Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Kim Stanley Robinson: Aurora

Kim Stanley Robinson

This will, no doubt, show up on  my Favorite SF Novels List for 2016, as it's hard to believe more than ten novels will appear in the next ten months that are superior.  Of course, it is Kim Stanley Robinson, who is one of my top SF writers just practicing his art. And, art it is. 

Aurora tells the story of the voyage of a generation ship that is headed toward Tau Ceti, with several thousand humans aboard.  The novel begins when the ship approaches Tau Ceti, some one hundred and sixty years, and seven generations, after it left Earth.  Their mission is to plant a self-sustaining colony on one of the moons, which they have named Aurora,  in the Tau Ceti solar system

While others may disagree with me, the generation ship is actually the main character.  I think this way because the main plot involves the necessity of the survival of the generation ship, with a subplot about the slow growth of consciousness or self-awareness in a machine-based intelligence.  In addition, the ship's AI is the narrator of the novel.

The humans in the ship have two main problems to resolve: one is the survival of the ship, which is slowly breaking down after one hundred and sixty plus years and the other is the need to maintain control over the human population which has known no other life than that confined to the ship.  If the humans can't live together relatively harmoniously, then all are doomed.  This turns out to be one of the many crises faced by the colonists, and it is resolved in a rather surprising (and potentially frightening) manner. 

Kim Stanley Robinson must have done an incredible amount of research into the physical creation of the generation ship, along with the possible threats to the integrity of the ship from various chemical, biological, and mechanical sources.
 He has also created a number of separate habitats, or biomes, each with its own climate, soil, and life forms.  Part of the problem facing the ship's crew is maintaining those biomes, for they contain a myriad of living organisms, which must work together as they do here on Earth.  And, those organisms are not static--they do evolve over time and not necessarily at the same rate, which poses additional problems.

Robinson also speculates on the psychological and emotional effects of life within a closed environment.  Moreover, he asks a moral or ethical question I have never encountered in any generation ship story before, and to be honest, I have never asked this question myself.  The first generation are volunteers, but the second? third? and so on.  They were never asked whether they wanted to live this way.  Is this a form of child abuse?

Rather surprisingly for an SF novel, near the end of the work one of the human colonists gives a speech in which he insists we will never be able to  leave the solar system and successfully plant human colonies elsewhere, even in our own galaxy, much less anywhere else.  He maintains this is impossible and provides a very strong argument in support.  The opposing argument relies mainly on emotional issues.

This may be true today, but in the future?  I was reminded of  Clarke's First Law:  "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."  There are also numerous examples of scientists who first declared that it was impossible for a ship to leave the planet and others who argued we could never even reach the moon,  much less land on it.

What is Robinson doing here?  Is he really arguing against space travel and the possibility of living on other planets?  This seems strange considering that his Mars trilogy, "RGB Mars" goes into such great detail about terraforming Mars.  I wonder if, however, he is really arguing with a theme that seems prevalent in many SF stories today--that we have ruined Earth and our only hope is to go somewhere else.  Perhaps Robinson is really saying that we should be concerned now with protecting the environment so that future generations won't have to leave in order for the human race to survive.

This is a must-read for all who see SF as something more than sheer and mere entertainment.  There are ideas here to think about, which is true of all of Kim Stanley Robinson's works.


  1. You've persuaded me with your superb review; I'll read this one if the library has a copy. What a contrast v. 19th c. Amlit.

    1. R.T.,

      Thanks for the kind words. Beware of culture shock.

  2. Fred, did you just read Agnes Grey?

    1. Di,

      Yes, it was the Feb. selection for a discussion group.
      Why do you ask?