Little White Boxes

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I see this over and over again. A couple of years ago, I was able to buy a bunch of Kate Bush CDs for half the price of downloading then (I already had the LPs). Tonight, I spotted YouTube selling the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation — or rather, the temporary ability to download a digital version — for £24.99, whilst eBay can get you a Blu-ray boxset for just £17.98, a saving of more than 28%. I find this insane, but then I live in a house full of stuff rather than a white box with a chair at one end and a hungry screen at the other.

Art for Art’s Sake, Money for God’s Sake

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I’m on the mailing list for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions (it’s a long story) and was slightly taken aback by the latest brochure’s US$3000 estimate for Storm Trooper, a near-lifesize portrait by French artist Thierry Guetta (aka “Mr Brainwash”). Even ignoring the subject’s stature (I was reminded of Leia’s line to Luke in Star Wars: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”), this is pretty run-of-the-mill fan art and not even an original piece (just how limited an edition is this “digital print .. signed in ink on the left arm”?). The auction’s next Monday, but I don’t think I’ll be bidding.

The Cold Equations

Back in the early 1990s, when my friend Martin Tudor and I were publishing the journal Critical Wave, we had an editorial philosophy of helping raise the profile of writers, artists and other creative souls we felt deserving of a wider audience. It has been pointed out on many occasions since that we probably did so to the detriment of our own professional careers, and that we could have used those same contacts to get ourselves a news-stand distribution deal, but I guess our focus was elsewhere. By the time SFX hit the racks in 1995, Martin and I were just a year away from giving our enterprise up as an interesting but expensive experiment (paying Critical Wave‘s debts off only took another five years).

The creative landscape has transformed utterly over the two decades since, and by no stretch of the imagination for the better. Even a shallow trawl of social media reveals vast numbers of would-be novelists, illustrators et al, clamouring for attention and getting drowned out by everyone else. There is an astonishing amount of self-delusion, of course, especially from people who seem to believe adding “author” to their username magically makes them one. I’ve recently been exploring setting up a new magazine, with more formal distribution, but finding a fresh angle is dispiritingly difficult, and the likelihood of financial viability worryingly slim.

Meanwhile, Chrissie Harper and I came up with this cartoon last year, which pretty much summarises our joint misgivings about the current state of affairs…

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UNAmusings

I’m currently reading Professor Theodore Kaczynski’s essay “Industrial Society and Its Future”, originally published simultaneously by the New York Times and Washington Post in September 1995 in return for his ending a 17-year terrorist campaign during which he was dubbed ‘The Unabomber’. Setting those crimes aside (he was apprehended seven months later and is currently serving eight consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole), it’s difficult to fault many of his initial assertions that humanity has been deeply damaged by the growth of global industrialisation and that the physical, emotional and mental health of individual citizens has been repeatedly ignored in favour of perpetuating both the industrial system and the social structures which underpin it. I’m only about 5000 words in (out of 35.000), but it’s a challenging treatise which, if anything, touches upon more raw nerves today than when released into a world still largely free from the vice-like grip of the Internet.

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You can download a PDF of the essay here.

As I Was Saying…

Rather shockingly, it’s been three months since my last confession my most recent posting here, during which time Monsters premiered at Leicester’s third Grindhouse Planet Film Festival and The Forbidden Lady appeared as an extra on Arrow Video’s release of Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Chrissie and I went down to London just before Xmas to meet up with my old friend Norman J Warren (photo below), who’s busy supervising the 2K remastering of his back catalogue, but other than that, neither of us have exactly been caught up in the social whirl. If social media has indeed replaced old-fashioned face-to-face interaction, it’s a rather dull and uninspiring substitute for the energetic pub gatherings and rambling early-hours conversations I used to enjoy so much back in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century.

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Doctor’s (Last?) Orders

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Much has been written about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the new lead in Doctor Who, and no doubt a great deal more will follow the launch of the new season on 7 October.

Personally, I consider it a pity the role hasn’t been played by a woman before, or that the Doctor’s ethnicity hasn’t been adjusted during one of his — sorry, her — previous regenerations. After all, the Third Doctor revealed in his debut episode he’d arrived with a tattoo, and one of Romana’s potential reboots in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ had blue-grey skin, so pigmentation clearly isn’t an issue for Time Lords (a term, incidentally, applied to both sexes during the original series).

No, my disquiet with all the heated hullabaloo over the new season began with the sheer inevitability that the Tardis would have a female pilot, and the smug self-satisfaction exhibited by both the BBC and incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall. His more recent comments about returning Doctor Who to the educational approach laid down by its first producer, Sydney Newman, and nebulous references to ‘diversity’ (an angle reiterated ad ennui in the latest Radio Times coverage) hardly boosted my optimism. Can he be unaware that Newman had to rethink his approach almost immediately, and that most of us do not need a weekly lesson the history of racism, sexism and homophobia?

I certainly wish Ms Whittaker no ill, and hope my concerns are unfounded. It would be unfortunate indeed if the number thirteen proved unlucky for a show which has aired thirty-nine of the past fifty-five years.

Which People’s Princess?

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In the immediate wake of actress Carrie Fisher’s death, I was intrigued to see numerous references to Leia Organa, her iconic character in the original Star Wars trilogy, as some kind of role model for female empowerment. Really?

Leia is a princess — in other words, a feudal title inherited via her adoptive parents (most likely Alderaan’s monarch).
Leia is a senator — most likely a similar inheritance.
Leia has “the Force” — this time, from her birth father.

None of this strikes me as particularly empowering, and her story isn’t exactly inspirational, either. In the first film, she’s an less-than-successful spy who has to be rescued by a (male) family friend, her brother and a guy she subsequently falls in love with. By the third, she’s deliberately walking into a trap to rescue her new boyfriend and ends up dressed as a giant slug’s sex toy, before being whisked to safety by a tribe of feral teddy hears. Feeling motivated yet?

For me, Leia Organa isn’t a patch on, say, the Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley, who has clearly broken through a chauvinist Plexiglas ceiling to become the bolshie warrant officer on a grubby refinery starship (thankfully, we were spared the planned scene where she and Captain Dallas make explicit the sexual relationship only vaguely hinted at in the final version). Everything that Ripley gets, she’s earned, and not simply handed because she’s got a rich family or her dead mom got knocked up by the chief assassin of a sinister cult. Now that’s an empowering role model.

Fear Not

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I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to hear John Gilbert’s attempt to relaunch the horror magazine Fear has been called off after just four issues, especially as I had features in two of those and had hoped to place more in the near future.

That is the second occasion Fear and I have crossed paths. Back in 1991, I was approached by then-publishers Newsfield to become its production manager. The lengthy commute to Ludlow (a round trip of nearly 120 miles) and likely long hours proved too high a hurdle, despite a follow-up approach by John himself. It was a lucky decision: Newsfield went bust a few months later, and it’s likely I’d have joined the list of employees left out of pocket.

This time around, John was reportedly been stiffed by his unnamed backer, who’s failed to cover editorial expenses (which included surprisingly high website fees). He’s talking up the possibility of a further resurrection, but I know from personal experience (nine years co-publishing Critical Wave) how difficult it can be to reach a loyal audience. So many genre magazines spend their time fighting over the same potential readers (just line up the latest issues of SFX, Sci-Fi Now and Geeky Monkey, then try and spot the difference), success is more often than not decided by who’s got the biggest bank balance rather than straight quality. The remarkable longevity of The Dark Side (which I also work for, of course) is a regrettably rare example of a magazine finding a niche and developing a loyal readership; whether Fear can pull off the same trick remains to be seen, but I wish John luck.

By Its Cover

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This has got to be one of the daftest gimmicks currently being used to separate comic fans from their money: ‘variant’ editions which are identical to the standard print run, except that the cover is left blank for commissioned artwork. It wouldn’t be so bad if these were available at the same price, or maybe slightly higher if there are any genuine additional costs involved (economies of scale and the like), but a 138% mark-up? I might ask how stupid these publishers think fans are, but I already know the answer and there’s not a lot of evidence to prove them wrong.

An Old-Fashioned Horror Convention? No Fear.

One of the long-term plans for the Birmingham Horror Group when it launched in December 2015 was for members to host an old-style horror event in the city, as opposed to the soulless, commercially-orientated merchandise and autograph fairs which have proliferated since “geek culture” became fully monetised. After all, what’s the point in hanging out with friends in a pub, discussing old episodes of Doctor Who or your favourite comics, when you can stand in line to pay £45 to be photographed next to John Barrowman (£10 extra if he wears his “Captain Jack” overcoat) or buy five versions of the same superhero reboot with different covers but the same identical Manga-style interior art? In fact, why even hang out with friends in the first place, when there are thousands of “friends” willing to give pretty much any passing comment a ‘like’ on Facebook?

Well, I believed there was still life in the original concept — and boy, does it look as though I was wrong. Running the monthly group has long ago ceased to be the fun it should have been, the erratic turn-out proving most “fans” are now only willing to show up if there’s some kind of gimmick, like a guest speaker or a free screening, and prefer to scurry back to the warm glow of their computer screens as soon as that part’s over. As for the Birmingham FearFest, ticket sales have been embarrassingly lack-lustre, and we’re currently facing the very real likelihood of having to pull the plug on its incubator. It’s been suggested to me that it could simply be postponed until later in the year, allowing a new round of publicity, but I’m not convinced I have a sufficiently deep reservoir of energy or optimism.

A little over thirty years ago,so many people turned up at a Novacon I chaired in Birmingham that we ran out of programme books, and we’d printed more than 500. These days, I find myself quite literally unable to run a party in a brewery. The world has allegedly evolved, but I’m not sure whether I want any part of this latest mutation; it clearly wants no part of me.

Updated 4 May.

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