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BIOLOG: Bruce McAllister

By Richard A. Lovett

 

Bruce McAllister has been writing short stories for long enough that, by one definition, he made his start in the Golden Age . . . though not by much. His first sale was in 1963, Isaac Asimov’s pick for that era’s finale.

At the time, McAllister was a high school student with big dreams and the chutzpah to go for them. He discovered science fiction in seventh grade when he saw a copy of Astounding sticking out of a classmate’s purse. “On the cover was a lumberjack faced with a door to an alien planet,” he says. Intrigued, he went to a newsstand and bought his own copy. Soon enough, he was writing science fiction, and by age 16, he’d sold his first story to Fred Pohl at If.

It helped that his parents taught him the value of dreaming big. His father was a career naval officer working on anti-submarine warfare during the Cold War. His mother was a Ph.D. anthropologist and archaeologist at a time when that was simply not a woman’s field.

In high school, he once got into an argument with his English teacher over whether writers deliberately put symbolism in their work. “I’d just published a story, and I was cocky,” he says. “Because I didn’t plan and place symbolism, myself, I assumed other writers didn’t either.”

He went to the library, searched up contact information for 150 famous writers, and sent them a mimeographed questionnaire on the topic. (“This was before the Internet,” he says.) Stunningly, 75 responded, including such luminaries as John Updike, William Golding, Pearl S. Buck, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Kerouac, and Ayn Rand. To his surprise, the answers varied. Some said of course they did; some said “no way”; and still others said that symbolism originates in the subconscious, but if they see it, they might polish it. “Every writer was different,” he says.

About the same time, he and a friend cooked up an even more ambitious science fair project: studying the effects of sleep deprivation. They flipped a coin over who would be the research subject and who would be the researcher, and depending on how you look at it, McAllister lost . . . or won. The upshot was that his friend Randy Gardner stayed awake for 11 days, setting what is still the world record for doing so without stimulants. Before the end, the two high school students had the attention (and portable EEG monitoring equipment) of Stanford University’s Sleep Research Center and, thanks to McAllister’s father’s connections, the U.S. Navy.

What they found is worthy of a story in its own right, but one of the most interesting bits was that parts of Gardner’s brain would cycle on and off in catnaps—a process, McAllister says, that might have evolved in an era when our ancestors may occasionally have needed to be alert and awake for extended periods of time. At the time, the story made the news largely as a stunt (it was the third most popular story in the world that year, McAllister says, after the JFK assassination and the Beatles), but recently science writers have rediscovered it and both NPR and BBC have done stories.

If there’s a lesson to this, McAllister isn’t sure what it is. “But I’m grateful to live as long as I have and see things come full circle,” he says.

Which brings us back to the boy who saw the Astounding in his classmate’s purse.

In college and graduate school, McAllister studied writing. He set up a creative writing program at a small university in Southern California, where he taught for 23 years. He’s been a writing coach and screenplay consultant. He’s sold more than 80 science fiction stories, three novels and a short-story collection, and edited a poetry magazine.

But when Analog editor Trevor Quachri accepted a story, he says, “I felt like I’d come home.”

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