When worlds (literature and science) collide

April 1, 2014

HCC Prof. Steven Winters talks to science fiction writer Allen Steele as HCC Prof. Elizabeth Trobough looks on.Writer Allen Steele talked at HCC about writing science fiction.

Allen Steele writes stories that take readers to fantastic places that are literally out of this world. Often, they are set in space (both near and deep) and take place decades into the future.  

Though his stories are made up, their foundations are based on real-life science. Like all good science fiction writers, Steele creates new worlds (and sometimes looks at old ones through an alternative prism), but his books explore what might be truly possible.  

"I'm not interested in fantasy writing," Steele said during a recent visit to HCC. "I tend to lean toward the universe as it is." 

Steele, who lives in Whately, is the author of 18 novels and five collections of short stories and is a two-time winner of the Hugo Award, one of the most prestigious honors in science fiction. He came to campus at the invitation of the HCC Library Book Club, which read his novel Coyote, as well as HCC professors Steven Winters and Elizabeth Trobaugh -- both avid science fiction fans.

Last spring, Winters, a professor of Earth Science, and Trobaugh, a professor of English -- brought Steele to HCC to talk to students in their Learning Community course "Alternative Worlds: Visions of Wonder from the Genre of Science." 

"By its very nature, science fiction revels in looking at the world inside out and upside down," reads the course description. "Alternative Worlds will help you try on different realities, perspectives, futures and universes, all based to some degree in speculative but real science."

"It was a great success," Trobaugh said. "He was very engaging and enthusiastic and gracious."

And he was again last month, talking for more than an hour to HCC students, faculty and staff about the creative process, his writing habits and Coyote, the first in a series of books that follow a group of political dissidents who hijack a starship and begin an interstellar journey away from a totalitarian society on Earth to colonize an inhabitable moon in another galaxy.

 "What's more important?" Winters asked. "Inspiration or hard work?"

"There is a little bit of a eureka moment when you have a sudden source of inspiration," he said, "and then it's a helluva lot of research. I find that research is the fun part. The writing is the hard part."

Steele said that, for him, writing is like being in a self-taught college class.

"I learn everything I can and then as a final project I write a novel about it," he said.

For previous novels, Steele has studied everything from oceanography to Einsteinian theories of time travel.

"It's like being a perpetual student," he said. "I'm always learning."'

As far as ideas go, he said, they come from various sources -- brain storms, dreams, other books.

"They come out of nowhere," he said. "I play with them. Sometimes, they go nowhere. Blind alleys."

Inevitably, the good ideas lead to the question, "What if?"

Steele said he's been reading a book called Operation Paper Clip, about the Nazi scientists recruited to work for the U.S. government after World War II. That gave him an idea.

"What if the kindly, genial doctor down the street used to work for Hitler?" he said. "What if? What if? I've been playing with that idea for the last couple of weeks. Even on the way down here. Not as a science fiction story, but as a crime story."

Sometimes, ideas bubble up during the course of writing a book that force him to make critical decisions about the direction he is headed. He has to ask himself, should I keep going or divert?

 "A lot of writing is subconscious," he said. "Sometimes I say, no, we're not going there."

But other times ...

Coyote, he said, was initially supposed to be a stand-alone book about starting a colony on another planet. But then, during the writing of it, there came that eureka moment.

"When I came to the realization that I was writing a pararallel of American history, it opened up everything to me."

Subsequent books in what is now the Coyote series include subjects that mirror the creation of the United States -- western expansion, the establishment of new religions, citizens uprisings and revolutionary war.

"And we have baseball," he said.

Steele acknowledged that there is a well-established feedback loop between scientists and science fiction writers.

"Science fiction writers tend to look over the shoulders of scientists," he said.

The reverse is also true. Scientists can be inspired by what they read, noting that the designers of the first flip cell phones wanted them to look like the communicators from the original "Star Trek" television series.

Steele also admitted that careful readers will find references to his favorite band sprinkled throughout his books.

For example, the name of the starship hijacked at the beginning of Coyote is the "URSS Alabama," a nod to the song "Alabama Getaway."

"I'm a lifelong Dead Head," he said.

Photos: (Left) Environmental Science professor Steven Winters, left, talks to science fiction writer Allen Steele, as English professor Elizabeth Trobaugh looks on. (Right) Steele talks about writing science fiction. 


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