Arkwright is the new novel by Allen Steele, and billed as “both a love-letter to science-fiction field and a terrific cutting-edge hard-SF novel”. High praise indeed, especially given the focus of Arkwright spans generations and light-years, and just how a novel can deliver both aspects is very much a question that needs answering. While it is resoundingly answered by the time the last page is turned, Arkwright is much more than these two things and is, in fact, a gloriously optimistic science fiction story that captivates from early on.
Nathan Arkwright is a science fiction author most famous for his Galaxy Patrol series that spans books, television, and film. However, as he comes to the end of his life his wish for true space travel brings him to use his fortune and will to set up the Arkwright Foundation, with one simple goal: send a spaceship on a colony seeding flight to another star system within a hundred years. It’s against the backdrop of this idea that we follow Nathan and his descendants down the years and across space as his vision is realised.
Arkwright is split into four distinct parts: the story of Nathan’s life and how the Arkwright Foundation came to be; that of his great-great-grandson Matt and his journey into the family business as the spaceship nears completion; of Matt’s daughter, Dahni, through whose eyes we see the spaceship making its journey; and finally the results of the Foundation’s goals as we see just how the idea comes to fruition.
While a relatively short novel, and one whose pages seem to turn at a great speed, Arkwright packs plenty in to its page count. The risk of splitting the story to focus on different characters and causing a somewhat disconnected feel to the narrative is fortunately avoided, though not all parts of the novel work as well as each other. Personally, I found Nathan’s story during The Legion of Tomorrow to be interesting, but somewhat lacking, and while it does introduce the characters and brings an understanding to the reader, it occasionally felt stilted and forced. However, once past this Arkwright picks up momentum and doesn’t let up. Steele has also managed to give a unique voice to each part, bringing each to life in a different way, yet still managing to make the book feel consistent.
I enjoyed Arkwright a great deal, more so than I expected, truth be told. I read it in three sittings and found it very difficult to put down, not an effect that many books can have on me. It truly is a wonderful science fiction premise that is told confidently and concisely, not falling into the trap of giving information simply for the sake of it. I suspect the early parts of Arkwright will appeal to the older generation of SF fans, but as a whole it’s a shining example of science fiction that can – and should – appeal to all.