Review: Arkwright by Allen Steele

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; Reprint edition (February 14, 2017)
Language: English
Paperback: $8.79
Hardcover: $23.58

Where to begin?  Perhaps with this:

Arkwright is a tour-de-force, quite possibly the long-awaited harbinger of positive, optimistic, hard and personable science fiction we have been waiting for for far, far, far too long. It is eligible for this year’s Hugo nomination; it sits on the top of my list of nominations for the Best Novel Hugo award.

There are so many threads woven into this book, both those that are evident in the story itself and others that encompass the entirety of the journey that Science Fiction, as an institution, has been on for the past 91 years, that it is nigh on impossible to mention them all in a single review. But I shall try. It is a difficult task as focusing on any single element found here might tend to give the potential reader the mistaken belief that Arkwright is only an homage to the history of the genre, or only a Hard SF tome devoted to interstellar travel, or only the unique journey of an extended family, or only something else. Bear with me and hang in there till the finish.

The roots of science fiction as a literature are comprised of equal parts story and critique. Science Fiction is a genre that is more in dialogue with its readers than any other; more filled with creators who were fans first, more interested in having an on-going conversation about its concepts, ideas, themes, politics;  it is almost routine for authors to take up a question raised in an earlier work, equally routine for readers to compare, contrast and argue and through their critical commentary, influence the creation of works yet to come.

This dynamic was established in the very first days of fandom when Gernsback opened up the letter columns of his magazines and Ray Palmer and others produced the first fanzine (Ray would go on to become an author and an editor of several genre publications). Others quickly followed – Wollheim, Asimov, Bradbury, Moskowitz, Pohl, Kyle… – with two subjects dominating their conversations: what was the purpose of science fiction and what was the purpose of science fiction fandom?

Over time those two questions were largely resolved: science fiction was a literature whose purpose was to explore the infinite possibilities of the future, while fandom’s purpose was to encourage and support this pursuit while at the same time advocating for the adoption of SF’s better concepts by society at large. At least one faction of fandom, led by Don Wollheim, firmly believed that science fiction pointed a way to a better future, that it was fandom’s job to serve as pathfinders.

Wollheim and his Futurian friends eventually won the struggle for the hearts and minds of fandom, famously declaring (while disbanding a Science Fiction League chapter) that fandom was for everyone and should not serve commercial interests. A list of Futurian members is a list of some of the genre’s most influential authors, artists and editors, people who helped establish the very foundations of the literature.

But they failed in one of their stated goals: that of establishing the genre as a major influence on society and the path the future would take.

Allen Steele rectifies this failure with the insertion of Nathan Arkwright, would be fan, directly into the proceedings of the very first World Science Fiction Convention, presenting an alternate history that many fans would prefer over our present one.

Nathan witnesses the Great Expulsion Act of 1939 first hand, becoming a clueless participant in the proceedings (attending the convention is Nathan’s first exposure to fandom) and he finds himself rejecting the heavy-handedness of Moskowitz and siding with the Futurians. (There are some excellent sketches of young Bradbury, Wollheim and Asimov to be found here.) Yet he is more interested in the two new fen he meets at the entrance to Caravan Hall than he is in the political squabbling. An impromptu lunch date will take these three neo fen down a third fannish path, one that will seek to actualize the future that our real world fans only managed to talk about.

Nat Arkwright, Harry Skinner and Margaret Krough would create The Legion of Tomorrow at that luncheon and it would change the course of not just fannish, but of world history.

These revelations are presented to us by way of one of Nathan’s granddaughter’s reading Nat’s unfinished autobiography. Over the intervening years (it is now approximately our time) Nathan Arkwright would go on to become a member of the “Big Four” authors of SF, his career paralleling those of Heinlein, Edmonson and others, his Galaxy Patrol series spanning numerous books, television shows and film.

Upon his death, Nathan wills that his estate be used to establish the Arkwright Foundation, the funds to be used to establish and support research for an interstellar mission.

The following sequences of Arkwright focus on that interstellar program and its unique (though not unprecedented) solution to the many real-world obstacles to such a mission; Mr. Steele, in an afterword, cites attendance at the 100 Year Starship Symposium held in Orlando in 2011 as a major influence and source. The symposium was sponsored by DARPA and NASA and, while taking on a seemingly fantastical subject, it did so in a serious and grounded way.

The substantial based-on-real-science background this provided Arkwright is well evidenced throughout the novel.

Whether or not Allen Steele wrote Arkwright as a direct response to those in the field who have closed the door on interstellar empires or not is open to question (one we will ask in a forthcoming interview), but this much is clear: the moment you tell (good) science fiction authors that something can’t be done is the genesis moment for new ideas and concepts that will refute those negatives.

Arkwright has reconfirmed my contention that scientific plausibility is the only limitation that should be imposed on good, Hard Science Fiction. One author’s (or even a handful) “can’t” is another’s “oh yes we can!”.

The remainder of Arkwright follows the Arkwright Foundation’s struggles as witnessed through the eyes of the extended Arkwright family and builds to an interesting and satisfying conclusion (incidentally featuring not one but two interstellar missions).

The takeaway, and I believe it a very important one, is not Mr. Steele’s clever manipulation of near-term technologies, but rather the effort itself. Our species as well as our science fiction literature, has two paths it can take into the future.  One path suggests that our future is a limited one, filled with any number of dystopian outcomes. The other path dons science fiction’s original mantle of hope, a belief in humanity’s ability to dream big dreams and to turn those dreams into reality.

Arkwright is not only a novel that presents a desired might have been, it is, above all else, a novel that shows us how things should be now.

I sincerely hope that Allen Steele’s Arkwright inspires others in the field to recognize that our current understanding of the universe we live in is not a limitation. It is rather, a challenge to the creativity of our best and boldest. Allen Steele has shown us one path into an optimistic future. It is now up to the rest of us to sustain that. Have hope. The future can still be bright.

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