This is what science fiction is meant to be.
I read this book so aggressively, I’ve come down with a cold. I’ve slept minimally for several days. And I don’t regret it at all.
Don’t even finish reading this piece. Go out and get a copy now.
Still here? You’re loss.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora was fantastic, I highly recommend it.
I’ll try not to give too many plot points away, though it wouldn’t really matter if I did – it is the way it’s told that makes it worth the while.
The story focuses around an ark ship; when we join her crew, she is nearly arrived at the destination of her nearly two-century journey, the star Tau Ceti, 11.9 light years from our own system. Tau Ceti has planets within the habitable zone, that intermediary space where you’re not so close to the star to have the flesh ripped from your quickly vapourising bones by cosmic rays, nor so far as to freeze instantaneously, the oxygen desublimating while still in your lungs. Two of the planets have moons similar to planets we know here – a moon with a 78% similarity to Earth, with liquid water in large abundance, and another planet’s moon, a Mars analogue, rocky and dry. Seven generations have lived their lives out on the way, knowing little more than the inside of their mobile world. The ship itself, two tori connected by a central spine, is separated out into twelve distinct biomes, mimicking the disparate environments of Earth. Each area holds ~300 people, with a population capped just north of 2000 all told. They also have an assortment of terran flora and fauna, and all the micro-organisms that come along with. Even sizeable, alpha predators share the false environment, sequestered in remote areas of their natural habitats.
The narrative style is a clever one – the tale is relayed to us by way of the ship-board AI, or, proto-AI, after it is told as an exercise/research effort to report the story of the people of the ship and their travels by one of the head engineers. Artful, this provides for many asides as the computer struggles with meaning – in language, in life, in consciousness – that augment the actual goings-on of the struggle to reach a new home. Under direction, the ship focuses this tale on the life of the engineer’s daughter, without zeroing in solely on her. Thus, we have our protagonist, as well as the ability to examine important, synonymous events she wouldn’t be privy to. The tone is sometimes bemused, sometimes sombre, always earnest. Profundities abound, without ever slipping into the maudlin.
One of the best elements of the story, at least for my lights, is the unabashed acceptance of just how difficult this kind of venture would be. The crew leave the Sol system mid-way through the 26th century, after humanity has spread out to the gas giants, have workable quantum computers, and the technology to both accelerate to and protect a massive space station at 0.1 c. The scientific realities are never dictated to the reader, though – there is no talking down. The science serves the narrative, not the Verne-way round. The intricate things that, unplanned for, spell almost instant disaster, the larger, inescapable issues of life suspended in an enclosed environment for two centuries, the bizarre, unheimlich nature of seemingly-barren, alien worlds. This isn’t your grandfather’s space opera. Every interstellar inch this crew are flung through, they travel it a hair’s width away from death. It’s not a matter of if, but of when and how. And they know it.
Robinson may reiterate some concepts, retreading the notion of island biogeography, the losing struggle against metabolic rifts and uneven evolution, the preponderance of psychological biases, to the point of near-tedium. But this, too, serves the narrative, building up the tension the crew feel, confined as they are in an artificial environment that, on a very basic, indefeasible way, they were never meant to live in. The ship is huge, a scaled model of Earth itself, albeit a trillion to one. And yet, the reader can feel how cramped it is, and how it gets continually tighter as systems are strained to and past their breaking points, as tempers flare and order falls apart.
While the narrative structure might prevent us from accessing the inner lives of the human characters, this should not be taken as an assertion that all are cut paper. There are no mobile tropes here – the motivations are understandable, uncontrived. An extraordinary situation, but ordinary, human reactions. It is rounded characters that drive the story forward, just as much as any external circumstance.
Whether the crew are successful in their mission or not is immaterial – this is the best of all possible worlds. Humanity, performing one of the most integral, elemental acts known to us – the use of our intelligence, our ability, our empathy, to overcome. If our species is able to get to the point described by Robinson within the next millennia, it would be the most incredible success. Things will be dark, and dangerous, and unforgiving, but that is reality, especially beyond the comforting gravity well of Terra. As the novel ultimately shows, our worst problems will always be the ones we bring with us, wherever we might be. Alongside our struggle, it may be stories like Aurora that sustain us. I exhort you to read this book.