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Phase Shifting

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, October 1998)
Allen Steele
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Allen M[ulherrin] Steele, Jr. was born January 19, 1958, in Nashville TN. He received a degree in Communications from New England College in New Hampshire and a Master's in Journalism from the University of Missouri, and worked full-time as a journalist in Worcester MA until 1987, when he sold first novel Orbital Decay. He has been married for 11 years to ''my college sweetheart,'' Linda Jacobs. After a 1990 move from New England to St. Louis MO, the pair recently returned to New England. He writes, while she's a disc jockey at WHMP in Northampton MA. ''No kids, three dogs.''

His first story, ''Live From the Mars Hotel'', ran in Asimov's (mid-December 1988). Orbital Decay appeared in 1989. Later novels are Clarke County, Space (1990), Lunar Descent (1991), Labyrinth of Night (1992), The Jericho Iteration (1994), The Tranquillity Alternative (1996), and A King of Infinite Space (1997). His shorter fiction is collected in Rude Astronauts (1992) and All-American Alien Boy (1996), and includes novella The Weight (1995). Steele won the Hugo in 1996 for novella ''The Death of Captain Future''. His 1997 novella ''...Where Angels Fear to Tread'' recently received the 1998 Hugo Award and the Locus Award.

''Lately I took a look at Orbital Decay, which made a big splash when it came out, and is still in print remarkable for a first novel these days! I'm still very proud of it, and it's still one of my favorite novels, but I see it now as the work of a 25-year-old kid. I was in grad school at the University of Missouri when I started it, finished it when I was 28, and it was published when I'd turned 31. It's obviously the work of somebody who was still smoking marijuana and would commonly go to three or four Grateful Dead shows a year. I could not write that book now I'm a 40-year-old man. I couldn't write a sequel either, though there's a lot of people who'd love me to write Orbital Decay 2. If I were to do it, it would be from an extremely different perspective.

''Recently I decided to end the entire 'Near Space' future history I've been writing over these last 10 years. Five novels and 15-odd short stories is enough; let's put it away. The new collection, Sex and Violence in Zero G, is going to include all the 'Near Space' short fiction: the ones that were in Rude Astronauts, plus ''The Death of Captain Future'', and the short novel that was published only in England, The Weight. It will all be arranged in chronological order, and for the first time I'm actually putting in the timeline, so somebody can flip to the appendix and look and see when these stories all occur. It's sort of my answer to Niven's Tales of Known Space, or even Heinlein's Past through Tomorrow.

''The problem with doing this type of future history is that writers fall in love with it too much. The first few works might be great, but then they get into doing ten novels, 15 novels.... And if fans demand that you do the same thing over and over and over again, you end up falling into sort of a vicious cycle. ... So I've decided, let's end on the peak. A King of Infinite Space is the last one.

''I was supposed to write a sequel to King called Year of the Coyote, which would have moved the future history out beyond the solar system. For various publishing and personal reasons, I decided not to do this. But I invested too much research and development into the novel, so I decided to write a spin-off, sort of subset of 'Near Space', as a series of novellas. Perhaps, sometime in the future, I'll take these novellas, link them together, and publish them as a book. But 'Near Space', as a series of stories set in the 21st century within the solar system, is pretty much wrapped up and done with.

''For a long time, I was saying, 'Time travel is really fantasy with rivets. It doesn't work, and I'm a hard-SF kinda guy.' Fellow writer Dan Hatch and I were talking about this, and he said, 'It would be really interesting to see you do a realistic time travel story.' This is one of those situations where you feel like somebody's kind of thrown a gauntlet at your face.

'''...Where Angels Fear to Tread' was originally supposed to be a novel, but the first part, since it would have been set in Germany, would have required me to go there and do some research. I'm not the type of writer who can pick up the encyclopedia and look up stuff. I have to actually go to a place. My wife and I were intending to go, but then we decided we'd rather use that money to move from St. Louis back to New England. The trip to Germany was out, so I decided to take the middle part of the novel and fold it into a novella. Now that the novella has gained a lot of favorable attention, one future project may be to finally expand it out into a novel. Of course, this would require a trip to Germany!

''A novella is not a long short story; it's a shrunk-down novel. I like it because it's very elegant. You can compact a lot of things, and you don't have to worry, 'Gee, I may have to throw in another subplot here to kick this up to 90,000 words.' You can boil it down to its bare essence. I found when I wrote '...Where Angels Fear to Tread' that I didn't actually need to put in the German scenes. I could summarize that stuff pretty well in two or three paragraphs. It would have been nice to have gone to Germany, and that's why I'm still tempted to do this, to visit Berlin and where the old zeppelin works used to be, and to put in all this neat local historical detail.

''Still, I like novellas enough that if I thought I could possibly get away with it, I'd probably never turn out a novel again, just write novellas! I feel like I've been born 30 years too late, in that I should have been writing Ace Doubles. I'd love it if the Double, or something like that, would come back. It's even harder to sell novellas these days, because the magazines have gotten shorter. That's a terrible loss in the science fiction field, to have the novella become a rara avis.

''I have written a couple of screenplays. Unfortunately, neither has been optioned. I adapted Orbital Decay as a screenplay that came within a gnat's whisker of going into production until the finances fell apart. This March I adapted a novelette of mine, 'Goddard's People', into a screenplay which a producer-director friend is shopping around Hollywood. I've got a fragment of a third squirreled away in my computer, and one of these days I'm going to get back to it. I'm not seriously romancing Hollywood, so much as I am copping a quick feel! I'd like to have a one-night stand with Tinseltown, but I don't think I seriously want to get married.

''Lately I've been cramming oceanography to write an undersea novel, Ocean Space. Again, this was an idea which had been kicking around in my mind, to do a realistic near-future undersea novel, and ignore a lot of the conventions of undersea books. You're not going to see any domed undersea cities, any bioengineered mermen, or a nuclear war up above. I've got a sea serpent in there, but there aren't going to be any giant squid! And the sea serpent is my one bow to Arthur C. Clarke, since he wrote the best undersea book The Deep Range. I reread it just to make sure I wasn't doing anything Sir Arthur has already done. But his sea serpent is very different from my serpent, so there's no problem there.

''One of the changes occurring recently is a resurgence of a new traditionalism. We have been, over the last 30 years, doing a lot of different experiments, and there have been a lot of different movements occurring. Much of it has been very interesting, and it has developed the field in very good ways. We've gone through the New Wave, through Postmodernism, we've taken the structure of the novel and the short story and pulled it around like a pretzel, we've stood it on its head and balanced a penguin on its feet, and we've tried all sorts of avant-garde tricks that have impressed some people and been ignored by others.

''And it all has come back to where readers say, 'Well, yes, this is all very interesting, but where's the story? And a number of writers are responding, in different ways, of course. But hard SF seems to be what many people are responding to. It's best suited to this type of thing. The science fiction magazines are beginning to look like Astounding in the mid-'40s and Galaxy in the early '50s. Even Analog is subtly changing.

''I find it fascinating to work in this environment. This is one of the reasons I continue to write short fiction: I feel like I'm writing for Astounding in the '40s under Campbell! We're right in the middle of a second Golden Age. In 20 years or so, there are going to be historians and fans looking back at the 1990s and saying, 'My god, there were giants walking the earth then! Take a look at what was going on in Asimov's! Jesus, there were classic stories in every issue! That's when all these great new writers were out there!'

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.