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A Conversation With Allen Steele
Part 1 of an interview with Steven H Silver

Allen Steele
Allen Steele
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

A King of Infinite Space

All-American Alien Boy

The Tranquillity Alternative

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 Ellison's 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 humans.
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 have been more surprised when it was announced that "The Death of Captain Future" won for Best Novella. I went on stage and gave... well, a fairly memorable 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 finished the 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 continues?
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.

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