I read 49 books in 2019 - just one shy of the 50 I'd aimed to read - more than I'd got through in the previous few years combined. Read on for ten recommendations of books and series that were among the best and most interesting I read in the last 12 months.
Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951) is the first novel of the legendary author's long-running, galaxy-spanning series. Documenting the gradual fall of the immense Galactic Empire and the rise of new powers in its wake, the Foundation series is one of the most iconic in all science fiction.
Each novel in the original trilogy - which Asimov augmented much later with prequels and sequels - was compiled from previously published, shorter works. Foundation itself collects four short stories that first saw the light of day in 1942 and 1944, completed by a final fifth story written specifically for the novel version.
The over-arching story focuses on an unusual conceit: the scholar Hari Seldon has perfected a new science called "psychohistory". Using its ability to model the mass action of billions of people, Seldon predicts the destruction of the Galactic Empire. In order to shorten the period of barbarism that is sure to follow, Seldon sows the seeds for two new "foundations", at opposite ends of the galaxy, to become the beginnings of a new empire.
SPIEL is the world's biggest boardgame fair. Specifically, it's 86,000 square metres in size, spread out over six halls of the Messe exhibition centre in Essen, Germany. This year, when I visited for the first time with friends from Witney Board Gamers, there were 209,000 recorded entries; 19,000 more than in 2018. It's clear to anyone paying attention that boardgames are growing rapidly as a hobby, with gaming groups and cafés popping up all over. The sheer size and popularity of SPIEL is even stronger evidence of this trend; the global boardgames market was already estimated to be worth $4.6 billion by 2018.
While SPIEL - or "Essen" as it's often called - is the most important boardgames event in the world, it also fills a relatively specific niche. It is first and foremost a trade fair, and so it isn't so much playing games that is emphasises, but buying and selling them. The strong retail focus is clear as soon as you arrive; seasoned visitors are already dragging trolleys piled high with the latest releases and older games at bargain prices. Publishers are not only selling games to the public, but also holding meetings with designers and distributors behind the scenes. For that reason, booths often have their own hidden meeting rooms and business suits are as common attire at SPIEL as cosplay.
British writer Stephen Baxter is best known for his sprawling Xeelee Sequence, which he has been working on intermittently throughout his long career. Released in 1991, Raft is the first of his novels and is only tangentially related to his magnum opus.
Drawing heavily on Baxter's background in physics and on the hard sci-fi tradition, Raft is based on a simple but thoroughly mind-bending idea: how would humans survive in an environment where the force of gravity was a billion times stronger than in our world?
Note: the audio version of this piece is re-written compared with the original below
In 2017, the BFI published an article about the "17 rare times when a director made five or more great films in a row". This being the BFI, their choices were mostly on the Criterion-approved, arty end: Anderson, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and so on. For me, one name sprang immediately to mind, one much less adored in cineaste circles: Walter Hill.
Now more or less retired, Hill has had a fascinating and varied career which began in the late 1960s. As an uncredited second assistant director on Bullitt (1968), he was responsible for keeping bystanders from walking out into the street while the car chases were being shot in San Francisco. Later, he decided to focus on screenwriting, explicitly as a route to directing. By 1975 he was in the director's chair, having written a number of scripts including for Sam Peckinpah's mid-career hit The Getaway (1972).
There's a ton of memorable scenes in Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983), but one of the best sees Miami drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) making his drunken, drugged exit from a fancy restaurant. "Say goodnight to the bad guy", he slurs at the shocked diners, "it's the last time you gonna see a bad guy like me, let me tell you." De Palma's lurid film of '80s excess is smarter than it is often given credit for, and this scene is one reason. It's about how we're simultaneously fascinated and repelled by "bad guys", both in real life and in the movies.
David Ayer is another director who is as fascinated by bad guys as De Palma - he has a special interest in bad guys that ostensibly should be good. Corrupt cops have featured in several of the films he has written and directed, including Training Day (2001), Dark Blue (2003) and Street Kings (2008). Of these films, Training Day is the most reputable - it earned star Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and made Ayer's name. At the other end of the spectrum, there's Sabotage (2014).
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of their SF Masterworks series, in early 2019 Gollancz launched a counterpart dedicated to older classics of science fiction: the Golden Age Masterworks. Of the initial tranche of books, Galactic Patrol by E.E. "Doc" Smith is one of the earliest. A very early example of space opera, the novel was originally serialised in six parts in the pages of Astounding magazine in 1937 and 1938.
A food engineer by trade - with a specialism in doughnut mixes, of all things - E.E. Smith was a fairly prolific author of science fiction. Galactic Patrol forms a part of his Lensman series, which had quite a complicated publishing history, not least because he later retrofitted an existing novel to serve as a prequel to this one.
Prolific author Alastair Reynolds is a major presence in the British science fiction scene, best known for his expansive Revelation Space universe which he has published since 2000. For its part, Slow Bullets is a standalone novella which exists outside Reynolds' various fictional universes - instead focusing on the unfortunate passengers of the "skipship" Caprice.
Formerly a luxury liner, the vessel has been retrofitted as a prison transport in the aftermath of an interstellar conflict between factions of humanity. Outside of a limited number of civilians, the Caprice mainly carries the "dregs" of the now-ended war: military criminals of all kinds, drawn from both the Central and Peripheral sides.
Belatedly continuing on from my looks at season 1 and season 2 of The Next Generation, here I'll be giving some brief thoughts on season 3. It's often thought that this is the season when TNG really began to fire on all cylinders, but for me the first half of it is dominated by very average episodes. Things do step up a gear in the second half, and builds towards the widely acclaimed two-part story "The Best of Both Worlds", which I'll deal with in its entirety here, even though its second part is actually the first episode of season 4.
Season 3's episodes are set in 2366, the third year of the Enterprise-D's mission. Notably, Beverley Crusher returns as ship's medical lead after her unfortunate absence in season 2. Several characters introduced here will recur in later seasons, including rogueish archaeologist Vash, Romulan commander Tomalak, and the villanous Klingon warlord Duras.
While TNG never really does full-blown story arcs as we know them, there are some recurring threads which begin in season 3. One is the Federation's very uneasy relationship with the warlike Romulans, who appear in three episodes. Another is the machinations of Duras, an enemy of Worf who has designs on seizing power within the Klingon Empire. These threads will join together in season 4. In any case, there are 26 episodes to look at, and little time to waste - engage!
The unexpected and and immense success of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines meant that the development of a follow-up was an obviously good move. While a sequel would eventually materialise in 2001, the first step for Pyro Studios and publisher Eidos was to design a standalone expansion: 1999's Beyond the Call of Duty.
Introducing eight new missions, superior graphics, more interactive environments, and new skills which slightly balance out the responsibilities of the characters, Beyond the Call of Duty is an excellent expansion set that should be seen as integral to the main game.