There are those novels that can be explained with a succinct elevator pitch—and then there are those that require a bit more background. Allen Steele’s newest novel, Arkwright, is decidedly one of the latter, in wonderful ways. On one level, this is a “big idea” book about a science fiction author named Nathan Arkwright who establishes a foundation to design and fund the construction of the first true interstellar starship in order to colonize a planet more than 20 light years from the Earth. You could also say it’s an epic story of family, following his descendants through the decades—and, eventually, across the stars and centuries. You could also say it’s a celebration of the ideals of the Golden Age of science fiction; or a hard science fiction story about physics and an alien culture; or a story about how love, that most powerful of human emotions, shapes the lives of everyone on Earth—and beyond.
Layer One: The Golden Age
Nathan Arkwright, whose gives the book its title, is only present at the very beginning, but his presence looms large over the entire story. Arkwright is envisioned as one of the greats of the Golden Age of science fiction, a contemporary of Asimov, Pohl, and Heinlein, and flashbacks to the 1930s visit these titans of the genre when they were all young idealists. In much the same way The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay explored the early days of comics, we witness the formation of what would become sci-fi literature, as Arkwright meets three people who will come to form a private club called the Legion of Tomorrow (kickass slogan: Forward the Legion!), which, decades later, becomes the Arkwright Foundation. The book comes alive with the can-do energy of the era, when it seemed like a group of writers and scientists really could change the fate of humanity, just by deciding to.
Layer Two: A family saga
Once the Arkwright Foundation is created and charged with using Arkwright’s personal wealth as seed money for investments designed to encourage the technological development necessary to build a starship capable of traveling half the speed of light (not to mention produce dividends to grow the foundation’s assets), you might expect the story to fast-forward to the launch and colonization attempt. Instead, Steele instead traces the paired fates of the Arkwright family and the Arkwright Foundation, dipping in and out of time to show us how chance meetings, love affairs, and personal flaws combine to make the family saga both a familiar, messy interpersonal tale and the story about pulling off the biggest technological feat of all time.
Layer Three: Hard sci-fi
The Arkwright Foundation is created because Nathan Arkwright isn’t certain humanity will survive. While the idea of colonizing a distant planet might seem impossible (a point Kim Stanley Robinson makes quite devastatingly in his recent book Aurora), Steele carefully constructs a scientific scenario that’s based entirely in the possible. The propulsion system; the design of the ship; the assertion that FTL travel, generation ships, and suspended animation are the stuff of, well, science fiction; the ultimate mechanism for bringing viable human DNA to a distant world—it’s all explained thoroughly—and believably. What elements to threaten to strain credibility (including the development of a powerful AI) stay firmly on the side of the plausible—if far beyond our current capabilities.
The Arkwright Foundation—and by implication, Steele—argue the only way to accomplish this mission is to give up on the romantic idea of brave adventurers risking their lives on massive colony ships. Individual heroism is a powerful notion, but it’s much more likely our greatest achievements in deep space will involve remote-controlled robots and artificial minds. Steele appears to offer us a realistic plan for colonizing a distant planet, which makes the long journey of getting to that point in the story that much more powerful.
Layer Four: An exciting adventure
Steele doesn’t forget that his novel of ideas is also an adventure story. The novel charts a course across the stars, and a visit to an alien world serves to tie all of these layers together while adding a new one, as the expedition discovers that reaching your destination doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of the journey.
Arkwright is a love letter the titans of science fiction, even as it engages with the same messy, human questions as Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It’s about our big dreams and the all-too-relatable imperfections that make them so difficult to achieve, our reach for the stars despite the harsh realities that await us out in the black.