Arkwright, by Allen Steele (TOR Books, March 2016)
By Michael Grossberg
Science-fiction writers and fans have imagined the spread of humanity to the stars for generations.
Allan Steele hasn’t given up the dream.
In Arkwright, Steele sketches out a generations-long saga in an effort to dramatize how we plausibly can get there – even if we can’t overcome or get around such implacable limitations as the speed of light, a major stumbling block to interstellar travel given the vast distances between solar systems in this spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.
A heartfelt valentine to the golden age of science fiction, which embodied an optimistic view of human progress and technology fueled by a stlll-potent Jeffersonian liberalism (i.e., libertarianism) that has since sadly faded, the novel is especially flattering to SF fans because of its focus on a popular science fiction writer whose financial success and legacy sparks a long-term plan to reach the stars.
Epic but also highly episodic, the 332-page novel seems consciously aimed at those who yearn for the return of a can-do American era, such as the early 1960s, when the popular culture was more heroic and hopeful about the future.
Steele, who has carved a respectable niche as an SF writer inspired by the golden age of Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, tends to write more in the realistic and prosaic style of Ben Bova but with a touch of the poetic flair of Ray Bradbury.
While some fans may question in certain ways just how likely is the real-world success of Steele’s particular space-flight scenario, Steele has written a story that flatters the assumptions of diehard SF fandom that’s been waiting for what seems like forever for humankind to finally figure out a way to colonize nearby exo-planets.
Better yet, it’s a story easy for hardcore SF fans – the kind who attend Worldcons and regional SF cons – to fall in love with. (In fact, I haven’t read an SF novel so appealing to knowledgeable SF fans since Red Shirts, John Scalzi’s clever and amusing starship-mission reconception of and tribute to the template of Star Trek.)
Arkwright fleshes out a multigenerational, private and largely discreet effort to develop, finance and launch the first working starship without government support or state bureaucracy. Such a broadly libertarian approach prompted the nomination of this entertaining work last year for a Prometheus Award for Best Novel.
Early chapters should entertain older SF fans in particular because of their charming focus on the Legions of Tomorrow, a fan-based group that emerges from the first World Science Fiction conventions as the roman à clef story blends fictional characters with such familiar faces as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Frederick Pohl. That fan spirit animates the entire novel.
The novel’s title refers to beloved author Nathan Arkwright, best known for his “Galaxy Patrol” series of space adventures. (Think Heinlein crossed with E.E. “Doc” Smith, but with a heavy dose of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek.)
When Arkright dies, he leaves his entire and considerable estate to create and sustain the Arkright Foundation. The goal of the foundation: to send human genetic material inside a rocket to a habitable planet, so that the rocket’s computer can create embryos and raise them in artificial uteruses into people who would colonize the new frontier.
Succeeding generations of Arkrights further the foundation’s efforts, with varying degrees of commitment and doubts, in what’s basically a series of loosely connected vignettes, stories and novellas. (Some sections initially were published in Asimov’s Magazine.)
But the devil, as always, is in the details.
Perhaps inevitably, as a byproduct of the novel’s very concept and structure, generations come and go too quickly to allow much reader identification with particular people. Even when a character sustains interest, he or she departs from the story within another few chapters as a new generation dawns.
There’s some welcome suspense and mystery – What obstacles will pop up to delay or foil the plan? And will the latest generation of characters have the means and will to recognize and overcome difficulties? – but the ultimate resolution is rarely in doubt.
One gets so involved with some initial leading characters that one misses them as the story moves on through five centuries.
One concern: A small part of Steele’s scenario is simplistic or stereotyped (the worst stereotypes are about religion or race, but are thankfully minor and brief, largely reflecting familiar SF tropes that champion reason and science while condemning religious fundamentalism or ethnic fanaticism), making it a little harder for this novel to connect with today’s welcome and more diverse readership.
Beyond questions of plausibility about the science and social changes, some have wondered whether even a wealthy private foundation would have enough millions to sustain any effort over a century.
I didn’t have a problem with that – not only because of what financial investment advisers like to refer to as “the miracle of compound interest,” but also because of the widely underreported or taken-for-granted incredible progress that humankind already has made over the past century or two.
(I highly recommend reading British science writer Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist or Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, insightful and revelatory books that marshal an amazing range of (often revelatory) history, statistics, science, economics and logic to demonstrate that our species has made enormous progress over the millennia and in recent centuries, largely because of the moral and practical policies that only in very recent generations have gelled into the social philosophy of market-oriented liberalism.)
If we’re so much richer, healthier, freer, more peaceful and longer-lived than past generations – and we are worldwide, with only a few grievous exceptions in the remaining dictatorships – then it’s certainly plausible for Steele to imagine that his centuries of further advances in prosperity, growth and wealth will be more than enough to fund interstellar travel.
The focus on human achievement – through private enterprise, and largely outside politics – is refreshing. Steele is at his best in exploring and dramatizing the real-world challenges of building and powering the starship, and identifying and later terraforming a suitable planet for colonization.
Yet politics does intrude here and there, which also seems sadly plausible.
Some libertarians, in judging this novel for the Prometheus Award, objected to one plot point, when the foundation makes a sizable campaign donation to a prominent member of Congress in order to affect federal legislation in a way favorable to future private space flights.
My view: If the donation had been made to obtain a special federal subsidy or to directly harm competitors through government penalties, I’d agree with that criticism. But the foundation’s action seems acceptable (if not ideal) to me because it’s taken to forestall coercive governmental overreach threatening the foundation’s legitimate private efforts. Individuals – and groups of individuals, working through an organization, union or company – do have rights, including the right to self-defense, the right to advocate and to lobby to preserve their freedom.
Overall, despite the episodic gaps built into its four-part generations-spanning structure, Arkwright offers an inspiring and realistically complicated family saga about a seemingly plausible effort to develop the technology to build an interstellar starship that flies at up to half the speed of light and is capable of colonizing a planet in a solar system about 20 light years away.
Ultimately, this is a novel that champions initiative, entrepreneurship, private enterprise, innovation, technology, progress, fandom and the animating power of science fiction itself.
* Watch the videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.
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