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.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Get some free games! For free!

Two of the online video game stores are giving away free games this week to entice people to look at their December sales.

Ubiplay has put up Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for free for this week. This nautical take on the Assassin's Creed franchise is often cited as the best game in the series and an easy one to start off with.

GoG also has Grim Fandango Remastered up for free for this week. Originally released in 1998 by LucasArts, Grim Fandango is comfortably one of the best video games and certainly one of the best adventure games of all time. The remastered edition adds a revamped and much-improved mouse control system and enhanced graphics.

The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker

Up to the early 1990s, the discussion of how life is formed and how many habitable planets there may be in our galaxy was massively restricted by us having only one star system - our own - and only eight planets and two dwarf planets to study. In the last quarter of a century, that has radically changed. 3,710 confirmed planets circling other stars have been discovered, with an additional 15,000 suspected to exist and awaiting verification. We have gone from having a handful of planets to look at to veritably drowning in them, with more discovered almost every month.

The key question is can any of these planets harbour life, even intelligent life, and if they do how can we find them? And how do you build a planet and a solar system anyway?

Astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker tackles a large number of questions in her book. It looks at how the Earth was formed and the role played by the rest of the Solar system in its creation. This involves a detailed look at the phenomenon which, highly unusually, resulted in our gas giants ending up in quite distant orbits from the Sun (most gas giants end up orbiting their stars at a mere fraction of the orbit of Mercury, becoming so-called "hot Jupiters"), allowing the Earth to form unmolested in the inner Solar system. The book also looks at how water is formed and gets deposited on planets, and the degree to which water is essential for life or if other substances could be used.

The book also explores several dozen of the more exotic exoplanets, including worlds which orbit pulsars and are fried in their radiation beams on a regular basis; worlds covered in thick tar and others where diamonds literally rain out of the sky. There are water worlds with oceans thousands of kilometres deep and frozen iceballs which have been catapulted out of their parent systems and now wander on their own between the stars. These descriptions are vivid and show how chemistry and physics can combine to create worlds far stranger than any science fiction has come up with.

The book is approachable, with occasional dips into more complex discussions of chemistry and orbital resonances, but for the most part the book is perfectly readable for the layman. There's a nice line of humour in the book and the use of pop culture references to explain how certain planets work (a chapter on exomoons compares them to the Forest Moon of Endor from Star Wars, for example, and the one on rogue planets briefly invokes the Transformers homeworld of Cybertron which was likewise blasted out of its orbit around its home star).

The book also explains the techniques used for detecting exoplanets and how they are being refined further to look for planets the size of the Earth, or smaller, and how we may be able to pick up the telltale signs of life through atmospheric conditions.

One of the things I liked most about the book was its upbeat tone. Given that exoplanets seem to have added a whole load of extra steps to the conditions necessary to have life, it would have been easy to have concluded that if life is out there, it's even rarer than we thought and would be very difficult to find. However, Tasker instead keeps showing how even the craziest worlds may still be able to give rise to (at least) bacteriological or microbial life. In one of the most positive chapters, she even looks at the problems Earth has had in developing life - its frequent ice ages as the result of Milankovitch cycles caused by the gravitational tugs on its orbit by other planets, its occasional collision with large asteroids - and postulates planets that wouldn't have these problems and where life and even intelligent life could develop much more quickly than on Earth.

The Planet Factory (****½) is a fast-paced and readable non-fiction book which expands on current science, explains planet formation theories in an approachable way and is highly informative. It's also a good watch of catching up on what is a very rapidly-evolving field. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 11 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 17-18

C17: War Without End, Part 2
Airdates: 20 May 1996 (US), 11 August 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Laurence Vejar
Cast: Ambassador Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), Zathras (Tim Choate), Major Krantz (Kent Broadhurst), Babylon 4 Executive Officer (Bruce Morrow), Centauri Guard (Kevin Fry), B4 Tech (Eddie Mui), Voice (Melissa Gilbert – uncredited)

Date: Parts of this episode take place in 2254, late 2258 (coinciding with the time period of episode A20), January 2278 and approximately one thousand years in the past.

Plot:    On the Centauri Prime of the future a stunned Sheridan tries to find out what’s going on. Londo tells him that it is seventeen years since Sheridan started his great crusade against the Shadows and, although he defeated them, he failed to eliminate their allies, who have apparently devastated Centauri Prime in retribution for their defeat. Londo tells Sheridan he will be executed for his crimes and is returned to his cell. He is soon joined by an aged Delenn, who tell him that their son is safe and that she loves him. They are brought before Londo again, but Londo is now inebriated by drink. He tells them that drink is the only thing that can keep "it" asleep and shows them a strange parasitic alien creature attached to his shoulder, his "Keeper" as he calls it. He tells them he has arranged for them to escape on a Centauri shuttle, telling them that in return for sparing them he wants their forces to liberate Centauri Prime from its conquerors. They agree and depart. After they have gone G’Kar, missing an eye, enters and Londo tells him that if his Keeper awakens it will know what Londo has done and will stop Delenn and Sheridan from escaping. G’Kar agrees to put Londo out of his misery and starts strangling him, but the Keeper awakens and Londo tries to fight back. Later, Vir enters, finds the two corpses, and reaches for the Emperor’s circlet. Outside, Sheridan is pulled back to his own time and Delenn urges him not to go Z’ha’dum.

Meanwhile, back in 2254 Sinclair and the others board Babylon 4 and fake a hull breach in one section, arranging for the whole area to be sealed off. They begin preparing to send Babylon 4 through time and Sheridan reappears. Zathras has fixed his time stabiliser to some degree using extra power from a spacesuit’s battery, but it is still not fully functional. Sheridan and Sinclair enter Babylon 4’s fusion reactor and begin placing the equipment needed to begin the time jump, but a power spike causes the system to overload and move the station forwards in time. Zathras stops it, but the station has moved forwards in time by some four years, to 2258. Soon ships from Babylon 5 approach and events unfold as they did before (in episode A20). Sheridan vanishes again due to the time malfunction but reappears. During the confusion Delenn has a flash-forward similar to the one experienced by Sinclair and Garibaldi two years ago: she is in Sheridan’s quarters, watching him sleep. The door opens and a woman says, “Hello?”, shocking Delenn. She wakes up again, confused, on B4. Delenn swaps her time stabiliser for Sheridan’s and dons his spacesuit as well. Zathras is captured by B4 Security, meets with the past Garibaldi and Sinclair, and they see a spacesuited figure (Delenn) appear outside, who Zathras claims is "The One". Zathras gives Delenn the fixed time stabiliser to stop her leaping around in time and Zathras encourages the past crew to abandon ship as a new time jump begins. The B4 crew and their rescuers abandon the station and return to Babylon 5, just before Babylon 4 vanishes.

The crew reconvene in B4 C&C. Sinclair has aged some 20 years, apparently due to being exposed to the time field for a second time and not having a time stabiliser the first time he was exposed to it (in A20). He guesses that the closer he moves to his own time he will get older and older before dying, which is why he didn't want Garibaldi along on the trip. He volunteers to take Babylon 4 personally back in time to a thousand years in the past and Zathras agrees to go with him. Zathras tells Sinclair that the One is actually three people, the One who was, is and will be. He says that Sinclair is the One Who Was, Delenn is the One Who Is and that Sheridan is the One Who Will Be. The remainder of the crew abandon ship and return to the present.

The White Star reappears in 2260 and heads back to Babylon 5. Draal collapses and seals the time distortion in Sector 14 once and for all. Along the way Delenn explains some of what has transpired. She tells them that if B4 had appeared with a human on board, her people would never have accepted it. She also tells them that the triluminaries - the devices used by the Minbari Grey Council and by Delenn to perform her transformation - originated on Epsilon III. Marcus, shocked, recalls that the Minbari histories claim that Valen was a "Minbari not born of Minbari". Delenn tells Sheridan that her transformation was to close a door opened 1,000 years ago, the door that allowed Minbari souls to be born in human bodies...

1,000 years into the past, Babylon 4 appears. Several Minbari battleships detect its appearance and arrive to investigate, to find that two Vorlon transports are already on hand. On board they are greeted by a Minbari who says his name is Valen and grants them Babylon 4 as a place to be used against the Shadows, but there is much work to do...


Sunday, 10 December 2017

THE WITCHER TV show gets a showrunner

Netflix have tapped Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to helm their television adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books.

Hissrich was a writer and co-executive producer on Netflix's Jessica Jones, Daredevil and The Defenders, as well as a producer on Power and a staff writer on The West Wing. This continues Netflix's tradition of promoting from within and giving writers and producers on their shows a shot at running their own projects later on.

The Witcher books chart the adventures on Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter who initially spends his time hunting and fighting monsters in the wilderness. Despite being a loner, he gradually attracts a number of allies, including the sorceresses Yennefer and Triss, the enigmatic young woman Ciri, the bard Dandelion and the dwarf Zoltan.

It is unknown what short stories and books the TV show will adapt, or if they will have anything to do with the highly successful Witcher trilogy of video games, since some of the game personnel will be working on the TV show in the effects department.

The Witcher is not expected to debut on Netflix until mid-to-late 2019 at the earliest.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 15-16

C15: Interludes and Examinations
Airdates: 6 May 1996 (US), 28 July 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Jésus Treviño
Cast: Dr. Lillian Hobbs (Jennifer Balgobin), David Sheridan (Rance Howard), Morden (Ed Wasser), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain & Jeffrey Willerth – uncredited), Vendor (Jan Rabson), Brakiri Ambassador (Jonathan Chapman), Ranger (Glenn Martin), Medtech (Doug Tompos), Tech (Mark Ciglar)

Date: 3 August 2260.

Plot:    Ten days have begun since the Shadows launched their assault on the Brakiri and other worlds. The attacks are random, senseless and unpredictable. Unfortunately, the League worlds are unable to stand up to the Shadow vessels, but on the other hand the Shadows have not yet attacked their homeworlds. Sheridan calls a meeting with the Brakiri and Gaim ambassadors, since the Brakiri have been hardest hit and the Gaim are their nearest neighbours. The Gaim have not yet been attacked and refuse to draw attention to themselves by aiding the Brakiri. After some negotiation, the Gaim agree to send ships to help the Brakiri, but only if Sheridan demonstrates they actually stand a chance against the Shadows by providing them with a victory.

Morden arrives on the station in secret, bribing a guard to circumvent Customs. He confronts Londo, annoyed that Londo has somehow arranged for all contact between Morden and the Centauri Royal Court to be cut off. Londo refuses to heed Morden’s threats or warnings and walks off, telling Morden that he cannot do anything more to him than has already been done. Morden notices that Vir is quite busy arranging something for Londo and learns that Londo’s one-time lover, Adira Tyree, is returning to the station after two and a half years. Morden begins plotting something...

Dr. Franklin loses his temper during an operation and begins to crack up under the stress. Garibaldi and Franklin’s assistant, Dr. Hobbs, both notice this. Franklin is forced to admit he has become addicted to stims and takes a leave of absence from Medlab until he can sort himself out.

Sheridan goes to see Ambassador Kosh and tells him that the War Council they have established is demanding to see a victory over the Shadows, to see that they are not invulnerable, before committing themselves to open warfare against them. Sheridan requests that the Vorlons intercept and destroy a Shadow taskforce, but Kosh refuses. It is not yet time for the Vorlons to enter the fray. Sheridan becomes annoyed, telling Kosh that he and Delenn have put themselves, their careers and their lives on the line because the Vorlons have told them to and now the Vorlons are needed they refuse to get involved? Kosh becomes incensed and comes close to killing Sheridan before admitting he may be right. He warns him that in return for this favour he will not be able to help Sheridan if and when he goes to Z’ha’dum.

A large number of Shadow warships jump into a Brakiri system and go on the rampage. However, a Vorlon fleet appears, led by a huge mothership cruiser. The Shadows, taken completely by surprise, are destroyed and the Vorlons suffer no losses. The League worlds are heartened and sign a formal treaty of alliance with each other, the Minbari, the Narn rebels and Babylon 5. Sheridan’s hope of uniting the lesser worlds against the Shadows seems to be on the verge of actually happening. However, Morden learns of these events and breaks into Kosh’s quarters. His two Shadow associates materialise and attack the Vorlon. Sheridan has an odd dream in which his dad appears and tells him he was too proud and too afraid to help him until it was necessary. A terrific blast of light fills the station and Sheridan discovers that Kosh is dead, murdered by the Shadows in retribution for the Vorlons involving themselves in the war. The Vorlon homeworld sends word that a replacement is on the way and instructs them to place Kosh’s belongings in his ship. The ship then departs the station and dives head-first into the Epsilon Eridani star.

Londo is shocked to discover that Adira is dead, poisoned on the transport before it docks with Babylon 5. He goes to Morden and learns that, just before they broke off relations, Refa expressed his anger and hatred of Londo to Morden for poisoning him and wanted to even the score. Londo demands Morden’s help in getting even, in return for re-opening the doors on Centauri Prime he closed, and Morden agrees.


Thursday, 7 December 2017

Taika Waititi in line for STAR WARS job

Star Wars franchise boss Kathleen Kennedy has said that she is interested in hiring Taika Waititi to direct a future instalment of the space opera franchise. Waititi has delivered a major, successful blockbuster for Marvel in the shape of Thor: Ragnarok and it's no surprise that Lucasfilm (also owned by Marvel's owners, Disney) are interested in seeing if they can sign him up as well.

However, it seems an odd match. Waititi has a laidback, humorous and improvisational style, noting that many of the funniest moments on Ragnarok emerged out of the cast and crew just playing around on-set. This is similar to the approach adopted by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord on the set of Star Wars: Solo, which so horrified Kennedy that she fired them and drafted in Ron Howard to finish the picture. Waititi himself has seemed dubious about tackling the franchise, noting it's less whacky and is less tolerant of changes in tone than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He even said, "Lolz, I like to complete my films. I'd be fired within a week."

Still, it'd be interesting to see what Waititi could do with the franchise, especially one that can occasionally be a bit too Poe-faced for its own good at times.

Netflix developing John Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR as a movie

Netflix have announced that they are developing an original movie based on John Scalzi's 2005 novel Old Man's War.

The book, which riffs off both Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, focuses on an old man who agrees to fight on the front lines in a war against an alien species in return for being given a younger body. The novel has been optioned previously, with some thought in turning it into a movie or a TV series. The novel has five sequels: The Ghost Brigades (2006), The Last Colony (2007), Zoe's Tale (2008), The Human Division (2013) and The End of All Things (2015), ensuring a lengthy franchise if the first movie is a success.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 13-14

C13: A Late Delivery from Avalon
Airdates: 22 April 1996 (US), 14 July 1996 (US)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Laurence Vejar
Cast: Arthur (Michael York), Emmett Farquaha (Michael Kagan), Merchant (Roger Hampton), Old Woman (Dona Hardy), MedTech (James Kiriyama-Lem), Lurker (Robert Schuch), Security Guard #1 (Michael Francis Kelly), Security Guard #2 (Jerry O’Donnell)

Date: mid-July 2260.

Plot:    The starliner Asimov comes through the jump gate, the first Earth ship to visit the station since Babylon 5 broke away from the Alliance three months ago. The ship brings the mail and also an eccentric human claiming to be King Arthur. He boards the station claiming to be needed here. Franklin thinks he’s mentally ill but Marcus ponders if the Vorlons could have frozen him in time like the inquisitor Sebastian. Franklin tests Arthur’s DNA and discovers he is really David MacIntyre, former gunnery sergeant on the EAS Prometheus. The Prometheus was the ship that led the fleet that made first contact with the Minbari. There was a miscommunication and the Prometheus’s captain, thinking the Minbari were about to fire on him, ordered MacIntyre to fire first, thus triggering the death of Dukhat and the start of the Earth-Minbari War. When Franklin confronts MacIntyre with this, he descends into some kind of catatonic state. He only snaps out of it when Delenn forgives him for his actions. Cured, he heads to Narn to help out with the resistance (after befriending G’Kar on the station).

Garibaldi has a package containing foodstuffs waiting for him but is enraged when the B5 Post Office charges him 100 CR to cover the now-extortionate export fees from Earth to the station. He tries to break into the Post Office, but decides to instead blackmail them, accepting a 101 CR bribe not to mention to Sheridan that the Post Office’s quarters and offices are no longer paid for by Earth and thus they should be paying rent.

Sheridan is getting worried about relying on the Minbari too much for defence. He brings together the ambassadors from the League of Non-aligned Worlds, many of whom are fighting each other, and offers the use of Babylon 5 as a free diplomatic centre for negotiations and mediation in return for them donating ships to defend the station. Most accept the offer and additional warships from the League worlds soon arrive to aid the Minbari in defending Babylon 5.


Empire: Total War

1700. The world is divided between several major European powers, a smattering of colonies in the Caribbean and Americas, and the rising power of India, which European nations are starting to take an interest in. There is an opportunity here for an ambitious nation to seize real power and conquer the world through trade, diplomacy...or total war.

Empire: Total War was originally released in 2009 and is the fifth game in the Total War series (following Shogun, Medieval, Rome and Medieval II). It was the first game in the series to use the Warscape engine - which all subsequent games in the series have used - and also the first to move into the early modern period and depict the use of muskets and cannons on a large scale. It was also the first game in the series to actually depict large-scale naval battles between galleons and warships. It also, famously, launched in a broken state with numerous bugs, graphical and AI issues which saw it lambasted by fans.

Eight years later, following numerous patches and the somehow-even-more-disastrous launch of Rome II, Empire's problems have mostly been fixed and the game can now be assessed more in line with how its creators intended it.

For newcomers, Empire: Total War is a strategy game which is divided into two modes. There is a turn-based grand strategic map, on which armies can be formed and assembled, cities can be fortified, towns and factories upgraded and diplomacy and economic agreements formed. When two armies meet, the game switches to a real-time battle map. These battles favour real-life tactics, such as forming  strong lines to pepper enemy lines with fire whilst manoeuvring cavalry to conduct flanking attacks. You can also use artillery to soften up the enemy before closing to battle.

Empire has the widest scope of the entire series. Earlier games mostly focused on the European continent, the Middle East and the north coast of Africa, whilst Medieval II introduced the coast of North America. Empire has three distinct theatres: North America, Europe and India. Europe and India are (slightly awkwardly) linked together on the map, but for most powers the only practical way of moving between the theatres is by ship. This results in different types of military campaigns in the different theatres: a European nation invading India will be constantly outnumbered and will have to secure and hold territory in the face of unrelenting attacks (allying with one of the two native powers and pitting them against one another whilst you carve up the subcontinent is a viable tactic). The colonies in the New World are much less-developed and armies will be more primitive, mostly consisting of native American allies and colonial militia. But back home in Europe much larger armies featuring state-of-the-art equipment are more the rule. Empire feels truly epic.

One of the game's biggest changes is moving most of the buildings out of the cities and into the surrounding countryside, as well as the establishing of towns, secondary settlements lacking heavy defences which warring factions can raid or capture to cut off money. This is a good idea as it drastically reduces the number of sieges, the most repetitive part of any Total War game, and results in far more interesting field battles. It does add more micro-management to the strategic layer, with lots of clicking on towns to find out which ones need to be upgraded, but it does give more Civilization-style options to the gameplay. You can also research new technology, which unlocks new buildings, new units and new weapons.

Graphically, the game has aged very well. Both the strategy map and the in-game battles are fantastically detailed and well-presented, and of course even a moderately capable modern gaming PC will blast out the game with everything switched up to max with no problem at all. The music is excellent and the game can be very atmospheric. Once you get used to the secondary settlements and switching between the different theatres, the game settles into that sweet spot between complexity and simplicity that the best Total War games occupy. The core gameplay mechanic of building armies, fending off attacks, seizing territory, pacifying it and moving on is very moreish and it's not uncommon to get that "just one more turn" feeling that ends with you switching the computer off at 3am. On all of these fronts, Empire delivers the goods.

In other areas, the game is more problematic. The battlefield AI is not great, even on the harder difficulty levels. Some battles will feature stunning enemy tactics such as cavalry riding parallel to your infantry, with the AI happily letting its horses get mown down my your infantry rather than engaging. It's also very easy to set up kill zones and letting enemy armies eagerly rush into them. The campaign map AI is fortunately much stronger, with the computer using diplomacy, feints and tactical withdrawals far more intelligently than on earlier games (although they are still reluctant to engage in naval landings and invasions). Naval battles are unfortunately a slight let-down, with generally the bigger fleet of better ships winning. Although they look amazing, the naval battles soon get repetitive and you'll soon be auto-resolving all but the most critical naval battles.

The game does have an interesting variety in factions, with nations such as Prussia, Sweden, Russia and Austria favouring continental armies and forging land empires whilst England and Spain focus more on massive fleets and establishing colonies dotted around the globe. Minor powers such as the United Provinces face a steeper struggle to conquer enemies but can make judicious use of alliances and colonies to fund a military machine. The game leans away from the idea of painting the entire map in your colours (which is inherently unrealistic, even though you can do it with difficulty) in favour of giving your empire historically-inspired, more limited objectives. Even these limited objectives can be quite tough to achieve, but it's a lot of fun to try. The real hardcore gamers can also settle in for massively long campaigns where they try to conquer the entire world and all three theatres.

Modern editions of Empire: Total War come bundled with the Warpath Campaign expansion, which offers a very steep challenge where you play as one of the Native American tribes and have to try to hold back the invading Europeans. This is exceptionally tough, pitting guerrilla forces lacking line formations and guns against massive European field armies, but it can be quite satisfying when you rout a "superior" enemy force with cleverer tactics.

Empire: Total War (****½) is a fine game and, now it's technical issues are long in the past, very enjoyable to play. It's wide scope and lots of upgrade options make it one of the most strategically satisfying games in the series and it also has much more gameplay freedom than later titles (starting with Rome II, the series has bafflingly allowed only 3 buildings per city which is limiting). The AI sometimes struggles with this freedom, but ultimately the game emerges as one of the more enjoyable and interesting in the series. The game is available now on Steam.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 11-12

C11: Ceremonies of Light and Dark
Airdates: 8 April 1996 (US), 23 June 1996 (UK)
Working Title: Ceremonies
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John C. Flinn III
Cast: Lord Refa (William Forward), Boggs (Don Stroud), Sniper (Paul Perri), Lenann (Kim Strauss), Lt. David Corwin (Joshua Cox), Sparky (Harlan Ellison), Morden (Ed Wasser), Maintenance Man (Vincent Bilancio), Guard (Doug McCoy), Thug #1 (Jim Cody Williams), Thug #2 (Ron Royce), Thug #3 (Kristian Sorensen)

Date: Mid-to-late April 2260.

Plot:    Following Babylon 5’s declaration of independence, most Nightwatch and other Earth loyalist personnel have been thrown off the station. One group of Nightwatch extremists remains in hiding. The group’s leader, Boggs, comes up with a plan to capture Delenn and blackmail the Minbari cruisers guarding the station into leaving, allowing Earthforce troops to occupy the station.

Meanwhile, Lord Refa arrives on Babylon 5 to meet with Londo. He is rather startled when Londo informs him that he has poisoned Refa and will spare him (by not having a second poison given to him that will trigger the first and kill him). In return for this Refa will arrange for all Centauri warships and battlecruisers to be withdrawn from their campaign against the League of Non-aligned Worlds. The Centauri fleet is spread too thinly and is making Centauri Prime a tempting target for attack. In addition, Refa will stop all relations between himself and Mr. Morden and, furthermore, ensure that Morden has no contact with any official in the Centauri government. Refa is utterly outraged but also totally impotent to do anything about it. He reluctantly agrees to Londo’s idea and leaves the station, shocked at his former associate’s ruthlessness.

Boggs and his group capture Delenn and Lenann, one of the Minbari captains. Marcus and Lennier work together to discover their location. During this manhunt, Lennier confesses that he is in love with Delenn but knows that she is “fated for another”. Their intelligence allows Sheridan, Garibaldi and Zack to rescue the captives, although Delenn is slightly injured during the altercation. Delenn gives a gift of new uniforms to the Babylon 5 command staff, but is regretful they cannot carry out the Minbari ceremony of renewal they were planning (due to her injury). The others decide to bring the ceremony to her and make several startling confessions: Sheridan that he has come to care for Delenn, Garibaldi that he is scared of what will happen if he loses control, Ivanova that she was in love with Talia Winters and Franklin that he has “a problem”.


Dancer's Lament by Ian Cameron Esslemont

The continent of Quon Tali is divided into a morass of squabbling city-states, the days of the Talian Hegemony long past. But, in the south, the Kingdom of Kan is on the move. Its armies are moving on Li Heng, the great crossroads city at the heart of the continent. The Protectress of Heng and her powerful (but eccentric) cadre of mages are prepared to stand against them, but they are distracted by the arrival of a bizarre mage, a skilled assassin hungry to make a name for himself and a warrior of preternatural skills dedicated to the service of the God of Death. Unbeknown to all, these three will take a broken continent and forge out of it one of the greatest empires ever known.

The Malazan universe of fantasy novels (which now number twenty-one) has attracted a reputation for being unapproachable and difficult to get into, with the traditional first novel in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, having a confusing opening and little in the way of exposition. Some readers are fine with that, but many are not. Since then, authors Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont have mused on other ways to get into the series (you can arguably start with Deadhouse Gates or Night of Knives instead, or even Midnight Tides, but all have arguments against them). Erikson even tried to create an alternate entry point with Forge of Darkness (the first in the Kharkanas prequel trilogy) but only succeeded in creating a book that only makes sense if you've read the rest of the series first.

Dancer's Lament, on the other hand, is the first book in the series since Gardens that I would feel really comfortable suggesting that people start with. Unlike most Malazan novels, which are enormous, sprawl in lots of directions, have huge casts of characters (which sometimes completely change from one volume to another) and feature dense and sometimes obtuse writing, Dancer's Lament is tight, focused, relatively straightforward and relentless in pace. It has all the strongest hallmarks of the Malazan series - impressive sorcery, intriguing (but never overwrought) worldbuilding, good humour and the use of compassion as an overriding theme - whilst dumping most of the negatives. Or, to put it more primitively, Dancer's Lament is all killer, no filler.

The tightness comes from there just being three POV characters. Dorin Rav is an assassin beyond compare looking for fame and fortune. Malazan veterans will know him, of course, as Dancer, but in this book he's just a young man with real skill but who sometimes gets in over his head. Silk, one of the mages of Li Heng, is an arrogant and apparently amoral fop who comes to realise, in his darkest hour, how much this city and his employer has come to mean to him. Iko, a Kanese Sword-Dancer, is a formidable warrior who has invested so much time in her fighting skills that she has neglected her personal ones, and has trouble forming bonds with her fellow warriors as a result. Silk and Iko appear in other books (Iko under a different name, and it's fun for old hands to try to work out who she is), but here they're presented as newcomers and youngsters trying to find their way in the world.

The book takes place a century or so before the events of Gardens of the Moon and the central plot is refreshingly simple: Li Heng is under siege, the city's rulers are trying to repulse the attack, the attackers are trying to take the city and a whole bunch of other people are caught in the middle, most notably Dorin Rav who is navigating his way through the city's underworld in search of profit. The problem is that Dorin keeps tripping over his conscience, spending too much time worrying about the friends he's made on the way and is constantly distracted by a crazy mage he bumped into on the plains and now can't seem to avoid coming into contact with. The common complaint about prequels is that they're either not telling us anything we don't know or they're going out of their way to create new stories which don't gel with what's gone before.

Dancer's Lament skirts this problem quite straightforwardly. His earlier novel Return of the Crimson Guard features sections about one of the conflicts that is mentioned in this novel, but it turns out that a lot of those reports are erroneous or conflate two separate conflicts into one and it's entertaining seeing the "real" events unfold in this book. It also helps we're in a period of time a while before our protagonists even arrive on Malaz Island, so there's a lot of room to manoeuvre. Indeed, getting to know characters like the Protectress when we know what her ultimate fate is can add a bit more resonance to events. Of course, it might be that "what is commonly known" may not turn out to be the truth at all.

Esslemont has a more direct and sparse prose style than Erikson, which has sometimes made his books feel like a light salad compared to Erikson's four-course meals. Not so here, where Dancer's Lament leaps off the page with verve and confidence. The characters are vivid and feel real (Erikson's depiction of characters - even the same ones - can sometimes feel remote and alienating in contrast) and we come to care about even minor bit players such as the bird-keeping girl Ullara (a damaged, philosophical character who sometimes feels like she's been parachuted in from a China Mieville novel) and the various soldiers manning the walls of the city.

There are some negatives, but these are minor. Esslemont's brisk and energetic style in this book is very refreshing for the series but it leads to the opposite of the usual problem: if most Malazan novels could stand to lose a few dozen pages of repetitive and laboured introspection, Dancer's Lament sometimes feels too short and some storylines feel like they could have been expanded and spread out a bit more. The distribution of chapters between characters also feels a bit too uneven, with Iko sometimes vanishing for large chunks of time and the plots of the various city mages not really going anywhere (although some of them will be picked up chronologically later on, particularly in Return of the Crimson Guard, which revisits Li Heng at the height of the Malazan Empire). This does make the world feel alive and still changing and evolving outside of the focus of the main plot, however.

Dancer's Lament (****½) is, overall, a fast and satisfying read, the best Malazan novel in quite a while. It is available now (UK, USA). Its sequel, Deadhouse Landing, was published last month. 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.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Quentin Tarantino might direct the next STAR TREK movie

It's a bit of a surprise to learn that J.J. Abrams is even considering producing a fourth Star Trek movie, given the disappointing box office of the previous movie, but it's even more surprising to learn that Quentin Tarantino may be involved in the project.

Star Trek Beyond grossed $343.5 million on a budget of $185 million in 2016, meaning that the movie probably only barely broke even (when marketing costs are considered as well) and probably needed media sales and streaming sales to get that far. Although producer J.J. Abrams wanted to move on with a fourth film which would reintroduce Chris Hemsworth as James Kirk's father, Paramount has been slow to get the ball rolling on the project, possibly over cost concerns.

Tarantino's idea seems to have reignited interest in the project, with Paramount likely judging that Tarantino's involvement might at least bring in a larger audience out of curiosity to see what he does with an established franchise.

Tarantino is a big Star Trek fan, particularly of The Original Series and The Next Generation, and has said he far prefers it to Star Wars (in contrast to Abrams' viewpoint). In the past he's batted around the idea of repurposing TV episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever and Yesterday's Enterprise into films.

Abrams, who is deep in pre-production for Star Wars: Episode IX (due out in December 2019), is putting some writers on the idea and will likely produce the film if it goes ahead. Tarantino is making a Los Angeles-based movie set in 1969, due for release in 2019, so likely if the two film-makers do collaborate on this project it won't be until after then.