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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 fiction writer.

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 about.

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 aerodynamic.

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 lunch.

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 it?

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 mentioned earlier.

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 space.

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 finished?

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 complex work.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Allen.

STEELE: And thank you, Darrell.

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