Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Bethesda re-release some classic games on GoG

Bethesda have joined the GoG bandwagon by releasing some of their older, classic RPGs and some other games inherited from other companies onto the service.

Of interest to fans of Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls Online will be the older games in the Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is by far the most critically highly-acclaimed game in the series and the most unusual, with taxi services provided by giant stilt-legged monsters, very few traditional fantasy cliches and the constant threat of being killed by annoying cliff racers. Far more obscure are the two action-oriented spin-offs, the dungeon crawler Battlespire and the third-person action game Redguard.

As a bonus, anyone buying any of these titles also gets The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall added to their collection for free. These games have been free for years on Bethesda's website, but it's nice to see them being put out on GoG. Certainly playing Arena in 2015 - 21 years after it was originally released - is an, er, interesting experience when comparing it to Skyrim.

Bethesda have also released Fallout, Fallout 2 and Fallout Tactics on the service, likely to help set the scene for the release of Fallout 4 in November. In addition, they have also released some of id's back-catalogue, via special editions for Doom, Doom II and Quake.

DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN II arrives on Kickstarter

Larian Studios have commenced the Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin II. This is the sequel to last year's hit RPG.

The new game has sailed past its Kickstarter target of $500,000 less than 24 hours after the appeal went live. With 34 days still left in the campaign, I think we can comfortably expect the final total to be well into the seven figures. However, the video game record set by Shenmue III with $6.33 million would appear to be safe for now.

The new game is very similar to the original, but with the party now expanded to four fully-controllable heroes (as opposed to two fully-controllable ones and two NPC allies in the original). The game will retain its focus on high-quality graphics, physics-assisted battles and open freedom, but this will be joined by the idea of the party occasionally splitting up and engaging in separate, simultaneous narratives. The designers are also working on the idea of furthering roleplaying in video games in multiplayer mode by allowing the players to work at cross-purposes to one another. This is fascinating, although only time will tell how successful they will be.

What is interesting is that, this time around, the basic underlying tech is already in place (and Original Sin II is clearly in a much more advanced state of prototyping than the original was at the same point) so the Kickstarter money this time can go more towards, writing, art and the development of these intriguing ideas of consequence and competing narratives. If Larian pull off what they are promising, this game could be something very special indeed.

Monday, 24 August 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 2

It would be fair to say that J.R.R. Tolkien did not create epic or secondary world fantasy. He stood on the shoulders of those who came before, bringing a new perspective to old ideas and creating a variant form of storytelling out of existing approaches. But The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) define the subgenre of epic fantasy in a way that very few other works so completely define their fields. Every work of fantasy in that mould - and, to the irritation of their authors, many of fantasy outside of it - is seen in the light of Tolkien. In more recent years other defining figures have appeared such as Rowling and Martin, or older ones have been reappraised, such as Howard and Dunsany, but Tolkien was for many years the author who summed up, coined and personified the field, and his life story and the stories that grew out of it are important to understanding it.

John Ronald Reul Tolkien in 1916, shortly before beginning what would become The Silmarillion.

John Ronald Reul Tolkien had been born in Bloemfontein's, South Africa, in 1892 to British parents. His father died when he was just three years old whilst the rest of the family were visiting the UK on holiday. Remaining in the UK, Tolkien and his brother were raised by their mother in and around Birmingham, in conditions of some financial distress. Tolkien's mother died when he was twelve from complications arising from diabetes and he was raised by a priest who had been a friend of the family. Tolkien attended Oxford University and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt, after a courtship complicated by interference from both their families on religious grounds (Tolkien was a Catholic and Edith a Protestant; she later converted, with some regrets).

In 1916 Tolkien was deployed to the Western Front to fight as part of the British Army in the First World War. Tolkien spent just four months in the trenches, although the horrors he saw during that time never left him: those four months included the bulk of the Battle of the Somme. In October of that year Tolkien came down with trench fever and was invalided back to England. Repeated bouts of sickness kept him confined to the home country. With Edith only able to visit occasionally, Tolkien was bored out of his mind. He was already a keen writer, poet and artist, and had already used fantastical imagery in his amateur works: he had already painted a great blazing tree of light in 1916 and had written a poem called The Lonely Isle. He had also started developing his own imaginary languages, driven by a love of philology inherited from his mother (who had taught him Latin as a young child). He had no greater plan in mind for these works but during his convalescence he decided to start writing an actual story, about the arrival of a great warrior at a glorious city called Gondolin, one of the few surviving strongholds in the midst of a great war. The Fall of Gondolin was the first of what he came to call The Book of Lost Tales, consisting of stories drawn from a common backdrop but varying immensely in tone and content.

Ted Nasmith's rendition of the meeting of Beren and Luthien, the most personal and favourite of Tolkien's own stories.

Others soon followed. A few months later Tolkien and his wife went on a picnic and Edith danced for him among the flowering hemlock. This inspired Tolkien to write his epic romance, The Lay of Leithian, better-known as The Tale of Beren and Luthien, which became a core part of Tolkien's developing legendarium.

With the war ending, Tolkien took a job working on the Oxford English Dictionary before becoming a university lecturer and professor, first at Leeds and then back to Oxford. He became Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College in 1924. During this time he continued working on The Book of Lost Tales, adding many more episodes to the book and developing a vast, mythological backstory. In this story supernatural beings known as Valar (servants of the One God Eru, also called Illuvatar) create the world and rule it as a paradise, until one of their number, Melkor (later Morgoth) turns against them and brings disquiet and corruption into paradise. Melkor is responsible for numerous conflicts, culminating in him seizing control of three powerful, magical jewels and securing them in a stronghold in the central continent of the world (hence, the "Middle of the Earth", although the name also drew on Midgard and other mythological roots). During his villainous antics, Melkor had betrayed the immortal "gnomes" and suffered their retribution in the form of a bloody crusade launched against his forces in Middle-earth over the course of centuries. Deciding that "gnomes" wasn't quite right, Tolkien recast them as the heroic and otherworldly elves, to the relief of the many imitators who came after. Eventually, with the assistance of the supposedly "lesser" races of dwarves and men (not to mention the intervention of the Valar), the elves defeat Melkor and he is driven from the world in defeat, although only at the cost of the annihilation of parts of Middle-earth in a titanic flood.

Tolkien's grand mythological cycle was complete in concept, but Tolkien found structuring it and making it more comprehensible to general readers to be difficult. He tried creating a framing structure in which a shipwrecked mariner from the modern age washes ashore on the Lonely Isle of Tol Eressea (having somehow found the "Straight Road" from our world to that of Valinor, the land of the Uttermost West) and hears about the Lost Tales from his hosts, but found this unsatisfying. He continued working on the legends and polished them into a more familiar form, changing names and races and events and even the book's title - by 1930 The Book of Lost Tales had become The Silmarillion - but still could not find a satisfying way of presenting his world of Middle-earth as he wanted. But, as is usually the way, inspiration struck from an unexpected quarter.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, published in 1937 and a vital moment in the development of the epic fantasy genre.

In or around 1930, Tolkien was marking papers when he found a blank sheet of paper left in the middle of an essay. On a whim, he wrote down "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," and put the paper aside. Later, he picked it up and became intrigued by what exactly a "hobbit" could be. He resolved to find out.

Over the course of the next six years, whilst working hard as an academic and tinkering with The Silmarillion, Tolkien fleshed out his new story by inventing episodes for it as bedtime tales for his four children (who successively grew up hearing it). He set it down on paper, and later a typewriter, before leaving it unfinished. It was only because a former student-turned-friend, Susan Dagnall, had become employed by George Allen and Unwin, a London publishing house and had heard about the book, that it was ever finished.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, was published in September 1937 to considerable critical acclaim, winning Tolkien several awards and selling well in both the UK and the United States. Tolkien's publishers quickly asked for a sequel but Tolkien had not planned one, and had ended the book by saying that Bilbo Baggins lived long and happily to the end of his days. He could not think of a way of writing a sequel that did not contradict this. Nevertheless, he tried and by Christmas had started The Hobbit II, another light-hearted adventure about hobbits. Among the ideas he had placed in the first novel but had not developed fully was an off-page, secondary villain called "The Necromancer" and the backstory for a curious magic ring, discovered by Bilbo and granting the bearer the ability to become invisible. Keen for the second book to develop naturally from the first, Tolkien followed up on these plot points and made them more central to the narrative, eventually hitting on the idea that the Necromancer was the creator of the ring and that he was looking for it. The story took a darker turn when Tolkien had his band of hobbits chased across the Shire by a sinister Ring-wraith, with the language and atmosphere both becoming more adult and oppressive. Tolkien chose to remain in this mode. A final element clicked into place when Tolkien suddenly realised that the Necromancer could be Sauron, a minor villain in The Silmarillion (although a primary antagonist in The Tale of Beren and Luthien) whose fate had not been revealed at the end of that story. Tolkien's new story was not going to be just a sequel to The Hobbit, but also The Silmarillion itself, elevating it to a new level in Tolkien's eyes and also resulting in its new and decidedly more epic title: The Lord of the Rings.

In the event, it would be seventeen years before the new book would be published and the rest of the SFF field was not standing idle.

QUANTUM BREAK blurs the lines between gaming and TV

Microsoft and Remedy have announced the release date of their new video game collaboration: Quantum Break, an action SF-thriller set in a world where time and space have become fluid concepts in the wake of a temporal accident. However, the game will also be part of a multimedia concept incorporating a digital TV series.


The game itself is a fairly standard action title incorporating gunplay and cover-based shooting, with the addition of Remedy's trademark polish and new mechanics revolving around the manipulation of time. This is a natural development for the developers who gave us the first two (and best) Max Payne games, with their development of bullet time in gaming. Like their previous title, Alan Wake, Quantum Break will be broken up into episodes. Each episode of the game will be followed by a 22-minute TV episode expanding on the story. There will be four episodes as part of the game, although if the game is a big hit presumably more could be made.

The live-action port of the game will incorporate some pretty well-known genre hitters, with Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Dominic Monaghan (Lord of the Rings, Lost), Shawn Ashmore (X-Men, The Following) and Lance Riddick (The Wire, Fringe) being the most notable.

Quantum Break will be released on X-Box One on 5 April 2016. A later release on PC is likely, given Remedy's track record.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Christopher Priest announces a new novel

Christopher Priest has taken to his blog to confirm the completion of a new novel, The Gradual.

According to Priest, this novel breaks with the tradition of his last few books by having a reliable narrator and a linear storyline told in sequence. Priest's last few novels - The Separation, The Islanders and The Adjacent - have all featured non-linear storytelling, unreliable (or mad) narrators and shifting perspectives and realities.

This is interesting news, as Priest had previously said his next novel would be called The Mariners. Whether this is the same book with a new title, or a different work that cropped up, is unclear. Hopefully, we will see The Gradual on shelves in 2016.

Two new China Mieville novels in 2016

It appears that we will be getting two new China Mieville novels in 2016.

China Mieville is one of SFF's most respected and critically-acclaimed authors, and also one of its more prolific. He released six novels in just seven years (bookended by the YA works Un Lun Dun in 2007 and Railsea in 2012) before taking a hiatus. He released a short story collection, Three Moments of an Explosion, a couple of months ago and will apparently be back with two new works in 2016.

First up in January is This Census Taker, a short novel or long novella. Blurb 1:
Like Neil Gaiman’s major bestseller The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this is short and stirring fiction from a genre master.

After his mother goes missing, a boy is left alone in a remote house on a hilltop with his increasingly deranged father. When an odd man knocks on his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation are over. But will this stranger at last trigger the doom the boy has feared or will he somehow save the boy from the worst?
And Blurb 2:
For readers of George Saunders, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell, This Census Taker is the poignant and uncanny new novella from award-winning and bestselling author China Miéville. After witnessing a profoundly traumatic event, a boy is left alone in a remote house on a hilltop with his increasingly deranged parent. When a stranger knocks on his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation are over—but by what authority does this man keep the meticulous records he carries? Is he the boy’s friend? His enemy? Or something altogether other?

This will be followed by his next novel proper, The Last Days of New Paris, later in the year. Blurb:
THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS is an intense and gripping tale set in an alternative universe: June 1940 following Paris’ fall to the Germans, the villa of Air-Bel in Marsailles, is filled with Trotskyists, anti-fascists, exiled artists, and surrealists. One Air-Bel dissident decides the best way to fight the Nazis is to construct a surrealist bomb. When the bomb is accidentally detonated, surrealist Cataclysm sweeps Paris and transforms it according to a violent, weaponized dream logic.

Fringe: Season 4

The Fringe team has saved two parallel universes from destruction but have paid a heavy price they are no longer even aware of. Peter Bishop, who as a young boy was saved from death, irrevocably altering the timeline, has been removed from existence. His Fringe team-mates have no memory of his existence and his removal has led to numerous changes, such as the continued existence of a very old enemy. But - somehow - Peter returns to find a world which he is no longer part of. Can he find a way "home"?

Fringe's penultimate season starts off in a difficult place. The timeline of both universes has been reset and although things are broadly similar, a whole host of details have changed. These include Olivia and her sister being raised by Nina Sharp and Walter, never having been brought out of his shell by Peter, still being a crazy recluse. It is fascinating to map these changes, and the way the writers cleverly use them to resurrect previously-slain foes and revisit past plot points, but it does cause some problems with the viewer not being sure how much to invest in this new universe. Is Fringe going to hit the reset button at some point and revert things back to the way they used to be?

If you can get over that issue, there is much to enjoy with this season. The notion that parallel universes can exist but time can also be rewritten within those universes is one that hard SF has played around with a few times, but this is the first time that an SF TV series has treated the concept with some seriousness and not gotten bogged down in technobabble. The timeline reset also allows the writers to drop a few storylines they developed earlier on which clearly they didn't know how to follow up on (particularly Fauxlivia's pregnancy). However, a late-season development allows them to revisit some of these plot threads and give them a more elegant form of closure.

Once the season sorts itself out, there is much fun to be had from having our characters (in both universes) pitted against a returning old enemy (who later turns out to be a front for another returning antagonist) who is a step ahead of them at every turn. The season does a good job of balancing out its share of characters, with Peter dominating mid-season but Seth Gabel's Lincoln Lee rising to the fore later on. Lincoln has always been an interesting character, but his early placement this season as Peter's effective replacement feels a little off. That said, the writers use the oddness of his position to inform the storyline and eventually his character achieves a destiny that is fitting.

A key subplot through the season revolves around the ongoing mystery of the Observers. Some fans thought we wouldn't get much, or any, explanation for these mysterious beings and their objectives, so it's a huge shock when we do get a detailed explanation for their origins and their ultimate goals. These ramp up in the nineteenth episode, Letters of Transit, which fast-forwards to the year 2036 and a nightmarish, dystopian possible future that awaits our heroes. Given that Fringe was going to be cancelled after the fourth season (the ratings were utterly diabolical) and was saved almost solely by the goodwill of fans at the network, this was an incredibly bold decision that could have left the series on a massive downer. As it stands, Fringe was reprieved at the last minute and given a final season to wrap up its storylines.

Unfortunately, Season 4 does run out of steam a little before its end. There's some wheel-spinning episodes and even Fringe's generously elastic notions of plausibility take a serious beating with some plot developments. The actual season finale is also extremely weak, with some bitty plotting and Blair Brown being given some hideous exposition to relate to the other characters (the writers seemingly later apologised by giving her an incredibly poignant and well-played storyline in the final season).

The fourth season of Fringe (****) is probably the show's weakest, although it's still eminently watchable, highly entertaining and, as usual, excellently played by a tight, capable cast. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 1

Buzzfeed recently posted a "51 Best Fantasy Series Ever" list, which of course is nothing of the sort. Some very good books and a few nods at excellent-but-obscure stuff, but for the most part the list divides its time between the obvious and a lot of currently-trendy-but-incomplete stuff that we have no way of knowing will stand the test of time (putting such series at #1, #2 and #3 seems a bit optimistic, to me).

Rather than simply throw up my own list (although I may put together a Gratuitous List of such in the coming weeks), I thought it might be more interesting to look at epic fantasy, or at least the modern interpretation of the subgenre, through a chronological perspective. This has the benefit of allowing works to be listed without too much regard for whether they're any "good" or not, but more by their importance in the development of the field.

Pre-Modern Fantasy

Any discussion of the origin of epic fantasy can easily get diverted into discussions of older, mythological and pre-modern works. I've seen some discussions of the subgenre open with The Illiad and The Odyssey, in which case the history of epic fantasy can also be seen the history of literature as a whole. What we're more concerned with is epic fantasy in its current form and how it got there.

That said, there are some amusing parallels between modern publishing concerns and more ancient works of literature. Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses (8 AD) can be seen as an attempt to order both Greek and Roman mythological traditions into one cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end (the then-recent deification of Julius Caesar), a bit like Tolkien's Silmarillion but drawing on pre-existing actual legends. Similarly, Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur is a gathering together of various medieval and Dark Ages myths (particularly Geoffry of Monmouth's earlier work of three centuries prior) into a single coherent story. However most pre-modern fantasies can be seen as being more collections of fairy tales, folklore and religious legends rather than conscious works of "subcreation", to use a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Subcreation", in Tolkien's definition, means for a writer to create a world (fictional or a variation on our own) and populate it with detailed peoples, cultures, histories and traditions, to give the illusion (however deep) of reality. This differs sharply from other forms of fantasy in which the weird, the strange and the genuinely fantastical are not given any form of explanation. Critics of epic fantasy have suggested that this is a counter-intuitive approach to the genre of the fantastic, giving rationalisation to something that cannot be rationalised. West of the moon and east of the sun should not be mappable (to paraphrase Pratchett), and pausing a reading of the legend of King Arthur to reflect that Camelot does not have a sound economic foundation to survive a major military campaign is to miss the mystery and romance of the legend. However, "subcreation" has come to define modern epic fantasy, to the point of some authors revelling in the sheer joy of creating places, cultures and stories about them, although even Tolkien warned of the dangers of getting carried away with this instead of focusing on the story at hand.

This form of work can be seen at an early stage in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1725), in which his hero travels to various fictional islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These islands are described in some exacting and pedantic detail, as if Gulliver is making a report to the British Foreign Office, with their economies and politics discussed at length and maps of the islands included. Of course, this was part of Swift's satirical swipe at the then-modern (and, to his eyes, absurdist) politics of the British and French governments. But the idea of rationalising the irrational certainly took hold in the following generations.

Pre-Tolkien Fantasy
Tolkien is held to be the father of epic fantasy, but certainly books were published before him which could be seen to have some of the same hallmarks. George MacDonald's Phantastes (1858), sometimes held to be the first fantasy novel written exclusively for adults, has the protagonist journeying into a fictional world which even has a proto-"magic system", in its depiction of the rules governing the spirits of the trees. The Well at the World's End (1896) by William Morris features a fantastical quest through an imagined landscape. Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and numerous sequels depicted a fantasy world divided between various factions and races, all plotted on a handy map. Starting in 1905, Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (popularly, "Lord Dunsany") wrote a series of books and stories where gods living in a fictional realm called Pegana are shown to have influenced human life. In 1924 he published The King of Elfland's Daughter, a novel-length quest narrative. Slightly preceding it, E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922) is very much an epic fantasy in the traditional mould, complete with maps, military campaigns and a well-described background setting.

However, the most well-known writer of fantasy pre-Tolkien is Robert E. Howard. Born and raised in Texas, Howard started publishing short stories in a local high school newspaper in 1922, when he was just sixteen years old. Two years later his first story was published in Weird Tales and he became a regular in the magazine, selling stories about cavemen and reams of shorter works such as poems. In 1927 he created his first "hit" character, Kull the Conqueror, a warlord from Atlantis. This was swiftly followed by Solomon Kane, a puritanical warrior out to avenge his dead family. Both were moderately successful, although the rejection of several Kull stories discouraged Howard from using the character again. However, he cleverly rewrote one of the rejected stories, replacing the brooding Kull with a more outgoing, straightforward barbarian character: Conan of Cimmeria. The story, The Phoenix on the Sword, was published in December 1932 to a rapturous welcome.

Numerous Conan stories followed, with Conan's adventures attracting a dedicated fan following. After writing several stories, Howard paused to flesh out Conan's world - actually our own in a fictional epoch known as the Hyborian Age - and wrote a long essay about the world and its peoples, an early form of "worldbuilding". The essay was accompanied by maps of the Hyborian continent, which is recognisable Eurasia (and some parts of Africa) in a fictional, earlier form of development.

Conan was Howard's most successful creation, with numerous short stories being published in Weird Tales. After just a couple of years, Howard developed an interest in historical works and Westerns, and the Conan stories dwindled. Just as Howard was close to getting an actual book deal, which would have brought his work to a much wider audience, he suffered a depressive breakdown when his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and he committed suicide in June 1936.

However, the publication of the epic fantasy ur-work was imminent. By the time of Howard's death, an English academic had been gradually building up his own fictional legendarium for twenty years, and just a few months later published the first work set in that world: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

2017 Worldcon to be held in Helsinki

The 2017 World Science Fiction Convention will be held in Helsinki, Finland. Although not "officially" confirmed yet, the news has broken at the 2015 Worldcon, currently ongoing in Spokane, Washington.

This is good news for international SFF fans. After the success of the 2015 Worldcon in London, the convention has returned to the United States for two years in a row: Spokane and next year's Kansas City. There were fears that Worldcon could end up staying in the USA for four years, with Washington, D.C. throwing their hat in for 2017 and, at present, only San Jose and New Orleans being in the running for 2018.

Helsinki and a strong bid from Dublin for 2019 break that up nicely and will hopefully keep Worldcon moving all over the globe so SFF fans from different parts of the world get a chance to attend.

CBS options Ian McDonald's LUNA books for TV

In a surprising move, the American CBS network has picked up the TV rights to Ian McDonald's Luna duology. The first novel, New Moon is not even published until 17 September.

Shane Brennan, the showrunner of NCIS: Los Angeles, picked up the right after a bidding war with rival broadcasters. The book is set in 2110 when the moon has been colonised and heavy industry has created a booming economy. Five powerful business families control the moon, one of which is targeted for a hostile takeover. It falls to the matriarch of the family and her five children to defend themselves.

The book has picked up some good pre-release press, but being optioned like this is surprising and good news for Ian McDonald. More than one commentator has picked up on possible similarities to  Dallas (McDonald has even called Luna "Dallas on the Moon") and Fox's family music drama Empire, except that Luna will presumably actually be watchable.