POINTLESS NOSTALGIA: Old Science Fiction Magazines

Republibot 3.0
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I find I can't stomach modern SF magazines. They're a bit too specialized towards movies and TV, a bit too professional, and too dedicated to puff journalistic stories like "Why Terminator: Salvation will be the greatest science fiction movie of all time." Most of the modern SF magazines clearly have their lips surgically attached to the asses of the studios that produce SF films and shows, and while a bit of that is fine - actually, a bit of that is more than fine, it’s super cool - it’s really easy to go over the line and quadruple-stuff the oreo to the point when you’re just eating a pile of sugared lard and there’s no cookie anymore.

If you follow that.

I dunno. Sometimes I have trouble with metaphors. Anyway, my point is that I don’t mind adds in comic books or SF magazines, in fact, I totally love them, but at some undefined point you go too far and end up with something like Trek Magazine, which was pretty much just a catalog of Trek merchandise every month, with about 5 pages of “Articles” so it could qualify as a magazine. Think about that! It’s like sixty pages a month, fifty of which are *Exactly* the same as they were last month, because of course it’s the same damn catalog every time. Amazing. Even *that* would be kinda’ cool if it only happened once, or maybe even once every year (“The Geek Christmas Catalog Issue”), but that damn thing ran for a decade or more.

Of course that’s the worst example of the bunch, a more common example is the late, lamented Science Fiction Universe magazine of the early 1990s, or “SFU” as it was more commonly called. It was started by a gaggle of guys who loved SF. One worked for Russel Brand’s “Full Moon” studios, the other one - Mark Altman - was an occasional screenwriter (This same team eventually wrote “Free Enterprise”). In its prime - which lasted about three years - the magazine was great. It was written by geeks for geeks, and it had a self-described “Pointless Arrogance” to it that made it charming and hilarious to behold. Sure, it had problems - they were entirely too obsessed with Trek, and a bit dismissive (or possibly threatened by) shows like B5 which threatened for a time to take away Trek’s mantle, and they tended to focus too much on things that weren’t at all SF like James Bond movies - but it was a great magazine, make no bones about it. I loved it.

After about three years Altman and the others sold the magazine to some normal publisher, and the whole thing went from being essentially the bible of media-based geeks like myself to endlessly boring puff-pieces about “The Hot Ladies of Star Trek!” and “The Hunks of The X-Files” and “Trek Merchandise: A Retrospective!” It was embarrassing. I have never, never, never seen a magazine fall so far so fast.

I’m not talking about literary SF magazines, those are still pretty solid all the way around, but media-based mags have pretty much entirely gone the same rout as SFU, though mercifully not to the same extent as that “Trek” magazine.

Lately, though, I've discovered I really really like *old* SF magazines, mostly from the 70s, in the 3 or 4 years prior to Star Wars, up through about the time Kerry O'Quinn sold Starlog to a bunch of moon-faced assassins of joy, and it went the same rout as SFU. (“110 reasons we’re mad about Alf!”) It lasted for a long time - more than 20 years - in the kneel-and-pucker posture, but in it’s early days, boy…well, to be honest it was never very good. Lousy journalism, more-or-less irrelevant stories, inept interviews, pages taken up with fan art and useless stuff like that, but if it and it’s peers from the same era were never terribly good - and they weren’t - they were, at least, mesmerizing fun.

There's something wild-eyed and fanatical (In a good way) about these barnstorming magazines, and how aggressive they were about their now-totally-irrelevant material, and I love the messianic pie-in-the-sky stuff like "Why Wait? We Can Have A Man On Mars By 1988!" (From Future: Life Magazine) and so on. Terrible journalism, barely high-school-level writing, confused on every level, but there's something giddy about them that I love. Some of this is simply nostalgia on my part - I started reading Starlog about six months before Star Wars came out - but I think a larger part of it is their aggressively wide-eyed passion and optimism about a genre that - if we’re honest - totally didn’t deserve it. I mean, Fantastic Films did a ten page piece on “Starcrash: The Adventures of Stella Star” for gosh sakes! I’m as madly in lust with Caroline Munroe as the next guy, but come on! Or how about all those articles about “Laserblast?” or the hundreds of pages in dozens of magazines all saying or trying to avoid saying the same exact thing: That Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a pretty crappy movie.

Starlog was, for a time, the greatest of these, benefiting from the most organization, enthusiasm, and accidentally the best timing. They started out more or less as a Trek fan magazine, quickly expanded to cover Space: 1999 and other equally tawdry subjects, and had just more-or-less found their footing when Star Wars broke. They were in the right place in the right time, and they used their success to spawn several sister-magazines all of which they had significant overlap with: Future Life (An magazine trying to prognosticate the future), Fangoria (About horror movies), and Cinematic (A magazine about special effects). They also cranked out a slew of medium-quality one-shot “Collectable” magazines like “Spaceships” and “Space Art” and “Aliens” and whatnot. A lot of these were really cool, though they tended to go over things that were already overly familiar (“The Enterprise is a starship? Who knew!”)

Of all of these, “Future Life” is my favorite to hunt down in old comic book stores and estate sales. It’s like Science Digest unencumbered by any sense of plausibility, but I mean that in a good way. They have adoring articles on the space program, space colonies, sea colonies, biotech, futuretech of every sort, theme parks, electronic music, you name it, it was a grab-bag of things that sound cool which pretty much no one will ever do, and it was unabashedly optimistic about this. I love it. It’s a hoot to read stuff like “By the end of the 1980s we will have reliable 30-day weather forecasts!”

There are other great magazines, though. Better than Starlog itself, I loved “Fantastic Films and Science Fiction” which did massively geekish articles on trying to work out the grammar behind the alien language from The Day The Earth Stood Still, and showing us what real-world weapons were modified in to the on-screen weapons from star wars. How can anyone not like that? And there were others, besides, lots of great magazines.

So as the spring of our discontent rolls on, with the cancellation of Kings, T2.5, Dollhouse, and Galactica*, and The Sci-Fi Channel spurning us geeks, as we hit hard times for the genre on TV, let’s not give in to despair. Instead, hit a comic shop and pour through the magazine back issues. The days of future past always manages to help me recapture a little bit of the spark that we seem to have lost of late.

*-though ultimately Galactica deserved it’s cancellation, and it’s sort of a pity it didn’t happen sooner.