Allen Steele is the author of such novels as Orbital Decay, V.S. Day, and Ocean Space, as well as the eight-volume Coyote series about colonizing a habitable moon in the 47 Ursae Majoris system. His short story collections include Rude Astronauts, The Last Science Fiction Writer, and Sex and Violence in Zero G. He’s also a highly regarded expert on space travel who has testified before the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics. His new novel, which is out now, is called Arkwright.
This interview first appeared in March 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
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Tell us about your new book Arkwright. What’s that about?
Arkwright is a story about a family, the descendants of a science fiction writer of the twentieth century, Nathan Arkwright, and their effort over many generations to build the first starship and launch it to a world twenty-two light-years from Earth. Nathan Arkwright was one of the four great science fiction writers of the twentieth century. There was Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and Nathan, who is fictional, of course. I credit him as being the grandmaster of space opera. He created the Galaxy Patrol series, which the name, right there, is kind of an homage to E. E. Doc Smith. These stories, which first were a series of novels, and then a radio series, and then a TV series, and finally movies, made him a very wealthy man. At the end of his life, he decided to bequeath his fortune to a foundation with the goal of building that first starship. It’s really a story about, not just a long-term effort to build the ship itself, but the family keeping itself together and trying to preserve the old man’s vision. In a way, it’s kind of a story about faith—not religious faith, but faith in ideas.
You mention the story takes place over a long span of time, and so you’ve actually structured it as a series of short stories, each of which jumps ahead into the future.
Right. It begins in 2006, and then it goes back to 1939, where Arkwright meets three other people at the first World’s Science Fiction Convention in New York. The four of them comprise a clique or a club. They call themselves “The Legion of Tomorrow.” And they form the backbone of the Arkwright Foundation. So, the stories that make up Arkwright move forward in time through the twentieth century, into the twenty-first and twenty-second until we finally end in about the twenty-fifth century with the genetically modified descendant of not only Arkwright himself, but also the other people who were involved in building that first starship on this planet many, many light years from Earth.
You mention that the book starts out with the first Worldcon, and kind of goes through the greatest hits of golden age science fiction moments. How did you decide which moments to include in the story?
I’ve always been interested in the history of science fiction. The novel was originally conceived as being about the history of SF, but after a while I came to realize that it would best be told as an SF story itself. One of the most interesting events in SF history is that first 1939 convention, which they called “The World’s Science Fiction Convention,” and when I say “world’s” that’s with an apostrophe S. It was meant to tie into the World’s Fair that was being held in New York that year. It really was kind of a small affair. It was only about a hundred people who showed up, mostly teenage boys. It was held not even in a hotel, but in a Boy Scout caravan hall in Midtown Manhattan. There was kind of a fan feud going on at the time between one clique, the Futurians, who would later include some of the founding fathers of SF, people like Frederik Pohl, and Don Wollheim, and Cyril Kornbluth, and the more conservative New Fandom, which were led by Sam Moskowitz. Which led to the New Fandom trying to lock out the Futurians. That was a pivotal moment in the novel that allowed me to show not only where these guys met, but where they were coming from, that these four major characters weren’t just science fiction fans, but were visionaries.
When I went forward in time, I went to other key events that occurred during SF history, like for instance, the cruise that occurred right before the Apollo 17 launch, when a cruise ship with a lot of key players like Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, and various other people, went and anchored off the Atlantic coast and watched the final Apollo moon ship take off. And then, progress forward into 1989 at the WorldCon in Boston, which, in fact, I was at. That was where I made my professional debut. So sort of carrying these characters forward to there. There was a lot of research, and actually, I think I probably could have written a lot more scenes. I just pulled up stuff that I thought was particularly interesting and would carry the story forward.
Going back to the first World’s Con, this is true, I assume, that Cyril Kornbluth punched Forrest Ackerman?
What I was told was that Cyril Kornbluth liked to punch people in the stomach because it would help them remember who he was. Yeah, that was one thing that I learned that was kind of a weird personality trait. Yep, that happened. The only thing in that part of the story that is made up was that John W. Campbell played in the baseball game that occurred on the last day of the convention. I have no idea whether John Campbell was there. I do know for certain that Ray Bradbury was there, and that he was the scorekeeper. History doesn’t record exactly where Campbell was on that particular day, but I decided that it was too much of a temptation to not have Campbell play baseball and strike out.
Reading about that softball game, you’re just like, “Oh, man, I would like to be there so much.” Also, with the Apollo 17 launch, like you mentioned, I just wanted to read this part here, you say, “Fred and Carol Pohl chatted with Isaac Asimov and his new wife, Janet. Seated at a table beside the pool was an unholy quorum of Art Clarke, Marvin Minsky, and Carl Sagan. Ted Sturgeon was huddled with Analog’s new editor Ben Bova, while former astronaut Ed Mitchell and NBC anchorman Hugh Downs were having a drink and a laugh with Bob and Jenny Heinlein.” That just sounds like one awesome party, right there.
That would have been a great party. I would have loved to have been there. And that’s all drawn from fact. All of those people were on that boat. The odd thing about it was that not too many people went on that trip. It was supposed to be something that they would sell tickets to not just science fiction fans but to space buffs, and so you were supposed to go out on this cruise with all of these luminaries and watch the Apollo launch, and very few tickets were sold. They ended up losing money on that.
I guess that’s an argument against time travel, right? Because if they invent time travel in the future, people are going to want to go back in time and visit.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
One thing that really struck me was when you’re talking about the Futurians versus the New Fandom, where you have these people who want to use science fiction for social progress versus these people who just think it should be about monsters and mad scientists and think that the other people are all communists. You don’t have to change that very much to have it sound like it’s about conflicts going on in science fiction today.
No, you really don’t. It’s really ironic. I wrote that scene before the whole Hugo kerfuffle of this last year happened with the Sad Puppies and so forth, so it wasn’t written in direct reference to that, but it is rather odd and very coincidental that the same arguments are being repeated. And, not only that, but I think most of the people who are involved in all that and had something invested in this were probably completely unconscious of the fact that it does echo the past. History tends to repeat itself.
I understand that you actually stepped on Robert Heinlein’s foot one time?
That was an embarrassing incident. I’ll tell you the story. Yes, I did. When I was eighteen years old, I was at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1976 that happened in Kansas City, MidAmeriCon I. We’ve got MidAmeriCon II coming up later this year. Heinlein was the Guest of Honor. It was almost impossible to meet Heinlein. Whenever he was in public, there was a solid knot of people always around him. There were people, I understand, who literally camped outside of his hotel suite waiting for when he would emerge. He had fan security people always around him, and they were keeping people away, when Heinlein himself, I think, really wanted to meet more people.
After a day or two, I realized that my chances of meeting him were probably impossible, and so I pretty much gave up on it. But, Saturday night of the convention, a party was held in the penthouse suite of the convention hotel, the Muehlebach. It was Kelly Freas’s birthday party, Kelly Freas the illustrator. It was an invitation-only party, and a couple of dear friends of mine from the Nashville Science Fiction Club, both of them no longer with us, Ken and Lou Moore, had been invited, and I begged them to let me tag along. They did, and I sort of snuck in the door with them.
It was an absolutely jam-packed party. It was literally shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back. You could not walk, you could not breathe. I was in there for about ten or fifteen minutes, and I decided that I wasn’t really having a lot of fun, so I began to try to make my way back across the three rooms to the front door. I’d gotten about halfway there when the door opens up, and in walk Robert and Jenny Heinlein. They’d come late to the party. They’d been at the opera that evening.
I’ve never seen anything like this ever again in my life. I mean, the whole party just dropped dead. Everybody stopped talking at once, and just looked and went, “Oh my god.” And Heinlein very graciously just said, “Proceed. We just wanted to stop in and give our birthday greetings to Kelly.” And the party picked up again. So I began considering making my way towards the door, not intending to meet Heinlein at all. I had given up on that idea. But he was heading my way, and I was heading his way, and quite abruptly I found myself quite literally face-to-face with him. I realized, okay, it’s now or never. I said, “Mr. Heinlein, pardon me, my name is Allen Steele, and I’ve been reading your work all of my life. Rocket Ship Galileo was the very first novel I ever read. I’ve read most of your books, and I just wanted to tell you thank you so much for all the hours of pleasure that you’ve given me.” It was something like that. It really came out as much more of a babble than that.
At one point he said, “Excuse me, I can’t quite hear you.” And I had to step a little closer so that he could clearly hear me. He heard me out, and he nodded, and he said, “Thank you very much, young man. I greatly appreciate it. Now, would you kindly get off of my foot.”
And, I looked down, and sure enough, there was my grimy Adidas sneaker standing on top of his perfectly spit-and-polished brogues. Oh god, I felt horrible. I just shrank. I apologized profusely.
The thing about it is that I’ve told this story a number of times, and two people who knew Heinlein personally, who knew him well, one is Jerry Pournelle and the other is Spider Robinson, told me that Heinlein didn’t take crap from anybody. And if he had not been genuinely flattered by what I had to say to him, then he wouldn’t have put up with that for a second. The fact that he was actually willing to put up with physical pain while I spoke to him meant that he must have been complimented, so it made me feel a little better.
Did you save that sneaker?
I should have! I would like to say that something wore off during that.
That might be worth something these days.
Yeah, this sneaker touched Robert Heinlein’s foot. I wish I had something like an autograph or something like that, but I think the story is even better.
Do you think that there’s a big Heinlein influence on Arkwright?
I think so. Of course, I think there’s a Heinlein influence on a lot of what I write. Heinlein was somebody who has influenced everybody. He’s science fiction’s Hemingway. He was the person who changed the rules of the game and altered science fiction forever. Even if you’re not consciously emulating what he’s doing or walking in his shoes, even if you’re completely rejecting it, in some way or another, you’re being influenced by him.
This reminds me a little bit of Time for the Stars and a little bit of Orphans of the Sky toward the end.
That’s very complimentary. Thank you. I was thinking a little more along the lines of “The Man Who Sold the Moon” in the way that this is a story not so much about the trip itself, but the preparation for the trip, about the effort that it takes to go into building the starship. And not to spoil things for anybody who might read the book, but we don’t actually get to the planet until the last quarter of the book, and that’s a very deliberate thing. It’s about the trip. It isn’t about the destination.
I also thought this idea of this wise person who puts a plan in motion to safeguard the human future obviously has echoes of Asimov’s Foundation in it.
Oh yeah. In fact, there’s a scene in there, again without giving things away too much for anybody who might want to read the book, but there’s a scene in Arkwright which is a very deliberate emulation of a very famous scene in Foundation with Hari Seldon.
I was thinking very much about the golden age of science fiction as I was writing this novel, and there’s lots of little things hidden away that readers who know much about SF are going to be able to pick up on.
One thing in the book that’s quite different from the typical golden age science fiction story and from the starships we see in movies and TV shows is the starship itself. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with that?
The novel came out of a conference that I went to a few years ago at the University of California at San Diego called the Starship Century Conference. It was really a unique conference. Greg Benford and his twin brother Jim organized the thing, and they brought together scientists and science fiction writers to sit together on two days of panels and discuss the possibilities of building a starship in this century. They basically threw out the idea that interstellar travel is something that we’ve got to wait until some kind of exotic technology comes available to us in the twenty-third century, and only then can we build the Starship Enterprise. The conference was talking about near term prospects for this.
So, I was a participant, but most of the time I was actually listening, and while I was listening to what other people were saying, I began to see a way of mating this story that I had had in the back of my head for a long time about the history of science fiction to a novel about the building of the first starship. Because one of the things that struck me was the fact that this conference was a clear example of how science and science fiction influence each other. That science, just as much as science fiction writers are looking over the shoulders of scientists for their ideas—that a lot of science and technology is inspired by science fiction. There’s a feedback loop that’s always in place, and it’s been there for quite a long time.
The starship itself was based on ideas that were put forth during this conference by Greg and Jim about microwave propulsion systems, microwave solar sails. And also coupled with Freeman Dyson’s paper that he delivered at the conference where he pointed out that one of the most difficult aspects of interstellar travel is keeping people alive for the journey, and perhaps we should not even bother with that. Perhaps we should send out seed ships, as it were, to use the old-fashioned term for this. We should have DNA instead and have people basically cloned in situ at a planet which could even be transformed to make it into a habitable world. The novel was sort of a synthesis of a lot of different ideas that were thrown out during this time, and so the Galactique, the ship which is built and launched in my novel, came out of that.
Just to give listeners a bit more detail about this ship, it’s kind of this long rod, and it has this solar sail that’s over a hundred miles wide.
Basically, the ship is comprised of four modules that are assembled on the ground and launched by reusable unmanned rockets. They’re assembled in high Earth orbit, and then an additional module contains the solar sail. I keep confusing solar sails. It’s actually a microwave sail, which is in turn pushed by a beam or a microwave satellite which is parked in a Lagrange orbit, so you effectively leave your engine behind. The microwave beam from the satellite propels the craft once the sail is deployed, and you have a boost phase, which lasts—I forget what it was in the novel.
It’s two and a half years.
Until it reaches half of light speed, at which point it has reached cruise velocity, and it continues to its destination.
I think most people think of interstellar planets as being so far away it’s impossible to reach them, but you say in this book, if you could get a ship up to half of light speed, you could get to some realistic prospects for human settlement in a reasonably feasible amount of time.
During this conference it was postulated that the minimum cruise speed that you would need to make something viable would be about twenty percent of light speed. This particular proposal, which Jim Benford and his company Microwave Sciences have come up with for microwave propulsion systems basically has it in theory that you could get a craft up to half the speed of light, and at which point it would be possible to reach a star within about twenty to thirty light years from Earth in about a half century or so.
The planet that they’re going to in this book is Gliese 667C-e. Could you talk a little bit about that?
The planet itself is now only theoretical—the star system exists, the planets have been pretty much ascertained to exist, but that particular one is still kind of controversial, and I mention that in the book. That one may or may not actually exist, but if it exists, it would be in a kind of a Goldilocks position considering it is in orbit around a red dwarf. See, that’s one of the interesting things about the recent discovery of exo-planets, the realization that habitable zones may be a lot more flexible than originally thought. That what is considered to be habitable may not necessarily be the same thing as what we thought years ago, that habitable planets could only exist around G-class suns like our own. You may well be able to have habitable worlds around N-class red dwarfs like Gliese. So I was postulating the idea of a world that would not be like Earth when we get there, but which a probe could terraform, and then once the planet is transformed into something that would be habitable, then you would take the genetic material of your colonists-to-be that are aboard your ship, and then you tinker with them so that you have a race that is suitable for this particular planet. They may not be suitable for life on Earth, but they would be perfectly suitable for that particular planet.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Annalee Newitz, and she had written a book where she had interviewed a bunch of scientists and a bunch of science fiction authors, and all the scientists said, “Oh, we’ll never do genetic engineering on humans,” and all the science fiction authors said, “Of course we will.”
This is one of those things that seems to be a little bit of a disagreement between scientists and science fiction writers. Again, we have to remember something that Arthur C. Clarke said many years ago, and that was that when a respected senior scientist says something is impossible, generally speaking, they usually turn out to be wrong. I think that if the technology is there, it may well be possible that we may do it. We may do it for those particular reasons. I’ve been playing with the idea of genetically modifying people for living in space for a while now, and in fact, the next book that I’ve got coming out, I deal with it quite a bit, and that’s here in our solar system. I think that that’s something that is not only possible, but as we go out into space, and not necessarily to go to interstellar worlds, but going to worlds within our own solar system, it may actually be desirable.
One challenge, too, you mention, of settling these alien worlds is you say that the DNA of its organic molecules may have the wrong chirality.
Right, that would be the showstopper, and there’s no way of determining in advance whether or not your molecules are left-handed or right-handed. So that part of it is going to be a roll of the dice. Without sending probes in advance, which would take a very long time to get the results back to Earth, you’re casting your fate to the wind.
Right, so basically, if they had the wrong chirality, Earth organisms would be poisoned by them.
Exactly. At which point all of your efforts have come to naught. Game over. But I think that’s probably a risk that is not only one we’d have to take, but I think, a risk that a number of people would be willing to take.
Do we have any idea of what the chances are, or is that something that’s impossible to calculate?
Theoretically, it’s fifty/fifty. It may be more or it may be less than that; again, it’s entirely theoretical.
Given that Nathan Arkwright is a fictional character, how are we going to make this happen in real life?
Okay, for one thing, science fiction is about predicting the future, as we know. I wasn’t trying to set out a blueprint for interstellar travel in this; as most SF does, I was performing a thought experiment. Having said this, something like an Arkwright Foundation may be the way to go.
One of the things that has gone wrong in the exploration of space is that we’ve adopted a mindset since the success of the Apollo program that this is the way it should be done. That it’s got to be done by big government agencies, tax payer-supported, and done as crash programs, because that was how Apollo was done and Apollo was successful. I think that the way to go about this is taking the long view. That we should be doing this by public-private endeavors by foundations that are set up to fund the research and development leading to building the craft itself and doing this over very long periods of time. In the book, it takes generations. It’s going to be something that’s going to be very much akin to building cathedrals. That’s an analogy that John Cramer made at the Starship Century Conference, was that starships may be like cathedrals, that they take generations to build. I think that that may well be the way to go with it.
The way that we’re doing it now isn’t getting us anywhere. NASA is grossly underfunded. It’s like .6 percent of the federal budget. The way to think about that is that if you have a dollar, and that represents the entire federal budget, then NASA’s share of that is half of a penny, and that’s the way that it’s been for time immemorial. It’s been stuck at that level for what, twenty or thirty years now? We’re not going to get to the moon, even, with that kind of money. Let alone to Mars. We’ve got to take another approach. Arkwright was sort of a way of suggesting another kind of approach. Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a science fiction writer who’s going to be able to do this. Most SF writers I know don’t make that kind of money. On the other hand, it sure would have been nice to see George Lucas take some of the money that he earned from selling Star Wars to Disney, and he could take some of that four billion dollars and put it into a foundation, and you could call it the Skywalker Foundation, and it would be a great thing.
It’s interesting because you actually say in the book, you mention a scene where Nathan goes back to WorldCon in the ’80s and feels that science fiction fans aren’t interested in space anymore. How much truth do you think there is to that?
It’s unfortunate, but, yes, I think there is. I think that at some point I noticed that there was a turning away from that in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, where people stopped being interested in space exploration. Stopped being interested in science. And in the last decade or so, it really got to be widespread. Science fiction fans kind of went off to happy-Harry-Potter-land of boy wizards and talking dragons and wise old elves and abandoned futuristic thinking. It seems to me it’s swinging back again. There is now a resurgence of interest in a more realistic science fiction. I’m glad to see that. So, those scenes were kind of reflecting on that a bit.
One thing I saw you say related to that, that I thought was really interesting, was that when cyberpunk was really popular in the ’80s, a lot of authors jumped on that bandwagon, and then their careers suffered when the fad ended.
That’s one of the things that can happen, is that SF writers can jump on bandwagons, as you say, and follow a trend, and trends only last for a certain amount of time. You know, cyberpunk was predicting a particular kind of future, and, yeah, well, we got that future, and it lasted for about fifteen minutes, and then we moved on. The idea that we were all going to be living in a world where we were plugging ourselves directly into computers and walking into these virtual reality worlds didn’t really happen the way that it was postulated. Computers became widespread, and my mother knows how to operate a computer. She’s ninety-seven years old. But she’s not a cyberpunk. We got that kind of digital revolution, but it didn’t come the way that the cyberpunks thought it was going to happen.
But, on the other hand, space exploration didn’t happen the way that science fiction writers thought it was going to happen. Science fiction writers are very bad at predicting the future. On the other hand, we’re really quite good at influencing things.
You’ve said that you’ve been to NASA and that ninety percent of the people got into it because they were science fiction fans.
I went to NASA, to the Johnson Space Center, several years ago for a visit. I was there because I was the Guest of Honor at an SF convention, ApolloCon in Houston. A friend of mine who works for a NASA subcontractor arranged for me to have a VIP tour. It was terrific. I got to fly the space shuttle simulator, and I went to mission control and the historical mission control, and I saw the big pool where they practice zero-G training and so forth. The thing that struck me was the youth of most of the people who were working there. Most of the NASA people who I talked to were younger than I am. Most of the median ages seemed to be in the twenties and thirties. Almost every person I talked to told me that they were science fiction fans, and a couple of them told me that they were fans of my work, which is awfully flattering. I think that this is one of those places where science fiction has very much influenced the shape of things that have come around.
I’ve actually seen in some of your bios that you’re almost a consultant sometimes, drawing on your experience as a science fiction writer to help advise government agencies and things like that?
I belong to a group called Sigma, which is comprised of a couple of dozen SF writers who sometimes act as unpaid consultants to the government on matters of national security, and I’ve also been to a defense conference that was held overseas in England. A number of SF writers were brought there some years ago to participate in a three-day think tank on future weapons of mass destruction and things that we should be on the lookout for after the atomic bomb. In the past, I was a consultant with the Space Frontier Foundation, but they put an end to that without telling me, so I no longer do that. Those are the organized things. I think most of my work is really involved in sitting here and writing science fiction novels and stories and putting them out into the world and sometimes they catch fire.
Speaking of national security threats, you talk in the book about climate change and the impact that that’s going to have. A bunch of the cities are flooded in your future, and you say that the world lost over a billion people as a result?
It’s unfortunate, but I think that we’re going to be seeing that, and I think yes, we are going to see a lot of lives lost, and I think we are going to see a lot of loss of property, and entire nations may fall as a result of this. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world. We—“we” being the human race—have a remarkable ability to adapt. We’ve done it many times in the past, and I think that climate change is real. It is coming. But I don’t think it’s going to crush us. If there’s anything that kills us, it’s going to be our own stupidity. And that is the worst enemy. It isn’t the climate. It’s us being real dumb about things. But, on the other hand, again, I’m optimistic enough to think that there’s more smart people in the world than stupid people, and I think in the end, the smart people will rescue us from the stupid people.
You say that space exploration might actually give us the solution to climate change, or at least to surviving it.
I think, for one thing, one near-term solution that I would certainly like to see revived is the idea of solar power satellites. A lot of climate change is a result of our overuse and overreliance on fossil fuels. If we could move large-scale energy production off the planet and into orbit, that would go a long way to solving this in the long run. I’ve written extensively about solar power satellites in the past. My first novel, Orbital Decay, was about this.
I’m a bit disappointed that the future that was forecast in Orbital Decay has not come to pass. That novel was published in 1989, and I had SPS1 being built in orbit in 2016. Obviously that’s not happening. But I don’t think that it’s an idea that can be tossed out either. I think that there is still being some work done in that direction, and I would certainly like to see more being done.
You say as well that there’s a strong potential for lunar helium-3 to be used as a fuel source for fusion reactors.
I’m not sure if there is a strong consensus for that. It is problematic in the fact that it would take a lot of mining and a lot of refinement to get even a small amount to be used. There’s also the fact that fusion seems to be one of these technologies that’s always ten years down the road. It’s “Soon come, mon.” If we could make fusion work, and if we could set up economic lunar mining facilities, then yes, it could be the energy resource of the future, but in the short term, I think SPS may be more viable.
Is there a limited time window for this, where we need to set up some of this near-space infrastructure before global warming swamps us and our natural resources to do some of this stuff starts running out?
I think sooner is better than later. Martin Rees gave us about a fifty percent chance of surviving in this century unless we make some fundamental changes. I certainly hope that Sir Martin is a pessimist, but I’m also afraid that he may be right, that we need to get off our collective dead ass and get up and do something about some of these things. Again, this goes back to the smart people in the world having to save us from the dumb people.
On a lighter note, I wanted to mention this story. In 2001, I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and you were one of the instructors who came and visited, and you told this story about how you got your first short story published that has always stuck with me. I was wondering if you could tell that story?
Well, the first short story published was “Live from the Mars Hotel,” which was in the mid-December 1988 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and I’ll add incidentally that that short story is now on Mars itself. It was included on a disc that contained a whole bunch of science fiction stories and novels about Mars that the Planetary Society put on one of the Mars probes and sent up there. It actually is on Mars now. Anyway, the short story was written after I had sold my first novel, Orbital Decay. I wrote Orbital Decay because I had been trying for years and years to sell short stories and couldn’t get anywhere, so I tried my luck with a novel instead, and the novel was more successful, even though it took much longer to write.
I was at the science fiction convention Boskone 1987. I was having coffee with my editor Ginger Buchanan, who had just told me that Ace wanted to buy the book, and she also told me because they had such a publishing backlog at that moment that it was going to be two years before the book was published. I said, okay, I can live with that.
She said, “You should go out there and write a few short stories and sell them to get your name out there.” I said, “Well, it’s a little easier said than done. The reason why I wrote this novel is that I was unable to sell any stories, so asking me to go out there and casually sell a few short stories . . . that’s really kind of hard to do.”
She said, “It shouldn’t be too hard. Just a moment.” And she raises her hand and said, “Hello, Gardner, would you come over here please?” And who comes walking over but Gardner Dozois, who was then the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and she introduced us. She said, “This is Allen Steele. He’s a wonderful new writer. We’re buying his first novel, Orbital Decay.”
And he said, “Oh, very pleased to meet you.” We shook hands, had a little small talk, and he walked off. I said, “Well, what was that all about?” Ginger said, “What I want you to do is, as soon as you get home from this convention, I want you to write a new short story. Write the best short story that you can, and send it to Gardner, and remind him that you met over the weekend.” So I did. And that short story was “Live from the Mars Hotel.”
Gardner didn’t automatically accept it. He said it was a little long, and I needed to cut it from 10,000 words to 6,000 words. And I did, and then he bought it. That was my first sale. The moral to this story is sometimes it takes a little bit of face-to-face contact to get things done in publishing.
See, I’m always afraid I’m going to step on the editor’s foot or something and it’s going to do more harm than good.
Yeah, you should not emulate what I did with Robert Heinlein, no. And you should always be on your best behavior and so forth. But the fact of the matter is it’s an editor’s fondest wish to discover the best big new talent . . . I mean, that’s what makes editing such a dream job for some people. Everybody wants to discover the next Heinlein, or the next Neil Gaiman, or the next Bruce Sterling, or the next Hugh Howey, or the next Charlie Stross, or whatever. You want to be able to find this brilliant story by a previously unknown writer and put him in your magazine or website or publish their first book. If they meet somebody like that in public, it doesn’t matter too much if they’ve got spinach stuck between their teeth; as long as they don’t make a royal ass out of themselves, they’re willing to forgive a lot.
I’ll give that a shot then.
[Laughter] Well, you should.
There was another line in the book I wanted to ask you about, this part where one of the characters says, “When I let one of my professors at MIT know that I read science fiction, he asked me why I was wasting my time with that trash.”
That actually comes from a point of fact. I had an astronomy professor in college. When I brought my first novel to him and showed it to him, he got very upset, and he said, “Dammit, I thought I was training an astronomer, and you became a science fiction writer instead.” There is sometimes a bit of that, I’m afraid.
Right, because he said that he didn’t think the science in science fiction was accurate enough for him.
I’ve heard that a couple of times in academia. I’ve heard academic science professors profess to hate SF because SF writers make mistakes. Well, yeah, they do, but they should be honest, so do scientists. Nobody is perfect, honestly.
The other thing is that the purpose of science fiction is not to teach science. It’s not really even to explain science. It’s speculation. We’re playing mind games. Expecting absolute, rigorous adherence to scientific facts at all times in a work of science fiction is kind of a mug’s game. There are very, very, very few works of SF that are going to meet that standard. Even some of the best SF writers in the world make mistakes. I’ve spotted errors in the works of people like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. People make mistakes. Sometimes it’s mistakes of convenience. It happens.
I think one thing that’s interesting, though, is it seems like sometimes the science fiction is right and the science is wrong. I remember when I was growing up, I watched Star Wars, and Luke Skywalker is watching the two suns set, and I remember scientists telling me that was impossible for a planet to be orbiting a binary star like that, and that turned out to be right.
No, it turned out to be very possible that we could have planets around binary systems. This is one of the places where the discovery of exoplanets has caused us to rethink our idea of habitability. It was thought that habitable planets would not exist around red dwarves, and now it seems like, yes, they could.
I recently read an old SF novel, The Skylark of Space by E. E. Doc Smith, and I read its original version that was serialized in Amazing in 1928, and it is stated there that in the original version the solar system has eight planets, with Neptune being the one that was farthest away. This was before, of course, the discovery of Pluto. So I got curious about this, and knowing that The Skylark of Space was revised later on, I found the revised version, and yes, it’s stated there that the solar system now has nine planets including Pluto. Now we know that the original version was right all along. The solar system has eight planets and Pluto is a Kuiper Belt object. It’s a minor planet. Sometimes the things that are thought to be wrong are right and vice versa.
One last line I wanted to ask you about is there’s a part where one of the characters thinks back over the classics of literature, and these names include Shakespeare, Poe, Hemingway, Márquez, Clarke, Swanwick, and Le Guin.
I was making a nod to some of my friends.
Do you think though that those are the authors that will be considered the classics in a hundred or two hundred years?
I do. Absolutely. I think that people are still going to be reading Arthur’s, Ursula’s, and Michael’s work. I think those people are going to be stacked right up alongside the great classic writers. One thing, although some of these writers are considered to be popular fiction today, writers that were considered to be classic writers now were popular fiction in their time. Ernest Hemingway wrote best sellers. Raymond Chandler is considered to be a classic novelist now. His work appeared in pulp magazines. You can find stories by writers like Tennessee Williams in Black Mask and other pulps of the 1930s. I think that a lot of SF writers are going to be considered authors of classic literature as we go into the twenty-first century. I honestly hope I’m one of them.
Yeah, I totally agree with that sentiment.
Unfortunately, we’re out of time, so to wrap things up, are there any other books you’re working on or projects you want to mention?
I can tell you that the next novel is going to be called Avengers of the Moon. It is going to be the first new Captain Future novel since 1946. I got the rights from Edmond Hamilton’s estate to reinvent this seminal space opera hero of the pulp era. I had a great deal of fun. It’s very much a different kind of book than Arkwright is. I’m trying to reinvent space opera. So it’s the first novel of a projected trilogy, and as always, I’ve got a number of short stories that are in various different anthologies that will be coming out over the next year.
Great. We’ve been speaking with Allen Steele. His new book is called Arkwright. Allen, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you, David. It’s been a pleasure.
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