Steven Lynn Thompson
By education, I'm a historian, by training a pilot and an illustrator, by trade an author and journalist. Born in 1948 at Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, I grew up an Air Force brat, the only son of a career USAF bomber pilot who retired to the Sacramento, California suburb of Fair Oaks in 1962. I graduated from the local public high school---Bella Vista--and from U.C. Berkeley (High Honors, History). I also served on active duty in the Air Force, from February, 1968 to July, 1972, and was in the individual ready reserve until honorable discharge, February, 1974.
After military service, though I expected to pursue a career in professional race-car driving, I found myself ever more deeply involved in fulltime magazine-editing. I had a contract with a British company to drive a Formula 5000 open-wheel race car in 1973, but problems with obtaining a working visa in Britain shot down my plans, so I took what I thought would be a temporary job as an art director at the Reno, Nevada-based *Competition Press & Autoweek*. Thanks to the efforts of the legendary Leon Mandel, then publisher, I was seduced by his pitch to commit to writing road-tests of the-then often-lousy cars on sale as a sort of special-interest magazine public service. Working both as the art director and as a senior editor exhausted me and my patience, so I subsequently went to work in Los Angeles (Compton, actually) as the editor-in-chief of *Road Test*. In late 1976, I was hired as an executive editor of *Car and Driver* in New York City. Unwilling to make the move to Ann Arbor, Michigan that the publisher demanded, I left *C/D* and accepted another publisher's request to redesign *Cycle Guide* magazine, and then to become the editorial director overseeing the implementation of the redesign, once again in LA. The final phase of my fulltime magazine editing came when, in 1982, I was hired to be executive editor of *AOPA Pilot* magazine in Bethesda, Maryland, inside the infamous D.C. Beltway. The next year the board of trustees elected me VP-Publications of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. In October, 1984, when two of my novels sold simultaneously, I realized I could not continue to handle my AOPA responsibilities and also write seriously with the commitment the projects demanded, so I resigned and have been a freelance writer and editor since. Along the way, I've held masthead positions with *Car and Driver, AutoWeek, Cycle World, Urban Moto, RANGE, Air & Space/Smithsonian and Technology & Culture*.
Not coincidentally in the context of my magazine career, a big part of my life has been spent at speed in and on machines. I started racing motorcycles in '67, while in college, and hung up my leathers 25 years later. In the interim, I raced in the Isle of Man TT for Team Cycle World, at Daytona, and in California, Texas, Australia, New Zealand, England, and Scotland. I also drove open-wheel and "door-slammer" racing cars, and flew aircraft as different as the de Havilland DH-82A Tiger Moth, the North American T-6, the Edgley Optica and the usual array of "spam cans" (Cessnas and Pipers) found on most airports today.
Despite the interesting experiences delivered by the machines I've ridden, driven, and flown, the people whom I've known have been far more interesting, many living lives so extraordinary that few readers would believe their stories in fiction, for as everyone knows, or should know, fact really is stranger than any fiction we storytellers can contrive.
For example, my first novel--*Recovery*, published in 1980--was based on the realities behind the work of the military men and women who held the line against the Soviet Union in Europe, especially those of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in Potsdam, East Berlin. It likewise included aerospace technologies not then in use but in development, and consequently, many readers seemed to conclude that the book was entirely fiction of the fantasy/sci-fi sort, because they knew nothing or very little about the post-WWII Cold War, apart from what they read or saw in the mainstream media.
Likewise, my next novel, *Countdown to China*, also starring Max Moss, the military hero of Recovery, centered on the all-too-real problem of technologically enhanced micromanagement by political leaders in military operations. Though some--mostly ex-military, like me--knew all too well then-President Lyndon Johnson's boast in the Vietnam War that, "They can't bomb a shithouse without asking my permission first," most civilians probably had no idea just how crippling such micromanagement of military affairs could be. This novel's purpose was to show how, in that period of the Cold War, a president could easily use the technology of the time to achieve purely self-serving political ends while appearing to be acting for the common good. It was left to the ingenuity of young Lt. Max Moss to defuse the crisis that the president created, and do it before the World War III was inadvertently begun. My military life had shown me several times how crises like these came about, and how little--or nothing--civilians knew about them, or how close to nuclear war we came.
In 1983, when I wrote the third in the Max Moss series, *Bismarck Cross*, its central problem--the attempt to re-unify East and West Germany by rogue senior officers in the Deutsche Luftwaffe in the West and by highly placed counter-intelligence officers in the East--was thought by most people to be beyond unlikely. I asked a neighbor in my Maryland Beltway suburb, himself a senior officer in the West German military, for help in getting the background details right, and though he happily did so, he believed that East and West Germany would never be reunited in his lifetime. So, five years after the novel was published, and the Berlin Wall fell, I often wondered how my German friend reacted, just as I wondered what people who had read the book reacted when life went far beyond imitating, as it were, my art in the novel.
Another then-unlikely element of *Bismarck Cross* was the role of a major new character, Capt. Sandy Koppel, who was making her career in the Army and was seeking ever more challenging and dangerous missions, but who, of course, was running into the boys-only club that then prevented women in all the services from participation in combat. Again calling on my network of military friends, I asked a lieutenant-colonel serving in the Pentagon to evaluate Capt. Koppel's service record as I constructed it for the book, and he was almost purple with rage when I suggested that she might have been assigned to test female leadership of an infantry platoon. My friend is a kind-hearted man, but also a warrior battle-tested in Vietnam, where, as a platoon leader himself, he earned his Combat Infantryman's Badge and other decorations. He could not imagine, literally could not imagine, a United States Army in which women officers would also "lead from the front" in battle. So, though I didn't query him after Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, I could sympathize with his 1980s beliefs about woman in ground combat. Even so, I put Sandy Koppel and then-Capt. Max Moss in combat at the end of the novel, when everything depended on their ability to survive and prevail.
Prevailing was and is a trait that men like Max Moss have in common; I have known a handful of such men, and they always seem to succeed where others fail. This too is a reality that often seems difficult for many people to accept, maybe because equality not merely of opportunity but of outcomes is so common a belief nowadays. People are of course not equal, and never have been, except in our Constitutional terms, and so it is that Max, despite owning traits that hamper him as much as help him, finds ways to do what others cannot, or will not.
This quality of persistence in order to prevail is often what defines men who become what others call heroes. Max is "heroic" in this sense, but he is also heroic in that he knows right from wrong and chooses right, no matter what the cost to him. In the context of reality being much stranger than fiction, I have been fortunate also in knowing men and women who have acted in this way when the chips were down, and though some paid the price in personal and often tragic ways, it always seemed to me that too much of what has passed for good writing in the last 40 years has de-emphasized the value of such behavior.
It was in that larger world of what used to be called contemporary fiction that I deliberately couched the stories of the five (so far) Max Moss novels as problems of ethics and morality as well as technologically centered "thrillers" with an emphasis on socio-political events of the possible near future. Choices have to be made by each of us in our lives, some small, seemingly, and some obviously momentous, and how and why we make those choices defines not only our personal but our societal history. Max has, as have some men of my acquaintance, a knack--maybe "curse" would be a better word-- for finding himself at the intersections of events whose outcomes he and he alone can and must influence for better or worse.
The fourth and fifth Max Moss novels--*Airburst* and *Top End*--focus on the strange and often unforeseeable ways in which events widely spaced in time and place can intersect to create crises which men (and women) with Max's capabilities and character must act upon. The former story (conceived in the mid-1980s) involves Arab Islamic terrorists acquiring a "suitcase" nuclear weapon from Israel and attempting to use it in a light aircraft over the nation's capital to extract military and political concessions from the United States and Israel. My years flying such aircraft and working at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association near D.C. aided this story's verisimilitude, as did my knowing a bit more than most people did about aviation security. A gratifying nod to how the book succeeded in being accurate was that it was used as a briefing aid in an aviation-security seminar for airport operators not long after it was published. Also, the book proposed that unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) would soon become vital tools for many military aviation missions, and laid out what some of those could be--long before UAVs became part of the arsenals of the U.S. and other nations.
*Top End* dealt with the possible effects of privatization of some traditional government missions--in this case, border security. While on assignment in Australia in 1986, I'd read an editorial column in a Sydney newspaper condemning a plan the government was proposing to privatize aerial patrol of much of Australia's immense shoreline, mainly in the Northern Territory, or "Top End" of Australia, as the Aussies call it. This struck me as dereliction of duty, since providing for the common defense of the nation is one of the fundamental duties of any government. Thus the plot for Top End centered on the activities of a man who creates a company to win the contract for shoreline surveillance of the northern and northwestern coast of Australia, and how such a man can so easily be someone who should not be in such a position of power. Max gets involved with the man--Rupert Halford--when thieves working for Halford steal electronics developed by Max's father's company in Sunnyvale, California, that are intended for use by the U.S. military. Though Moss Electronics' insurance company pays for the loss, Max refuses to let the matter drop, and chases down the equipment and the man behind its theft when nobody else will.
Doing what nobody else will also was behind the novel I co-authored with Walter J. Boyne, published in 1986 as *The Wild Blue*. I'd grown up in the postwar Air Force, and served in it during the Vietnam War years (though I was stationed in Texas and England). I knew first-hand the sacrifices made by the people who served in Air Force Blue since the service was created as a wholly separate branch in 1947. As a retired Air Force colonel, Walt knew the society well too, so he agreed with me that something should be written to fill in the blank pages of history made by us, our families, and those like us throughout the Cold War and Vietnam War period. I proposed a co-authored nonfiction social history, but Walt convinced me that the research we'd need for that simply didn't exist, and that we'd could capture most of what we wanted people to know about by writing a novel together.
After I agreed, *The Wild Blue* was commissioned by Crown, and appeared in 1986, to become a best-seller in hardback and paperback. Many compromises were made in order to get it out, among them our plan for the book, which was proposed as an anthology. Crown rejected that approach, asking us to give the reader a "core cast" of characters who would live the history we wanted to illuminate from 1947 to 1987--no small order and one that strained believability to the breaking point. But both Walt and I knew Air Force people whose careers would seem fantastic, even unbelievable to most readers, so we stitched together our fictionalized social history and like the people in it, it soared.
But that, as they say, is another story entirely. As is the story told in my first nonfiction book, *Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling*. Initially commissioned by the University of California Press in 1997 as a social history of motorcycling, it became something else entirely when I began asking questions that a strictly conventional social history could not answer. Specifically, I asked why some people have liked, even loved motorcycling since its advent as a popular pursuit more than a century ago, while others disliked and even hated it. Motorcycle lore is and always has been rich with stories about why this is, but they are like religious precepts: they can't be verified.
As someone who entered higher education expecting to be an astrophysicist, and who spent as much time on science projects and reading in high school as he did going too fast on motorcycles and in cars, phenomena which can't be scientifically defined or measured annoy me the way a burr under a saddle blanket annoys a horse. Most motorcyclists are happy with their lore, and don't care what truths might lie behind it. They just want to ride and revel in their cultures and subcultures. And of course, those who either never think about or who actively dislike or even despise motorcycling and motorcyclists don't much care about why either.
But I do, and so did the editor who acquired my book for UCP, Howard E. Boyer, Jr. As a rider himself as well as an editor who had commissioned important books about biolgogy and behavior, Howard instantly gave me permission to pursue the science behind the "why" questions I posed, and the book that had been launched as a social history became the report of a years-long science-centered research effort. Along the way, I took the research into uncharted territory for books even remotely "about" motorcycling--into evolutionary biology and psychology, and into original research into the stimuli fed, willy-nilly, into riders and passengers on motorcycles as vibration. In 2001, a small donation to Stanford University and a bit of leverage from my friend Prof. James L. Adams of the engineering department made possible a vibration study of nine iconic motorcycles by graduate students who designed the test and equipment, than used it to determine what was being fed into a rider at the man-machine-interface points of the handlebar, seat, and footpeg.
When *Bodies in Motion* was completed and submitted as a draft to UCP, it was politely but firmly declined for publication, in part because Howard had been fired and in part because it seemed the Press didn't want to figure out how to market something that was midway between being a scholarly study and a popular moto-book. That's when Andy Goldfine, a longtime friend and inventive genius who created the "Roadcrafter" riding suit that is still sold today by his company, Aerostich, asked to read the book. After he read it, he immediately also asked to publish it. He explains for himself why in the Foreword to the book, but ultimately, I believe it is becau,se that Andy is a truth-seeker, like me, and thinks that works which help us better understand ourselves as we really are ought to be supported and widely read.
If the story behind how *Bodies in Motion* was published seems unlikely, it is not because of the story. It is because of how one perceives what is likely and what is not. This should not be news to anyone. Long ago, Shakespeare reminded us of why through Hamlet's observation to his Wittenberg University classmate that:
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Nobody would more heartily agree with that than Pete "Rowdy" Yates, former U.S. Navy A-4 pilot and former airline pilot. Rowdy stars in my most recently posted Kindle book, *Wingman*, in which he tries to get a job with an air-show company after his pilots' union war-chest is exhausted by the man who bought the airline for which Rowdy had spent decades flying "in the left seat" as pilot-in-command. When he walks into the Mojave, California airport offices of Warbirds of the World, he thinks he's just looking for another way to earn a living as a pilot, but he quickly discovers that instead, he finds himself in the middle of a complex plot spun by a man he once thought he knew, comprising drugs, weapons, and decisions he never thought he would have to face after he left flying combat missions in Vietnam. Along the way, he also discovers an unexpected soul-mate who can fly and fight as well or better than he can--a woman with her own secrets, which slowly emerge as Yates rediscovers the truth about all aviation, a truth engraved in a wooden propeller hung in the officers club of a Royal Air Force flying school: "No aeroplane flight is a piece of cake." In *Wingman*, the reader experiences the realities behind those simple words in first-person storytelling, as Rowdy straps himself into aircraft from airliners to attack 'planes and flies headlong into confronting evils he must choose to accept or assault. The choices he makes define him, as they define us all, and lead him from his cozy home into international intrigues and conflict.
As the reader of *Wingman* will find, the story is about much more than how Rowdy Yates operates his machines, as *The Cold War Chronicles* is about much more than how Max Moss operates the machines in which he finds himself, sometimes willy-nilly. Likewise, *The Wild Blue* is the story of U.S. Air Force people who live and die in and because of their machines, but it is also the story of how Air Force families learn to adapt to the world "on base", so different from the world "off base". And of course, *Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling* is entirely focused on what our two-wheeled machines of mobility do to us as well as for us.
These tales--fiction and non-fiction--all derive from the astounding upheavals in human life wrought by the advent of cars, motorcycles, aircraft and spacecraft in the 20th and 21st centuries. I have chosen to write the stories not merely because those machines have figured so largely in my own life and work as a pilot, racer, tester of the machines of mobility but also because I understood the history of the last 120 or so years in ways that compelled me to write stories in which these machines were not mere props, but central to the lives of my characters. For I believe the greatest transformation of human life since perhaps the invention of controlled fire is "motorized" personal mobility--on land, in, under and on the sea and in and above the air. That kind of mobility has come with sometimes terrible costs, but it also enables adventures never before available to humankind. So from *Recovery* to *Wingman", the stories are centered in those adventures and the people who experience them, though each of the books are also "about" much more.
Exactly how much more any reader experiences with my books is of course not up to me as the author but up to each reader. Because I conceive of reading a book as a kind of adventure in itself, I naturally hope the readers of my works enjoy the adventures in them--or, at a minimum, finish the books with a better understanding of the characters in them. In the end, after all, understanding ourselves and our fellow humans is fundamental to how we each live our own lives, so any author who can help us expand our understanding with his or her stories does much, much more than simply tell a tale.
Did I succeed with these books? I hope so. But just as "no aeroplane flight is a piece of cake", neither, as all authors have discovered the hard way, is writing a book. Each is a leap into the unknown, so the best advice I can give to readers of my books is this: Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride!