Primary Ignition: Essays: 1997-2001
(DNA Publications & Wildside Press, $30.00/$15.00, hardcover/paperback;
An author of fiction draws on a lifetime of experience, knowledge,
research (not to mention copious rewrites), imagination, and, yes, talent,
to build a believable reality in his or her stories. Primary Ignition. This book contains the
entertaining musings and essays -- published over a period of five years
in magazines such as Absolute Magnitude and Artemis or
delivered in public talks -- of sf author Allen Steele.
it is usually only through interviews and memoir jottings that readers,
and sometimes friends, get any kind of real view of the author as a
person. Fortunately for those of us with a curious inclination to know,
there are tomes like
Steele takes us from the adventure of his first adult tour of NASA's
Cape Canaveral as a college journalist, in the amusing opening factual
essay "Road Trip for Rockets '84", to the speculations of sf writers
over the decades, and, in "Deja Futura", the long held belief
that we, as a population, are living the future now -- not to
mention an unbiased look at the future of the space shuttle fleet and
its successors in "Leap of Faith". The themes throughout many of the
essays reflect Steele's lifelong passion for the original NASA space
programs, beginning with the Gemini space-shots, Apollo, the subsequent
shuttle fleet hiccups, and prospective futures in space exploration.
All of which enthusiasm makes his near-future space fiction breathe
with plausibility as well as possibility.
In "The Merchants of Mars" Steele plays Devil's advocate in opposition
to the many professional scientists, space engineers and such who profess
that we must go to Mars at once. It's not that Steele believes we shouldn't
go to the red planet at all, simply that he thinks we should do everything
to get there the right way. As he mentions, too many probes have been
lost en route to Mars over the decades to commit human lives to the
equation before we know what we are doing. This is a very erudite and
deftly handled objective discourse.
Some of Steele's marginal cynicism is carried over into the essays:
"The Tourist Trap" and "Long Time Coming" -- respectively dealing with
a possible tourism-driven/commercial-application exploration and settling
of space by private industry, and the International Space Station (ISS).
He discusses the pros and cons of both and underscores his monologue
with an ongoing theme: if we're going to do this at all, then can we
please do it right, for the right reasons, otherwise what's the point?
Extreme destinations of this prodigious author include his account
of the nerve-wracking address to the United States House of Representatives
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, the Committee on Science, and
the testimony he delivered there on April 3 2001 in support of space
settlement and exploration using a future redesigned NASA in tandem
with a new Commercial Space Administration.
Beginning the Science Fiction section is an essay called "Artifacts
of the Future", expounding the theme of dreams and the imagination --
without which humanity would get absolutely nowhere. Steele uses a personally
oft-frequented museum exhibit in St Louis Science Center on nostalgic
science fiction toys, books and magazines to underline the "what if?"
motif. In his own words:
Of all the gifts humankind has, imagination is our greatest.
We use this gift to build space shuttles and manufacture tin ray guns,
map the genome and concoct board games, write swashbuckling novels set
on Mars and launch probes to see if, by any chance, the ghosts of Tars
Tarkas and Dejas Thoris may yet lurk those cold red sands. And then
we take our old dreams, fulfilled or otherwise, and carefully put them
on display behind glass walls, to remind an older generation where we've
been and to give the young'uns a clue as to where to go. If life has
a better purpose than this, I don't know what it is.
And that's why science fiction matters. It doesn't predict
the future, but it lays the foundation. It shows us all our limitless
possibilities, good, bad, or evil, and presents us them as plausible
There is an essay on writing science fiction and the hiccups, realities,
disappointments and joys it entails; another on "first contact" for
the layperson and what would probably occur as opposed to what should
take place, and the psychological effects on all. In another alien sense,
the essay called "Cognitive Dissonance in Las Vegas" paints a revealing
portrait of a manufactured city from the point of view of an outsider
On a more personal level sits the essay entitled "Jake's Last Stand".
In a heart-wrenching study of the life and personality of Allen and
Linda Steele's four-legged companion, Jake, the reader will find it
hard not to be moved to tears over the passing of the beloved friend,
or the raw vividness of emotion of the author over his loss. The fact
that the essay ends on a hopeful note of new beginnings and new life
is a tribute to Steele's writing and his ongoing optimistic outlook
towards the future, and the hopes he sees therein.
"The End of the Century" deals with the September 11 2001 tragedy.
Steele begins with a last view of a jewel-like New York City nightscape
when he passed through via train on his way home from the World Science
Fiction Convention during the Labor Day Weekend of 2001. He goes on
to say how much promise that year had originally held for him, with
all of its science and science fiction milestones -- and how much of
it is now eternally overshadowed by the tragic events just eight days
after that trip. In his own opinion, Steele has come to believe that
the events of September 11 signalled the world's transition from a past
now dead to a future re-imagined for years to come.
Fortunately, the final entry in this anthology is a positive one. As
a counterbalance to the analysis of the "End of the Century", the written
testimony of Steele's presentation to the US House of Representatives
the same year rounds the collection off on a high note. Here Steele
offers a technical and well-researched outline of a possible future
in commercially based space settlement and exploration, filled with
possibility and "what if?" ideas and sparking the whisper: "If we upgrade
our outlook and thinking, why can't we do this?" Indeed, why
These collected essays offer a compelling read and give the impression
that we do indeed live in exciting times. He handles the material and
research in a balanced and knowledgeable manner, and sometimes you may
get the impression that you're hearing all these viewpoints from the
author in person over a beer in a quiet bar or sunset-filled backyard.
This is exactly what Steele intends. So grab a beer, coffee, tea, whatever,
pull up a comfy chair, and settle back for some interesting reflections
on the future and on futures past.
Review by Marianne Plumridge.
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