According to Bleeding Cool, who have checked this story with multiple sources at the BBC, a 'large' number of the missing episodes of DOCTOR WHO from the 1960s have been returned to the BBC. The BBC will formally announce this shortly once they have a plan to release the missing material to the fans.
As people may or may not be aware, in the 1970s the BBC, showing less foresight than a chronically depressed lemming, decided it would be a splendid idea to wipe their stocks of DOCTOR WHO episodes to re-use the film. Almost the entirety of the First and Second Doctor's runs were literally burned in the BBC's incinerators as a result. Fortunately, many, many copies of the material had been made when the series had been sold to other broadcasters around the world. As part of a serious restoration effort beginning in the 1980s, over half of the lost episodes were returned to the BBC archives from these other sources. Right now, 106 episodes remain missing, including nine complete serials.
According to the rumour, a 'large' stash of the missing episodes has been recovered. Several of the totally-missing serials are allegedly included, and several almost-incomplete serials have also been completed. The one constant in the rumour is that the 1967 seven-part serial EVIL OF THE DALEKS has been completely restored (only one episode survives). Several also report that the episode haul may complete William Hartnell's run as the Doctor (currently 44 Hartnell episodes are missing). If so, that suggests that at least 50 episodes have been recovered. However, the reports also say that the haul is not the complete run, and a few episodes remain missing. The source for the episodes is allegedly an African TV engineer who kept the episodes after transmission rather than junking them as instructed.
According to Bleeding Cool, the BBC will only announce the news once they have a release plan in place, and also possibly to tie in with the 50th anniversary in November.
However, several fans have pointed out that only a few WHO episodes from the 1960s were ever broadcast in Africa, and we know that EVIL OF THE DALEKS and THE TENTH PLANET (the fourth missing episode of which, featuring the first-ever regeneration scene, is also reportedly in the haul) were never broadcast over there. 'The Feast of Steven', an episode of THE DALEKS' MASTERPLAN (the 12-part megaepic in DOCTOR WHO's second season), was also never sold or transmitted outside of the UK and shows every sign of having been lost forever, so it seems unlikely that would be in the haul (it'd need to be to complete Hartnell's run).
How much of this story is accurate remains to be seen, but Bleeding Cool seem certain of their sources.
Iain Banks came to immediate attention with the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984. A contemporary novel, the book told the story of a mentally ill murderer and wasp-torturer. With its twist ending, matter-of-fact descriptions of stomach-churning scenes and its thick vein of black humour (best exemplified by the infamous 'psychopathic rabbit on a minefield' scene), it was immediately successful and made readers sit up and take notice. A series of similarly vivid and successful 'literary' novels followed: Walking on Glass, The Bridge and Espedair Street.
In 1987 Iain Banks released his first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas. The move - a successful mainstream novelist moving into SF - was unexpected and commercially questionable. Banks moderated by the blow by continuing to alternate SF and mainstream work, and publishing his SF under the impenetrable pseudonym 'Iain M. Banks' (the M is for Menzies). Banks had actually started off writing SF in the 1970s, writing early versions of what later became Player of Games and Use of Weapons before the decade was out. He had switched to writing mainstream fiction to achieve enough success to get the SF published, and was successful in that regard (despite concerns over the SF community of accusing him of 'selling out', which never materialised).
Consider Phlebas introduced Iain Banks's signature creation, the Culture. Banks envisaged a utopian society consisting of multiple species and advanced benevolent AIs, living on a mixture of planets and exotic megastructures (most notably the Orbitals, more sensible and practical versions of Niven's Ringworld; it was actually the Orbitals that served as the inspiration for the titular constructs in the Halo video game series). In his novels Banks explored how such a utopian society could exist, usually by showing the more underhand and devious ways the Culture would protect itself and affect other civilisations.
Banks continued writing both mainstream and SF. His 1992 novel The Crow Road was adapted as a successful BBC mini-series, whilst 1993's Complicity became a feature film. However, his masterpiece is his 1990 SF novel, Use of Weapons. This novel features two streams of narrative, one moving forwards and one moving backwards, both building to huge climaxes.
Outside of his fiction, Banks was a huge fan of whiskey. In 2003 he wrote his only work of non-fiction, Raw Spirit, an account of Scottish whiskey distilleries.
Banks's work meant that he simultaneously became known as one of Britain's leading SF authors as well as a rising star of its literary scene. He ultimately became one of Britain's best-known authors. In 2007 his dual writing identity was acknowledged in a running gag in the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright movie Hot Fuzz, in which two identical twins can be identified because one always reads Iain Banks and the other always reads Iain M. Banks.
In April Banks announced that he had inoperable cancer. He immediately married his partner and took a short honeymoon. He was hopeful of living for another year or so, but the news sadly came today of his passing. Banks's final novel, The Quarry, will be published next month.
Reprinted from the blog: wrote:
In the XCOM thread people were saying it would be cool if there was a new SPACE HULK game which played like XCOM (as XCOM seems to have borrowed a lot of ideas from the original SPACE HULK board game).
REJOICE! There will be a new SPACE HULK game which will play a lot like XCOM. Only with Terminators and Genestealers in space. The game is also taking a lot of rules from the original board game. There may be some reference to the EA 1990s games (which were great), but this new title will definitely be turn-based and not real-time like they were.
That game will launch on PC with an iOS port to follow. The release date they are targetting is the end of this year. It's looking very cool. Also a great story on how they came to make it at the link.
It's actually rather depressing the show is so old. I remember I started watching it in my penultimate year at secondary school and followed it avidly for the five years it was on. The very first time I ever went on the Internet was to look up info about the show. Great times.
Arguably the highest-profile development firm working for THQ was Relic, the creators of the well-regarded WH40K: DAWN OF WAR, SPACE MARINE and COMPANY OF HEROES franchises. Relic have been saved by Sega, which is excellent. Sega already own the Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive, home to two of the PC's most dominant strategy franchises (the TOTAL WAR and FOOTBALL MANAGER games), and, crucially, have a WARHAMMER FANTASY licence which they are using for a new game with the CA. Reacquiring the WH40K licence to allow Relic to continue with DAWN OF WAR 3 should be straightforward, whilst COMPANY OF HEROES 2 is on course to come out this year as planned.
Potential major disappointment however: the HOMEWORLD IP, which THQ rescued back in 2006 (HOMEWORLD was Relic's first franchise, made when they were working with Sierra/Vivendi a decade ago), does not appear to have been saved, and will likely be sold off for peanuts as part of the last dissolution of the company.
Almost as well-regarded is Volition, the creator of the RED FACTION and SAINT'S ROW games. Koch Media has bought Volition and the SAINT'S ROW IP, but from the sound of it not the RED FACTION one, which will likely now disappear. Koch Media have also purchased the METRO IP, and will be publishing METRO: LAST LIGHT (the sequel to METRO 2033) in a few months.
Crytek have purchased the HOMEFRONT IP, which makes sense as they were working on HOMEFRONT II anyway, and are now free to shop it to any publisher of their choosing (probably Electronic Arts, given their close relationship over the CRYSIS franchise).
Ubisoft have purchased the rights to publish the new SOUTH PARK game, being developed by Obsidian.
The fate of a number of other franchises - most notably DARKSIDERS - are also up in the air.
InExile, the team working on WASTELAND 2, have announced their next project. Their new game will be a spiritual sequel to the legendary PLANESCAPE: TORMENT and will bear the TORMENT name (though not the PLANESCAPE one, which is held by WotC). The setting, however, will be Numenera, the new RPG world created (via Kickstarter) by Monte Cook.
The inXile team, containing many veterans of Interplay and Black Isle who worked on TORMENT, are planning a game that will continue the original TORMENT's themes of consciousness, life and death, as well as world-hopping. The game uses new skill and combat rules, inspired by the Numenera P&P RPG.
There will be a Kickstarter for NUMENERA: TORMENT (or whatever it ends up being called), though not for a while. InXile are planning to release WASTELAND 2 in October and will probably move into full production on NUMENERA shortly afterwards.
HBO are developing a TV series based on Neil Gaiman's novel AMERICAN GODS and its-as-yet-unwritten sequel. After a year or so in early development, the series has entered active pre-production, with Gaiman recently revealing that he is busy writing the pilot episode. Based on this, I suspect we'll see this on screens by late 2014 or early 2015 (assuming the pilot is successful), potentially replacing either TREME or TRUE BLOOD (assuming the rumours over that show ending after a 6th or 7th season are accurate).
No casting news as yet. Gaiman envisages the first season adapating the novel, the second season dealing with the fall-out from that (and possibly adapting his AMERICAN GODS short stories) and presumably the third season adapting AMERICAN GODS II, if he can write it in time.
The fourth game in the seminal ELITE space trading/combat series has been formally announced via a Kickstarter campaign.
The original ELITE was released in 1984 and is notable for being one of the first major 3D games and one of the first games to give the player total freedom of how they played it. It was a stunning technical achievement and arguably represents the single biggest jump forward in both technical and conceptual gameplay terms in gaming's history (it's sometimes been likened to the arrival of sound in film in being a transformative momentin the history of the form).
The sequel, FRONTIER, was released in 1993 and was almost as impressive, featuring hundreds of millions of star systems and allowing players to undertake a much vaster array of missions, fly different ships and land on planetary surfaces as well as with orbiting space stations. The game also had a Newtonian physics flight model and a superbly accurate recreation of our Solar system. Despite its technical brilliance, actually flying the spaceship was less fun in FRONTIER. The third game, FIRST ENCOUNTERS (1995) suffered a botched, extremely buggy launch which caused the creators to sue the publishers for releasing an early version of the game without their permission.
ELITE: DANGEROUS is planned for release in 2014 and will apparently incorporate the vast galaxy of FRONTIER mixed in with a more traditional (and accessible) flight model. The game will have modern, state-of-the-art graphics (of course) and an integrated multiplayer mode. However, further details on the project are somewhat thin. Videos and screenshots of the work undertaken so far will apparently be posted soon (and I'd argue that putting up a Kickstarter page without them was rather silly, but a mistake they can recover from).
Chris Roberts, the creator of the WING COMMANDER and STARLANCER/FREELANCER franchises, has announced that he is working on a new space combat game.
The game is hugely ambitious. The project overall is called STAR CITIZEN and works on one of several levels. On one level the game works like FREELANCER or PRIVATEER, with you trading, flying around the universe and upgrading stuff. You can run the game in this mode as a single-player game or on a private server with some friends. You can also play this mode on public servers, where it becomes more like an MMORPG.
If that doesn't appeal, there is a story-driven, single-player campaign. This campaign mode is called SQUADRON 42 and will feature sequential missions. This mode can be played single-player or in co-op with a friend (or possibly several friends). This campaign will be upgraded on a regular basis with new missions and expansions.
As well as space combat and trading, the game will also allow you to walk around in a first-person mode on spaceships and stations (and possibly starports as well).
The game will be PC-only, since it is simply beyond the capabilities of the 360 and the PS3 to even begin being able to handle. However, I would not rule out its eventual appearance on the next-gen machines.
Chris Roberts give an impressive one-hour talk about the game here.
There's a five-minute trailer here.
Apparently all of the game footage was rendered in-engine using an Nvidia 680GT graphics card, which is seriously impressive.
When it comes to the genre of first-person shooters, there have been several gamechangers during its lifespan. The mass-popularisation of the genre through id's Doom was an early one. The success of 2001's Medal of Honour: Allied Assault inspiring dozens of 'realistic' shooters using real weapons and history was another. But towering over all of them is Half-Life. Released in 1998 it transformed the genre from mindless shooting to something based more around characters, personal narrative, puzzles and full immersion in the world it depicted.
More recent shooters have seemingly ignored the lessons laid down by Half-Life, becoming lost in a few short hours of tiresome, badly-acted cut-scenes and even more tiresome gimmicks like regenerating health and cover systems. Yet returning to Half-Life, or introducing it to new players, is almost impossible. What was a fantastic-looking game on release is now a painful collection of blocky models and low-res textures. What is needed is a full HD remake of the game which preserves the pacing, weapons and enemies but updates everything else.
Happily, Black Mesa is a (nearly) full HD remake of the game which preserves the pacing, weapons and enemies but updates everything else. Created over a period of eight years (!) - or two years longer than it took for Valve themselves to make Half-Life 2 - by gamers and fans working in their own time, Black Mesa is a carefully-crafted love letter to the franchise. The attention to detail in the game is tremendous, and it's quality easily exceeds that of many 'proper' Triple-A releases. Even the voice-acting (all re-recorded, as reusing the original game's audio files was legally dubious) eclipses that of many supposedly professional games.
The game opens as the original Half-Life did, with you standing on a tram as it makes its way into the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. You play Gordon Freeman, a 27-year-old theoretical physicist and graduate of MIT. Freeman is a silent protagonist who never speaks, allowing the player to come up with his own personality and interpretation for the character. The iconic tram ride shows the similarities and differences between the original game and the remake. The areas you pass on the tram are more or less the same, but are now inhabited by more people with more activity going on. A mech clearing up a chemical spill have now been joined by two scared scientists trapped against a nearby wall. Other spaces, formerly bare, are now bustling with people moving equipment around. The reception area to the main lab has been transformed from a poky square room into a cavernous circular chamber filled with computer screens. A nearby canteen has changed from a small room with a table in it to a large public space filled with vending machines.
There are multiple models for scientist and soldier characters now (including the introduction of female characters), lending more realism to scenes where Gordon forms up a posse. Amusingly, Dr. Kleiner and Eli Vance (from Half-Life 2) show up as younger characters, in keeping with the canon. The developers have resisted the urge to thrown in other appearances from Half-Life 2 characters: Administrator Breen is referenced, but does not appear (as he did not appear in the original game), whilst Barney also does not appear: whilst multiple security guards in the original game had the 'Barney voice', the canon Barney is the one glimpsed briefly trying to open a door as Gordon passes by on his tram journey, and otherwise does not feature in the original Half-Life, only its expansion, Blue Shift.
The weapons load-out is the same as in the original game, and pleasingly you can carry a full arsenal around with you rather than having the current, tiresome restriction of two-guns-per-person (or whatever) shoehorned into the title. The variety and types of enemy is also the same. The integration of the Source Engine's physics system also gives rise to the closest thing the game has to a new weapon, the ability to pick up flares and throw them at enemies, setting them on fire.
As noted above, the game has been redesigned on a micro scale in many areas: few rooms or corridors avoid having had some tweaks to make them more interesting, from whiteboards filled with amusing jokes (or occasionally dirty cartoons) to a mug featuring the Chuckle Brothers (dubious UK comedians) sitting on a security guard's desk. The general layout of the game is the same as before, but a few areas have been opened up. Whilst still a linear shooter, some areas do feature multiple paths, requiring Gordon to scout out surrounding corridors and rooms for bonus weapons and ammo before finding what is the correct way to proceed. These changes, though minor, do hugely enhance the feeling of Black Mesa as a place where, under normal circumstances, people work together.
Something that did come as a surprise whilst playing the game was the fact that, by modern standards, Half-Life is only barely a shooter. The game can happily go half an hour at a time without having any combat, instead throwing puzzles and environmental challenges at the player that must be negotiated without a shot being fired. These range from having to open up valves to prime a rocket engine with fuel and coolant so it can be fired into a blast pit, killing a giant, triple-tentacled monster inside, to finding a way of powering up a computer system so you can use it to unlock a blast door.
Combat, when it does take place, is intense and also quite tough: the AI of both the alien invaders and the marines sent to deal with them and also wipe out any eyewitnesses is impressive, especially given fan consensus that the original Half-Life actually featured better AI than Half-Life 2. Whether the smart, tough enemies of Half-Life would survive the transition to Black Mesa was a key question for many fans, even a dealbreaker, and it's a relief to report that they have. Enemies are smart and canny, knowing when to take cover, flank you and use grenades to flush you into a killzone.
Unfortunately, the game's transition to Source means that the controls suffer a little. The original game sometimes used a feature called 'crouch-jumping' to allow you to reach tall ledges that would otherwise be out of reach. For some reason Black Mesa actually forces you to use crouch-jumping far more than the original game, almost for every single jump in the game. When you have to run fast and crouch-jump (requiring three simultaneous button pushes whilst using the mouse at the same time), it's almost impossible to execute the move. It turns out the development team set the jumping parameters too low, but it's very easy to go into the source files and modify it back to something sane. The game also has a lot of problems with ladders. In fact, the only FPS I've ever seen handle ladders well was the original Half-Life. Every other game, including Half-Life's own sequels and expansions (and now its remake), seems to love sticking you to ladders to the point of mouse-throwing rage when it results in you dying. Also, for some reason, the 'walk slowly' button does not work, which makes traversing the aforementioned blast pit (inhabited by an indestructible triple-tentacled blind monster that hunts by sound alone) absolutely horrendous, although it's completely unnecessary for any other part of the game.
These problems seem fairly minor when you consider the overwhelming quality of the game. A few areas feel like they could have been truncated a little bit (the residue processing sequence in particular is a little dull) but overall, Black Mesa is a phenomenal achievement. The original game's superior level design, excellent weapons and impressive AI are now enhanced by modern graphics, a subtle-but-brilliant redesign of many areas to work better with physics and a new, moody soundtrack. The game does have a different ending to the original, however, concluding in the Lambda Complex as you prepare to teleport to Xen. The thorough, exacting redesign of the game means that Xen is not yet ready. However even this has its benefits, as the Xen levels are the most widely-hated part of the original game. Their absence makes Black Mesa a tighter, more focused (though, at over 10 hours, still very long by modern standards) experience, even if the bizarreness of the place (a refreshing antidote to 10 hours of grey walls) is missed a little.
Black Mesa (*****) is available now from the developers' website, completely legally and free of charge. The game will also be available from Steam in a few weeks.
It's not been officially announced yet, but it's been a bit of an open secret that Bethesda would be returning to the FALLOUT universe once work on SKYRIM and its DLC was completed (though apparently there's still some people working on further updates and content for the game, so there may be a little more to come from them about that game). We know that the next FALLOUT game will use the updated Creation Engine from SKYRIM and that Bethesda have said they are steering clear of the 'traditional' FALLOUT setting of the West Coast and the Nevada/Arizona area, leaving that to Obsidian, so it was always assumed that FO4 would again take place on the Eastern Seaboard.
That now seems confirmed, with Bethesda writers and personnel allegedly visiting Boston, MIT and the surrounding area for 'research' purposes. In FALLOUT 3 there are numerous references to the Commonwealth - a nation based in New England - and to the Institute, a centre of study and technological development where, among other things, robots and even androids are constructed (such as the one in the BLADE RUNNER-style mission in FO3). Based on this, it does appear that FO4 will indeed be taking place in the Massachusetts area.
No idea of a release date, but I doubt it'll be before the end of 2013 at the absolute earliest.
Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season was released on Blu-Ray last week, the culmination of more than a year's work in digitally restoring and remastering the first season for high-definition.
I go into this in more detail in the linked post, but briefly ST:TNG was originally shot on high-quality 35mm film but was mastered and compiled on standard-definition video for NTSC transmission in the United States. Whilst it looked good in 1987, this was not acceptable for high-definition viewing (and was starting to push it on the DVD releases, to be honest). After various upscaling experiments failed, CBS went back to the original 35mm film elements and re-scanned them. This required the entire series to be re-edited and re-composited from scratch, with every optical effect (phaser blasts, transporter beams etc) redone as well. They also had to replace every background planet shot in the series (the originals surviving only as low-res bitmaps) with animated 3D spheres, and the few instances of CGI-only shots had to be remade from scratch.
The results, costing tens of millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours, are well worth it. The series looks jaw-dropping in HD, like it was filmed yesterday. Re-compositing effects sequences from scratch with 2012 equipment has had the unintended (but very welcome) side-effect of eliminating matte lines and obvious uses of greenscreen. Overall, the series looks fantastic.
The only flies in the ointment are that, since the show was not originally shot in widescreen, it cannot be shown in widescreen. Watching the HD image in a square picture can be a bit disconcerting, it has to be said, although you soon adjust to it. The other problem is that, well, it's the first season. The Battle, The Arsenal of Freedom, Conspiracy and a few other episodes are decent-to-good, but there are no all-time classic episodes here and quite a few howlers: Justice is still one of the worst 45 minutes of TV you will ever watch in your entire life, though even with this episode it's still possible to appreciate the impressive planet rendering effects and the alien space probe god thing, which looks a bit weirder and creepier in HD.
Nevertheless, a brilliant technical achievement and a potentially vital precedent in how other older shows can be 'saved' for future HD reproductions.
Shevek is a brilliant physicist from the barren anarchist world of Anarres. His work could revolutionise interstellar society, permitting instantaneous communication - maybe even instantaneous travel - between the worlds of humanity. But, in contrast to the idealism of Anarres, he finds his work undervalued and even repressed by jealous colleagues. Frustrated, he travels to Anarres's capitalist sister world of Urras, hoping to find more tolerance there but instead becoming embroiled in politics, rebellion and war.
The Dispossessed is widely considered to be one of Ursula Le Guin's finest novels and is arguably her most ambitious work. The book asks nothing less than how best should human society function and by what means. Le Guin picks two popular models, that of a semi-communist state and a capitalist one, and pits them against one another. She is not interested in 'proving' the values of one over the other, instead comparing and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of both and also the affect they have on the individual, particularly on the individual who has a great, transformational idea but whom is seen by others purely as a pawn or something to be crushed.
The novel relies on this thematic idea to sustain it, but the actual plot structure is also intriguing. The book alternates chapters between the present-day storyline (Shevek on Urras) and events in his past (Shevek growing up on Anarres). We see the present-day Shevek as being an open-minded, questioning individual and how he has changed from his earlier incarnation as a blinkered man who accepts dogmatic ideas as fact (such as the notion that Urras is a corrupt capitalist state that will one day destroy itself), with later Anarres chapter depicting his shift in belief and motivation. Le Guin constantly has Shevek developing as a character even as she develops her ideas and the setting of the two worlds.
The novel's greatest strength is its depiction of someone who seeks simple answers and is instead rewarded with having his worldview broadened and made more complicated. Shevek sees Urras as the answer to all his problems but instead of the utopia he was hoping for he finds a cluster of nations all feuding with one another (at one point fighting a Vietnam-style proxy war between two superpowers with the rulers acknowledging that nothing will change, only thousands dying for no real goal). Anarres is not rose-painted either: the world is desolate, the people poor and, for all of their freedom of choice, are often forced into jobs and roles they despise and are not well suited-for. The book is sometimes criticised for condemning capitalism and promoting communism/anarchism, but it's more complex than that. Le Guin's argument appears to be that all human societies are prone to dysfunction and corruption, no matter how well-meaning people are.
The novel's ending is unexpected, as Shevek's conflicted views are commented upon by an outsider (an ambassador from an Earth ruined by war and ecological disaster) and her analysis spurs him to reconsider his approach. However, the book somewhat abruptly ends before Shevek's return to Anarres with him not having reached a conclusion. This is presumably because any answer would be unsatisfying and simplistic. Instead we are left with the questions, which are far more interesting.
The Dispossessed (*****) is a thought-provoking novel that does not attempt to simplify complex matters and combines fascinating worldbuilding and character development with a refreshing plot structure and some rich prose. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Half a century in the future, the human race has survived several brushes with extinction. True AI has been created but - so far - has been benign and helpful. A terrible nuclear incident has taken place, but humanity has endured. As each bullet is dodged, so mankind's chances of survival to a brighter future appear to be growing...until an ancient alien artefact is recovered from Earth orbit which harbours a terrible truth about the nature of the universe.
After almost twenty years as an important and relatively prolific voice in the hard SF field, David Brin dropped out of the genre in 2001 after the publication of Kil'n People. He's remained active, penning non-fiction and the occasional short story as well as working in comics and doing consulting work, but no more novels have appeared, either stand-alone or in his Uplift universe. Now he's back with Existence, a self-contained, epic SF novel about mankind, our place in the cosmos, why we seem to be alone and where our destiny lies. Certainly if you're going to mount a comeback, there's no better way than doing so with your most ambitious work to date.
Existence revisits the Fermi Paradox, that familiar problem of how, given the sheer size and age of our galaxy, it is implausible that intelligent life has not arisen elsewhere and left visible traces of its presence. Brin's solution to the paradox is both intelligent and, initially, deeply depressing: that the minefield of threats that each race must survive to reach the starts is so extensive that very, very few make it. The novel's opening sections dwell deeply on the threats to mankind's own existence, from climate change and the threat of nuclear war to the possible 'threat' of super-advanced AI. The discovery of the alien 'guidestones' then provides a possible answer, but one which is not to our liking.
The novel unfolds on a large scale, with characters in America, in undersea habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, in floating bases above drowned Pacific island nations and in ruined mansions in Shanghai having their own part to play in the global mystery that unfolds. Our protagonists include a spoiled rich kid who races suborbital rockets for fun, a Chinese sailor who lives on the salvage he dredges out of the sea, a hotshot reporter caught up in a horrendous disaster and a self-obsessed, politically-motivated novelist who slums it as a Hollywood script writer (any similarities to the late Michael Crichton being presumably coincidental). Brin's skills with characterisation - something that set him apart from his fellow 'Killer Bs' back in the day (the Gregs Bear and Benford) - are on full display here as he develops his characters through the unexpected events that engulf them whilst keeping his thematic and philosophical musings integrated with the plot.
In fact, this is what sets Brin's novel apart from Kim Stanley Robinson's recent and equally epic portrait of the future, 2312. Where Robinson seems to have wanted to create a mood piece and then felt compelled to tack on an undercooked thriller plot, Brin keeps his plot, characters and musings all on track simultaneously, developing them all in tandem. This is helped by Brin's prose which has always been above average for hard SF, but in Existence hits new heights. His skill to move between harsh pessimism (the universe is cold and empty and we are a fluke who will soon splutter and die) and tremendous optimism (we can do whatever we want with the universe, if we try) is particularly impressive.
For a novel more than 500 pages long in hardcover, Existence has verve and pace. It's hard SF but done with a light touch and a sense of humour. It's not set in the Uplift universe but Brin drops in parallel-universe versions of some elements of that setting just for fun (those who enjoy Brin's depiction of futuristic dolphins will find some more that on display here). Some of Brin's moments of whimsy backfire - 'Awfulday' seems like an odd nickname for the anniversary of a terrorist attack - and some plot elements feel left behind when several time-jumps take place late in the novel, propelling us decades further into the future. But these are less than niggles.
Existence (****½) moves between being exuberant and fun and serious and contemplative (even maudlin). It asks big questions and proposes a variety of intelligent answers but doesn't resort to over-simplicity. It's definitely as good a comeback as we could have hoped for from Brin. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
The railsea: a network of metal rails and wooden slats which extends in all directions, covering the hostile, animal-filled earth which is too dangerous to walk on. Great islands and continents of rock rise between the rails, on which cities, towns and people exist. Sailing the railsea are thousands of trains, ranging from the primitive wooden, animal-pulled trains of tribal plainsfolk to the sleek, metallic dreadnoughts of powerful navies. Inbetween lie the independent trains, such as the Medes, a moler which strikes deep into southern climes in search of an ivory-coloured moldywarpe, the nemesis of the captain and the subject of her obsession. But when the Medes instead finds a wrecked train holding a tantalising secret, the destiny of the railsea, and of a young man named Sham Yes ap Soorap, will be forever changed.
Railsea is Moby Dick rewritten to feature a crazy woman steering a train across an ocean of rails in search of a giant burrowing mole. Except when it's not, which is most of the time. It's also A Wizard of Earthsea but with trains rather than boats, except not really. It's a homage to trains and to boats and pirate movies. It's a book about language where people's lives are given meaning by pursuing giant monsters, which they call their philosophies and embody ideas and archetypes within them. It's a Young Adult novel but with so much baroque language and complex use of metaphors that no-one should consider the term a pejorative. One thing is clear: it's a China Mieville novel.
Railsea is Mieville's ninth book and, judged purely superficially, is a romp. It's an adventure about a young man (Sham Yes ap Soorap) who goes to (rail)sea, gets caught up in his captain's obsession and uncovers a secret that will lead him to the ends of the earth and beyond, in search of the meaning of it all. Along the way he fights, is captured by and eventually escapes from pirates, takes part in the hunting of a gigantic mole (going by Mieville's illustrations, we're talking a mole bigger than a blue whale), tames a hostile bat and gawps at vast, cosmopolitan cities. It's a vigorous page-turner, compulsively readable and endlessly inventive.
Stepping back, the book is more complex. In a possible metatextual nod at the cliches of such fiction, many captains of trains have missing arms and legs, snatched away by one kind of beast or another. Captains even carry lists of what animals their fellows are hunting, so they may pass on news of any sightings. Each animal represents an ideal and a philosophy, so the ships of the railsea aren't just molers and merchants, but devices searching for meaning and answers. For Nephi, captain of the Medes, her nemesis represents something very simple indeed: everything. And to find that truth, she would take her ship and her crew anywhere the trail leads. For his part, Sham is likewise obsessed, with an impossible image glimpsed briefly, an image that could shake the world, and it is how these two obsessions cross paths and align that gives the book its narrative spine.
The world of Railsea is vivid and initially bewildering, with Mieville's inventive but remorselessly logical mind working overdrive to give us his most fully-fleshed out creation since Bas-Lag itself. It's a world with two skies and myriad levels of land, a place that is a secondary fantasy world like Bas-Lag but also an alien planet such as those seen in Embassytown. It also might be something else. No direct answers are given, but the questions are more interesting for that (and the ending is powerful, opening more possibilities as it closes down others). It's a world of monsters, however, and Mieville gives us some of his best, from the great southern moldywarpes to the naked molerats to the friendly (if treated right) daybats. Occasional illustrations show these creatures in all their (sometimes revolting) glory.
Mieville populates the book with his normal gallery of well-defined characters, from the archetypal young hero Sham to the coldly authoritative Captain Nephi to the vision-seeking siblings Shroake. What unites the characters is their need for answers and their desire to search rather than to accept what is and what has been for centuries.
Railsea (*****) is a well-written, compulsive page-turner and sees Mieville's imagination on top form. It's a book that works on multiple levels and is thoroughly rewarding. His finest work since The City and The City and maybe his finest since The Scar. The novel will be published on 15 May in the USA and on 24 May in the UK.
What we know so far:
An MMORPG (obviously).
Rome, 2760 AUC. Three years ago, the Emperor's younger brother was murdered as part of a scheme to seize control of the Roman Empire. His son, Marcus, went into hiding and survived thanks to the help of two slaves, Sulien and Una, who harbour secrets of their own. When the Emperor suffers a stroke, Marcus has to assume the regency. With tensions rising between Rome and her great eastern rival, Nionia, Marcus embarks on a daring peace mission. But there are those within Rome who still covet the Imperial throne, and will use Marcus's past against him.
Rome Burning is the sequel to Sophia McDougall's debut novel, Romanitas, and the middle book of the Romanitas Trilogy (which concludes with Savage City). The premise of the trilogy is straightforward: the Roman Empire never fell and, by the present day, has gone on to conquer most of the world. However, the Empire is still built on the back of capital punishment, slavery and the occupation of other peoples. The principal characters in the books are Marcus, the imperial heir whose view of life is radically altered after spending time in the first book as a fugitive, and Sulien and Una, the freed slaves who now want Marcus to abolish the institution once and for all. Also, somewhat randomly, Una also happens to have mildly telepathic powers (which definitely seem to have been pared down in this second novel).
Romanitas was a flawed novel. It had a strong premise, but the premise was constantly under-explored throughout the novel. Coupled with somewhat poor characterisation and often stodgy prose, it was a hard book to get through, despite the 'on-the-run' storyline giving rise to some interesting tension. Rome Burning shows massive improvements in some areas but, unfortunately, some significant weaknesses in others.
On the plus side, McDougall's characters are (mostly) much-improved. Sulien, Una and Marcus are all better-defined, with Una in particular becoming a more interesting, complex protagonist and Sulien having a lot more to do this time around. Marcus's development from callow youth to statesman continues, with his former idealism now being tested by political practicality. His desire to end slavery is contrasted against the possible economic collapse of the Empire if he moves too quickly, and his attempts to find a balance (that come across to Sulien, Una and other former slaves as back-pedalling) are constantly misunderstood. There's a lot more meat to the main characters this time around. Unfortunately, our principal antagonist for most of the book, Drusus, is a cartoon villain at best, who is so utterly unsuited for the political skulduggery required that he should never really be a threat to the considerably more intelligent Marcus. The eventual defeat of Drusus's return to power is also chronically under-explained (basically Marcus gets annoyed and makes a speech to his uncle and suddenly everything's okay).
On the worldbuilding front, the alternate Imperial Rome is not particularly convincing, resembling as it does one of those computer game RPG cities which seem to consist of three streets and twenty people. There is no real sense of any life in the city beyond where the immediate action takes place, and it's a genuine surprise when other Roman senators or characters outside of the core cast show up. For the first half of the book, it's a claustrophobic-feeling story rather than the epic it is aiming towards. Things improve a lot when the action moves to Bianjing (where the isolated-from-the-outside-world feeling is much more appropriate) and the scope of the story widens.
The biggest problem is the writing. McDougall favours a very old-fashioned style with frequent POV shifts within the same paragraph, making following what's going on and who's thinking what unnecessarily difficult. Coupled to some fairly indifferent prose, this makes reading the novel rather hard work. In fact, the book is definitely leaning towards the turgid when the halfway-point shift to Bianjing takes place. At this point, fortunately, the book picks up a lot, the writing improves, the pacing turns up a notch (as Drusus's laughable political fumblings take a back-seat to a much more interesting plot about slavery and terrorism) and things become more enjoyable, ultimately culminating in a genuinely tantalising cliffhanger.
Rome Burning (***) is a book that very nearly collapses under the weight of its negatives until they get straightened up and it ultimately becomes a solid read. The presentation of the premise is still highly implausible, characters outside of the central trio can still be sketchy and the writing style can be frustrating, but the latter half of the novel shows an improvement in quality that ultimately makes the experience - just about - worthwhile. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
In one of the more amusing industry work-arounds I've seen, BioWare spelled out what to expect from DRAGON AGE III at the recent PAX East convention. One problem is that EA has not officially confirmed DRAGON AGE III to be in development (possibly they were going to by now but the furore over ME3 has delayed things), so BioWare got around this by talking 'hypothetically' about what a 'possible' DRAGON AGE III would be like.
So the news so far is:
* No reused locations like DA2.
Pretty much what people wanted, then. Apart from the French thing, which just sounds odd.
Whilst hard info is still borderline non-existent on the PlayStation 4 (apparently code-named, and maybe finally-named, the PlayStation Orbis) and the X-Box 720 (code-named Durango), there seems to be a growing consensus that Sony and Microsoft want to shoot dead the pre-owned gaming market with their new systems, regardless of what impact that has on gaming retail.
According to Kotaku, the PlayStation Orbis will require Internet activation for all of its games. This will link your game to a unique serial code. The code may actually be transferrable, but only for a fee payable directly to Sony.
It is also strongly rumoured that at least the PS4 will require an always-on Internet connection in order to work.
In other words: for the next console generation there will be uniform, perpetual DRM for all titles. There will be no preowned games market to speak of. There will probably be no grey/import market for hardware. If you're living in the USA and want an early console, tough, you'll have to wait for the native release. If you haven't any Internet access for any reason, tough, you won't be able to play games.
I suspect many console gamers will not be happy with this.
Obviously we're still 2-3 years away from these consoles launching and complaints and market research may change the console companies' minds, but this is still a startling development. Sadly, it may have been triggered by the relative passivity that has greeted PC DRM schemes in the last few years. Whilst there's been complaints about it, PC game sales have still increased dramatically in the last two years, mostly through DRM services like Steam and Origin. This may have encouraged Sony and Microsoft to take this step.
Eden: a world of perpetual darkness, lit by fluorescent vegetation and headed by geothermal trees. Five hundred humans - the Family - live in an isolated valley. They are all descended from the same couple, Tommy and Angela, astronauts stranded on Eden one hundred and sixty years ago. As a result, genetic deformities and aberrations amongst the Family are commonplace. The Family is held together by the dream that one day Earth will send a rescue ship to pick them up and take them home.
For teenage hunter John Redlantern, this dream is a futile delusion. He believes that the Family must branch out to survive, as the valley's food stocks are dwindling. But the only way out of the valley is a dangerous ascent over an unlit, freezing mountain that has killed every person who has tried to climb it. John's determination to escape to a better place splits the Family apart, but how much is John's plan motivated by a desire for humanity to survive on Eden and how much to appease his own ego?
Dark Eden is a dark (thematically and literally) novel that uses an interesting SF concept - a world in perpetual darkness - to explore themes about human society and the impact of ideas, traditions and rituals on a small group of people. Chris Beckett, the author of the excellent Holy Machine, has been noted as an author who fuses SF subject matter and 'literary' ambitions together into something interesting. Whilst hardly new - there's a faint hint of Brian Aldiss or early Ballard to his work - it's something that Beckett does well, creating stories that work from a scientific viewpoint as well as a literary one.
Eden itself, with its luminous trees and vividly nocturnal wildlife, is a fine, stirring creation. It's the inverse of the superheated Earth of Aldiss's Hothouse, a world here plunged into utter darkness and, away from the geothermal foliage, total cold. How this is possible is left to the reader's imagination: does the planet orbit a black hole or a brown dwarf? Does it orbit a normal star and is merely tidally locked? If the planet is indeed freezing cold, how does the atmosphere not simply melt away? Various solutions to such questions present themselves but are ultimately left ambiguous.
The Family survive by clinging to one central belief - that a rescue ship will come from Earth to find them - and their entire existence revolves around it. They refuse to travel far from their ancestors' landing site, even though local food sources have been almost exhausted. They constantly tell stories about their ancestors and the founding of their society. But they are trapped into a mode of existence so all-consuming it is taken for granted. When John Redlantern is able to step back and point out the flaws in their blinkered worldview, it creates strife and discord. A serpent enters this Eden, but this time we are on the serpent's side, as the Family remaining where they will ultimately destroy them.
At the same time, John is motivated not just by a desire to save his people, but also to prove himself better than them, a visionary leader. Beckett's structure - he uses a rotating first-person POV, swapping characters every chapter - allows us to see events from John's perspective and also from that of both his friends and enemies, allowing a tremendous depth of character to be achieved (both of John and several other key characters). John's character is built up, deconstructed and reassessed with tremendous skill. Beckett is keen to avoid passing judgement: some of John's actions are admirable, others are loathsome, and the reader is invited to decide which is which.
At the same time the story moves forward, it also moves back. The story of how Tommy and Angela ended up on Eden is revealed in layers, as more and more stories and legends from the distant past of Eden are revealed, and the story that the people of Eden know may not be the whole truth. It's also a story that doesn't have an ending, as the fate of the three astronauts who left Eden in search of help is not known (in the novel's only possible misstep, Beckett eschews the ambiguity of the rest of the book to give as a fairly straightforward answer in the book's climax). The Family want to stay in their valley so the rescuers can find them, and the end of the story can be known, whilst John and his followers want to abandon such beliefs and strike out in search of their own destiny. Conflict follows and both sides' arguments have their merits.
Dark Eden (*****) is a superb novel about ideas, the struggle to survive and the dangers of blind faith. Beckett says little that is new, but makes his points with subtlety and intelligence, all against a well-realised, vividly-described backdrop. The novel is out now in the UK and is available on Kindle in the United States.
Some thoughts on books by one of the better-known 'classic' SF authors.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin