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Amazing Stories, Summer 1999

Amazing Stories, Summer 1999
Amazing Stories
Amazing Stories was the first publication solely dedicated to the science fiction genre. It was founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback, who is widely acknowledged as the father of science fiction and is the person for whom the prestigious Hugo Award was named. Wizards of the Coast resurrected the magazine to continue the tradition of publishing science fiction short stories and adding short fiction based on the settings and characters in science fiction film and television. Other features include reviews of science fiction books, film, and electronic games.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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So why is someone like me -- who yawned throughout Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, never watched Babylon 5, and even as an adolescent thought Star Trek more often silly than science-fictional -- reading a four-colour glossy magazine that features these media tie-ins? Because the small type on the cover notes the presence of David Brin, Orson Scott Card, and Robert Silverberg, though it curiously fails to mention Kage Baker, for whose story I bought -- that's right no freebie reviewer copy -- the issue in the first place.

Amazing.

That's both the name of the magazine and the nature of the marketing trick it's attempting to execute: provide a little bit for every taste to attract the broadest audience possible, a segment of which perhaps needs its taste broadened a bit.

Of course, Amazing Stories is quite a respected brand name, considered the first SF magazine in English whose legendary original editor back in 1926, Hugo Gernsback, is the namesake for the genre's fan-nominated Hugo awards. Over the years it has gone through a number of ownership and editorial changes. In 1984, Amazing was acquired by TSR Hobbies, developers of the famous role-playing Dungeons and Dragons game, but after various relaunchings was thought to have breathed its last gasp in 1995. But in keeping with the SF tradition that "death is not the end" in reviving the characters of popular franchises, Wizards of the Coast, a hobby game publisher and retail store chain that acquired TSR properties in 1997, has revived the magazine and its last editor, Kim Mohan. It's not surprising then, that there's a good deal of game-related advertising as well as editorial content. What is surprising, though, is that the core of the magazine remains true to the tradition it celebrates.

Indeed, the magazine goes out of its way to note its heraldry, with quotes from stories and reprinted illustrations from classic issues of the 30s and 40s, science fiction's so-called Golden Age. (I wonder if 50 years from now the current issue's Star Wars cover and related content will evoke the same amusing nostalgia, assuming, that is, not only that Amazing will still be around, but around in a paper-based format). Also in the Gernsback tradition are discussions of the scientific ramifications behind the fictional postulations. In a column titled "The Observatory," Brin ponders the ethical questions of new technologies to monitor and control personal behaviour. Elsewhere, James Lowder discusses the negative cultural effects of television's pervasive influence -- an interesting viewpoint for a magazine that clearly courts a TV-based readership.

Actually, if you stop to think about it, Star Wars and all the other media-related SF and Fantasy are extensions, for better or worse, of the very pulp tradition Amazing helped establish. Of course, "pulp" writing is oftentimes synonymous with "hack" writing, and the argument is often raised about why the SF community wants to continue to promote it.

The obvious answer is: because it sells. This is an ongoing discussion (for just one variation see the thread initiated by John Ordover's letters to Locus Online http://www.locusmag.com/1999/Departments/Letters02.html#ordover) that I'm not going to get into here, except to say that many of us who've come to appreciate the literary end of the SF and Fantasy spectrum first got introduced to the genre through pulp authors who were trying to do nothing more than tell an entertaining story (itself no easy task). So I think Amazing is to be commended for conducting an interesting experiment in trying to expand the horizons of media-based SF fans and possibly improve the marketability of less commercial writers.

If readers of media tie-ins might find interesting new fictional worlds to explore, I doubt there's going to be much migration in the opposite direction, as an examination of this issue demonstrates. "Running the Belt" by R.A. Salvatore is just what you'd expect (which isn't necessarily a criticism) in a story about how the children of Han Solo and Princess Leia experience their own coming-of-age trials. For the mature reader, both in terms of age and sophistication, there's nothing remarkable here.

Michael Straczynski, who I gather is the Gene Roddenberry analogue of Babylon 5, contributes a tale called "The Shadow of His Thoughts." This was a little more interesting to my taste, and I can attest to the fact that you don't have to know anything about the series to follow the story, although the character of Londo might resonate more with fans. Still, and perhaps I'm criticizing with foresight here, the story reads like a teleplay. There's an opening dream sequence of ill foreboding, a likeable sort of anti-hero who says sarcastic things to an awkward underling, and a problem that the good guy resolves with a happy ending for all. The only thing missing is coming attractions for the next episode.

Although it's not strictly speaking media related, "A Whisper of Caladian Seas" by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, represents a famous franchise (as the Herbert Unlimited Partnership copyright makes clear) based on Frank Herbert's (Brian's father) Dune series. Dune happens to be one of my wife's favourite books which I read at her insistence some 15 years ago. For whatever reasons, I didn't quite share her enthusiasm, and the details of the novel are a bit hazy, in contrast to other books from as long ago that made a more lasting impression on me. I never read any of the sequels, either, in part because of my wife's opinion that none of them were as good as the original. So my bias here is that I'm not much of a Dune fan. On the other hand, although this particular story makes passing reference to Duke Leto and Paul and the House of Atreides, it doesn't depend on familiarity with the Dune storyline. Indeed, this tale of doomed soldiers who in a manner of speaking escape to choose a more "pleasant" death could have been situated in any fictional reality -- and might as well have been, for any prejudices I might have brought to it.

That said, I think "A Whisper of Caladian Seas" the most successful out of all the "nameplate" stories in this issue. However, I have to wonder if any of them might have been published had they been submitted by unknown writers using other unfamiliar settings. Where they fall short in comparison to the other, mostly more engaging, stories in this issue is total lack of interest in providing anything other than brief entertainment. In contrast, Silverberg, Baker, and Card provoke the reader to ponder the great questions -- the meaning of death and existence itself -- that are always at the centre of the more ambitious works of science fiction (and, for that matter, literature in general).

If the unexamined life isn't worth living, Silverberg's "Travellers" concerns a near-immortal narrator whose extended life-span doesn't help make the examination any more lucid and, indeed, even in the face of death actually in some ways is trivialized. "The Fourth Branch" by Kage Baker is yet another in her series about the Company, a 24th century enterprise that creates cyborgs in past centuries tasked to preserve historical artifacts. If you've been following the storyline, there's a hint of further plot developments that may get spelled out in the next novel (Mendoza in Hollywood, expected publication date in early 2000). And, if you haven't, you can still enjoy this parable about how intellectual discoveries affect faith, with perhaps Baker's personal revelation about how she copes with the ultimately inexplicable questions of meaning.

The theme is continued in Card's "Heal Thyself," which postulates on the less than flattering possible origins of our species and the saving grace of death. I had to re-read this story a couple of times before I sorted out the premise and how the concept of evolution may lead to religious insight. Consequently, this story didn't quite work for me, but that could be because of my own obtuseness. On the other hand, it did make me think.

The two remaining stories don't share such existential contemplation, but have their own distinct charms. While its been done before, Devon Monk manages to blow yet another interesting riff on the nursery tale horn, this time characterizing Peter Peter as a hardened Philip Marlowe-type investigator in the city of "Las Fables" on the case of the Seven Sins who've abducted Snow White. I have to admit being a sucker for this kind of stuff, though I suspect others may have an equally opposite reaction.

"Moondance" by Brian Plante explores how a little workplace flirting can spice up a marriage that has long since decayed into stale routine. But in this case the workplace is a construction site on the Moon in which robots are remotely controlled by humans based on Earth, specifically in Woodbridge, New Jersey, of all places. If, like me, you grew up in the vicinity of this working-class suburb, you'll find this narrative particularly enchanting.

In the lead editorial, "Growing Season," Editor Mohan gives every indication that Amazing is prospering. According to its website (www.wizards.com/amazing), Issue #600, scheduled for January 2000, will be a special anniversary retrospective and is possibly an indication of transitioning from quarterly to bimonthly publication. Although owner Wizards of the Coast has agreed to be acquired by toy giant Hasbro (in part to gain synergies among their respective Pokeman product lines), current management remains in place and presumably the magazine will continue to go forward. So here's hoping for the continuation of an Amazing future.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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