Allen M. Steele's first published SF was his story "Live from the Mars
Hotel", published in Asimov's Science Fiction in 1988.
Since then his novels and collections have included Orbital Decay, Clarke County, Space,
Lunar Descent, Labyrinth of Night,
Rude Astronauts, The Jericho Iteration,
The Tranquillity Alternative and All-American Alien Boy.
Steele, a resident of St. Louis, MO,
received both the 1996 Hugo Award and the 1996 Science Fiction Weekly Reader
Appreciation Award for his novella "The Death of Captain Future," which appeared in Asimov's
in June 1995.
Allen Steele Website
SF Site Review: A King of Infinite Space
SF Site Interview: Allen Steele -- Part 2
At Windycon XXV, Steven H Silver had the chance to sit down with guest of honor Allen Steele and
discuss his books, small presses and winning two Hugo Awards. Allen Steele is the
author of nine novels and two and a half short story collections, the half being the one
which will be published in a couple of months by Meisha Merlin Press called SEX AND
VIOLENCE IN ZERO-G. He specializes in writing stories set in the near future, so far in
near Earth space, although he has gone as far afield as Mars, the asteroid belt and Jupiter.
In your novels and short stories, you indicate you are a fan of Robert A. Heinlein and
Arthur C. Clarke. Your second novel is called CLARKE COUNTY, SPACE in tribute to
Clarke. Are there any other authors or specific books which you feel are seminal works
of science fiction?
Well, the ones that I particularly remember, the ones the really affected
me during that so-called golden age of SF when you are twelve, perhaps as late as
fifteen, are the entire Ace Science Fiction Special series, along with Harlan
DANGEROUS VISIONS and AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS. The problem with a general list of
seminal books is that it changes all the time, and it seems to always reflect
what's been published in the last ten years. You see on the internet the so-called 100 best
science fiction books and it seems like it goes only so far back as NEUROMANCER,
with a couple of older books, like CHILDHOOD'S END. Which bothers me quite a bit
because there were books that were generally influential to the entire history of the field.
I'm not talking about obscure books, I'm talking about novels like THE SPACE
MERCHANTS and I, ROBOT which almost seem to be on the verge of becoming forgotten.
In some ways, I think this is because we have a new readership which has been attracted
by the newer books and they don't really know the older books are out there, but it's also
the fault of the publishers who have not kept these classics in print.
But on the other
hand, because SF is a constantly evolving genre, some things get lost to obscurity.
So is there a seminal list? I think it almost depends on the particular reader in a way.
What they like and what their tastes are. I know what is seminal to me and what I enjoy,
but to someone else, they might have a completely different list.
Do you still read SF in your free time? If so, what current authors are you reading?
When I'm writing a novel, I can't read a novel. I find myself almost
incapable of doing so. So I read principally short fiction, particularly ASIMOV'S and
ANALOG. And right now that really is the cutting edge, I think, in science fiction. A novel in
SF unfortunately has become rather conservative. There are a lot of trilogies and
on-going series, and it's hard to find a book that is not only self-contained, but also strikingly
original. There's two or three novels written in the last year or so that I have read
which I enjoyed a great deal. Joe Haldeman's FOREVER PEACE, Michael Swanwick's
JACK FAUST and Alex Jablokov's DEEPDRIVE... I enjoyed the hell out of those
three. But where I find the most satisfaction is from picking up the magazines and
reading the short fiction. There's a group of authors who have been coming up in the last
decade who are part of the new hard SF group, who are quietly leading the revolution.
They're really re-inventing hard SF. I like to think that I'm one of these guys. I count
among them Stephen Baxter and Paul J. McAuley... those two immediately come to mind, but there's others.
All of your early novels are set in the same universe. You have several short stories
set in the same universe. Do you see that as an on-going place to put stories or do you
think that at some point in the future you are going to close it down?
I've already announced publicly that I'm closing it down. The last story I wrote in
Near Space is the one coming out in the next issue of ASIMOV'S, "The Exile of Evening
Star" (ASIMOV'S, 1/99), which is the sequel to "The Death of Captain Future." And that
tied up the last loose ends as far as I was concerned. I reached a conscious decision to
close down Near Space last year after I attempted to write a sequel to A KING
OF INFINITE SPACE and it fell apart. It really gave me a lot of heartache and
trouble because this book seemed so obvious and almost easy to write, and yet I couldn't
bring myself to go further than fifty pages. It threw me into a block, in fact, for five or
six weeks, which I didn't break until I came to Windycon last year and Saturday night in
the hotel room began writing a completely different short story. I came to the
conclusion that I
had said everything I wanted to say in this particular series. I covered all the thematic
bases, I had done everything I really wanted to do and if I went any further, I would begin
to repeat myself. You really don't want to do that. I think one of the problems with the
on-going series in SF is at some point or another a writer can begin to can repetitious.
The stories may sell well and the publishers may want more, but the readers are probably
getting pretty dissatisfied with a lot of this and thinking "Geez, why didn't he quit
earlier?" It's probably because nobody told the writer to stop. The writer's got to cut
himself off. So I figured that five novels and fifteen short stories were enough. Let's put it away and go somewhere else.
One of your early short stories was "Red Planet Blues," which was later expanded to
form the basis for part of your novel LABYRINTH OF NIGHT. When did you realize
you were going to do an expansion of the story?
That was a very tricky one. "Red Planet Blues" was originally supposed to be a
novel. In fact, it was originally supposed to be my second novel, but I
wrote about a
hundred pages of it and it collapsed. It seems that half the time I start a novel, it collapses
before 100 pages, and that's what happened in this case. So I started writing what was
really my second novel, CLARKE COUNTY, SPACE, yet I still had the idea kicking around
in my head, so at one point, I stopped work on CLARKE COUNTY, SPACE
and wrote "Red Planet Blues" so I could use up the core idea. Several years later, after I
had written not only CLARKE COUNTY, SPACE but also LUNAR DESCENT,
I went back to "Red Planet Blues" and said, "okay, well, maybe we can expand it back
out into a novel again." But the problem I ran into was that some of the
things I had put into the novella had already become dated, chiefly the fact
that in "Red Planet
Blues" there was still a Soviet Union as a major plot plot. So I had to reinvent things
and so forth. I'm not sure the expansion was entirely successful as a result. I
think its a good novel, but I think there are a couple of flaws in it.
In LABYRINTH OF NIGHT, you introduced an extinct alien civilization, but you
never really followed up, in that or subsequent works, with the impact that had on
Another problem I had with LABYRINTH OF NIGHT was the reception of it.
LABYRINTH OF NIGHT had to do with the "face" on Mars. I first got the idea for
using the "face" on Mars as the springboard for a science fiction novel after I read an
article about it in ANALOG that was written by Richard Hoagland. ANALOG is usually
a fairly trustworthy source for science articles, but by the time the novel came
out, the "face" on
Mars had graduated to the pages of the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS. Not only that, but
after the novel came out, I started getting letters from the UFO buffs and pseudo-scientific
types who thought that I had some kind of inside word on this things.
I've had people
come up to me at conventions and they have the "inside dope" on these things. It was all
very X-Files. "Meet me tonight at 10:00 and I'll show you the secret government files on
this." I thought "Oh no. I really don't want to keep going through this." I feel like one
of the problems with LABYRINTH OF NIGHT is that I might have inadvertently fed
something, even though I said at the beginning of the book that I don't really believe
that the "face" on Mars is actually there. I had a lot of people write me e-mail when the
photographs showed that that particular land form had eroded away leaving only a vestige
of what it had been asking if I was disappointed and I thought, no, I'm happy as hell
we've got it settled. It's all done with. Not only that, but there's
no possibility of a
sequel now. So that's why I never went back to it. The cooties themselves, the
aliens, I thought were very interesting and I sort of want to do
something with them,
but you can't do that without approaching the whole Cydonia artifact issue again, and I
really have no desire to do so.
In your fiction in general, you really don't deal with alien life forms. Do you have
any plans to or is that something you aren't interested in?
My instinct as a writer is to zig when everyone else zags. Right now, I think that
aliens are overdone in science fiction. Everyone in the world is doing aliens, both
successfully and unsuccessfully. That's one of the reasons why. It's just an instinctive
thing. I may do
ETs at some point. In fact, I have an interesting race in the back of my mind that I
might do something with very soon. But I'm really principally interested in the human
condition. In particular the human condition on the frontier. If there's only one theme
that runs through my work, it's how people react to strange situations.
Particularly the so-called common man, the ordinary man, and how he would react to living on
Mars or the
bottom of the ocean or a number of different places. That's much more interesting to
me than the rubber-faced alien.
You've now won two Hugo Awards for "...Where Angels Fear to Tread" and "The
Death of Captain Future." At what point did you realize there might be something
special about either one of those works? Was it when you were writing them that you got
the feeling you were doing something different or was it when you got that phone call
saying, "You've been nominated for a Nebula, nominated for a Hugo, nominated for a
Locus." and so forth?
For a while, in the early-mid nineties, I was despairing
because I was getting absolutely no award nominations whatsoever. Every single year,
all my friends were getting nominated. Every single year they were receiving
awards and at best I was getting an honorable mention with the Hugos. I think I was
trying a little too hard to write Hugo-winning stories. It was around '94 or '95 when I said,
"Oh screw it, just write what you want to write. Don't worry about the awards, don't
worry about the critics, just do it." I wrote "The Death of Captain Future," and when
I looked at it, I thought, "Well, this is a solid story, and some people are going to like it, but it's not going
to be an award winner." So I was absolutely, utterly astonished when I got e-mail from
the awards committee telling me that I got two nominations that year.
One was "The
Death of Captain Future" and the other was "The Good Rat." And indeed, I went in to
the Hugo Awards ceremony five months later dressed to lose. I really thought that James
Patrick Kelly was going to take it for "Think Like a Dinosaur" and that Ursula K. Le
Guin was going to take it with "Forgiveness Day." Sure enough, Jim Kelly took it with
"Think Like a Dinosaur."I had even told Jim the day before, "You're going to get it, and
don't worry about it, because I have no hard feelings whatsoever." So I couldn't
more surprised when it was announced that "The Death of
Captain Future" won for Best Novella. I went on stage and gave... well, a
acceptance speech. And that was okay, it was my Hugo and its pretty cool. Now I was
Hugo Award-winning writer, I thought I'd probably never get nominated again.
I'd live Robert
Silverberg's curse of getting one fairly early in his career, then getting
nominated over and
over again over the years and watching other guys take it away. But then, two years
later when it happened
again with "...Where Angels Fear to Tread," it was exactly the same situation. I
novella and thought it was good, strong work, but no award-winner. And it not only took
the Hugo, but I won ASIMOV'S Reader's Poll for the first time with that one. It also received the
LOCUS poll award and was nominated for the Nebulas. So, I think it was a basically a
matter of stopping being self-conscious about my work and getting
over Hugo envy, such as it were.
Now both Hugo winners have five word titles. Is that going to be a trend that
I hadn't even noticed that. Geez, you're right. So in other words, the next
one... (Allen counts the words in the title of his next story).
Well... you're right. I
mean the next novella I have coming out is "The Exile of Evening Star" and that's five
words. Published in ASIMOV'S, too. We'll have to see. I hadn't thought of
that. Holy Smokes, I hadn't realized I had done that.
SF Site Interview: Allen Steele -- Part 2
Copyright © 1998 by Steven H Silver
Steven H. Silver is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award
for Alternate History. He sits on concoms for Windycon, Chicon 2000 and
Clavius in 2001 and is co-chair of Picnicon 1998. Steven will be
serving as the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to
maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website,
Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently
finished his first novel. He lives at home with his wife and 3200
books. He is available for convention panels.