Arkwright is a compelling family drama married to inventive hard sci fi. The titular Arkwright is Nathan Arkwright, one of the Big Four early science fiction writers (an additional member to the Big Three of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke and not an addition to the big three of the Weird Tales, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith), credited with both introducing hard science into science fiction and inventing space opera. He’s most famous for his Galaxy Patrol series, a major influence on Star Wars. Nathan Arkwright is just the backstory though, that sets in motion a multi-generational effort to travel across the stars.
Nathan Arkwright’s Galaxy Patrol series, with TV and film adaptations, made him a wealthy man. But as his estranged granddaughter, Kate, learns after his death, he bequeathed none of that money to her or her mother.
The narrative trick of the first part of Arkwright is to initially tell its story through Kate’s re-entry into her grandfather’s life after his death. Present day segments of Kate looking into her grandfather’s life are interspersed with flashbacks as each person she talks to tells part of the story. It’s a story that goes back to when Nathan Arkwright attended his first science fiction convention and made lifelong friends with three other attendees. Together they dub themselves the Legion of the Future.
That deep rooting in the history of science fiction is very important, I think. Mainly because the fictional science fiction doesn’t start until well into the book. Arkwright is a book very much concerned with science fiction at a meta level. Steele wants us to look to the stars. And he wants us to look to the classics of the genre (Nathan Arkwright eventually becomes “a writer many people had heard of but few actually read.”) So in the interim we get a window into the very early science fiction culture.
We also get a great family drama. Arkwright needs this just as much to work as a book. Both in the beginning, when it’s all meta science fiction and no actual science fiction, and later in the book. That’s because the story stretches well beyond Nathan Arkwright’s life into and beyond that of his descendants. I’m a sucker for stories that span decades, but they’re tough to pull off. One of Steele’s secrets is to make Arkwright a book as much about Nathan Arkwright’s descendants as it is about his interstellar vision. They’re the mortar that holds together the narratives bricks (ok, kind of an awkward metaphor here) of each stage of the massive project.
That project is an interstellar journey via starship for the purposes of permanent colonization. The plan has the usual, seemingly prohibitive obstacles when planned. Even if the ship can be accelerated to half the speed of light, it would take years to get to the nearest star, with no promise of a viable planet. Keeping people alive in space is hard, and expensive, and hibernation isn’t currently feasible.
The plan they settle on is one with rather obvious large issues of its own. And, interestingly, problems which shouldn’t have looked any less insurmountable when Nathan Arkwright created his foundation. The plan is not to send humans, but rather to send genetic material, along with robots to raise the children and an AI to oversee it all. Bioengineered “genesis plants” will help create a breathable atmosphere and make the planet habitable. If I have any criticism of Arkwright, it’s that it tends to skim past those problems. Our window is the Arkwright (really, Skinner) family, and what we see of the obstacles faced are snapshots.
I’ve been talking about Nathan Arkwright a lot, but this isn’t his story, it’s the story of his legacy. Most of the book is devoted to his descendants. The trials they face are first the stuff of family drama, second the politics and finances of keeping a decades-long project running, and third the technological challenges. (The starship itself is a microwave powered beamship, if you’re wondering.) There are many descendants. I would love to talk about them, but it’s hard to without getting into spoilers on some level. But I will say they work because they both are players in a story interesting in and of itself and because they have their own hopes and dreams, vices and foibles. Nathan Arkwright isn’t the only one haunted by darkness.
It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler, but SPOILER ALERT, the final part of the book takes place on the destination planet. Generations have past for the descendants of the first children from the starship to grow their own culture. The new planet has higher gravity than Earth and the ship AI has modified their genes as appropriate. Robots, 3D printers, and AI have decayed and stopped working. The arrival of humans who look very, very different is a big deal. This sequence brings to mind the end of Seveneves, which has a much, much longer chronological jump. Arkwright’s is better executed, and in general the storytelling is better and the science fiction close to as interesting as that of Seveneves. /END SPOILERS
All that makes for a rather long, rambling review. And that is without talking about the individual Arkwright/Skinners and getting into the science in any depth. Arkwright doesn’t quite have the huge pauses to explain tech that Seveneves does, but there should be more than enough science to satisfy any science fiction fan. And Steele includes social commentary (as science fiction necessarily does) but subtly and intelligently (as science fiction too frequently does not). It seems like I never get to just sit down and read for long stretches any more, but I managed to finish Arkwright in just a few days. It’s halcyon days for science fiction IN SPACE.
Disclosure: I received a free, advance copy of Arkwright through NetGalley.
 Steele also throws in a (light) parallel of sorts to the ongoing Hugo Awards controversy. Nathan attends the first ever WorldCon and gets caught up in a historical brouhaha involving a group called the Futurians.
“‘The Futurians believe that science fiction can change the world,’ Harry said. ‘They think it should do more than just entertain people and instead present ways in which science and technology can solve social problems. The other guys—the so-called New Fandom, although most of them are just diehards from the old Science Fiction League—only want monsters and mad scientists and claim that the Futurians are nothing but a bunch of communists.’ A lopsided grin. ‘They’re half-right, really. Some of the Futurians are reds . . . or at least they used to be.’”
 He’s less into alternatives, and throws a bit of an F U at cyberpunk. Nathan Arkwright dresses down a young fan who criticizes science fiction featuring space instead of computers. And the AI sent on the interstellar mission isn’t a true AI, with the capacity for emotion, as is emphasized repeatedly.
Steele should feel a bit vindicated (at least on the fictional front). Recent cyberpunk works like Zer0es and CTRL ALT Revolt! can’t quite compete with their space-centric counterparts and the Matrix was a long time ago. Space, on the other hand, is hot, with Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian on the big screen and The Martian, Seveneves, Saturn Run, and Steele’s own Arkwright in print.