Monday, May 23, 2016 11:27
- Steele, Allen. Arkwright. New York: Tor, 2016. ISBN 978-0-7653-8215-3.
Nathan Arkwright was one of the “Big Four” science fiction
writers of the twentieth century, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C.
Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. Launching his career in the
Golden Age of science fiction,
he created the Galaxy Patrol
space adventures, with 17 novels from 1950 to 1988, a
radio drama, television series, and three movies. The royalties from
his work made him a wealthy man. He lived quietly in his home in
rural Massachusetts, dying in 2006.
Arkwright was estranged from his daughter and granddaughter, Kate
Morressy, a freelance science journalist. Kate attends the funeral
and meets Nathan's long-term literary agent, Margaret (Maggie) Krough,
science fiction writer Harry Skinner, and George Hallahan, a
research scientist long involved with military and aerospace projects.
After the funeral, the three meet with Kate, and Maggie explains
that Arkwright's will bequeaths all of his assets including future
royalties from his work to the non-profit Arkwright Foundation, which
Kate is asked to join as a director representing the family. She asks
the mission of the foundation, and Maggie responds by saying it's
a long and complicated story which is best answered by her reading the
manuscript of Arkwright's unfinished autobiography, My Life in
It is some time before Kate gets around to reading the manuscript.
When she does, she finds herself immersed in the Golden Age of
science fiction, as her father recounts attending the first World's
Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939. An avid science
fiction fan and aspiring writer, Arkwright rubs elbows with figures
he'd known only as names in magazines such as Fred Pohl, Don Wollheim,
Cyril Kornbluth, Forrest Ackerman, and Isaac Asimov. Quickly learning
that at a science fiction convention is isn't just elbows that rub
but also egos, he runs afoul of one of the clique wars that are
incomprehensible to those outside of fandom and finds himself ejected
from the convention, sitting down for a snack at the Automat across
the street with fellow banished fans Maggie, Harry, and George. The four
discuss their views of the state of science fiction and their
ambitions, and pledge to stay in touch. Any group within fandom needs
a proper name, and after a brief discussion “The Legion of Tomorrow”
was born. It would endure for decades.
The manuscript comes to an end, leaving Kate still in 1939. She then meets
in turn with the other three surviving members of the Legion, who carry the story
through Arkwright's long life, and describe the events which shaped his view
of the future and the foundation he created. Finally,
Kate is ready to hear the mission of the foundation—to make the future
Arkwright wrote about during his career a reality—to move humanity off
the planet and enter the era of space colonisation, and not just the
planets but, in time, the stars. And the foundation will be going it alone.
As Harry explains (p. 104), “It won't be made public, and there
won't be government involvement either. We don't want this to become another
NASA project that gets scuttled because Congress can't get off its dead ass
and give it decent funding.”
The strategy is bet on the future: invest in the technologies which will be
needed for and will profit from humanity's expansion from the home planet,
and then reinvest the proceeds in research and development and new generations
of technology and enterprises as space development proceeds. Nobody expects
this to be a short-term endeavour: decades or generations may be required before
the first interstellar craft is launched, but the structure of the foundation
is designed to persist for however long it takes. Kate signs on, “Forward
So begins a grand, multi-generation saga chronicling humanity's leap to the
stars. Unlike many tales of interstellar flight, no arm-waving about
faster than light warp drives or other technologies requiring new physics
is invoked. Based upon information presented at the DARPA/NASA
100 Year Starship Symposium
in 2011 and the 2013
Starship Century conference, the author
uses only technologies based upon well-understood physics which, if
economic growth continues on the trajectory of the last century, are
plausible for the time in the future at which the story takes place.
And lest interstellar travel and colonisation be dismissed as
wasteful, no public resources are spent on it: coercive governments have
neither the imagination nor the attention span to achieve such grand and
long-term goals. And you never know how important the technological spin-offs
from such a project may prove in the future.
As noted, the author is scrupulous in using only technologies
consistent with our understanding of physics and biology and plausible
extrapolations of present capabilities. There are a few goofs, which
I'll place behind the curtain since some are plot spoilers.
On p. 61, a C-53 transport plane is called a Dakota. The C-53 is a troop transport variant of the C-47, referred to as the Skytrooper. But since the planes were externally almost identical, the observer may have confused them. “Dakota” was the RAF designation for the C-47; the U.S. Army Air Forces called it the Skytrain. On the same page, planes arrive from “Kirtland Air Force Base in Texas”. At the time, the facility would have been called “Kirtland Field”, part of the Albuquerque Army Air Base, which is located in New Mexico, not Texas. It was not renamed Kirtland Air Force Base until 1947. In the description of the launch of Apollo 17 on p. 71, after the long delay, the count is recycled to T−30 seconds. That isn't how it happened. After the cutoff in the original countdown at thirty seconds, the count was recycled to the T−22 minute mark, and after the problem was resolved, resumed from there. There would have been plenty of time for people who had given up and gone to bed to be awakened when the countdown was resumed and observe the launch. On p. 214, we're told the Doppler effect of the ship's velocity “caused the stars around and in front of the Galactique to redshift”. In fact, the stars in front of the ship would be blueshifted, while those behind it would be redshifted. On p. 230, the ship, en route, is struck by a particle of interstellar dust which is described as “not much larger than a piece of gravel”, which knocks out communications with the Earth. Let's assume it wasn't the size of a piece of gravel, but only that of a grain of sand, which is around 20 milligrams. The energy released in the collision with the grain of sand is 278 gigajoules, or 66 tons of TNT. The damage to the ship would have been catastrophic, not something readily repaired. On the same page, “By the ship's internal chronometer, the repair job probably only took a few days, but time dilation made it seem much longer to observers back on Earth.” Nope—at half the speed of light, time dilation is only 15%. Three days' ship's time would be less than three and a half days on Earth. On p. 265, “the DNA of its organic molecules was left-handed, which was crucial to the future habitability…”. What's important isn't the handedness of DNA, but rather the chirality of the organic molecules used in cells. The chirality of DNA is many levels above this fundamental property of biochemistry and, in fact, the DNA helix of terrestrial organisms is right-handed. (The chirality of DNA actually depends upon the nucleotide sequence, and there is a form, called Z-DNA, in which the helix is left-handed.)This is an inspiring and very human story, with realistic and flawed characters, venal politicians, unanticipated adversities, and a future very different than envisioned by many tales of the great human expansion, even those by the legendary Nathan Arkwright. It is an optimistic tale of the human future, grounded in the achievements of individuals who build it, step by step, in the unbounded vision of the Golden Age of science fiction. It is ours to make reality. Here is a podcast interview with the author by James Pethokoukis.Spoilers end here. (Hide Spoilers)