Allen Steele
Tor Books
Release Date:  March 1, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-8215-3

Allen Steele is a prolific science fiction author who has won three Hugo Awards, serves on the Board of Advisors for both the Space Frontier Foundation and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and is well known for his Coyote Series of novels (eight books spanning 2002 to 2011).

In other words, he knows his stuff.

Which is what makes his newest novel, Arkwright, especially endearing.  The first section of the book is exactly what fellow author Robert J. Sawyer says it is:  a love letter to the science fiction field.

The story opens in 1939 with the exploits of fledging science fiction writer Nathan Arkwright as he stumbles upon what was called the World Science Fiction Convention, held in conjunction with the World’s Fair in New York.  Not only does he rub elbows with some of the greats in the field (real life writers such as Frederick Pohl, Isaac Asimov, and Cyril Kornbluth), but meets three other like minded attendees who end up becoming his lifelong friends; together, they dub themselves the “Legion of Tomorrow”.

As time passes, Nat grows to be a well respected science fiction author, considered one of the “Big Four” along with Robert Heinlein, Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.  From 1950 on, his tales of the iconic Galaxy Patrol bring him fame and fortune.  But Nat wants more than to merely imagine the future – he wants to bring it into the realm of the possible.  So with the wealth amassed from his works (and some shrewd investments), he creates the Arkwright Foundation, dedicated to “the exploration of space and to creating space colonies, with the ultimate goal of finding and colonizing an Earthlike planet several light years distant.”

Much of the book is about the efforts of the Foundation to bring about Nat Arkwright’s vision, bringing hard science into a compelling (and apparently, nearly plausible) plotline spanning generations.  The science and exploration narratives are truly gripping, as the Foundation must not only overcome scientific and ethical challenges, but also navigate the messes that involve geopolitical maneuverings, religious fanaticism, the court of public opinion, and general vagaries of human nature.

But the section of the book I enjoyed the most occurred at the end of the Galactique‘s journey (the Galactique being the name of the generational starship that Nat Arkwright envisioned, which left Earth in route to Gliese 667C-e, a terrestrial planet  in close orbit around an M-class red dwarf star 22 light years away).  For indeed, author Allen Steele doesn’t simply leave us watching the Galactique fade from view as it heads out on its amazing journey; he shows us what comes afterwards – and it’s unique and fascinating and wonderfully thought provoking.

Where the novel does stumble is in the progressive story of the Arkwright family itself.  Although plenty happens to Nathan Arkwright and his progeny down five generations – both scientifically with the efforts of the Foundation, and personally – the characters themselves are somewhat flat, and we as readers tend to watch from afar as they go through the dramas of their lives, rather than becoming emotionally engaged.  Perhaps this is collateral damage from rapidly spanning so many years; just as the reader is getting a handle on one set of characters, a chapter ends and we are suddenly plunged into the next generation – those characters we were just getting familiar with are suddenly taking a back seat to the new crew.  This constant shuffle of featured players to distant background roles might have been necessary to cover the scientific arc of the story, but it certainly telescopes all the personal drama into blips that carry little emotional or consequential weight.

Still, this is not a deal-breaker.  Arkwright is an entertaining, fast paced read that has a compelling plausibility to it that is quite hopeful (or perhaps alarming, depending in your view).  If you are a science fiction buff, a science fan, a dreamer, or someone who loves thinking beyond the here and now, Arkwright is right up your alley – and should be on your plate.

~ Sharon Browning

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