Q&A With Allen M. Steele

Allen M. Steele discusses his passion for pulp science fiction of the 1930s, and how it inspired “The House on Infinity Street,” his latest story for Analog, in our [March/April issue, on sale now!] Steele also talks about the research he’s been doing for his current project: a history on crimefighting characters in pulp and paperback science fiction from the early 20th century.

Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Allen Steele: I’m as intrigued with the history of science fiction as I am with science fiction itself; in fact, I’ve often said that science fiction is itself a science fiction story. And one of my favorite periods in SF history is during the Pulp Era of the 1930s, when the genre was so new that even the term “science fiction” had been recently coined and most early SF stories were in magazines like Astounding. Quite a few professional magazine writers lived in New York City at this time, with many of them belonged to an organization called the American Fiction Guild, where they met once a month for lunch and gossip and shop talk, including exchanging story ideas. I would’ve loved to have been a Guild member, but this was way before my time. However, it was while reading pulp writer Frank Gruber’s memoir The Pulp Jungle that I got an urge to write about the Guild and the mysterious fate of one of its members.

AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration?
AS: The idea for the story itself came suddenly, but not until after years and years of going to SF conventions and having bar conversations like the one that provides the first-person framework for the story. I’ve been lucky to have met many of science fiction’s old masters, the ones who belonged to that first generation who practically invented the genre as we know it, and whenever I had a chance I’d pull them aside, buy them a drink or two, and get them to tell me about the old days. So while the old SF writer who’s telling the story here in fictional, he’s stitched together from a lot of senior authors I’ve met and chatted with over time, some of whom would be familiar to long-time Analog readers.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
AS: Yes, I do relate to the first-person narrator . . . because he is literally me. I inserted myself in this story in the role I just described, a science fiction writer at a small SF convention hearing a tall tale from a senior author who’s also there, in just the way I’ve heard many tales like it at many other cons. I portrayed myself this way not out of vanity but rather to give the story additional verisimilitude. The convention was real, the panel he and I were on was real, and the real-life writers who’ve named were other participants. So the story is true . . . only the facts have been made up.

I’m as intrigued with the history of science fiction as I am with science fiction itself; in fact, I’ve often said that science fiction is itself a science fiction story.

AE: Are there any themes you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
AS: The theme of science fiction about science fiction is a theme I’ve been exploring from the very beginning of my published writing career 35 years ago. One of the first published stories of mine, “Hapgood’s Hoax” in mid-December 1990 issue of Asimov’s, is about a SF writer of the 30’s who fakes a UFO abduction when his career crashes at the end of the Pulp Era, which happened to many pulp writers who were unable to cope with the demise of the pulps. This theme, science fiction about science fiction, has been something I’ve returned to throughout my career. My novel Arkwright, which came out in 2016, is my longest work on this subject; it’s about one of the great SF writers of the 20th century, Nathan Arkwright, and how his family’s inheritance from his estate leads to the construction of the first starship in the 21st century and the establishment of humankind’s first interstellar colony in the far future.

AE: What other projects are you working on just now?
AS: Aside from writing stories for Analog and Asimov’s, which I’ve come back to doing after a short hiatus to work on my ongoing Captain Future reboot series—visit https://captfuture.com/ for more about that—I’ve lately turned to writing non-fiction about SF history. Together with Ron Miller, the noted astronomical and SF artist who’s produced the covers and interior illustrations for many of my novels, we’ve begun work on the first project, a history of pulp and paperback crime fighters titled Pulp Justice. If this goes well, we hope to continue with a similar work about SF space heroes.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be and why?
AS: I would’ve liked to have lived in the universe that Edmond Hamilton created for his original Captain Future series of the 40’s.In that future—which is actually our present, since the series begins in 2016, seven years ago—the entire solar system has been explored and colonized, all the planets (even Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune) are inhabited by native species, and it takes only hours for a spaceship to travel from one end of the system to the next. I updated all this for my series, even providing rationale for native Martians and Venusians and the moons of the outer planets, and I think I could live there, too . . . but the universe that Hamilton devised back in the 40’s was pretty neat, too.

AE: What are you reading right now?
AS: For Pulp Justice I have lately been reading many of the paperback series heroes of the 1970’s—the Executioner, the Destroyer, the Death Merchant and so on—that picked up where earlier pulp heroes like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Spider left off. It’s very interesting to see how the earlier heroes inspired the ones that came later, which have in turn inspired the current wave of hardcover series heroes like Dirk Pitt, Jack—and Sigma Team 7. Now I’ve begun reading or re-reading the pulp and paperback space adventure series from the same period, the 30’s and 40’s through the 70’s and 80’s, for the companion volume that I hope to write once the first book is done.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
AS: I’m on Facebook, although sometimes only occasionally, but I like to chat with readers there so long as they’re polite, and there’s also the recently launched Captain Future site I previously mentioned. 

Allen M. Steele has been a regular contributor to Analog since 1995, when his story “The Good Rat” was published. That story, along with two others subsequently published in Analog, were Hugo Award nominees. “The House on Infinity Street” reflects Allen’s longtime interest in the history of science fiction and is also based on an actual panel he was on at the Albacon SF convention some years ago with two other Analog writers, his colleague Catherine Asaro and the late Hal Clement.

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