Monday, March 19, 2012

My Future Life, and Yours

From FutureLife March 14, 2012
Several days ago, I finished reading the final article in the final issue of a long-dead magazine, Future Life. It was the culmination of an off-and-on effort over several years to read the entire 31-issue run of the magazine.

It’s an achievement of dubious status, I realize.

Some things have changed since I began the effort to read every issue of the magazine. My original intention had been to come up with a business plan for a similar magazine. But over the next several years, I realized that there already were a number of publications that served the market for science-interested people who also love science fiction. None of them were the same as Future Life, naturally, but they covered more than enough of the same topics that there would not have been room for a new magazine in the same market space.

And yet, I continued reading, partly out of a self-induced urge to complete what I’d started, and partly because I was learning a lot about publishing by reading these 30-year-old magazines. I’ve been in the editorial business long enough to be able to tell when a short news article is nothing more than a warmed-over press release; I have a pretty good sense of when an article is published basically as a favor to someone; I know enough about paper weights, page counts, and coatings to be able to gauge the financial health of a publication.

I was also learning other things, though; perhaps it is better to say I was being reminded of other things. Future Life published its last issue in late 1981 (the cover date is December 1981, so it was actually released in late October of that year). Its entire life spanned only four years of eight annual issues. But the articles it contained reminded me of the public mood at the time and how it changed dramatically over the next decade. In the late 1970s, despite all of the country’s economic problems, the expectation was that we would keep exploring space, building permanent orbiting space colonies by the end of the century. The feature interview in Future Life #31 was with James Beggs, the Reagan administration’s newly installed administrator of NASA. The interview is largely devoted to him explaining all of the economic restraints that were being placed on the space agency. Basically: We’d like to do A, B, and C; but budget director David Stockman is only going to allow us to do A, and we’ll have to scale that down, too.
From FutureLife March 14, 2012

Naturally, NASA didn’t get to do much of squat, other than limp along with the already-outdated space shuttle, and colonization plans – commercial or private – simply receded from memory as the deep economic recession of the early 1980s took hold. It was a time when Americans went through something the British have gone through numerous times in the postwar years: austerity. We didn’t like it then any more than we like it now.

The country would come roaring out of that recession, its economy partially Reaganized (the full Reaganization would really take place under successors Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) and its priorities much more refocused on the ground in front of us. But the futures dreamed of and written about by Future Life’s staff were largely forgotten. In that four-year period, those futures included everything from galactic civilization to farming the seabeds to floating cities to life extension to ion drives to orbiting space junk to space warfare to overpopulation to laser art and on and on.

To its credit and unlike competitor Omni magazine, Future Life always remained refreshingly skeptical about UFOs. If Future Life had an obsession, though, it was scientist Gerard K. O’Neill’s “high frontier” concept of orbiting space colonies, and many articles, columns, space art, and news briefs were taken up with working out the practical steps of such a plan. What would be the economics (and the economy) of colonies? How would you transport people and cargo to them? How would you exercise in zero-g?
From FutureLife March 14, 2012

Future Life was a mixture of science and science fiction (films, books, paintings, etc.), and I think the magazine was an attempt to take the energy that the science fiction fan often burns off on daydreaming and self-absorption, and expend it instead on solving real problems and setting the fan’s sights on how to put their ideals to real-world uses. That, too, is an approach that I think has been lost. It might have been the particular interests of Future Life’s publishers and editors at that point in time, or it might have been a marriage between their efforts and the huge influx of new fans inspired by Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Star Trek movie, but after Future Life died, science fiction media coverage elsewhere tended to grow ever-more narrowly focused on feeding fanboy obsessions, without introducing any higher expectations for that fan.

I had only begun reading Future Life magazine a couple issues before it stopped newsstand circulation and became a largely subscription-only publication. By the time my eighth-grade self was able to scrape together enough money to pay for a subscription, the magazine ceased publication altogether. It would be almost three decades before I cobbled together a complete collection of the magazine and begin reading what I’d missed. That’s how I came to see what we’ve all missed out on these past few decades.
From FutureLife March 14, 2012
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