Allen Steele (1958- )


"I was born nearly at the same time as the space agency and at one time I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, so I despise the fact that all of the futures I was promised when I was a kid have eroded."

-- Allen Steele

  Rude Astronauts, Allen Steele's first collection of short stories, opens with a haunting image of our NASA dreams turned sour: "They're drunk and obnoxious, these Right Stuff guys: slapping each other around, making lewd comments to bikini-clad girls who hurriedly walk past them, dropping their shorts to piss in the surf, dancing to rock music crashing out of a ghetto blaster, throwing up, throwing down....a bunch of grown men behaving like frat boys on spring break. For no particular reason, there's a spacesuit helmet lying in the sand next to the beer keg. I think they're using it as a trash can for their Dixie Cups." This image - and much of Steele's best writing - captures the feelings of late baby-boomers who embraced its squeaky clean idealism and larger-than-life heroics, who watched Star Trek reruns alongside Apollo moonlandings, who wanted to believe that all of this would bring about a better future and who are disillusioned by the betrayal of these dreams for militarism and corporate greed.

His "alternative history" series, which begins with "Goddard's People" and "John Harper Wilson," and culminates with his recent novel, The Tranquility Alternative, explores what might have happened to our space program if it had taken shape in the context of the Second World War. Making plausible speculations based on the historical record, drawing on detailed knowledge of the biographies of key American scientists, engineers, military leaders, and politicians, Steele demonstrates the tight fit between politics and space exploration. America's early lead in the space race, which helps them best the Germans and end the war, and the choice to focus on rocketry rather than nuclear weapons as a priority for 1940s government research reshapes the post-war era. He offers the compelling image of "the space suited figure of Neil Armstrong, the first American set foot on Mars during the joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. expedition in 1976, opening an urn and scattering [Robert] Goddard's cremated ashes across the landing site at Utopia Planitia."

The overt military focus of the program becomes the focus of extensive public debate as congressional leaders like John Kennedy and William Proxmire struggle to establish a civilian space program and to combat plans to place nuclear missiles on the moon. However much he rewrites its history, Steele can't seem to find a way that the linkage of expensive technologies, military interests, international conflicts, and scientific naivety doesn't ultimately compromise the high ideals that motivated Goddard and the other early researchers. In "John Harper Wilson," he describes the behind-the-scenes political battles ~ and the act of courage ~ which led the first astronaut who steps foot on lunar soil to claim the moon not for American national interests but for all humanity, only to be relieved of his command during an unexplained gap in the television transmission. In his alternative history, where you stood on the militarization of space becomes the same generational dividing line as where you stood on the Vietnam War.

Steele writes about the space program with a mixture of affection and anger, affection for what the space program could have been, anger for what it was. And what makes him most angry is that what NASA accomplished, good, bad, and indifferent, has now been abandoned and forgotten by the American people. A minor vignette in Orbital Decay, Steele's first novel, features a down-on-the-tooth veteran astronaut, reduced to hawking NASA souvenirs to uninterested bystanders who don't believe him when he announces that "I walked on the moon."
Orbital Decay, as a novel, occupies that uncomfortable space between promises and realities, between idealism and paranoia. Orbital Decay was written in the mid-1980s as an angry response to the Reagan Era's overt militarization of the space program. Like most of Steele's writings, it is set in the near future - 2016 - in a world still strongly linked to the present moment.

The space program, now largely controlled by corporate interests, plans to launch the "Big Ear," a ring of communications satellites encircling the earth, which many believe will introduce an era of improved communications and international fraternity. Unfortunately, the National Security Administration wants to use the "ear" to monitor private telephone conversations, scanning for words or phrases which might indicate anti-governmental activity. As Steele explains:

The Big Ear should have been the instrument which destroyed the global status quo, not the bludgeon which reinforced it. It should have acted as a global switchboard, a ring of satellites that united every city, town, village, and hamlet, making it possible for anyone to trade information with anyone else. National borders rendered obsolete, political ideologies of secondary consideration, even differences in language of a lesser priority. Do-it-yourself world government, established not through a League of Nations, but through the everyday act of picking up the telephone, and dialing New York, Thailand, Japan, The U.S.S.R., Botswana, Brazil, the Aleutian Islands, wherever....But, instead, those who didn't want to have the power of information access spread decided to use the Big Ear to consolidate their own power. They did it, unfortunately, with the blind endorsement of the system's original supporters, just as the architects of the Strategic Defense Initiative managed to shanghai the grass-roots supporters of space development into advocating the &OEligStar Wars' plan. The democracy of one Big Ear plan became the technocracy of another plan by the same name.

The novel centers around a "small group of pot-smoking, fornicating, seditious working-class Joes" who assume "the responsibility of making certain that a dream didn't become corrupted, as so many others in the past had, into yet another Cold War Weapon."

Orbital Decay offers a realistic and plausible picture of the men and women who will build the space colonies ~ working stiffs, construction workers, motorcycle gang members, shrimp boat trawlers, not the astronauts and rocket scientists of traditional hard science fiction. "Take a look at history," Steele writes, "It's always been the misfits, the losers, the weirdos, the people running from the law or the tax collectors or their wives who've started things....The weirdos do it eventually, not the governments or the military, and if they don't like what's going on, they change the rules." The work will be hard, dull, and low-paying. It is going to be sweaty, dirty, and dangerous. Steele doesn't romanticize the people who will take such jobs. They are crude-humored, rough-hewn, often ill-educated, sometimes brutish in their interactions, but they are also honest, open-minded, accepting, and generous, willing to risk their lives for each other and willing to take on their own government if it seems to be selling them out.

 
  Such people have impatience with the platitudes and boosterism of the old space program. The one character in Orbital Decay who still speaks about the "new frontier" is the colony's wacked out commandant, Henry George Wallace, who tells reporters that he will deal with the boredom of space by watching the stars and who Steele portrays as hopelessly out of touch with the experiences of the men under his command. When we last see Wallace, testifying before a congressional hearing about the destruction of "Big Ear," he has "launched into a disjointed, rambling screed about humanity's manifest destiny in the stars and the American spiritual mandate to conquer outer space, which wasn't halted until Wallace was quickly, quietly ushered out into the corridor and allegedly sedated in the men's room."

Space isn't a grand adventure for them; it's a job, and often it's a pretty boring job. Steele offers a vivid picture of their various efforts to deal with the "hurry-up and stop" nature of the work, which is held hostage by the elements and by bureaucratic entanglements. He describes the problems of dealing with a space agency which, despite the Challenger disaster, is still willing to cut corners on safety.

In Orbital Decay, he writes about one two week period when no work could be done:

For the majority of space grunts living on Skycan it was the worst thing Skycorp could have done to them short of ordering Cap'n Wallace to depressurize all the living compartments. As I pointed out before, most of the beamjacks were your basic, Joe Lunchpail construction types, not intellectuals....Their lives had become built around an eight-hour shift of putting together that huge, spaceborne Erector Set, and without it they were lost. They hung around in the rec rooms watching either baseball games or soap operas beamed up from Earth, or fooled around with the six half-grown off-spring of ZeeGee [the cat] or played blackjack or poker or solitaire, with Mr. Big checking in to make sure they weren't disobeying Wallace's edict against gambling. They chased after the few female crew members, and getting nowhere they closed themselves off in their bunks and masturbated. They tried to throw Frisbees on the catwalk, which was both absurd and boring. They went low-gravity jumping in the spokes until one guy sprained his ankle badly, and Doc Felapolous outlawed the sport.....They wrote long, dull letters to their families and friends, many of which were probably never sent. Sometimes you found them just sitting in chairs or lying in their bunks, staring at nothing, thinking about something they didn't want to talk about.

Steele is a keen observer of the place which popular culture consumption plays in their lives. He describes their increased rage against the Muzak which Wallace pumps into every corner of the space station, combated only by the black-market trade in Grateful Dead and Willy Nelson tapes. He discusses their ennui at watching the same Twilight Zone and Star Trek reruns (now decades old) in the ship's library, and describes the relief they find in marathon Monopoly games or playing Dungeons and Dragons. He talks about shuttle pilots debating which tape to play this time as they blast into space on their weekly supply-run to the station. He describes at length the technologies which future sports-fans will use to watch major league ball games:

The Tri-vee tables were ...blessing, nice Mitsubishi systems with stereo sound and overhead TV screens for the close-up shots. A holographic image projected on the tabletop showed the diamond and the outfields as a three-dimensional diorama painted in ghostly translucent light, the players as three-inch images running across the table. With a little imagination, one could imagine himself or herself up in the nosebleed section of Busch Stadium squinting down on the field. We had to keep the cats off the table, because it was so convincing to them that they would bat with their paws at the players on first and third base or go snatching after an outfielder running to intercept a pop fly.

In some of the short stories which are set in the same "near future" universe as Orbital Decay, Steele describes the rise and fall of Mars Hotel, an interplanetary rock band made famous for their re-recordings of Bob Dylan standards, or talks about the "beamjacks"'s attempts to outsmart the William Casey Society (a future retread of the John Birch Society) or smuggle caseloads of beer onto the space station.

Steele's own passion for popular culture surfaces throughout his stories, which are often full of intertextual references to science fiction literary and televisual classics, baseball, Saturday morning cartoons, and 1960s rock'n'roll. Many of his titles, "Mudzilla's Last Stand," "Hunting Wabbit," "Riders in the Sky," "See Rock City," and "Jonathon Livingstone Seaslug," suggest how central references to popular culture is to Steele's fiction. His writing shows a passion for the sometimes lurid tone and language of the lowest forms of popular culture, as in "Mudzilla's Last Stand," which details how future announcers will promote the battle of Mecha-men robots as a working class entertainment on the same order as Monster Truck Rallies.

He is sometimes frightened by the obsessive qualities of our engagement with popular culture, as in "Lost in the Shopping Mall," which describes teenagers who retreat into virtual shopping malls to escape their frustrating family lives, or "2,437 UFOS Over New Hampshire," which imagines a community populated entirely by self-proclaimed survivors of alien encounters. "Doblin's Lecture" offers a chilling response to the public's preoccupation with mass murders, depicting the celebrity appearance of a serial killer at a college campus who has been hired to execute a petty murderer before the shocked and titillated eyes of the attending students.

Yet, he writes with a keen attention to the particular details of popular culture and the varied investments we make in them. Consider his detailed account of the detective search for the missing girl in the virtual mall in "Lost in the Shopping Mall":

The trick was in thinking like a teenager, so he ignored the more upscale and conservative clothiers and the places that offered fine-art reproductions and household gadgets. He passed the Museum Store and L.L. Bean and Bausch & Lomb, because there was little in them that would catch the fancy of a fifteen-year-old girl. ... She knew computers and high-end electronics, so he visited Radio Shack and Babbages. She was into photography, so he went to places that sold cameras. So on through the mall, until he covered dozens of stores that carried all those items, randomly hitting places like Walgreen's and Spencer's Gifts on the odd chance that she might wander into them....She liked to read, so he went into every bookstore he found ~ Waldenbooks, B. Dalton's, Borders.

Steele counts on our own familiarity with consumer culture to flesh out his image of the ultimate shopping mall, just as the other virtual worlds in the story depend upon our familiarity with the cliches of science fiction and fantasy: "Gary in Houston, crouched on a mountain of gold in Smaug's underground lair, lost in a Tolkien fantasy. Crissy in Minneapolis, standing at the edge of an improbably high cliff on Ganymede, entranced by the vision of Jupiter rising above the icy horizon."

 
  IIn his introduction to Rude Astronauts, Steele suggests that his stories are often inspired by places he has lived. He is, in some senses, a "local color" science fiction writer, one who helps us to imagine what the future might look like in places like Ringe, NH, St. Louis, Mo., or Nashville, Tenn. He writes from a space far removed from the centers of culture, money, or power, he writes from a vantage point in middle-class suburbia or rust-belt working class neighborhoods, and it's from this "grassroots" vantage point that he invites us to take a fresh look at the ideals and promises of the space program and of consumer culture more generally.

Steele also writes about people on the very bottom of the social hierarchy with respect and concern, as in "The Good Rat," the short story which won Steele a Hugo nomination, which describes the plight of an illiterate man who sells his body parts and submits to medical experimentation to raise money, or in The Jericho Iteration. which centers around the plight of those left homeless in the wake of an environmental disaster. Here, government "rescue" efforts become a thinly disguised form of social control and class warfare, allowing him to speak to stigmatization of poverty in America.

Steele has an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri in Columbia, and has worked as a staff writer for daily and weekly newspapers and as a freelance journalist for business and science publications. His short story collections juxtapose some of his non-fiction essays on scientific discoveries with fictional accounts which turn those discoveries into speculative fiction. His protagonists are often journalists and many of his short stories are written as pastiches of non-fiction writing (as in his alternative history of the space program) or as a series of interviews and documentary program fragments (as in "Mudzilla's Last Stand," "Live From the Mars Hotel," or "Hapgood's Hoax.") Written in bland Sunday feature section prose, "2, 437 UFOS" offers detailed portraits of the citizens of Geddings, NH as they reshape small town life to accommodate their ongoing interactions with aliens from other worlds, and as the local library orders subscriptions to the tabloid newspapers which are now seen as more truthful and indispensable than the New York Times.

The journalistic qualities of his writing are part of what makes his vision of the near future so plausible and compelling. Praising Steele's powerful sense of realism, The New York Review of Science Fiction wrote that Orbital Decay "reads like a mainstream novel written in 2016 A.D." He makes some of his most wild-eyed speculative fiction read like good reporting, sober, precise, and even-handed. His down-to-earth depictions of the future, stripped bare of space age illusions, have made Steele one of the most respected young writers in science fiction today. Steele won the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novella for "The Death of Captain Future." Orbital Decay won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. And Steele has been nominated for the John Campbell Award, the Phillip K. Dick Award, and for the Hugo for Best Short Story.

Bibliography
 

1989 Orbital Decay
1990 Clarke County, Space
1991 Lunar Descent
1992 Labyrinth of Night
1993 Rude Astronauts
1995 The Jericho Iteration
1996 The Tranquility Alternative
1996 All-American Alien Boy
1997 King of Infinite Space

--H.J.

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