Monday, June 11, 2012

Prometheus Has Landed

After seeing Ridley Scott's film Prometheus this weekend, I'm looking at that large hill behind our house in a whole new way.

Ever since we terraformed this part of the planet, people have been curious about what's inside that mound and whether it poses any danger to us.

Scanners show that it is hollow ...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Simple Ways to Decrease Your Online Vulnerability

Here's a primer for basic common sense online security baselines. From the latest issue of the Marina Times:
Don’t Let Virus Season Get You Down By John Zipperer 
As this issue of Marina Times goes to press, the Middle East is reporting a widespread and sophisticated computer infiltration that has been covertly copying and relaying information from computers in that region and sending the data who-knows-where. It is just the latest reminder of the vulnerability of even heavily protected government and industry computers; in such a world, what chance do you have with your personal hardware and software?

The News, Short and Sweet

I wrote a lot for the current edition of the Marina Times. Here's a media column:
The News, Short and Sweet: One in depth, one in brief
By John Zipperer
Opinion articles about the media are often critical, pointing out everything that is wrong with all or certain media outlets. Here is a corrective. 
There are countless professional news and information outlets available via the Internet. Some are good, a few are great, and many are bad or incompetent. Here are two very different websites that take divergent approaches, and each succeeds in increasing the reach of news and ideas. Newser is arguably the best place to ...

All in the Family

My latest politics article from the Marina Times:
Ross Mirkarimi from happier times
in 2008 (Photo: Brian Kusler)
All in the Family: There Are no Winners in This Fight 
By John Zipperer 
Say the name Ross Mirkarimi, and you are almost guaranteed to get strong and even visceral opinions from just about anyone in San Francisco. Through a combination of his own actions and obstinacy, as well as some heavily socially engineered legislation over the years, San Francisco Sheriff Mirkarimi will continue to be a lightning rod for a long time. In short, he won’t let the story die.

Doyle's Legacy Goes Farther than His Drive

View of Doyle Drive during the April 28
demolition (Photo Courtesy of CalTrans)
My latest article in the Marina Times:
Doyle's Legacy Goes Farther than His Drive 
By John Zipperer 
More than 90,000 people have driven over Doyle Drive daily, yet few are likely to know why the elevated roadway carried that name. There are a number of things in the Bay Area named after Frank Pierce Doyle, but the now-demolished roadway leading to the Golden Gate Bridge was arguably the most apt. Frank Doyle, who passed away on Aug. 5, 1948, was a significant Bay Area figure in the early 20th century, involved in everything from banking to the recovery from the 1906 earthquake. As president of the Exchange Bank,...

Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

Just this morning on the subway ride to work, I was reading an interview in Filmfax magazine with writer/editor Dr. Samuel J. Sackett. Decades ago, he had sent his first story to author Ray Bradbury to get his opinion on it. Bradbury "rewrote the first two pages into one page to condense it and, of course, it was all in his style which was not my style, so I had to rewrite that page as I would have written it," Sackett told the magazine. "But there was one sentence I simply couldn't rewrite because I couldn't think of another way to put it, so there's one sentence by Bradbury in that story. But I don't remember which sentence."

Upon arriving at work, I learned that Ray Bradbury has passed away at the age of 91. As they say, the death of an old man is no tragedy – meaning, as I take it, it's neither a surprise nor too soon. But that doesn't mean it is not an occasion for sadness and happiness; to lose someone who crafted tales of great poetry is a loss and at the same time a reminder that this weird human species is capable of producing someone who can make a martian pulp story into poetry.

I believe Fahrenheit 451 was the first of his books that I read, probably back in junior high school. (I was just making reference to the wall-sized TV screens in a conversation with a friend last week.) Sometime later, I read his epic book The Martian Chronicles, a book that is inescapable as a lodestar for later writers tackling the topic of former civilizations on Mars, just as one can't write about robots without either referencing or being seen to avoid referencing Isaac Asimov's robotic laws.

Bradbury was an unusual genre writer in many ways. Unlike the hard-SF writers or the new wave SF writers, Bradbury's stories were a gentler, more humane sort. It says something good about the science fiction world that his stories were not only read but celebrated within it. I think they will be celebrated for many years to come, and their influence will be sustained, even if later generations "don't remember which sentence" of the continuing narrative about Mars came from Bradbury. He's woven himself too much into the stories.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Another Century: The Starlog Project, Starlog 200, March 1994

Even though publishing 200 editions of a magazine is a huge achievement, it just doesn’t have the same celebratory sense of accomplishment as publishing the first 100. It’s not rational, really; magazine publishing has always been a risky business, so the longer you can keep going, the bigger the achievement.

Nonetheless, Starlog probably didn’t help itself with this special 100-page issue by basically repeating the formula of issue 100: The core of the magazine is made up of short profiles of the “200 most important people” in science fiction and fantasy. Not a bad idea, but after issue 100, not an original one, either. (It's a formula the magazine would repeat in issue #300.) The 200 referenced in that name actually refers to brief recaps of those first 100 people, then longer (though still short) profiles of VIPs 101-200.

Starlog #200
100 pages (including covers)
Cover price: $6.95

So what happened in the years since the company published Starlog 100? Quite a lot, really. The United States went from having basically three commercial broadcast networks plus public television and a smattering of cable to having four commercial networks plus public, lots of cable (including a science-fiction channel all to itself), burgeoning numbers of independent stations, and an expanding international market. All of that means there was greater demand for content, or, in the words of Hollywood money people, “product.” As a result, Starlog and other SF mags had a lot more genre programs (and movies) to write about.

Starlog itself had changed quite a bit over those 100 issues, though not as much as it had from issue 1 through 100. By March 1994, Starlog was still the core of a multi-title magazine publishing company, but many of those sister titles had changed. The page count of Starlog was higher, the cover price higher, the paper quality better, and many of the names on the masthead different – most significantly, arguably, was the departure from the company of co-founder Kerry O’Quinn, who had sold his share of the business and taken on a consultant's role.

The mid-1980s, when Starlog 100 was published, was a time when people weren’t sure where the economy was going. Things were still on an upswing from the brutal early 1980s recession, and that decade saw constant changes and uncertainty. But by the mid-1990s, when #200 was published, Starlog was in the middle of a solid decade of very low inflation (so no constant cover price increases every year or two) and apparently strong circulation and readership.

The rundown: The cover is a shiny standout that probably caught eyes on the newsstand, so in that sense, it might be a success. But as a well-designed cover, it just doesn’t make it; the Starlog logo is hard to see, the photos at the bottom of the cover aren’t the people listed right above the photos who are interviewed inside; and the background really serves no purpose other than to catch the eye – it’s not as if it’s a science-fictiony design. It’s just shiny. As for the contents page, it’s actually kind of cool: a large Frank Frazetta Barsoom painting sprawls over one full page and edges onto the next.

David McDonnell kicks off the celebratory section with an introduction to the 200 most etc., etc., etc. First we get the brief overviews of the first 100 folks; then begins the many, many pages devoted to the second 100 people, which fills up much of the remainder of the magazine, interspersed with a few normal articles (about which more in a moment).

There are some obvious choices on the 100 new additions to this list, of course, but the real pleasure of going through the profiles is finding people about whom you know nothing; never heard of them. For example, before you read the following name, August W. Derleth, had you ever heard of him? Before re-examining this issue, neither had I. But I was pleased to find that he came from my former home state of Wisconsin and was something of a pioneering editor, publisher, and writer. So I immediately began looking for his work and for information about him online. Philip Wylie, Arch Oboler, and John P. Fulton are other names on the list that might have sparked an interest among other readers. Taken together, this list can help enrich your appreciation of the history and breadth of science fiction and fantasy.

There can be an endless but sometimes fun game played with the list of the genre’s most important people. Who deserved to be on the list but was left off? I would add Starlog’s own former columnist David Gerrold, for one. Or you can go negative and ask who was on the list but shouldn’t be.

Such lists are inherently subjective, of course, but if they’re done well, they can burnish the publication’s authority. One of Starlog’s assets through much of its life was its assumed role as a standard-bearer of establishment SF; it helped define important topics, trends, and people. So, even with my basic skepticism about featuring a big list for a second time in Starlog’s every-100-issues tradition, the editors and writers have acquitted themselves well.

In other content this issue, Kerry O’Quinn uses his From the Bridge column to recount a speech he gave to a Mexican university, where he found a lot of Starlog readers. Stan Nicholls interviews longtime Starlog favorite Arthur C. Clarke, who discusses his latest novel, The Hammer of God, and some of his other works, including the Rama books. Bill Warren profiles filmmaker Joe Dante, who talks at length about the craze for remakes (and big-screen reinventions of old TV shows). And Kim Howard Johnson talks with director Terry Gilliam about films – live action and animated.

Marc Shapiro checks in with producer Gale Anne Hurd about Penal Colony, though she also discusses her work on Aliens and the Terminator series. James Mitchell contributes his first Starlog article, an interview with filmmaker Tim Burton; they discuss Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Cabin Boy, and his upcoming Ed Wood, among other projects. Stan Nicholls talks with writer/editor/science-evangelist Ben Bova. And another first-time contributor, J. Stephen Bolhafner, interviews author William Gibson, who talks all things cyberpunk (including his experiences with and about Billy Idol).
“[L]ife was almost wiped out on our planet many times in the past, most recently 65 million years ago, give or take a week. The current thinking is that a large meteor or comet hit the Earth, causing an ecological catastrophe–the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all other species on land, sea and air were destroyed. Now, there are lots of craters on Mars, including one so big it’s not called a crater, it’s the Plain of helos. It’s 1,000 kilometers across. If something that large hit Mars, it might very well have destroyed any life there by blowing away the atmosphere. Whatever it was sent out a shock wave so powerful that it liquified the rock as it went through. Imagine sitting down to tea when THAT happened!”
–Ben Bova, interviewed by Stan Nicholls: “The Promise of Space”
For more, click on Starlog Internet Archive Project below or visit the Starlog Project's permanent site.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Join Lev Grossman and Me in Palo Alto June 18

If you have read Lev Grossman's The Magicians and its sequel, The Magician King, then there's a pretty good chance you will want to join us on Monday, June 18, at the Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto, California. Grossman will be appearing there at our Commonwealth Club program, which begins at 7 p.m. I'll be moderating the event, but I'll be just as interested as you are to hear him talk about these books and his other work.

Grossman is Time's book critic and author of – besides the best-selling Magician books – Codex and Warp.

Get details on the event, and reserve your tickets!

If you haven't read those two books but you enjoy fantasy and science fiction, then I suggest in the next few weeks you buy them and read 'em. The Magicians has been described as "Narnia for adults" and "Hogwarts with sex and drugs," both of which sound a bit more sensationalist than the reality. But they are a fresh take on the fantasy/magic genre, and they deserve to go on your bookshelf next to Potter and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

In the meantime, follow Grossman's blog. He is an open and entertaining writer, not afraid to be incredibly open and honest in his writings (such as his description of how he totally screwed up an interview with J.K. Rowling years ago).

Then come meet Grossman and say hello to me on June 18.