Influences: Allan Cole & Chris Bunch

author note: as excerpted from my pending short story compilation, Lights in the Deep . . . .

Up until age 15, almost all of the science fiction I read was related to either the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises. The Sten novels by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch were the first non-Wars, non-Trek books I picked up from the sci-fi section at my local bookstore. I bought them precisely because I’d previously read Bunch and Cole’s Pulitzer-nominated Vietnam war novel, A Reckoning For Kings. Being a fan of technothrillers and military fiction in general—hat tip to Tom Clancy—I was curious to see what might happen if the sardonically-humored characters and delightfully rich settings of a Bunch and Cole war story like Reckoning were adapted to a Star Trek-like future history setting.

I was not disappointed.

Sten is the eponymous saga of a boy at war with his fate: a factory slave, destined to live a short, brutal life in the belly of a planet created specifically for hellish forms of industry. There are eight books in all, detailing how that factory slave beat the odds, went out into the wider galaxy, grew to manhood, had many adventures, and reluctantly attained much glory and greatness—a hero with cement shoes, in the words of Sten’s creators.

You can therefore blame Bunch and Cole for my unconscious tendency to write about ordinary men and women—even boys and girls—who find themselves capable of doing extraordinary things under often terrible and difficult circumstances.

I also think that a lot of the literary flavor—specific word choices and style of word usage—in the Sten series, and also in A Reckoning For Kings, seeps around the edges in my own stories. At an almost unconscious level. Which makes sense. When you read and re-read and greatly enjoy over a million words of prose from the same pair of authors, it’s practically inevitable that they’re going to rub off on you; assuming you too are a writer.

It was only natural that Allan Cole became the first bona fide professional I sought advice from, when I was barely into my twenties and tinkering with my first original stories. I still have yellowed printouts of our e-mail conversations, almost two decades after they occurred. Allan may not know this, but when I was at my worst—down in the dumps, rejected, and barely producing any new prose at all—I would pull out those e-mails and re-read them. As a reminder to myself that a real pro still believed in me.

I was particularly proud, then, to inform Allan of my first professional fiction sale. It’d taken me a lot longer than I’d expected, but I was thankful to be able to point to that story—my winning entry in the 26th annual L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest—and announce that Allan hadn’t helped me in vain. His investment in time and shared wisdom had at last paid off.

I’ve kept Allan abreast of almost every publishing success I’ve had since.

To make sure he knows it’s still paying off.

Something I’d have cheerfully done with Chris Bunch, too, had he not died in 2005.

The suspected culprit was exposure to and complications resulting from Agent Orange: the infamous deforestation chemical rained on the jungles of Vietnam, back when Chris Bunch had been a Ranger patrolling those jungles. It was Bunch’s experience—in the Army—which infused much of his work with an undeniable air of military authenticity. Something I found strong and compelling as a teen, but which later grew to screaming volume when I myself entered the service.

Chris won’t ever read these words, but I’d like to write them anyway.

Hey Bunch, you know all that stuff, about the military?

Those things you wrote?

It was all true. Every last fucking bit of it.

Thank you. For the stories. And for your service.

And thank you, Allan Cole, for taking the time to coach a hopeful young man who was rough around the edges, but had a lot of big dreams.

Now, some of those dreams are coming true.

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  1. I too grew up reading all of the Sten novels, and anything else I could find produced by these two. I think that I still have all of those paperbacks on a shelf over there… time to dust them off and read them again.

  2. Mike, Orbit books out of the UK has been doing some gorgeous omnibus volumes. If your extant copies are too fragile to survive another reading, you might visit and check out the omnibus books. I bought the first six STEN volumes via omnibus, and it’s delightful to be re-reading them again; especially in the larger-book format.

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