by Allen Steele
Tor Books/Tom Doherty Associates, LLC © 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-8215-3 (Hardcover)
Print length 336 pages, $23.58
Nathan Arkwright, best-selling science fiction writer and wealthy philanthropist, dies without providing for his daughter Sylvia or granddaughter Kate. Instead, he leaves his entire considerable fortune to the Arkwright Foundation, a nonprofit organization to be established and operated toward the goal of real, honest-to-god space travel that might actually carry humans to the stars. It isn’t as though they were a close family. Kate’s known for years that there was some dark history between her mother and grandfather, but Sylvia refuses to discuss it and Grandpapa Nathan was never exactly a welcoming presence. Kate barely even knows him. No one even tells Kate he’s dead, so when she reads it in the paper, she doesn’t really know what to feel.
All that changes when Kate decides to go to the funeral. There, strangers approach her with a curious need to tell her about her grandfather. It isn’t until she learns what the Foundation has in mind as her role that she understands the full impact of Nathan Arkwright’s legacy.
Arkwright is hard sci-fi, sticking to the science of interstellar travel, delays in communications that would be a very realistic part of any such project, and what it would take to actually send a ship to another star system—not just the technical details, but the sociological, cultural and political ones. Not everyone is in favor of this project, and some will stop at nothing to bring the foundation to its knees. The narrative follows the various generations of the Arkwright family as they work toward manifesting the goal of the Foundation, overcoming one hurdle or setback after another. Throughout, and even after the ship leaves its orbital construction site to achieve its mission, we see the changes taking place here on Earth in both environmental and political climates.
The book is separated into four parts, the first of which is Nathan Arkwright’s story. Scenes move between Kate in the contemporary timeline and flashbacks, where we see through Nathan’s perspective how and why he became a writer and what led him to found his legacy. Along the way, famous science and science fiction personas like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clark flit in and out of cameos, but only as an homage; never does Steele actually involve them in the storyline. And the names aren’t the only tributes. Readers will find many nuggets that hail back to science fiction classics of our own day. I have to admit, as a sci-fi fan, this tickled me, as I’m sure it was meant to do.
Parts two and three follow Nathan’s grandson and great-granddaughter, and dive into the nuances of family politics and the challenges that face them all on such an ambitious journey. Another famous author once said “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” and the Arkwrights get up close and personal with this truism. Throughout, the story is driven by its characters, by their strengths and foibles, their dreams and their nightmares. Behind it all is the firm belief that the Foundation’s goal is bigger than their personal dramas. Bigger than their entire family. Bigger than any attempt to stop it, despite the pettiness that creeps in via black sheep or politicians. The Arkwright Foundation’s mission is, in fact, undertaken on behalf of humankind. It cannot be allowed to fail.
As for part four…. Well. No spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book to find out, but it will definitely be time well spent. Steele’s intimate glimpse into the Arkwright family’s dream and the faith with which they carry it out is an inspiring read.