Sunday, June 21, 2009

Starlog Withdrawal

Ever since Starlog magazine decided to retire to the powder room to retool its print version, I -- like thousands of other science fiction aficionados -- have been without a monthly print fix from the long-time publisher. (We could take the drug metaphor further, but I'm really not a drug person, so I don't know how.) There is a regularly updated web site, of course, but no print magazine to stick in my bookbag every morning to read on the subway or take to the living room for a relaxing read on the sofa.

True, this isn't a problem as vexing about what to do about the Iranian election problem. But for a blog that is 90-percent focused on magazines and the publishing industry, it's worthy of comment.

For years I have received my shot (okay, one more) of Starlog in the mail, thanks to my subscription. But I still have gone to the bookstore or magazine shops or newsstands (well, we don't really have newsstands here in San Francisco; unlike Manhattan, where I could get just about any magazine from newsstands on zillions of street corners, here there are actual kiosks selling newspapers that sell exactly one paper: The San Francisco Chronicle; it's like a Soviet newsstand, with only one choice) to pick up other magazines and the occasional SF media magazine. Now, when I cruise through a magazine rack looking for magazines, I'm also seeing if there's a replacement for Starlog that might entice me. So far, I'm non-enticed.

This is not just because of pathetic loyalty to the Starlog brand, though long-suffering readers (reader?) of this blog know I've got that. It's that nothing else has that flavor of SF news mixed with affection for the SF fan. No uplifting columns urging fans to pursue their dreams. No acknowledgment of the difficulty of being a dreamer in a world that doesn't much understand dreamers. Instead, at least in the giant-sized British SF mags that dominate the newsstands today, I get the sense from the snarky attitude that the writers and editors are more likely to be the tormentors of a young SF fan than the supporter. But they'll take his or her dollar for the magazine.

Yeah, that's harsh, and I'm sure they're fine people, some of them. But when I pick up a Sci Fi Now or a DeathRay or an SFX, I see three magazines that are so much alike that they're hard to tell apart. To the casual reader at the news rack, they look alike, the tone is the same, and they are UK-focused, not US-focused. So I buy one or two a year, but none of them is a candidate for replacing Starlog as my regular SF print magazine.

Lack of originality is nothing new in the science fiction publishing genre. Back in the prehistoric 1970s, when Starlog started, an early competitor was Fantastic Films, published in the Chicago area. It was painfully Starlog-focused, yet they had none of the editorial magic (nor quality) that made Starlog a must-buy, making Fantastic Films a sometimes-buy. Like Playboy-wannabe Gallery's early years, the aping was sometimes so obvious it made one wonder whether the missing ingredient was a lack of funds or talent. (After Fantastic Films expired in the mid-1980s, the same publisher created FilmFax, which was its own animal and which, I'm pleased to say, continues to this day.) Others during Starlog's run -- Sci Fi Universe, Cinescape, Sci Fi Entertainment, etc. -- also lacked originality. Cinefantastique, the pre-existing original in the field, had long before lost its originality and vigor and seemed to rely on higher prices, fewer pages, and annual Star Trek special issues.

If all of that seems unduly harsh, it comes from a desire to see a publisher do something different and of quality. Sadly, most Starlog competitors did not. (I hold a special place in my pantheon of Starlog competitors for the short-lived -- lucky 13 issues -- Questar magazine. It, too, suffered from trying to succeed at a time when Starlog was redefining and dominating the SF media magazine market, but it did do things differently, taking cues from Omni magazine in terms of design and Future Life in terms of art and literature articles, and adding original comics to the mix. A business failure, but an honorable one. I'd have liked to have seen how that magazine wouldhave evolved over another five years.)

Where the hell was I? Oh, yes: It's ... it's ... it's ...

I don't think I'll explain it here just yet. Those long-suffering reader(s) of this blog might be able to piece together where I'd go with this, what type of magazine I think could redefine the SF media genre today, and which I believe could survive in an internet age and a brutal publishing marketplace. But I'm not ready to lay my cards on the table just yet.

But you probably know some of the key words: Global. Big. Quality. Imaginative. Adult. Human.

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