Saturday, 30 January 2016

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Years ago, the Protoss homeworld of Aiur was lost to the Zerg. Many of the Protoss survived by escaping into space and seeking refuge on Shakuras, refuge world of the Dark Templar, before fighting in the Brood War. However, the mighty warrior Artanis dreams of retaking his home and to this end has gathered the Golden Armada, the greatest fleet in Protoss history, to launch the invasion of Aiur. But the invasion is a trap baited by the Fallen One, Amon of the Xel'Naga, and only with the wisdom and assistance of Zeratul can Artanis and his forces escape, regroup and strike back.

Legacy of the Void is the third and final part of the StarCraft II saga, begun in Wings of Liberty (2010) and continued in Heart of the Swarm (2013). It's taken a very, very long time to get here. The original StarCraft was released in 1998, its expansion Brood War a year later and StarCraft II was formally announced in the spring of 2007. The fact it's taken almost nine years since that announcement to get the game completely out is faintly ridiculous, and has certainly sapped some of the excitement and momentum from the franchise.

But the game is out now and has several roles to fill: it needs to be a satisfying single-player game with a strong storyline that ties up plot elements that begun eighteen years ago in the original StarCraft. It needs to have exciting multiplayer that builds on the successful design established in the previous two games. And it needs to see out the franchise - as any StarCraft III is likely many, many years away - in style.

Its success in these fields is highly debatable. On the story front, Legacy of the Void is easily the weakest link in the StarCraft II saga. Its characters are pompous and unrelatable, the dialogue is overwritten, cliched and awful and none of the characters with the sole exception of Alarak (helped by superb voice acting from John de Lancie) have much of a discernible personality. It doesn't help that the game is very unfocused. The previous titles benefited from having a strong, personal through-line that helped anchor the massive battles and carnage around them: Wings of Liberty was focused on Jim Raynor's mission to redeem Kerrigan; Heart of the Swam focused on Kerrigan seeking out vengeance on Arcturus Mengsk. Legacy of the Void doesn't have that. Instead, the story is that the Protoss have to defeat Amon and don't know how to do that, so flit around from crisis to crisis until, inevitably, a plot twist reveals the Fallen One's hidden weakness, at which point you have to try to kill him in the face. It doesn't help that Amon is cut from the exact same cloth as Sargeras and the Burning Legion of WarCraft lore, an unknowable cosmic mega-foe who wants to kill everyone because why not? As an antagonist, he lacks the bite or personal edge that Arcturus Mengsk or Kerrigan herself had in previous games. It also doesn't help that the game is focused on the Protoss, but then in the three-part finale to the game we suddenly get a major return from characters like Kerrigan and Raynor, during which the Protoss are shunted off to the side and don't get much resolution. It's an awkward structural issue that Blizzard don't really know how to handle, although it does allow them to bookend the StarCraft II story by ending where it began.

So much for the story, what about the individual missions? Well, the gameplay is as strong as ever. The Protoss may be my favourite StarCraft race and they also seem to have been least modified from the original games, so in terms of actually playing the game I felt more at home with them than I had with the other two species. However, they may also be the most overpowered race in the game (this will be fiercely debated by other StarCraft players, but I stand by it) with their formerly formidable Archon/Carrier combo now being joined by units such as Void Rays, Stalkers and Immortals to make them almost completely unstoppable once you've moved a modest distance down the tech tree. The Protoss are immense fun to play and their missions are very well-designed with some genuinely thought-provoking strategic challenges. However, RTS veterans won't find much to slow them down here. With the exception of maybe the final epilogue mission and the final main campaign mission, nothing here is remotely on the order of difficulty of the original StarCraft missions, let alone the nightmare of Brood War's last few missions. But certainly in the moment the game is fun to play, either in single-player or the typically frenetic multiplayer modes.

The gameplay is also limited by the curious decision to control your access to units. So you can build Void Rays or Arbiters, but not both, which feels arbitrary. You also can't field-test the different variants on the battlefield like you could with Heart of the Swarm, which feels like a regressive step.

As an overall experience, Legacy of the Void (***½) certainly has impressive production values. It's polished to a fine sheen, there are monumental numbers of in-engine cut scenes (although only a tiny handful of the pre-rendered, beyond-movie-quality CG cinematics that Blizzard are best known for) and the game clocks in at around 15 hours in length, which isn't bad for a stand-alone expansion. The gameplay is solid, a very nice iteration over the standard StarCraft experience, but the storyline, writing and characterisation are all seriously subpar. You have fun playing the missions, but the game provides insufficient context or motivation to make you care a huge amount. The result is a game that is intermittently brilliant, rather less intermittently tedious and overall vaguely disappointing compared to what came before it. It's certainly a worthwhile purchase for fans of the franchise, but newcomers will be lost and it's a game that has fallen far short of its potential. The game is available now on PC (UK, USA).

Friday, 29 January 2016

R. Scott Bakker on maps and potential delays

R. Scott Bakker has posted the map that will accompany The Great Ordeal, the forthcoming third and penultimate volume of his Aspect-Emperor trilogy. Unfortunately, it comes with the caveat that the third book in the series may be facing a delay.

As is well-known, Bakker completed the then-final volume in the Aspect Emperor series well over a year ago, but there were substantial delays at his publisher Overlook. It took a concerted letter and email campaign by fans to get Overlook to finally schedule the novel. Finding the book too large, they decided to split it in two, with The Great Ordeal scheduled for July 2016 and The Unholy Consult for early 2017.

However, the editor at Overlook who was handling the novel has since departed and Overlook have not assigned Scott a new one. With publication only five months away and the full editorial cycle not yet begun, the novel hitting that date is starting to look doubtful.

Overlook's lacklustre handling of what is apparently one of their biggest-selling novel series is rather strange, and boosts the feeling that this series should really have moved to Orbit USA, who have much greater clout and the ability to get the books on shelves and promote them better. Overlook have done a splendid job getting Scott to this point but, as I've said before, it's clear they can't take him to the next level. Hopefully they can get moving and we'll see The Great Ordeal in its original publication slot or as soon as possible afterwards.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

The world of Kharak, dominated by the vast Great Banded Desert, is dying. The Kushan people, crowded into the cities of the northern plateaus, are trying survive as well as their technology allows. But hope is kindled when a malfunctioning satellite discovers an unknown object in the deep desert. The initial scans of this "primary anomaly" hint that it may hold the key to the future of the Kushan people...and their distant past.

The Northern Coalition assembles a fleet of vehicles led by the carrier Kapisi and dispatches it into the desert. It must cross thousands of miles of unrelentingly harsh, arid territory to reach the primary anomaly...and along the way they will be hounded by religious fanatics, followers of the god Sajuuk, determined that the invaders will not reach their objective.

Deserts of Kharak - known during its lengthy development period as Shipbreakers - is a real-time strategy game that serves as a prequel to Homeworld (1999) and its sequels. Homeworld was set in space and was the first strategy game to really embrace three-dimensional movement, strategy and thinking. Your fleets could attack - or be attacked - from any angle and were persistent between missions: you units which survived one mission were what you had at the start of the next. This was quite advanced in 1999, when most strategy games were still firmly locked in the much more familiar mould of StarCraft, Command & Conquer and Total Annihilation. Homeworld was the first of a series of RTS games (along with the equally brilliant Ground Control and Hostile Waters) which tried to bring the genre kicking and screaming into the 3D world, with mixed success.

After Homeworld 2's release in 2003, the rights to the series became tangled up in legal issues. The original team at Relic which had made the Homeworld games left to start up a new company, Blackbird Interactive, and started a new project, a multiplayer-focused strategy game. When the Homeworld IP was bought by Gearbox and the original games remastered, Gearbox brought Blackbird on board to help and also allowed them to rework their game into an official Homeworld title, bringing things full circle.

Deserts of Kharak itself is both startlingly similar and strikingly different from the existing Homeworld games. As with the space games, you have a large mobile headquarters from which you build your units, research new technology and command the action. As the campaign proceeds, your command carrier is upgraded with additional shields, armour and weapons and becomes a formidable warship in its own right. You also get increasingly powerful units, starting with small, rapid dune buggies and escalating up to massive landcruisers armed with long-range cannons. Each mission usually requires you to explore areas, harvest resources, hold territory against enemy forces or reach a particular location by striking through enemy lines. You can dip in and out of a long-range sensor view to better control the action from afar, as well as close up through the wonderfully-designed vehicles and environmental effects. There is also the musical score from series veteran Paul Ruskay, which is amazing, and the atmosphere, which genuinely nails that Homeworld "feel" despite the different setting.

The differences are pretty obvious. Being set on a planet, the vertical axis plays less of a role. There are nods to it, with units on elevated terrain getting attack and defensive bonuses and air units providing late-game, decisive strikes and bombing runs. But this is more of a traditional RTS where you build lots of tanks, repair units and artillery and attack the enemy en masse whilst resources are gathered in the background. It's always made for fun, compelling gameplay and this is still the case here. The map environments are beautiful and the designers go to some lengths to break up the maps which could have been very samey, using different times of day and night, terrain features and enemy compositions to make things varied. Each of the 13 maps is well-designed and fun to explore, linked together by mission briefings, wonderfully-animated cut scenes (the 2D artwork which has been a staple of the series now layered over CG and video footage to create something interesting and original whilst still true to the series aesthetics) and crew log entries.

The pace of the game is also relaxed. When combat takes place it's usually fast, furious and harsh, but there are usually longueurs as you build up your forces and can plan your next move with some confidence.

The game does have its weaknesses. First off, you can't pause the game to move the camera around and plan you next move. This is a key ingredient from the original games and it's irritating to find it missing here. There's also the fact that the Unity-based engine is simply not as good as the actual core Homeworld engine itself (which Blackbird only got access to in the last year or so of development, way too late to switch to it), with units clipping through one another and there being significant scaling issues: your vast, imposing war machines are beautifully-designed and rendered, but feel like radio-controlled vehicles. What Blackbird have done with the engine, making it mimic the original Homeworld games, is nothing short of breathtaking, but it can't disguise the fact that it's less impressive technology. There's also no formation controls, you can't control the facing of your units and the strike force tech from Homeworld 2 is also missing, meaning that your units will scamper all off as fast as they can, breaking formation and letting the fast units engage long before the slow ones are even remotely in range. All of these weaknesses are individually bearable, but the combination of them makes for moments of genuine frustration. This frustration is intensified if you have played the original Ground Control, a seventeen-year-old game which has vastly superior UI, formation and facing controls, unit scaling and camera movement compared to Deserts of Kharak, which is all a bit embarrassing. There's also a fairly thin selection of multiplayer content, and the AI is rarely challenging.

These issues prevent Deserts of Kharak (****) (PC) from being the modern RTS classic that it could have been. As a spin-off from the main Homeworld franchise it is fun, entertaining and enjoyable. It certainly whets the appetite and shows that Blackbird more than have the chops for what should come next: a proper Homeworld 3.

AMERICAN GODS names its lead actor

The Starz TV adaptation of American Gods has found its leading man. British actor Ricky Whittle will play the role of Shadow in Neil Gaiman's story about ancient gods existing in the modern United States.

Whittle rose to prominence on British television, most notably a lengthy stint on Hollyoaks and a turn on reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing as well as roles on Dream Team and Holby City. He then moved to Hollywood and for the past three seasons has played the recurring role of Lincoln on the excellent CW adventure series The 100, as well as appearing on Single Ladies, Housewives and NCIS. He has appeared in two films, Losing Sam and Austenland.

American Gods is based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, although it will also incorporate original storylines and elements from Gaiman's other planned stories in the same universe. The Starz series is expected to shoot this year for a possible 2017 debut.

Monday, 25 January 2016

DOCTOR WHO showrunner quits, gets replaced by worst possible choice

Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has quit. The next season of the show, the tenth since its return in 2005, will be his last. The next season will film this year and be trailed by a Christmas special, with the season itself expected to debut very early in 2017.

Moffat will be replaced by Chis Chibnall, who will take over for production of the eleventh season in 2018. This news has been less well-received, although the BBC has de facto confirmed that the show will be continuing for at least two further seasons and likely more. In fact, it sounds like the move to Spring 2017 has come from a combined urge to miss major sporting events in 2016, give Moffat more time to prepare scripts for the next season, give Peter Capaldi a longer break between seasons (Capaldi has noted that he loves playing the Doctor, but had indicated that he might only stay for three seasons due to time requirements and his desire to play other roles) and also to see if a move to the spring might help the first-run viewing figures. Although combined viewing figures (taking into account repeats and time-shifting) have showed little fluctuation from the show's ratings heyday under Russell T. Davies, the first-run viewing figures have almost halved since it moved later in the year. However, some fans and commentators have blamed the lack of a regular, predictable timeslot (the show's airing time changes almost weekly) for this, as well as a more global move towards streaming and viewing after the fact. Moffat also oversaw the show's global viewing figures passing 70 million, an absolutely enormous number. With the overwhelming majority of that number watching from outside the UK, through deals made with BBC Enterprises, that actually makes the BBC a significant amount of money and makes the show's cancellation doubtful.

The decision to replace Moffat with Chibnall is raising the ire of some fans, who were confidently expecting Toby Whithouse or Mark Gatiss to take over. Whithouse has an excellent showrunning pedigree with Almost Human, No Angels and The Game, has writing scripts for Doctor Who and was generally regarded as the favourite to take over. Gatiss has exceptional experience working on Who, having regularly contributed scripts since its return in 2005 as well as writing novels and actually playing the Doctor in spoof charity sketches. Some of his scripts have been less accomplished than others, but his drama An Adventure in Space and Time, about the creation of the show, was widely regarded as the highlight of the 50th Anniversary celebrations two years ago.

Chibnall, on the other hand, has written scripts for the show ranging from terrible to barely adequate and lives in infamy as the writer of Cyberwoman, a script for Torchwood thay may be the worst thing ever made in relation to the Who franchise (certainly in the top five). He also worked on the terrible Camelot. Chibnall had a reputation rehabilitation by producing and writing the brilliant first season of murder mystery series Broadchurch (starring former Who star David Tennant), but the second season was substantially weaker and patchier, with occasional flashes of brilliance.

If the Chibnall who gave us Broadchurch Season 1 shows up, then Doctor Who could be in reasonable hands going forwards. If not, things may start to get a bit rougher going forwards.

Moffat is expected to continue in his role as showrunner, writer and producer on Sherlock alongside Mark Gatiss. It is possible that this move may even allow more episodes than normal to be produced: whilst Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman's rise to international superstars has limited the time available to work on the series, Moffat's own commitments to Who (taking up to nine months of every year) have also prevented more episodes from being made. With additional time now available, we may hopefully see an upturn in production.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

STAR WARS EPISODE VIII delayed by seven months

Star Wars: Episode VIII has been delayed by seven months. It will now be released on 15 December 2017, falling back from its original May release date.

There are several likely reasons for this. The first is that, after the success of The Force Awakens, Disney appears to have requested rewrites to more firmly centre the movie on the established new characters of Poe Dameron, Finn and Rey. Apparently Rey was originally going to take a slightly smaller role, presumably as she'd be spending most of the time offscreen carrying Mark Hamill around like a backpack for training purposes, and several new characters were going to pick up the slack. It now sounds like the new characters will, whilst still be present, be more in supporting roles to the new trilogy's new central trio.

The second, and frankly more likely reason, is that Disney assessed that the May 2017 release date was going to be more crowded with blockbusters and Episode VIII would be more likely to repeat The Force Awakens's massive success (now at $1.9 billion and still climbing at an impressive rate) if it fell back to December. However, that will put Episode VIII (the sequel to what will almost certainly be the second-biggest movie of all time) head-to-head with James Cameron's Avatar II (the sequel to what will almost certainly still be the biggest movie of all time) in a real cinematic clash of the titans.

There's also the fact that the release schedule was a tad ambitious, with principal photography on VIII not due to start until the spring of this year and with extensive effects work likely required (although some early shooting has already been completed on the Irish islands used for Luke's planet in VII), director/writer Rian Johnson could do with the extra time.

In the meantime, we still have Star Wars: Rogue One to look forwards to, in cinemas in December this year. Also check out Joe Sill's Star Wars fan film above. Kara is all the classic beats of Star Wars distilled into seven minutes of accomplished work.

ALTERED CARBON TV series greenlit by Netflix

Richard Morgan's classic cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon has been greenlit by Netflix as a ten-episode television series. This isn't an option or an "in-development" deal, but an actual guarantee to make the series.

Laeta Kalogridis, a producer and writer who has worked on Shutter Island, Avatar and Terminator: Genisys, is bringing the project to the screen. She has been trying to get the series made for several years and is a huge fan of the novel and the overall book series.

Altered Carbon is the first of six (so far) novels set in a coherent future universe. The first three - Altered Carbon (2002), Broken Angels (2003) and Woken Furies (2005), sometimes called The Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy - are set in the 25th Century and revolve around the titular soldier and mercenary, who hops from body to body on different worlds to complete missions and jobs for shadowy forces. Kovacs is noted for his intelligence and his ability to both hold a grudge and coldly execute it if he feels wronged. He also has something of a conscience, which gets in the way of his work.

The three later books in the setting form the Land Fit For Heroes Trilogy - The Steel Remains (2008), The Cold Commands (2011) and The Dark Defiles (2014) - which is set many thousands of years in the future and is actually a post-singularity, post-transcendence (kind of), Dying Earth-style epic fantasy. It is unknown if the rights to the fantasy trilogy are part of this deal, but probably not, as the links between the two series are fairly mild.

This is not the only Morgan book under development. His classic 2007 SF novel Black Man (known as Thirteen in the United States) is also under option as a feature film.

The airdate for Altered Carbon (assuming that's the name for the entire TV show) is unknown, but the earliest date is likely to be in the back half of 2017.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

JESSICA JONES renewed for a second season

Marvel and Netflix have confirmed that Jessica Jones will be returning for a second season. The show, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released on 20 November 2015 and attracted widespread critical acclaim for its writing, acting, direction and unusually mature way of dealing with adult themes in a superhero setting.

Jessica Jones is the second of five shows Netflix and Marvel are developing. Daredevil already aired its first season at the start of the year, and its second season will be released this March. The first season of Luke Cage will debut later this year. Iron Fist will likely debut next year, with the key characters from all four shows then joining forces in a Defenders mini-series, likely in 2018.

Netflix and Marvel have also indicated they are looking at expanding their series roster with a new series based on The Punisher. The infamous Marvel anti-hero has been featured in several films but nonve of them have really taken off. However, Netflix and Marvel are excited about the character starring in the second season of Daredevil, where he will be played by The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal, and are actively discussing a new series featuring him. Whether the Punisher would then play a role in the Defenders TV series or would be completely unrelated is unclear.

Netflix and Marvel have previously hinted that Ghost Rider and Blade TV series could also be in in development, the latter possibly with the involvement of Wesley Snipes (who played the character in three films). However, so far those two series remain unconfirmed.

An airdate for the second season of Jessica Jones has not been announced, but assuming it starts filming in March or April, it could be released in November as with last year.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

My AMA is live

Going on here for the next couple of hours or so, if you've ever fancied asking me, er, anything to do with A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, blogging or SFF in general.

Friday, 15 January 2016


Blackbird Interactive have released several trailers for Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, their real-time strategy game that serves as a prequel to the legendary Homeworld and Homeworld 2. First up is a story trailer:

Blackbird have also released a developer commentary summing up more of the game and its systems:

IGN also have a video showing the opening cinematic and the first two missions of the game.

These videos clarify several points: the game will be set 100 years before the events of the original Homeworld and will be set on the desert planet of Kharak. It will depict the expedition that set out into the Great Banded Desert to detect an anomaly detected from orbit. Those familiar with the existing Homeworld games will know what this anomaly is, but won't be expecting some of the surprises they encounter along the way.

The other thing the videos show is that this game is not skimping on the production quality. The cut scenes are impressive, mixing real video with CGI and hand-drawn illustrations. The 3D environments are sculpted, true 3D terrain rather than being tile-based. The music, again provided by Paul Ruskay, mixes Western strings, Indian instruments and Arabic themes suitable for a desert environment. The game also a distinct mix of SF influences, ranging from Dune to Mad Max to the classic ground-based RTS Ground Control.

Deserts of Kharak comes out next Wednesday, 20 January, for PC.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

RIP Alan Rickman

The world of theatre, television and film lost one of its most respected figures today. Actor Alan Rickman has passed away from cancer at the age of 69, the same age of David Bowie who passed away on Sunday.

Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991)

Rickman began his career in the early 1970s in theatre, initially behind the scenes but then establishing a good reputation as a performer. He moved into television in the early 1980s, playing Obadiah Slope in The Barchester Chronicles, based on Anthony Trollope's novels. Rickman's first big acting breakthrough came in Christopher Hampton's version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985. He played the male lead, the Vicomte de Valmont, and was nominated for a Tony Award when the production moved to Broadway in 1987. This move also won the attention of some American casting directors and increased his profile in the UK.

In 1987 TV scriptwriters and producers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor began casting their SF comedy series Red Dwarf and wanted Rickman for the role of Dave Lister (having cast Alfred Molina as Arnold Rimmer, but he had issues with the character and soon departed). Rickman instead chose to investigate roles in Hollywood. Two days after arriving in Los Angeles, he was cast in the role of Hans Gruber in John McTiernan's action movie Die Hard. Released the following year, Rickman's performance was highly praised for bringing greater depth and complexity to the villain than was normal in Hollywood movies. In particular, he'd so impressed McTiernan with his American accent that a subplot where Gruber posed as a hostage to win the trust of hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) was added.

Rickman soon won a supporting role in the movie The January Man, but he achieved a second major career breakthrough in 1991. In the UK he appeared in the TV movie Truly, Madly, Deeply, playing the role of a ghost who is reunited with his former lover (played by Juliet Stevenson). The film - similar to the contemporary American movie Ghost but better - was hugely successful, boosting the careers of both Rickman and Stevenson and the director, Anthony Minghella, who went on to make The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain before dying (also before his time) in 2011. Truly, Madly, Deeply was important in showing Rickman playing the role of a sensitive romantic lead, very different to the villainous roles he was becoming known for in Hollywood. The following year he also won plaudits for a supporting role in the film Close My Eyes, which launched the careers of Clive Owen and Saskia Reeves.

However, this image was cemented the same year when he appeared as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Rickman won praise for his charismatic, vicious performance and was widely credited with stealing the spotlight away from Kevin Costner (something Costner was allegedly aware of on set).

Rickman continued to appear on stage, in film and (more occasionally) on television. Throughout the 1990s he was constantly the front-runner among SF fans to be the new Doctor Who, should the show ever return from its lengthy hiatus (which eventually lasted from 1990 to 2005, barring a single TV movie). He appeared in Sense and Sensibility (1995), which helped launch the career of Kate Winslet and cemented the reputations of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee. He played the title role in Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996) for HBO, and played the historical character of Eamon de Valera in the Liam Neeson film Michael Collins the same year.

In 1999 Rickman played two of the three roles of greatest interest to SFF fans. He played the Metatron, the Voice of God, in Kevin Smith's religious satire Dogma, portraying him as a libertine who enjoys a drink. The same year he played struggling actor Alexander Dane, better known as Dr. Lazarus, on the Star Trek-spoofing Galaxy Quest. Modelled on Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock (with a few original elements thrown in), Rickman's brilliant, hilarious performance was heavily lauded by critics and SF fans alike.

In 2001 Rickman took on the role of Severus Snape in the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling. According to Rowling, Rickman had been her first choice for the role (although the production team had previously offered the role to Tim Roth, who had turned them down). Rickman, a big fan of the novels, soon became friends with Rowling and Rowling revealed some of Snape's biggest secrets to Rickman to help his performance, years before readers would discover them in the novels. His role in Harry Potter won him immense praise and a multitude of new, young fans. The fact that Rickman approached the role with seriousness and respect - penning J.K. Rowling a public fan letter when the films were completed - also went over well with the fans.

Alan Rickman was a versatile and impressive performer, equally comfortable in Shakespeare, urban dramas, historical sagas, science fiction epics and children's fantasy movies. He was guarded, rarely giving interviews and apparently uncomfortable talking about his process and approach to the craft, but he was also good-humoured and respectful. He was certainly one of the leading lights of his generation of actors, and he was taken far, far too soon.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

So, I'm doing a Reddit AMA

I'll be doing an Ask Me Anything session on the Reddit Song of Ice and Fire page on Saturday 16 January at 5pm GMT.

The Q&As will revolve around the blog, blogging, my involvement in ASoIaF and GoT fandom and spin-off projects, and general SFF discussion. So if you fancy getting involved, drop by and let's see what comes up!

Monday, 11 January 2016

RIP David Bowie

The world of music, film and art today lost one of its most enduring figures, as well as the most iconic face of pop culture of the latter half of the 20th Century. David Robert Jones, known to the world as David Bowie, passed away on Sunday 10 January at the age of 69.

Bowie's undeniable contribution to the world of music has been covered, extensively, on thousands of blogs and news sites today. However, he also played a significant role in the pop imagery of science fiction and fantasy. His first hit single, "Space Oddity" (1969), was about a fictional astronaut blasting off into space. The song was partially inspired by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (released the previous year) and was used to help soundtrack the BBC's coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bowie returned to the imagery of space for "Life on Mars" (1971), a track on his seminal, career-redefining record Hunky Dory. It was re-released by Bowie (in his Ziggy Stardust persona) in 1973 to huge acclaim and later soundtracked the well-regarded BBC time travelling drama Life on Mars (2006-07). A later Bowie track, "Ashes to Ashes" (1980), provided the title for and was also featured on the sequel series, Ashes to Ashes (2008-10).

In February 1972 Bowie reinvented himself as the glam-rock superstar Ziggy Stardust, supposedly a being from Mars who visits Earth to help stave off its impending destruction. The accompanying Ziggy Stardust Tour and the album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) accomplished a major breakthrough for Bowie on both sides of the Atlantic and turned him into a household name and superstar. For just over a year Bowie extensively toured both the UK and USA, even finding the time to record a follow-up, Aladdin Sane (1973), before abruptly retiring the Stardust persona. In 1974 he released Diamond Dogs, a concept album inspired by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (and originally intended to be a concept album directly based on it, but he could not acquire the rights).

In 1976 Bowie starred in his first movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, playing an alien being who tries to use water from Earth to save his drought-ridden homeworld but ultimately fails as he becomes addicted to alcohol. Bowie effectively took this alien persona on tour as the Thin White Duke for his Station to Station album and tour of the same year, but fell into extensive drug use. Retreating to Europe to recuperate, he produced a trilogy of highly acclaimed albums (Low and Heroes in 1977 and Lodger in 1979) in Berlin. Returning to London in 1980, he recorded Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) which reintroduced SF elements to his music, most notably for "Ashes to Ashes" (a sequel to "Space Oddity") which became his most successful chart single. In 1983 he hit a commercial high point with the Let's Dance album which was his most successful overall in sales time. His 1980s and 1990s work largely concerned themselves with more terrestrial concerns, although dystopian themes re-emerged on Hours (1995). His final album, Blackstar (2016), made in full knowledge of his impending mortality, features complex songs based around themes such as death, resurrection and transcendence.

In 1983 Bowie starred in the vampire movie The Hunger, along with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. However, Bowie's most famous acting role, not to mention arguably his most iconic SFF role, was playing the role of the Goblin King in the 1986 Jim Henson movie Labyrinth. As well as playing the charismatic, enticing villain, Bowie also contributed several songs for the soundtrack. In 2006 he played the role of Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's film adaptation of Christoper Priest's classic 1995 SF novel.

Bowie's interest in other media resulted in the peculiar 1999 video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a bizarre SF epic for which Bowie created ideas, characters and music. The game was commercially unsuccessful but did win a small, cult audience.

David Bowie, of course, will be remembered for his astonishing musical output, his artistic interests, his eclectic tastes and his refusal to stay still or be pigeon-holed. But in the world of science fiction he is rightly regarded as an influential crossover figure, someone who used SF ideas and characters freely in his music and art.

Bowie loved SF and SF loved Bowie, with the list of references or homages to Bowie in the genre almost too long to publish. Among the more notable were Neil Gaiman basing the character of Lucifer on several of Bowie's looks in Sandman; Alastair Reynolds writing a novella called Diamond Dogs, named after the Bowie album; a major villain in Fringe is called David Robert Jones, whilst another villain is named Thomas Jerome Newton after Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell to Earth; and Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes use both Bowie's music and iconography, particularly the latter where the white-faced clown from the "Ashes to Ashes" music video becomes a recurring motif.

In 2013 Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield covered "Space Oddity" on the International Space Station, actually playing it in space. David Bowie was moved, calling it his favourite version and allowing it to be played free to the rest of the world.

Farewell to Mr. Bowie, the man who sold the world a body of work that is beyond hyperbole and beyond accolades. The world is a little dimmer but the stars a little brighter tonight.

Fallout 4

2287. The sole survivor of a cryogenic suspension experiment stumbles out of Vault 111 to find their home city of Boston a blasted ruin, devastated in a nuclear war that took place two centuries earlier. The Commonwealth, as the region is now called, is divided between warring factions of raiders and mutants, all living in fear of the Institute and its enigmatic human-like robots, the synths. The sole survivor has to make their way in the world, survive...and find their missing son.

Fallout 4 is the fifth main game (and ninth overall) in the Fallout franchise of post-apocalyptic roleplaying games. As with the previous two games in the series (Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas), the game is played from a first-person perspective. You create a character and set out to explore the wasteland. Although there is a main storyline to follow, you are free to ignore it and pursue side-quests, do jobs for various factions or simply explore and scavenge for loot and money. Fallout 4 also introduces the idea of settlement building, allowing you to construct entire new towns and outposts in the wilderness and establish shops, trading links and supply lines between them.

This type of gameplay, sometimes called "sandbox" or "open world", has become enormously popular. It gives the player the freedom to decide how to play the game and allows for huge amounts of content. It also personalises the experience: every player may encounter the same enemies and missions, but the order in which they encounter them and the degree to which they vary the story and their own activities will be unique to them. It's also something that Bethesda, who developed both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 as well as the Elder Scrolls series of fantasy RPGs (their latest of which was the phenomenally popular Skyrim), have struggled to do in a really satisfying manner, especially compared to the team at Black Isle. Black Isle created Fallout, Fallout 2 and, in their current guise as Obsidian, New Vegas.

Fallout 4 is the first Bethesda RPG since 2006's Oblivion to create real, jaw-dropping vistas.

For a very easy review, if you enjoyed Fallout 3, it's very likely you'll enjoy Fallout 4. The game is similar, but the graphics are vastly improved, the settlement-building adds a new dimension to the game, there are a lot more quests, there are more factions with more complex interrelationships and the writing is stronger. The characters in Fallout 4, companions, mission-givers, vendors and random passers-by, are vastly superior to those in the earlier game. Companion characters are also vastly more present. They offer opinions about what's going on, will sometimes join in conversations with important NPCs if they have pertinent information and will interact with you more. Some of them can even be romanced, and all of their have their own personal storyline and missions to fulfil once you've earned their trust. Combat is much more satisfying, with chunkier, more viscerally satisfying first-person shooting and an improved VATs system (which slows time down and allows you to target individual body parts) for more strategically-inclined players. There is a new system for modding armour and weapons, resulting in a truly vast array of weapons and armour to compare and contrast.

The art design is also much better, with Boston being a more vibrant location than the burned-out remains of Washington, DC in Fallout 3. The sky is a glorious blue, the water effects are hugely improved (up close, anyway, from a distance or in the air the water looks distinctly odd) and character animation, long Bethesda's sore spot, is much better. For the first time in a Bethesda RPG, all your dialogue is voiced (as both a male and female player). Whilst some may hate this due to how it limits the writing (the need to record dialogue months in advance prevents late changes), others may feel it's more immersive, especially as Bethesda programmed several thousand names into your robot butler so it's possible you may actually get called by your real name (which is a bit weird the first few times it happens).

Fallout 4 acknowledges hot-button contemporary issues like, er, craft beer in the game.

In terms of being a game in which there is absolutely tons to do, Fallout 4 ticks a lot of boxes. It will suck up enormous quantities of time regardless of if you focus on the main quest, the faction missions, random side-quests, combat or on settlement-building. An enormous amount of work went into the game and the attention to detail is sometimes breathtaking, such as the subtly anti-Communist posters dotting the ruins or the stories about ordinary people's lives which were suddenly ended on the day the Great War took place. Interrupted computer logs, skeletons of entire families slumped in front of televisions and hand-written notes subtly tell the story about a nation of individuals who tragically had their lives snatched away from them by politicians and generals in far-off cities.

Unfortunately, such subtlety does not extend to the primary game design or the writing of the quests. Bethesda's main achilles heel has always been the fact that, after crafting an amazing open world playground packed with stuff, they then completely fail to craft a reactive narrative that interfaces properly with it. The last time they did do this reasonably well was in Morrowind, released in 2002 (astonishingly, Fallout 4 actually uses the same engine - albeit upgraded - as Morrowind, and the occasionally stodgy movement and awkward area transitions are problems it inherits from it). Since then, their main stories have always been a bit on the tepid side and failed to acknowledge the open world design of the game.

The game occasionally manages moments of real, atmospheric and haunting beauty.

This was most notable in Fallout 3, where the final mission of the game required you to enter a radiation-soaked chamber and sacrifice yourself, even if you had a radiation-immune companion with you. Later on they fixed this problem in expansions, but it was a good example of Bethesda's attitude to open world game design, which offers apparently limitless possibilities but boils down to "Save the world as a good guy or save the world as a psychopath."

Particularly problematic for Bethesda is that Obsidian showed with New Vegas that, even with the same clunky engine, they could deliver a game rooted in more mature themes which reacted ridiculously well to almost any decision the player could make, down to killing the main bad guy halfway through the plot just because they got a good enough weapon to get through the enemy camp, or rejecting all the options offered by all the factions and conquering the wasteland themselves. Fallout 4, on the other hand, offers only mildly differing finales despite there being four major factions you can align with, in varying degrees of opposition to one another. In fact, there's a rather nasty bug in the endgame which can prevent you from taking one particular faction to victory which is enraging if you've been working with that faction for dozens of hours.

You don't even want to know.

This also interacts with the game's second major problem. The Fallout franchise has always been one about choice, about offering the player the option to solve problems through violence, wits, stealth or diplomacy, and facing the full consequences of how such decisions are made. Fallout 3 rolled this back but didn't dispense with it. The fate of the town of Megaton, for example, was well-handled and there were a few quests that could be completed without violence. New Vegas took this to the extreme of allowing you to kill every single person in the game (including vitally important quest-givers) or by allowing you to use your skills and charisma to virtually avoid combat altogether, apart from some forms of wildlife.

Fallout 4 has absolutely zero truck with this. Once in a blue moon you may be able to convince an enemy to flee or surrender with a dialogue choice, but it's insanely rare you are even given the option. Otherwise almost every single quest in the game involves slaughtering everything in sight with high-powered weaponry. This leads to repetition: you get given a quest to go somewhere and kill everyone there. Then the next quest tells you to go somewhere else and kill everyone there. And so on and on. When combined with the "streamlined" character levelling system (which now only gives you a single perk point per level, with virtually all of the perks being combat-related), the result is a game that is effectively a first-person shooter with looting, crafting and occasional dialogue choices. It's fun, for a while, but it's not really Fallout.

For a game set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland, Fallout 4 is strangely reluctant to condemn radiation as a bad thing. It makes some people immortal and is very easily cured or avoided.

Then there's the third problem, which is a perennial issue with RPGs but Fallout 4 somehow takes it to new extremes. The game's levelling system (which, unlike previous games in the series, is uncapped) is slanted almost preposterously in favour of the player. By the time you hit Level 20, you're capable of taking on anything in the game with no issue. By the time you are Level 40 you're an effectively bullet-proof, radiation-proof demigod, able to walk through storms of bullets almost without harm and capable of one-shotting virtually everything in the game. The game is extremely generous with stimpacks (which replenish health), bobby pins (which act as lockpicks), currency and ammo, especially when you choose feats which make them even easier to find. A well-designed game will usually build to a climax where it presents its greatest challenge to the player in the finale, where they have to use all the skills and tools they have amassed to overcome the enemy. In Fallout 4 the final story missions are an absolute cakewalk with zero threat to the player's life.

This leads to an awkward game that, from moment to moment, is often great fun to play. Fallout 4 has a sense of humour to it largely missing from Fallout 3, although not to the riotous extent of the Old World Blues expansion for New Vegas. The game certainly has more personality and flair to it than any previous Bethesda RPG since Morrowind. The combat is great, the settlement-building and equipment modding gives creative players lots to do. The factions are all well-thought-out, and it's a tremendous relief to see the Brotherhood of Steel back to being techno-hoarding fascists rather than the inexplicable white knights they were in the previous game. The new additions to the game, such as the Institute, Minutemen and Railroad, "feel" like Fallout factions. Some of the locations are brilliantly-designed and hauntingly atmospheric. Some of the setpieces, whether designed by the story or encountered randomly, are epic. Some of the questlines, such as ascending a Super Mutant-infested skyscraper in a homage to Die Hard or helping out a crew of robotic pirates trying to convert a 17th Century galleon into a skyship, are original, amusing and memorable.

Fallout 4's companion characters are far better-written, characterised and are much deeper individuals than in any previous Bethesda game. But sometimes they're handy with a minigun as well.

But the feeling remains that Fallout 4 has fallen far short of its potential. The decision to roll back the real roleplaying elements in favour of violence and combat is disappointing, taking away some of the much-vaunted freedom and flexibility of the game. Dialogue is often clunky and filled with infodumps. The game's "big twist" can be guessed within minutes of the start. And, after what can be a tough opening couple of hours, it becomes far, far too easy. Even as recently as Skyrim these problems could perhaps be overlooked due to a lack of real, credible alternatives. But now if you want an open-world game focused on combat, there are the likes of Far Cry 3 (and 4) and Just Cause 3 to consider. If you want an open-world RPG with much, much more emphasis on roleplaying, The Witcher 3 has Fallout 4 pretty handily beaten. More awkwardly, Fallout 4 falls short of the standards set by its immediate predecessor. It looks a heck of a lot uglier and is much less approachable due to a badly-designed opening area, but Fallout: New Vegas has a much more challenging, interesting and original storyline and narrative, offers far more reactivity and adapts to player choices in a more meaningful way than Fallout 4 does.

Fallout 4 (****) is definitely a good game. It's fun, it drains away the hours and it proves that Bethesda's game design paradigm, despite its age, is still effective. But it's definitely moving further away from the Fallout notions of freedom and consequence that made the franchise one of the most popular and critically-praised video game series of all time. For a lot of people, this won't matter one jot. For others, it will be a shame to see what could have been the greatest CRPG ever made merely settle for being "pretty good". The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 (UK, USA) and X-Box One (UK, USA).

Saturday, 9 January 2016


Gearbox and Blackbird Interactive have released a story trailer for their upcoming strategy game, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, a prequel to the Homeworld franchise.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (formerly known as Homeworld: Shipbreakers) will be released via Steam on 20 January. The game, developed by many of the same team as Homeworld and Homeworld 2, will comprise a 13-mission single-player campaign and multiplayer modes.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Future of GAME OF THRONES revealed

HBO has confirmed its future plans for Game of Thrones. The show will return for its sixth season on 24 April 2016. This will, again, consist of ten episodes.

HBO has also confirmed that it will likely renew the show for a seventh and eighth season around the time of the premiere. This news was anticipated but it will come as a relief anyway to those fearing the show wouldn't make it to the final curtain. Curiously, HBO did not confirm that these are the final two seasons, despite comments from showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss that this would likely be the case. It may be that HBO are hedging their bets or considering continuing the show in a different way after the eighth season (possibly going back in time for a prequel story or adopting a more True Detective-style anthology format?).

The sixth season of Game of Thrones will, slightly confusingly, draw on storylines from the fourth novel in the series, A Feast for Crows (after the fifth season drew a lot on the fifth novel in the series, A Dance with Dragons), as well as on elements from the yet-to-be-released sixth book, The Winds of Winter.

Game of Thrones is now HBO's longest-running show currently on air and by far its most popular. HBO has been running some more experimental and drama-driven series recently, such as the David Simon mini-series Show Me a Hero and the upcoming Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger collaboration Vinyl, but it has failed to produce another commercial hit on the scale of Thrones or the recently-concluded vampire series True Blood. HBO will be airing a series based on the movie Westworld this year, but more recently have been seen discarding promising projects (such as Dark Tower, Preacher and American Gods) that are then picked up by rivals (Sony, AMC and Starz, respectively). HBO has also optioned a TV series based on Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, but has so far not formally greenlit it.

HALF-LIFE writer leaves Valve

The primary writer of the iconic Half-Life series of video games, Marc Laidlaw, has confirmed that he has left Valve.

Laidlaw, an experienced novelist  joined Valve in 1997, at roughly the same time that Valve decided to completely revamp their then in-development action game, Half-Life. Laidlaw helped stream back the game's original, much more overt action/horror angle, instead developing a pared-back form of worldbuilding and abandoning lengthy exposition in favour of environmental clues and letting the player piece together the plot from clues left lurking around the levels. This more naturalistic form of story-telling helped Half-Life become one of the biggest-selling first-person shooters of all time when it was released to blanket critical acclaim in 1998.

Laidlaw returned as the sole writer on Half-Life 2, released to equal acclaim and even greater sales in 2004. The game again favoured environmental storytelling over exposition or infodumping. This form of storytelling - largely ignored by the cut scene-heavy, narratively clunky first-person shooters that have followed - was highly praised for its immersion but also criticised by some who felt it left the game's backdrop and setting underdeveloped and even obtuse. Laidlaw also co-wrote the two expansions to the game, Episode One (2006) and Episode Two (2007). More recently he has worked on the background fiction for Valve's online battle game Dota 2 (2013).

Laidlaw's best-known novels are Neon Lotus (1988), nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, and The 37th Mandala (1996), which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and won the International Horror Guild Award. Laidlaw has indicated that he will likely now return to writing novels and short stories.

Laidlaw's departure from Valve has led to renewed speculation over the fate of the long-missing continuation of the Half-Life series. Valve were developing Half-Life 2: Episode Three after Episode Two ended on a monumental cliffhanger over eight years ago, but the title failed to appear. Valve later seemed to indicate that the episode had been abandoned in favour of a full Half-Life 3, but official comments were hard to come by. Fans of the franchise have grown increasingly frustrated as Valve have released several other games in the meantime whilst refusing to comment on the status of Half-Life 3. More recently Valve have chosen to focus on online games and on their insanely popular gaming marketplace software, Steam, which now boasts over 125 million users.

Laidlaw's departure is not necessarily bad news for the Half-Life franchise, as Valve still employs other talented writers who have worked on games such as Left 4 Dead and, especially, the critically-acclaimed Portal 2 (2011). However, speculation that Laidlaw may have decided to leave due to Valve's move away from narrative games, and potentially from any interest in bringing Half-Life 3 to market, will no doubt be rife.

DEADWOOD movie in development

HBO has confirmed that a film version of their critically-acclaimed Western series, Deadwood, is currently in development.

Fans have speculated about a continuation of the series since it was cancelled in 2006 with several storylines and character arcs left unresolved. The series aired for three seasons and 36 episodes. Beginning in 1876, it was set in the goldrush town of Deadwood, South Dakota and revolved around the machinations of the local barkeep, entrepreneur, brothel-owner and gangster Al Swearengen (a career-redefining performance by British actor Ian McShane). Of particularly note was Swearengen's relationship with the town's sheriff, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), with them sometimes acting as allies against mutual threats to the town's interests and sometimes facing off against one another.

The series was mostly written by the highly idiosyncratic writer David Milch, who gave the series an increasingly complex, almost Shakespearean feel as it continued. Characters were occasionally prone to long soliloquies and an air of tragedy hung over the entire series. It was also notable for mixing fictional characters with real historical ones (such as Swearengen and Bullock) to dramatic effect.

The series was cancelled after Milch expressed an interest in developing another project for HBO, John From Cincinatti, which was not well-received and was cancelled after one season. Milch's insistence on doing this before the planned fourth and final season of Deadwood created problems in hanging onto Deadwood's vast and sprawling cast, many of whom had found other work and commitments in the meantime. HBO was unable to reassemble the cast for a final season. Plans for a shortened mini-series or a film at the time also failed to coalesce due to problems around availability. These issues led HBO to changing the way they operate with later series, refusing to let shows die on the whim of their showrunners (and likely preventing shows like Game of Thrones from taking lengthy breaks).

Many of Deadwood's cast went on to great success in other projects, such as Timothy Olyphant's six-season run as the lead on Justified and Anna Gunn (who played Seth's wife) on Breaking Bad. Ian McShane, a long-established figure on British television, finally broke through into the American market with Deadwood and has since played the lead on shows such as Kings and Pillars of the Earth. He will have an undisclosed, recurring role on Game of Thrones in its sixth season as well.

Although HBO have confirmed that the film is in development, it hasn't quite been formally greenlit. Milch is currently wrapping up another project as well as working on an early draft of the Deadwood movie script. HBO will not formally greenlight the project until the script is done, a director is available and they are sure they can bring back the required castmembers.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Ash vs. Evil Dead: Season 1

Thirty years ago, Ash Williams and his friends found a book - the Necromonicon Ex Mortis - in a cabin in the woods. They recited some passages, the dead started rising and Ash's friends - and his hand - were lost in the bloody slaughter that followed. Ash emerged from the carnage victorious thanks to his shotgun and chainsaw. Unfortunately, when the evil book is once again opened, blood and death follow.

In 1981 Sam Raimi directed the horror movie The Evil Dead, starring Bruce Campbell as Ash. This was a very low-budget, horror-driven movie reliant on gore and shocks. The 1987 sequel, Evil Dead II, transformed Ash into more of a wisecracking buffoon and featured black comedy alongside the horror. The third film in the franchise, Army of Darkness (1992), dialled back on the horror in favour of Ray Harryhausen-inspired battles and memorable one-liners. Rumours of a sequel abounded for decades before Raimi produced a reboot of the original Evil Dead in 2013, which seemed to put a nail in that coffin.

It's therefore a bit of a surprise to see the original Evil Dead franchise resurrected for television. Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash, now thirty years older but still no wiser, who once again unleashes the Evil Dead into the world and has to set out to defeat it. This time he has more time (these ten half-hour episodes more than double the total screen time for the character and franchise) and actual help, with younger deadite-fighters Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) joining the battle. Troubled cop Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) also soon joins the fight, as does the enigmatic Ruby (Lucy Lawless).

The expanded cast helps the thin premise sustain ten episodes. I must admit I was initially startled to hear that the episodes were only thirty minutes long, fearing this would result in rushed storylines. As it turns out, this is exactly what happens but, unexpectedly, this turns out to be a good thing. Sam Raimi and the directors aping his style in this series (and they do a pretty good job) work best when using frenetic wipes, jarring jump-cuts and ramping up the action to 11, and the limited airtime helps them do this better. Several episodes are in fact based around single action set-pieces and in this sense the limited viewing time works.

What makes the series really sing, however, is the clever way it opens out by aping Army of Darkness's style of comedy and gradually shifting back to the more interesting mix of laughs and utter, shocking horror pioneered by Evil Dead II by the final episode. In fact, the season as a whole is a lot smarter than it looks. Ash's sexist, blustering heroism comes from a different era and his younger friends don't let him off the hook for his behaviour whilst also, begrudgingly, admiring other aspects of it (Ash's tendency to run into insane danger to save his friends is emphasised here). The fact that only one of the main cast is a middle-aged white dude is also not commented on at all, making it odder when you suddenly realise that you hadn't noticed it. The world has grown up around The Evil Dead and this TV show acknowledges it silently before getting on with the undead-slaughtering.

Of course, the show's nods towards such things are secondary to the shocks, the brilliant stunts and the inventive horror. Sam Raimi and his team have lost none of their glee for decapitations, impalements, dismemberment and blood. Gallons and gallons of it. The main reason the Evil Dead works so well on TV is that there is no way a modern movie could get away with the sheer amount of mayhem on screen, not to mention that the budgetary restrictions force the producers back to the ways of practical effects and not relying on CGI for everything. Sam Raimi is such a huge director he could now get a massive budget for a new movie project of his, but here he seems to relish having to think his way around budgetary limitations.

On the negative side of things, the constant murder and slaughter gets a little wearying in extended doses. This show works better when viewed as half-hour chunks a few hours or days apart rather than in massive binge sessions. The ending of the finale also feels a little off, a little bit too obviously designed to set up the second (already-approved) season. Some may also feel frustrated that Ash makes the same mistakes a little too readily, which is true but it's also very true to the character. There's also Ash's failure to mention the events of Army of Darkness, which feels a bit odd until you learn this is down to legal issues.

The first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead (****) is inventive, funny, well-paced and quite startlingly bloody whilst also working on a cleverer level than it first lets on. But it is, overall, quite ludicrously entertaining and delivered by a group of highly talented performers led by Bruce Campbell, whose charismatic fire has not been dimmed one whit by the passing years.

Jessica Jones: Season 1

Hell's Kitchen, New York. A private investigator named Jessica Jones makes her living from exposing cheating spouses, whilst trying to play down her former life as a superhero (due to being endowed with super strength). This becomes impossible when her former nemesis, Kilgrave, returns to New York. Kilgrave has the ability to control minds, making him a near-unbeatable foe. To defeat Kilgrave, Jones will need to call upon allies, her powers and confront her own motivations.

Jessica Jones is the second in a series of collaborations between Marvel and Netflix, following on from Daredevil and due to be followed by Luke Cage, Iron Fist and culminating in The Defenders, which will unite the four heroes into their own team. For that reason it might stand to reason that viewers should be expecting Jessica Jones to be an action pulp thriller, stylish but ultimately fitting into the "conflicted hero" mould pioneered by Daredevil. However, the show has absolutely no problem with going in a completely different direction.

Jessica Jones opens as a standard procedural, with Jones (Krysten Ritter) investigating yet another case of infidelity and running into Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a barman who also has superpowers. Jones and Cage's initially firery romance becomes problematic when Jones discovers that she was inadvertently responsible for a tragedy in Cage's life, one forced upon her by Kilgrave (David Tennant), a monstrous and egotistical man with the power to control minds. When Kilgrave returns to New York, intent on winning Jessica's heart and soul, Jessica at first wants to flee but then decides to stay and face her abuser. Given the utter formidable nature of his powers this proves to be a herculean task which forces the normally independent Jessica to call upon various friends and allies for help.

The result is a show which is focused not on superpowers and heroics (although both are present, they are treated matter-of-factly compared to other Marvel films and TV shows) but on psychology, survivor's guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder and revenge. There are moments of biting comedy, pathos, romance and tragedy, with a few major stunt set pieces and some real heroics put into play, but ultimately this is a much more adult, nuanced and subtle TV series about people with powers than we have seen before.

The series works well because it is not afraid to make Jones do things that are unlikable. She is sarcastic, rude and often apparently ungrateful, but is forced by events to rely on her friends for help and assistance in bringing Kilgrave down. As with Daredevil's first season, this results in what is effectively a 13-hour origin story as Jones the hero gradually emerges from the shell of Jones the survivor. Ritter plays this complex character well, by being able to retain viewer sympathy and empathy even when makes selfish or silly decisions.

Ranged against her is Tennant's Kilgrave, described (not without justification) as a walking example of white male privilege. As with Daredevil, the writers here chose to develop Kilgrave as the antagonist almost as well as Jones, peeling back the layers of his character to reveal someone shaped by a difficult childhood into an uncaring monster. Cleverly, the writers reveal that he is an incomplete character, desperately seeking a destiny and identity. These are among the things he hopes Jones can give him, but these also expose him as an insecure and needy character. It's also fascinating to encounter a villain who is ruthless, amoral and intelligent, but also remarkably unambitious. When you can walk into any apartment or mansion in the world and take it over for as long as you like, plans like conquering or destroying the world become rather moot. The lack of a grandiose plan for the villain is honestly rather refreshing, and makes the conflict feel more personal and more real. Tennant's intense performance is the perfect mix of Machiavellian planner, childlike anger and creepy stalker. The only negative here is one that's not really Tennant's fault: the producer's decided to have Tennant adopt an English accent in the role rather than an American one, or his native Scottish accent. The only other major role Tennant has played with an English accent is Doctor Who, which leads to moments of tonal disjointedness for viewers who are also fans of the latter. Once you adjust, that's not really a problem.

The battle between the abuser and his former victim forms the main through-line of the series, but other storylines come into play. Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville) starts off as Jessica's "junkie neighbour" cliche but rapidly evolves into the show's beating heart and soul. Luke Cage belies his appearance as a hunky motorcycle-driver to show someone suffering real emotional pain. Colter's acting is excellent, and bodes well his stand-alone show later this year. Carrie-Ann Moss also turns in a strong role as lawyer Jeri Hogarth (the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first major lesbian character), whose disintegrating marriage unexpectedly collides with Jessica's investigation into Kilgrave. Rachael Taylor also turns in an intriguing performance as Patricia Walker, a former child star now living in a fortified apartment out of fear for her safety.

The thirteen hour running time gives the writers time to experiment with the story, follow up on intriguing secondary characters and flesh out storylines and characterisation to the maximum. There is even time for experimental episodes, such as Jessica being trapped for an episode in her childhood home and Kilgrave in turn being interrogated in a cell designed especially for him and his powers. However, as with Daredevil, there is the feeling that thirteen hours is just a bit too much. With at least a couple of episodes shaved off, the result would have been a tighter focus which would have eliminated a few flabby storylines (the adventures of ex-soldier-turned-cop Will Simpson are completely uninteresting, not helped by Will Traval's indifferent performance). In addition, given the status of Kilgrave and Jones as mortal enemies and the tremendous danger of Kilgrave's powers, the way Jones continuously exposes herself to him seems recklessly dangerous. This is eventually - sort of - explained, but there is the feeling in a few mid-season episodes that the reason Kilgrave survives is because they need to pad out the running time, not because it makes much sense in the story. There is also a late-season crossover with Daredevil which is doubly jarring, because the tonal difference between the two shows is so huge they they don't feel like they take part in the same universe and also because the character in question becomes highly prominent in the episode for absolutely no reason unless you've seen Daredevil as well.

These are fairly minor complaints, however. At its best, Jessica Jones (****½) is cleverly-written and boldly inventive, with surprising-but-justified twists for many of its well-played characters. It's a show that works both as a stand-up thriller and a more nuanced study of grief and abuse. The first season is available now on Netflix.

Monday, 4 January 2016

NASA confirms lander mission to Europa by 2022

NASA today announced a new mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. The mission will consist of a spacecraft that will enter a dedicated orbit around Europa and survey the moon from orbit, as well as a probe that will land on the surface and conduct experiments. The mission will launch in 2022, likely to arrive at Europa a couple of years later at the most.

Europa is remarkable as it consists of a solid shell of ice beneath which lies an ocean which is made up of more water than there is on the entire Earth. Scientists have long speculated that Europa's subsurface ocean may be one of the most promising places in the Solar system beyond Earth for life to develop. It has also been a long-favourite location for science fiction authors to explore, most famously Arthur C. Clarke in 2010 and 2061, the two sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also played a major role in the 2013 film Europa Report, and in novels such as Galileo's Dream and The Quiet War.

The new Europa mission was directed by the House Appropriations subcommittee in the US Congress. Remarkably, NASA themselves did not want to include a lander, believing an orbiter was more important so it could select a future landing site for a lander. However, the chair of the subcomittee, Texas Congressman John Culberson, directed NASA to include a lander as part of an enhanced budget for their operations. With just six years before launch (not much time at all for such an advanced mission concept), NASA is going to have to scramble to get a lander designed and built.

Europa possesses a harsh environment which will make the long-term survival of a lander unlikely. Jupiter is ringed by massive radiation belts and Europa will be freezing cold, especially at night. It is likely that any such lander will only last a fortnight or so at most before failing.

This is a big step forwards for the exploration of the Solar system, especially impressive as it will happen on a fairly rapid timescale.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

To Green Angel Tower by Tad Williams

The power of the Storm King gathers over the lands of Osten Ard. Snow falls on the desert lands of the south, howing blizzards inundate the ruins of Naglimund and even the magic-wreathed Sithi strongholds are failing. Josua Lackhand is gathering an army as Sesu'a, the Stone of Farewell, but his brother Elias has sent a vast army to destroy him. Far to the south, Miriamele remains a captive at sea to an arrogant noble, and forces good and evil seek out the three magic swords which hold the key to the fate of the world: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

Originally published in 1993, To Green Angel Tower is the concluding volume of the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy and also the largest single fantasy novel ever written: at 520,000 words it outstrips The Lord of the Rings in its entirety by a cool 50,000 words. To this end the novel is frequently published in two volumes in paperback (entitled Siege and Storm in the UK, just "Part 1" and "Part 2" elsewhere).

Surprisingly, the novel is not as long-winded as that may sound. This is very much a novel of two halves, making the split more organic than might have otherwise been the case. In the first half the armies of the two brothers clash for control of the Stone of Farewell in an epic, vividly-described and lengthy battle. In the second, forces converge on Green Angel Tower, the tallest tower of the Hayholt, where the fate of Osten Ard will be decided. It's all pretty standard epic fantasy stuff, but Williams was one of the first post-Tolkien authors to pulls this off on such a large scale and so well.

As with the previous novels, The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell, the focus is on the characters more than the scenery. Although the history and landscape of Osten Ard are fleshed out well in this book (both better and more organically than in the previous two volumes of the series), we get more development (and more convincing development, critically) of characters like Josua, Miriamele and Simon. By now these have all developed into more complex, interesting protagonists.

Unfortunately, the same does not extend to the antagonists: Elias's descent into madness precludes us getting to know the real character, and Pyrates as a villain never really raises above the "evil wizard" archetype. The Norn Queen is more interesting but has only limited appearances, and Ineluki is mostly missing in action until the climactic showdown. Williams excels with the heroes and the more conflicted figures (like Cadrach, Guthwulf and Camaris) but the villains unfortunately lack greater depth.

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn has attracted some acclaim for its stance as a revisionist fantasy, because the bad guys have a genuine grievance and their apparently insane plan to conquer/destroy the world actually makes sense (in a twisted, dark way). There's also some subtle commentary on Tolkien's more regressive use of racial archetypes (something Tolkien himself later regretted, and did note on even in Lord of the Rings itself), with representatives from all the races of Osten Ard playing a key role in the final battle.

For such a huge novel, the pace flags only in a few key places: Miriamele spends so much time on a boat you expect Gendry from Game of Thrones to show up and Guthwulf's blind adventures beneath the Hayholt drag on for an exceptional length of time. The old epic fantasy problem of having characters sit around and talk about the plot rather than getting on with it also rears its head from time to time.

But for the most part, To Green Angel Tower (****) works well both as a novel in its own right (despite it's hippo-stunning bulk) and as a conclusion to the greater series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA (Part 1, Part 2).

Tad Williams will return to Osten Ard for the first time in twenty-three years in late 2016 with the novel Heart of Regret, which will be set some months after To Green Angel Tower and also act as a prequel to the much bigger project, The Last King of Osten Ard. This is a new trilogy set to begin with The Witchwood Crown in early 2017.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

George R.R. Martin provides update on THE WINDS OF WINTER

George R.R. Martin has provided an update on progress on The Winds of Winter, the sixth and (so far) penultimate novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. This is the first substantive update on the book in almost three years, since Martin confirmed in April 2013 that the novel was more than a quarter done.

Still not the actual cover.

The bad news is that the novel is not complete right now and will not be published before Season 6 of Game of Thrones starts airing in mid-April. Martin cautioned that the showrunners will be using his notes and outlines to bring the show (currently expected to end with the eighth season in 2018) to an ending, so some aspects of Season 6 may spoil the final two books in the series. Martin was understandably very disappointed by this, although philosophically it would have only delayed the problem by another year at best: getting A Dream of Spring done before the seventh season next year I think, it will be safe to say, is next to impossible. So the ultimate ending of the story and the ultimate fate of the characters will certainly now be revealed on screen before in the books. That seems likely at this point.

On the positive side of things, Martin believed it was plausible to bring The Winds of Winter to a conclusion with several months of work last year. If that holds true, completion of Winds for publication in late 2016 or early 2017 certainly seems possible.  Martin was cautious not to emphasise this point, however, given how badly his estimates have been off so far. He also confirmed that both his British and American publishers can get the book on the shelves within three months of completion, as with the previous three books in the series.

On the other hand, all being well, we will 100% definitely be getting Scott Bakker's new novel The Great Ordeal this year, Scott Lynch's fourth novel Thorn of Emberlain is almost done and seems likely for release, and even The Doors of Stone by Pat Rothfuss has not been ruled out for this year. But the Big One remains MIA, for now.