Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Saturday, 17 March 2018

Amazon's LORD OF THE RINGS TV show is going to cost more than the films

Reuters have some interesting number-crunching and analysis of Amazon's foray into TV production, including some information on the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV show.

As related previously, Amazon is making a prequel television series, which will be set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is unclear if the TV series will be part of the movie canon, using a similar visual style, costumes etc, or will be a whole new screen adaptation of the series. We do know that, so far, Peter Jackson and his team have not been consulted about the new project at all, although New Line (who produced the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy) and Warner Brothers (who own New Line) are involved.

According to the Reuters report, Amazon have paid $250 million for the rights (confirming the original reports) and are potentially budgeting £250 million for the first two seasons alone. This means that the set-up costs and the budget for the first two seasons of the Lord of the Rings show will cost more than the entire Peter Jackson movie trilogy, including marketing. Which seems insane. More bananas is that Lord of the Rings is expected to run for five seasons, so the budget for the entire series will be more than twice that amount.

So far, Amazon have not announced a showrunner, any casting or any writers for the new project. Originally it seemed that Amazon wanted the show to air to help combat the expect major launch of the new Disney/Fox streaming service in late 2019, which will be propelled by the first-ever Star Wars live-action show, but that now looks impossible, so LotR will likely not air until 2020 at the earliest.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Mafia III

New Bordeaux, 1968. Lincoln Clay returns from Vietnam and, reluctantly, starts helping out his family and the criminal life he thought he'd left behind. A bank raid, pulled off with the help of the local mob, goes south and Clay is betrayed and left for dead. Surviving, he sets out to destroy the mafia family running the city and take everything over for himself.

Back in 2002, Illusion Softworks released Mafia (aka The City of Lost Heaven), one of the greatest video games of all time. Mafia had an incredible narrative focus and memorable characters, not to mention jaw-dropping graphics for the time. The game's story - of the rise, fall and escape of taxi cab driver turned mafia hitman turned state's witness Tommy Angelo - didn't break new ground, but the dialogue and voice acting certainly did. The gameplay was also quite good. Mafia achieved its feats through a strong narrative focus: the city was a backdrop with you moving directly from mission to mission. Despite some surface superficial similarities, the game was very much not Grand Theft Auto: 1930, and was all the better for it.

By the time Mafia II rolled around, Illusion Softworks had been taken over by Take 2 Interactive, the publishers of the Grand Theft Auto series, and it's clear that they wanted the team to make the game more like the GTA series, with lots of optional content, side missions and filler activities. Remarkably, the developers held their ground and, whilst Mafia II certainly had some more optional activities, it still wasn't a true open world game. Unfortunately, the game's story and characters were thin compared to the original game and it was much shorter, resulting in a less satisfying game overall (although still perfectly decent to play).

Mafia III, sadly, hoists the surrender flag on the series trying to do its own thing and not be a GTA clone. A new developer, Hanger 13, handles production duties on the game (helped by a few veterans of the first two titles) and it's clear they were told to make an all-out GTA clone...but bizarrely without anything approaching an appropriate budget. The result is a game that is extraordinarily frustrating, giving rise to some excellent gaming moments but then throwing it away with repetitive missions and a startling array of technical errors and crashes.

The game's opening is a near-unmitigated disaster. The opening few hours of the game introduce protagonist Lincoln Clay and depict him carrying out a bank raid which goes horribly wrong and leaves him betrayed and left for dead. Rather than simply tell this story, the game jumps backwards and forwards in time several times for no discernible reason, drops a ton of cut scenes into the mix and also brings in a framing device of a TV documentary in contemporary times looking back at these events. As a storytelling device this is perfectly fine (and gets a lot better later on), but the way it's presented at the start of the game is totally incoherent.

The game doesn't really get going until the city opens up and you're presented with the open world environment. This section of the game is the most interesting, but unfortunately is also the most repetitive. During Lincoln's adventures he allies with three criminals who agree to work with him to bring down the city's mafia family. As he drives the mafia out of each city district, overthrowing their crime bosses and taking over their rackets, he has to choose which ally to assign the district to. Make the wrong choice and your allies will start getting annoyed and will eventually turn on you. However, the game makes it pretty easy to avoid this: there are nine districts, so just give each ally three districts each and they'll be kept sweet forever (simply having a different number of districts that made it impossible to keep everyone sweet may have made the game more interesting).

The act of taking over each district is repetitive in the extreme: a local contact gives you intelligence on the bad guys. Once you've caused enough damage, the crime boss arrives to investigate. Then you kill them. You have to do this twice for each district (to flesh out the capo), so by the end of the game you've done this exact same activity eighteen times (twenty-seven if you count the final "boss fight" against the capo). It starts getting boring somewhere around the fifth.

Fortunately, the game breaks up the territory-control stuff with character-based side missions where you keep your allies on-side by helping them solve their own problems, and helping their lieutenants with activities such as gun-running and stealing trucks full of cannabis. There's also collectables to find (such as records and magazines), although not as many as in other games which means you might be tempted to actually do them, and activities such as street-racing which are actually quite good fun. The game also gives you a lot to do with your money, from customising vehicles to upgrading weapons.

The game also can't be flawed for its voice acting and a lot of its writing, which is very good when the story is actually allowed to move forwards. Set in 1968 and featuring a black protagonist, the game throws itself head-on into an exploration of racism and the civil rights movement, which makes for a sometimes ugly game but also a refreshingly honest one. The characters - particularly Clay and his criminal allies, plus his slightly-comical (but also psychotic) CIA friend Donovan - are really well-drawn. If Mafia III was allowed to focus in on the story, like the first two games, and drop the repetitive open-world stuff it would have been much stronger for it. The open world stuff also damages the game's attempts to be a period piece, by giving you a Satnav (not commonly found in cars in 1968) and a mobile phone (ostensibly a walkie-talkie, but it basically stands in for the mobile phone from the GTA games in most respects).

The game is all over the place in other areas. This is a game that came out three years after Grand Theft Auto V but looks like it came out three years earlier. Play this and Mafia II back-to-back and you would not be able to claim with a straight face that six years of video game development took place between them. Particularly awkward are character models: the main characters look really good but everyone else is awful. The environmental graphics are pretty decent, though, and the cars look really nice. The car handling is also pleasingly unrealistic. You can throw these cars around a lot more than the more "realistic" direction that GTA series has gone in and they're fun to drive throughout. On the audio side of things, the game has an excellent 1960s soundtrack, although the number of songs that the game licensed is surprisingly low. It's not long before the same songs and adverts start looping around again and again.

From a technical standpoint, the game is - eighteen months after release - a bit of a mess. I experienced a dozen crashes to desktop in the 33 hours it took me to finish the game, along with frequent screen tearing and clipping. Mission objectives frequently vanished on me, or sometimes took me to the wrong place, and the AI was utterly incoherent, missing me beating someone up in front of a bunch of cops whilst sending the entire city's police department after me for a tiny traffic violation. Pedestrians are also dumber than a box of frogs, often taking the novel decision to power-dive from the pavement into the middle of the street right in front of me for absolutely no reason.

The result of all of this is a bewilderingly inconsistent game, with fun driving and racing sequences, strong story missions and great music and voice-acting sitting alongside myriad bugs, dodgy AI and repetitive side content. Eventually the game gets into a rhythm where it becomes much more fun, helped by some good combat mechanics and - completely unexpectedly - a really strong stealth component. Sneaking into warehouses, and knocking out goons one-by-one before swooping out to deliver the coup de grace on a boss is extraordinarily satisfying.

Mafia III (***½) is a stronger game than Mafia II but not up to the standards of the original. As an open world game it is repetitive and dull, but it comes to life when the story and characters are allowed to breath. The driving, combat and stealth are all pretty decent, and ultimately you can have a lot of fun with the game. But those messy opening hours are a strong hurdle to get over. Mafia III is available now on PC, PS4 (UK, USA) and X-Box One (UK, USA).

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Engineer Leo Graf is assigned to an engineering project on a zero-g space habitat. To his surprise, he finds the Cay Habitat is also home to "quaddies", a genetically-engineered human subspecies which has replaced its lower two legs with arms, giving them unmatched versatility in zero gravity, as well as increased resistance to degenerative disorders: they are humans tailor-made to exist in space. When Beta Colony develops a practical artificial gravity technology, it makes the quaddies obsolete overnight...but Graf is not prepared to see them cast onto the scrapheap of history and hatches a daring plan to save them.

Falling Free is a novel set in the universe of The Vorkosigan Saga but is not part of the core series, instead being set about 200 years earlier and exploring the origin of the quaddies. As is typical for a Bujold SF novel, it is deeply concerned with both hard SF concepts - genetic engineering, Newtonian physics - and how these play out through ethical and character-based dilemmas.

In this regard Falling Free is successful: Bujold is an effective writer and, although this is relatively a minor novel for her, she still tells an interesting story quite well. The SF elements are intriguing, but the ethical dilemma feels clumsy. The legal status of genetically-engineered lifeforms is something you think that the interstellar diaspora would have sorted out by this time, and the over-arcing theme that indentured slavery is a bad thing is hard to argue with. It's also not helped by the fact that the primary antagonist, Bruce Van Atta, is a boo-hiss, moustache-twirling bad guy almost entirely lacking in nuance. Of course we're going to side with plucky engineer Leo Graf and the quaddies.

The story builds up quite well but the narrative is slight: the quaddies are in danger and Leo has to help them escape. And that's really it. The reason for the truncated storyline is revealed in the author's notes. Originally this was going to be the start of a trilogy exploring how the quaddies built up an entire interplanetary civilisation - the Union of Free Habitats - from scratch, but Bujold was side-tracked by the success of the core Vorkosigan books and never got round to writing the other two books. The novel Diplomatic Immunity, in which Miles Vorkosigan himself visits Quaddiespace, revealed the ultimate fate of the quaddie species and eliminated the need to write the other two books. So that's fine, but it does leave Falling Free as a relatively minor entry in the wider Vorkosigan 

Falling Free (***½) is a fun, readable part of The Vorkosigan Saga and has some curiosity value, but it also feels very slight. It is, however, quite short so passes the time very nicely. It is available now as part of the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus, alongside the other quaddie novel, Diplomatic Immunity (UKUSA).

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

RIP Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, the world's most famous living astrophysicist, has passed away at the age of 76.

Much has been written in eulogies today about Hawking's immense contributions to the field of physics, most notably his pioneering work on black holes and Hawking radiation, as well as his theories on the Big Bang and "imaginary time". It is perhaps lesser-known that Hawking was also a children's science fiction author, co-penning (with his daughter) a five-volume series about a young boy called George where he explores the universe in an exciting (and educational) manner. This series consists of George's Secret Key to the Universe (2007), George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009), George and the Big Bang (2011), George and the Unbreakable Code (2014) and George and the Blue Moon (2016).

Hawking himself was also a science fiction fan, particularly on television, and appeared several times on various series. The first was Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, where he appeared in the Season 6 finale, Descent, as a holodeck character playing poker with Data, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. He followed this up with an appearance on The Simpsons (They Saved Lisa's Brain, 1999) and Futurama (Anthology of Interest, 2000). In the latter he is part of a crack squad of geeks charged with guarding the space/time continuum, along with Al Gore, Nichelle Nichols, Deep Blue and Gary Gygax. Hawking would appear several further times on both animated shows, actually recording his dialogue himself (rather than letting them imitate it electronically).

Hawking also appeared several times on The Big Bang Theory and The Fairly OddParents, as well as providing his own voiceover for the biopic The Theory of Everything (Eddie Redmayne portrays him for the bulk of the movie, before he falls ill).

Contrary to some reports today, Hawking never appeared on Red Dwarf, of which he was a massive fan (particularly its episodes featuring black and white holes, and parallel universes). He did contribute to a documentary for the show's 10th anniversary in 1998, however, citing his appreciation for the series.

Of course, Hawking himself was an inspiration for many of today's science fiction novels and films, which namecheck Hawking radiation and use his ideas in how they depict black holes and singularities.

A man of tremendous mental powers who had a wicked sense of humour and was very much a geek, he will be missed.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

America City by Chris Beckett

One hundred years from now, the world is in a terrible state. Super-hurricanes blight the Atlantic, smashing the coast of North America with repeated ferocity. The American south-west has turned into a dustbowl, entire towns and cities abandoned as water supplies dry up. The United States has an immigration problem, but not one crossing the minefield-laden, fortified wall with Mexico. This one is a flood of refugees from the southern and coastal states headed north, to more temperate climes. As the northern states threaten to close their borders, a charismatic politician named Slaymaker emerges with a platform to "reconfigure" America, to reshape the United States in a way it can survive the weather catastrophe. He employs a superbly talented PR executive, a woman repelled by Slaymaker's politics but inspired by his integrity and his genuine desire to confront the problems facing America head-on instead of standing idly by.

America City is the latest novel by British SF author Chris Beckett. Although still not a household name, Beckett has been establishing himself through a very fine collection of work over the last few years, most notably the accomplished Holy Machine and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, which has also spawned two sequels. The Eden Trilogy was an SF parable set on a planet shrouded in darkness, whilst The Holy Machine was about religion, atheism and what falls between. America City is something else, a story about politics, climate change and what happens when Americans themselves become refugees by the hundreds of thousands and millions.

It's a sweeping novel, packing an entire continent's worth of stories into a breezy 350 pages. It's also a very current novel, taking place in a world where fake news has been weaponised by humanity, aided by AIs so clever they are capable of writing speeches, coming up with jokes and even posing as commentators without detection. It's a book that feels very cynical, as our protagonist Holly moves from being a die-hard delicado (a 22nd Century version of a liberal) to, frustrated by her tribe's predilection for making disapproving noises at the TV but not actually doing anything to make things better, throwing her lot in with the arch-reactionary Slaymaker. Slaymaker's views on everything from climate science (which he still doesn't believe in, even as the American Atlantic coast drowns and the south-west boils) to the death penalty repel Holly, but his insistence on tackling the problem head-on by "reconfiguring" the country (and, later and far more controversially, the continent) makes him stand out from the crowds of talking heads and hand-wringers.

The result is a process by which Holly is seduced, bit by bit, into supporting ever more draconian policies, convincing herself that each more extreme measure is justified if is to save America and its people. Holly's POV chapters alternate with those of her boyfriend Richard, who gets to see the changes in Holly - and the country - from the outside, and has to wonder if she has the right idea. Other POV chapters move between various climate refugees, people fleeing northwards from the floods in Georgia and the encroaching desert in Nevada only to find their fellow Americans turning them away (often at gunpoint), until they have nowhere left to go.

Beckett tackles a lot of topics in this novel, from climate change to politics. The old left-right paradigm mostly collapsed in the 21st Century, but the politics that have replaced it are still dealing with (or causing) familiar problems. There's glimpses of what's going on elsewhere in the world - Africa and Mexico collapsing, Britain turning itself into a fortified island outpost of paranoia and fear, and China annexing the Russian Far East for more living space - but the focus is firmly on the US and what can be done to save it.

It's not a happy or uplifting novel. The book's main message seems to be that human beings are selfish and predictable in their responses: Texans and Californians who once zealously guarded the Mexican border are now forced to cross borders themselves, only to find themselves driven off. But of course when it's them who need help, the situation is different. Politics is still a game won by those with the loudest and best propaganda, not those with genuinely the best ideas (a fascinating background SF idea - the development of carbon dioxide scrubbers large enough to start reversing the effects of climate change - is virtually ignored as it's hard to get voters excited about it).

There are moments of hope: humans are shown to be tenacious and capable of adapting: millions of people are moving north to establish new cities in the Arctic, where they hope the storms and the deserts cannot reach them. They may even be right, but the book ends (messily and inconclusively, like life) before we can find out for sure.

America City (****½) is not for the faint-hearted or those looking to escape the grimness they seen on the news every day. It's also wonderfully well-written, alternates between the grandiose and the subtle, and is unflinchingly honest. It's available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Preview: THE CITY AND THE CITY TV series

I had the great fortune tonight to be able to attend a screening of the first episode of The City and The City, a four-part BBC TV adaptation of China Mieville's 2009 novel of the same time.

In both the novel and the TV series, the setting is a fictional region of Eastern Europe, abutting the Black Sea, which is the home of two cities: Beszel and Ul Qoma. The two cities are distinct, with different languages, alphabets, styles of dress and architecture. In particular, Beszel is a slightly run-down city in decline whilst Ul Qoma is a somewhat more technologically advanced city of gleaming skyscrapers. However, for reasons that are unclear, the two cities have been fused into the same geographical space. Buildings from one city stand alongside those from the other and some streets are divided right down the middle between the two cities. Citizens of both cities are taught from childhood to "unsee" people, places and things from the other city, to ignore them and not talk to them. If someone has to travel to the other city, they must gain authorisation and cross over at a formal crossing point; even if they only want to travel geographical distance of a few metres. Any violation of this barrier is strictly punished by "Breach", a secret police force with, it is rumoured, supernatural abilities.

The story opens with a murder. Inspector Tyador Borlu is called in to investigate when the body of a young woman is discovered in Beszel. Complications arise when it is discovered that the woman is an American student who had been attending university in Ul Qoma, but no Breach has occurred. The odd nature of the death leads Borlu to cross the border and work alongside his Ul Qoman counterpart to discover what happened, and what bearing it might have on the two cities.

From left: screenwriter Tony Grisoni, actors Mandeep Dhillon and David Morrissey, producer Preethi Mavahalli

China Mieville's novel is short but complex, dense and literate. It's also relatively straightforward as a story and practical as a production: adapting, say, Perdido Street Station or The Scar would be far beyond the capabilities of anyone save perhaps Amazon or Netflix. Turning The City and The City into a visual adaptation requires a degree of exposition mostly missing from the novel (where the unusual situation is gradually unveiled over the first chapter or two) and several devices are used in the script to convey the weirdness: Tyador (played by David Morrisey) provides a brief voiceover at the start of the first episode and he occasionally narrates key moments of the action, a surprisingly old-fashioned device which is nevertheless effective. Visual effects also sell the idea: the part of the city Tyador is in is shown in perfect focus, whilst the other city is shown blurred and indistinct, like water on glass, until Tyador makes a conscious effort to "see" the other city, when it snaps briefly into legibility. The two cities are also filmed with different colour gradings, with Beszel tending towards a darker, brownish tint and Ul Qoma towards a lighter, bluer one.

The first ten minutes or so are a bit rough, especially for readers of the novel who may be surprised by how incredibly faithful it is to the novel one moment and how it goes off on its own tangent the next: there are major additions to the cast of characters and story. This makes sense: the episode was longer than the standard hour (I didn't get the exact runtime but it seemed to be around 65-70 minutes) and there are four of them, which means the TV show is in the unusual position of having more time to tell the story than the relatively short novel has (which barely scrapes 300 pages). The new material is, for the most part, well-judged and intelligently deployed. Giving Tyador a wife seemed an unnecessary change, but by having her vanish in a suspected act of Breach immediately personalises the strange situation in the city: rather than the split (and Breach) being remote forces Tyador is aware of, they are instead deeply personal affronts that frustrate him. It gives the premise an immediacy not present in the novel but which works wonderfully on screen.

Author China Mieville engaged in exchanges with the cast from the audience, and noted his approval of the project.

Once the initial hump of exposition is surmounted, the story kicks into full gear. The worldbuilding is superb: The City and The City was filmed in the distinctly un-Eastern European cities of Liverpool and Manchester, but some tremendously detailed street signage and wearing of buildings creates the illusion these are remote cities on the edge of reality. All of the street signs in Beszel are presented in English (albeit one with Cyrillic-style accents and ornamentation), with English also the spoken language, but Ul Qoma has its own alphabet and spoken language (both invented specifically for this series). Tower blocks are dirtied up, streets turned into bustling, crowded markets and technology is deliberately rolled back: people use Betamax tapes, listen to audio cassettes, watch CRT TVs, drive old cars and cordless phones have huge aerials like it's 1983. From the glimpses we get (the first episode ends with Tyador deciding he has to visit the other city), Ul Qoma is a far more advanced and modern city.

The actors are superb: David Morrissey is best-known to American audiences from his role playing the Governor in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Walking Dead, but he has an impressive resume in the UK, taking in everything from Doctor Who to Red Riding. He always brings intensity and integrity to everything he does, but in The City and The City he also invokes a rare performance of vulnerability as well. Mandeep Dhillon (Some Girls, 24, Doctor Who) plays Corwi, a police officer assigned to help Tyador, and she brings an earthy realism to the story, helped by an impressive swearing repertoire.

A narrative fan map of Ul Qoma and Beszel.

All in all, The City and The City's first episode was impressive, being atmospheric and compelling, and hopefully the rest of the series will continue in this vein. A four-minute trailer for the rest of the series looks appropriately epic.

The City and The City will debut on BBC2 in April 2018.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Blood, Sweat and Pixels by Jason Schreier

Making video games is hard work, whether you're a solo operator developing an indie game inspired by a Nintendo classic or an experienced team of 200 working with a budge in nine figures. In this book, video game journalist Jason Schreier investigates the making of ten different video games: Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, Destiny, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Star Wars: 1313.

Most people know that the making of video games is a difficult, long-winded and expensive process. But just how long-winded and expensive that task is remains mind-boggling. This book explores some of those stories. A single cancelled contract almost destroyed veteran video game studio Obsidian Entertainment, until they launched a successful Kickstarter for an old-skool RPG called Pillars of Eternity that was a big commercial hit and saved the company. Naughty Dog Studios had already delivered three critically-acclaimed Uncharted games and were a well-oiled machine, but still almost crashed into ruin whilst making the fourth game in the series. Blizzard Entertainment had been a 20-year veteran of game development with almost 100 million games sold but still managed to release Diablo III in a chaotic and divisive state, forcing them to save the game with an expansion pack that revamped a lot of how the game worked. Star Wars: 1313 was a game that looked absolutely amazing and was playing very well when it was abruptly cancelled when Disney took over LucasArts in 2012, flushing several years, tens of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work down the toilet.

Schreier recounts the story of each game in a well-researched, intelligent manner based on interviews with the people involved and, in some cases, spending time embedded at the studio in question. Arguably the most fascinating chapter is on the development of Stardew Valley, a rare modern game created by just one person (Eric Barone), showing the insane work required to bring what is apparently a very simple game idea to the masses. The most explosive is certainly about the development of Destiny, an online game created by Bungie Studios to escape the treadmill of developing Halo games until the end of time, but that was easier said then done and by the end of development most of those who had been pushing for abandoning Halo had left the company, leaving a lot of anger and bitterness behind (which is an ongoing story, through the problematic release of Destiny's expansion and sequel). The most frustrating story is that of 1313, a genuinely exciting-sounding game that was killed in its infancy.

If there are any negatives to the book, it's probably the lack of depth. The book can only give about 25 pages to each project, and often the chapter ends just as the story gets interesting and we're moving onto the next game. There could also be better context: the Diablo III chapter focuses on the expansion, but we learn nothing about the ten-year development of Diablo III itself and why the game ended up being released in such a chaotic state. The Witcher III chapter also lowballs the game's reportedly hellish crunch period, which led to many people leaving the company (also it also resulted in arguably the greatest video game of the last twenty years). You occasionally feel that Schreier pulls his punches - at least a little - to retain future access to the companies involved.

That said, if you play video games but have no idea how they're made or the workload involved, this book (****) will be revelatory. Well-written, informative and entertaining, it marks a good beginner's guide to the crazy world of making video games. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Star Wars: Rebels - Season 3

The crew of the Ghost, now full members of the Rebel Alliance, continue to wreak havoc on the Galactic Empire's forces in the Lothal sector. With the situation critical, the cunning master-strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn arrives to take charge of the situation and soon proves himself to be a formidable opponent to the rebels.

The third season of Star Wars: Rebels continues to darken and deepen the story. The first season featured the rebels getting into knockabout adventures against the Empire; Season 2 was a considerably more complex story about war, betrayal and sacrifice, ending in a bruising confrontation between Darth Vader and his former apprentice Ahsoka Tano. Season 3 goes further down this road, focusing on Ezra as he struggles between his loyalty to Kanan and the Light Side of the Force and the promise of answers to his questions provided by an ancient Sith holocron. Unfortunately, the vengeful Maul is also searching for the holocron, believing it will lead him to the hiding place of his nemesis, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Season 3 is divided between several storylines: Kanan and Ezra's further explorations of the Force (complicated by their meeting with a follower of the neutral path between light and dark); Maul's search for Obi-Wan; the defence of the rebel base; and Grand Admiral Thrawn's relentless search for the rebels as well as the ongoing occupation of Lothal. There is also a further exploration of the theme of family: Sabine spends part of the season working to win her family's support for a Mandalorian uprising against the Empire and Hera likewise plots to free her homeworld of Ryloth, aided by her father and his supporters. The family of the Ghost is also put through the wringer, split up several times before regrouping.

There's a lot of fanservice this season. Wedge Antilles and Mon Mothma are introduced as recurring character and Saw Gerrera (from The Clone Wars and Rogue One) also returns. But the fan-pleasing cameos are in service to the story and secondary to our main characters. It's good to see that the "Ezra is tempted by the Dark Side" plot is both briefer and less angst-ridden than it could have been, with less musing on whether Ezra could really fall to the Dark Side (as the show's main character, we know he won't) and more on Ezra's character and how he approaches the Force, particularly when contrasted to Maul.

It is good to see the Maul storyline come to an end in a manner that is very appropriate. George Lucas's decision to resurrect Darth Maul on The Clone Wars was questionable in its plausibility but there's no denying that the stories it generated (on both shows) have been pretty interesting, helped by Sam Witwer's inspired vocal performance. Maul's storyline climaxes with the return of an Alec Guinness-era Obi-Wan Kenobi one of the most elegant (and smartest) lightsabre clashes seen in the franchise.

The real talking point of the season, however, is the arrival of Grand Admiral Thrawn in the new Star Wars canon. Thrawn was previously the starring antagonist of the Thrawn Trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command) which kicked off the entire old Expanded Universe. Well-written by Timothy Zahn, Thrawn's intelligence and lack of insane raving (he was more deeply amoral and ruthless than outright evil) made him a fascinating enemy. Many fans cite him as their favourite Star Wars villain, or indeed character overall. His Rebels incarnation is not quite as Machiavellian as the book version, but he is well-voiced by Lars Mikkelsen (whose brother Mads also appeared in Rogue One) and proves a formidable opponent for our heroes to fight.

Overall, the season tackles multiple storylines on different planets and delving both deep into Star Wars lore and canon as well as developing its own, original creations, all to great effect.

The third season of Star Wars: Rebels (****½) unfolds well and ends with an appropriate epic confrontation between the Empire and the rebels which dovetails into the fourth and final season. The season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

RIP Kate Wilhelm

Sad news has broken that science fiction author Kate Wilhelm has passed away earlier this week, at the age of 88.

Wilhem was born in 1928 and began publishing work of genre interest in 1956, with the short story "The Pint-Sized Genie". In 1968 she helped found the Clarion Writers' Workshop in Pennsylvania, which remains active and significant today, and edited one of the SF anthologies resulting from the workshop, as well as publishing a retrospective on the process in 2005.

Wilhelm produced a large amount of work, but was happiest when working in the short story and novella format, which attracted widespread acclaim. Wilhelm's work at novel length was less accomplished, with her instead building a career through collections and contributions to anthologies. In 1976, however, she published Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, an accomplished and classic work of science fiction focusing on a community of clones surviving in a post-apocalyptic Appalachia. The novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1977, along with the Jupiter and Locus awards for the same year. The Clewiston Test (1977) and Crazy Time (1988) were also very well-received.

Kate Wilhelm in 2012 discussing how she wrote her first short story.

In later years she switched to writing detective fiction, although sometimes with an SF twist. The most successful of these series was her twenty-year Barbara Holloway series, notable for its epic SF-themed conclusion to the story which had mostly been told as a standard detective/courtroom drama.

In 1963 she married Damon Knight, an acclaimed science fiction author and critic; they remained together until his passing in 2002. In 2009 she won a Solstice Award for her contributions to the genre; in 2016 this was renamed to the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award in her honour.

Condolences to her family. A strong and influential force in science fiction and fantasy, she will be missed.