Review: Arkwright, by Allen Steele

One of the great pleasures of reading is discovering a novel that feels like it was written just for you. Perhaps it speaks to a unique intersection of interests; perhaps it inspires ideas that extend beyond the page, so that you’re left thinking about them long after you finish the book. Perhaps it reminds you of why you fell in love with reading in the first place. For all these reasons and more, Allen Steele’s Arkwright has quickly become one of my favourite novels of the past few years. It celebrates science fiction itself; an optimistic voyage to the stars that rivals the best stories from the Golden Age, yet it is written in a thoroughly modern idiom.

arkwright allen steele

The blurb:

A contemporary of science fiction masters Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, Nathan Arkwright was a seminal science fiction author of the twentieth century. At the end of his life, he became reclusive and cantankerous, refusing to appear before or interact with his legion of fans. Little did anyone know, Nathan was putting into motion his true legacy – to save humanity.

Now, after his death, the Arkwright Foundation dedicates itself to the exploration of space and to creating space colonies, with the ultimate goal of finding and colonizing an Earth-like planet several light-years distant. Fueled by Nathan’s endowment, three successive generations of Arkwrights are drawn together, and pulled apart, by the magnitude of the task and the weight of their name as they try to ensure the continuance of humanity in the galaxy.

I love science fiction novels that are about the history of the genre, and Arkwright is one of the best. Steele has constructed a nostalgic alternate history of the Golden Age of science fiction, one which borrows heavily from real life, yet seamlessly inserts the fictional Nathan Arkwright alongside Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. In many ways, the novel is a history of science-fictional thought. It spans from the first Worldcon in 1939, where science fiction writers and fans gather to share their dreams, to the far future, where the dreams of those writers have shaped reality. Nathan Arkwright is constructed as a cross between Heinlein and Roddenberry; his Galaxy Patrol novels have been translated across numerous media, inspiring generations of scientists and astronauts. There are numerous cameos from famous science fiction writers throughout the novel; Steele’s attention to detail demonstrates the research he did for the novel. Perhaps the highest praise that I can give Steele is that by the time I reached the end of the novel, I really wanted to read one of Nathan’s Galaxy Patrol novels.

The title of the novel doesn’t just refer to Nathan Arkwright (or the intended double meaning of the name: a person who builds arks), but also encompasses his legacy and descendants. Steele establishes a wonderful sense of continuity across the different generations of Arkwrights. Each of the characters struggles to further the Foundation’s dream and make their own mark on the project. Their goal is to construct and launch an interstellar ship, a beam-powered ark that will travel to distant Gliese 667C-e in an effort to propagate the human species and ensure our long-term survival. The novel skips through time like a stone skipping on a pond; as it moves out of the Golden Age and into an uncertain future, Steele’s own abilities as a writer of hard science fiction come into focus.

Despite its nostalgia for the Golden Age, the novel is decidedly modern in other aspects. Steele’s depiction of interstellar flight and the colonization of other worlds demonstrates a knowledge of science that rivals Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. The concept of beamships – starships that are propelled by concentrated microwaves emitted from satellites – is certainly the most popular (perhaps even realistic?) method of interstellar travel in hard science fiction today. And Steele does it well. He also proves adept at creating a realistic future world, one which reflects contemporary concerns about the climate. As the narrative moves into the twenty-first century, the characters inhabit an Earth increasingly impacted by climate change. His description of floating villages and flooded cities creates a harrowing landscape that hints at the displacement of millions of people.

Author Robert J. Sawyer has described Arkwright as a love letter to science fiction. Although this is a fairly accurate description, at times the novel feels more like an elegy to the Golden Age. And with elegies come danger, because the text risks being mired in nostalgia.

I have always been wary of science fiction texts that focus too much on nostalgia, especially nostalgia for Golden Age science fiction. They often lament a vision of the future that was never properly realized – a vision of rocketships and techno-utopias, a future where bold engineers could solve any problem, a future of indefatigable optimism. They claim that the solution to our problems lie in those visions of the past; if only we hadn’t let that dream die, our society would be a better place. Yet I believe science fiction offers more than tired repetitions of those old rocketship utopias. The genre functions best when it is a mirror for our contemporary world, one that offers a critical reflection of our society. Space travel may have been a pressing concern for Heinlein and his fellow Golden Ageists, but readers of today’s generation are faced with climate change, global pandemics, and myriad threats from cyberspace. To suggest that these contemporary concerns can be addressed with the same solutions posited by Golden Age authors is to be incredibly ignorant about the root causes of these problems. The world is a different place. The genre has evolved accordingly.

At times, Arkwright comes perilously close to lamenting the death of the Golden Age. In an early scene, Nathan Arkwright is watching the launch of Apollo 17 from Cape Canaveral and, already sensing the discontinuation of the Apollo program, makes an impassioned plea to his friends to keep the dream of space travel alive. It’s a not-so-subtle metaphor for the death of Golden Age fiction itself. But – thankfully – Arkwright never quite reaches this level of preachiness. Yes, the future in the novel is one cast from a Golden Age mould, one that was uniquely shaped by the visions of a science fiction author. But Steele has more respect for the genre; he knows that it isn’t simply a collection of shopworn tropes that never matured beyond the 1950s. Instead, he understands the appeal of the Golden Age – the imaginative possibilities, the unflagging optimism in humanity’s destiny – without falling into the nostalgia trap that older necessarily equals better. In this way, Arkwright finds a perfect balance between nostalgia and modern science fiction. The novel offers an insight into the visions of yesteryear, without glorifying those visions.

In a much broader sense, the nostalgia that I felt whilst reading Arkwright spoke to my lifetime love for the genre science fiction. Reading Arkwright reminded me of reading 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time and falling in love with science fiction. Steele writes with such passion, such earnest optimism, that it’s hard not to become infected with his enthusiasm. It has an unabashed faith in the future. It speaks not just to the dreams of the Golden Ageists, but to the dreams of all science fiction writers, past and present. It is a simple, optimistic message: the future can be made better by feats of the imagination.

I am entirely happy to admit that my love of science fiction may have biased me towards this novel, but I did have a few (minor) issues. The beginning of the novel is a little slow. It takes 100 pages for the purpose of the Arkwright Foundation to be revealed, allowing Steele to wallow in Golden Age nostalgia as he explores the backgrounds and motives of his characters. Hardcore science fiction fans will delight in his cameos and in-jokes, but their significance may be lost on more general readers. Steele is so focused on the story of the Arkwright Foundation that many background details of the world they inhabit are dismissed as incidental. The greatest shame is Steele’s dismissal of climate change – after it impacts so heavily on one generation of characters, one of their descendants dismisses the whole problem as something that belonged to the twenty-first century, a problem that was eventually solved. It seems a little lazy. The numerous love stories throughout the text feel, at times, to be more concerned about perpetuating and maintaining the family genealogy than realistic stories of couples falling in love. There’s an unspoken threat here: just as the Foundation’s dream of building a starship is threatened by numerous forces outside their control, so is the continuation of the Arkwright name. What happens if his descendants fail to reproduce? Will the entire project collapse? Parts of the novel feel like the entire future of humankind in space depends solely on the guiding presence of an Arkwright, as if they are the sole custodians of the dream. But these are minor quibbles in what was otherwise an exceptional novel.

I will be recommending Arkwright to a lot of friends. It offers a rare return to the Golden Age, but in the idiom of a thoroughly modern science fiction novel. It resonated with me on numerous levels – as a fan of science fiction, as a writer, and as someone who has dreamed of the stars. It demonstrates that the visions conceived in the pages of a science fiction novel have the power to change the world.

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