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.
Chairmen of the Board may just be one of the most underrated soul vocal groups of the 1970s, little-known outside their enduring pop hit “Give Me Just a Little More Time”. The Chairmen had a brief but richly productive heyday, their original lineup putting out four patchy but deeply interesting albums between 1970 and 1974. Like many soul performers, they can be thought of as a singles act first and foremost, but their albums contain a number of hidden gems which should rank alongside some of the best pop-soul and funk of the era - which is saying something.
Formed in 1969, the Chairmen initially consisted of singers General Johnson, Danny Woods, Harrison Kennedy, and Eddie Custis. Their existence was the product of an event that at one time would have seemed unthinkable - the departure of master songwriters and hitmakers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland from Motown. “HDH”, as they are known, had been one of the foundations of the iconic soul label’s success in the 1960s. Their hits for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Elgins helped make Motown into a record industry powerhouse, but they gradually became unhappy with Berry Gordy’s management of the label.
Ultimately, HDH broke away and quickly formed their own outfit, Invictus Records. Chairmen of the Board were created as one of their flagship acts, and got the chance to record new songs written by the successful partnership. The output of Invictus was distributed initially by Capitol Records, and then by Columbia Records after 1973. Despite early success, Invictus and its sister label Hot Wax proved to be only short-lived enterprises, and both had folded by 1977.
The albums and singles made by Chairmen of the Board remain the overlooked jewels in the Invictus Records crown. Choosing just ten songs to sum up the act is a challenge, but any one of these songs is a must-listen for fans of ‘70s soul.
Released in June 1970, Edwin Starr's version of "War" was a tremendous success. It reached the #1 spot in both the US and Canada, and hit #3 on the UK singles chart. The stridently anti-war song chimed strongly with the public mood, as opposition to the Vietnam War was growing rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic. The single also benefited from its driving, psychedelic soul soundscape overseen by producer Norman Whitfield, and from the enormously powerful and furious vocal by Starr.
Over 50 years later, Starr's version of "War" is one of the most recognisable and popular recordings from the glory years of soul and funk - thanks in part to frequent airplay and its use in movies like Rush Hour (1998). But Edwin Starr himself is hardly a household name, and while soul fans will readily remember him as the performer of "War", they won't neccesarily know a lot about him or about the rest of his career. The man himself died in 2003, but it's always a good time to delve into the discography of one of soul's more underrated stars.
Following the publication of The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin ceased to write new stories in her Hainish universe. In the following years, she wrote some of the books which are less well known today, including the Orsinia books and the experimental Always Coming Home (1985). At the time it must have seemed as if Le Guin was finished with the Hainish cycle - but after a 16-year break, she began to publish new short stories in 1990. Eventually, she followed these up with one of the most structurally unusual books in the Hainish series - Four Ways to Forgiveness.
Rather than a novel, Four Ways to Forgiveness takes the form of four shorter works. Depending on your definition, these might be termed short stories, novelettes, or novellas. While each is broadly separate and were originally published separately, they are all set on Werel and Yeowe, two worlds in the same planetary system with a complex, evolving, and painful history. The four tales each focus on a different main character, who in their own way confronts or experiences that history first-hand. While Le Guin’s work is almost always very serious in tone, Four Ways to Forgiveness is particularly so, as it emphasises the challenging subjects of freedom, slavery, trauma, and revolution.
Originally published in late 2008, the Destiny trilogy is a major linchpin of Star Trek tie-in fiction. This hugely ambitious series combines characters, ships and backstory from several TV series and films and is a deeply rewarding read for Star Trek fans.
In the glut of World War II shooters that followed in the wake of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, it could be difficult for a game to be distinctive. With their first original project Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, Gearbox Software used an increased focus on realism and small-unit tactics to help them stand out from the crowd.
Today, the tight focus of Brothers in Arms and its strong emphasis on commanding troops helps the game overcome its dated technology and some clear shortcomings in its story and setting. Thanks to the success of the game and its sequels, Gearbox gradually outgrew their status as a developer-for-hire and became a major studio in their own right. Without this game, their subsequent projects like the blockbuster Borderlands series would likely not have come to pass. Whatever your feelings about co-founder Randy Pitchford, Brothers in Arms makes a good case to be a highlight of the original wave of World War II shooters.