Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

The world to which the ship — just called Ship — is bearing all this life is not itself a planet, but the moon of a planet. The planet itself is referred to as the star’s — Tau Ceti’s — planet E; the moon is dubbed Aurora, after the goddess of the dawn. What the colonists find on the way there, and what they find upon their arrival, and what they find after — well, that’s where all the true spoilers lie, and I won’t detail them here. Suffice to say, things proceed unexpectedly for, well, for all parties.

Indeed, things will probably proceed unexpectedly for many readers already familiar with the conventions of interstellar travel as represented in science fiction. I suspect the surprises are one — maybe the main — reason the book has been called “controversial.”

Among those parties, the “main” character represents an especially brilliant stroke of casting on Robinson’s part: the narrator for almost the entire book is Ship’s AI. A so-called “quantum computer,” this AI is charged by one of its handlers with constructing a narrative of the entire journey, from that point forward. Of course, at the outset the computer has no idea how to do this, and at first simply recites dull factoids, sans insight, voice, or anything like “plotting,” about the ship, about the journey, about the inhabitants. This allows Robinson to dispense with all that background material fairly quickly.

But soon the handler in question — the de facto ship’s engineer, named Devi — interrupts the “story.” She interrupts it several times, in fact, because Ship is just not getting the hang of writing a story. Here’s an excerpt of one of their conversations, apart from the straightforward narrative itself:

Devi: Ship! Stop. Do not list all the people in the ship.
Ship: But it’s their story. You said to describe them.
Devi: No. I told you to write a narrative account of the voyage.
Ship: This does not seem to be enough instruction to proceed, judging by results so far. Judging by interruptions.
Devi: No. I can see that. But keep trying. Do what you can. Quit with the backstory, concentrate on what’s happening now… And while you’re at it, keep running searches. Check out narratology maybe. Read some novels and see how they do it. See if you can work up a narratizing algorithm. Use your recursive programming, and the Bayesian analytic engine I installed in you.
Ship: How know if succeeding?
Devi: I don’t know.
Ship: Then how can ship know?
Devi: I don’t know. This is an experiment. Actually it’s like a lot of my experiments, in that it isn’t working.
Ship: Expressions of regret.
Devi: Yeah yeah. Just try it.
Ship: Will try…
Devi: Sounds good. Try that. Oh, and vary whatever you do. Don’t get stuck in any particular method. Also, search the literature for terms like diegesis, or narrative discourse. Branch out from there. And read some novels.
Ship: Will try. Seems as if Engineer Devi might not be expert in this matter?
Devi: (laughs) I told you, I used to hate writing up my results. But I know what I like. I’ll leave you to it, and let you know what I think later. I’m too busy to keep up with this. So come on, do the literature review and then give it a try.

Eventually, Ship not only stops speaking to Devi in this pidgin, but also starts writing better — in complete sentences, using metaphor and analogy (after much internal debate about the purpose of and logic behind those tools), and even with jokes (samples of which on display in the above dialogue). By the time it wraps its narrative up, with meditations on philosophy, human history, and emotions like joy and pride, I found myself quite attached to Ship — and would be surprised if I’m alone in that.

Biomes are not quite the same thing as habitats, Wikipedia assures us. But I suspect that the nuances of definition will not matter to many readers. In Aurora‘s terms, at least, a biome is a sort of artificial — yes — habitat on the ship, modeled on some Terran counterpart. Between the two outer rings in Ship’s structure exist twenty-four biomes, each self-contained (but not isolated from its neighbors, for the most part) and named for an earthly terrain, climate, and/or geographic entity. There’s a Labrador, for instance, and a Sonora, the Pampas, and a Mongolia. (Ring A contains twelve Old World biomes; Ring B, twelve New World ones.)

Within each biome are areas set aside for agriculture and pastureland, residential areas, water bodies, and “protected wilderness.” The climate in each biome is controlled separately; it experiences rain, snow, “sunlight” (simulated, with a lighting system which actually models the transit of the sun across the sky), and other weather appropriate to what the human, animal, and plant life within would have experienced back on Earth.

All this, of course, is in service to diversity: the principle that the best way for life to succeed over long periods of time, in the face of unknown experiences, is to be equipped with as many different genetic combinations as possible.

Above, I have done nothing like justice to the emotional sweep of Aurora, or to the feeling — at least, from this quarter — of complete novelty: the sense that I’d never read anything quite so damned realistic about interstellar travel. In his research prior to writing the book, Robinson had the opportunity to interview numerous NASA employees about what the experience might entail — what technology might be involved, what dangers might have to be confronted, how humans might behave en masse when confronted with those dangers. The spacefarers not only have to make heavy use of 3D printers, for example; they also have to come up with novel ways to provide feedstock — the raw material — for those printers, and for 3D-printing the additional 3D printers which they will eventually require. They need to understand politics and governance. They need to nurture bravery and compassion, and come to grips with the realities of the human reproductive cycle and population growth…

The results are obvious: this is a really well-researched, well-considered, and thoroughly heartfelt piece of speculative fiction.

If any readers of this review are considering writing your own “generation spaceship” novels, I hope Aurora finds a place on your reading lists. Even if you don’t get as caught up in Ship (and Ship’s narrative) as I did, I’m pretty sure you’ll encounter potential problems, and solutions, that you haven’t even thought of!


Note: If — and only if — you have already read Aurora, you might appreciate reading this intensive and well-written evaluation of the science behind the book. It not only considers what Robinson does right, but what he might have done better. (And points out a couple examples of hand-waving, too.)

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