Arkwright, by Allen Steele
This is the kind of book that offers a little of the best and worst of modern science fiction. Let’s start with the best stuff.
The book begins as a sort of love-letter to the Golden Age of science fiction. Nathan Arkwright has died. He was a popular author of a series of science fiction novels centered around Galaxy Patrol which became a world sensation, particularly when turned into a television series and movie franchise.
He’s been estranged from his daughter for many years but despite this his granddaughter Kate decides to attend the funeral. There she meets her grandfather’s oldest and closest friends who tell her that Nathan decided to leave all of his wealth to a foundation designed to fund very special projects. Nathan wanted Kate to be part of the foundation, as do his friends, but first she needs to read something about his life.
In his autobiography Nathan tells of his early fascination with science fiction and his desire to become a writer. He describes attending a science fiction convention in 1939 where there’s a roiling controversy between “The Futurians”, science fiction writers who want to use the genre to change the world, and old-timers who would rather focus on monsters. The Futurians featured authors such as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl with support from publisher William Campbell. Nathan joins up with a similar small group and this eventually becomes the basis of the foundation.
What the foundation wants to do is to launch a private spaceship to a distant solar system. Because humans wouldn’t survive the trip they collect sperm and eggs from 200 people. The goal will be to send the ship off guided by artificial intelligence and repair bots. When they find a suitable planet they’ll send out a terraforming device. When there’s sufficient atmosphere and earth like plants and animals they will fertilize the eggs. Babies will be sent to the planet to be raised by two robots.
Kate joins the program and the rest of the book is focused on the project and the aftermath. It follows several generations on earth, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Nathan and others as they maintain laser communications with the distant ship.
This is interesting, honoring the genre’s past while offering some unique ideas. The book is a little weak on character development. We know a lot about Nathan Arkwright, for example, without much real sense of where many of his idiosyncrasies come from. There are lots of characters over many generations, but somehow they seem to lack soul.
The greatest disappointments come near the end when we finally get to see the results of the project and we find the new humans, with some genetic modifications, who have built up a cultish religion that pushes uniform beliefs. It turns out that this particular group has split away and had difficulties, but it still seems a bit hard to believe that beings raised by AI robots would take such a weird religious turn. This may be a bias in the author, as Nathan’s original project is slowed and attacked by religious zealots on earth. This happens a lot in science fiction and it seems like hard-line religion is as easy a go-to bad guy as Russians or South Africans in thrillers. Plus it’s an old idea. If you watched the original Star Trek series you may remember an episode called “Miri” that featured Kim Darby and MIchael J. Pollard, in which a group of children are left to raise themselves and end up killing people when they reach puberty. It’s an old idea in science fiction and, for as often as it’s pulled out of the trick bag, it’s rarely done well. It resolves poorly in this book as an earth party finally arrives after 450 years to reestablish communication between earth and the new planet.
All told it ends up being an interesting and nostalgic book that takes an easy road too many times when the story deserves more complexity bringing it all to a disappointing ending.