The concept of a generation ship has circulated in science and science fiction probably since the late 1920s and certainly since the 40’s. The idea is based on an assumption that light speed is a space travel barrier that won’t be overcome and so travel to even the nearest stars will be a journey of multiple generations. The ships that make such a journey will need to be large and need to solve problems of self-sustenance.
Allen Steele delves into this space travel theme with his aptly titled Arkwright, so named after fictional sci-fi scion Nathan Arkwright, whom Steele positions alongside Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke as one of the ‘big four’ science fiction writers. Arkwright’s long career was anchored to his (fictional) series, Galaxy Patrol, which spawned both TV series and movies.
Arkwright’s peak was during the heyday of science fiction, and he built a small fortune on the back of that genre’s growth. Mostly avoiding the modern phenomenon of sci-fi conventions in his twilight, Arkwright grew increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of real space travel and science. Instead of reaching for the stars, people were reaching for their phones … their devices … looking inward instead of up and outward.
Arkwright commits his legacy to the development of a spacecraft that can travel across the universe. He leaves his money to a non-profit science-based organization whose purpose is to build and launch a generation ship that will carry the genes of humanity and find a new home across the galaxy.
Arkwright — get it? His name is ARKWRIGHT … ARK = big boat; WRIGHT = maker; ARK+WRIGHT. GET IT?!
Following the early scene-setting chapters where we meet Nathan Arkwright, his estranged daughter and granddaughter, Steele provides snippets of the lives of Arkwright’s progeny as they embark on the development of Galactique. They progressively launch pieces of the starship into space while battling each other, politicians who squabble over money, and protesters quibbling over the ethics of sending unfertilized eggs and sperm across the galaxy.
Arkwright’s final third focuses on life on Eos, a cold hard rock 50+ years away from Earth, several hundred years in the future, and the target of Galactique, Arkwright’s vision manifested into a hundreds of millions of dollars of steel and plastic. These final chapters are the finest of the novel, as Steele concludes the tale of the Arkwright family having been delivered to Eos as genetic cargo on Arkwright’s generation ship. We are provided only a glimpse of a future society, built upon a vision of human evolution, that develops its own myth and language and society … all different, but very recognizable in their genesis.
Equally as recognizable are themes found in other recent sci-fi work published by some of the giants in the field. Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is an absolutely gorgeous novel which doesn’t focus on a generation ship, per se, but does ask the question of what would happen to humanity if forced to live in orbit for several thousand years. The wonderful final chapters of Arkwright paint a similar picture by connecting the dots between the early days of the Arkwright family, following the launch of Galactique, and the components of humanity that find a way to survive and thrive millions of miles away.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent Aurora does focus specifically on a generation ship. While it’s far less compelling than Seveneves, one can draw comparisons between Robinson and Steele’s portraits of the politics played by humans when isolated from Earth through many miles and years.
Arkwright contains some engaging and compelling science fiction; however, the story is uneven. The characters are mildly interesting; some slightly more so than others, but none particularly memorable, and the relationships that develop over time feel a bit forced. Some of the characters are simply unlikable, and while Steele wrote them purposefully so, I found them a turn-off. I wish Steele had spent more time on Eos, developing the future society and finding more creative ways to connect the Earth-bound Arkwrights with their far removed descendants.