Steele, Allen. Arkwright.

NY: Tor, 2016.

I’ve read — or attempted to read — several of Steele’s SF novels in the past, but I’m afraid I haven’t been much impressed. This one got a lot of strong, enthusiastic reviews, though, so I felt obligated to give it a try. And it may be better than his earlier work, but it still seems awfully weak. In fact, it’s barely science fiction.

The premise is that a major science fiction author of the Golden Age named Nathan Arkwright — think Heinlein and Clarke — has just died and has left his considerable wealth to establish a foundation to build humanity’s first starship with the goal of colonizing another earthlike planet. It’s a long-term project, obviously — fifty years to design and build the ship and another century or so for it to reach its destination — and this is the story of several generations of the Arkwright as they pursue old Nathan’s dream.

The first quarter of the book, though, seems rather pointless. Steele takes us back to the first World Science Fiction Convention, in New York in 1939, when young Nathan meets all the big names who will become his colleagues and competitors. Steele throws around a lot of casual descriptions of major figures in the genre, from John Campbell to Fred Pohl to Cyril Kornbluth, and seems determined to knock the gilding off them. Fair enough, they were all just people, too — but he badly overdoes it. Among those Nathan bonds with are Harry Skinner, another budding writer, George Hallahan, who will become a noted physicist and science coach to the other two, and Margaret Krough, who will become both lover and agent to Nathan and Harry. And the four of them will become forever the Legion of Tomorrow. Steele follows them only sporadically through their careers, though, emphasizing minor stuff and omitting what could have been formative episodes. Instead, the prose plods. And none of it really has much to do with all that comes after.

The introduction of Nathan’s granddaughter, Kate, is where the story really begins. She hasn’t seen Nathan in years because her mother was vehemently estranged from him (we’ll find out why later), but Kate attends the funeral and then finds herself recruited for the foundation. And then she marries Skinner’s son, and their offspring continue the work over the coming decades. And so on. Most of the story is actually about each generation’s personal issues, from political finagling to alcoholism, as told against only a faint backdrop of global warming, rising oceans, and earth-threatening asteroids, with the details of the starship — given the unlikely name of Galactique — actually getting pretty short shrift. A generation ship won’t work, really, so the colonization will be carried out by frozen sperm and eggs which will be gestated by the ship’s AI on arrival. And the description of the transmitted beam pressing against the ship’s sixty-mile wide sail in lieu of a fusion engine is interesting, but rather brief.

Finally, the closing section, about what happens after the ship arrives at its destination is rather clumsily written and melodramatic, and filled with gaping narrative holes. The whole book is rather a disappointment, frankly. In another author’s hands, it could have been much, much more. At this rate, Steele is never going to reach the literary level even of Nathan Arkwright.

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