TV REVIEW: Travelers, Season 3

-This article contains spoilers for Seasons 1 & 2-

Seasons: 3

Broadcaster: Netflix

Genre: Time Travel

Verdict: 3.5/5

In the 25th century, humanity is on the brink of extinction. War, disease and climate change have taken their toll, and the future looks bleak.

The Director, the AI that guides humanity, has a plan to save the species. Send agents back in time to avert crises before they can spiral out of control. These agents, known as Travelers, overwrite the minds of people in the 21st century and work covertly for a better future. Their actions restricted by a set of rigid Protocols, and unable to return to the future, the Travelers must balance their mandate with maintaining the facade of their hosts’ lives.

Season 3 sees the government made aware of the Traveler programme, and the emergence of deadly new foes. . .

Travelers is very much a show of two halves. The better half is a gripping, conspiracy-laden time travel thriller. In some ways the natural successor to Quantum Leap, there are few shows that have handled time travel as innovatively as travelers. Season 2 had a particularly brilliant not-quite-time loop episode, a favourite trope of mine.

The second half is a character-led drama, and this is where the show loses me. Every piece of casting is spot on, but character beats soon become repetitive, and drawn out. There are stand-out moments. Episode 8 is a stellar performance from Jared Abrahamson’s Trevor, Patrick Gilmore finally gets material worthy of his David later on, and Jennifer Spence steals every scene she appears in as Grace. But the rest of the cast is less well served.

Plotwise, season 3 continues the trend to swap plotlines around and has the same tendency to abandon story arcs for long periods at a time. Anyone expecting to see Traveler 001 as the new big bad will likely be disappointed. The Faction remains present, and some of their motivations are explained here, but they never materialise as a real threat until later on in the series.

It’s hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, but suffice to say it invoked one of my least favourite time travel tropes, though does cleverly employ the rules set out in season 1. The final scene, however, redeems everything that has gone before, and season 3 becomes that rarest of beasts: a finale that could serve for the entire series, or as the springboard for season 4 equally effectively.

All told, Travelers is definitely worth catching. Frustrating at times, brilliant at others, there’s no other show quite like it.

BOOK REVIEW: Thin Air, by Richard Morgan

Publisher: Gollancz

Series: Standalone

Genre: SF Noir/Political Thriller

Pages: 528

Publication Date: 25/10/2018

Verdict: 3/5

 

In the not-too-distant future, Earth has colonised Mars. But not all is well between these two neighbours.

Hakan Veil is a genetically engineered human weapon, stuck on Mars and short on funds. Coerced into helping an Earth audit of the Martian colonies, he is tasked with protecting person-of-interest Madison Madekwe. But when he fails and Madekwe is abducted, Hakan must hunt down her kidnappers across the Red Planet.

As the search goes on, Veil discovers that he has not been told the whole truth, and there may just be more to the audit than a financial investigation . . .

 

Like many, I first became aware of Richard Morgan through the Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon. So when I saw he had a new release out, I thought it was worth trying.

Unfortunately, Thin Air is a very frustrating book. There’s a lot to like about it, but it never quite seems to come together. Since this is largely a character-driven story, we’ll start with Veil.

I imagine (and hope) it would be hard for most readers to relate to Veil, being as he is a one man murderous horde. That’s not inherently a problem, but he does come off as one-dimensional, and lacking agency. Far too many of his discoveries during the infiltration come from other characters simply telling him things without any real motivation to do so. And his, admittedly unique method of interrogation – ask questions, have wild sex with witness/suspect, ask some more questions – leaves a lot to be desired.

The plotting works fine, for the most part, though i do prefer my crime to be a little leaner and a lot tighter, but the divergences here by and large come together in the end. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the hardboiled Bradbury city scenes and the later, almost pulpy encounter with a religious sect out in the Martian wilds. The suspense and intrigue are both well-maintained, even if the eventual reveal is a little tired.

The scene that sticks in my mind most is from around the middle act, where Veil sneaks through an (obligatory) warehouse district, and reflects on various horrors and misbegotten experiments that are said to be trapped within. I can’t help but feel any one of those rumours would have made a novel more to my taste than the one I got.

Ultimately, Thin Air is stronger in its opening, noir-ish act, than once the plot really gets going. It is by no means a bad story, just not the one I wanted to read.

HOW ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?: Evil Characters and the Group Dynamic

-This article contains spoilers for Knights of the Old Republic and Dark Matter

One of my chief hobbies outside of reading and watching TV is role-playing games. In particular, I enjoy running them for other people. One discussion that recently came up in my regular group regarded the nature of evil characters, and why I do not allow them in my games. Naturally, this got me thinking.

Role-playing games operate around a group dynamic, like a lot of TV shows, and it’s a delicate art to make sure that every character has their moment in the sun, but also has something to do at all times. Key to striking this balance is maintaining party cohesion, and that’s where the issue of evil comes into play.

For those unfamiliar with the world of role-playing, most gaming systems have a way of tracking one’s moral inclination, generally referred to as ‘alignment’. This can take take many forms, but essentially boils down to a spectrum from ‘Good’ to ‘neutral’ to ‘Evil’. Good characters go out their way to help others. Neutral characters are generally ambivalent, perhaps even selfish. And Evil characters cause harm to others for their own benefit. Star Wars is an excellent example of this, with an ongoing battle between the Lights and the Dark Side of the Force. Most games assume that the players will be Good. After all, they are the heroes of their story, but the system allows for Evil characters to accommodate the inevitable player who wishes to play a dark and mysterious loner.

It’s these characters who so often cause problems for Games Masters, and indeed the party as a whole. Let us take, as an example, a group of four characters. Three of them are of Good morality, the fourth is Evil. The task these characters have been set by their Games Master is to rescue some hostages from an enemy encampment. They concoct a plan to sneak in after dark and rescue the hostages. The three Good characters enact this plan, leaving their Evil friend to stand watch, and soon free the prisoners. But then, in a shocking twist, they are surrounded by enemy soldiers. To their horror, they discover that their Evil accomplice has sold them out. The original prisoners can now go free, but the Good characters are now prisoners themselves. This is, technically, a win for the party. After all, they have rescued the prisoners. However, as you can imagine, there is no way that they are ever going to trust that Evil character again.

Obviously this is an extreme example. But even if the act is less Evil – what if he deliberately sacrificed one of the prisoners to save the others? – the result is similar: the party no longer trusts that character, and so they must leave the campaign. This is no fun for anyone involved, not the players and not the Games Master. The standard defence is ‘I just did what my character would do’, but this approach forgets that the character was problematic to start with. The fact remains, an Evil character will very rarely work well with a Good-aligned party. It’s simply not worth the ninety-nine failures to reach the one time it could potentially work.

The computer-based rpg Knights of the Old Republic has an excellent example of this. Near the end of the game, you are faced with a choice between Light and Dark. To join the Jedi or the Sith.The player’s decisions determines which character as they are able to take into the final confrontation with the game’s antagonist. Now, the party is generally Good in nature. If you choose the Light Side then wahey! Group hug, and let’s go fight Darth Malak. But if you choose to be Evil, to take the Dark Side path, things turn sour very quickly. You will have to kill multiple former friends as they try and stop your fall from grace. (As an aside, this is the only time I’ve ever felt truly guilty in a game) These are relationships you’ve been fostering for a long time, from the start of the game. But being Evil breaks that friendship instantly.

Star Wars takes a very binary look at alignment, so let’s look at something more morally grey.

The tragically short-lived SF TV show Dark Matter featured a group of criminals who have their memories erased and, by and large, decide to redeem themselves. As time goes on, they start to see themselves as a family rather than a crew. Trouble arises when one member of their family, Four, decides to regain his memories. Following the procedure, he becomes – essentially – Evil, murdering dozens of innocents as he looks to reclaim what he views as his. The rest of the crew do not try to stop him, but they do turn their backs on him. Through Evil actions, he has broken their ties with him. And even though he offers to continue helping them, they want no part in his life. He may not see himself as having done anything wrong, but the more morally good characters disagree. Quite simply, there is no reason for them to trust or consort with him anymore.

Is there a point to all this? Well, maybe. Maybe I am just justifying a personal dislike of dark and edgy lone wolves who lurk at the fringes of role-playing. (Trust me players, every Games Master has seen this, and we are not impressed by it). But it’s quite obvious to me that there is a real issue with integrating an Evil character into a group dynamic. It doesn’t matter what form that Evil takes, whether it’s butchering innocents or just spitting on the waiter, there comes a time when characters have to ask themselves: ‘How are we still friends?’ and then walk away.

PRIORITY TARGETS: Upcoming SF in 2019

Another year approaches, bringing with it a buffet of science fictional delights. Here are some that I’m particularly looking forward to.

January 10

The Shadow Captain – Alastair Campbell

I have a rocky relationship with Campbell’s writing, but this sequel to Revenger already has me intrigued.

January 12

The Anarch – Dan Abnett

The fifteenth and potentially final novel in the long running Gaunt’s Ghosts series, Anarch promises to wrap up many of the ongoing plotlines.

January 17

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2

Discover’s debut season can charitably be described as uneven. But the same can be said for most series. Hopefully season 2 will build on the strengths rather than the weaknesses.

January 21

Killjoys – Season 4 blu-ray

One of the most fun shows on TV returns with darker storylines and new threats. The fifth and final series is on SyFy later in the year.

February 19

Broken Stars – edited by Ken Liu

Liu’s second collection of Chinese SF looks to be as varied as the first. High hopes here that the authors within get full novels translated into English too.

February 23

Honourbound – Rachel Harrison

With Gaunt departing, Black Library introduces a new, and female, commissar. Perhaps my most anticipated debut novel of the year.

March 28

Tiamat’s Wrath – James S A Corey

Delayed from its previous December 2018 slot, the penultimate book of the Expanse promises more trouble for Holden and the crew, not to mention the threat of interstellar warfare. Season 4 of the TV adaptation is also coming this year.

April 4

Cage of Souls – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Yes, I’m a Tchaikovsky fanboy, but everything deserves to be on this list. Cage of Souls is set on a dying earth, and looks to be more sombre than my usual fare.

April 19

Atlas Alone – Emma Newman

I haven’t loved all of the Planetfall series, but this looks like a direct follow up to After Atlas, the high point of the series. Hopefully it carries on from that strong beginning.

April 30

Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

In the tradition of 2001: A Space Oddessy, this novella is more of an intimate piece than a lot of this list, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

April 30

The Waste Tide – Chen Qiufan

Ken Liu’s much-delayed translation is finally set to arrive next year. Part heist, part eco-thriller, this should not be missed.

May 16

Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A strong contender for book of the year, this sequel to Arthur C Clarke award winner Children of Time sees humans and spiders working to investigate a new world. Definitely a day-one purchase.

May 28

Triumphant – Jack Campbell

The final installment in one of the best prequel trilogies ever written promises to answer a lot of questions about the early days of the Alliance.

June 4

To Clear Away the Shadows – David Drake

If the blurb is anything to go by, then the RCN series is heading in a new direction, shedding a lot of previous cast members. Fortunately Drake can be trusted to deliver.

June 11

In Howling Dark – Christopher Ruocchio

Empire of Silence was my 2018 book of the year by quite a margin, so the sequel has a lot to live up to. But with strong characters and a Dune-esque universe, it’s hard to go wrong.

June 14

Men In Black International

The fourth film in the franchise is more a spinoff than a follow up, and promises to be a bold new start. From the trailers, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thomson are set to make a memorable pair.

July 16

The Redemption of Time – Baoshu

Another Ken Liu translation, this fanfic rendered official story seeks to fill a large gap in the Three Body trilogy.

July 30

Spaceside – Michael Mammay

Planetside came to a somewhat abrupt ending, so there’s plenty for the sequel to pick up from.

December 20

Star Wars: Episode IX

The final episode in the Skywalker saga has a lot to live up to. After all the controversy around The Last Jedi, here’s hoping JJ Abrams can make a fitting finale to the series.

Unconfirmed Dates

The 100 – Season 6

Finally a genre series to make it to 6 seasons. This has been teased as a soft reboot of the show, but will undoubtedly be as brutal and brilliant as what has gone before.

Krypton – Season 2

The surprise TV hit of the year was renewed before I’d even heard of the show, which hopefully means it will be kept around for some years yet.

There’s bound to be some stuff I’ve missed, and some surprises lying in store. Let me know what you’re looking forward to

BOOK REVIEW: Impulse, by Dave Bara

Publisher: Del Rey

Series: Lightship (#1)

Genre: Military SF/Space Opera

Pages: 372

Publication Date: 2015

Centuries after a devastating war, humanity is starting to rebuild civilisation.

Peter Cochrane, a young nobleman fresh from the naval academy, has been assigned to the ship that recently lost some of its crew, including his own girlfriend.

Searching for answers following an unprovoked attack, Cochrane finds himself thrust into the unfamiliar world of diplomacy, and learns that ancient grievances may not be as dead as he once believed . . .

There is a thin line between Space Opera and Military SF. Like so many stories, Impulse crosses that line freely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but while it’s a decent Space Opera, this novel is less successful as Military SF.

Let’s focus on the positives, and that’s the worldbuilding. You won’t find anything new or remarkable here, but the classic elements are pulled together tightly and effectively. The Historians put me in mind of Asimov’s Foundation, guarding technology and lore for their own purposes. The Sri, while less developed, are no less interesting. I hope further instalments show them in more detail, and to be less one sided than their appearance here.

The political dealings Cochrane is forced into are typical of the genre, and at times feel contrived. Cochrane’s swift agreement to a marriage proposal is generally indicative of the simplicity of the politics on show.

And that leads to the main issue. For a fresh faced academy graduate in mourning for his first live, Cochrane is quite the ladies’ man. It’s his blossoming romance with a coworker that I found most troubling. Surely, there are regulations regarding sexual relations between officers on active duty.

This lack of cohesive command structure is where the military side of things breaks down. The Impulse is a joint taskforce ship, but any friction is dealt with quickly, with a semi-inspiring speech. I personally feel there should have been more to it than that.

In the end, there’s a lot to like about Impulse. Just don’t think too hard about the details.

CANON, CONTINUITY & CONTROVERSY

Here’s the thing: A good story is a good story, regardless of context. That’s why you can enjoy a Lovecraft story without being a frothing-at-the-mouth, anti-semitic, homophobic racist. But this opinion piece isn’t about the separation of art from artist, that’s for another time. Today I want to talk about canon.

The 2015 release of The Force Awakens, effectively wiped out the Star Wars Expanded Universe. ‘Effectively.’ Because although they are no longer canon, the books still exist. You can still go into charity shops, second hand bookstores, and pick up copies. Some of them have even been reprinted under the ‘Legends’ banner. You can still play the games, read the comics. Disney hasn’t destroyed anything, they’ve just created a new ‘official’ storyline. In a lot of cases, the older material and the new can exist side by side. After all, the rise of the First Order hardly affects the plight of Darth Revan and the Old Republic. If there’s an EU story you want to relive, then go ahead and do it. It’s still there. And if you’re concerned that the new canon has rendered the old one obsolete, here’s something to consider:

None of it is real. It is all fictional.

For the past two years, I’ve been reading the Dune series. If you’re reading a blog about science fiction, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of it. Frank Herbert’s six novels tell of the fall of a galaxy-spanning Imperium. But sadly, he died before it was finished. Years later, his son Brian Herbert found the notes for book 7 locked away in a box, and resolved to finish the series himself. Bringing on renowned SF author Kevin J Anderson as a co-writer, the Dune series continued. The difference in writing style is obvious, but the characters, setting and themes are all continuations of Herbert Sr’s. For various reasons, Herbert and Anderson wrote two prequel trilogies before tackling book 7 itself (which was eventually split into books 7 and 8). As you can expect, allegations are still ebbing thrown about ‘disrespected legacies’ and ‘milking the cash cow’. There are literally hundreds of reviews that pour hate on these new instalments simply because they were not written by Frank Herbert.

That’s something I just do not understand. Obviously, the original author would have written a book more in line with the others in the series, but that is no longer possible. So why not just enjoy the brilliant books we do have? Or if you don’t like them, why not keep quiet about it? Not liking a book because it is badly written, or not to your tastes is fine. Hating a book’s very existence because it contravenes your personal idea of canon is just moronic. The ending of Dune is about as fitting as I can imagine, and the prequels expand on the mysteries of the series in ways that are both cleverly original, but also seem organic. Of course Herbert’s notes alone are not enough to publish. The books would have been far worse off were his successors not able to embellish here and there, to add their own distinctive flair to the universe. But the whole Dune series, now seemingly complete at nineteen novels and an anthology, is now more than Frank Herbert likely imagined. And better for it. And again, if you don’t like the continuations, the original six novels still stand alone.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I all but idolise Isaac Asimov, so you can imagine my excitement when I found out about The Second Foundation Trilogy, a trilogy licensed by the Asimov estate and written by a trio of highly respected SF authors. The series, admittedly, varies in quality, and is strikingly different from Asimov’s own work. But while it is inferior to to what is possibly the greatest SF series of all time, I refuse to dismiss it out of hand just because it was written without Asimov’s involvement. Even a casual read of the Robots/Foundation universe will reveal that Asimov himself pulled his narrative together from disparate elements and unrelated series. Perhaps someday another author will take up the challenge and create an in-universe reason for the discrepancies. I would be first in line to buy it if they did.

There is an exception to my open approach to fictional universes, and that is fan-fiction. I can see the benefits of it, from wish-fulfilment to writing practise, but I disagree with it in principle. Not because the writing is worse (it often isn’t), or because of a deviation from the original, but because it is knowingly outside of canon. The writer writes there own version of events or characters, in the full knowledge that what they write could never be the ‘real’ version.

Having said that, there is an exception to that exception. Next year sees the release of The Redemption of Time, by Chinese fan fiction writer Baoshu, and I am planning to buy it. Why? Because Cixin Liu, the author on who’s work it is based, has deemed it legitimate, and it will be published by the same houses that took up the trilogy on which it is based, even translated by the same man. Remembrance of Earth’s Past is my favourite SF series of the 21st century. If this new instalment is good enough to please Liu himself, then surely it’s good enough for me.

At the end of the day, Science Fiction is fiction. So long as the storytelling is consistent, the situations gripping and the world enticing enough.go ahead and dive right in. I know I plan to.

BOOK REVIEW: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Military SF

Publication Date: 1974

Verdict: 4/5

The year is 1997, and Earth is waging war against the Taurans.

With the war happening across vast interstellar distances, Einstein’s laws of general relativity mean that for every month the soldiers spend on the front lines, years pass by back on Earth.

William Mandella has enlisted in the UNEF (United Nations Exploratory Force), dedicating his life to fighting back the alien threat. But as the war drags on, he finds that the home he left behind can never be the one he returns to . . .

It’s always a tricky proposition, reviewing a stone-cold classic like The Forever War. Such is its influence on modern SF that I was surprised to see how recently it had been published. There are two main issues with a modern reading. One technological, and one social.

Obviously, (Despite what the Internet may wish you to believe) Earth was not in an interstellar war in the late 90s. But the date is a significant one, chosen so that the same soldiers who fight the Taurans were also present in the Vietnam war, as Haldeman himself was. The scenes of warfare on the planetary surfaces of the galaxy, through jungles and trenches, would have nowhere near as much of an impact had they not been written by a veteran. Tempting though it may be to label The forever War ‘alternate history’, the (thankfully) inaccurate timeline is of no real consequence, as the Earth we know, the Earth Mandella knows, is quickly left behind.

Despite knowing that ‘home’ will have changed, the Earth of the mid 21st century is almost as alien as the Taurans themselves, and that is the masterstroke of this novel. The alienation of humanity’s own soldiers as they return from the front is beautifully done. So different is this new world that the soldiers would rather return to the front lines than try to adapt to it. But that leads to the second issue. The social one.

In the Seventies, Haldeman’s vision of a global embrace of homosexuality must have seemed daring, even progressive. But from a 21st century perspective, there’s is something just not quite right. I doubt this particular vision would make it past modern censors and sensitivity readers. There is, much to my surprise, an asexual character, Charlie, possible the earliest example of one I have found in SF. Nevertheless, the changing sexual morality of Haldeman’s humanity, while inventive, never seems, well. Right.

Like so many older works, The Forever War is relatively short, only 238 pages in the Gollancz edition. But a lot of ground is covered, both physically and thematically. Broken into sections covering decades or even centuries, the realistic battle sequences and detailed discussion of physics complement each other well. The ending may be abrupt for some, but I feel that was the intended effect. A sudden, final jolt in the narrative. There are sequels, and I hope to get around to them sooner rather than later, but The Forever War, like all greats, is a functional standalone.

If you want to read one of the founding fathers of Military SF, then The Forever War is a wonderful place to start. Though dated in some aspects, it remains a timeless classic.

BOOK REVIEW: Off Rock by Kieran Shea

Publisher: Titan

Series: Standalone

Genre: Heist

Publication Date: April 2017

Verdict: 4/5

The year is 2778, and humanity has reached the stars. Or the rocks at any rate. Mining companies with the might and authority of nation states are doing a roaring trade in pulling every last ounce of resources out of any asteroid they can find. Miners work under terrible conditions, knowing they could be fired at a moment’s notice.

Jimmy Vik is one such worker. Approaching middle age, potentially an alcoholic, and with nothing to show for his labours but a small pension, he’s had enough. So when he stumbles across a gold deposit while doing demolition work, he makes plans for an early retirement.

The only problem is getting that gold off the rock. . .

Off Rock is a very fun book. The writing is conversational, reminiscent of John Scalzi. There were times when it genuinely felt like an overheard story, told by an increasingly inebriated man down the pub. The tale rattles along at a brisk pace, taking no breaks, for all of its three hundred pages. It’s addictive, like a stash of prohibited candy, and you’ll want to devour it all in a single helping. I know I did.

For such a short book, there is a lot of head hopping, with five major players. Shea does a masterful job of balancing their individual yet intertwined plotlines, making sure everyone has something to do, and none outstay their welcome. It’s a delicate balancing act that a lot of writers (myself included) seem to struggle with, but Shea has no such difficulties.

The plot is a simple one, a heist rendered almost comedic as more and more people are drawn into Jimmy’s plan, each of them worrying (sometimes rightly) that they’re going to be cut out of the deal. As the heist becomes increasingly public knowledge, Off Rock shows the same snowballing effect most often seen in sitcoms, with lies being invented just to cover up older lies. It’s with the people that Off Rock really shines. K7-A may be a small rock in the middle of nowhere, but it’s home to a fascinating and diverse cast of characters.

While it would be a stretch to call any of Off Rock’s protagonists heroes, they are undeniably endearing. Even the vaguely disgusting Jock has his moments. Despite his flaws, you can’t help but root for Jimmy. he’s a classic underdog: Unskilled, downtrodden, and at times just plain desperate.

It’s hard to take issue with a book as charming as Off Rock, but I did find the worldbuilding to be slightly lacking. We’re given everything we need to understand Jimmy’s situation. But that’s about all. A greater exploration of humanity’s interstellar domain would not have gone amiss. But that’s really a minor issue, and a personal one at that.

If you’re looking for a deep insight into the human psyche, or an intricate multi-layered narrative, you won’t find that here. What you will find, is a pile of fun, a crew of lovable rogues, and a rollicking way to pass a few hours’ reading.

AT BOUNDARY’S EDGE – An Introduction

Welcome, one and all, to At Boundary’s Edge, your new SF review and opinion site.

If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi and Fantasy (and if you’re not, I hope you soon will be) then you’ve probably seen dozens of fantasy review sites out there. Great ones. But not so many for SF.

I, Alex Hormann, being of fairly sound mind and in possession of too much time, have taken it upon myself to correct this imbalance. Thus, At Boundary’s Edge has been born.

This blog will be home to reviews of all things SF, primarily books, but also film, games, TV and RPGs, from stone cold classics to those modern masters pushing the boundaries of the genre. Whether it’s Space Opera, Tomorrow Fiction, Tech Thriller, Military SF anything in between, you’ll find it At Boundary’s Edge.

So stick along for the ride, strap yourself in, and let’s see where this crazy rocket takes us.