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The Extraordinary Journeys of Jules Verne

19 Mar

Jules Verne (1828-1905) is sometimes called the ‘father of science fiction’. He was born in Nantes in France, and studied law before turning to writing both plays and stories. In 1863 he published in a magazine the first of his Voyages Extraordinaires (literally ‘Extraordinary Voyages’ or ‘Extraordinary Journeys’), a sequence of fifty-four novels, originally published between 1863 and 1905. Entitled (in English) Five Weeks in a Balloon, this was an immediate success, so he decided to write more exciting stories of speculative fiction. Although his stories had fantastic settings, Jules Verne was careful to put in a good deal of realistic detail, so making the story more convincing. He had a remarkable imagination. In Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea he wrote about submarines and aqualungs (neither of which had then been invented), and in From the Earth to the Moon he predicted the birth of space travel – long before the first aeroplane had even taken to the air. His other books include A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. First published as a serial, this tells how an Englishman called Phileas Fogg attempts a round-the-world journey to win a bet. Jules Verne remains to this day the most translated science fiction author in the world as well as one of the most continually reprinted and widely read French authors. Though often scientifically outdated, his Voyages still retain their sense of wonder that appealed to readers of his time, and still provoke an interest in the sciences among the young.

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The Man in the High Castle

28 Feb

The Man in the High Castle (1963) is an alternative history novel by American writer Philip K Dick depicting a nightmare world divided by Germany and Japan, winners of the second World War in an alternate timeline from our own. Set in 1962, fifteen years after an alternative ending to World War II, the novel concerns intrigues between the victorious Axis Powers as they rule over the former United States, as well as daily life under the resulting totalitarian rule. The story features a “novel within the novel” comprising an alternate history within this alternate history wherein the Allies defeat the Axis (though in a manner distinct from the actual historical outcome). A hypothetical Axis victory in World War II is a common concept of alternate history, the second World War being one of the two most popular points of divergence for the English language alternative history fiction genre (the other being the American Civil War). As such, The Man in the High Castle (which has recently been adapted into a popular and critically acclaimed series by Amazon) has much in common with other fictional alternative histories, such as Swastika Night, Fatherland and Dominion.

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Star Wars The Force Awakens Review – No Spoilers

22 Dec

 

Time’s Champion

23 Nov

“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?” (from An Unearthly Child).

Today marks fifty years since we first entered the TARDIS, fifty years since we first met a strange old man who whisked us off into space and time, fifty years since terrifying creatures drove us to hide behind the sofa… and fifty years since the birth of a TV legend. For five decades Doctor Who has enthralled millions of children and adults throughout the world, whether they watched in the monochrome days of the 1960s, or during the colourful 1970s and 1980s, or discovered the Doctor on CD or in print during his hiatus during the 1990s, or even encountered him for the first time only since the series’ revival in the 21st century. Doctor Who was first broadcast on British television on 23 November 1963 (just a few hours after the assassination of President John F Kennedy) and was intended originally to appeal to a family audience. As such, in its early days it was mainly an educational programme, using time travel as a means to explore scientific ideas and famous moments in history. The success of such stories as The Daleks (which introduced the Doctor’s most iconic and enduring foes) ensured that it became much more and as a result the series had an original 26-year unbroken run of episodes, which saw it explore the furthest reaches of space and time. Whilst it was cancelled in 1989, its dedicated fanbase ensured that Doctor Who never really went away – surviving initially in a popular series of paperback novels before a brief movie revival in 1996. The Doctor enjoyed a far more lasting return in 2005 and now, in its fiftieth anniversary year, appears more popular than ever. Let’s explore the mystery of Time’s Champion.

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Across the Stars

9 Nov

When George Lucas first brought Star Wars to the screen way back in 1977 it was for most of us only the first tiny glimpse into a universe which has, since then, only continued to expand. Nearly every scene in all six Star Wars films hints at a wealth of background detail. Heroes and villains ride in starships (both gleaming and grimy), aliens wield uniquely crafted weapons, and the histories of various cultures are indicated by distinctive architecture on numerous worlds. Although many background characters, devices, vehicles and structures were not identified by name on screen, most have acquired names and back-stories by way of the ‘Expanded Universe’ of Star Wars novels, reference books, comics, toys and games. Much has transpired to illuminate the various nooks and crannies of that far away galaxy that Lucas first revealed back in 1977. The much-loved classic Star Wars trilogy introduces an unlikely hero in the form of the ‘farmboy’ Luke Skywalker, who has never left his sleepy desert home planet of Tatooine. He has grown up in a dark time in a galaxy gripped in the iron fist of Emperor Palpatine and his foremost disciple, Darth Vader. In contrast, the much-maligned prequel trilogy travels back to the beginning of the Skywalker family saga, when the Old Republic still stands. This is a time populated with new characters, whose worlds are replete with gleaming spacecraft, intricate clothing, and exotic-looking robots. With the forthcoming release of a new sequel trilogy, the universe of Star Wars promises to expand still further, so who knows what the future holds for the franchise?

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The Cthulhu Mythos

26 Oct

The Cthulhu Mythos was a term coined by August Derleth to describe the collective work of several writers, among them Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) and, most famously, H P Lovecraft. Architect of a universe without symmetry or sanity, Lovecraft challenged the preconceptions of his readers through his tales, in which mankind is alone and helpless in a reality as cruel and mysterious as it is vast. Lovecraft and his circle remade the horror genre in the early 20th century, discarding ghosts and witches and instead writing about malignant entities from beyond the stars. A number of plot devices were utilized by those writing about the Cthulhu Mythos in order to convey the essentials of Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy. These devices included a wide array of extraterrestrial creatures (deemed ‘gods’ by their human followers), such as the cosmic entity in The Call of Cthulhu, the fungi from Yuggoth in The Whisperer in Darkness, and the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness. Then there is the veritable library of mythical books containing the forbidden truth about these ‘gods’, such as the Necronomicon, a blasphemous grimoire containing all manner of satanic rituals, apocalyptic prophecies and black magic spells, written circa 700 AD by the mad Arab Abdul al-Hazred. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the fictionalized New England landscape which was to be such an influence on later horror writers. As Stephen King once said, when as a child he found in his attic a dusty copy of Lovecraft’s The Lurker in the Shadows that once belonged to his father, “I knew that I’d found home”.

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Manga: The Enigma of Anime

16 May

‘Manga’ is now officially defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘Japanese genre of cartoons, comic books and science fiction films, typically with a science fiction or fantasy theme (the Japanese definition is slightly different, but more on that anon). Since the days of Akira, quality Japanese animation has been delivered to the West by a company that liked the medium so much it named itself after it. Manga Entertainment saw the future in Akira, snapped up the cinema and video rights to the film, tried it out on Western audiences, and in the process brought a whole new world to the English lexicon. Since then, Manga Entertainment has brought many of Japan’s best cartoons to the rest of the world: as well as Akira, other seminal manga films included Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll. If you’re yet to take the plunge into manga, think big – big robots, big explosions and big future cities. In terms of mood and atmosphere, films like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Kill Bill and Sin City probably best capture the tone of manga on the big screen – typically anything where the old-fashioned themes of westerns and gangster movies are transplanted into a futuristic or ultra-modern setting. As these films illustrate, the impact of manga on global SF and fantasy in recent years has been humungous – Japanese animation now seems almost to be the medium of choice for auteur directors and fantasy/SF fans all over the world.

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A Flight of Dragons

13 Jul

Fantasy lost one of its leading lights with the death last year of Anne McCaffrey. Over the course of her 46 year career she won both the Hugo and  Nebula Awards, her book The White Dragon became one of the first science fiction novels ever to land on the New York Times Best Seller List and she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2006. To readers all over the world, however, her greatest achievement remains the creation of one of the most beloved sci-fi/fantasy series of all time, The Dragonriders of Pern. As of June 2011 the series comprises 22 novels and several short stories, although it is by no means over in spite of McCaffrey’s death. Beginning in 2003, her son Todd has also written Pern novels, both solo and jointly with Anne, and aims to continue to do so. Two of the novellas included in the first novel, Dragonflight, made McCaffrey the first woman to win either a Hugo or Nebula Award. Original, inspirational and universal in its appeal, the Pern series has itself straddled boundaries that have not conventionally been crossed and broken all sorts of new ground in fiction. Pern is one of those rare fantasy worlds which almost seems to have a life of its own outside the novels – it has inspired board and computer games, music, art and graphic novels as well as, perhaps inevitably, constant rumours of a Pern film or television series. Let’s take a look at what made McCaffrey such a popular author and her world of Pern, its dragons and their riders such enduring creations.

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The Unifying Force

28 Jun

It’s rare to find a film as famous, yet universally hated, as 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Even now, the mere mention of the film is enough to attract derision from critics and something akin to pure hate from fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why has it attracted so much criticism, and is this justified? Can anything good be said about Star Wars: Episode One? Well, since I always like to at least start my posts by saying something positive, let’s look at ‘The Light Side’. First off there was the trailer, which seemed to promise everything that we ever craved from a new Star Wars film (it’s a shame they had to blow it by adding 132 minutes of padding!). Then there are the backdrops – the grandeur of Theed and the Art Deco wonder of Coruscant. There is the CGI in the first journey to the underwater city – a fine fantasy moment that is truly breathtaking. On a girly note, there is Queen Amidala’s geisha get-up and a range of nice frocks. Lastly, two words: Darth Maul. Unfortunately, we now have to look at ‘The Dark Side’.

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In the grim darkness of the far future…

13 Apr

…there is only war. So goes the famous strapline to Games Workshop’s futuristic fantasy role-playing game universe of Warhammer 40,000. I totally fell in love with Warhammer 4oK (as it is also affectionately known) as soon as I came across it. My only real experience of science fiction prior to 40K was watching Star Wars at the movies and Doctor Who on the small screen, both of which I liked but for some reason they both also fell short in some way. By that stage I was far more of a fan of fantasy – proper, big, epic fantasy, with wars, character conflict, large scale storytelling and immersive, fully developed worlds to explore. By contrast science fiction seemed either too shallow and childish, at the Star Wars end of the spectrum, or too esoteric and complicated at the Arthur C Clarke/H G Wells end. I had yet to discover the intricacy and imagination of books like the Dune, Pern and Majipoor series and to have my horizons expanded in weird yet wonderful ways by watching films like Alien, Blade Runner and Terminator. My first exposure to how good science fiction could be came when a friend bought me Space Hulk as a birthday present. I won’t lie, at first I was a little bit miffed – I mean, board games (as opposed to computer games) were already old hat even when I was a youngster. With its little carved figures and board sections I genuinely at first glance saw little difference between Space Hulk and chess. Then I read the rule book. These were just a few of the things that I came across: centuries-old superhuman soldiers who were organised into chapters like futuristic knights; aliens who were elves in all but name, roaming the stars in gigantic spaceships in an attempt to stave off the extinction of their race; a shadow universe inhabited by beings of unimaginable evil who constantly tried to corrupt and destroy humanity with their foul touch; hive fleets of nightmarish creatures floating in space, waiting for a chance to devour starships, planets and peoples to satisfy their unspeakable hunger; and a billion other worlds and races locked in a dark future whose only certainty was war. I was hooked.

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