Starlog Log #7

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As an aside, if you’re looking for a more detailed and ordered history of Starlog’s run, I recommend this site, which goes issue-by-issue and provides a very interesting timeline of how it developed as a publication over time.

SF is a literary genre—the written word is where it began, where it’s purpose and method were developed, and even if visual media has jockeyed itself into being the mainstream face of SF, well, those movies and TV shows still have to steal all their ideas from somewhere. Although it’s much easier to avoid SF in its basal book form now, whole swathes of fandom have ended up going back to the literature for a host of reasons; for example, using the ubiquitous tie-in novel to tide you over until a beloved series returns (if it ever does.) There remains some kind of reverence for written fantasy, going all the way back to the early days of the genre when literature (be it a novel or a short story) was one of the only games in town, and was certainly more consistent in wild imagination (and quality) than the movies and TV shows of the earlier eras—eventually the movies would catch up in terms of what could appear on screen, and there was a transition period where the forerunners of then-modern SF were still venerated and given prime real estate at conventions, because if you liked movies like Star Wars, you still had to thank Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Dick, and way too many others for helping develop what you liked about the genre.

Books were a part of Starlog’s coverage from the start, with authors (and the artists who illustrated their covers) interviewed regularly, even if their bread-and-butter were the then-burgeoning multimedia interpretations of the genre—it was an important part of the whole of the SF universe, and one could reasonably assume that the readers of the magazine were probably readers of the books as well. Still, there wouldn’t be a dedicated book column in the magazine until about the early-to-mid eighties, where you could expect to see almost a dozen short book reviews per issue (and none of them were the aforementioned media tie-ins or novelizations, either)—why suddenly give books that much more space? Well, they did announce around that time that they were expanding to cover the “entire Sci-Fi universe” (which also included fan networking and more real science coverage, as I mentioned before, which had been part of a sister publication called Future Life), and books were simply lumped into the wider cultural scope they wanted to cover. They wanted to make it clear that they weren’t just about movies and television, so the books got a fair amount of coverage, slightly more than the early video games and gadgets at that time, but still maintaining a sort of background importance—SF fans knew that their hobby derived from literature, but by the eighties they also knew that the rest of the media landscape had, in a sense, equaled them, and by that time there were many fans who began with Star Wars and the like as their intro to fandom. The books are respected, for sure, but they would never be the star attraction in the age of the blockbuster.

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Considering how quickly Starlog’s book columns grew, through the eighties to the nineties and the new millennium (outliving their varied opinion columns and many other features), from single paragraph overviews of new releases to slightly longer reviews, that respect never really ebbed. Plus, they were never really want for material in this period—there seemed to be around a dozen or so notable new books published every month, even when they didn’t include non-fiction or spin-off materials. You see a lot of the same names year after year (Ben Bova, CJ Cherryh, Connie Willis, Greg Bear, and the old timers like Frederik Pohl, just to name a few,) a lot of the same concepts, a lot of trilogies or quadrilogies or series with no end in sight—it’s given me the impression that genre book publishing was going through some sort of boom period at the time, where newer writers and veterans in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror could all end up fairly prolific. It could be a bit of confirmation bias on my part, as when I think of rows upon rows of paperbacks with glossy and embossed covers featuring some kind of dragon, space armour, or blood-soaked object, I immediately think of the mid-to-late eighties and nineties, without any concrete explanation—even so, there did seem to be even more SF books being made at the time than before, even compared to the dime store pulp days. An unfathomable mass of words and paper, and a good number of them seem awfully similar, at least at first glance, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the author. Starlog’s reviewers try their darnedest to highlight the good, unique stuff among the morass, but all of these many, many tomes had a tendency to blur together regardless.

With so much to go around, how does any fan really know where to look? One of the things that I feel separates a “true” fan of something is an immunity to the garbage that piles up around a specific type of fiction, a honed sense of what’s been done before and what makes it work or not work, and when it’s actually being done in a skillful manner. If you love space exploration stories, or Tolkien-inspired fantasy, or werewolves, you’ll often go for whatever happens to feature those things—and it’s entirely possible to be both affectionate and intelligent about your particular aesthetic fetish, so you can dig up something interesting out of the most trope-filled nonsense that would drive anyone else with less knowledge up the wall, and also take notice when something truly spellbinding appears. I mean, that is what this site is built around, and it’s a very useful skill to have in the days when all SF ended up lumped together—even if they still are on many a bookstore shelf, there feels like a more explicit demarcation between books with specific aims, whether it be more literary or more traditional pulpy thrills. Hell, in the days when Starlog started their book reviews, the idea of literary SF as something entirely different was still a pipe dream—the good writers and the bad and the middling ones were all part of the same system, and even after reading a paragraph or two trying to tell you which one is which,sometimes the only way to really know is to figure it out on your own.

(I’ve somehow used up my buffer of Starlog Log posts, so there may be a short hiatus before I start it up again. Maybe I can provide something else in the meantime….)

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