by Allen Steele

Wildside/DNA Publications 


253pp/$19.95/August 2003

Primary Ignition
Cover by Bob Eggleton

  Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In 1994, I walked out of the Book Corner in Bloomington, Indiana with the second issue of a new magazine, Harsh Mistress.  I liked what I saw and subscribed to the magazine, which became Absolute Magnitude with its next issue.  Fast forward to spring 1997 when the seventh issue under the new title showed up in my mailbox.  It noted a contribution by Allen Steele on the cover. Unlike Steele’s earlier contributions to Absolute Magnitude, however, “Primary Ignition” was the first of a series of non-fiction essays which would appear in Absolute Magnitude. Steele would later contribute essays to Artemis. The book Primary Ignition collects these essays, along with Steele’s 2001 testimony to Congress and a previously unpublished letter to the New York Times.

Like Caesar and Gaul, Steele has divided these essays into three parts: Space, Science Fiction, and Destinations. In Space, Steele includes seven essays which generally focus on mankind’s attempts to get into space, whether they are via NASA (“Cape Canaveral Diary”) or through other agencies (“The Merchants of Mars”) While all of them shout space exploration boosterism, Steele reveals that he does not which for man to go into space blindly.  He gives cogent arguments for not promoting a manned mission to Mars too soon. These articles also contain a varied amount of autobiographical information which helps the reader feel that Steele is a friend as much as an essayist.

These essays, however, don’t always age well.  Steele was writing about developments as they were occurring, and his discussions of various projects which wound up disappearing into the vacuum of history engender feelings of disappointment at best and vague recollection at other times.

The second section of the book deals with science fiction, not just written or writing science fiction, although there is an emphasis on those areas, but other things related to science fiction as well.  “Artifacts from the Future” is a loving description of the display in the basement of the St. Louis Science Museum, which Steele believes was the first of its kind (now, of course, there is the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle and a similar exhibit at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville). Steele’s description, of both the exhibit and the responses is spot on.

Finally, Destinations covers a variety of trips Steele has made or location reporting. Opening with his impressions of the Mississippi River flood of 1993, which didn’t look so bad from his home only miles from the river, and a birthday trip to the island of Dominica, Steele allows the reader to see the world around us through his eyes, as opposed to the world which could be or the world of science fiction.

Perhaps the most personal and emotional essay in the book is in this section, “Jake’s Last Stand,” in which Steele recounts one of their dog’s battles with cancer and ultimate death.  While many of the pieces in Primary Ignition are advocacy this one is purely autobiographical and reinforces Steele’s image as a writer.

One oddity of this last section concerns the order the articles are in.  “Mr. Steele Goes to Washington” appears to be an introduction to his Congressional Testimony, which should follow immediately after, however a decision was made to include the 9/11 essay “The End of the Century” between the two pieces.

For those who have only read Steele’s novels and short stories, Primary Ignition will prove to be enlightening and entertaining.  For those who have already read some, or even all, of the essays in Primary Ignition, the book collects them in an easy to read, and easy to find, form.  Even if events have caught up to some of the topics, what Steele has to say, and the way he says it, makes the essays well worth diving into.

Road Trip for Rockets '84 Artifacts of the Future Dispatch from the Radjah Club
Cap Canaveral Diary Bennett Cerf Asks: Do You Have an Irrepressible Urge to Write? The Longest Eye
Leap of Faith Facing Mars Cognitive Dissonance in Las Vegas
The Merchants of Mars "And Now, Our Lead Story..." Jake's Last Stand
Dispatch from Tucson Deja Futuris Mr. Steele Goes to Washington
The Tourist Trap Estimated Prophet The End of the Century
Long Time Coming The Flood in the Global Village Written Testimony to the Subcommittee on Space and Seronautics, Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives: April 3, 2001

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