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Primary Ignition: Essays: 1997-2001

by Allen Steele

(DNA Publications & Wildside Press, $30.00/$15.00, hardcover/paperback; 2003.)

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. cover scanHowever, 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 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.

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 alternatives.

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 looking in.

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 can't we?

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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