I’ve been on a sci-fi reading binge lately, and between the likes of Seveneves and the Three-Body Problem trilogy, I’ve had a good dosage of high-flying, civilization-wide stories that tickles the imagination. From that context, Arkwright serves as a sci-fi palate cleanser, a novel that maneuvers as you’d expect and delivers a more person-driven narrative.
The setup for Arkwright is unique; the catalyst for the book’s series of events is an old, dying sci-fi author who wanted to see his stories turn into reality. He ends up using his modest fortune to create a self-sustaining foundation—similar to the Nobel Foundation—with a primary objective to colonize another planetary system. A part of the book chronicles how this author became a world-renown science fiction icon through mid-20th century America, while the rest of it tells how his foundation, through generations of his descendants, worked towards that stated mission.
Much of the mixed reviews of the book note that its reader expected more science fiction and technology than they got, particularly in the early chapters when the story is establishing the background behind the author’s motives. Like I mentioned, though, this is a good change of pace for a sci-fi narrative; not everything has to come out with starships and intergalactic wars and multi-dimensional theories. The references to actual classic sci-fi writers serves as added fan service.
Unfortunately, while the setting is unique, the characters and storyline aren’t that interesting, and there’s only one minor storyline detail that pays off throughout the rest of the book. That is, it feels like a bit of a squandered opportunity; I think the book could have done more to make the historical setup more meaningful, whether it is in fleshing out important characters or enriching the broader plot.
But maybe that’s alright. Like I initially mention, I see Arkwright as a welcome break from many of the other sci-fi stories I’ve read recently that start on an epic level and only escalate from that position. And to be fair, Arkwright eventually does deal with interstellar travel in much of its glorious complexity, and for me, a touching point was thinking about how many human generations would be necessary to fully realize the timescales for traveling to other stars and their planets. Save for a handful of fantastical inventions, Arkwright‘s biggest strength may be its plausibility.