Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Monday, 27 February 2017


Warner Brothers Games and Monolith Studios have confirmed that a sequel to their well-received and successful Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is in development will be released this summer.

Shadows of Mordor was a third-person action game with a combat system heavily influenced by the Batman Arkham titles. It improved on this with the introduction of the "Nemesis System", where villains who manage to defeat you in combat gain new skills and abilities, forcing you to gain intelligence on their powers and try to turn their minions against them. The result was less of a traditional beam 'em up and more a game of Orc Career Ladder Simulator. This was an intelligent and interesting game mechanic, but ultimately could not disguise the game's thin amount of content (particularly the startlingly tiny world maps) or prevent extreme repetition setting in after the first couple of hours. Also, pulling off all the orcish Red Weddings in the world doesn't help when the game's comically grimdark tone is massively at odds with the source material. The game's ludicrously violent tone is so at variance with the spirit of Tolkien that it's quite startling the developers even chose to use the Middle-earth setting and not something - anything - more appropriate.

The sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, features a larger game world and a more sophisticated Nemesis System, with more of the game world affected by your actions, including entire strongholds that can be updated by the enemy if you fail to pull off a raid on them. It also features a storyline that reads like bad Tolkien fanfiction, complete with the hero forging his own Ring of Power (what?) and going up against Sauron directly (excuse me?).

Middle-earth: Shadow of War will be released on 22 August this year.

Cities of Fantasy: Introduction

Not all cities are the same. Some are peaceful, civilised places where weary travellers can rest from their journeys and tend to the business of the day. Others are beautiful retreats sitting on the shores of azure seas. Some are crime-riddled, smog-shrouded hellholes ripe for revolution. Others float an infinite distance above a spire of infinite height at the very centre of the multiverse. Some are criss-crossed by railways, home to cactus people and sport an embassy from hell.

One of the most iconic and oldest cities in fantasy: Lankhmar, from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series of short stories and novels. Artwork by Jonathan Taylor.

Fantasy is a broad genre which tells many different types of story. But central to many of those stories is the city. A bold adventuring fellowship may spent a lot of time in enchanted woods, braving treacherous mountains or battling dragons in abandoned dwarven mines, but sooner or later their path leads back to the streets and sewers of a bustling metropolis. This is usually just in time to be chased by hooded assassins, get into misunderstandings with the city watch or, in extreme cases, withstand siege by a barbarian horde which burns the place to the ground. Life in a fantasy city is never dull, although frequently short.

In this series of articles I will be exploring the cities of fantasy. Some of these you may know well, and this will be an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with the seven tiers of Minas Tirith, the hills of King’s Landing or the gaslit streets of New Crobuzon. Others may be less familiar, and this will be a chance to find new strange new places to explore. Have you heard of Ba Sing Se, the Earth City that spreads for dozens of miles and is surrounded by towering walls thousands of feet high? Or Menzoberranzan, the city of the dark elves that lies like a deadly spider in the Underdark of Faerun? In this journey we may also visit Junon, a quaint fishing village turned into a massive energy weapon by the villainous Shinra Corporation, or the Imperial City of Tamriel with its circular walls and central tower. It is possible we will also visit the great floating metropolis of Armada, ploughing the seas of Bas-Lag, or the mountainous city-castle of Gormenghast.

One of the newest cities in fantasy: Sagus Cliffs from the video game Torment: Tides of Numenera, released on 28 February 2017. Artwork by Chang Yuan.

There are also those cities whose streets may not be mapped so easily or reliable guides found. Nessus of the south, from where Severian set out on his quest. Unmappable Viriconium with its constantly shifting streets and locales. Amber, the one true world and city of which all others are faint echoes. And many more besides.

Finally, we will visit the greatest and grandest fantasy city of them all, Ankh-Morpork, City of (Swiftly Dashed) Dreams and City of Rapidly Monetised Wonders, as well as the famed City of What the Hell is That Smell. All life can be found in Ankh-Morpork, no matter if you want to find it or not.

But all journeys must start somewhere, and it makes sense for our first stop to be the place from which all others can be reached: Sigil, the City of Doors that sits at the very centre of the multiverse.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Filming underway on the ALTERED CARBON TV series

Filming is well underway on Netflix's adaptation of Richard Morgan's cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon, the first in his Takeshi Kovacs trilogy.

According to James Purefoy, the cast and crew are currently shooting the third episode of ten (shooting began in November in Vancouver). Purefoy describes the show as huge in scope, one of the biggest projects Netflix has attempted. Actor Joel Kinnaman confirms that the show has a bigger budget than the first three seasons of Game of Thrones (when the budget for that series grew from $6 million to $7 million an episode; Season 7 has a budget of over $14 million per episode, which Altered Carbon is unlikely to match any time soon).

The show will star Joel Kinnaman and Leonardo Nam (Westworld) as body-swapping soldier Takeshi Kovacs, James Purefoy (Rome, The Following) as Laurens Bancroft, Renee Elise Goldsberry (The Good Wife, Hamilton) as Quellcrist Falconer, Kristin Lehman (The Killing) as Miriam Bancroft, Martha Higareda as Kristin Ortega, Dichen Lachman (Dollhouse, The 100) as Reileen Kawahara, Chris Conner as Poe, Ato Essandoh (Django Unchained) as Vernon Ellott, Marlene Forte (Dallas) as Alazne Ortega, Trieu Tran as Mister Leung, Byron Mann (Arrow) as "OG Kovacs" (possibly another sleeve for Kovacs) and Tamara Taylor (Bones) as Oumou Prescott.

No airdate for Altered Carbon has yet been set, but it is likely to be at the end of this year or early next.

RIP Bill Paxton

Bill Paxton, a Hollywood actor known for his role in numerous SFF movies and frequent collaborations with director James Cameron, has died at the age of 61 from complications following heart surgery.

Paxton started acting in the 1970s in bit parts and supporting roles in TV and film. In 1984 he was cast in James Cameron's The Terminator as one of the punks the Terminator meets at the start of the film. Cameron was impressed by Paxton's personality and gave him a larger role in Aliens (1984) as Private Hudson. Hudson was given a slightly deranged personality and a series of lines which have become endlessly quoted by SF fans (including "Game over man!" and "Express elevator to hell, going down!"). Other roles at this time included Weird Science, Commando and Near Dark. He regrouped with James Cameron on both True Lies (1994) and Titanic (1997), playing the explorer searching the wreck of the vessel in the sequences set in the modern day. He later accompanied Cameron on several explorations of the real wreck and in 2003 narrated his documentary film on the subject, Ghosts of the Abyss.

Cameron has said the following on Paxton's passing:

I've been reeling from this for the past half hour, trying to wrap my mind and heart around it. Bill leaves such a void. He and I were close friends for 36 years, since we met on the set of a Roger Corman ultra-low budget movie. He came in to work on set, and I slapped a paint brush in his hand and pointed to a wall, saying "Paint that!" We quickly recognized the creative spark in each other and became fast friends. What followed was 36 years of making films together, helping develop each others projects, going on scuba diving trips together, watching each others kids growing up, even diving the Titanic wreck together in Russian subs. It was a friendship of laughter, adventure, love of cinema, and mutual respect. Bill wrote beautiful heartfelt and thoughtful letters, an anachronism in this age of digital shorthand. He took good care of his relationships with people, always caring and present for others. He was a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo. I hope that amid the gaudy din of Oscar night, people will take a moment to remember this wonderful man, not just for all the hours of joy he brought to us with his vivid screen presence, but for the great human that he was.
The world is a lesser place for his passing, and I will profoundly miss him.

Paxton's other film credits include Twister, Apollo 13Mighty Joe Young, Spy Kids 2 and 3, Thunderbirds (as Jeff Tracy) and Edge of Tomorrow, as well as two critically-acclaimed collaborations with Billy Bob Thornton, in One False Move and A Simple Plan. Famously, his role and demise in Predator 2 makes him the only actor to have been killed by an Alien, a Predator and a Terminator (Lance Henriksen is sometimes cited, but Bishop survived the attack by the Alien Queen in Aliens, albeit in an extremely damaged state).

Like many 1980s film actors, Paxton found a new lease of life in his career by switching to television in the 2000s. From 2006 to 2011 he starred in the lead role on HBO's Big Love, followed by a lead role on the History Channel mini-series Hatfields and McCoys, opposite Kevin Costner. For this role Paxton won an Emmy. In 2014 he starred as the recurring villain John Garrett on Agents of SHIELD. Paxton was cast last year in the TV series Training Day in the lead role: the show only began airing a few weeks ago, and its future is now in doubt.

Bill Paxton was a talented performer, offering excellent (and often scene-stealing) support in films like Aliens whilst also making a very solid lead in films such as One False Move. He will be missed.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The X-Files: Season 10

For a decade, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigated the paranormal. They encountered many strange people and situations, but they found absolute, verifiable proof of the existence of paranormal activity hard to find. Many years later, they are tempted out of their new lives to investigate claims by an internet talk-show test and conspiracy theorist.

The X-Files ran for nine seasons between 1993 and 2002. At its height it was a pop culture phenomenon, drawing in enormous viewing figures and turning its two leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, into global stars. The presence of both well-crafted, well-written stand-alone stories and a long-running, intricate story arc attracted a passionate fanbase. Unfortunately, as the show went on producer and showrunner Chris Carter became more interested in spinning out the storyline than actually providing any hard answers. The audience grew bored and drifted away, as did the stars. Duchovney quit the show in its penultimate season, returning only for a bitty and unsatisfying finale. Two spin-off movies failed to resolve anything either.

Fourteen years later, Fox have resurrected the show for a six-episode mini-series, hopefully to lead into a recurring series. Laudably, they chose not to remake the show with a new cast, instead tempting back Carter, Duchovney and Anderson for new stories. Less laudably, the show builds on the tedious and unsatisfying storyline elements from the last two or three seasons of the original series, by which time a lot of the audience had checked out. The result is a bitty and unsatisfying mini-series which does manage to occasionally evoke the magic of the show at its best, but not consistently enough.

The first episode casts Joel McHale (Community) as Tad O'Malley, a right-wing conspiracy theorist with a talk show and a large audience. Despite being a tinfoil nutjob, O'Malley has stumbled across hard evidence of a wide-ranging government conspiracy that began with the Roswell crash in 1947. This is like catnip to Mulder, who is soon embroiled in his usual shenanigans, which involve constructing elaborate theories out of thin evidence (to Scully's eye-rolling disgust), running around dark buildings with flashlights and exasperated exchanges with his boss, FBI Deputy Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi, who does not appear to have aged a day in the intervening years). It's all very silly, deeply tedious and, in the more credulous modern days, falls horribly flat.

The second episode is better, featuring weird deaths caused by high-pitched sounds. It's nothing special, but is fine as a watchable, "standard" episode of The X-Files.

The third episode, Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-People, is outstanding. Written by the original show's finest writer, Darin Morgan, this episode deconstructs The X-Files brilliantly, is beautifully written, laugh-out-loud hilarious and really brings Duchovny and Anderson to life after some fairly restrained performances in the previous two episodes. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-People may be one of the best episodes of The X-Files ever made, and by itself justifies the existence of this reboot.

The fourth episode is another solid, okay, mystery-of-the-week episode. It does gently revisit one of the more significant but forgotten story points of the original series, namely that Mulder and Scully had a child together who they gave up for adoption, but doesn't advance the storyline very far.

The penultimate episode of the season, Babylon, is weird. The tone is light and self-mocking, with elements include a young, next-generation version of Mulder and Scully (making the originals feel self-conscious) and scenes involving Mulder tripping balls with a vision sequence which is quite amusing in isolation. But the episode as a whole is about a suicide bombing carried out by Muslims in an American town, an event which in real life would raise tensions and be a serious, game-changing moment in the national consciousness. To see it featured as the catalyst for a comedy episode is serious tonally jarring, leaving the episode feeling off as a result.

The final episode of the season is supposed to be a big, epic moment representing the culmination of the "syndicate" storyline that slowly percolated over the course of the entire original series and the first movie, with the United States struck down by a devastating virus. But although Fox has clearly given this reboot a lot of money, it's not enough to sell the idea that the entire nation is on the brink of disaster. As a result there is no tension and the writing is dreadful. Just when things threaten to turn interesting, with the return of original recurring character Monica Reyes, the episode ends on an eye-rolling cliffhanger which may not be resolved for another year or two.

The return of The X-Files is, on one level, welcome. Duchovny and Anderson both still have a warm chemistry and charisma, although it takes a couple of episodes to resurface. The stand-alone episodes confirm that The X-Files is at its best when giving its two leads a puzzle to solve and watching how they unpick it from their two differing perspectives, and this remains fun. But times have moved on from the mid-1990s. Mulder's open-minded enthusiasm now comes across too often as tinfoil ranting (not helped by often being proven wrong) and Carter's insistence on picking up on storylines no-one cared about in 2002 means an awful lot of time is wasted on the exact same uninteresting waffle that lost the show its original viewership and saw it cancelled. If anything, the overwhelming success of Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-People highlights how silly and tedious these elements are. Whilst reducing The X-Files to a comedy show would be a shame, its over-earnest tone, which was getting a bit much by four or five seasons in, feels very overwrought today.

The tenth season of The X-Files (***, but ****½ for the third episode) works as a proof-of-concept, showing there is life in the old show and some ways it could come back on a more permanent basis and be watchable and interesting. However, it also highlights how other shows - most notably Lost and Fringe - have picked up the gauntlet thrown down in the interim and done similar things, only more consistently and with a higher level of quality (and not outstaying their welcome to anything approaching the same extent). Season 10 of The X-Files is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and US (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Patrick Stewart officially retires as Professor X

Patrick Stewart has announced that, at the age of 76, he has retired from playing the character of Professor Charles Xavier in 20th Century Fox's X-Men series of films.

Stewart debuted in the role of Professor X in the movie X-Men (2000). He reprised the role in X2 (2003), The Last Stand (2006) and Days of Future Past (2014), as well as brief appearances in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013). His final role as Professor X comes in Logan (2017), which also marks the final appearance of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (although Jackman hasn't completely ruled out a comedic cameo in a future Deadpool movie, given his online banter with Ryan Reynolds).

Stewart's decision to leave the role is unsurprising. Given the events of X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) and the ongoing rewriting of the X-Men film continuity over the last few films, as well as Jackman's decision to retire, it's clear that Fox will taking future X-Men films in a different direction, perhaps leaning more on the new cast with James McAvoy playing the role of a somewhat younger Professor X, or even contemplating a full, from-scratch reboot after twenty years of the current, increasingly convoluted continuity.

Stewart was given the role by director Bryan Singer in 1999 following a fan campaign to have him cast in the role. It gave Stewart his second popular Hollywood role following his performance as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation from 1987 to 1994 and four spin-off films: Generations (1994), First Contact (1996), Insurrection (1998) and Nemesis (2002). During the making of the X-Men films Stewart met Ian McKellan and the two distinguished actors formed a strong "bromance" that has continued ever since (with McKellan officiating at Stewart's wedding).

Although Stewart has departed the role of Professor X, he will continue working as an actor on screen, on stage and in voiceover work. His next role will be as, er, Poop in the animated Emoji Movie.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

More information on Stephen Donaldson's new fantasy trilogy

Way back in 1977 Stephen Donaldson helped shape the modern fantasy genre with Lord Foul's Bane, the first book in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. He has completed three series in the same setting, totalling ten books, as well as an additional fantasy duology (Mordant's Need) and an excellent five-volume space opera, The Gap.

Donaldson is now working on a new fantasy trilogy, The Great God's War. The first novel in the series, Seventh Decimate, now has a cover blurb:
The acclaimed author of the Thomas Covenant Chronicles launches a powerful new trilogy about a prince’s desperate quest for a sorcerous library to save his people.
Fire. Wind. Pestilence. Earthquake. Drought. Lightning. These are the six Decimates, wielded by sorcerers for both good and evil. 
But a seventh Decimate exists—the most devastating one of all...
For centuries, the realms of Belleger and Amika have been at war, with sorcerers from both sides brandishing the Decimates to rain blood and pain upon their enemy. But somehow, in some way, the Amikans have discovered and invoked a seventh Decimate, one that strips all lesser sorcery of its power. And now the Bellegerins stand defenseless.
Prince Bifalt, eldest son of the Bellegerin King, would like to see the world wiped free of sorcerers. But it is he who is charged with finding the repository of all of their knowledge, to find the book of the seventh Decimate—and reverse the fate of his land.
All hope rests with Bifalt. But the legendary library, which may or may not exist, lies beyond an unforgiving desert and treacherous mountains—and beyond the borders of his own experience. Wracked by hunger and fatigue, sacrificing loyal men along the way, Bifalt will discover that there is a game being played by those far more powerful than he could ever imagine. And that he is nothing but a pawn...
The novel will be published on 14 November 2017.

AMERICAN GODS gets an airdate

The TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods has now gotten an air date.

The eight-episode first season debuts on Sunday 30 April on Starz in the United States. It will air the following day on Amazon in the UK.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Chris Wooding completes latest novel

SF and fantasy author Chris Wooding has just finished (about six hours ago) his latest novel.

Wooding has written science fiction, YA dystopias and fantasy dieselpunk (in his excellent Tales of the Ketty Jay series), but his only overt work of secondary world fantasy to date was the excellent Braided Path trilogy, which was inspired much more by Asian history and trope. His latest work is different: a much more "traditional" epic fantasy series where he can play around with the tropes of the established genre.

On a Reddit AMA a couple of months back, he described it thusly:

The new book is my first attempt at doing, er, I suppose you'd call it 'traditional' fantasy. I grew up on Shannara, LOTR, Dragonlance and that kind of thing; they were the books that got me into fantasy. And I realised in almost 20 years of writing I'd never actually tried a fantasy story in that kind of world: the kind of pseudo-European environment that most readers identify as fantasy. My big series were always set in weird environments: in Broken Sky everyone had a 'superpower' through their spirit-stones; The Braided Path was Oriental flintlock fantasy shading into science fiction; Ketty Jay was dieselpunk fantasy. This new one, I'm not throwing out all the tropes at the start as I usually do. I want this one to feel like a fantasy, like the books I loved when I was a kid. And then I'm going to tell a story working within that format, and try to make it all fresh and new, using all the ensemble casting and characterisation skillz I honed during the Ketty Jay books. It's not going to be like the fantasy of the 80s and 90s, with its black and white morality and clear-cut heroes and villains; nor is it going to be grimdark. It's a pretty lo-magic setting. Beyond that, all I can tell you is that I'm having a total blast writing it. There's a certain freedom in being able to employ the assumptions and traditions of fantasy fiction and concentrate on story and character, instead of starting everything from scratch.
The book will likely be published in 2017 or 2018 (2018 may be a touch more likely at this point, but we'll see). Given the quality of Chris's previous work, I'll be checking it out ASAP.