Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Allen M. Steele
by Darrell Schweitzer
Allen M. Steele is one of those science fiction writers whose fiction is more often
than not set in outer space or on other planets. His first published novel was
Orbital Decay (1989), which is the beginning of his Near Space or Rude
Astronauts series. He is best known for Coyote: A Novel of Interstellar
Exploration (2002) and its various sequels and companion volumes. He has won
the Hugo Award three times - twice for novella, for "The Death of Captain
Future" (1996) and "Where Angels Fear" (1998) and once for novelette, for "The
Emperor of Mars" (2011). He is originally from Nashville, Tennessee, but
presently lives with his wife Linda in Massachusetts.
SCHWEITZER: Could you give our readers some idea of your background,
where you're from, where you were educated, what you thought you would do
with your life before it was taken over by science fiction?
STEELE: I was born and raised in Nashville, where I spent the first couple of
decades of my life. My education was public school until the seventh grade, when
I went to the first of the two private schools I'd eventually get kicked out of.
Nashville was a very conservative town in the 60s and early 70s, so if you were an
upper middle-class kid in that place and time, it pretty much meant one of two
things: either you'd get with the program and make good grades, go to church
every Sunday, vote Republican, keep your hair short and your lip buttoned up, and
go on to marry a cheerleader and get a job at a bank or an insurance company and
otherwise have a comfortable but dull life . . . or you'd rebel.
I think I began to rebel as early as the fourth grade, but by the time I was in junior
high school it had become pretty serious. If you can name some kind of trouble I'd
either cause or get myself into, chances are I did it. I managed to make it all the
way to the ninth grade in one school before they had enough of me and invited me
not to return for my sophomore year, so my folks shipped me off to the Webb
School, a boarding school in west Tennessee, where I lasted for only six weeks
before I was thrown out. I spent the rest of that school year in a public school
before my father managed to get me reinstated at Webb, this time letting me know
that, if I didn't knock off the Patrick McGoohan act, military academy was going
to be my next stop.
There's a couple of bits of irony there. First, I later compared notes with guys like
me who'd been sent to military academy, and they told me that, once they got past
having to wear a uniform, they had a blast; it was like being given a license to
raise hell, so long as you didn't actually blow up the place. So I might have been
happy there. Second, John Scalzi went to Webb's sister school in California,
where he had a great time. But the Webb School in California was a far more
progressive place than the Webb School in Tennessee, and I had to throttle down
quite a bit.
Anyway, I decided to put up with things I didn't like, telling myself that, if I could
just get through high school, I could leave all this behind and go do what I really
wanted to do with my life . . . which, by then, was become a science fiction writer.
SCHWEITZER: Related to that, when did you realize that your life was going to
be taken over by science fiction?
STEELE: My life was taken over by science fiction as soon as I began reading the
stuff, and that was around the time I started visiting the principal's office on a
daily basis. I'm not going to blame SF for being the root cause of all my bad
behavior, but it certainly was a contributing factor. One of the subtle yet
omnipresent themes of SF is nonconformity, of questioning the beliefs and
attitudes of the world around you and acting upon it. SF can be quite subversive,
really, although it's seldom recognized as such. Anyone who believes that Robert
Heinlein was a conservative writer hasn't read much Heinlein, or very deeply . . .
and just wait until you graduate from Heinlein juveniles to Harlan Ellison!
One of the best things I got from SF, though, was an interest and respect for
science. Tennessee schools in the 60s and 70s were particularly lousy when it
came to science, and that went for the private schools as well as the public
education system. There was even a biology teacher at Webb who was teaching
creationism . . . I spent a weekend raking leaves after I challenged him on his
views of evolution. And one of my best moments was walking out of a Sunday
school class when the teacher tried to tell us that the Book of Genesis was literal
truth. I learned about science from reading Isaac Asimov's column in Fantasy &
Science Fiction, Jerry Pournelle's column in Galaxy, and every issue of Analog
from cover to cover. I really didn't have a formal science education worth
speaking of until I got to college, but in many ways I got a better understanding of
science from the magazines and novels I was reading late at night than the classes
I was dozing through during the day.
And in the meantime, I decided to become a writer . . . very specifically, a science
SCHWEITZER: So, when you were in school, was reading science fiction itself a
form of rebellion? I can't imagine that creationist biology teacher would have had
much use for it. Indeed, the two chief messages of science fiction are inherently
subversive: that the future might have different values and not everything about
the universe and our place in it is known yet. If you believe in a literal
interpretation of Genesis, all has been revealed and there is nothing to speculate
STEELE: I kind of think so, yes . . . although in that place and time, reading
anything for pleasure was uncool, unless it was Playboy or Sports Illustrated.
Very few teenagers I knew read SF or fantasy, and those who did had better sense
than me and left their books at home or in their dorm rooms. I carried my
paperbacks and magazines at all times, so I could read them between classes (and
sometimes during class, in the time-honored tradition of hiding them within my
textbooks). I got a lot of crap for this which I remember to this day, although I got
over it a long time ago. It helped to learn, around the time my first novel was
published and I was making a name for myself as an up-and-coming new writer,
that the big-jock-on-campus who'd call me "Dr. Spock" and ask me how things
were on Mars was pumping gas in a one-stoplight town in Louisiana.
But you're right . . . there's a certain mindset behind pious acceptance of
creationism and the like which says that the universe is unchanging, and it often
manifests itself in an inability to step outside what are considered the accepted
community standards of behavior. SF stands in opposition to this. Sometimes,
though, even kids I knew who were trapped in those roles would find ways to get
out. One guy I knew back then had a fundamentalist mother who wouldn't allow
any books in her house besides the Bible and his school books. He was a SF
reader, though, so he got around it by keeping his paperbacks hidden beneath his
mattress and getting rid of them as soon as he was finished. We'd talk about the
stuff we were reading when we were sure no one else was around. I understand he
grew up to be a preacher, just as his mother intended, and I've also been told that
he's one of my biggest fans. Rebellion can be a quiet thing. I was just a little more
up-front and in-your-face about it than most.
SCHWEITZER: I've read your famous (and Hugo-winning) "The Death of
Captain Future" and this raises two questions, one geeky and silly, the other more
serious. The silly one is why this future nerd/obsessive did not have his precious
20th century pulp magazines de-acidified. You can do that now with a spray from
the Gaylord Company, for about $35 a magazine. It renders the paper PH-neutral
and stops the decay. I am sure this will be even easier to do in the future. His
copies should not be crumbling.
STEELE: Well, if you really want to be persnickety about it, you can also ask
why Bo even bothered to collect pulps in the first place, but instead simply
download them as ebooks the way we can now. The fact that my story was written
in 1995 before this sort of digitalization became widespread isn't an excuse . . .
obviously I failed to predict the future! So that's a reason why "The Death of
Captain Future" is no longer worth reading, isn't it?
I think the tendency of fans to nitpick the stories they read for real or perceived
errors is one of the things which have hampered science fiction. It doesn't really
accomplish anything of practical value, because authors seldom have a chance to
make revisions to published work beyond changing or scratching out a few words
here or there, and it adds to the public perception that SF is the sort of stuff only
read by people who still live in their parents' basement. And more often than not,
the nitpicking is either flat-out wrong -- like an online reader-review for my new
book, V-S Day, which claimed that I didn't have any of the 1940s scientists in that
novel using slide-rulers, when you see them doing exactly that in the very first
chapter -- or carried to absurd lengths. Bob Eggleton told me that he once
overheard a couple of fans at a convention discussing a painting he'd done of a
dragon and criticizing it on the basis that the musculature of its wings wasn't
sufficient to allow it to become airborne. It's a dragon . . . they don't exist!
Fans will say that they're keeping writers on their toes, but I think this is only self-justification for petty behavior. Really, it discourages writers from being specific
in their details. If you know you're going to get hammered for not telling the
reader the exact atmospheric pressure of the planet your characters are visiting,
then why bother with trying to be realistic? Call the place Oz, let them get there in
a hot-air balloon, and shrug if anyone complains that the flying monkeys aren't
SCHWEITZER: The serious question has to do with the story itself. This is what
some critics would call a Late Science Fiction story. It is almost a metafiction. The
characters even discuss science fiction. The story is written with a great awareness
of the past of the field, which was very different than it was for the actual pioneers
like Edmond Hamilton or Jack Williamson, who had very little behind them. I like
the way the characters apply science fiction to their actual lives, i.e. using it to
create a myth of heroism when space travel has become as dull as truck driving.
But isn't this inherently self-limiting, sort of the way late classical Latin poetry got
when it became mostly a matter of references to earlier works? How do you feel
about the inevitable self-awareness of the form that comes with writing science
fiction these days?
STEELE: The major theme of "The Death of Captain Future" is how real heroism
is much different from fictional heroism. Bo is someone who believes that heroism
means recklessly running into a dangerous situation without thought of the
possible consequences of his actions. Rohr, the narrator, is a pragmatist who
knows that the universe is a dangerous place that can kill you if you're careless.
Bo thinks being a hero means emulating Captain Future, and in the end this
dissonance leads him to his death. Rohr survives because he knows better . . . and
in the end, he becomes the hero who saves the day and gets the girl, although it's
Bo who gets the credit.
So, yes, the story is commentary on SF itself. One of the things I find odd about
science fiction -- although there's a lot less of this lately -- is the notion that, in
the future, people will have forgotten that there's ever been any SF. You'll see
first-contact stories, for instance, where no one ever stops and says, "Y'know,
wasn't there a Star Trek episode that dealt with something like this?" In the real
world, you can barely get through the day without someone remarking that such-and-such "looks like science fiction, but it isn't." As many people have noted, we
live in an SFnal world, but SF itself often exists in a cultural vacuum . . . except
perhaps for references to Shakespeare, which everyone seems to have read and is
able to quote at the drop of a hat.
That's been changing in recent years, though. I'm seeing more SF stories where
SF itself becomes a cultural reference. I don't think this is a limitation any more
than it would be, say, for a character in a horror story to mention in passing that
they've read Dracula and how Stoker said that using a wooden stake is the proper
way to dispatch a vampire. Mentioning a previously published story doesn't
necessarily mean that a writer has to limit himself or herself to what was done
before. It's just an acknowledgement that the past does indeed exist, and someone
back then was thinking about the future before it actually happened.
SCHWEITZER: Well I suppose Bo wants the original Captain Future pulps
because they are sacred artifacts to him. He wants them for the look and feel and
even the smell . . . which may be why he didn't get them chemically treated to
prevent their decay. They must have cost him a fortune, particularly if you factor
in the cost of getting them up off the Earth into space.
STEELE: The problem with discussing a story published 19 years ago is that
someone who read it just recently is probably more familiar with the details than
the author. I imagine that Bo wanted the originals because they're valuable, as you
suggest. I have an extensive collection of pulps myself, and although I can read
their stories in the anthologies I have in my library, I prefer the original versions.
It's sort of the poor man's answer to collecting antique cars. Bo is probably the
same way . . . but again, that's something you'd have to infer from the benefit of
hindsight. If digitalization had been commonplace when I wrote "The Death of
Captain Future" in 1995, I might have used that technology instead.
SCHWEITZER: I think you're right that any future we are likely to face from
now on, unless it is a post-holocaust, barbarian one, will have science fiction in it
as a cultural reference. I am reminded of that astronaut they had at the Nebulas
who said, "We went into space because you guys told us to." So what do we say to
the people who say that science fiction is done? There are those who insist it's run
its course. I don't believe this is so, and I doubt you do either. The last time
someone explained to me at length why science fiction was finished and could no
longer be written was in 1983, and Cyberpunk happened the following year.
STEELE: People have been saying that science fiction is dying or dead for as
long as I've been actively involved in the SF field. I remember when people were
claiming that the field was being destroyed by the Perry Rhodan paperbacks Ace
was publishing in the 70s. When my first novel came out in 1989, Star Trek novels
were the killer asteroid which was about to wipe out the genre. Now it's vampire
books and steampunk and military space-opera and whatever other fad that comes
through and sucks all the air out of the room for a while.
Science fiction survives. It outlasts fashions and trends and gluts because there are
always readers who prefer the real thing over the stuff that gets churned out for a
quick buck. One of the reasons why I'm something of a traditionalist and have
been careful to avoid bandwagons is that longevity belongs to those writers who
don't just go where the money is. Cyberpunk was the rage when I entered the field
in the late 80s, and many of the new writers who came in the same time that I did
were doing the c-punk thing. Most of them have vanished, while those of us
who've survived did so because we wrote SF and fantasy of a more durable
variety. Our books may not be bestsellers, but I prefer to have written a novel like
Coyote, which is still in print after 12 years and is now being taught in college SF
classes, to a book that hit the bestseller list for two or three weeks but can now be
found providing insulation for the walls of a used book store.
SCHWEITZER: At the same time, how do we avoid SF getting too in-groupish
and self-referential? Do you see a split into two streams, science fiction for the
mainstream and science fiction for the science fiction audience?
STEELE: As coincidence would have it, I'm currently reading the second volume
of William Patterson's excellent biography of Robert A. Heinlein -- Tor was kind
enough to send me an advance copy before publication -- and there's account of
correspondence that passed between Heinlein and Forrest J. Ackerman. Forry
objected to the stories Heinlein was publishing in the Saturday Evening Post,
saying that they were watered-down SF that weren't like the material Heinlein had
previously written for Astounding, to which Heinlein responded that the
readership of the slicks was much larger than that of the pulps, and his objective
with stories like "The Green Hills of Earth" was to interest general readers in
space travel, not to get them to read more science fiction.
I think history has proven Heinlein right. There are times when SF has been very
in-groupish and insular, and you see that in those periods when the average SF
novel or story can't be understood by anyone who hasn't already read everything
from Aldiss to Zelazny or isn't conversant in singularity theory or quantum
entanglement. Up until a few years ago, that was my chief criticism of the field.
That's changed lately, although not for the best reasons. Fads and trends are
currently dominating what's being published, and I sometimes think that if I see
another novel about an alien invasion of Earth or a dystopian society where
teenagers are having firefights with soldiers in power armor, I'm going to hurl my
It's great when a SF novel hits the literary mainstream and becomes a bestseller.
The genre can't remain the sole province of geeks and fans and still have a healthy
future. The problem is that, because such books are often produced by writers who
have little prior knowledge of the genre, they often deal with subjects that
previous generations of SF authors took on years ago, without much visible
improvement. So the SF bestseller lists are being swamped with retreads of
retreads. The literary frontier is still deep within the genre, with the print and
online magazines -- as always -- providing the unexplored forest beyond the
sunny and well-populated beach.
SCHWEITZER: What intrigues me about your more recent "The Emperor of
Mars" (2010) is that I think you've hit on an interesting, albeit narrow vein here:
science fiction about how science fiction affects the culture of the future. A
difficult trick to pull off, is it not? I don't think anyone else has put any particular
emphasis on this.
STEELE: When I learned that the Planetary Society had persuaded NASA to
place a disk containing a library of Mars stories and artwork aboard the Phoenix
lander, I was so happy that I didn't mind the fact that they hadn't asked my
permission to also include my story "Live from the Mars Hotel" on the
commercial release of that same disk. I was just pleased that my first widely-published story was finding its way to Mars. I'll probably never walk on another
world, but my work will be there, and that's good enough for me.
When I saw the list of stories on the disk, one of the things that jumped out at me
was the fact that most of them came from the pre-space flight era of science
fiction. Along with Bear and Benford and Varley and Steele, there was also Wells
and Burroughs and Weinbaum and Bradbury. And it occurred to me that, if a
future Mars colonist were to ever recover the disk and successfully download its
contents, he or she would probably enjoy Brackett more than Clarke, or Zelazny
more than Robinson, because their stories represented a Mars that didn't look very
much like the place where they were now living. That Mars -- the so called "old
Mars" to use a term recently coined by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
for the anthology for which "The Emperor or Mars" was originally written -- is
the one that's more appealing in many ways, the one which prompted everyone
from Robert H. Goddard onward to want to go there. If I was a morbidly depressed
Mars colonist who was stuck there with no immediate way home, this might
become a fantasy world in which I'd gladly retreat.
So this story is about two things. The obvious one, of course, is how we often use
fiction as a means of dealing with reality, particularly the scary or tragic events
that sometimes happen to us. Anyone who's ever latched onto a book as a way of
dealing with this sort of thing knows exactly what I mean. But the other and more
subtle context of the story is something which intrigues me about science fiction
itself, how it occasionally helps form a creative feedback-loop in which writers
look over the shoulders of scientists to get ideas for stories, and then scientists in
turn gain inspiration from the SF stories they read for their own real-world efforts.
I've seen this in action lately during the recent 100-Year Starship and Starship
Century conferences, where SF writers and scientists have gathered to discuss the
prospects for building interstellar spaceships within the next hundred years. At
these things, there's been very little division between these two different kinds of
visionaries. The series of stories I'm currently writing comes straight from my
notes of presentations delivered by Freeman Dyson and Jim Benford, and the
scientists who spoke there often alluded to SF stories they'd read.
If no one else has written a story about this sort of thing, then I guess I'm a bit
surprised. It seems like such an obvious insight.
SCHWEITZER: The point about "mainstream SF" is that there are lots of books,
like The Postmortal by Drew McGary or Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
which are science fiction by any definition but are not published as science fiction
and may well reach an audience that doesn't ordinarily read science fiction. Is
there still a real difference in technique, or how language is used in such a book?
You wouldn't start a story for a mainstream audience with "The jumpship dropped
out of warp half a parsec from Rigel IV." That would be gibberish to them. But it
would pass without notice in Analog.
STEELE: This is one of those questions where there is no answer that can't be
argued by counter-example. If "mainstream SF" is distinguished by the lack of
technical jargon, then where does that leave, say, Michael Crichton's novels? If
we decide to call it "literary SF" instead and use the same definition, then what do
we do with novels like Gregory Benford's Against Infinity or Gene Wolfe's The
Shadow of the Torturer or Samuel Delany's Nova, which are clearly "literary" in
intent but also use genre techniques? If "mainstream" or "literary" SF doesn't
concern itself with traditional SF subjects like space exploration, then what do we
make of a novel like Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow or much of Doris
Lessing's work? And if we decide that it's simply a matter of publisher labels --
i.e. "mainstream SF is the stuff that isn't being called science fiction" -- then what
happens when we point to books like, on one hand, Fahrenheit 451, which was
originally published as a genre paperback from a genre publisher but has since
become accepted as part of the mainstream canon, or, on the other hand, 1984,
which never was presented as SF but clearly is?
Because there's no clear answer to this, it's one of those things that drives SF
writers, editors, and serious readers completely crazy, and I believe the reason it
does so is the genre's long-standing inferiority complex. Those of us who live and
work in this so-called ghetto have a tendency to look over at the clean streets and
well-manicured lawns of contemporary fiction (aka the "mainstream") and become
jealous of its perceived wealth and success, and get just a little pissed off when
something is published that explores ideas first developed in genre SF but gets
reviewed by The New York Times Sunday Book Review instead of Analog. But I
know quite a few mainstream writers, and their books are usually ignored just as
much as SF novels are. Indeed, the average SF novel is often more successful than
the average mainstream novel.
I had a chance to become a mainstream writer. My writing teacher was Russell
Banks, and the first novel I produced, Play Dirty, was a contemporary novel that I
wrote under his tutelage but went unsold and unpublished. Russ was very
disappointed that I returned to science fiction, a genre he despises, to write my
second novel, Orbital Decay (which, of course, is regarded as my "first" novel),
but I think that, if I'd stuck it out in the mainstream, my career would have lasted
only a few years and eventually I would've become just another writer who'd
published a couple of now-forgotten books before getting a job teaching creative
writing at some community college. Or worse, a middle-aged journalist who'd
now be out of work because of the slow death of the newspaper industry.
Yeah, it's probably a difference of technique. Probably also subject, approach,
depth of characterization, marketing and any of a number of different factors.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to one thing: are readers going to enjoy your
work? If they do, and continue buying and reading over the years, then does it
really matter that you'll never get a MacArthur fellowship?
SCHWEITZER: So let's talk more about Coyote. Is this going to be your Dune?
STEELE: I'm reluctant to have my best-known work compared to one of the
acknowledged classics of the genre. The book has been in print for almost twelve
years, yes, and now it's being taught in college SF classes, but it may be a bit
presumptuous to claim that it's entered the canon. On the other hand, I'm very
complimented by the fact that a number of people have lately been describing it as
"the new Dune."
The thing that's most satisfying about Coyote's success is that, because the book
takes an unconventional form, it was initially rejected by quite a few genre
readers. There were some bad fan reviews for this novel when it first came out. It's
not a linear novel, but instead told as a linked series of stories, with different
narrators, viewpoints, and tenses, sometimes even divergent reiterations of the
same events. Halfway through the novel, I kill off a character who'd been
presented as the main protagonist. All of this was intentional, but it disturbed
readers who are more accustomed to straight-forward narratives with an obvious
hero as the central character. This untraditional approach rattled some people and
they reacted negatively, but in the long run its unconventional nature has given
Coyote some staying power.
SCHWEITZER: Taught on college classes? Do you hear from the students? How
does it feel to be a classic, just like Herman Melville?
STEELE: It would be even more presumptuous to compare Coyote to Moby Dick,
although I believe that, if Melville were alive and well today, he'd probably be
writing science fiction. I know this sounds weird, but when I was taking a college
class in American transcendentalist literature, it occurred to me that what Melville
wrote about was very similar to what SF writers would later be doing: using a
voyage into the unknown to the dark side of human nature. And when my class
visited the historic New Bedford seaport and went to the customs house where
Melville worked, I saw it as an early 19th century analogue to Cape Canaveral.
Bradbury perceived much the same thing, I think, when he wrote "Leviathan '99"
-- an overlooked later work which made me jealous because I didn't do it first.
I've heard from students who've read Coyote as part of their curricula, and a
couple of times I've done guest appearances at schools in the area where the kids
have been reading the book. Interestingly, they often understand the novel better
than some fans have. Maybe it's because they've come to it without a lot of
preconceived notions about what a SF novel ought to be. I don't know. But it was
a strange thing to once visit the off-campus college bookstore that supplies UMass
students with their course reading and find stacks of Coyote on the inventory
shelves alongside textbooks.
SCHWEITZER: About that feedback loop between science and science fiction,
do you usually get your story idea from science (or a scientific presentation), or do
you start with an image or a situation and then start looking around for scientific
stuff to rationalize it?
STEELE: It seems to come all at once as a brainstorm. I'll read something in the
scientific literature, hear a lecture, or watch a documentary, and something just
clicks: a story begins to form in my mind, and with it the major character or
characters. If I've remembered to carry my pocket notebook that day, I'll jot down
a few story notes, and if I'm still playing with the idea after a week or two, I figure
that I may have something there and start doing serious research.
Very often, I'll bounce the story off my wife to see what she thinks of it. Since
Linda doesn't read SF besides mine, her feedback can be a good thing since I'm
trying to appeal to readers who aren't necessarily SF fans. And because she's
pretty good at telling me whether it's a dumb idea or something worth pursuing,
she's saved me from embarrassing myself with stories that shouldn't be written.
But early in my career, Harlan Ellison gave me some advice: a bad idea can
occasionally lead to a good one if you work with it long enough. I once had an
urge to write a sequel to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea until Linda talked me out
of. I still wanted to do an undersea novel, though, because that was what I was
really trying to get at, so the story eventually evolved into Oceanspace.
Overall, the genesis phase is an organic process that I try not to analyze too
deeply. It's the research and development phase that takes a very long time,
sometimes longer than the actual writing itself. The novella I wrote last fall --
"The Legion of Tomorrow," which will be in the July issue of Asimov's -- took
about a decade to move from notes to published form. Coyote had a couple of
false-starts before I got it right. Very seldom do I have a story that comes to me in
such a hot flash that I begin writing it immediately, and I've seldom been happy
with those that have.
SCHWEITZER: I think you're right about Melville. Moby Dick is one of those
non-science fiction books which has had an enormous influence in science fiction,
because it is, thematically, very close to SF. We've had at least two science fiction
sequels, John Kessel's "Another Orphan" and Philip José Farmer's The Wind-Whales of Ishmael. Did it have a science-fictional feel to you when you first read
STEELE: The first time I tried to read Moby Dick, I didn't finish it. On the other
hand, I don't think is a book that should be assigned to kids as school reading. The
second time, though, yes, I had that sort of feeling you can get from a SF novel . . .
but that wasn't until after I visited New Bedford and had that revelation I
A contemporary, non-fiction book about a similar subject that had an even more
profound influence on me than Moby Dick is Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick,
which is about the U.S. Exploratory Expedition of 1820. This was a real-life
science fiction story of sorts: a five-year global sea expedition which, among other
things, resulted in the first landfall on the Antarctic continent, the first mapping of
the Fiji islands, and a collection of rare plants that would later form the basis of
the National Botanical Garden in Washington D.C. The most interesting part of
the story, though, is its commanding officer, a young U.S. Navy lieutenant who
was put in charge of the expedition despite the fact that he didn't have command
rank and was unqualified for the role, but who got the job because his wife's father
was a senator with considerable political clout. His ineptitude cost the expedition
one of its ships and the lives of many crewmen, caused several scientists to jump
ship and make their own way home, and very nearly resulted in mutiny. It was
only the actions of his first officer, a more experienced seaman who should have
been made captain, which saved the expedition from complete failure.
Sea of Glory inspired me to write about much the same sort of situation in
Spindrift, and the book received an incredulous reaction from quite a few readers
and fan reviewers. They couldn't believe that a ship's captain would be so stupid.
In hindsight, I've come to believe that many SF fans have been thoroughly
indoctrinated in the Star Trek notion that captains are always right, the crew is
always loyal, and no one ever makes mistakes. I call this sort of thing "the perfect
people future." But when you study the history of exploration, matters are seldom
so clear-cut and simple. Exploration has often been messy, gut-wrenching, and
very dangerous, and I have little doubt that it'll be the same as we go out into
SCHWEITZER: Other than getting one of your stories placed on Mars, are you
aware of any other impact your fiction has had on real science? Isaac Asimov
could see roboticists following his ideas, but I am not sure how many other SF
writers get to enjoy that experience.
STEELE: Another favorite moment of my career was when I had a friend, a fan
I'd met when he was an engineering student at UMass and who'd since gone on to
work for NASA at the Johnson Space Center, tell me that he'd decided to pursue a
career in the space industry because he'd read Orbital Decay. I've also received a
few letters from other people actively involved with space exploration tell me that
my books have encouraged them to keep at it despite the frustration they've often
felt. This sort of praise makes it all worthwhile. It's told me that I'm working for a
higher purpose than selling books or getting awards.
SCHWEITZER: I suppose what I mean about the Coyote series becoming your
Dune is that it could take over your career. I mean, we all should have this
problem, but the publishers could just keep on saying, "Here's half a million
bucks, write me a book just like the last one," and this goes on and on until they
won't let you do anything else. Do you think you could get to the point where this
is all anybody knows about you, that you're the Coyote guy?
STEELE: Hah! If my publisher were to offer me a half-million dollars to write
anything, let alone a new Coyote novel, I'd gladly do so. People tend to
overestimate by a considerable factor how much writers earn, though. There's only
a small-and-getting-smaller handful of full-time SF writers who earn more than a
middle-class income, and I'm not one of them.
Aside from that, though . . . yes, the success of the Coyote series has threatened to
overshadow everything I've done since then. That includes the three spin-off
novels -- Spindrift, Galaxy Blues, and Hex -- which are set in the same universe,
but only have brief scenes on Coyote itself. Unfortunately, I've learned that,
unless the word "Coyote" appears in the title, the readers who loved the five
novels in the main sequence aren't as interested in them. This has been a
disappointment, particularly since I worked as hard on building Hex -- the Dyson
sphere that's the title world of the novel -- as I did Coyote.
After I finished Coyote Frontier, the third novel of the original trilogy, and was
about to move on with Spindrift, the first of the spin-offs, Ginjer Buchanan, my
editor at Ace, warned me that I might not be able to leave Coyote as easily as I
thought. She told me that Frank Herbert had felt trapped by his own creation; he
was proud of what he'd written since then, but his readers only wanted more Dune
books. Ginjer was right. I'm getting the same thing now. I put a cap on the Coyote
series a few years ago with Coyote Destiny, the fifth novel, but when I've
published an unrelated novel like Apollo's Outcasts or V-S Day, I get letters or
comments to the effect of, "Well, that's nice, but when are you going to write a
new Coyote book?"
I've got some ideas for a sixth Coyote novel and have written down a few notes,
and one day I may bite the bullet and get on with it. But those books were hellishly
difficult to write. They all have an eight-part structure which have two or three
concurrent plots involving large casts of characters, and this octagonal narrative
approach sometimes switches viewpoints and voices. So I refuse to do a new
Coyote book simply for the money. If I find a better reason than that to write a
sixth Coyote novel, I will. But if I don't, then I won't.
SCHWEITZER: I gather you are a "talker," i.e. a writer who can talk about an
idea before writing it. Larry Niven seems to think that if the idea can't start an
argument first, or at least a lively discussion, it is not worth writing. But there are
other writers for whom any talking about the story beforehand will remove the
impulse to write it. I am much closer to that camp myself.
STEELE: It all depends with whom I'm talking. I generally refrain from
discussing works-in-progress in public, such as convention panels, except in the
most general terms. Ditto with readers and most other writers. On the other hand,
I've discovered that it's helpful to be table to talk these things through with people
who are on the same wavelength. The kind of stuff I write is fairly complex on
several levels, and it helps to have someone who can listen to a story that's being
developed and offer advice. Besides Linda, I have a number of close friends --
writers, scientists, fans -- whom I can turn to while I'm in the research and
development phase and discuss things. And in recent years I've begun enlisting
first readers, something I didn't do for a very long time. I had a great first-reader
in my late friend Ace Marchant, who helped me with the later Coyote novels and
the spin-offs, and after he passed away a couple of years ago I replaced him with
Rob Caswell, who also supplied the frontispiece illustrations for Galaxy Blues,
Hex, and Apollo's Outcasts.
But talking through stories isn't something everyone can or should do. If you
don't think you can discuss a work in progress without losing the urge to put it on
paper, then by all means, keep it to yourself. I know writers who wouldn't tell you
the first thing about what they're working on even if you tortured them on the
rack. And I think you need to be careful that you're not boring the person you're
talking to. Before I met Linda, I lost a girlfriend that way. She'd actually get
pissed off when I'd start discussing the great idea I just had for a story. That's
when I found out that listening to a writer talk about his work can be just about as
dull as listening to a golfer talk about his last game.
SCHWEITZER: So, what ideas are intriguing you now? What most excites your
science fictional imagination?
STEELE: For quite a while now, I've been fascinated by the discovery of
exoplanets. This began about fifteen years ago when Marcy and Butler announced
their finding the first handful, including 47 Ursae Majoris-B, the setting of the
Coyote series, and it's continued ever since. What's really amazing about this is
that, in a very short period of time, nearly everything we'd assumed to be true
about solar systems in general and planetary formation in particular has been
thrown in to question, if not out the window. Indeed, much of what I learned in my
college astronomy classes -- which I took along with about a handful of other
science courses to make up for a lousy high-school science education -- has
become obsolete. The universe seems to be a much stranger place than we
believed, and even science fiction writers had no idea just how weird. Well, most
of us, anyway . . . Hal Clement and Larry Niven were way ahead of the curve.
SCHWEITZER: And what are you working on now and what have you just
STEELE: I'm currently working on a story arc I'm calling the Arkwright series,
which is about the first starship from Earth. Although that may sound like a
rewrite of Coyote, it's a stand-alone novel and something else entirely, a
reconsideration of the effort it will take to build and launch a ship to another star.
Like Coyote, I'm writing this as a series of novellas for Asimov's. I've already
mentioned the first story, "The Legion of Tomorrow." The second story, "The
Prodigal Son," will be published sometime later in the year, I've just finished the
third story, "The Long Wait," and after that will be a forth story. Eventually I'll
rewrite interstitial material to bind everything together as a novel, but for now I'm
treating it as a series of stories, which is my way of tricking myself into writing a
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Allen.
STEELE: And thank you, Darrell.