Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Allen Steele's "V-S Day"

Allen Steele was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and received his B.A. in Communications from New England College and a Masters Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. Before turning to science fiction, he worked as a staff writer for newspapers in Tennessee, Missouri, and Massachusetts, as well as Washington, D.C. His novels include Orbital Decay; Lunar Descent; Clarke County, Space; Labyrinth of Night; Jericho Iteration; The Tranquility Alternative; Oceanspace, and Chronospace. He is a two-time winner of the Hugo Award in the novella category.

Here Steele shares some ideas for an adaptation of his new novel, V-S Day:
It's not hard at all to see V-S Day becoming a movie. In no small way, this book springs from a past attempt to do just that.

One of my first published stories was "Goddard's People," an alternate-history story about what might have happened if the Space Race had occurred during World War II, with Robert H. Goddard and Wernher von Braun as the antagonists. As I explain in a long afterword to the novel, the story was originally intended to be a novel, but for various reasons I decided instead to reduce it to short-fiction length. After it was published in 1991, the story was twice optioned for the movies. The first time, I wrote the screenplay myself, expanding the original story (which took the form of pseudo-journalism) by expanding and dramatizing the major scenes while also adding new ones . The screenplay went through several drafts, but ultimately went nowhere; the producer-director who optioned "Goddard's People" was unable to find studio interest, so in the end it wound up in my file cabinet, where it remained for the next decade or so (the second time the story was optioned, I had nothing to do with the production; this attempt failed as well).

A couple of years ago, while searching my files for something else entirely, I stumbled upon the screenplay, and out of curiosity I pulled it out and re-read it. It was then that I realized that "Goddard's People" really should have been a novel all along. So I used the screenplay as the skeleton for a full-fledged novel, and again expanded it considerably by writing new scenes and including new characters (notably Robert Goddard's wife Esther, who was only briefly mentioned in both story and screenplay). I also had the benefit of more than a decade of new historical research into both Goddard and the Nazi rocket program, and therefore was able to correct some errors which occurred in the previous efforts.

So it's no accident that V-S Day often has a cinematic feel to it. On several occasions, I lifted scenes straight from the screenplay, describing them just as I imagined they would have been filmed. I also had the benefit of being able to draw upon pre-production art done by the noted space artist Ron Miller. The result is a book which almost seems like a novelization of a movie that never was.

Although it's science fiction, I took the approach of treating V-S Day (and before that, the "Goddard's People" screenplay) as if it was a WWII adventure story concerning events that never happened, rather like Alistair MacLean's classic novel The Guns of Navarone and the movie that came from it (or, more recently, Quentin Tarantino's movie Inglorious Basterds). So I imagine a movie of V-S Day would be much the same way. Although I never thought of the historical figures in the novel as anyone but themselves, it's pretty easy to imagine who could play them in the movie: Ben Kingsley as Robert Goddard, Christoph Waltz as Wernher von Braun, and Cameron Diaz as Esther Goddard. I could imagine it being directed by someone who's done this kind of movie in the recent past. Tarantino might be a stretch; on the basis of trailers I've seen for The Monuments Men, I think George Clooney could pull this off.

Not only that, but many scenes could be filmed on location, particularly in Worcester, Massachusetts. City Hall has changed very little in the last 60 years, Union Station has been recently restored, and while researching the book I located Dr. Goddard's former lab in the basement of the Science Building on the Clark University campus (it's now being used as a machine shop). The sportman's club in the novel is closely based on one that actually exists in rural New Hampshire -- I used to live down the road from it many years ago while I was writing "Goddard's People"), and although I haven't visited it myself, I understand that Dr. Goddard's lab in New Mexico still exists and has been preserved as a historic site. The potential for location shooting was taken into consideration during both previous attempts to make a movie from the original story, and it's even better today.

V-S Day would make a great movie. I'd love to see it optioned again. Who knows? Maybe the third time will be the charm.
Learn more about the book and author at Allen Steele's website.

--Marshal Zeringue