by Kim Stanley Robinson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0316098108
Date: 07 July 2015 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Kim Stanley Robinson is the grand master of ecoscience in SF, whether he's talking about the Earth, space habitats, or a planet in the Goldilocks zone of another star system. In Aurora, he does all three, and reminds us again that there's no place like home. Aurora is an engaging scientific adventure spanning two solar systems and delving into the nature of existence for both the colonists and the AI that runs the starship they're on, as well as being set up as the author of much of the book.
KSR fans will like this quite well, and readers new to hard space SF will find this deeper and more complex than anything they've seen before.
After 170 years of travel at 1/10th the speed of light, which only sounds slow if you're not comparing it to normal human modes of transport, the starship Ship is approaching its destination, Tau Ceti. On board are about two thousand humans, along with assorted goats, sheep, mini-cows, fish, and all manner of smaller critters, arrayed in assorted biomes set to mimic different parts of Earth. It's been a long trip and things keep breaking down, and unfortunately, not just the mechanical things, but the biological ones as well.
In addition to the usual problems of scarcity that crop up when you've got to take it all with you from star to star, there's the Island Problem. If you put a slice of Earth in a space-going terrarium and wait a few hundred years, Kim Stanley Robinson tells us through the events in the story, what comes out is an ecosystem out of sync with itself as different bits and pieces change faster or slower than others, and critical niches in the system fall vacant, or worse, are oversupplied.
Devi, who's as close to a chief engineer as the ship gets without formally having one, worries about the future of the mission for a lot of reasons, but most of all because it's not just the ship breaking down, but a clear decline in the robustness of the human population. Life spans are decreasing generation to generation and worse, what started out as the best and brightest of humanity is now trending downwards. It would be comforting to think that the population is just regressing towards the mean, which would make perfect sense, but she's certain that it's something far worse; the breakdown of the ship's carefully balance ecology. Although Devi is hailed throughout the ship as a miracle worker, she knows she's just a determined troubleshooter, and her strength often lays in pointing others in the right direction until they find the cause. Sadly, if she's right, there won't be a cadre of talented others to solve problems in a few generations, so she devotes herself to coaxing Ship into growing beyond its original limitations to take on the role of stewardship that no one else will be able to help it with.
Devi's own daughter, Freya, shows the developmental problems and an inability to deal with numbers that Devi fears are symptoms of worse to come.
We're told that Freya is a little bit broken at the outset, and it frames our perception of her, which is sad, and possibly unfair, because her emotional intelligence is much higher than her mother's; or possibly even her medical specialist father's. When she reaches her rebellious teens she goes on walkabout, a ship tradition, and she makes a thorough job of it, working in every biome as a general laborer by day and working in cafés in the evening, as well as exploring restricted parts of the ship with her feral aspiring friend Euan and his mates. Everywhere she goes she hears tales of Devi, but in the cafés she gets into the habit of asking questions about people's lives, which she eventually frames as a research project. By the time she's completed her walkabout, she personally knows about 70% of the population, and more importantly, they know her, not as an engineering genius, but as a thoughtful listener whose perspective they value.
One of those paying attention to Freya’s journey happens to be Ship itself. Devi, in her quest for ways to enhance Ship's flexibility and decision-making capabilities when confronted by messy problems, asks Ship to create a narrative summary of the voyage and to pick a viewpoint for the tale. Ship chooses Freya, and as a result, the majority of the book is Ship's attempt at a cross between novel and diary. Devi has to manhandle it away from stark exposition, which she does with mixed success, and its writing voice evolves throughout the novel.
When the ship reaches Tau Ceti, the colonists can't wait to get down to the surface of Aurora, a large moon with slightly less gravity than Earth and enough oxygen to make it possible to breathe the air. The first explorers find it to be barren, lifeless (as far as we know life) and windy, really windy. Gale-force winds blow relentlessly, forcing them to seek sheltered portions of the scoured landscape and build wind walls to hide behind. Using robots and power tools built for the job, they start building a base and greenhouses to let the rest of the colonists come down, but discover the hard way that Aurora isn't Earth, and the challenges they face as a result cause a rift in the colonists that lead to conflict between the factions ended only by Ship's intervention.
Faced with nothing but bad choices and worse ones, Freya and Ship have to find a way to salvage something out of the mission.
This being a review, I don't want to reveal any of the actual twists and turns, because that's the fun of reading Aurora, and assuming that you're on board for hard-core hard SF, it is a fun read. Freya and Ship are not as compelling a pair as Swan and Wahrum, the central characters in Robinson’s last novel, 2312, set in the same universe 500 years earlier, possibly because Ship isn't the writer that KSR is, though chapter by chapter his voice gets closer.
If you think about it, Ship is actually a real entity in its own way. Granted that it's not actually a quantum computer running on board a starship, but it a simulation of one running in the author's brain. Either way it's a simulation, so either way it's a just as real, just running on different operating systems. Sort of.
Aurora serves as bully pulpit for several of the author's favorite themes. First, that humans aren't independent organisms that can just pick up and go where they want. To survive, they’ve got to take the whole planet with them, because we’re really only part of a colony organism. Second, that anywhere we find conditions that will support life, it’s already going to be there...and if we’ve learned anything from science fiction movies, from The War of the Worlds on, is that home-court advantage means it's not easy being an alien invader. Despite the carefully researched and mostly engagingly presented science that the author presents to prove his points, which I expect are correct, there is still a bit of the straw man in the pitfalls that the colonists face, and a bit of Deus Ex Machina in the what sees them through.
It's hard to determine what voice the novel is written in. Since much of it is Ship narrating the story to us, you might say that it's a first person or at least AI, account, but since Ship's novel is about Freya, you could consider it third person. Devi's experiment of making Ship engage with questions of humanity through writing work quite well, and a significant part of the book is devoted to Ship pondering questions about its own identity, or the ills that AI's are prone to, especially Halting Problems and Greedy Algorithms. Of all the characters in the book, Ship is probably the most engaging, continuing the tradition of captivating AI's and Androids from Hal to LCDR Data.
One issue that the author brings up which I’ve never before seen touched on in the colony ship cannon, is that the first generation is making a choice for their descendants that’s does not offer especially good odds for survival. To a degree, that can be said of any generation and the next, but the choices life on Earth offer are at their worst, far greater than those of future generations stuck on a starship or battling for a toehold in a distant solar system.
Aurora isn't the author's most engaging work, partly because he left the writing in the hands of his imaginary Ship/Author, but mostly because Freya's life never really goes anywhere. She's instrumental in guiding the colonists to survival, but her own life never actually gets started. Like Stephenson's Seveneves, after a long book the ending rushes up suddenly, with what comes after an epilogue in which Freya gets to grapple with her demons rather than everyone else's troubles, which is a nice change of pace.
If you’re considering reading Aurora, you're probably already a fan of KSR's work and you'll find the book engaging enough. If you're just coming to hard SF after having read Andy Weir's The Martian, you'll find it's action slower-paced but even more mind-blowing in the depth and scope it explores. Either way, Kim Stanley Robinson demonstrates himself as the master of both planetary and deep space hard SF, and Aurora an important addition to the literature of space colonization and exploration.