know he won't) and more on Ezra's character and how he approaches the Force, particularly when contrasted to Maul.

It is good to see the Maul storyline come to an end in a manner that is very appropriate. George Lucas's decision to resurrect Darth Maul on The Clone Wars was questionable in its plausibility but there's no denying that the stories it generated (on both shows) have been pretty interesting, helped by Sam Witwer's inspired vocal performance. Maul's storyline climaxes with the return of an Alec Guinness-era Obi-Wan Kenobi one of the most elegant (and smartest) lightsabre clashes seen in the franchise.

The real talking point of the season, however, is the arrival of Grand Admiral Thrawn in the new Star Wars canon. Thrawn was previously the starring antagonist of the Thrawn Trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command) which kicked off the entire old Expanded Universe. Well-written by Timothy Zahn, Thrawn's intelligence and lack of insane raving (he was more deeply amoral and ruthless than outright evil) made him a fascinating enemy. Many fans cite him as their favourite Star Wars villain, or indeed character overall. His Rebels incarnation is not quite as Machiavellian as the book version, but he is well-voiced by Lars Mikkelsen (whose brother Mads also appeared in Rogue One) and proves a formidable opponent for our heroes to fight.

Overall, the season tackles multiple storylines on different planets and delving both deep into Star Wars lore and canon as well as developing its own, original creations, all to great effect.

The third season of Star Wars: Rebels (****½) unfolds well and ends with an appropriate epic confrontation between the Empire and the rebels which dovetails into the fourth and final season. The season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).