Sunday, July 26, 2015

Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson

After his venture into prehistory in Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson turns around and takes us to the twenty-eighth century. His output has been very varied over the past two decades and in this novel he again explores territory he hasn't covered before. Generational starships have come up once or twice. There is one in Icehenge, and another in Blue Mars, but they are always at the periphery of the story. In this novel, the concept takes centre stage. It makes Aurora an unusual book in some ways and a return to familiar themes in others. It is full of ideas on space exploration and terraforming, but there is also a notable shift in his thinking on these subjects. One that will surprise more than a few of his readers. Nevertheless,  I think Robinson wrote one of the best science fiction novels in 2015 with Aurora. I fully expect him to show up on a couple of awards shortlists next year.

The generational starship Aurora is set to arrive at the Tau Ceti systems, one of our closest neighbours, 170 years after its launch. They have been sent to found a colony and spread the human race across the galaxy. The ship is huge, carrying miniatures of the most important of Earth's ecosystems. The variety of life on board is impressive but the ship can carry only so much. After a more than a century and a half, a strain on the ship's ecosystem is starting to be felt. The restrictions imposed on the population, trying to maintain the precarious ecological balance is starting to wear on the population. As they approach their new home, a kind of cabin fever spreads through the ship. Some people can't wait to be out and about. Others are not so sure.

Kim Stanley Robinson has a can do approach to science fiction. In a field that is inundated with natural disasters, alien invasions, ecological catastrophe and all manner of post-apocalyptic tales, his stories tend to be more upbeat. We can act meaningfully to mitigate the effects of climate change, we can reform the capitalist economic system to create a more even distribution of wealth and a more sustainable economy, we can go out and colonize other planets, we can build spacecraft that can reach the stars. The challenges are formidable but solutions can be found. This novel, in a way, is not quite as optimistic. Yes, we can reach the stars, but what happens when we get there, that is another story.

Robinson has some pretty scary things to say about ecosystems in this novel. He reaches back to island biogeography, a branch of biology founded by Wilson and MacArthur that is very influential among conservationists. What Robinson is describing is a system spiralling into collapse. The ship simply isn't large enough to sustain the variety of life on board it and there is a constant pressure to revert to less complex, but in the long run more stable, systems. The people on board, ironically the factor that contributes most to this pressure, try to prevent that from happening but the realization that no ecosystem is fully closed is starting to sink in. Now take a step back and think about what this means for the situation on Earth, where natural ecosystems are being forced into ever smaller areas to clear land for human uses.

There seems to be a limit to how long a spaceship can sustain a human population and that leads to the next problem the colonists face. They are sent to Tau Ceti because it is conveniently close, not necessarily because it has the most hospitable planets. When the moon they had pinned their hopes on turns out to be a killer, the colonists face a dreadful decision. Try another, less hospitable location, or refuel, turn around and head back to the solar system. Neither of which has a good chance of success. Colonizing the stars is harder than science fiction makes it out to be.

In essence, Robinson is saying the stars are too far away, and life is too well adapted to the solar system to make relocation a viable option. It is an idea that is quite popular in a sense. Where the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the early 20th century supposed that humanity would one day leave its cradle, in recent years it becomes apparent that it may not be that easy to permanently live elsewhere. Even the terraforming process on Mars, mentioned briefly in this novel, has run into problems Robinson did not yet know about when writing his Mars trilogy. When reading it I got the sense that Robinson is telling us we need to take better care of spaceship Earth, because abandoning it, does not appear to be an option.

Robinson chooses an unusual point of view for large stretches of the novel. The ship's main computer is given the task to create a narrative of the expedition by the main engineer of the ship. While a quantum computer can do a great many things (simultaneously), it is not very well equipped for this task. Early on in the novel, the computer digresses, expresses problems in trying to select what to include and what to leave out and is given to long rambles about the details of running the ship and its observations about the humans he is transporting. Gradually it evolves into a somewhat understated drama with the computer as omniscient narrator (which, on the ship at least, is more or less correct). It is so well done that some readers may wonder if the final part of the novel, which is not narrated by the computer, is necessary. That's not really an issue I can discuss here without giving away the end of the novel so you'll have to find that out for yourself.

Some readers will inevitably have issues with Robinson's approach. The ship's issues with the command to tell the story makes for a fairly slow start of the novel. At one point the engineer interferes and tells the ship what it is doing wrong (too much detail, too much backstory). Robinson will have lost more than a few readers at that point. I guess it also depends on the willingness of the reader to accept the computer as a character as well as the narrator. In terms of character development, the computer shows the most growth by far.

This review can't even begin to do justice to all the ideas Robinson puts into this novel. Besides ideas on ecology and human evolution, he also includes thoughts on Alan Turing and artificial intelligence, the ethics of generational space ships and how subsequent generations would see the choice their ancestors made for them, philosophies on consciousness and self-awareness show up in the text, as well as thoughts on language and communication. If science fiction is the literature of ideas for you, I very much doubt you could do much better than this novel.

Aurora is a novel that provides an awful lot of food for thought. It has taken me a few days before I could make myself pick up a new book just to digest it all. Robinson has produced come wonderful books in the past and Aurora definitely ranks with the best of them. The narrative structure is perhaps not everybody's cup of tea. Robinson's choice of narrator influences the characterization and pacing of the novel to a large extent. Personally, I am more than willing to put up with a slow start to see where Robinson takes the story, but it is a novel that requires a bit of patience. I feel it pays off though. It is without a doubt one of the notable releases in science fiction of 2015.

Book Details
Title: Aurora
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 466
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-09810-6
First published: 2015


  1. Great review for a great novel!

    1. Thank you! Will you be reading this one?

    2. I had just finished it when you posted your review. That's how I know everything is great. ;)