I picked up the second issue of former SFX-editor Matt Beilby's new magazine, DeathRay, and I must say I'm more impressed than I expected to be. In fact, as the subject line says, I'm damn impressed. Although I came up through the media magazines myself, I don't read them very often these days. I only picked up DeathRay because it had both an 8 page piece on Michael Moorcock and a 2 page review of Ian McDonald's Brasyl. And to have one issue on hand so I could see what kind of treatment this magazine gives to literary SF&F. Because although prose science fiction and fantasy is the wellspring from which all things flow, it's usually given short shift in film, TV and game-centric glossy publications like this.
So imagine my surprise to find that Matt's review of Ian McDonald's Brasyl, though by no means entirely favorable, displays an awareness of Ian's body of work and the larger SF canon into which if fits well beyond my expectations. The actual writing of the review itself is far better written, more literary and detailed, than I would have thought, and, for that matter, two whole pages is more than I'd expect Ian to get in a magazine where he must share space with the Transformers and killer zombie sheep. That it is the editor-in-chief himself penning these two pages impresses me too. Here's a sample of his analysis, "Ian McDonald has gained quite a reputation as a science fiction writer in recent years - he could broadly be categorised as cyberpunk, sure, but there are other prominent interests here too, notably the impact of rapid technological change (and the social change that follows it) on non-Western countries... I don't think it's perfect, however, and the prose style annoyed me almost as often as it thrilled me. But by God, there are ideas here. And tellingly, I'm still thinking about it days after I finished reading it, a sure sign of a worthwhile book." Yes it is. Meanwhile, a sidebar summarizes five other novels from Ian's backlist. Minor quibble - as the magazine is distributed in B&N's all over America, I do wish they'd let us know they were planning this piece so we could have given them the US cover to run alongside the UK one. (But they do say that Brasyl is "probably the most important science fiction novel of the year so far" on their Table of Contents page. I guess I can quote that, right?)
The Moorcock piece is likewise detailed, in depth and well-written. The interview is roughly four pages, with a sidebar explaining "Michael Moorcock's Multiverse" and a two-page spread called "8 of the Best." My favorite bit from Mike: "Most economists agree that roughly between 1920 and 1970 wealth was spreading more evenly across the classes. Essentially wealth was moving from capital to labour. As a result we were all far more optimistic because we understood, albeit dimly, that we could change the world; that there were more of us able to affect change. By 1970 that power was being grabbed back until, by 1980, those represented by Thatcher and Reagan had put 'monetarism' in place, and if there was every a system designed to put the most wealth in the fewest hands that's it. Even better at preserving power than feudalism was in some ways, because we do get better crumbs from the table than the old peasants did--so we're less likely to revolt--but we're still getting crumbs. We're not getting the power. I think all this is exemplified in the problems of modern democracy, too." This in a magazine called DeathRay.
There are at least another 11 pages devoted to books and authors in this issue, though it's hard for me to be sure, as the magazine mixes its book pieces throughout its 130 pages, rather than consigning them to a section at the back fans of non-dead tree media can easily skip over. And I'm equally impressed by their media bits. In Jes Bickham's review of The Fountain, when discussing the casting changes that necessitated a lower-budget production, he writes, "It's hard to see the original Fountain--the big budget vehicle that was to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette--being as effect as this, the scaled-back version that Aronofsky doggedly got made." The review praises the risk taking of a film that may not quite work but gets points for not dumbing down. (I haven't seen the film yet myself - it's upstairs waiting to be watched - so I don't know if I will share their opinion, but I respect their attitude.)
Meanwhile, an article called "The Best SF Show You'll Never See," written when ABC still hadn't scheduled their Masters of Science Fiction anthology series, speculates that, "maybe the lack of spectacle frightens the network executives. Who would want to watch a show that's talky and clever? Well, quite a lot of us, as it happens." And they lament that, "It'd be a terrible shame to see something so literary and intelligent fall by the wayside." And Red Dwarf co-created Rob Grant even tackles the question of "what is science fiction?" in his piece, "The Eternal Question," though his conclusion is of the "you know it when you see it" variety.
Of course, DeathRay emerges at a time when mainstream media is granting more respect to literary SF and where we've seen a rash of intelligent films and television shows like Children of Men, Serenity, Heroes, certain episodes of Doctor Who, etc... So perhaps it should come as no surprise that a magazine should arise that follows suite. Final analysis: despite the really lamentable title, I think I'll pick up issue three.