Muse du Jour

My name is Marianne Plumridge. I am an artist of mythic fantasy works and fine art images. I also satisfy my creative muse with sewing, cooking, writing and reading. These are my thoughts and adventures with whichever muse drives me each day. You can find more of my art at

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Location: New England, United States

Monday, April 30, 2007

Primary Ignition...a Book Review

Essays: 1997-2001
by Allen Steele

DNA Publications & Wildside Press; Hardcover; ISBN 1587153491;
Price $30.00 US for Hardcover; $15.00 US for Trade Paperback
252 pages; 2003; Cover Art – Bob Eggleton

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. However, 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 of Science Fiction author Allen Steele, published over a period of five years in magazines such as Absolute Magnitude, Artemis Magazine, and several public talks given by the author during that time.

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 science fiction writers over the decades, and the long held belief that we, as a population, are living the future now in ‘Deja Futura’. 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 make 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 now! It’s not that Steele believes we shouldn’t go to the red planet at all, but that we should do everything to get there the right way. As he mentions, too many probes have been lost enroute 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 Steel’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 in support of space settlement and exploration using a future redesigned NASA in tandem with a new Commercial Space Administration, on April 3, 2001.

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 used 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 youn’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 common person 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 on 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 ongoing optimistic outlook for the future, and the hopes he holds therein.

‘The End of the Century’ deals with the September 11, 2001 tragedy. Steele begins with a last view of jewel-like nightscape of New York City when he passed through via train, on the way home from the World Science Fiction Convention, on Labor Day in 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 eight days after that eventful trip. In his own opinion, Steele has come to believe that the events of September 11 signaled the world 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 U.S. House of Representatives the same year rounds the collection off on a high note. Filled with possibility and the ‘what if ‘ principle, Steele offers a technical and well-researched outline of a possible future in commercially based space settlement and exploration that engenders the whisper: ‘If we upgrade our outlook and thinking, why can’t we do this?’ Indeed, why can’t we?

These collected essays of Allen Steele’s are a compelling read and give the impression that we do indeed live in ‘interesting times’. He handles the material and research in a balanced and knowledgeable manner, and sometimes the reader may get the impression that they’re hearing all these viewpoints from the author himself, over a beer in a quiet bar or sunset filled backyard. This is exactly what the author 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.

Marianne Plumridge


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was asking for a good book to read here, and then I came across your review of Primary Ignition. It looks like a fun read and informative as well as imaginative. I'll definitely be checking it out. Thanks for the review!

4:37 PM  
Blogger Marianne said...

You're welcome! Allen has a great narrative style and is currently having great success with his recent 'Coyote' fiction series set in the near future. Maybe I'll post my review of that in the next week or two. :-)

My reviews are a mix of current ones I've written - usually mysteries, these days - and past ones that have or haven't been published.

Thanks for stopping by!

5:11 PM  

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