Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

October 22, 2015 at 11:48 am | Posted in 4 stars, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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Aurora coverKim Stanley Robinson is one of the great authors of the modern era of science fiction, but he’s also a polarizing one. I’ve known people for whom reading his Mars Trilogy was literally a life-changing experience, but I’ve known just as many who bounced off it. He’s quite unusual in that he writes hard science fiction in the old mode, not only unafraid of exposition but embracing it, yet he also has a strong literary interest in the interior life of his characters and the style with which he tells a story. It feels unusual to say this so far into a writer’s career, but Aurora might be his best novel as well as the best place for a reader new to his work to start.

I say “might be” only because I haven’t read enough of his novels to be certain. I did manage to finish his Mars Trilogy, but only on my second attempt. I liked 2312 a great deal more, but it was paced strangely and largely centered on a character I found annoying. I read Aurora because I heard several early reviews to the effect that “I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, but this is great!” I am often comically off-the-mark in my impressions of a novel before I read it, but in this case I finished the novel thinking: I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, this was great!

Aurora is the story of a generation starship that, as the novel begins, is seven generations into its voyage and decelerating toward its planned colony site at Tau Ceti. Everything is going as well as can be expected, but over two hundred years little problems have been building into large problems, complicated by the fact that some parts of the ship are not–or are no longer–redundant enough to be shut down for maintenance without endangering the people on board. Devi is an engineer whose skill as a problem-solver means she spends her days traveling between the starship’s various biomes investigating soil chemistry, mineral buildup, equipment malfunctions, and all of the other little problems that by themselves aren’t fatal but, taken together, constitute a threat to the ship.

Most authors would have made Devi their main character. She’s smart, an inspiring leader, and a supremely talented engineer. She’s the classic SF “competent man” protagonist, except she’s neither a man nor the protagonist. The narrative instead centers on Freya, Devi’s daughter who is “slow at things”, finds math class to be excruciating, and ends up doing menial, unskilled work. Worst of all, she knows that she’s not like other kids and especially not like her mother, who is a genius engineer but not a good enough actor to conceal her disappointment. At first Freya is just a sympathetic figure whose utility to the actual story seems limited to happening to be in the same room when her mother is discussing important matters. The passive protagonist, who goes around like a movie camera seeing things happen on behalf of the reader, is a familiar device from countless science fiction novels, but Freya develops from these humble beginnings into an influential leader. Whereas Devi is a leader who goes around telling people how to solve their problems, Freya becomes a leader who listens to people talk about their problems. It sounds a bit cheesy when summarized, and the book makes it clear that part of the respect given to Freya is due to her mother, but Robinson made me believe that Freya could make this unusual path work and come to influence people who are theoretically far smarter than she is.

A protagonist living in the shadow of a far more accomplished family member is not a new theme for Robinson. In 2312, one of the two main characters, Swan, was the granddaughter of someone famous throughout the solar system. Swan was energetic but obnoxious, traveling all over the solar system and pissing off other characters (and many readers) but not really accomplishing anything. Freya travels a great deal as well, but she’s agreeable and sympathetic to both other characters and the reader. She’s far less frenetic than Swan yet has much more of an impact on the actual story than Swan ever did.

But although Freya is clearly the protagonist of the first half of the novel, by the end it’s hard not to feel as though the ship itself is the main character, and not in the figurative sense people say that Mars is the main character of the Mars Trilogy. The ship is operated by a quantum computer running an artificial intelligence. This isn’t a wisecracking AI out of Iain M. Banks; it’s not obvious whether it is even self-aware. Worried that the human crew won’t be able to cope with the ship’s increasing problems, Devi does her best to make the ship more intelligent. She gives the ship a challenge: write a story about the journey. The result is Aurora, and the way in which the story is told provides a window into the evolving intellect of the ship AI. From what I can tell (and this is the only technical aspect of the story I am even slightly qualified to assess) Robinson’s portrayal of AI is grounded more in his intuition than science. For example, the “halting problem” has a very precise scientific meaning but whenever the narration mentions it, it does so metaphorically, and even when discussing metaphors: “A quick literature review suggests the similarities in metaphors are arbitrary, even random. They could be called metaphorical similarities, but no AI likes tautological formulations because the halting problem can be severe, become a so-called Ouroboros problem, or a whirlpool with no escape: aha, a metaphor.” But even when I started to get annoyed by the imprecise usage of technical terms from computer science, the character always disarmed my objections. There isn’t any groundbreaking thinking here about AI, but there’s a great character, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Some people may still bounce off the novel because the beginning is somewhat slow as Robinson shows the reader the ship and the society living on it through Freya’s eyes. The pace quickens, however, and by the time the ship arrives at Tau Ceti about a quarter of the way through the novel the story begins a crescendo of tension and conflict that sustains it for the rest of the book. For most of its journey, the ship’s humans lived in a peaceful communitarian society on the ship. It wasn’t perfect, but it had many of the features of the post-capitalist utopias that have figured prominently in Robinson’s past work. Arrival at Tau Ceti puts a severe and ultimately stress on the political system and sets up the social and technical challenges that the characters spend the rest of the novel trying to solve.

Aurora is very much a hard science fiction novel, as was Robinson’s 2312 and his famous Mars Trilogy. Although he himself is not a scientist, Robinson has worked hard to take the old idea of a generation starship and try to envision how it would work. Most generation ship stories of the past have explored fascinating but unlikely scenarios of technological collapse: what if the passengers forget they are on a ship? Robinson is willing to let his ship’s passengers enjoy a fairly stable and well-ordered society for most of their journey, but he carefully scrutinizes the ship itself. Not how any individual piece of the ship works–most of the ship’s constituent pieces, like its propulsion, quantum computers, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology printers, are all handwaved into existence–but instead how the various pieces work together in an almost entirely closed system. The printers can create things, but where do the raw materials come from? Can material get “stuck” in a way that can’t be reclaimed? Can anything be repaired? Based on what ecologists have learned about island species, how big does a population have to be to be stable? He has much to say about these questions that will be new even to science fiction veterans.

It may not be fair to either book, but since I recently read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, the urge to contrast them is irresistible. Both novels tell stories that span many years, both depict humans struggling to survive in the difficult environment of space, and both have a coda that certainly makes a point but which they probably would have been better off without.Seveneves is much longer, has many more characters, and has more intricate detail. For its part, Aurora has characters who feel like real people, far more convincing science, and a much more reasonably-sized point-scoring coda. And while it’s probably foolish to try to predict this sort of thing, Aurora‘s core ideas about interstellar travel strike me as significant enough they will be part of the conversation for decades.

Describing those core ideas necessarily involves spoilers, so the spoiler-averse should head out now and come back when they’ve read the book.

The novel makes two arguments against the feasibility of generation ships. The first is that the greater speed with which bacteria evolves means that if a few thousand humans are isolated, the bacteria inside the humans will change, causing the people to sicken and eventually die out. The second argument is about extrasolar planets and first stated by Euan, dying on Aurora: “…they’re either going to be alive or dead, right? If they’ve got water and orbit in the habitable zone, they’ll be alive. Alive and poisonous…Then on the dead worlds, those’ll be dry, and too cold, or too hot. So they’ll be useless unless they have water, and if they have water they’ll probably be alive.”

It’s hard as a layman to evaluate the strength of the scientific claims being made here. Robinson is very convincing when he establishes that island devolution presents a problem, but less so when he implies that there’s no solution. This is a novel, after all, that has hand-waved its way to .1c interstellar travel and strong AI. The “live worlds are poison” problem is less impressive. While a microbe from a completely different world and ecosystem could be a sort of interstellar smallpox, it seems more likely it would simply be unable to interact with human amino acids and vice versa. Even granting the discovery within the novel, the characters conclude that “all live worlds are poison” from a single data point. That’s like trying to make statements about all planetary systems based solely on observations of our solar system, something which astronomers did in fact do out of necessity, but the moment we started being able to observe planets in other star systems, those theories crumbled.

The best argument the novel makes against generation starships is ethical: maybe the initial crew volunteers, but their children don’t. The children will see the grandeur and vastness of Terran civilization dwindling behind them but remain trapped in a relatively tiny starship for their entire lives. If anything Robinson underplays this argument, which I found completely convincing, because in his story no one seems to pay much attention to the Earth they’ve left behind. There is a feed of information, 8.5 gigabytes per day, but other than Devi people seem to just think it an odd curiosity. My take is that a few thousand people linked in this way would be totally dominated by Earth’s culture and would be avidly consuming Terran entertainment, and that entertainment would prevent them from forgetting the opportunities they were being denied.

In a very strange move, Robinson undercuts his best arguments by allowing a workable cryosleep to be discovered. The consent of children is not a barrier to exploration when generation ships become sleeper ships, nor is island devolution an issue if the bacteria are quiesced along with their host. The book’s principal characters remain adamantly opposed to exploration despite benefiting from the technology themselves. I assume Robinson was willing to do this because for him there are even more convincing arguments available, but they aren’t clearly stated in the book. In interviews, however, he has commented that dreams of interstellar colonization make people willing to allow Earth to be ruined, that people countenance irreparable harm to the planet and therefore the species because they think there are alternatives that are not, in fact, viable. That’s fair enough, but probably better refuted by drawing attention to the grave difficulties of constructing a durable spaceship of the scale required and achieving the required levels of propulsion, all problems glossed over in Aurora.

Each reader will have to come to their own conclusions about this, but I don’t want to end this review without a reminder that Aurora stakes out its position on all this by means of a story that is often exciting and nearly always fascinating. It may not perfect, but I would be shocked if it’s not on my nomination list for the Hugo awards in a few months.

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