Jul 21, 2017

Allen Steele, Arkwright and the art of keeping the ‘golden’ spirit of sci-fi alive

BYGautham Shenoy

Any history of science fiction is incomplete without a big shout out to Nathan Arkwright. Amongst the Big Four of the ‘golden age of science fiction’, Arkwright was a seminal author of the 20th century with 23 novels and five short story collections to his credit. Arkwright’s most famous creation was the Galaxy Patrol, featuring the hero Hak Tallus, a series of 17 novels that made him immensely popular and insanely wealthy thanks to all the movies, comic strip and TV series based on it. However, as he approached the end of his life he became reclusive and cantankerous, refusing to appear before or interact with his legions of fans, dropping completely off the radar.
If you’re a bit flummoxed why you’ve never heard about Nathan Arkwright if he was that famous and popular, well, it’s because he is a fictional science fiction author whose biography is above, and whose obituary kicks off Allen Steele’s 20th novel, Arkwright.

Allen Steele’s Arkwright strategically placed amidst some books from an age that it pays tribute to. The barely readable blurb on the cover – from Wall Street Journal – calls it ‘the most optimistically extrovert sci-fi novel in years’ and that it ‘lifts the hearts like bugles in the morning’. Grainy photo via: This writer’s cheap phone.

But Nathan Arkwright’s real legacy is not his books, but a project that he embarked on in his later years, using his vast wealth to fuel a dream that will save – and radically change – humankind. And that is a very brief synopsis of this book. (Very related sidenote: It is actually ‘Big 3 of Science Fiction’, and if you know who they are, you could just win a personalised autographed copy of Arkwright. More below).
Amongst the finest contemporary space science fiction writers, Allen Steele is the winner of multiple awards (including three Hugo Awards) and the writer of several acclaimed novels, including the Coyote trilogy.
I requested Steele to introduce Arkwright to NWW readers, and here it is in his own words: “Arkwright is a novel about the descendants of a 20th century science fiction author, Nathan Arkwright, and their generations-long effort to fulfill his legacy and construct the first starship, for the purpose of assuring the long-term survival of the human race. That’s the story, at least… save to say that it’s not about space battles or alien invasions.”
Arkwright is many things at once – an ode, a love letter to science fiction, an adventure, an epic story of an interstellar starship and a heroic attempt to save the human race, a family saga spanning generations, a glorious throwback to the unbridled optimism of the sci-fi greats, a tribute to the golden age of science fiction and more. That said, it’s a story that belongs very much to today, grappling with the issues facing us all and asking some very human questions that many of us are asking ourselves.
It manages to hit the sweet spot in having something for everyone – be it a reader who’s looking for a good, galloping yarn, or a science fiction fan who’s looking for the same, but within the genre. It’s a novel brimming with ideas, and though it’s a story told very simply, it belongs squarely in the category called ‘hard SF’, where the science is as important as the fiction. So while the plot is engaging and the story well-told, the science is very plausible, within the limits of possibility, and in this case, pragmatic.
Arkwright is a book that wears its love of science fiction and genre on its sleeve, with readers being treated to a short history of actual science fiction history, starting with the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 – but with Nathan Arkwright and his group of friends, The Legion of Tomorrow very deftly integrated into it. In other words, greats such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Fredrick Pohl and CM Kornbluth appear in Arkwright, with many more having some solid walk-in roles. Also – intentional or not – even structurally Arkwright is a throwback to the books and age it pays tribute to. It is structured as a collection of short novellas and interludes originally serialised and published in a magazine. So if you are a lover of science fiction or someone with even a passing interest and would like to know more about its history and what makes this wondrous genre tick, this is the book for you.
Left: The author of Arkwright, Allen Steele. Via: allensteele.com Right: The starship Galactique that plays a big role in Arkwright. Illustration by Rob Caswell. Design by Allen Steele. (from the book)

I personally thoroughly enjoyed Arkwright – a novel about a science fiction writer, containing science fiction history from an age gone past, that tries to remind us what science fiction is capable of and can do as a genre. So naturally, I had to reach out to the author. And I reproduce the very brief interview with Allen Steele on Arkwright in particular and science fiction at large:
Arkwright is a book that wears its optimism on its sleeve. In an age when dystopias are ‘in’, this is required, I feel… a book that evokes a sense of wonder and hope. Was there any specific intention in writing this story the way it is told?
I had a certain sense of purpose in writing Arkwright in that I’m tired of dystopian SF, particularly the sort that poses no solutions but just turns the demise of human civilization into a form of entertainment. If the end of the world comes, I promise you that it won’t be just like a movie or a game.

“I’m tired of dystopian SF, particularly the sort that poses no solutions but just turns the demise of human civilization into a form of entertainment.” — Allen Steele

So I took as my premise the radical notion that the future may not suck after all, and tried to write a novel that says, “Yes, there’s a way out, but only if we’re willing to take the long view and commit ourselves to long-term survival.” These days, that seems to be a rather revolutionary notion in SF (American SF in particular), but I think a lot of readers are tired of a cultural meme that’s been with us for a long time now.
What do you think is the role of science fiction in society? How do you see this role as being different in today’s time and age as contrasted with the Golden Age?
Science fiction’s most obvious role is entertainment, of course, and that’s how most people find it. A great deal of SF aspires to little more than that, and since that’s the reason why the genre has survived so long, you can’t really say there’s anything wrong with this.
But one of the things that made SF’s Golden Age so great was the revelation among those writing and reading it that science fiction could – and should – serve many other purposes besides such telling a good yarn. In the service of an intelligently told story, a writer can address serious issues of the times in an allegorical fashion. So even if SF has its trends and fashions – like dystopian fiction, which is getting worn out as literary trends eventually do – its purposes are essentially unchanged.
What part should the SF writer in particular play? I ask this because I remember you mentioning in an interview that you always wanted to be a sci-fi writer, very specifically, not just a fiction writer.
I think SF writers come to this with different goals or agendas in mind, and what’s suitable for one writer isn’t the same for another. I think some writers are predisposed to be prophets of doom, and so that’s what they’re going to write. I think some are principally entertainers, and this is what they do. Some are here for futuristic extrapolation, and some are here because they have important things to say and they believe that their message is best delivered through science fiction, and some are here to rip off Star Wars again. Which is one of the things which is so wonderful about this genre; science fiction doesn’t have just one kind or purpose, but many. And you can read this stuff for a long, long time without exhausting the varieties.

“Some are here because they have important things to say and they believe that their message is best delivered through science fiction, and some are here to rip off Star Wars again.”

One of the things I aspire to do in my fiction is inspire people to, well, maybe achieve some of the things I’ve depicted in my stories. And I’ve been told that I’ve sometimes been successful at this, mainly by college students who’ve gone into studying for space careers, but also by people like the space entrepreneur who named his company Skycorp after the private company in Orbital Decay, my first novel. I’m very proud of these things, and that’s the role I’ve come to see for myself play – persuading people to do something positive about the future, not just wait for the worst.
What sci-fi books would you recommend – in the tone and tenor of Arkwright – to someone who would like to get into sci-fi or explore similar themes?  Could you can list out a few books that inspired and influenced Arkwright?
Some of the classic SF novels I’ve enjoyed and that I think influenced Arkwright to one degree or another are In the Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Suns by Gregory Benford, Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, and Time for the Stars and the short-story collection The Man Who Sold The Moon by Robert A. Heinlein. I believe all are currently in print or at least reasonably easy to find, and although they’ve been around awhile I think they’d be enjoyed by anyone who is new to reading SF or wants to sample a few great older works.
Any message for sci-fi fans and readers in India?
As I said earlier, one of the things I try to do as a writer is inspire positive change. In Arkwright, the starship that’s built is comprised of six major components, which are lifted into Earth orbit one at a time by a reusable heavy-lift rocket booster from a launch site in the Caribbean. This reusable booster, called the Kuberra, is manufactured in India by a fictional space company, Lokapala Cosmos. It’s a good, dependable rocket that lifts things off the ground for cheap.

This reusable booster, called the Kuberra, is manufactured in India by a fictional space company, Lokapala Cosmos.  

Assuming that my readers in India also include engineering students, space entrepreneurs, and maybe even a billionaire or two, my message is simple: Please build the Kuberra. You’ll be doing something great for humankind, and you might even get rich. And for one rupee, I’ll even grant you the license for the name!
And now coming to the part about the Arkwright giveaway.
As regular readers of this column would know, most times a book is spoken of in New Worlds Weekly, it’s usually followed by a contest. This time is no different. But what makes it special is that the book in question today, Arkwright, will be made out in the name of one lucky reader and autographed by Allen Steele himself! All you need to do is fill in the simple form below including your answer to the question – which, by the way, comes straight from Allen Steele himself.
There were three science fiction writers of the 20th century who are commonly identified by SF fans as the Big Three. Who are they?
Do submit your answers by July 26. The names of all readers who’ve given the right answer will go into a pot and we’ll be doing a Facebook live of the draw to see who’s the lucky winner on Thursday, July 27.
Live long and prosper!!
[contact-form-7 id=”10619″  title=”Sci Fi Question”]

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.