Wednesday, 28 September 2016

R. Scott Bakker's GREAT ORDEAL released in UK

The Great Ordeal is out today (well, 29 September, which is in an hour or so) in the UK and Commonwealth territories from Orbit. The book was previously released by Overlook Press in the United States in July.

The Great Ordeal is the third and penultimate volume of The Aspect-Emperor, and the seventh novel set in Bakker's Second Apocalypse mega-series. The next novel in the series, The Unholy Consult, is already complete and has a semi-firm release date of July 2017.

You can read my review of The Great Ordeal here and catch up on the History of Earwa with my five-part catch-up series here.

WASTELAND 3 announced

inXile Entertainment have announced development of Wasteland 3, the sequel to their 2014 post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland 2. Like its predecessor, this game will be crowdfunded.

The head of inXile Entertainment, Brian Fargo, formerly worked for Electronic Arts, where he made the original Wasteland back in 1988, and then founded Interplay. When they were unable to create a sequel to Wasteland as EA refused to give up the rights, they instead created the Fallout video game series. After Interplay collapsed in the early 2000s, Fargo founded inXile and reacquired the Wasteland licence. In 2012 inXile launched a Kickstarter campaign for Wasteland 2, asking for $900,000 and eventually ending up with over $3 million. The game was released in late 2014 to strong critical acclaim, and a "Director's Cut" was then released a year later which upgraded almost every aspect of the game.

Wasteland 3 will feature radically enhanced graphics, including a much-improved scaling system. This will allow for cinematic cut scenes and action shots similar to those in XCOM and its sequel. The game will also be fully voiced and will have co-op multiplayer with players able to carry out quests in different parts of the world map simultaneously and have a knock-on effect on the other player's story (similar to what is being developed for Divinity: Original Sin II). The game will also feature an upgradeable home base and will be released on PC and console simultaneously.

This time around inXile are using the newer crowdfunding service Fig. Unlike Kickstarter, Fig acts as an investment plan and will see any profits from the game returned to the investors. inXile are targeting a budget of over $7 million for the game, mostly paid for by the profits from Wasteland 2, but will be seeking to raise $2.75 million from investors.

inXile are also finishing off two other games, both crowdfunded. Torment: Tides of Numenera is mostly completed and is in bug-fixing and QA ahead of an early 2017 release. Development is in full swing on The Bard's Tale IV, with a mid-to-late 2017 release date mooted. Wasteland 3 is more likely to come out in 2018 or 2019.

Warner Brothers release new trailer for FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Warner Brothers have unveiled their final full trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in a prequel trilogy to the Harry Potter series.

Written by J.K. Rowling and directed by regular Potter director David Yates, the film will be released on 18 November.

Cover art for NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit Books have released the cover art for Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel, New York 2140: A Novel.

The new book will be set in New York in 2140 and will depict how the city is adapting to being partially submerged. The cover art is by Stephan Martiniere. The cover blurb:

The waters rose, submerging New York City.
But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever.

Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.

Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.

And how we too will change.
 The novel will be published on 21 March 2017 in the UK and USA from Orbit.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Betrayed, tortured and left for dead, Fitz has survived the depredations of his mad uncle Regal and been taken to safety in the countryside of the Six Duchies. Plagued by nightmares and trauma, Fitz eventually recovers enough to swear himself to two tasks: the murder of Regal and the safe rescue of Verity, the long-missing true king.

Assassin's Quest concludes the Farseer Trilogy in a manner that I don't think anyone was quite expecting. The first two volumes of the Farseer series are traditional epic fantasies in many respects, but ones where more overt displays of magic and violence are rolled back in favour of a deeper emotional storyline and character development. Still, with their intrigue, battles, romance and betrayals (if separated by lots of long-winded introspection), there is much of the standard fantasy template within them.

Assassin's Quest is completely different. In fact, it's a very strange book. For most of the novel we are firmly in Fitz's head as he undergoes what can best be described as a PTSD-induced nervous and near-mental breakdown after the trauma he suffered at the end of Royal Assassin. Suffering severe depression and making awful judgement calls (as everyone calls him on but himself), Fitz has to first find himself and restore his confidence before he can embark on his long-delayed true quest, which is to find and rescue Verity. Eventually, after crossing (with agonising slowness and quite astonishing amounts of angst) the entire length of the Six Duchies, Fitz overcomes his demons and gets on with the story. The problem is that this happens some around page 500, meaning that the novel only then has 300 pages to wrap the entire trilogy up in.

You might imagine this means that those last 300 pages are full of incident and plot and character development as Hobb brings the story across the finish line? Not so much. Those 300 pages still meander, circling around major plot and character moments for dozens of pages before landing (and often exactly where the reader can see them going). Eventually, in the last few pages of the book, the author explains the background of the Elderlings, Forging, the Red Ship Raiders, the Skill and many other aspects of her world, but it comes so abruptly after almost 800 pages of slow-burning despair that it feels highly anti-climactic.

In some ways you have to respect Hobb for crafting such an utterly strange ending to a fantasy trilogy, one that shys away from convention and ignores every rule of plot structure and pacing. In many respects Hobb was writing a profoundly anti-epic fantasy, something similar to what Patrick Rothfuss appears to be doing with his trilogy (only with rather less humour), and in its sacrifice of plot and action and exposition for character and a realistic approach to how a real human mind might cope with the craziness of your average epic fantasy adventure, Hobb is clearly doing something different.

But different does not mean good and the thing about experiments is that they sometimes just don't work. Assassin's Quest has fine moments of characterisation (probably best exemplified in the relationship between Fitz and the Fool), some real moments of jaw-clenching terror and some very odd moments of real magical weirdness, but it is also a novel that unfolds with all the verve, pacing and tension of watching a lethargic snail travel thirty miles. The massive stakes and tensions raised over the course of almost 1,200 pages across the first two volumes are effectively handwaved away at the end of the novel: the Red Ship Raiders are defeated off-screen, the Fool remains resolutely unexplained and most of Fitz's friends and allies remain in complete ignorance that he is alive.

Obviously we know now there is more to come in the Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies, but on its own merits Assassin's Quest (**½) is an altogether unsatisfying conclusion to the first series, languid to the point of unconsciousness until the too-rushed ending. There are some wonderful atmosphere moments and some occasionally effective dialogue, but overall it is a disappointing novel. Still, it is followed up by the far superior Liveship Traders trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

New Historical SONG OF ICE AND FIRE Maps

Over on my other blog, Atlas of Ice and Fire, I've started looking the historical geography of A Song of Ice and Fire.

The first map, The Dawn of Days, explores Westeros and Essos back in the days when they were joined by the Arm of Dorne and Westeros was covered by vast forests. The second, The Arrival of the First Men, charts the migration of the First Men tribes from Essos into Westeros, the resulting conflict with the Children of the Forest and the bloody war that ended with the signing of the Pact.

More to follow.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Building a Universe in the Public Eye: STAR CITIZEN

Kotaku UK have published an excellent article exploring the development of Star Citizen, a vast science fiction video game from the creators of the Wing Commander series.

For those unfamiliar with it, Star Citizen is the most expensive crowdfunded project in history. It is the brainchild of Chris Roberts, a veteran video game developer who'd worked on projects stretching back to the 1980s and the BBC Micro. Roberts became famous almost overnight for his space combat game Wing Commander, released in 1990 on the PC. It had cutting-edge visuals, a vast sense of scale and an unusually strong storyline. It was one of the first games to really push the PC as a gaming machine as well.

Several sequels and spin-offs followed, some of them worked on by Roberts's brother, Erin. Chris and Erin together set up Digital Anvil Studios in the late 1990s to make a new series of space games set in the same universe, to be published by Microsoft. In 2001 they released a single-player game, mostly created by Erin's team, called Starlancer. It was excellent, one of the best space combat games made before the bottom dropped out of the market. In 2003 they shipped the considerably more controversial Freelancer. Originally mooted as an open-world multiplayer title, the game had been delayed numerous times, was started over on a couple of occasions and fell far short of its ambitions. The game was retooled (fairly late in development) as a singleplayer game with a multiplayer mode. On release it was criticised for being dumbed down (replacing the joystick with mouse-and-keyboard controls like a shooter, for example). In later years it was praised for its moddability, which allowed some enterprising fans to rebuild the game into something more like what Chris Roberts had originally intended, but it certainly wasn't the game that fans originally felt they'd been promised.

By that point Roberts had quit the industry to go and work in Hollywood. His Wing Commander games had developed to feature lengthy full-motion video sequences starring actors like Mark Hamill and John Rhys-Davies, directed by Roberts himself, and Roberts decided to work on a stand-alone Wing Commander film. The resulting movie, released in 1999, was widely derided. Whilst working on Freelancer and encountering publisher interference, Roberts decided that he'd rather work somewhere where his vision could be fulfilled with less hindrance and he went back to Hollywood to work as a producer. He ended up working on movies including The Punisher, Lucky Number Slevin and Lord of War before deciding to return to video game development.

In 2011 Roberts decided to dust off his original design for Freelancer and take another punt at it, this time with much better technology. His original plan had been to create a modest prototype to attract private investment, but the prototype ended up being so ambitious and impressive that fans - many of whom had played the Wing Commander games as kids - flocked to give him their money. Roberts ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised $2.4 million, but also included a crowdfunding platform on his own website. This kept growing and growing in a way they defied belief. As of this month, almost $127 million has been donated to the development of the game.

Star Citizen plans to be the ultimate science fiction video game. You will control an avatar which can pilot one of hundreds of starships as well as engaging in first-person combat both on the ground, in space stations and even in zero-gravity encounters in space. The ships can fly between several hundred planets, landing anywhere on their surfaces (from massive cities to mining bases to open wilderness) and engaging in activities including combat, courier work and passenger-ferrying. The game will have lengthy missions spanning many star systems and taking hours to fulfil, as well as a dynamic, developing universe. The game will also incorporate an entire Wing Commander-esque single-player military campaign called Squadron 42, along with CG movie sequences featuring voice actors including Gillian Anderson and Gary Oldman.

The game will basically be Elite: Dangerous, Crysis and Mass Effect, all at once. It is literally the most ambitious video game ever designed. That budget may sound huge, and it's certainly getting up there for a video game (it's a lot more than, say, Mass Effect 3 or Fallout 4), but it's still only about half the budget of the likes of Grand Theft Auto V and Destiny, which are somewhat more modest in their ambitions.

Yeah, it's an hour long, but well worth it for a look at the sheer scale of what they are attempting.

At this point Star Citizen is two years overdue and it is highly unlikely we will see it before 2018 at the absolute earliest. We may see Squadron 42 next year, if things go well. Some backers have grown angry at the game's lengthy development and what has been perceived as "feature creep" and demanded refunds. However, others are keeping the faith. Recent gameplay videos giving a better idea of what the game will look like - featuring a player moving from a meeting on a space station to flying through space to salvaging a derelict spacecraft to landing on a planet to engaging in combat, all seamlessly - have restored some flagging enthusiasm for the project. Most heartening, from the Kotaku article, is that the problems, development bottlenecks and logjams which blighted the project in 2013 and 2014 now seem to have been cleared. Erin Roberts, who (unlike his brother) remained in the game industry working on the tightly-focused, efficiently-developed Lego video games, is now in charge of several of the more problematic areas of development and a host of ex-CryTek staff have been brought in to work on the tricky engine.

It'll be interesting to see if Star Citizen soars or crashes and burns, especially after the disappointing and controversial No Man's Sky. There's plenty to be hopeful about, not least the fact the the Roberts brothers have a pretty strong track record behind them, and they certainly don't have the normal problem of not enough money. But I think we'll need to some pretty solid releases next year of more playable material or even the entire Squadron 42 game so fans can continuing keeping faith with the project and taking it all the way to release.

Sony confirm a DARK TOWER TV series is in the works

Sony Pictures have confirmed that they are moving ahead with a Dark Tower spin-off TV series which will be heavily connected to their forthcoming film.

The film, starring Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black, will be released in February 2017 and will serve as the intro to a series of movies acting as both a sequel to and retelling of the story in Stephen King's eight-volume novel series. The TV series will serve as a prequel to the movies and books both, directly adapting Wizard and Glass (the fourth volume in the books) and drawing on backstory elements established in The Gunslinger.

Using a combination of TV and film to tell the massive story of The Dark Tower was part of the original plan when the project was at Warner Brothers and HBO under Ron Howard's guidance. However, when that fell through due to cost Sony decided it only wanted to make the first film and see how it did before committing to more. With shooting of the movie wrapped up and post-production now underway, Sony now appear to be much more confident in the property and have greenlit the TV series, which will consist of 10-13 episodes with film director Nikolaj Arcel and screenwriters Anders Thomas Jensen and possibly Akiva Goldsman involved in writing the episodes. Ron Howard remains a producer, but likely in a hands-off role.

Sony have also released a map of the lands that will be visited in the Dark Tower TV series.

Most intriguingly, Idris Elba will reprise his role as Roland, along with Tom Taylor as Jake, in the TV series, but only in framing sequences set in the present-day. A younger actor will be cast in the role of teenage Roland.

The Dark Tower TV series will shoot in 2017 and air in 2018. No TV network is yet attached.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Genre television crushes the Emmy Awards

This week the Emmy Awards aired in the United States. For the first time, science fiction and fantasy shows completely dominated the presentation, taking all of the major drama category awards.

Tatiana Maslany won the Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role playing five regular characters (and many more guest characters) on clone drama Orphan Black.

This is a far cry from a few years ago when genre shows had a hard time getting any respect or traction. The Twilight Zone won a couple of awards back in the 1960s and the original Star Trek was nominated during its first run, but there was then quite a long dry spell until the 1990s, when Red Dwarf's Gunmen of the Apocalypse won the 1994 award for Best International Comedy Series.

In the early 1990s Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap were heavily represented in the Creative Emmies (which reward production achievements, such as special effects) but couldn't get a seat at the main event. This changed in 1994 when Star Trek: The Next Generation was nominated for its final season but did not win.

Greater penetration of the Emmy consciousness took place thanks to The X-Files, which won several creative awards and Best Actress for Gillian Anderson in 1997. Surprisingly, David Duchovny never won for Best Actor and the show as a whole failed to win anything for writing or for Best Drama Series overall. But it opened the door slightly. More successful was Lost, which managed to win for Best Drama Series, Best Direction for its pilot episode and Best Actor for both Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn.

The awards this year went to:
  • Outstanding Drama Series: Game of Thrones
  • Outstanding Television Movie: Sherlock, The Abominable Bride
  • Outstanding Lead Actor (Drama): Rami Malek for Mr. Robot
  • Outstanding Lead Actress (Drama): Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black
  • Outstanding Direction (Drama): Miguel Sapochnik for Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards
  • Outstanding Writing (Drama): David Benioff & D.B. Weiss for Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards
It's good to see SFF represented so heavily, and it'll be interesting to see if this trend continues next year when shows like Stranger Things, Luke Cage and American Gods will be eligible and Game of Thrones takes a year off (Season 7 will air too late to be eligible for the 2017 awards).

New RED DWARF episodes start airing tonight

Red Dwarf returns to UK TV screens tonight for its eleventh season, and the first full season in four years.

Red Dwarf is the world's longest-running science fiction sitcom, and the longest-running sitcom on British television. Created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, it aired its first six seasons between 1988 and 1993, before Rob Grant chose to leave to work on other projects and novels. Naylor continued with two additional seasons in 1997 and 1999, although these were patchier and less popular. After a decade spent trying to get a film version launched, the show returned to TV for a mini-series (now retconned as the ninth season) in 2009, which was very poorly received, and a full, tenth season in 2012 which was much more warmly received.

The premise of the series is that Dave Lister, a low-ranking technician on the five-mile-long mining vessel Red Dwarf, is put into stasis as a punishment for smuggling a cat on board. Whilst he's in stasis a lethal radiation leak wipes out the crew and forces the ship's AI, Holly, to take the vessel in to deep space until the radiation danger has passed and Lister can be woken up. Unfortunately, this takes three million years. Upon waking up, Lister discovers the last survivor of a humanoid species that evolved from his cat and a holographic recreation of his officious and pedantic senior officer, Arnold Judas Rimmer. Later on they recover an android from a wrecked starship, the neurotic and borderline insane Kryten. Together, they attempt to survive with no female company and find a way back to Earth.

Early word on the eleventh season - the first episode was aired on streaming services last week as a preview - is that it's also pretty good, continuing an emphasis on the characters and dialogue rather than explosions and effects (a criticism levelled at Seasons 7 and 8). Encouragingly, Season 12 has already been filmed and will air next year.

Red Dwarf's eleventh season starts airing tonight at 9pm on British cable channel Dave.