Sunday, 4 October 2015

PACIFIC RIM 2 put on indefinite hold, Del Toro considers new projects

Guillermo Del Toro's next flick was supposed to be Pacific Rim 2, the sequel to his 2012 mech-vs-monster action movie. Although only a modest success in the United States, it was a strong worldwide hit and the movie had been greenlit to begin shooting in the New Year for a 2017 release.

Unfortunately, the movie has run afoul of a political game of football between the production company, Legendary, and the studio releasing the film, Universal (Warner Brothers released the first film, but Universal has inherited the sequel). The two publicly remain committed to the film, and Guillermo Del Toro has said he wants Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams to join the cast, but it now has no production or release date.

Del Toro has also indicated he may put another film into production before Pacific Rim 2. There is no word on what the film may be, but Del Toro has been talking recently about some of his favourite vampire and horror books, including Alone with the Horrors by Ramsay Campbell, The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee and Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin. With Del Toro producing The Strain, a TV series about vampires (or, more accurately, vampire-zombie hybrids), it may be less likely that his next work will again be about the undead bloodsuckers, but if so he's got some great inspiration going on.

He also mentions Martin's Sandkings, an SF short story that was, prior to A Song of Ice and Fire, probably Martin's best-known work. It was previously filmed (in a very different form) as the first episode of the newer The Outer Limits in 1996, but a more faithful, big-budget feature film version would be brilliant.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 14

By the latter part of the 1980s, epic fantasy had established itself as a big-selling, popular genre. The shadow of Tolkien still loomed large over the field, but authors had begun moving away from his paradigm. David Gemmell was telling stories about heroism in worlds bleaker than Middle-earth, Glen Cook was challenging fantasy conventions of good and evil and David Eddings was releasing feel-good stories in which everything always worked out okay.

What the genre did not have was a work that tried to follow up on Tolkien directly, a work that built on - but maybe challenged - his themes and ideas over a very long page count and covering a vast amount of territory and characters. That work, and important step up in the development of epic fantasy, arrived in 1988.

The Dragonbone Chair

Robert Paul "Tad" Williams started writing The Dragonbone Chair in 1985. It was his second novel, having previously published Tailchaser's Song, a fantasy that used cats and an internal mythology that recalled both Watership Down by Richard Adams and Tolkien. The Dragonbone Chair, the fist volume of a planned trilogy called Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, was a more traditional fantasy.

The story is set in Osten Ard, a continent consisting of several distinct nations unified into a single empire by the High King, Prester John. As the story opens, Prester John is failing and his oldest son, Elias, prepares to take the throne in a peaceful transition. However, Elias is quarrelling with his younger brother Josua Lackhand and is under the influence of Pyrates, a priest commanding strange powers. As Elias takes the throne and begins a reign of terror over the population of Osten Ard, risking civil war and anarchy, a young kitchen boy named Simon is thrust into prominence when his mentor, an enemy of Pyrates, is killed. Simon flees into the wilderness after rescuing the imprisoned Josua, triggering a war for succession at the same time that a supernatural force of apparent evil, the Storm King, arises in the distant north.

So far, so standard. But the novel, and the trilogy as a whole, challenges conceptions of the genre. The Storm King and his minions have a genuine grievance against humanity and their plan to conquer/destroy Osten Ard is surprisingly original. There are tinges of science fiction around the edges of the story: the elf-like Sithi are hinted at being arrivals from another planet and the presence of Prester John (a legendary Christian king who established a kingdom in the far east in medieval times) and some very Earth-like cultures suggests an ancient link between our world and Osten Ard. The book also engages with other subgenres of fantasy: Simon Snowlock's journey into the mystical realm of Jao e-Tinukai'i recalls the woodland fantasy of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and the Amber series by Roger Zelazny. The vast and forbidding fortress known as the Hayholt, riddled with secret tunnels and long-forgotten rooms, a relic from an ancient, more glorious time, feels like a nod towards Mervyn Peake's titanic Castle Gormenghast.

The series also has extensive maps, a glossary and notes on pronunciation, as well as appendices and cast lists. The books feature an elaborate backstory extending across thousands of years, and numerous notes on culture and language. The trilogy heavily riffs of Tolkien but also does not just steal ideas but repackages them. There is an implicit criticism of the (unplanned but implied) racism in Tolkien's work, which Tolkien himself later struggled with, and also a darker take on the elves, whose continued existence over thousands of years has ossified them and their culture. There is also a nice nod to historical revisionism: our initial understanding of the complex backstory is later challenged, both by the Storm King's own (and rather different) viewpoint of what happened and by the revelation that Prester John may not have been quite the man he is presented as when the story opens. Williams's Aragorn-analogue, Prince Josua, is also shown to be riven by self-doubt and sceptical of his own claim to the throne, as well as his ability to lead the fight against Elias, in sharp contrast to Tolkien's character (although, interestingly, Peter Jackson's film version of the character is more similar to Josua).

Williams's work was influential on what came later. In particular, American SF and horror author George R.R. Martin had not been particularly inspired by the fantasies that had come after Tolkien (Stephen Donaldson's work aside) and had no plans to write in the genre. That changed after reading The Dragonbone Chair, with its use of memorable sayings ("All Men Must Die," is said in the first chapter), the notion of freezing winters lasting years and the alien, otherworldly pale white beings threatening from the north, as well as a dynastic struggle between competing factions and a more realistic take on violence and sexuality. Only three years after The Dragonbone Chair was released, Martin would start work on his own fantasy novel, A Game of Thrones, which he has acknowledged many times as being inspired by Williams (and Tolkien, Vance and Zelazny).

In addition, there are echoes of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn to be found in Scott Bakker's challenging Second Apocalypse mega-series. The (apparently) space-borne race in a fantasy setting, the elves whose immortality has come at a terrible price (of ennui in Williams and outright insanity in Bakker) and the philosophical-religious overtones (much more central in Bakker) are shared ideas between the works.

Williams also, like Tolkien before and Jordan and Martin after, found that his tale had grown in the telling. The Dragonbone Chair was 900 pages long in paperback. Its sequel, Stone of Farewell (published in 1990) was only marginally shorter. And the third volume, To Green Angel Tower (1993), was almost as big as both combined, and remains the longest individual work of fantasy ever published. The book was so huge it had to be split into two volumes for paperback publication, creating a "four-volume trilogy". Williams would also repeat this trick later on, with his cyberpunk/fantasy hybrid series Otherland (which he cleverly pre-sold as four volumes as he knew what would happen, only to find the fourth volume so huge it narrowly avoided being split itself) and a later fantasy trilogy, Shadowmarch, which also expanded to four books.

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is now an acknowledged classic of the genre, important in its development and ambitious in its scope. It also set the tone for a variant form of fantasy, works consisting of thousands of pages extending across multiple volumes. Many, many authors would follow in his train, not least himself: in 2017 Williams will publish The Witchwood Crown, the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard, a sequel trilogy set thirty years after the events of the first three books. It is one of the most eagerly-awaited epic fantasy projects on the horizon, and it remains to be seen if Williams can recapture the impact of his classic trilogy.

As epic fantasy began transitioning to the Big Fat Endless Series that has become one of its defining features, there was also a different subset of fantasy that was interested in mashing things up, blurring genre boundaries and generally being a bit weird.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

BATTLETECH Kickstarter launched

Harebrained Schemes has launched its Kickstarter campaign for BattleTech, a new, turn-based tactical wargame set in the universe of the miniature game BattleTech and its roleplaying-based spin-off, MechWarrior.

The new game will be helmed by Jordan Weisman, the co-creator of the entire BattleTech/MechWarrior franchise, along with many of the same team who worked on the recent Shadowrun RPGs.

As of this time of writing, less than 24 hours after the launch of the campaign and with 34 days to go, the game has already made $600,000 and seems likely to hit the $1 million target, at which point the game will get a fully-fleshed out singleplayer campaign in addition to a skirmish mode.

Preliminary Initial TitanCon Report Preview


More to follow.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Ridley Scott confuses everyone with PROMETHEUS sequel

Ridley Scott has made a series of somewhat odd comments about the upcoming sequel to Prometheus, his 2012 quasi-prequel to Alien.

Prometheus 2 is still due to go into production in February 2016 and will see Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender reprise their roles as Elizabeth Shaw and the android David. At the end of Prometheus they stole an alien starship and set out to find the homeworld of the Engineers and somehow stop them from destroying Earth. In the meantime, a horrendous and almost-familiar alien creature had come into being on LV-223, although with no food around and no more people or Engineers, presumably its chances for long-term survival are bleak.

Scott had previously said there would be a trilogy of films in this series and the last film would tie in with the original Alien, presumably explaining why the Engineer starship carrying hundreds of facehugger eggs ended up crashed on LV-426, as we see it at the start of Alien. The middle film in the saga would have the fewest connections to the rest of the Aliens universe, focusing as it likely does on the Engineers and their backstory.

Scott doubled down on this last week, confirming that Prometheus 2 would not feature the traditional xenomorph at all (not even in the very brief and ambiguous way the original did in its closing moments) and we'd have to wait until Prometheus 3...or Prometheus 4, although knowing Scott's sense of humour he may have been taking the mickey out of fans with that last statement.

Today, just to confuse everyone further, Scott announced that Prometheus 2 will in fact now be called Alien: Paradise Lost. Erm.

There are several explanations here. The most likely is that Fox has decided it wants to use a brand name to "universify" the Alien franchise in the same way Marvel have with their films and Disney has with Star Wars, with lots of films in the same universe even if some are connected only tangentially. Fox are also developing a new core Alien film with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Hicks (Michael Biehn), to be directed by Neill Blomkamp. Although it has the working title Alien 5, this other film seems likely to jettison Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection from continuity and pick up instead twenty years or so after the events of Aliens. Some of Blomkamp's concept art for the film shows an Engineer starship being dissected by humans (possibly from the Weyland-Yutani Company), so it might be that Alien 5 and Paradise Lost will yet find a way of tying into one another. Or it might just be a bit of branding, and we may even see the first film retitled Alien: Prometheus for some future re-release.

Some thoughts on how Prometheus and Alien tie into one another can be found here.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Cover blurb for the MALAZAN prequel novel DANCER'S LAMENT

Bantam UK have released the cover blurb for Dancer's Lament, the first novel in the Path to Ascendancy Trilogy by Ian Esslemont.

This new trilogy chronicles the founding of the Malazan Empire, which went from a group of adventurers hanging out in a bar (where else?) on Malaz Isle to a superpower spanning three continents in less than a century.
Taking Malazan fans back to that troubled continent's turbulent early history. the opening chapter in Ian C. Esslemont's epic new fantasy sequence, the Path to Ascendancy trilogy.

For ages warfare has crippled the continent as minor city states, baronies, and principalities fought in an endless round of hostilities. Only the alliance of the rival Tali and Quon cities could field the resources to mount a hegemony from coast to coast -- and thus become known as Quon Taili.

It is a generation since the collapse of this dynasty and regional powers are once more rousing themselves. Into this arena of renewed border wars come two youths to the powerful central city state that is LiHeng. One is named Dorin, and he comes determined to prove himself the most skilled assassin of his age; he is chasing the other youth -- a Dal Hon mage who has proven himself annoyingly difficult to kill.

Li Heng has been guided and warded for centuries by the powerful sorceress known as the "Protectress" and she allows no rivals. She and her cabal of five mage servants were enough to repel the Quon Tali Iron Legions -- what could two youths hope to accomplish under their stifling rule?

Yet under the new and ambitious King Chulalorn the Third, Itko Kan is on the march from the south. He sends his own assassin servants, the Nightblades, against the city, and there are hints that he also commands inhuman forces out of legend.

While above all, shadows swirl oddly about Li Heng, and monstrous slathering beasts seem to appear from nowhere to run howling through the street. It is a time of chaos and upheaval, and in chaos, as the young Dal Hon mage would say, there is opportunity.

The book will be released on 21 April 2016.

ORPHAN BLACK Season 3 released in the UK

The third season of Orphan Black has finally hit UK screens, although in an unexpected way.

Helena was resolutely unimpressed at the BBC's dicking-around antics.

The first season of the critically-acclaimed SF show aired on BBC3, several months after the original Canadian/American transmission. Season 2 then aired just a couple of days after the North American airing. It was assumed that this pattern would be repeated for Season 3, but the BBC oddly sat on it and refused to say when it would air. And then today the first eight episodes of the season were released simultaneously on the BBC iPlayer.

The remaining two episodes should go up shortly. The season will also air on Sunday mornings on BBC3, with the first two episodes airing at, erm, 2.10am this coming Sunday. The rest of the season will follow in double bills.

The bizarre release pattern may be a test run for the future of BBC3. The channel will go off-air next Spring, its content instead transitioning to the iPlayer only. The BBC may be looking at the numbers from Orphan Black for an indication as to how well it will do. Which is nice, but I would submit that if they want this to be more successful they need to 1) actually advertising the show and 2) not wait until six months after the season has aired in the States and Canada.

Anyway, after a lengthy delay it's good to be able to watch the season at last.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Truth Stranger Than Fiction: THE MARCH

In 1990 the BBC sponsored a week of television which focused on problems and issues from different parts of the globe. The highlight, and the most expensive, part of this season was a one-off TV movie starring Juliet Stevenson (then a major British TV and film star) called The March.

The March is set in an unspecified near-future, when climate change has started to make parts of Africa uninhabitable and the continent remains wracked by war and chaos. Fed up of being in a situation not of their making, a charismatic Sudanese leader encourages a mass exodus of refugees to cross the Mediterranean and seek refuge in Europe, where they can make a better life for themselves. The reaction from Europe and Britain in particular - as the bulk of the refugees seek to land at the British outpost of Gibraltar - is one of panic and a divided political response, with the urge to do humanitarian good brought into conflict with concerns over practicalities and outright prejudice.

The drama has not aged tremendously well, but some of the issues it touches on are, 25 years on, startlingly prescient. The biggest mistake is does make is massively underestimate the scale of such an exodus, with "only" 250,000 refugees on the move in the film. It's also rather simplistic: the refugees cross the sea in a single mob at a single location and are easily turned back by the forces of Europe. The notion of multiple hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to cross into Europe by both land and sea from multiple directions simultaneously is clearly one the TV writers had not considered.

Still, it is interesting to see that a quarter of a century ago people were aware of the dangers that constant war and chaos in other parts of the globe would encourage flight on a massive scale to safer areas of the world, even if they could offer no constructive solutions on how to deal with such a situation.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 13

When they came up with the name "Dungeons and Dragons" for their roleplaying game in 1974, Gary Gygax and David Arneson envisaged heroic adventurers entering vast underground labyrinths in search of treasure and battling mighty dragons. It turned out this didn't happen too often, as their dragons were incredibly tough monsters, best-handled by heroes only after many months of adventuring and acquiring magical weapons.

In 1982 TSR, Inc., the owners of Dungeons and Dragons, decided to restore the game's focus on the mighty winged beasts. They had developed an elaborate number of different types of dragons, some good, some evil and some indifferent, and wanted to draw them together with a cohesive backstory and mythology. They also wanted to create a grand story using the D&D brand, rather the smaller-scale, sword-and-sorcery adventures that most players had been enjoying up to this point. So was born "Project Overlord", an attempt to turn D&D into an epic saga.

To bring this project to fruition, TSR turned to Tracy Hickman. A (relatively) new employee at TSR HQ in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Hickman and his wife Laura had conceived of a new campaign idea during a lengthy car journey. This campaign had been unfolding in D&D sessions run by Hickman for his friends and co-workers, and would now serve as the basis for "Project Overlord". Hickman was put in charge of the project, along with Margaret Weis, an editor working for the company. This was going to be a multimedia project, incorporating a series of a dozen or so roleplaying adventure modules and a series of novels. TSR had limited experience in this field, so brought in a professional author to write the books. Weis and Hickman felt that this author didn't get what they were trying to do, and in the end fired him. Over the course of a weekend they together wrote the opening chapters of the first novel themselves. Impressed, TSR hired them as the authors for what would now be called The Dragonlance Chronicles.

Red dragon pulls off the best portraitbomb ever.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight

The world of Krynn is suffering in the aftermath of the Cataclysm, the devastation of the landmass of Ansalon by the gods, furious at the temerity of a human empire which had challenged their power. The gods have turned their backs on the stricken continent, which has sunk into war and conflict. When the dark goddess Takhisis secretly casts her influence over Krynn once again, sponsoring the rise of an empire allied to the dragons of chaos, it falls to a band of heroes to save the world. However, the heroes are divided by internal conflicts and their would-be allies are scattered and leaderless.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight certainly didn't win any awards for originality in its setting or general storyline. But it did do things a little differently to other fantasy stories. The magically-enhanced genetic engineering of a race of human-dragon hybrids was fairly unusual for the time and the story took a number of unexpected, dark turns. A major character died unexpectedly in the cliffhanger to the second volume (more shockingly, killed by one of his own former friends and allies), and there were a number of epic dragon-on-dragon battles. That said, these flourishes were more about rearranging the furniture than totally rewriting the rules.

What made Dragons of Autumn Twilight and its immediate sequels, Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawning, such a success was the marketing. The books were pitched at a young and teenage audience, many of them already familiar with dragons and Takhisis (in her core D&D guise of Tiamat) from the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series that had started airing in 1983. The focus on dragons and the cross-marketing with the adventure modules also proved extremely successful. Sales of the Dragonlance Chronicles shot through the roof, helped by strong sales in the UK thanks to a team-up with Penguin Books. Sales increased again a few years later when the trilogy was repackaged and sold in an omnibus edition.

By 1991 there were over four million copies of the Chronicles trilogy in print, giving it a claim to being the biggest-selling epic fantasy trilogy of the 1980s. It helped revitalise interest in both dragons and the D&D game, as well as serving as the entry-point for hundreds of thousands of young and new fantasy fans. It also kick-started the collaborative writing career of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. They followed up on the initial series with an expectation-defying sequel trilogy, The Dragonlance Legends, comprising Time of the Twins, War of the Twins and Test of the Twins (1986). The original trilogy had been a war epic of massive scale and scope, but this was a far more intimate story focused on the intense and complex relationship between the heroic Caramon Majere and his brother, the sickly, morally-compromised wizard Raistlin, whose antihero antics had made him easily the most popular character in the franchise.

Weis and Hickman then edited some additional Dragonlance books before striking out to write original fiction for Bantam Books, including the hugely popular Death Gate Cycle, before returning to the Dragonlance world for more novels around the turn of the century. With sales approaching 30 million, they the most successful collaborative writing team in the history of epic fantasy and one of the most influential.

The success of the initial Dragonlance books led to more, a lot more, written by numerous authors. Almost 200 Dragonlance novels have now been published, ranging over a span of time from millennia before the Chronicles trilogy to centuries after, but none have repeated the enormous success of Weis and Hickman's books. It would take another four years - and a completely different world - for that to happen.

The Crystal Shard

Ed Greenwood had started writing fantasy stories in 1967, at the age of eight. Over the course of years he built up and created his own fantasy world, telling stories about characters like Mirt the Moneylender, a cheerfully roguish adventurer-turned-merchant who was actually one of the secret lords of Waterdeep, the City of Splendours. In 1978 Greenwood converted his world into a setting for his homebrew games of D&D and started publishing gaming articles in Dragon Magazine. Over the next seven years or so he became one of the most prolific and popular contributors to the magazine, making frequent references to his home setting.

In 1985 TSR bought the rights to Greenwood's fictional world and turned it into an official D&D campaign setting. The idea was that Dragonlance had become very narratively centred on the War of the Lance (covered in the Chronicles books) and its aftermath, and TSR wanted a much bigger world where they could tell a wider canvas of stories. Greenwood and designer Jeff Grubb set about this project with enthusiasm, releasing in 1987 the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It was accompanied by novels, both a trilogy by Douglas Niles about the Moonshae Isles and a stand-alone book by Greenwood called Spellfire. These did okay, but were not huge successes. It was the next book published in the setting that established its popularity.

Robert Salvatore was 28 years old and had sent TSR a novel on spec, Echoes of the Fourth Magic, about a research submarine and its crew which are transported into a fantasy world. It wasn't TSR's normal kind of thing, but it was enough get the attention of editor Mary Kirchoff. She gave Salvatore a large map of the Realms and asked for ideas. The one he came up was for a sub-arctic tundra setting, an evil magical gemstone of enormous power and a young barbarian hero. The editor bought the idea, but later on had to reject one of the sidekick characters. Five minutes late for a marketing meeting to discuss the book, she asked for Salvatore to create a new character on the spot. His panicked response was to suggest a dark elf ranger named Drizzt Do'Urden, which he didn't even know how to spell. On that random moment, Salvatore's entire writing career was set in motion.

Published in 1988, The Crystal Shard was a slightly unusual D&D novel. The frozen setting, the characters who are twisted versions of standard fantasy archetypes (the dark elf character suffering from racial prejudice and a halfling who's a shrewd trickster and thief rather than a cosy hobbit) and an unusually proficient ability at writing action sequences set The Crystal Shard apart and made it an enormous success. Two sequels followed, but it was the Dark Elf Trilogy (1990-91), which abandoned the epic scale of the earlier books and delved deep into Drizzt's personal backstory, which took the character and made him iconic. Almost thirty years later, approximately 30 million copies of Drizzt's adventures have been sold, making him the most popular-ever D&D character and Salvatore the single most successful author to have worked in that fantasy universe.

By the late 1980s epic fantasy was now firmly established as a marketable, popular genre. There were a few bestselling authors working in the field, critically-acclaimed novels and books which did things a bit differently. But it was still lacking a work that would build on Tolkien's legacy and take it to another level. But at this point there was not just one but two authors working on books and series that would be defined by their extraordinary lengths, their enormous popularity and the huge impact they would have on the genre.

Sunday, 20 September 2015


Next weekend I'll be at TitanCon in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

This will be the fifth TitanCon, which is held every year in Belfast. The convention is primarily dedicated to Game of Thrones, which films its studio scenes in the city at the nearby Paint Hall Studios, but also has a strong track dedicated to literature.

This year will feature authors Joe Abercrombie, Sarah Pinborough, Pat Cadigan, Peadar Ó Guilín, Laurence Donaghy, Debbie "DJ" McCune, Zoë Sumra and Jo Zebedee, as well as appearances by the Medieval Combat Group. Miltos "Syrio Forel" Yerolemou and Aimee "Myrcella Baratheon" Richardson will be representing for Game of Thrones, along with some other castmembers (not confirmed until the day as the filming schedule keeps changing).

There are also workshops on papercraft, claymaking, leather crafting and even waterdancing. Things are rounded off with a quizz and a party (of course!). There's also a coach tour on the Sunday which takes in various filming locations in and around the city.

I haven't been to TitanCon before, but I went to its predecessor, the 2009 Belfast Moot when they were filming the pilot and Kit Harington and Maisie Williams could walk down the street without being mobbed, which was great fun. I will also be moderating the "Season 5 in Review" panel which will be very interesting.

If you're interested in coming, there are still some tickets available and the congoers know how to throw a great event!