9 minute read

Steven Barnes Biography

Learned Martial Arts for Self-Protection, Collaborated with Larry Niven


Author, martial artist

The author of more than 20 books of speculative fiction, as well as screenplays, teleplays, and short stories, Steven Barnes also has been a lecturer and creative consultant, a martial artist, and a self-declared expert on human performance. One of only a handful of successful black science-fiction writers, Barnes jump-started his career by collaborating with science-fiction superstar Larry Niven. As with so many black writers, Barnes's early work was overlooked by critics. He has become increasingly popular over the years, however, with two best-selling novels. His more recent work has garnered excellent reviews as well researched, intelligent, and thought provoking. His science fiction/fantasy novels incorporate elements from the occult, horror, detective, and spy genres and are considered "page-turners." Barnes has been part of a movement of black writers seeking to cultivate new black readers. He is known for his strong black characters, both male and female, and his work frequently reflects his devotion to the martial arts.

Learned Martial Arts for Self-Protection

Born on March 1, 1952, in south-central Los Angeles, Steven Emory Barnes was the son of Emory Flake Barnes, an employment counselor, and Eva Mae Reeves Barnes, a real-estate broker. His father left the family when Steve was eight. As a small, biracial child, Barnes was a frequent victim of bullying. He began studying martial arts at the age of ten. He was raised in the Episcopal Church and told Publishers Weekly: "I kind of consider myself to be a Zen Christian."

Barnes absorbed the popular culture of the late 1950s and 1960s—comic books, pulp fiction, science fiction and fantasy, television, and low-budget films—but he questioned the lack of black heroes in popular media. At 16 he decided to become a writer, so as to stop getting in trouble for telling elaborate lies. Ironically his own first stories featured white heroes. Barnes graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1969.

Between 1970 and 1973 Barnes attended several Los Angeles-area colleges, including Los Angeles City College and Pepperdine University, where he majored in communication arts. Although college did not teach him how to become a financially successful writer, he continued to take courses at Pepperdine and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) over the next two decades. Barnes and Toni Annelle Young lived together for 12 years before marrying in 1985 (they later divorced).

Collaborated with Larry Niven

Between 1978 and 1980 Barnes published stories in small magazines and began networking with successful science-fiction writers. At the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in 1979 he met and exchanged manuscripts with the award-winning author Larry Niven. Their first collaboration, "The Locusts," was published in Analog in June of 1979 and was nominated for a Hugo Award, science fiction's highest prize. It was the beginning of a personal and professional relationship that proved to be one of the most successful in science fiction.

In a blog entitled "St. Larry," Barnes wrote on February 3, 2005: "Larry was my mentor… He (and uber-conservative Jerry Pournelle) taught me much of what I understand about SF extrapolation.… When "The Kundalini Equation," my first attempt to write a mature novel, died horribly, I was crushed.… I had put material into that book that was achingly personal—my mother's death, my view of the ethical structure of the universe, my belief in human potential. I had never researched so much, worked so hard, been so honest.… I was devastated, and spent the next eight years writing rote adventure novels (more or less), hiding behind Larry's name." Barnes so respected Niven that he and his wife named their daughter Lauren Nicole in his honor.

Between 1981 and 2000 Barnes and Niven collaborated on eight novels, including two with Jerry Pournelle. Some reviewers noted Barnes's influence on Niven, softening the hardcore techno-novelist with fantasy and intellectual nuances. The Legacy of Heorot and its sequel, Beowulf's Children, placed the legend of Beowulf on an alien planet. The Legacy of Heorot, as well as Barnes's Star Wars novel The Cestus Deception, became New York Times bestsellers.

Appealed to Black and White Readers

Although the worlds Barnes designed might be bleak and grotesque, he created talented, intelligent heroes and his stories resolved on a hopeful note. His novels contained violence and occasional explicit sex. In Streetlethal, Gorgon Child, and Firedance—his first solo hardcover publication—his hero, a martial artist and former assassin, fights evil in an earthquake-devastated Los Angeles. In a June 3, 2002, review of Barnes's novel Charisma, Publishers Weekly wrote: "The true battleground in the fight between good and evil is the human soul, and no one is better at describing those internal battles than Barnes."

Several of Barnes's novels have dealt with slavery and race relations. Lion's Blood and its sequel Zulu Heart are set in a nineteenth-century America colonized by Africans with white slaves. The novel was praised for its careful examination of the similarities and differences between Christian and Muslim values. Toni Young created the maps and Heather Alexander wrote and recorded an album of songs for Lion's Blood. In February of 2002 Barnes participated in a Black History Month Author Roundtable hosted by Authors on the Web. He said: "The sense of exclusion was an important motivator, also the sense that white America was generating and broadcasting image systems that elevated all things Northern European to the detriment of all else. The fact that reality was somewhat different from that promoted in media and history books taught me to doubt everything."

Martial Arts Led to "Lifewriting"

In his January 14, 2005, blog Barnes wrote: "When I was about 5 years old, my mom introduced me to Yoga, and Psycho-Cybernetics. Ever since then, I've been fascinated by the body-mind link, and searched continuously (with varied levels of success) for a 'Grand Unified Field' theory of the whole magilla. About fifteen years ago, I started teaching 'Lifewriting,' the approach of applying Joseph Campbell's model of the Hero's Journey to both life and writing."

At a Glance …

Born Steven Emory Barnes on March 1, 1952, in Los Angeles, CA; married Toni Annelle Young, 1985 (divorced); married Tananarive Due, August 1, 2000; children: Lauren Nicole (first marriage), Jason Kai (second marriage). Education: Attended Los Angeles City College and Pepperdine University, 1970-73.


Columbia Broadcasting System, Hollywood, CA, tour guide, 1974-76; Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA, manager of audio-visual and multi-media department, 1978-80; science-fiction, screen, and television writer, 1979–; martial arts instructor and writer, 1980s–; UCLA Creative Writing Program, instructor, 1989-94; LifeWriting Workshops, creator and facilitator, 1990–.


National Korean Karate Championships, second place, 1972; Emmy Award for the Outer Limits episode "A Stitch in Time," 1996.


Literary agent—Eleanor Wood, Spectrum Literary Agency, 320 Central Park West, Suite 1-D, New York, NY 10025. Visual media agent—Jonathan Westover, The Gage Group, 9255 Sunset Blvd., Suite 515, Los Angeles, CA 90069. Web—www.lifewrite.com.

Yoga and the martial arts have since grown to play a major role in Barnes' life. A lifelong practitioner of yoga, Barnes obtained his black belts in karate and judo and his brown belt in Shorenji Jiu Jitsu. He earned his instructor certificate in Wu Ming Ta, his instructor candidate ranking in Filipino Kali stick and knife fighting, and intermediate rankings in Tae Kwon Do and Aikido. He also has been an advanced student of Jun Fan kickboxing, an instructor of Tai Chi Chuan, an intermediate student of self-defense pistol shooting, and has practiced the Indonesian art of Pentjak Silat Serak. Additionally, Barnes completed the Yoga Works basic Hatha Yoga instructor program in Santa Monica, California, and has taught yoga. Barnes became a certified hypnotherapist affiliated with Transformative Arts Institute in San Anselmo, California. Between 1986 and 1989 Barnes was the Kung-Fu columnist for Black Belt Magazine. He also contributed to other martial arts and fitness magazines and has produced martial-arts instructional tapes.

Barnes told Contemporary Authors: "My primary area of interest is human mental and physical development. To this end I research psychology, parapsychology, and kinesiology, practice and teach martial arts, and meditate and study comparative religious philosophy. My major viewpoint is that all human beings are perfect, but that we allow ourselves to dwell in our illusions of imperfection, creating fear, hate, and all negativity in human experience."

After 42 years in Los Angeles, Barnes moved to Vancouver, Washington, and then to Longview, Washington. In 2000 he married Tananarive Due, a former Miami Herald feature writer and columnist and an award-winning supernatural fantasy novelist. After his daughter graduated from high school, Barnes and Due moved back to Southern California and the couple adopted a son. They began collaborating on television and movie scripts.

Began to Blog

In 2004 Barnes began blogging almost daily, writing on a variety of subjects including martial arts, films, politics, self-improvement, philosophical systems, exercise and weight loss, relationships, race relations, and science fiction. Barnes has been a frequent lecturer on writing and creativity. He was an instructor in the UCLA creative writing program between 1989 and 1994 and he has been a frequent panelist at symposiums and science fiction conventions. As of 2005 Barnes was selling his fitness recording, Five Minute Miracle, through his website.

On his Lionsblood website Barnes wrote: "If there is any single thing which I believe most strongly, it is that we all have the capacity to bring our most cherished dreams to life. What is required is motivating goals, discipline, honesty, and sufficient personal power to ACT. Life is a wonderful, complex, demanding game. The way to win is to decide what you want, focus on that goal, surround yourself with people who will support your dream, and nurture the ability to laugh at yourself."

Selected writings

Fiction, with Larry Niven

"The Locusts," Analog, June 1979.

Dream Park, Ace, 1981.

The Descent of Anansi, Tor, 1982.

(With Jerry Pournelle) The Legacy of Heorot, Simon & Schuster, 1987.

The Barsoom Project, Ace, 1989.

Achilles' Choice, Tor, 1991.

Dream Park: The Voodoo Game, Pan, 1991.

The California Voodoo Game, Ballantine, 1992.

(With Jerry Pournelle) Beowulf's Children, Tor, 1995.

Saturn's Race, Tor, 2000.


Streetlethal, Ace, 1983.

The Kundalini Equation, Tor, 1986.

Fusion (graphic novel), Eclipse Comics, 1987.

Gorgon Child, Tor, 1989.

Firedance, Tor, 1993.

Blood Brothers, Tor, 1996.

Far Beyond the Stars, Bantam, 1998.

Iron Shadows, Tor, 1998.

Charisma, Tor, 2002.

Lion's Blood, Warner, 2002.

Zulu Heart, Warner, 2003.

Star Wars: The Cestus Deception: A Clone War Novel, Del Rey, 2004.


Ki: How to Generate the Dragon Spirit, Sen-do Publications, 1976.

LifeWriting (workbook and tape set), Ronin Arts Publications, 1992.


Dar Kush, http://darkush.blogspot.com.

Lifewrite, www.lifewrite.com.

Lion's Blood, www.lionsblood.com.


LifeWriting/TOTAL SUCCESS, 1993.

Firedance Tai Chi, 1994.

The Art of Storytelling, 1999.

Lifewriting Writing System, 1999.

Five Minute Miracle, 2005.



Columbian (Vancouver, WA), April 12, 1996, p. 1; July 1, 2002, p. D.1.

Locus, March 2003, pp. 84-86.

Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2004, p. E.1.

Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2003, pp. 31-36.

New York Review of Science Fiction, March 2003, pp. 1, 4-6.

Publishers Weekly, January 21, 2002, p. 70; June 3, 2002, p. 70.

Skanner (Seattle, WA), March 13, 2002, p. 1.


"Black History Month Author Roundtable," Authors on the Web, www.authorsontheweb.com/features/0202-african-american/african-american.asp (July 28, 2005).

"Steven Emory Barnes," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 7, 2005).

—Margaret Alic

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer to Don Berrysmith Biography - Grew up in the Pacific Northwest