Mars. The “red planet” has had a powerful presence in the human imagination for thousands of years. Because it is visible with the naked eye, and because of its striking colour, Mars has been directly observed by countless people. It has worked its way into mythology, religion, scientific inquiry, and of course into science fiction. From the lurid alien world of the Victorian and pulp eras, to the more grounded portrayals that followed the visit by Mariner 4 in the 1960s, to the contemporary realistic approach, Mars has been a staple of SF.
In particular, the idea of colonising Mars has fascinated writers for generations. Because of the planet’s relative closeness to Earth, the presence of its atmosphere, and the existence of water ice on the surface, colonisation by humans has long been a tantalisingly plausible prospect. Since the findings about the red planet provided by the Mariner and Viking spacecraft, depictions of human colonies in SF took on a more realistic and scientifically-grounded approach. Of these works, the epic Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is arguably the best known and most acclaimed.
Another year is here, and with it the promise of hundreds of new games. The promises are a bit vague in 2022 though, as the ongoing pandemic and various other factors have knocked many release dates severely out of whack. This year, I’ve compiled a list of the ten games I’m most looking forward to. They’re presented in approximate order of expected release, but it’s an inexact science given how many of these projects have no confirmed dates attached to them. They’re a varied bunch, ranging across a few genres and taking in both blockbusters and indie dark horses. We’ll see how many of these actually manage to make it out during 2022, and how many - if any - make it onto my games of the year list come December.
2021 is being put to the sword, and we wait with baited breath to find out if 2022 will be a better year. This month I’ve written about the ten best books I read during the year, which you can find here. I’ve also put together a celebration of my favourite games of 2021, both old and new, which has been published by Entertainium. Amid the usual end-of-year rituals, I also found time to play four main games this month. I reviewed the shiny new Call of Duty entry and a surprise expansion to my 2016 favourite Shadow Tactics. The older games I took on were the 2013 Shadow Warrior remake, and the simply amazing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015).
It’s time for my annual round-up of the best books I read during the year. As in 2019 and 2020, I aimed to read 50 books and managed to do so. Once again I primarily read sci-fi, which is reflected in my top ten choices. However, one horror novella and a classic crime novel also crept into the list. Note that the list is in no particular order; I’d strongly recommend any of these books and a number of them have introduced new authors for me to explore further in 2022, which I fervently hope will be an actually good year for once.
As an aside, you might be interest in what the worst book I read in 2021 was. Well, this was not a close run thing. By far the worst book I read was Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey. Now I know that the Pern series is quite popular, and no disrespect to its fans, but the first novel had me slogging through it for almost a month. Let it be put on record that for me, space fungus is an incredibly uninteresting “threat”, and that McCaffrey’s time-travelling dragons are the most lazily convenient deus ex machina I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. It’s not a series I’ll be returning to.
With that out of the way, the rundown of my top books of 2021 begins with...
For me, November has been a month of two halves - split between the time before my new PC arrived, and the time afterwards. Games I played in both phases are represented in this, my second monthly roundup. In the first half of the month I played stealth classic Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) and the indie games SteamWorld Heist (2015) and Shadowrun: Dragonfall (2014). Equipped with a new PC, I revisited modern classic Doom (2016) and the visual treat that is Remedy’s third-person paranormal action game Control (2019).
How will the world end? It’s a question that has occupied the minds of many SF writers over the years, but few have become as closely associated with it as John Wyndham.
Born John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, the man who would become better known as John Wyndham came to fame relatively late in life. While he had published stories as far back as the 1930s, he finally broke through with his novel The Day of the Triffids, published in 1951 when he was 48 years old. Set in a world where a mass outbreak of blindness leaves humans at the mercy of deadly, walking plants, the book established Wyndham as a kind of prophet of doom. He would return to the theme of catastrophic events and societal collapse several times before he died in 1969.
While they were heavily influenced by emerging events at the time he was writing, the best of Wyndham’s novels have an uncomfortable power even now. First published in 1953 and named for a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Kraken Wakes is one of those books. It is a story, in part, about social and political systems lapsing into a lethal paralysis just when they are needed most. In a world ravaged by a pandemic, economic shocks and climate breakdown, this is a novel which may be more relevant now than ever before.
In the first entry in a monthly series, I share some quick reflections on five games I played in October 2021, both new and old. In this edition: Eastward, Inscryption, REKKR: Sunken Land, the demo of Supplice, and the FPS classic Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
Walter Hill may be the single greatest ever director of American action movies. Certainly, few directors working in the U.S. have made as many important and enduring films in the genre. Hill once memorably said, "all of my films are westerns", and it's a statement that is crucial to understanding his work. Since the mid-1970s, Hill has made tough, masculine movies about characters surviving in environments where law and order has broken down or does not exist.
Hill is also an accomplished writer, known for his terse and minimalist style which has helped to shape the unique worldview of his movies. In addition to his firm handling of action, he is also a great visual stylist and often injects humour into his life-and-death scenarios. As Hill said in another memorable description of his work, "the jokes are funny but the bullets are real." Besides his own work as writer-director, Hill has also co-written notable movies made by others, notably Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).
The capsule reviews below, presented in chronological order, are taken (and slightly edited) from my Letterboxd profile. Follow me there for more reviews, primarily of action movies from around the world.
In recent years, few games have generated more bad press than Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The epic role-playing game began life promisingly, if in an unusual way - the brainchild of former pro baseball player Curt Schilling, the game had worldbuilding provided by the fantasy author R.A. Salvatore and art direction from Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn. In time, however, the project became mired in legal, financial and even political controversy. Much of this related to a huge $75 million loan provided to Schilling’s company by the state of Rhode Island.
Shortly after the game was released in 2012, 38 Studios abruptly folded - in its first three months, Kingdoms of Amalur had sold around 1.25 million copies, but the company was crippled by debt and by Schilling’s poor business decisions. 38 Studios had been left unable to pay its staff or make loan payments, and the ex-baseball star said that he had blown his whole $50 million fortune on his dream RPG. Mass layoffs and years of financial and criminal investigations were to follow. In retrospect, it was a near-miracle that the game ever saw the light of day; even more surprising was that such a chaotic and doomed development process produced such an excellent final product.
Kingdoms of Amalur was originally published by EA, but in late 2018 the rights to the series were bought by the ever-acquisitive THQ Nordic, as part of their seemingly endless spending spree. Eventually in 2020, a light-touch remaster with the two existing DLC packs included was released with the subtitle Re-Reckoning, seemingly mostly to give THQ Nordic a means to sell the game. It also gives Kingdoms of Amalur a chance to emerge from the shadow of its own chaotic, ruinous development process and stand on its own - and there is a huge amount to enjoy about this sprawling, but surprisingly accessible fantasy RPG. To illustrate that, here are ten key reasons to try Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning.
An Action Canon is a new series focusing on the action movies that, for me, represent the best and most important entries in the genre. Each entry will look at what makes the film special, and how it fits into the overall history of action movies.
Flash Point combines the talents of director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen, two of the foremost individuals who kept the fire of Hong Kong action cinema burning in the 2000s. The two had worked together before, and would do so again, but Flash Point is arguably the film on which their abilities really clicked for the first time. On this project, Yip and Yen helped to prove that Hong Kong action movies still had some fight left in them, and set the stage for their later collaborations - notably the Ip Man series.