Friday, April 29, 2011

This Blog is a 100% Royal Wedding-Free Zone

Well, it was before I wrote this post, but I had to let people know somehow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Dinosaurs Attack: The Starlog Project, Starlog #191, June 1993

The dinosaur onslaught that was hinted at a while back with Starlog’s interview with its former editor (and later dino-book author) Howard Zimmerman is now in full bloom. This month, Starlog highlights the blockbuster Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park, adapted from the similarly blockbuster book by the late Michael Crichton.

The film would gross more than $350 million over the course of the next year, and it would spawn two sequels and a zillion imitators, which would fill up an entire year of SyFy Channel programming if played one after the other. It’s why Jim Wynorski can afford to pay his mortgage. (Wynorski even has a film called Piranhaconda, I kid you not.) It would spur an even more important development in the science-fiction film world, for it was the incredibly lifelike dinosaur computer-generated imagery (CGI) that would confirm in George Lucas’ mind the contention that the technology was now mature enough to let him make the Star Wars prequels the way he wanted.

Jurassic’s imitators steadily devolved into Crocosaurus types of things. Death Shark vs. Megasaurus sorts of SyFy schedule-fillers. Sharktopus vs. Squidgod, maybe even. Need I go on? But that should not cloud our minds to the fact that Jurassic Park was an amazing film, not just when it came out but still today. The story is fairly straightforward; the action is exciting; the characters are endearing; but most of all, it was the closest any of us got to seeing a real dinosaur, thanks to the amazing effects. I’m a book-lover first, but there is a visual treat that only films can deliver, and when they do so like Spielberg’s film here, they really earn Hollywood its reputation as a wonder factory.

Starlog #191
84 pages (including covers)
Cover price: $4.95

A curious premium came with this issue. Buyers of Starlog #191 at retail stores purchased a polybagged magazine with a free Star Wars trading card included. Pretty cool. But those of us who were loyal enough to subscribe to the magazine did not receive a free trading card. We just got the magazine itself in the mail. Generally, publishers (to use a horrid word from the world of marketing) incentivize subscriptions, but for whatever reason, Starlog incentivized newsstand buyers, which after all have always made up the overwhelming percentage of its paid circulation.

The rundown: Jurassic Park is featured on the cover, in case you haven’t figured that out so far. And a large photo of Sean Patrick Flanery’s Young Indiana Jones is on the contents page. David McDonnell’s Medialog reports that a seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation will be produced, but word is still out on the (soon to be very short-lived) Space Rangers. Michael McAvennie’s Gamelog reviews Superman from Sega Genesis, LIN’s Spider-Man/X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge (which has one of the most complicated titles in game history), and other superhero-themed games. Letters to the Communications pages include comments about (I know this’ll surprise you) Star Trek, a plea for a stay of execution for Space Rangers, and more, including Mike Fisher’s Creature Profile of the Fly.

In his Videolog column, David Hutchison notes the release of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, which has apparently “lost in the translation” much of creator Winsor McCay’s “dreamlike graphic fantasies,” which sounds like a real shame, because the Little Nemo Sunday comics from the early decades of the 20th century are absolute must-see works of comic art. Nemo is up there with Krazy Kat, Calvin and Hobbes, and very few others in the pantheon of staggeringly perfect comics. Booklog reviews Snow White, Blood Red, Card Sharks, Warstrider, The Gripping Hand, The Hand of Chaos, Rediscovery, Salamandastron, If at Faust You Don’t Succeed, An Earthly Crown, Throy, and Ecstasia. The Fan Network pages includes the convention calendar and the directory of fan clubs and publications, now assembled by Scott Briggs. And in his From the Bridge column, Kerry O’Quinn pays tribute to futurist Buckminster Fuller.

Ian Spelling interviews actor Rene Auberjonois, who portrays the shapeshifting alien Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Craig Chrissinger talks with actress Elizabeth Alexander, who portrays “holographic feminist” Selma on Time Trax. Clearly attempting to rub in the fact that I didn’t get a free trading card with my issue of #191, Bob Maschi provides an overview and select price guide for science fiction trading cards. To inflict further insult, Kyle Counts then examines the Star Wars Galaxy trading cards, assembled by Gary Gerani, who wrote for Starlog in its early years.

Ian Spelling gets the big interview this month: Producer George Lucas talks about his TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Jurassic Park producer Kathleen Kennedy tells writer Bill Warren about the film’s long road to production, including getting all of the much-ballyhooed special effects right. Bill Florence chats with James Schmerer, who wrote the “Survivor” episode of the animated Star Trek in 1973 even though he most definitely doesn’t write animation. Stan Nicholls interviews author Kim Stanley Robinson, who discusses his Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars books, including hearing from an envious Arthur C. Clarke.

Pat Jankiewicz profiles actor Claude Earl Jones, who discusses his roles in T.J. Hooker, M*A*S*H, Quantum Leap, and his interaction with fellow star William Shatner in the miniseries Centennial: “Fight scenes are very carefully choreographed, but even if they are, sometimes people get hurt. ... I would never hurt anybody deliberately, but I laid one on him, right on the nose. He was supposed to be moving out, but I’m a big man and when I hit you, you stay hit.” Jankiewicz also talks to Robert Lewin about his role as a writer/producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation (but he never slugged Shatner). And instead of his usual Liner Notes column, editor David McDonnell turns over two pages to “trading cards” featuring Starlog staffers Scott Briggs, Jim McLernon, David Hutchison, Maureen McTigue, and McDonnell himself. At least I got those trading cards.
“I do have a time line and it all fits together. Ultimately, the entire series [of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles], which is now about 32 hours, although I have 70 hours worth of scripts, all fits together. You could actually go from end to end and it all connects. The shows aren’t being aired that way. They’re being shown randomly, and they’re being shot randomly, too. There’s a whole story there that starts with Indy as a five-year-old, and it carries him from before his trip with his father to after he comes back. Then it takes him to high school. … It goes through all the spy things, then college, and then what happens to him after college. As a whole piece, it’s a lot of fun because you can follow his life, and that’s very interesting.”
–George Lucas, producer, interviewed by Ian Spelling: “Life with Indy”
For more, click on Starlog Internet Archive Project below or visit the Starlog Project's permanent site.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Happened to Star Trek's Holographic Bridge Viewscreen?

There are almost always dramatic changes in storyline and details from a film or television series in its early planning stages to its final airing. But is it possible that any production changed more than the first Trek film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

In the March 1978 issue of Starlog (#12), the magazine tries valiantly to keep up with Trek's rapidly evolving situation. It is a new TV series, then it is to be a feature film, then it is to be a TV series again with its premiere episode released theatrically overseas, then – just before the issue went to press – Paramount announces that it will, in fact, be a feature film, with a possible new series to follow a year later. In three different articles, the reader gets a sense of the madness of what it must have been like to work on that production. Sets were being built, actors hired, scripts written, directors hired – and the studio wasn't even sure if it would all be for a two-hour movie or an ongoing series.

But tucked into all of the reporting on the moving-train that was Star Trek in 1977 and 1978, this issue of Starlog includes an interesting one-page report on some of the updated technology and features of the refitted starship Enterprise.

The article, written by Starlog's resident special effects expert, David Hutchison, is an overview of the ways in which the Enterprise had changed since the 1960s TV series. Some of the changes – such as a sonic shower and the improved instrumentation at work stations – we would see in the final film when it was released in 1979. But in the middle of the article, Hutchison notes something that would have been great to see but which never made it into Trek on any screen:
Though a lot of little viewers have been added [on the bridge], the main view-plate has been removed. Visual communications will be achieved via large 'holographic' projections suspended in the area in front of the captain's chair. Additionally, it will no longer be necessary for officers to come in person to the conference room, but [they] will be able to 'attend' via a 'holographic projection.'
When ST:TMP premiered, of course, we all saw that there was no holographic projection in the conference room or on the bridge. In fact, the bridge had the familiar viewscreen at the front. I don't recall ever learning the reason for this lack of change. It could have been practical concerns over the cost and logistics of creating a holographic image every time Captain (oops, Admiral) Kirk wanted to speak with someone from his captain's chair. Or it could have been a lack of courage, a fear that the holograph would be too unfamiliar and uncomfortable for audiences who presumably would prefer that the bridge crew stare at a big-screen TV to steer the ship.

Whatever the answer, I think an opportunity was lost. As physicist Dr. Michio Kaku has pointed out in his book Physics of the Future, a lot of what Trek creator Gene Roddenberry predicted back in the 1960s about technological advancement in the 23rd century has already been achieved. Tricorders, advanced interactive computers, cell phones, wrist communicators, toupees for the captain. Roddenberry just didn't see how fast technology would proceed in a much shorter period of time. So, though it was correct for Roddenberry to update the Enterprise for a series or movie set a decade after the original series ended, he once again failed to deliver a vision that was far enough ahead.

In his Culture series of far-advanced civilization novels, Iain M. Banks arguably does the best job of extrapolating technological advances and how they would (and wouldn't) affect human behavior and opportunities and politics. But Star Trek has probably been the most accessible vision of the future for people, and it's a shame to see it passed up on some interesting elements of that possible future.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rita Eisenstein, Longtime Starlog/Fangoria Publishing Exec, Passes Away

Sixty-six is too young to die, but that's the age at which Rita Eisenstein fell to cancer. For all of us who grew up on the magazines produced by her and her colleagues at Starlog Group (and the many other names under which that company operated over the years), it is worth noting her sad passing.

Fangoria, the only surviving publication of that once-expansive line of titles, has a nice article on its web site today noting her death and her long career at that company. (The small photo at left is taken from Fango's article.) Former Starlog Group president Norman Jacobs praised her loyalty and hard work, telling Fangoria that Eisenstein was "the mother of the Fangoria Family. The brands owe so much of their lasting impact to her tireless efforts. In terms of friendship and dedication to her job, she was one of a kind."

Eisenstein joined Starlog magazine as a receptionist during its first year of publication back in the late 1970s. She may have begun by answering phones at the company, but she quickly rose up the ranks, handling advertising and other duties and becoming associate publisher and executive vice president.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

San Francisco Guzheng Music Society Annual Concet May 1

Take San Francisco-based guzheng master Weishan Liu, add Shanghai's young virtuoso Liu Le (in photo, above), put them together with some of the Bay Area's most talented guzheng players, and you get a wonderful concert that music lovers shouldn't miss. As an added incentive, Liu Le will be playing the U.S. premieres of no less than four different pieces.

As you can see on the postcard reproduced above, the event is Sunday, May 1, from 3 to 5 pm at the Chinese Culture Center in downtown San Francisco.

For more details, see the San Francisco Guzheng Music Society's web site.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Podcast of Michio Kaku's Commonwealth Club Program

Michio Kaku at The Commonwealth Club of California in Silicon Valley on March 28, 2011. Photo by Ed Ritger.

As readers of this blog know, I had the honor of moderating the March 28, 2011, question-and-answer session with famed physicist Dr. Michio Kaku at The Commonwealth Club in Palo Alto. The podcast of that program is now available. You can listen to the free podcast of this program on the Club's web site, or you can download it from iTunes (click that link or just search iTunes for "commonwealth club").

Kaku was in town to discuss his new book, Physics of the Future, which had just been released a couple weeks earlier and was already on The New York Times best-seller list. He also made some comments about the nuclear crisis in Japan.

This program will air on KQED Radio in the Bay Area on Friday, April 29, at 8:00 p.m. The following couple weeks will see the program airing over The Commonwealth Club's nationwide radio network of about 230 stations. So check your local radio station.

It's a great program. Kaku's not only a very smart man, but he is an excellent and entertaining speaker who can make important and complex scientific concepts and explanations understandable to those of us who are not world-famous physicists.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sincerely Flattered

I was wondering how long it would take for this to happen. My chronicling of each issue of Starlog magazine in my Starlog Project has become the standard resource for people describing issues of that late great science-fiction film/tv/books magazine or looking for which issue included what article. That was my intention.

The latest proof of this status is the listing I stumbled across this morning on eBay's Austrian site, in which someone named "spaceranger2000" listed a copy of Starlog #10 from 1977, and to describe the issue's contents, Herr/Frau/Fraulein (your guess is as good as mine) Spaceranger2000 uses my Starlog Project writeup.

Frankly, I'm rather pleased. I would have preferred attribution, natürlich, but my road to worldwide fame and fortune isn't necessarily a fast highway.

Well, it's not quite imitation; it's really just re-use. But nonetheless I'm flattered.
Read more: The Starlog Project's permanent site, the Starlog Project on my blog, and my similar project with Starlog's short-lived sister magazine Future Life.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monster Brains Showcases Postwar German Science Fiction Covers

Over at the very cool Monster Brains blog, Aeron Alfrey has a gallery of covers from the old postwar German science fiction publications Utopia (which came out in magazine format and in book format over a number of years in the 1950s and 1960s).

The thought that came to my mind while scanning some of the lurid covers was that there were so many of them that featured stories by American writers. Nothing inherently wrong about that, of course. American SF was at one of its peaks during the postwar period, as was aggressive American promotion of its culture around the world.

But it brings to mind something I heard once about Japanese science fiction, in which there is seldom a story by Japanese writers in which it is the Japanese who are leading a spacecraft or a space mission. It was always a united international effort or it was led by another country.

In Germany, the longest-running science-fiction franchise (and perhaps the longest-running SF franchise anywhere in the world) is the pulp series Perry Rhodan, which is still going strong with magazines and books and multimedia (including an oft-promised new film). There's no way I could summarize in one sentence a series that has run for more than 40 years, but here's the pertinent information: It stars an astronaut from Earth who gets in all sorts of adventures in time and space; that hero, Perry Rhodan, is an American astronaut.

If you looked at German science fiction from before the war, you see a different situation, especially if you go back to the fertile time period before the first world war, where German writers such as Kurd Lasswitz were producing some groundbreaking science fiction, such as Two Planets.

On the other hand, the interwar period is kind of a different and difficult situation, at least in print. If you're up for an at-times-academic book on a fascinating subject, I suggest you check out Peter S. Fisher's Fantasy and Politics: Visions of the Future in the Weimar Republic (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), which shows how much interwar German SF was created to serve horrid racial and political revenge fantasies that make Hitler's eventual crimes seem in the spirit of the moment.

Naturally, I think we're all glad that the interwar nightmares of German science fiction are no more. But I do think we're poorer for losing the brave and humane writing of the Lasswitz generation. I for one get sick of Americans leading every space trip, sick of English-speaking people who look like you see them at Wal-Mart being the same ones establishing space colonies or dealing with aliens. Science fiction is a genre that deals with widening people's experiences and minds, and they should certainly be able to deal with a truly mixed cast of characters, or an SF story from a truly Chinese point of view.

These Utopia covers on Monster Brains are from the decade or two right after World War II. But the situation has not changed dramatically today. Unfortunately. The Germans are poorer for the inability to punch its considerable weight in the SF market. American readers are poorer for not getting other viewpoints. And science fiction as a genre is poorer for not living up to its potential.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Folio: 54 Reasons to Be Optimistic about Magazines

Folio: magazine notes that 54 new magazines launched in the first quarter of 2011, "more than double the number (25) of publications that debuted" in the same quarter of 2011.

Read more.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What Happened to Nat Hentoff? And George Gilder? And others?!?

While working on a cool project this winter, I began to search for significant old interviews I had conducted. Sadly, I must report that I ended up empty-handed on some very important interviews that a wiser journalist would have kept safely archived somewhere.

I interviewed legendary writer Nat Hentoff almost two decades ago for an article on pornography. He is brilliant, fearless about saying what he believes is true, so the interview had lots of great stories and comments on America's hypocritical and juvenile attitudes toward pornography. Little of it made it into the final article, and one particularly good story he told me was cut from the article by my editors, but such is the life of journalists.

Around that time, I also interviewed conservative technology futurist George Gilder and, separately, then-Senator Paul Simon (Democrat from Illinois). Gilder gave me some great ideas and expectations for what to expect from the then-new commercial internet. Simon talked about legislation regarding content of entertainment programs.

Around the turn of the century, I kicked off my weekly TVBarn column on science-fiction television by interviewing Kerry O'Quinn, co-founder and former co-publisher of Starlog and its family of magazines. (Oh, and a record producer, events producer, writer, and many other hats, this talented man has worn.) We talked about religion and science fiction, two topics about which I knew he had much to say. The sad thing about any good interview is that many good and interesting parts get "left on the cutting room floor," as they say in the film world, during the course of putting together a final article, which usually is more narrowly focused than the sometimes wider-ranging topics covered in an interview. Such was the case with my chat with Kerry.

All of those interviews – Hentoff, Gilder, Simon, O'Quinn – plus many dozens of others are gone. It's my fault; I saved the notes for a while, but eventually tossed them in one spring cleaning or another, thinking I wouldn't need them again. Now when I want them, as I work on a fun project that was unforeseen and would have been unforeseeable by me a decade or two ago, those interviews are gone. Even the very shortened published versions are gone. And I'm left kicking myself.

The project, by the way, is teased in the image above. That's all I'm saying for now. But more will be revealed on this site in a month or two.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Same Star Wars Photos, Different Magazine Covers

While working on a fun project, I came across some magazine covers featuring Star Wars. The mixture of two of my favorite things – Star Wars and magazines – naturally pleases me, but I was more amused by the ways in which the different magazines sometimes used the same photos on their covers, albeit to different effect.