Arkwright - Tor/Forge Blog

Why Does the Enterprise Have Anyone Aboard?

ArkwrightWritten by Allen M. Steele

The short answer to that question is: because science fiction says it should. My novel Arkwright explains why this is.

Arkwright came out of the Starship Century symposium held in May, 2013, at the Arthur C. Clarke Center of the University of California – San Diego. Attending the conference were A-list scientists, futurists, and SF writers including Freeman Dyson, Joe Haldeman, Robert Zubrin, David Brin, Jill Tarter, Geoffrey Landis, Neal Stephenson, and dozens more, including myself. Anyone who enjoys serious, non-dystopian SF would have loved being there.

Like its predecessor, the 100 Year Starship conference held two years earlier in Orlando, Florida, the two-day symposium focused on the near-term prospects for interstellar travel. Coinciding with the UCSD gathering was the publication of an anthology, Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, edited by symposium organizers James Benford and Gregory Benford. Nearly all the Starship Century participants contributed to the anthology, which included both fiction and non-fiction, and just before the symposium, Jim Benford emailed PDFs to all the authors so we could discuss the book in San Diego.

I read the book during my long flight from Connecticut to California by way of Texas, and noticed something interesting: while most of the SF stories—including my own—presumed that interstellar missions would be undertaken by starships manned by human crews, most of the non-fiction pointed out all the problems inherent with putting living, breathing people aboard such vessels and keeping them alive and well for dozens, or even hundreds, of years. If one rules out FTL travel as physically impossible—Einstein said it, I believe it, and that settles it—and also accepts the fact that starship drives using warp engines or wormholes will be extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible) to achieve, then our prospects for sending humans beyond our solar system are limited to a small handful of choices.

Furthermore, if biostasis or another form of suspended animation is the only way to keep a ship’s passengers alive during the long period it would take to reach even a nearby star like Alpha Centauri, then suddenly Lost in Space becomes more plausible than Star Trek (talking vegetables notwithstanding). And while generation ships make for great SF stories, novels from Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora point out all the ways these things could go wrong. Indeed, the generation ship is a concept that makes less sense the more closely it’s examined. So it seems that the only reason why people would be aboard starships in the first place is because SF writers insist that they should be… and I’m just as guilty as my colleagues for saying so.

Then a new thought occurred to me. If the biggest impediment to interstellar travel is caring for the needs of a human crew, then what would happen if we removed people entirely? You’d have an unmanned starship such as the Daedalus or Icarus probes proposed by the British Interplanetary Society: a sophisticated AI-controlled vessel capable of making the journey without human control.

Suppose, though, there was a way to put humans aboard a microwave-sail vessel like the one proposed by Jim Benford in his article, not as fully-formed people, but rather as reproductive material capable of being genetically modified and gestated in artificial wombs, as Freeman Dyson proposed in his essay. Then half the difficulty of building and launching a starship is eliminated, because you no longer have to worry about keeping your crew alive, healthy, and sane.

This is the game SF writers call “What If?” I spent most of my time at the symposium playing it, and it led to fascinating conversations with Jim, Freeman, and other participants. Never before had I brainstormed a novel so quickly. By the time I flew home I’d filled half a notebook with material I’d eventually use, and a few months later I began work on what became Arkwright.

Arkwright is about generations-long effort to build and launch humankind’s first starship. It’s also about how science and science fiction feed each other, the way in which imaginative visions are transformed into reality. And it’s kind of a long answer to the question I posed in the title of this essay.

Buy Arkwright today:
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New Releases: 3/1/16

Here’s what went on sale today!

Arkwright by Allen Steele

Arkwright by Allen SteeleWritten by a highly regarded expert on space travel and exploration, Allen Steele’s Arkwright features the precision of hard science fiction with a compelling cast of characters. In the vein of classic authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, Nathan Arkwright is a seminal author of the twentieth century. At the end of his life he becomes reclusive and cantankerous, refusing to appear before or interact with his legion of fans. Little did anyone know, Nathan was putting into motion his true, timeless legacy.

 The Brotherhood of the Wheel by R.S. Belcher

The Brotherhood of the Wheel by R.S. BelcherIn 1119 A.D., a group of nine crusaders became known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon–a militant monastic order charged with protecting pilgrims and caravans traveling on the roads to and from the Holy Land. In time, the Knights Templar would grow in power and, ultimately, be laid low. But a small offshoot of the Templars endure and have returned to the order’s original mission: to defend the roads of the world and guard those who travel on them.

Theirs is a secret line of knights: truckers, bikers, taxi hacks, state troopers, bus drivers, RV gypsies–any of the folks who live and work on the asphalt arteries of America. They call themselves the Brotherhood of the Wheel.

Character, Driven by David Lubar

Character, Driven by David Lubar

Character, Driven is a powerful and hilarious coming-of-age novel for young adults by acclaimed author David Lubar.

With only one year left of high school, seventeen-year-old Cliff Sparks is desperate to “come of age”—a.k.a., lose his virginity. But he’s never had much luck with girls. So when he falls for Jillian, a new classmate, at first sight, all he can do is worship her from afar. At the same time, Cliff has to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, since he’s pretty sure his unemployed father plans to kick him out of the house the minute he turns eighteen. Time is running out. Cliff is at the edge, on the verge, dangling—and holding on for dear life.

Fly by Night by Andrea Thalasinos

Fly By Night by Andrea ThalasinosOn the same day Greek American marine biologist Amelia Drakos receives word that funding for her beloved Seahorse Laboratory has been cut, she discovers that her deceased father had lived a secret life.

With foreclosure and unemployment looming, as well as the fallout from a brief, confusing love affair, Amelia reluctantly becomes curator for Minnesota’s Mall of America Sea Life Aquarium. At the same time, a string of perplexing e-mails from someone with her late father’s name, Ted Drakos, arrive. Ted claims that he has important information about an inherited property on Lake Superior. And that he is her older brother.

In Fly by Night, Andrea Thalasinos shows that family secrets can jump-start a new way of looking at the world.


The Devil You Know by K. J. Parker

The Devil You Know by K. J. ParkerThe greatest philosopher of all time is offering to sell his soul to the Devil. All he wants is twenty more years to complete his life’s work. After that, he really doesn’t care.

But the assistant demon assigned to the case has his suspicions, because the philosopher is Saloninus-the greatest philosopher, yes, but also the greatest liar, trickster and cheat the world has yet known; the sort of man even the Father of Lies can’t trust.

He’s almost certainly up to something; but what?


Fingal O’ Reilly, Irish Doctor by Patrick Taylor

Madness in Solidar by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Mark of the Beast by Aldophus A. Anekwe

Ringworld’s Children and Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

The Medicine Horn and Trapper’s Moon by Jory Sherman

1916 by Morgan Llywelyn


Devils and Realist Vol. 8 by Madoka Takadono, art by Utako Yukihiro

Mayo Chiki! Omnibus 4-5 by Hajime Asano, art by Neet

See upcoming releases.


Sneak Peek: Arkwright by Allen Steele

ArkwrightWritten by highly regarded expert on space travel and exploration Allen Steele, Arkwright features the precision of hard science fiction with a compelling cast of characters.

Nathan Arkwright is a seminal author of the twentieth century. Convinced that humanity cannot survive on Earth, Nathan’s Arkwright Foundation dedicates itself to creating a colony on an Earth-like planet several light years distant. Fueled by Nathan’s legacy, generations of Arkwrights are drawn together, and pulled apart, by the enormity of the task and weight of their name.

Enjoy this excerpt of Arkwright.

Chapter 1

When Kate Morressy’s grandfather died on October 5, 2006, his passing made the front page of next morning’s Boston Globe. The headline—NATHAN ARKWRIGHT, SCIENCE FICTION PIONEER, DIES—appeared in the bottom-right corner below the fold, and it was the first thing Kate saw when she picked up the paper from the front stoop of her Cambridge apartment house.

Still wearing her robe, Kate stared at the newspaper in her hand for a long time before she carried back into her apartment. Pausing to pour her first cup of coffee, she lay the paper down on the kitchen table and read the lead:

Nathan Arkwright, the science fiction author best known as creator of the Galaxy Patrol, died Thursday at his home in Lenox, Massachusetts.


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