Interview with Hugo Winning Author Allen Steele

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing two-time Hugo award winning author Allen Steele today! Allen has won numerous awards and nominations for his science fiction stories, novels, and novellas. His novels include ORBITAL DECAY, LUNAR DESCENT, THE JERICHO ITERATION, OCEANSPACE, and the “Coyote” series. His web page is here.

Allen is the Guest of Honor at the 2010 Albacon SF convention (which is next weekend as of this posting). I’ll be there too (but only as a regular ordinary guest)!

Allen,You’re one of the few authors who has been published on another planet. How did that come about?

ALLEN STEELE: A couple of years ago, NASA’s Phoenix lander made it to Mars, and aboard it is a DVD containing a library of science fiction stories and artwork about Mars that was compiled by the Planetary Society. Among them is ‘Live From The Mars Hotel”, my first published story, which was published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1988. The DVD is intended to be a repository for future Mars colonists, and also a tribute to SF writers and artists who’ve portrayed Mars since the 1700’s. It’s a huge honor to have my work represented in this way. In fact, I wrote a story about this that appeared in Asimov’s earlier this year: “The Emperor of Mars”, in the June 2010 issue.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been with small publishers and large. Which do you honestly prefer?

STEELE: Both have their benefits. Large publishers like Ace or HarperCollins pay better and have greater distribution; small publishers like Subterranean and Old Earth give me the advantage of more creative control and also the ability to publish individual novellas and short fiction collections, something which large publishers tend to avoid these days. So I split the difference by having my novels put out by large publishers and my short fiction by small publishers. Any preferences I may have are predicated by what I’m publishing, really.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Should a starting author consider such a thing?

STEELE: Only if they don’t mind not making any money from your work or not having it seen by very many people. Yes, I know there are exceptions, and that online publishing is offering yet another option, but the success stories are few and far between. Nearly every time I go to a SF convention, I see people hawking self-published novels from tables they’ve rented in the dealer’s room, and at best they sell only a handful. Bookstores won’t carry them, and reviewers simply won’t touch `em. There’s literally thousands of self-published novels and stories online, and I’d be amazed if any of them were downloaded more than a few dozen times. And once a book or story has seen print in any form, professional editors are not inclined to reprint them (again, yes, I know there’s exceptions. I can only name one or two, though). So it’s a dead end, and one that a new author should avoid.

VENTRELLA: Hard science fiction seems to be taking a back seat to high fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other genres. Why do you think that is?

STEELE: This last decade, yes, SF has been less visible. Personally, I think the principal reason is that the other genres you mention are almost entirely escapist in nature, and tend to look backward instead of forward, while SF is usually a forward-looking genre, with the best work grappling with the effects of the present while confronting plausible futures. We’re living in scary and uncertain times, so it’s little wonder that many readers are searching for that sort of literature that avoids reality, whether it be ersatz-Tolkien fantasy worlds, sexy vampires, or pseudo-Victorian settings that bear little or no resemblance to history as it actually happened.

But when you look at the history of the SF genre as a whole, you see that SF is something that periodically waxes and wanes in popularity. When my first novel was published in 1989, it was during one of those waning periods. Shortly after that was the SF boom of 90’s when a lot of new writers like myself who write this sort of thing entered the genre, but this followed by the gradual decline of the last decade. Eventually SF will make another comeback. Until then, writers like myself will continue to satisfy that solid, hard-core SF audience that has never gone away, while several hundred fantasy, horror, and steampunk writers struggle to distinguish themselves from the pack.

VENTRELLA: I can think of many SF novels that aren’t that old that didn’t predict cell phones or email, for instance, which makes them a bit quaint. How does one avoid those things?

STEELE: The purpose of science fiction isn’t the prediction of the future. When that happens, it’s by accident (and incidentally, there is an older SF novel that depicts a cell phone: TUNNEL IN THE SKY by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1955). So claiming that a given SF novel is “quaint” because it didn’t predict the future that it depicted means you’re holding it to a double-standard that’s impossible for a writer to keep. When a SF writer comes up with a futuristic scenario, he or she is simply devising a world that doesn’t presently exist and may never; because he or she is extrapolating from our current condition, they should try to create a certain verisimilitude by keeping a close eye on what may be possible. But his or her job isn’t to predict the future, but rather to tell a good, believable story.

VENTRELLA: In a similar vein, LABYRINTH OF NIGHT made use of the “Face on Mars” – is this something you regret or try to avoid now?

STEELE: When I wrote “Red Planet Blues”, the 1989 novella which I later expanded to become LABYRINTH OF NIGHT, the “Face on Mars” was an astronomical oddity that relatively few people knew about. Aside from that single grainy image photographed by the Viking orbiter in 1976, it was a curiosity and nothing more. Our lack of knowledge about it gave me the liberty to use the Face as a springboard for a first-contact story. By the time the novel was published in 1992, though, the Face had become the subject of tabloid journalism and pseudo-science books, and not long after that the Cydonia region of Mars was revisited by subsequent NASA probes, during which the Face disappeared. I don’t regret the novel I wrote — it’s a good adventure story that sold many copies in both the U.S. and in Europe — but it’s now obsolete and I don’t mind that it’s gone out of print.

VENTRELLA: What is it about alternate history novels that appeals to writers and readers?

STEELE: The appeal of alternative history is obvious: depicting what might have happened if certain events had happened in a different way. It’s like futuristic SF, only in reverse. And just as it’s unwise to read a futuristic SF novel as a means of predicting the future, I think that it’s similarly unwise to read an alt-history story as a means of understanding the past. It’s just another form of storytelling, really.

VENTRELLA: What did you do to prepare for your alternate history novels?

STEELE: When I’ve researched the alt-history stories I’ve written, I’ve started by reading every reliable account I can find that depict the particular historical events upon which I’ve basing that particular story or novel. If possible, I visit actual locations; museums are another major resource. I take loads of notes, and during this period I’m fine-tuning the story and characters as well. It’s hard work, but I think it pays off in the sort of verisimilitude that you need to achieve if the reader is going to buy into the variation on history that I’m depicting.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who write SF?

STEELE: The common mistake by novice SF writers is two-fold: not doing enough research, and then letting the research they have done get in the way of their story. Science fiction is hard to write, mainly because of the homework involved — which is a principal reason, I think, why so many new writers have taken to fantasy or horror instead; they’re easier to do — and there’s a great temptation to take shortcuts, but it’s just those sorts of shortcuts that undermine the story you’re creating. The other side of the coin is to do boatloads of research, then front-load everything you’ve learned into the story you’re writing; this can bog things down and cause the reader to lose interest. So you have to walk a line here: do your homework, but don’t bore the class by telling them every little thing that you learned.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

STEELE: I think fiction writing is something that can be learned, yes … but it takes a long time to develop the skills necessary to tell a good story, and it’s a task that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. Not every kid who joins a Little League team is going to grow up to be a pitcher for the Red Sox; not every guy who plays guitar in a garage band is cut out to tour with the Rolling Stones. Somehow, though, there’s a belief that if you know how to spell correctly and can compose a coherent paragraph, you’ve got the chops to publish a novel. Writing is hard work; it’s not something you learn overnight. And, yeah, it helps if you have a certain innate talent for this sort of thing. I once tried to learn how to play guitar, but gave up after two months of weekly classes after my instructor and I came to the realization that I have no musical talent whatsoever. So if you don’t really think you’re a writer … well, you should be honest with yourself and admit that you probably aren’t.

VENTRELLA: What’s the most interesting light bulb moment you’ve had, where you suddenly have an idea that makes the entire story?

STEELE: I had one of those moments just a couple of weeks ago. You’ll forgive me, though, if I don’t describe it in detail; I haven’t written the story yet. It involves an interesting little item I found at my next-door neighbor’s tag sale. Within five minutes of picking it up, I had an entire short story in my head. It’ll be fun … once I get around to writing it.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry? For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

STEELE: No one is really sure how ebooks are going to shape the publishing industry. There’s a lot of projections that they may eventually replace hardcovers or mass-market paperbacks. On the other hand, most readers I know tell me that they still prefer print novels. But I think ebooks are not only here to stay, but also have the potential to completely reshape how — and even what — people read. The take-off point will occur when the price of a good, reliable ebook device drops to about $50. If and when that occurs, you’ll see them all over the place.

Beginning novelists will probably have an easier time adapting to whatever changes there may be, simply because they’ll be able to take advantage of them from the get-go. It’s guys like me, who’ve had long careers writing exclusively for the print medium, who are going to have a tougher time adapting to the new environment. But we’re trying, we’re trying…

VENTRELLA: You’ll be the guest of honor at Albacon this year. What is it about attending conventions appeals to you?

STEELE: I don’t attend as many SF conventions as I used to, mainly because I’d rather spend my time writing. But when I do go to conventions — like MadCon in Madison, Wisconsin, last week, or Albacon in Albany, New York, next week — I generally have a lot of fun in a lot of different ways. I like meeting readers I haven’t met before, or seeing again those whom I’ve already met, or catching up with old friends and colleagues. I’m also a book collector, so you’ll usually find me prowling the dealer’s room in search of items to fill out my collection. And it sometimes gives me a chance to see a town I haven’t visited before, as I did in Madison.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now? Come on, give us a peek!

STEELE: I won’t tell you what I’m currently writing except that to say that it’s a young-adult SF novel, my first of this kind. The next novel to be published is HEX, which is set in the Coyote universe and is my take on the Dyson sphere concept; it’ll be out next June from Ace. As for what I’m going to do after that … I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along.

One Response

  1. Great interview, Michael. I don’t agree with the notion that all fantasy is “escapist” and “looking backward” but that’s all right. Different genres appeal to different readers — and the best thing is there seem to be a lot of them to go around!

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