Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Art is one of humanity’s most constructive, creative impulses, yet we spend so much time chronicling our darker, more tragic moments. Science fiction in particular is fascinated by the paradox of our humanity: we strive for, and are capable of, great acts, but underneath it all we are still the product of millions of years of evolution and prone to acts of irrationality, tribalism, and prejudice. Kim Stanley Robinson continues this great tradition in Aurora, a story about a generational starship that crosses the vast gulf of interstellar space to reach its destination, only to find insurmountable barriers when they arrive.
I’ve got mixed feelings about Aurora, which shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve read any of my other KSR reviews. Robinson’s vision and ability to use science fiction for thought experiments is unquestionable. He has a spark of creative genius that makes his books fascinating; moreover, he backs up that genius with an attention to scientific and technical details that others might be tempted to call “hard” SF. I find that term too loaded, myself, but there is something to be said for a novel that helps you appreciate the complex and challenging undertaking that travelling between the stars would be.
Despite his vision, however, Robinson often seems to get bogged down in the story, at least more so than I prefer. His characters are almost always flat, their growth, if any, painted in broad strokes, with the narrator distant and unemotional. This was one of the reasons I struggled with Red Mars, which is otherwise an excellent book about colonizing Mars. In Aurora, the narrator is the AI (or collection of AIs) that control the generational ship, having been instructed by one of its occupants to create a narrative account of the ship’s journey. This provides Robinson with an excuse for the somewhat dispassionate prose.
And that’s what it is: an excuse. It’s a crutch that lets Robinson get away with being somewhat lazy, especially with exposition. It’s OK for the ship to rattle off vital statistics and use more technobabble. Robinson is just being true to the voice of the ship! Now, there are some fascinating aspects of this choice of narrator. Explicitly, Robinson asks if a computer really can tell a story—which is to say, summarize events in a way that humans find interesting and compelling. It’s easy for a computer to keep track of everything that happens, but choosing which events to include—and the perspectives for those events—is a more difficult task. So, in between the story parts of the story, there are moments where the AI reflects on its attempts to create this narrative, and those are interesting.
Still, the end result is the same for me: another story in which Robinson’s characters lack much in the way of dimension. Devi is a single-minded, somewhat pessimistic engineer who refuses to live in the moment. I identified a little more with Badim. Freya’s superpower is listening, I guess? Somehow she ends up being one of the most important people on the ship despite not actually doing any specific job; she’s more of a wanderer. Basically, Robinson gives me little reason to care for these people specifically. And I didn’t care too much for the crew in general, because, you know, generational ship.
I was pretty sure it would end in tears.
Hence my real ambivalence about Aurora beyond my usual complaints about style: we’ve seen this before. The generational starship story is a well-established trope of science fiction, and it has been done to death, both realistically and otherwise. Did we really need another one? Does this book really do anything different?
Robinson attempts to introduce a twist in the form of the alien pathogen that so dramatically changes the crew’s focus in the second half of the book. And I’ll give him this: while I wasn’t surprised that something went wrong and everyone started being terrible to everyone else, the actual cause is pretty neat. I wish the book had spent more time analyzing this facet of the problem instead of moving on so quickly. Some of the ensuing unrest feels contrived—believable, sure, but I want to think there are probably protocols and procedures that could have been in place to prevent many of the initial problems. Robinson’s version of a generational ship is basically “the inmates are running the asylum.” Concepts like professionalism weren’t taught to this generation, apparently.
My interest diminished with the third act, when the ship turns around and heads back to Earth. Robinson tries to enhance the tension by asking whether the ship’s ecosystem will be able to support the crew, even greatly reduced, during the voyage home. To some extent he is successful, but by this point I just didn’t have much emotional investment anymore. I wanted to know what happens, but I didn’t actually care one way or the other. This is what happens when someone is really eager to show that he did the research on how deceleration at relativistic speeds works.
Aurora has some breathtaking moments of clarity, moments that make you sit in awe of the vastness of space and our own comparative smallness. I started playing Elite: Dangerous this week, because I have time off (yay) and, more importantly, a new computer that can actually handle games (yay). It’s an addictive, staggering, immersive experience. And there are times when this book comes close to that feeling. Like Red Mars, it’s a good example of its subgenre of science-fictional adventure. Unlike that book, though, I’m less convinced that Aurora refreshes the already-established paradigm.