Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review of Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

In the coming two years, the Indian space program (ISRO) is set to explore the moon, the sun, and Venus.  All research and development for these projects is ongoing while the surrounding population continues to be measured to the nearest one-hundred million because nobody can count to any greater point of accuracy the sheer number of homeless, starving, and dying on the streets.  Add to this the cows (and disease) feeding on unremoved heaps of trash in the streets, people defecating in public, and infrastructure that’s a far cry from first world standards, and the question must be asked: why is India spending billions of dollars on space technology?  Does the knowledge gained have any direct effect on the quality of its citizen’s lives? Would the billions be better invested in medicine, urban infrastructure, housing, and other amenities of life the West takes for granted?  And while we’re at it, why too is the West investing in similar projects when we too are far from solving our own issues?  Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 Aurora answers these questions—definitively. 

Robinson pretty much wrote the book on Martian terraforming (ha!), and by that same token Aurora may very well be the greatest generation starship story ever told.  Touching, pertinent, purposeful, epic, realistic, passionate, responsible, important—all seem adjectives suitable to the novel, up to and including, perhaps, being Robinson’s best ever.  (When I’ve finished his oeuvre, I’ll get back to you on this one; only a few more to go.)

It’s the late twenty-eighth century and mankind has sent a massive ship to the Tau Ceti system.  Generations having lived and died in space, they are approaching the twenty-year homestretch it will take the ship to slow from the 0.1 lightspeed it’s been traveling to drop in orbit.  Freya, one of the 2,122 passengers living in a complex system of biomes attached like spokes around a central spine, is in her late teens and seeking direction in life.  Going on a wanderjahre, she moves in and out of the biomes, encountering differing cultures and climates, friends and landscapes, before choosing her path.  Once arriving at Tau Ceti and its planets and their moons, Freya and the others find a planetoid with features relatively suitable for human life, and set about exploring the surface.  Things go well at first.  They make landfall successfully, temporary camps are set up, and rudimentary infrastructure is put in place in preparation for moving more of the host waiting onboard to the surface.  But a subtle disaster strikes, and before the passengers know it, they face a decision their hopes never dreamed. 

To go into more detail of Aurora would certainly destroy what is a plot revealed behind veil after veil.  Opening on a soft moment of drama and closing on an equally soft yet magnificently suggestive ending, everything that happens between defies reader expectation one event at a time.  The story satisfying, it is perhaps in ideology that Aurora is most surprising, however.

Arthur C. Clarke’s The City & the Stars is a strong statement that the stars are mankind’s destiny; obstacles of all sizes may appear, but we are meant to inhabit lands beyond our solar system the novel’s senitment.  Aurora should therefore be considered prologue to The City & the Stars.  The obstacles, like those Indian people and others are facing in our world today, are getting life straight on Earth before attempting life on other planets.  A paean to our planet, for all its burrs and gnarls, Aurora slowly pulls its drawstring tighter around the notion that the third planet from the sun is humanity’s home and should be the beacon lighting our radars before any others are sought out.

It should be stated clearly at this point that Robinson is not anti-space or anti-science, merely a realist; uber-trillion dollar ships to the stars should not come at the expense of quality of life on Earth.  At one point in Aurora a person states “That a starship could be built, that it could be propelled by laser beams, that humanity could reach the stars; this idea appeared to have been an intoxicant.” And later, solidifying the notion, another adds that starships “were rare, being expensive, with no return on investment; they were gestures, gifts, philosophical statements.” Aurora thus indirectly raises awareness regarding environmental degradation, disease, psychological issues, starvation, water shortage, and a myriad other problems plaguing humanity on Earth. Where Clarke insists that man’s destiny is space, Aurora does not refute it, rather suggests one step back: look before you leap.

But what makes Aurora perhaps Robinson’s best novel to date is a key narrative layer: the narrative itself.  From Couch to Moon calling its construction “part of the journey,” Robinson asks his novel to be read for both plot, theme, as well as the meta level of narrative creation.  The ship’s AI learns how to construct a story narrative as much as the reader absorbs the lessons it learns, including and excluding information key to the ship’s passage through space.  Thus where Gene Wolfe’s superb Book of the Long Sun looks at the mythopoeic level of generation starship travel, Aurora asks the reader to make the analog contemporary—to look at the narrative of humanity itself, and see where it’s going, and, where it should go. 

In the end, Aurora is about as timely and important a novel as the genre can produce.  In an age where much of science fiction is focused on post-apocalytpic settings—as if giving up on the idea of civilized life itself, Aurora asks us to reexamine matters before they reach that point, to meditate on what is truly important to us as a whole, and, in the very, least appreciate what we have here on Earth.  This review may be getting a touch trite, but days after finishing the novel such thoughts and emotions still linger.  For certain a contender for best sf novel in 2015…


  1. How on Earth (ha) did I miss this? I kept wondering when you would post your review. Great, as always. My thoughts and emotions from Aurora still linger, too. The construction, and the shared process of the construction, is a work of art: inspired, intentional, and complete. I finally listened to his interview on Coode St the other day, and he is just fascinating to listen to. I can't imagine that he'll ever surpass the narrative success of this one, and I'm not sure I would want him to. It sounds like his next book will be lighter, like 2312.

    1. His new book (Green Earth) sounds to me it will be more like his Science in the Capital series, with an Earth-based examination of economics and lack of outer space stuff. But I could have missed something in the interview. If I'm right, I do hope he is able to come up with something more cohesive. I love KSR for being KSR, but the Science in the Capital series felt a bit forced, like he was trying too hard to fit good ideas together in a way that wasn't always organic. Regardless, I will read it. Interestingly, some publication lists have Green Earth coming out November this year. Two books in one year, I would be surprised.

    2. The book *is* anti-space colonization. The very act of colonization is described as narcissistic. There is a scene where Aurora punches a guy for saying the human race wouldn't stop colonizing the stars. And in a since, it is anti-science. In the book, each generation suffers an IQ drop in relation to the previous generation (which probably due to galactic cosmic radiation). His solution-don't leave the Earth and be a good little planeteer and take care of your Mother Earth because humans can never adapt to life outside of the loving womb of our "mother" and science will never find the answer and shouldn't even try.

  2. Well, that's an extreme view. I daresay Robinson was more interested in priorities, namely let's fix the problems on Earth before we tackle living in space. And what would be part of the solution to fixing life on Earth? Science.