Gary's Reviews > Arkwright

Arkwright by Allen M. Steele
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it was ok

Arkwright is the story of a fictional golden age science writer, Nathan Arkwright - a writer in the mold of E.E. 'Doc' Smith, but as famous as Asimov or Heinlein - who uses his fame and fortune to jumpstart a project to send humanity to the stars. In that sense, the novel is a metafictional throwback to the golden age, as well as a straightforward throwback to the kind of heroic problem solving stories that era was known for. It is the most unabashedly dorky sci-fi novel I have ever read, and to some degree that quality is endearing.
Arkwright arrives as something of an antidote to the deeply flawed pessimism of Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, and though Steele's novel was completed before the publication of Robinson's, the arguments seem to systematically respond to and counter many of the conclusions Robinson reaches (and in case you haven't read Aurora, dude is NOT a fan of interstellar travel). Many of the philosophical problems I had with Aurora are addressed in Arkwright - particularly concerning the motives for (and benefits of) developing the technology for interstellar travel - which is why it depresses me that it isn't a very good novel.
The hard SFnal aspects of Arkwright are successful enough to scratch the nerd itch that compels me to read SF in the first place. It's the rest - characters, plotting, etc. - that fails to inspire. The characters are pretty two dimensional and they all seem to transparently make the choices the author needs them to make in order to keep things moving. Obstacles are surmounted a little too easily by developments that are a little too convenient. And while the science is good, some of the reasoning is flawed in execution. There are points in which Steele seems to unwittingly undermine the very premise of his novel, which is a pretty big fail. And then there are the sharks. Note to anyone who reads this novel: think long and hard about the sharks. And the asteroid; don't even get me started on the bloody asteroid.
Since Steele is not nearly the skilled and imaginative storyteller that Robinson is, it is hardly a boon that he replaces Robinson's tendentious cynicism with his own tendentious optimism. All I can do is pray to the gods of science fiction that we will soon be gifted with better written novels in the vein of Arkwright's good intentions.
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Reading Progress

March 6, 2016 – Started Reading
March 6, 2016 – Shelved
March 16, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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David Agranoff I came alot of the same conclusions in a review I was going to post later today. Although I was more on the agreement with KSR side.

David Agranoff I also thought the POV of the last act was a terrible. Should have been Nathan landing on the planet that was the POV for seeing Gal's colony.

Gary Yeah, pretty much nothing worked for me in the last act.

Stevie Kincade Outstanding review Gary. I think we saw this one similarly though we clearly disagree on "Aurora". I want to take the bait, what was the go with the sharks? That they never should have introduced them or that harpooning them was a bit far fetched? And "the bloody asteroid" seemed like a minor diversion/possible Seveneves wink. What was your take on it?

Gary Stevie wrote: "Outstanding review Gary. I think we saw this one similarly though we clearly disagree on "Aurora". I want to take the bait, what was the go with the sharks? That they never should have introduced t..."

Both the sharks and the asteroid were these huge obstacles awkwardly inserted to generate conflict and excitement. The asteroid at least made sense in terms of the author's purpose in writing the novel. I don't think it was a nod to Seveneves because that section of the book was written and published as a novella before Stephenson's novel was published. My problem with it was that it served as a convenient device for vindicating the protagonists after their project was marginalized by political opportunists. "Oh look! It's the Armageddon! Luckily we built this egregiously expensive device for a completely different reason that you tried to stop us from building and we can save the world now! Who gets the last laugh!?!" It strikes me as one of those 'ripped from the pages of Scientific American' kind of moments. The "beamer" Steele describes is a theoretical device oft posited by engineers as a means of sending spaceships to other systems (KSR uses a similar device to launch the Ship in "Aurora"), and one of the most common arguments used to justify the expense of its construction is that it can double as a meteor deflector. So while it fits with what I admire about Mr. Steele's intentions - to show that technology built for interstellar travel has other practical benefits - and serves as an antidote to KSR's more cynical and dismissive views on interstellar travel, as a narrative device it feels shoehorned in.
As for the sharks, well, their presence in the novel doesn't make a damn bit of sense. The explanation Nathan gives for their existence on the Eos is that they were "adapted to provide a diverse ecosystem." Really? Did Gal decide to not "adapt" them with a food source as well? I mean, the way they are depicted in the novel, the sharks attack and kill every freaking boatload of humans that try to travel between the two colonies. Great white sharks generally don't attack large creatures on the surface unless their regular food source is depleted and they are starving - the present day increase in shark attacks on humans can be attributed to our over-fishing the oceans - and I seriously doubt they would go around attacking boats all day long unless they were starving to the point of extinction. The lack of other fish for them to eat doesn't sound like a very "diverse ecosystem" to me. I suppose you could stretch logic to make the argument that the children of Gal are over-fishing the oceans on Eos as well, but that argument is negated by the fact that almost no one travels to the other colony because practically everyone who climbs into a boat gets eaten by a frigging shark ("they became a barrier between the two colonies," Nathan states). The whole conceit that the two colonies lost contact with each other because sharks is as flimsy a device as I have ever seen in a science fiction novel. And the solution was to blast those nasty beasties with laser cannons! At that point, whatever good will I had engendered toward Arkwright (and it was still a pretty thin sliver by then) was set adrift, and eaten by unusually hungry sharks.

Stevie Kincade Hahaha really good stuff, I hadn't picked any of that up myself. I suppose one of the side of effects of the "loving tribute" to SF is that you can start seeing tributes even when the book in question hadn't been written yet.

Peter Tillman While I liked this more than you did, it's hardly flawless. And it's interesting the range of reactions, among people whose opinions I value. Thanks fr taking the tie to write a detailed review.

Another reason why there need to be a bunch of books, preferably near at hand, so you don't need to spend too much time on the ones you don't fancy! Someone else might really like it....

Gary Peter wrote: "While I liked this more than you did, it's hardly flawless. And it's interesting the range of reactions, among people whose opinions I value. Thanks fr taking the tie to write a detailed review.


No problem, Peter. I agree with you completely on that point.

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