Monday, 16 May 2016

"Arkwright" by Allen Steele

Alrighty.  This blog's theme is the creative process with a general emphasis on writing stories.  It doesn't feel like a huge departure to toss in a book review.  Being a member of two writing groups here in the city, analyzing and critiquing fellow members' work is part of the whole gig.  So why not for the established authors?

"ARKWRIGHT" by Allen Steele

Tor Publication, March 2016.

(I can't promise the following will be spoiler-free)

Rather flat cola, all in all.  This is a great pity, because I like Steele's work (well, not his "Coyote" material so much).  As the dust jacket blurb tells us, the "Arkwright Foundation" is a long term project established by Grand Master Science Fiction writer (in this parallel Earth) Nathan Arkwright.  Its goal:  send a starship to another world.


What the cover fails to tell us, and I always forget to check the fine print on the copyright indicia page, is that is a "novel" made by welding together several short stories.  I got lucky in this book that I've never read the stories as printed in magazines.  (This hasn't always been the case.  I do not enjoy buying a new book only to discover I've seen half (or more!) of it already)  Spared the grumpiness of chewing old material twice, I still found the repetition annoying.  A series of short stories printed over a span of months or years requires the author to slip in some material to remind, or inform, readers what has gone before.  Surely some editing could have been done to eliminate this dead weight in its new novel format?  I can't help but roll my eyes when I keep having to read the same explanation of the Arkwright Foundation's goal of sending a starship off and away.

The first section is great fun.  It revolves around introducing us to Nathan Arkwright and how he is a peer to Asimov, Heinlein and the rest of the Great Names.  Some flashbacks to 1939 and other time periods are vivid word pictures of being a fan and writer Back in the Day.  It culminates with Nathan's estranged granddaughter having to make a big decision.

That I enjoyed.  Complicated human interactions with interesting people, imagined and historical.

The second section moves into the next generation.  However, the new viewpoint character is a slacker.  An aimless, useless slacker.  I don't need Dash Riprock hero to millions for a character, but it is hard to be engaged with a shapeless grey blob of a human.  He eventually comes into focus, but I never felt too sympathetic with the guy.

It also feels a bit...thin.  That Steele just didn't want to explore the ramifications of a private enterprise constructing some cutting edge technology in the near future.  It's a pretty big bite to chew, granted, but I expected all manner of background information on the technical, social and political efforts required.  That material seems almost mandatory for a hard SF novel like this.  I'd have enjoyed more words on that and fewer on the characters trying to score legal pot for a party.

I didn't give a squeaky fart about the third and fourth sections (aka half the novel).

The third section/generation is startling in that the Arkwright Foundation drops the ball in a ridiculously uncharacteristic fashion.  Again, it feels Steele is just being lazy in his description.  He wanted the descendants struggling to keep the dream alive.  If that meant a startling lack of foresight on the part of the earlier characters to provide adequate funds and staffing structure for the long haul, well, so be it.  And then, if a thudding deus ex machina is needed to save the day...why not?

The fourth and final section continues the downward slide to a big shrug of indifference.  We see the end result of the whole starship effort.   Considering the thousand and three things that could have gone wrong, the success is entirely too sunshine and lollipops.

Obviously my continued banging on about "thin" and "superficial" comes again from welding short stories into a novel.  Each section was written with the limitation of, what, a 7,000 word count.  So, elements are glossed over or ignored.  No other way to do it in that amount of space.  However, some 400 pages of "glossed over and ignored" makes for a most unsatisfying book.

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