Adventures from Space to St. Louis

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, November 29, 1992

THE LATEST NOVEL by St. Louis science-fiction writer Allen Steele takes place on Mars and has enough high-tech gadgets to bankrupt a federal budget.

But don't let that scare you. Neither prior knowledge of scientific gimmickry nor an extensive background in s-f literature is required.

"I believe that science fiction should be accessible," Steele said. "You shouldn't have to have read it for 10 years to be able to pick up a particular book and enjoy it."

Steele takes you by the hand and gives you a guided tour of the future while telling a gripping story that uses the features of the future as a fundamental element in its plot. If that's not science fiction, what is?

"The problem is that there's kind of this contradictory attitude within the science-fiction community," said Steele. "For years, people have been saying, `We've got to bust out of the ghetto,' but as soon as somebody begins busting out of the ghetto, you hear the cry of `No, no, you can't do that - that's not science fiction.'

"It's amazing how many arguments I get into with science-fiction writers over Michael Crichton, who is so obviously a science-fiction writer."

One thing Steele is doing to expand his readership is that he is staying with mass-market paperbacks. Although his latest book, "Labyrinth of Night," was published in simultaneous hardcover and trade-paperback editions in England, it is available in the United States only as a mass-market paperback.

"I was given the choice," he said. "My agent asked me if we wanted to mandate a hardcover edition, and it took me all of about five seconds to consider that question and say no."

Part of the reason was the recession. "Pushing a hardcover, a $20 hardcover, in the middle of a recession is a bad idea - I mean, if you want somebody to read the book," he explained.

Lost are arguments about prestige. "I'm just interested in having readers," he said.

He mentioned running into fellow science-fiction writer Walter Carlos Williams at WorldCon, the annual convention of the international s-f community, at which the Hugo Awards are presented. Williams had his last two books published in hardcover, to favorable reviews.

"And they're good books," said Steele. "But he was complaining that they just sit there in the bookstores until the paperbacks come out, because people are very unwilling to part with $20 for a hardcover."

Another thing Steele is doing to expand his readership is that he is moving away from the series of novels he has done featuring colonization of the solar system.

The term "series" may be misleading, for unlike too many s-f and fantasy works these days, each novel is completely independent, set in a different period of his future history.

"My first book was set in low-Earth orbit," he said. "My second book was set in high-Earth orbit. The third book was set on the moon, and the fourth book was set on Mars. There's a short novel already written that will be coming out soon about Jupiter, called `The Weight.'

"So you see the pattern here. Guess where the next one's set?"

When the interviewer guessed Pluto, Steele laughed and said, "Nope. St. Louis."

He decided to give the series a rest, he said, because he "didn't want to be typecast. I didn't want to just be a space novelist."

He was wary about giving details of the new novel, which he has just begun, but he said, "If I do my job right, it will shake up some people."

Although Steele was born in Nashville (in 1958) and grew up there, he's now living in Webster Groves with his wife, Linda. She's originally from the St. Louis area, and since moving back she has pursued her radio career. She's a DJ on KSD-FM.

Because of his wife, Steele knew the area long before they moved here from New Hampshire in 1990.

"I've been in St. Louis off and on over the last 10 years or so. When we started `seriously courtin',' as they say, I was driving up from Nashville to visit her, and of course, when we were at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, we came into the city often."

After graduate school at Mizzou, Steele lived in Washington, D.C.; Worcester, Mass., and New Hampshire before coming back to St. Louis. It is a measure of how much he has adopted St. Louis that he speaks of it as "coming back."

Steele has recently completed three short stories set here.

"They're each set in a different side of St. Louis. `Hunting Wabbit' - with a `W' - takes place mostly in Laclede's Landing. `Mudzilla's Last Stand' takes place principally in Busch Stadium. And `Lost in the Shopping Mall' takes place in Clayton."

No, not in the Galleria, which is in Richmond Heights anyway.

Explained Steele: "It's a virtual-reality shopping mall."