Post by Alex Tas.
I have been eagerly awaiting a chance to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but since I am already bogged down in so many series, I opted for his 2015 novel, Aurora. It starts at the end of a generational starship’s 170 year journey to the planet Aurora. Told from the perspective of a learning quantum AI, Aurora follows the chief engineer and her daughter as they address the day to day problems of maintaining the ship. Aurora is an important book that investigates the worth of long-term space travel, and questions our understanding of our environment, whether natural or constructed.
The story itself is easily digestible. As the aforementioned AI learns how to tell a story, the prose develops. The AI’s grasp on language starts simple and grows more complex as the story continues. This allows the reader to adapt quickly when Robinson shifts between the main story, the science driving the starship’s maladies, and several introspective monologues. Robinson also relies on basic geographic understanding of Earth, naming each of the ship’s twelve biomes as they relate to a similar region on Earth. He efficiently describes the landscape in a way that does not burden readers, while managing to place the reader in the scene. Typical of hard science fiction, the characters are not the main focus, but serve as a vehicle to the narrative and the ideas it introduces. Using the limited third person perspective embodied by the AI, Robinson gives himself space to explore these ideas outside of the typical narrative progression. The story focuses on the constant conflict of living in space, instead of building up to an ultimate conflict.
With all the talk in our own lives of interstellar travel, manned missions to Mars, and the looming possibility of extra-terrestrial colonization, Aurora stands out. Instead of the usual gung-ho planet grab, the book is a solemn meditation on how humans tend to view their environment and how they try to adapt. Most of the problems that pop up are bizarre chemical reactions between the ship and the biomes, issues as the ship decelerates, or the effects of small populations on genetics across generations. While the crew has a fairly sizeable array of useful materials, the problems are not easily solved and sometimes cascade into each other. As media in our world tends to trumpet the advances and breakthroughs, Aurora highlights the labor behind the triumphs and explores their after effects. By not placing us into the mind of a central human character, Robinson gives the reader space to ponder the bigger picture he is painting. Instead of being tapped into the emotions of a single character, the audience understands this as a cautionary tale of reflection, not a triumphal scream into the void.
Robinson also uses science to consistently hammer this point home. Aurora is heavy on biology, physics, and chemistry. The scientific explanations are digestible, but there are a few areas where numbers are unavoidable and concepts have to be detailed. While the majority of these sections are written into the story, several do feel like annotations to better explain the text. This may distance or even lose some readers, even though Robinson is not using them to show his scientific expertise. These areas of the book serve as more color with which to paint the big picture. Personally, I enjoyed these sections as they show the collision between the human spirit and the inevitability of facts and natural law.
All of this is not to say that this is a cold book with no feelings towards the ship’s inhabitants. While the omnipresent AI cannot delve into the inner workings of the character’s minds, it highlights conversations that shed some light on the relationships that we, as humans, build. By revealing people’s interactions, the stress they endure, and the impact of constant environmental pressure on the human psyche, Robinson pushes the story to a larger scope. This is not a character-based narrative, where the protagonists learn something to further their goals. Instead, Robinson frames the ship as a microcosm of Earth. By increasing the distance from the central characters, Robinson broadens the historical scope of the ship as the story progresses. It slowly shifts from a tale about a few humans in space, to a parable about humanity.
Robinson handles most of his ideas deftly, with skill, efficiency, and well-tempered force. There are rare moments when the illusion is broken, but they are not frequent enough to drag the book down. I would never call this a subtle book, but it is not overtly judgmental. While Robinson focuses on humanity’s relationship with science and technology, he chooses to highlight the limits of technology and human understanding. Through many of the conflicts in the book, Robinson critiques humanity’s intent through its application of science. To Robinson, technology is not damnation or salvation in and of itself, but is instead used by humans to bring about these ends.
By making humanity his centerpiece, Robinson leaves the reader with questions, doubts, and revelations about humanity’s place among the stars. Much like the northern lights the book is named after, Aurora is a wonder to perceive. It is a chance for readers to gaze up at the stars, admiring their elegance and ask “how”? Afterwards, they can look at the beauty of the world around them and ask “why”?
Rating: Aurora – 8.5/10