BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An aging science fiction writer named Nathan Arkwright sets up a foundation to colonize a faraway planet.
PROS: Widespread appeal; excellent science-based story; lots of sf references; epic feel; straightforward writing style makes it a fast read; accessibility…
CONS: …that perhaps comes at a cost of not being sf-nal enough for some.
BOTTOM LINE: Arkwright is a novel you can hand to anyone and say “This is why I like science fiction.”
Arkwright, the latest novel from Allen Steele, is a remarkable novel about planetary colonization for several reasons, most notably in that it has something for everyone:
- It’s a love letter to fandom – The book blurb doesn’t lie. Hardcore science fiction fans will no doubt adore the first part of the four-part longer story. In it, readers are introduced to Nathan Arkwright, a science fiction writer who catches the sf bug when he attends the first Worldcon in 1939. Through reference-laden flashbacks readers get to see Nathan briefly interact with legendary figures in the SF field like Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. It’s at the 1939 Worldcon that Nathan forms a lifelong friendship with Maggie Krough (who would later become Nathan’s agent), Harry Skinner (a less-successful fellow writer) and George Hallahan (who would later become a theoretical physicist). The four misfits grow up together, but it’s Nathan who becomes the successful one, eventually becoming a famous science fiction writer in the mold of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. Nathan is also the centerpiece of the novel: convinced that humanity will not survive forever on Earth, he sets up the Arkwright Foundation whose decades-long mission is to colonize another planet.
- It’s accessible science fiction – Despite the colonization undercurrent of the story, Arkwright reads like a mainstream novel. The story is one hundred percent character-driven and never overshadowed by the science. There are plenty of characters to drive the story as well; it follows several generations of Nathan’ descendants across the five centuries it takes place, helping to give the story an epic feel, though perhaps on a more personal scale. This also makes the story a very human one, with relationships and character flaws at the forefront of the storytelling. Characterizations were so life-like that it wasn’t hard remembering the family tree. Since it occurs over several family generations, characters come and go and there is a genuine feeling of loss when they leave.
- It’s structured to be read in chunks – Arkwright‘s four main parts, which are interconnected by connecting interludes, are essentially novella-length standalone stories, readable in one sitting, that each contribute to the larger story arc. Parts of the book, in fact, have appeared in Asimov‘s magazine, including “The Prodigal Son”, which I enjoyed reading last year. Each part gives a glimpse into a phase of the project to colonize another planet. The episodic structure means that short fiction lovers will feel right at home reading the novel, while those unfamiliar with or averse to short fiction will see their potential.
- It’s based on hard science – Despite the mainstream appeal of the story, it is still science fiction, as evidenced by the occasional straightforward discussion about how such a colonization project might come to be realized. The engineering teams have plenty of hurdles to overcome: finding a suitable planet, building a starship to make the journey, powering said starship, how to get humanity there, terraforming, etc. There’s no infodumping here; these issues are explored at just enough length to understand the problem and buy into the solution, yet told in a way that it advances the story or fleshes out the characters. It never weighs the story down. You may get just enough bang for your sf buck to evoke sense of wonder, or the sf-nal aspects of the book could leave you wanting more. It worked for me. Your mileage may vary.
- It includes excellent world building – Without giving too much away, there’s one part of Arkwright in particular that is stuffed with interesting and economically told world building even while it’s telling a gripping story.
Arkwright seems to be novel that’s perfectly geared towards everyone. SF fans will love the science and fandom references. Non-fans will attach themselves the human focus of the plot. This is a novel you can hand to anyone and say “This is why I like science fiction.”