Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit 978-0-316-09810-6, $26.00, 474pp, hc) July 2015.
Kim Stanley Robinson novels are never about only one thing, so when he addresses a familiar SF trope or subgenre, you can expect matters to get slippery. He interrogates and unpacks assumptions, asks previously unasked questions, and often rethinks the mode of storytelling itself. Everyone knows that the prehistoric romance is a fine template for wilderness adventure with a bit of evolution tossed in, but when Robinson revisited it in Shaman, he asked how such a culture would learn how to make art and develop governance systems, and what might look like high tech to them (it partly involved snowshoes). Were he to revisit 2001, he might well ask if maybe HAL had a good point (after all, he was just trying to keep the mission on track). That last thought occurred to me because of a scene involving an intelligent computer that figures late in his new novel Aurora, in which Robinson takes on, with his characteristic critical eye, the indefatigable theme of the generation starship.
Generation starships have been an SF staple since early in the pulp era, but the template most often adopted is that established by Heinlein’s classic 1941 ‘‘Universe’’, in which the practical problems of mounting such a mission were more or less ignored in favor of a kind of allegory of scientific discovery; central to this conceit is the notion that the generations would devolve into a more primitive society, forgetting the original mission or even that they’re on a spaceship at all (and there’s a hint of this early in Aurora, as the newer generations seem to be getting lower test scores). Of course, a writer like Gene Wolfe can do wonders examining the culture of a generation ship in his Book of the Long Sun, but few writers have taken on issues of sustainability, management, and astrophysics with the thoroughness that Robinson brings to the theme here, just as relatively few writers had taken on the practicalities of Martian colonization with the obsessive detail of his Red Mars series.
Aurora begins 159 years into a 170-year-long voyage that began in 2545, which might lead some readers to suspect it’s a sequel to 2312. That’s not quite the case – Aurora is completely standalone – but there are a few allusions to that novel’s inventions, such as that moving city on Mercury. And the Ship itself, which now has a population just over two thousand, is designed after the hollowed-out asteroid habitats called ‘‘terraria’’ in that earlier novel – two large toruses linked to a 10-kilometer long spine, with most of the mass devoted to fuel for acceleration and deceleration. The complex, 20-year-long process of deceleration has begun as the ship approaches its destination of Tau Ceti, where it hopes to confirm that the moon of the title is habitable. There have been plenty of problems along the way, though, and one of those unasked questions I mentioned has to do with Robinson’s insight that, while 159 years is negligible in terms of human evolution, it’s plenty of time for bacteria, viruses, and molds to mutate. So much for the gleaming white hospital corridors of conventional SF spacecraft.
One of the reasons we learn this mass of detail early on is not because of a conventional infodump – a technique that Robinson has spiritedly defended – but rather because of Robinson’s most ingenious narrative conceit. We quickly learn that the narrator is in fact the ship’s AI (Called ‘‘Ship’’), given instructions by the chief engineer, Devi – the closest the novel comes to a competent Heinlein hero, although she’s equally an exasperated mother to her daughter Freya – to ‘‘make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars.’’ This is clearly a problem for Ship, which has a hard time learning the difference between a human narrative and a systems report (a problem shared with more than a few SF writers), and some of the early exchanges between Devi and Ship are hilarious. After a litany of ship statistics, Devi insists it should be a narrative, not ‘‘all about you,’’ but about the people – so Ship begins listing all 2,122 names, only to be interrupted again with the suggestion to pick a point of view and maybe read a few novels to get the hang. Ship’s most common response to all this is a meek, ‘‘Trying.’’
This is more than a joke, though, and it’s important in a couple of ways. For one thing, the narrative voice shifts noticeably during the novel, suggesting that learning to tell stories is a crucial part of becoming a person (a theme not entirely absent from Shaman) and in the process turning Ship into a major, and ingratiating, character. For another, the point of view which Ship settles on is that of Devi’s daughter Freya, who begins the novel as a confused but rebellious girl off on a kind of Wanderjahr among the Ship’s 12 biomes (each representing a different ecosystem from Earth), but who grows up and moves to center stage as the ship closes in on its destination, eventually facing a crisis that will lead to a significant political schism and drastically alter the fate of the entire mission. There are plenty of other characters as well, such as Freya’s boyfriend Euan, who shares the bitter view of many Ship-born that they were unthinkingly sentenced by their ancestors to life terms in a kind of prison, her even-tempered but somewhat bland father Badim, and a tragic figure named Jochi, who takes on an almost priestlike role when, for various reasons, he finds himself isolated in a separate pod from the rest of the community for much of the journey. While the succession of hard-SF problems and solutions never flags (how could it, with Ship determined to share all those gravitation-and-delta-v calculations?), the novel ends on a decidedly humanistic, and rather beautiful, moment of character epiphany – I shouldn’t say where or when – that will remind some readers more of Virginia Woolf than of Heinlein, and should remind all of us again that Robinson is among the premier literary figures in modern SF.