Across its vast orbital habitats and immense starships, the Culture supports a population of many billions. Within this multitude, only a tiny number of people make up Contact, the Culture’s diplomatic and military arm. Within that elite there is another elite. Special Circumstances is the shadowy group operating on the Culture’s ragged edge, where the civilisation’s highly-evolved morality weakens or breaks down altogether.
The Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma and her loyal drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw have long relied on a particular operative. Born outside the Culture, this man is the consummate spy, soldier, and strategist. He is adept with every weapon, with every ruthless tactic required to pull off some of the Culture’s most Byzantine schemes. His name is Cheradenine Zakalwe.
Use of Weapons is the third novel in Iain M. Banks’ beloved Culture series. While it was ultimately released in 1990, the first version of the book had been written 16 years earlier in 1974. With the encouragement of fellow science fiction writer Ken MacLeod, Banks returned to the story and radically re-worked it, notably by simplifying its dizzying structure. Today, the novel is probably the most popular and acclaimed of the ten books in the series. It is a fascinating character study of Zakalwe, an eye-opening insight into the nature of the Culture, and a thoughtful look at conflict, responsibility, and guilt.
In a talk given to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, Maureen F. McHugh identified a pervasive trend in SF:
“…something required for the genre or genres, whether to reestablish order or transcend it, is the hero who changes everything. [...] It doesn't matter if the story is on the scale of a city or a planet or the galaxy, sf is the story of the outsider who is smarter, mutated, or endowed with special powers and therefore is the person, the only person who can make the difference.”
In her debut novel China Mountain Zhang, McHugh set out to prove that a world-changing hero is not a precondition for an interesting science fiction story. The book is set at some point in the 22nd century, in a world in which the global balance of power has shifted dramatically. The United States has been brought low by a Second Great Depression and a bloody civil war. By contrast, socialist China is the preeminent superpower, extending its influence all the way to new colonies on Mars.
Zhang Zhongshan is a construction technician working in New York City. He has no towering ambitions, nor any desire to change his world. He wants only to make a good life for himself, which is complicated by his status as a gay man living under a regime in which homosexuality is illegal. China Mountain Zhang is not about changing the world, but about finding a way to live in it.
In 2006, the Spanish game developer Pyro Studios was full of confidence. With a new game nearly complete, they had big ambitions. The CEO, Ignacio Pérez, planned to grow the company from 70 staff to 250 over the next few years. Pyro would become not just a preeminent developer in Europe, but in the world.
In retrospect, these comments have a tragic feel. The game that Pyro was about to complete was Commandos: Strike Force and it would prove to be a stinging failure. Pérez’s big plans would never come to pass. Worse, his company would never again release a notable game. It would first be reduced to the relative ignominy of mobile game development, and then would finally close for good in 2017.
On paper, Strike Force appeared to be based on good ideas and a sound business logic. It was intended as a means for Pyro Studios to capitalise on its established Commandos series, to move into cross-platform development, and to break into the lucrative console market. To all this, they would shift Commandos into a first-person shooter mould. In the end, the game badly alienated the company’s existing fans and failed to win new ones. Its critical and commercial failure contributed strongly to the demise of Pyro, long the foremost studio in Spain, and the Commandos series.
Now that a new revival of the series is in development, it is interesting to go back to the disastrous fourth entry. Picking over the wreckage, it is clear that Pyro’s plans were not without merit. Strike Force is a desperately average game, released much too late to have a chance in a crowded World War II shooter market. But it does have good ideas, and a certain charm of its own.
2023 has been another fascinating year of reading for me. Once again, I set out to read 50 books and once again, my main focus has been on science fiction. This year, seven of my top ten are science fiction novels; one is a non-fiction book by an SF author, one is the fantasy novel Mythago Wood (1984), and one (surprisingly) is by one Quentin Tarantino. I strongly recommend all of these books - if you’ve read them, and have thoughts about them, I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.
In 1998, Madrid-based videogame developers Pyro Studios produced a shock hit with their landmark game Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. It shifted 900,000 copies, and did particularly well in the UK and Germany. Eventually, it would prove to be the trigger point for a small but uniquely engaging sub-genre of real-time stealth tactics games. These sprang up in the early 2000s, died off, and were then revived in 2016.
After the release of the standalone expansion Beyond the Call of Duty in 1999, Pyro’s British publisher, Eidos, were eager to profit from another success. They put their weight behind the Spanish developers, who set to work on a sequel with a hefty budget of $7 million. Flush with cash and manpower, Pyro ultimately delivered an almost recklessly ambitious follow-up: 2001’s Commandos 2: Men of Courage.
Over 20 years later, the game is still an essential entry in the genre that Pyro invented. Commandos 2 is definitely a product of its time, and its learning curve can be steep for those more familiar with the friendlier revivals made by Mimimi Games. It is exuberant but imperfect, with a number of new concepts and systems which could have been better implemented. Despite these flaws, Commandos 2 is a thrilling exercise in painstaking stealth - and no exploration of the genre is complete without it.
American science fiction author Greg Bear, who passed away in 2022, had a major success with his 1985 novel Blood Music. An expansion of his award-winning 1983 short story, the novel is themed around emerging sciences of the 1980s: biotechnology and genetic engineering. Both unsettling and in a way inspiring, the book confronts the massive implications of a new kind of artificial, biological intelligence run amok.
In the story, a renegade scientist based in a realistic, contemporary California uses his own lymphocytes to create what he calls “noocytes”, or thinking cells. What begins as an experiment in information processing brings seismic changes first to the scientist’s body, then to the people around him, and later to the whole world. Blood Music comprises a series of frightening transformations, and explores themes of consciousness, individuality, and the nature of reality itself.
The first step was the development of advanced starships. The second step was the discovery of “collapsars”, which defy the laws of physics and make faster-than-light travel possible. With these developments, by the end of the 20th century humanity is poised to master the stars. There is only one thing standing in the way - the aliens they dub Taurans. Responsible for the destruction of a number of Earth’s colony ships, these creatures squat malevolently on the worlds around key collapsars.
To combat the threat, the Elite Conscription Act is used to forge a new, interstellar fighting force. Earth’s brightest and best are equipped with the latest weapons, and sent to fight on desolate, distant worlds with low gravity and lakes of liquid helium. Their mission is to find and defeat the Taurans, and make the galaxy safe for human expansion.
This is a new kind of war. Travelling at relativistic speeds on the way to collapsars causes powerful time dilation effects, cutting the soldiers off from their families. Within just a few years of subjective time, the Taurans might have advanced their technology by several generations. And if the troops ever get back to Earth, they may not even recognise it - or what remains of the human species. The war with the Taurans stretches on for a thousand years, from Earth’s frame of reference - but was it all worthwhile?
Originally published in book form in 1974, The Forever War is a brilliant science fiction novel by American author and Vietnam War veteran Joe Haldeman. While frequently compared with another iconic military SF novel, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), it deserves to be recognised on its own terms. Peter F. Hamilton has called it “a damn near perfect book”, with some justification. This is a science fiction novel that every fan of the genre ought to read.
Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a citizen of the Culture - one of many teeming billions in the post-scarcity interstellar civilisation. He has a special talent, however, which marks him out as unique. He is a game-player of legendary skill. Over his lifetime, he has mastered every card-, board-, and computer-based game that is known to the Culture. Constant success breeds boredom, and so Gurgeh becomes restless.
Eventually, he receives word of a remarkable new challenge which he is later forced to accept. His mission is to travel to the distant Empire of Azad, a decadent and cruel star-faring society which uses a game to determine its political hierarchy. The game of Azad is so dizzyingly complex that even Gurgeh may not be able to learn it during the years-long journey. When he arrives, he finds that there is more at stake than his reputation - the fate of civilisations may be on the table.
The Player of Games is the second novel to be published in Iain M. Banks’ revered Culture cycle, following Consider Phlebas (1987). It is often thought to be one of the most popular of the books, and is sometimes suggested to be a good starting point. It is an engaging character study of Gurgeh, and a story which deals cleverly with themes of power, manipulation, and the nature of games.
In August 2023, id Software’s 1997 first-person shooter Quake II was updated to a new, enhanced version. This was no surprise - it had been rumoured for some time, and seemed inevitable after the 2021 reissue of the original Quake. What few were prepared for is how brilliantly the job was done.
Multiple studios lavished care and attention onto Quake II. They made a laundry list of improvements to graphics, sound, AI, and pathfinding. They added in both of the original expansion packs, and a new PC port of the Nintendo 64 version of the game. Finally, just like Quake, the sequel received a huge and superbly made new expansion developed by MachineGames.
Suddenly, Quake II is in the limelight again. For many years, the game was eclipsed almost totally by its own predecessor and by other ‘90s shooters. During this period, strange notions gained traction. One was that Quake II was somehow a failure on its original release - which could hardly be further from the truth.
The wonderful enhanced version of Quake II does change the way the game looks and plays. First and foremost, though, it demonstrates again how brilliant id Software’s work was to begin with. Today, it should be clearer than ever that Quake II represents the pinnacle of the golden era of shooters, the heady days of the 1990s. Here we explore three aspects in which it was extraordinary back in the day, and is better still in 2023.
In May, I played just four games but it was an interesting selection. For Entertainium, I reviewed two new games. Miasma Chronicles is the new release from the makers of Mutant Year Zero, and is another strong entry in the turn-based tactics genre. Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun was on my most anticipated list for 2023, but still surprised me with its quality - indie studio Auroch Digital did a fantastic job combining the 40K licence with the boomer shooter.
As ever, I also played some older games. I revisited Dishonored for the first time in a while, celebrating Arkane’s glory days at the same time as they entered their darkest hour with the disastrous recent release of Redfall. What took up the bulk of my gaming time in May, though, was the open-world deep South crime experience of Mafia III. I got completely sucked into its compelling story and open-ended gameplay, and hope to cover it more in due course.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.