Saturday, 16 January 2077

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

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

SyFy release a teaser for George R.R. Martin's NIGHTFLYERS

SyFy has released a promo for their new series Nightflyers, based on the George R.R. Martin novella.

Nightflyers will debut on SyFy this autumn.

American Gods: Season 1

Shadow Moon is released from prison but finds his life is not what he thought it was: his wife has been killed in a car accident, driving with her lover. Strange things are happening across America and at the centre of it is the old man enigmatically known as “Mr. Wednesday.” When Mr. Wednesday offers Shadow a job, Shadow accepts and finds himself drawn into a struggle older and weirder than he can possibly understand. 

Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, American Gods is a lush, eight-part drama which adapts roughly a third of the book. Given the book is only about 500 pages long, this is fairly generous and results in the first season have a relaxed, even languid pace. This is one of the show’s strengths but also its Achilles heel.

There is much to enjoy about this series, including the absolutely fantastic cast. Everyone, from seasoned hands like Ian McShane and Gillian Anderson to relative newcomers, are exceptional. The direction is also unusually striking to behold. Visually, American Gods may be the most gorgeous-looking television show ever made. There’s some stirring and powerfully effective imagery, whilst the colour grading, the framing of the shots, the movie-worthy cinematography and the generous and frequent use of CG to enhance the story are all stunning, as is the clever and imaginative opening title sequence. The show’s use of music, both original and licensed, is remarkable and often inventive (also occasionally bombastic and sometimes drowns out the dialogue, most notably during the major climactic moment of the finale).

The writing and pacing is where the show falters. Many modern shows make the mistake of trying to be relentless and constantly in a rush to get anywhere, often falling short (especially if you’re a Marvel show on Netflix trying to stretch 6 episodes’ worth of actual plot across 13 hours) or achieving that at the expense of character development or atmosphere. American Gods goes the other way, devoting an entire hour to the backstory of one of the major characters, visiting major episodes from their life and establishing their backstory in admirable depth. However, later on it dedicates a second episode to the backstory of that character’s great-great-great-great (etc) grandmother, in a well-written and enjoyable segment which doesn’t seem to add much to the overall storyline. It’s nice that the show can take time out to do this sort of thing, but it saps the show of momentum and energy. Compared to most “binge-worthy” shows, I felt no need to consume American Gods quickly and instead watched it over the course of several weeks. Not every show needs to be a sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat or nail-biting thriller, but American Gods goes in the opposite direction and is so laidback that it keeps falling asleep.

The narrative structure is also unsatisfying. Adapting one-third of a novel means that the show has a great opening, but it constantly interrupts the story of Wednesday, Shadow and the other protagonists to pursue tangents (most of them interesting, some consequential, others not) and then peters out at the end. There is a major climactic moment, but it’s more of a pause than a cliffhanger. Fortunately, there will be a second season (probably airing in mid-2019) with a major creative and writing reshuffle that will hopefully address some of these problems.

Still, it’s hard to argue with a show that gives an actor as great as Ian McShane such fantastic material to work with and one that confirms Ricky Whittle as one of the rising stars of television (it’s entertaining as a Brit to see how far he’s come since his days on soap opera Hollyoaks). It’s also great to see Crispin Glover, Pablo Schreiber and Emily Browning on such good form as well.

The first season of American Gods (***½) is lush, beautiful to look at, well-acted and atmospheric. It’s also slow, occasionally so slow as to approach inertness, and lacks tension. This is a fine wine to enjoy slowly and surely rather than a relentless sprint to the finish, and a slightly confusing show which inspires many mixed metaphors. The first season of American Gods is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA), and is also available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.

Parks and Recreation: The Complete Series

Pawnee, Indiana. The Parks and Recreation department of the local government is pulled between two forces: the apathetic director, Ron Swanson, a staunch libertarian who is opposed to government spending, and the over-eager, hyper-confident deputy director Leslie Knope, who believes in the positive potential of government to make people's lives better. When local musician Andy Dwyer falls into a big pit on derelict land and breaks his legs, his girlfriend Ann Perkins inspires Leslie to turn the land into a new park...and starts a journey that will take numerous people to destinies they were not expecting.

Parks and Recreation is an American sitcom that ran for seven seasons and 125 episodes between 2009 and 2015. It started life as a conceptual spin-off from the American version of The Office, sharing writers and crewmembers with that show and also employing the same mockumentary format, but having its own distinct storyline, characters and theme. It was also conceived as a comedy vehicle for comedienne Amy Poehler (Mean Girls, Blades of Destiny, The Ex). After a rocky start, it became one of the most critically-acclaimed comedies on American television.

The show's first season establishes the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana and focuses on Leslie (Poehler)'s attempts to turn a local waste ground into a park, only to face the slow, soul-destroying gears of local government, apathy from her boss and opposition from those who want to turn the ground to commercial purposes. The first season is the weakest, mainly because it struggles to find a solid direction for the characters. The writers seem tempted at the start of the show to make Leslie well-meaning but bumbling and incompetent for easy laughs, which is sometimes funny but mostly tedious, and also feels like a retread of The Office. By the time the show moves into its second season, the writers have decided to make Leslie hyper-competent and good at her job, with difficulties and comedy arising from the opposition she faces rather than her own weaknesses. This immediately gives the show much more of an empathetic quality, with the audience rooting for Leslie and sharing her frustration at the increasingly ridiculous problems she has to overcome.

However, the main reason Parks and Recreation works is the fact that the cast and characters are simply excellent. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the show's breakout character, is a libertarian who hates government and believes in self-reliance, but he is also a man of honour whose taciturn exterior belies his affection for his frien...sorry, workplace proximity associates. He gets almost all of the show's best lines. April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) is a quiet and self-declared lazy rebel who tries to avoid work and emotion, but gradually over the course of the series becomes a committed, hard-worker with an affinity for animals. Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) is a dumb goofball who is also a surprisingly good musician. He also enjoys creating characters such as "Burt Macklin, FBI" and "Johnny Karate", a children's entertainer. Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) is a budding mogul who initially falls into a number of get-rich-quick schemes, but in later seasons develops real business acumen and becomes more successful. Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) is the straight man to Leslie's manic ball of energy, whose bemused reactions to the insanity of Pawnee act as a substitute for the audience. It's worth noting that almost all of these actors have gone on to good things since the show ended (Plaza in Legion, Pratt in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ansari in Master of None and Jones in Angie Tribeca).

Another way the show succeeds is the way it evolves as it goes along. Each season revolves around a particular challenge, project or obstacle which Leslie has to overcome, helped by her friends. Seasons 3 and 4, arguably the show's high point, sees Leslie having to help bring Pawnee back from the brink of bankruptcy, host a massive Harvest Festival, undertake a clandestine romance with a colleague and then run for the city council. Later seasons see characters leave the department and set up their own businesses or join other organisations, before Season 7 (set three years after the rest of the show) breaks up the gang altogether. Parks and Recreation is a show that enjoys character development and moving people around as they get new jobs and find new interests, contradicting the need of most shows (comedy or otherwise) to create a status quo that works and then milk that for all it's worth. Old characters leave, new ones come in and minor characters rise to major prominence over the course of time. Life can be a bit of a revolving door of experiences and people, and this is something Parks and Recreation celebrates.

Another part of Parks and Recreation's success is the town of Pawnee, Indiana. More than a few critics have said that Parks and Rec is the closest we've ever seen to a live-action version of The Simpsons, not for the core characters or style of humour (which are very different), but for the fact that Pawnee is as insane but impressive a fictional creation as Springfield, Misc. in The Simpsons. As well as the town's geography and businesses, it has a cast of bizarre, minor and regularly recurring characters which gradually accumulate over the course of the seven seasons to such a size that you could populate an actual town with them. These include porn star Brandi Maxxx, reporter Shauna Malwae-Tweep, local fortune heir Bobby Newport, Native American tribal representative-turned casino mogul Ken Hotate ("taking our money back from white people one quarter at a time"), exactingly literal chat show host Perd Hapley and Ron's recurring ex-wife and she-demon from hell, Tammy (Mk. 2). The constant way these characters (and dozens more) flit in and out of the narrative gives the impression of this being a living, real and quite astonishingly dysfunctional town.

There are some negatives. The first season takes a little while to get into gear, and there are a few moments (most notably in Seasons 5 and 6) when it feels like the show has run out ideas and spends a few episodes churning out running gags before hitting on a new direction. The character of Mark - who was set up as a straight man to the insanity of the rest of the cast - feels a bit redundant after Ann took over that role in Season 2 and his departure at the end of that season was a good move. Tom, arguably, doesn't start evolving into a more interesting character than just a selfish jerk until the third season.  But for a show that lasts 125 episodes, it has a remarkably high hit rate.

Parks and Recreation (****½) is a funny, thoughtful and warm-hearted show about friendships, the clash of ideology and reality and how people of different convictions can work together for the common good. Brilliantly cast and frequently hilarious, it shows again that Michael Schur is one of the funniest writers working in American television (having previously worked on the US Office and, subsequent to this episode, worked on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place). The complete series is available on DVD (UK, USA) and, in the UK, on Amazon Prime Video (which is the only way to see the show at the moment in HD).

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.