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Steele, Allen

Entry updated 28 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1958-    ) US journalist and author who began publishing work of genre interest with "Live from the Mars Hotel" for Asimov's, mid-December 1988; his short fiction has been assembled as Rude Astronauts: Real and Imagined Stories (coll 1993), All-American Alien Boy (coll 1996), American Beauty (coll 2003) and The Last Science Fiction Writer (coll 2008). Several of his stories have won prizes, including: "The Death of Captain Future" (October 1995 Asimov's), which won a Seiun Award and a Hugo for best novella, "... Where Angels Fear to Tread" (October/November 1997 Asimov's), which also won a Hugo for best novella, and "The Emperor of Mars" (June 2010 Asimov's), which won a Hugo for best novelette.

Steele made a considerable impact on the field with his first series, the Near-Future Near Space sequence – comprising Orbital Decay (1989), which won a Locus Award for best first novel, Clarke County, Space (1990), Lunar Descent (1991), Labyrinth of Night (1992) and A King of Infinite Space (1997). The first instalment, set like almost all his early work in the vicinity of Earth orbit, offers some nuts-and-bolts engineering problems that are coped with by a refreshingly variegated cast of employees in space, who deal handily with the bureaucratic snaffles that tend to counterpoint individual initiatives in much Hard SF: Steele shares a certain late twentieth-century frustration at the failure of the American space programme to follow in the steps of a Future History, like that created by the writer he has been most often compared to, Robert A Heinlein. Clarke County, Space (1990), set in the eponymous Space Habitat, exposes on the other hand most of Steele's early weaknesses – a backwardness in his perceptions of the changing world beyond an engineering purview, jerkily melodramatic plotting – without allowing much room for the strengths; but Lunar Descent (1991), set on and above the Moon, replays the grit and clangour of the first novel with a lighter touch. Though Steele displayed a damagingly lazy attitude towards characterization in these early books, and tended to export unchanged into space, decades hence, the tastes and habits of 1970s humanity, he managed all the same to convey a verisimilitudinous sense of the daily round of those men and women who would be patching together the ferries, ships, Space Stations and Space Habitats necessary for the next steps into space: if, that is, the long project is not betrayed. The final two volumes of the series go further afield: Labyrinth of Night (1992) transcends its Cold War pieties through a story, set on Mars where an ancient Alien artefact has been discovered, that hints of Transcendence; and A King of Infinite Space shifts gear, focusing on a young man who dies in a 1995 car crash but – awoken after a century of Suspended Animation – finds himself in a Clone body to find himself transformed into a slave.

Steele's second series, the Coyote saga, centres on two main sequences. The initial trilogy – Coyote: A Novel of Interstellar Exploration (fixup 2002), Coyote Rising: A Novel of Interstellar Revolution (fixup 2004) and Coyote Frontier: A Novel of Interstellar Colonization (2005) – carries its central cast from a Dystopian Near Future America via Starship to the Gas-Giant moon Coyote, which turns out to be eventfully livable (see Colonization of Other Worlds). Mysterious native inhabitants (see Imperialism) are discovered; advances in Technology back on Earth, which has since become a socialist tyranny, threaten the colonists, whose response to Invasion distantly echoes the American Revolution; but the storylines ramify satisfyingly from that base. The second subseries, comprising, Coyote Horizon: A Novel of Interstellar Discovery (2009) and Coyote Destiny: A Novel of Interstellar Civilization (2010), effectively expands the initial retelling of the troubled "discovery" and subsequent settling/colonization of Coyote/America, through a long and complex analysis of the implications involved in the Colonization of Other Worlds with America itself in the role of an oppressive Europe, and Coyote beginning to represent, at least in the subtext of the sequence, a second chance to create a Promised Land. Encounters with Alien civilizations, rapacious interstellar corporations, and scientific challenges generate a sense that the Politics of promise that Steele himself clearly wishes to avow have been complexified; despite some moderately archaic Space Opera shenanigans, Coyote represents a serious take on the possibilities of a human future in the universe. Three additional tales, Spindrift (2007), Galaxy Blues (2008) and Hex (2011), occupy the same universe, but are set further afield.

Individual novels – such as The Jericho Iteration (1994), a Technothriller about an America in danger from an attempted coup d'état, or The Tranquility Alternative (1996), an Alternate History take on near-future space exploration – are less compelling than his connected tales, though Apollo's Outcasts (2012), a Young Adult tale set in the moderately distant Near Future, lucidly confronts (and rewards) its protagonist with the chance to return to the Moon his birthplace; and walk again; and play a serious role in the conflict between the former colony and an America threatening Invasion. V-S Day (2014) is set in an Alternate History version of World War Two, with Robert Goddard (1882-1945) vying with Wernher von Braun to develop the first manned Spaceship and achieve unhistorically early Space Flight. Arkwright (fixup 2016) follows a multi-generational plan on the part of the eponymous family to create a Spaceship capable of transporting human stock to another planet (see Colonization of Other Worlds) to save Homo sapiens from extinction. Avengers of the Moon: A Captain Future Novel (2017), which is not linked to "The Death of Captain Future" [see above], is a sustained and convincing homage to the original 1940s Space Opera series, updating the science but honouring the tone; the rewriting of Curt Newton's original origin story, complete with the original Android and Robot and Brain in a Box tutors, is smooth, and Newton becomes Captain Future with a flourish.

Steele is an author whose grasp is broad, and focused toward futures in which Homo sapiens has a chance of flourishing. For this alone, he is an important representative of mature Genre SF. [JC]

see also: Clichés; Music; Robert A Heinlein Award.

Allen Mulherin Steele Jr

born Nashville, Tennessee: 19 January 1958



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