the Little Red Reviewer

Arkwright, by Allen Steele

Posted on: March 5, 2017

arkwrightArkwright by Allen Steele

published March 2016

where I got it: purchased new










Reviewers seem to really love this book or really be frustrated by it, there doesn’t seem to be much in between.  Here’s my issue:  I can’t figure out if my frustration with the book is because it was crafted poorly, or if I’m just whining that an author didn’t write the exact book that I wanted to read.  As the process of me writing these reviews and such is more often than not just me having a conversation with myself about a reading experience I had,  let’s let the review write itself and see what happens.


Warning – spoilers ahead.


The concept of Arkwright is a very fun one.  A fictitious science fiction writer, Nathan Arkwright, puts his life savings towards a foundation whose goal is to get humanity to the stars. Doesn’t hurt that he is incredibly successful, movies and TV shows are made from his stories and novels, he knows how to invest, he has a fantastic agent, etc. He kinda reminds me of a romanticized Gene Roddenberry combined with the kind of success every science fiction author dreams of.  The novel opens with Nathan’s death, and his granddaughter Kate learning the truth about her family, and about why every cent in his will went to some Foundation she’s never heard of. Once she learns the truth, she decides to get involved with the Arkwright Foundation.  And their methods of ensuring humanity gets to a colony planet and can survive the trip is a pretty innovative idea. There is some good hard science in Arkwright, that’s for sure!


This is not a long book.   If the plot is going to zip forward a bunch of generations, Steele doesn’t have much time to introduce characters and their motivations, and develop any interesting side plots.  So he doesn’t.  The characters barely get developed,which makes  much of the writing feel rushed and clunky. To add insult to injury I found Nathan’s flashbacks of meeting new friends at the 1939 WorldCon to be so overly schmaltzy sweet, I nearly DNF’d this book right then and there to avoid getting cavities in my teeth. What so many reviewers saw as a love letter to the genre, I saw as characters flatly written to be at exactly the right place at the exactly the right time to quite literally Forward the Foundation.  As we meet new generations of Arkwrights, unfortunately even their stories became predictable: handsome and brilliant Arkwright of marriageable age meets brilliant scientist of the opposite gender, awkwardly written romance ensues, the next generation is born,  bam, on to the next chapter and generation we go. Do these characters exist for any other reason except to ensure that the next generation of Arkwrights is born?

I guess, from a longer viewpoint, of course everything has to happen this way – otherwise the end of the book wouldn’t happen, and the last few pages of the book are what everything from the first page has been working towards. (Kinda reminds me of the last episode of Lost, which I finally saw, by the way. And no, I wasn’t mad about the last episode. Wasn’t at all surprised either, and it was nice to get some closure after 6 seasons of what the hell is going on). As it happens, the end of Arkwright is quite good. I may not have enjoyed the journey, but I did enjoy the last few pages.


Maybe it would have helped if the novel was longer or expanded into a series. This is too much plot to jam into less than 400 pages, unfortunately making so much of it feel flat and heavy handed.  With more room to move around, Steele would have had plenty of opportunity to develop characters, make their lives feel like something more than just a plot device.


So, what’s the answer to my original question?  Is this a poorly written novel? Or am I just bitching and whining that an author wrote something they wanted to write instead of something I wanted to read?


Steele wrote the book he wanted to write, he told the story he wanted to tell (and that’s what we want authors to do, right?). He includes a ton of fun history of the science fiction genre and community, a ton of excellent hard science, a cold if realistic solution for getting humanity to the stars.  It’s that last phrase “a realistic solution for getting humanity to the stars” that is the main plot of this novel. Not the characters, not the awkwardly presented romances, not the petty fights or politics. I guess  I made the mistake of getting caught up in the side stories that didn’t matter, because they weren’t what the story is about.


And I think that’s the answer to my question: I want, no, I need a story to be about characters.  I need to understand their motivations, their plights, the reasons they do what they do. I want to make an emotional investment in their life, to see if I see any parts of myself in them. I barely got to know anyone in Arkwright, and I learned pretty quickly that there wasn’t any point in getting invested in their lives because in a few more chapters we were going to leave that character behind. Their existence had no importance except to heavy handedly move the plot forward.  I’m not so much whining that the author didn’t write the book I wanted to read as I’m realizing I don’t care about a novel if I don’t get a chance to care about the characters.




6 Responses to "Arkwright, by Allen Steele"

I just finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Aurora”, which is another generation ship novel, albeit a terribly bleak one. (The novel is the ultimate argument for STL interstellar colonization being a Bad Idea.) The characters, however, struck me as very memorable. They were both engaging and… complicated, especially Devi and her daughter Freya.


I liked Aurora. My husband and I are both long time KSR fans. He takes more time to develop his characters. in Aurora, my favorite characters were Ship, and I forget his name, but I liked the guy who ended up in quarantine. I was so proud of Ship when she described herself as “I”!

and even 2312, although the pace of that novel annoyed me it was a very engaging novel. I still remember the characters, and I vividly remember the scene in the tunnels.


Now that I have successfully read a KSR book, I will read more!


I recently read Arkwright, and had similar feelings to yours. I felt like it just wasn’t focusing on the parts of the story that I found more interesting. I also feel like the last part of the story (part I liked the most) really needed more space to develop, because it felt a bit rushed & cliched.


Agreed. that last portion needed another 50 to 70 pages, at least.


I loved this one, but yeah, with the story spanning generations, you never get a solid connection with a character that can pull you through. You really need to be into the plot of it or it will never work for you.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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