Author Allen Steele is best known for his Coyote series, which describes mankind’s first interstellar voyage. He returns to that theme in his new novel Arkwright, about a famous science fiction writer who establishes a generation-spanning project to build the world’s first starship. The story was inspired by the Starship Century conference, which discussed plans to achieve interstellar travel by the end of the century.

“They basically threw away the idea that interstellar travel is something where we have to wait until some exotic technology becomes available to us in the 23rd century,” Steele says in Episode 194 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The conference was talking about near-term prospects for this.”

The starship in Arkwright is propelled by microwave beams sent from an Earth-based satellite, an idea dreamed up by science fiction author Gregory Benford and his brother Jim.

“This particular proposal which Jim Benford and his company Microwave Sciences have come up with for microwave propulsion systems has it that, in theory, you could get a craft up to half the speed of light, at which point it would be possible to reach a star within about 20 to 30 light years from Earth in about half a century or so,” says Steele.

Keeping a crew alive for that long presents a major challenge, so Steele imagines an AI-controlled ship carrying a library of DNA samples that could be spliced and incubated. Upon arriving at an alien world, the ship would first terraform the planet by seeding it with Earth-based plants.

“Once the planet is transformed into something that would be habitable, then you take the genetic material of your colonists-to-be that are aboard the ship and you tinker with them so that you have a race that is suitable for this particular planet,” Steele says.

All that might sound like a tall order, but Steele believes that the human race contains enough smart, driven people to make it happen.

“We have to remember something that Arthur C. Clarke said many years ago,” he says, “and that was that when a respected senior scientist says something is impossible, they usually turn out to be wrong.”

Listen to our complete interview with Allen Steele in Episode 194 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Allen Steele on Robert Heinlein:

“So I said, ‘Mr. Heinlein, pardon me. My name is Allen Steele and I’ve been reading your work all my life. Rocket Ship Galileo was the very first novel I ever read. I’ve read most of your books, and I just want to tell you, thank you so much for all the hours of pleasure that you’ve given me.’ It was something like that. I mean, it really came out as much more of a babble than that. And at one point he said, ‘Excuse me, I can’t quite hear you,’ and I had to step a little closer so that he could hear me. And he heard me out, and he nodded, and he said, ‘Thank you very much, young man. I greatly appreciate it. Now would you kindly get off of my foot?’”

Allen Steele on starships:

“I think that the way to go about this is taking the long view, that we should be doing these public/private endeavors by foundations that are set up to fund the research and development, leading to building the craft itself, and doing this over very long periods of time, as in the book, where it takes generations. It’s going to be something that’s very much akin to the building of cathedrals—that was an analogy that John Cramer made at the Starship Century conference, that starships may be like cathedrals, that they take generations to build. And I think that that may well be the way to go with it, because the way that we’re doing it now isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Allen Steele on hard science fiction:

“It’s unfortunate. … At some point I noticed that there was a turning away from [hard sci-fi] in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, where people stopped being interested in space exploration, stopped being interested in science. And in the last decade or so it really got to be widespread. Science fiction fans kind of went off to ‘Happy Harry Potter Land’ of boy wizards and talking dragons and wise old elves, and abandoned futuristic thinking. It seems to me that it’s swinging back again, that there’s now a resurgence of interest in a more realistic kind of science fiction, and I’m glad to see that.”

Allen Steele on NASA:

“I went to NASA—to Johnson Space Center—some years ago, for a visit. I was there because I was guest of honor at [a sci-fi] convention—Apollocon—in Houston, and a friend of mine, who works for a NASA subcontractor, arranged for me to have a VIP tour. It was terrific. … Most of the NASA people who I talked to were younger than I am … and almost every person I talked to told me that they were science fiction fans—a couple even told me that they were fans of my work, which is awfully flattering. So I think this is one of those places where science fiction has very much influenced the shape of things that have come around.”

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We’ll Take One Microwave-Powered Starship, Please