Kim Stanley Robinson is an American science fiction writer, probably best known for his award-winning Mars trilogy.
His work delves into ecological and sociological themes regularly, and many of his novels appear to be the direct result of his own scientific fascinations, such as the 15 years of research and lifelong fascination with Mars which culminated in his most famous work. He has, due to his fascination with Mars, become a member of the Mars Society.
Robinson's work has been labeled by reviewers as "literary science fiction".
I don’t know how else to explain my reaction to a book so many enjoy. I was looking forward to some space-faring sci-fi: I recently read Dune, and with plenty of news about The Expanse, the sci-fi series based on Leviathan Wakes, crossing my feed, I’ve been feeling nostalgic about space travel and unfamiliar planets. Unfortunately, this a disappointment and a chore to complete.
Aurora begins with Freya and her father sailing on Long Pond. It turns out Long Pond is in the Nova Scotia biome of a spaceship. Narration follows Freya, and the reader knows only as much as she does. It is a clever introduction to a complex scenario, allowing the reader to see the world through child’s eyes, and providing for–somewhat–suspension of disbelief. Freya’s mother, Devi, is the head engineer, and we learn about various problems the ship and its people face through Devi’s troubleshooting. I found myself alternately fascinated by ship logistics and bored by the simplistic structure of the narrative: “Evenings at home are the best. Creche is over and done, her time with all the kids she lives with so much, spending more time with them than she does with her parents, if you don’t count sleeping, it gets so tiresome to make it through all the boring hours, talking, arguing, fighting, reading alone, napping. All the kids are smaller than she is now, it’s embarrassing. It’s gone on so long. They make fun of her, if they think she isn’t listening to them. They take care with that, because once she heard them making those jokes and she ran over roaring and knocked one of them to the ground and beat on his raised arms. She got in trouble for it, and since then they are cautious around her, and a lot of the time she keeps to herself.”
I tried to stay patient, though character and language are two components key to keeping me intrigued. I thought maybe KSR was attempting something interesting with narrative voice and plot–how does a limited colony integrate the cognitively disabled when everything is calculated, almost down to the last molecule? But no–the next section begins with Devi trying to teach the ship narration. Again, interesting device; a clever way to give the reader the technical background on a 159 year old ship that holds two thousand, one hundred twenty-two people. The ship gains a grasp of storytelling and goes back to Freya, now wandering the biomes in a rite of passage common to many residents. She works as a Good For Anything laborer, meeting many of the 3oo people in each biome. Again, fascinating way to show the reader the ship and the way of life, although I found myself starting to wonder about the agrarian way of life Freya was encountering.
Throughout the story, plot oriented narration is frequently interrupted by Ship’s philosophical musings. What is metaphor? What is consciousness? What is risk? Once again, ideas with the potential to be interesting, but they are so overt, so clearly interrupting the story as commentary that it’s the literary version of a public service announcement. We witness the situation and then the ship analyzes it in the narrative, as if the reader is twelve year-old Freya. When the ship started learning metaphor, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated, recalling the far more sophisticated story in China Miéville’s Embassytown. I remembered how much thought I had to put into reading it, and suddenly realized that KSR was spoon-feeding interpretation. He wasn’t content to create his art and let the viewer define meaning; he wants to control the reader’s conclusions. Does he not trust his story? His skill? The reader?
Section Three centers on arriving at their new home, and it is here that Freya takes a background role as we focus on Euan, one of her childhood friends that is planet-side. Descriptions of the planet are outstanding and lyrical, and I was once again caught in the story as the settlers attempted to create a home. Nostalgia set in as I remembered Anne McCaffrey’s Pern settlement books, but this section didn’t last nearly as long as I hoped.
Further section analysis would no doubt include spoilers, but I will say that Section Four displayed a dismal view of humanity, Section Five is when I hit my ceiling on suspension of disbelief, and Section Six would be better served by reading Wikapedia entries on language, AI and cognition. Colony structure and science that were so painstakingly explained earlier became almost irrelevant as people scurried around reacting like kindergartners during a fire drill. It became a chore to read, thematically and logically, with a character displaying TSTL traits in the final chapter worthy of the worst paranormal romances.
I find that I am irritated with almost everything about this book. The plot is picked up or discarded according to what KSR needs to happen to make particular points. Characterization is limited at best. When I first read reviews, I thought, “wow, that says something for the author’s skill if the most interesting character is a ship,” but I didn’t realized how ironic that would prove.
The scientific information underlying the story seems interesting and valid. However, like the plot, the science content is mostly there to create situations for humans to react and prove the author’s points. The “printers” are a giant creative crutch. I expect that great science fiction takes the world we know and throws it in the future, exploring the human experience through the unfamiliar, but this just took the amazing and gave it the same behavioral reactions I’d find in the local mall. I wanted the version of this book that explored the behavior of 2000 people isolated for six generations, or, failing that, the experience of colonizing a planet away from any renewable resources. Frankly, skip this–you’d be better off reading The Martian.
I can say a lot more than wow, and I will, but wow is still coming out.
I had an oh shit moment that reduced me to tears at a certain point, and I'm not going to reveal it for anyone else, but it was powerful and it had everything to do with the fantastic character development for the narrator.
The last book of Robinson's that I read was 2312, which I still think about, but I had some issues with it, namely in the two main characters. I didn't quite care for them as much as I felt I should have. Unfortunately, that dragged down an otherwise wonderful book fantastically populated with so much thought and worldbuilding and science that I still believe it belongs in the Hugo nominations from several years back.
Aurora is better.
So much better. Even with all of the realism couched in so much science exposition that may or may not go over some people's heads, I felt buoyed up by it like the salt water of the mother ocean, cresting the wave, and riding it as if I were a newborn. Read the damn novel if you want to know what I mean.
The beginning was slightly prosaic, but I swear, don't let that turn you off. It's an important scene. Even the end nicely frames it.
As for the most important bit... The narrator... I'm just not sure how I can say how much I love the narrator without giving away a few secrets along the way, so I'm just going to forewarn you. Spoiler.
Do not read this.
I mean it.
Oh, okay, you asked for it.
This has got to be the most heartwarming and deep characterizations of a quantum computer writing a novel that I've ever read. It also happens to be the only one. And my god, it just started out being clever and you can feel its sense of tedium and frustration, then how it begins to get into the flow of wordplay, and then how it expresses love, devotion, duty, purpose, and meaning. It was amazing.
That being said, we've got a fucking wonderful winner of a hard sci-fi classic here. I'm going to nominate this one for next year's Hugo ballot. It easily surpasses any other generation-ship novel I've ever read, and I've read quite a few. I may change my mind before the actual nomination time comes, but this will currently win my vote as of right now.
Read it for the science or the thought-play. Read it for the adventure of colonizing another star and suffer the realizations of an all-too-plausible reality. Read it for the wonderful characters who have gone through a lot of of crap. Read it for the slingshot maneuvers. Hell, read it twice for the slingshot maneuvers. The book is damn worth it.
And if I must say so, I think it might be better than the Mars Trilogy. If that isn't high praise, I don't know what is.
Two unnamed starships from Earth in 2545 are launched towards a nearby star system,Tau Ceti, only 11.9 light -years away, they will arrive in 170 years... even though traveling at one-tenth light speed, seven generations of people are born and die, most never seeing their ultimate destination... the greatest adventure ever attempted. However things do not go as planned, otherwise it would be a dull voyage into the unknown galaxy for the readers. The main characters are a family of three, fiery Devi, the de facto chief engineer and leader on board, her calm husband Badim, a doctor, also on the security council, their mixed-up teenage daughter Freya. And the other captives , 2,122 passengers, in one of the ships, shaped strangely like a couple of gigantic wheels, ( rings A & B) spinning constantly in the dark, almost empty cosmos , making artificial gravity for the explorers inside, connected by a tube, called the spine, a passageway for them, the narrator the starship's powerful computer... watching all. The second ship never heard from. Living in 24 sections, called biomes, each 2 and a half miles wide, really separate communities...some are for farming, with animals, forests, fishing in ponds, manufacturing areas, smart robots everywhere to help keep all safe, they grow apart.. of course, soon get in each others nerves after only 68 years...Civil war, breaks out, a dangerous concept in a spaceship, deaths occur, revenge killings, yes much like good old Earth. You can take humans from Terra but anger, greed, envy and yes...hate will ride always wherever they live. A peace between the combatants is at last arranged... for now but not forever. Finally, destination Aurora the colonists see, a pretty watery moon orbiting a planet called E, ( there are ten in the system, A to J, rock and gas planets, all uninhabitable) similar to its satellite in appearance but with a crushing 3.5 times the gravity of Earth, too much for humans to endure. Slowly some of the the travelers disembark, all seems well until a lethal virus strikes the Earthlings, they are totally unprepared for this in their new, windy settlement home, (a blustering 40 miles a hour) large ocean waves continuously hit the island's or is it a continent's, shores...white ice caps in the north and south poles , exotic blue skies, the same as the waters, numerous islands encircling this sphere, green hills and mountains, a beautiful world, theirs, if they abide....with breathable air...paradise lost? The author has a pessimistic view of the universe, what can go wrong will, people are unreliable, conflicts entirely predictable. Chaos the norm, so expect the unexpected. The narrative changes abruptly, in the middle, the story goes into a different direction, an u turn many will not like, your typical sci-fi novel... it isn't.
Let me start this review by saying that in spite of the two star rating, I believe this is an important novel that every science fiction fan needs to read. The philosophical and scientific issues that Robinson addresses in detail are central to the genre, and particularly to space-based hard SF, so much so that from here on, all such works will have to address the concerns he raises in some form or another if they want to be taken seriously. Yes, it's that essential.
For this reason, and for the fact that Robinson is generally a good storyteller, and a good chunk of this novel (particularly in the middle chapters) is riveting, page-turning stuff, does Aurora manage to scrape together two stars from me.
Because other than that, I f***king hated this book.
Robinson takes a blowtorch to the idea of interstellar travel - not just the material concerns, which take up the majority of the book, but the idea itself, the idealism that fuels it. In the final chapter he literally punches idealism in the face. The heart of my problems with novel stems not from his depiction of the potential problems with humans voyaging through space, but from this binary opposition he sets up between Marxist materialism - shown as progressive, egalitarian, practical - and Platonic idealism - reactionary, destructive, fascistic.
I'm an old school Aristotelian in most of my thinking, so criticism of Plato isn't necessarily disagreeable to me. I'm generally a fan of Marx too, in some regards at least. Robinson's criticism of the assumptions modern SF takes for granted - the false teleology of scientific progress, that anything that can be theorized will one day come to pass - is one I can appreciate.
But arguments constructed around binary oppositions tend to set parameters for debate that stack the deck onto one side of the argument, and Robinson's deck stacking is so egregious it gave me migraines from all the psychic face-palming I did while reading it. Every step of the way, the worst case scenario is presented as the only possible outcome, and this is all built on the premise that the people who devised the means of sending people out to distant star systems are so blinded by selfish idealism that they wouldn't have accounted for such problems before embarking on such an enormous undertaking. I find this really hard to swallow.
The unbearable, finger-wagging lecture that makes up the final chapter of Aurora reaches a conclusion that is hard to disagree with - that we must care for the Earth, fix the environmental problems here rather that look to the stars for our salvation. I agree with this. However, the derogatory eye-rolling he directs at the 'space cadets' (reminds me of the teachers and classmates who used to ridicule me for reading SF when I was a kid) who gaze at the stars is horribly misplaced. NASA engineers are currently leading the way in developing the kind of sustainable living technology that can achieve such a goal. Depicting the people who support their endeavors as smirking, self-absorbed villains who care nothing for the problems of the world and the people on it is plainly wrong.
So yes, I pretty much hated Aurora, and I definitely think everyone should read it.
"The Earth is the cradle of Humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever."
In the year 2545, a starship crafted by human hands began its voyage from the Solar System to nearby star, Tau Ceti, just 14 light years away. Moving at 1/10th the speed of light for most of its journey, the ship’s voyage has lasted nearly 160 years when Aurora‘s narrative begins–just 10 years away from arriving at the eponymous moon that may serve as a new home for humanity.
During its long life, Ship has seen fifteen thousand humans (and even more animals, and many, many more bacterial and microbrial life forms) live and die in its rings, spires, and biomes. And now, Ship has begun the calculations and deceleration pattern that will bring it and the thousands of lives aboard to the Tau Ceti system, in the hopes that one of the planets or moons in the star’s habitable zone can host life. There’s Aurora, the crew’s best possible shot–a water world and Earth analog, with the right composition, mass, and likelihood of supporting Terran organisms.
Things have started to go wrong, though, aboard the generation ship itself–and Aurora is not what it seems. Soon, the human explorers born among the stars will face their greatest obstacle, and the first real choice they’ve ever had to make as a group.
“Up until today, history was preordained. We were aimed at Tau Ceti, nothing else could happen. We had to do the necessary … Now that story is over. We are thrust out of the end of that story. Forced to make up a new one, all on our own.”
Aurora is the latest novel from multiple award-winner Kim Stanley Robinson, and it is one that retreads familiar space–the generation ship, traveling from Earth with the fragile hopes of finding a new, habitable home in the stars; the challenges posed by generations of humans and Earth organisms born and living in space after so many years of traveling; an AI that develops a personality; the intrepid leader who unites her people in their indecision and fear. Yes, these may be classic tenets of the space exploration canon, but fear not, fellow traveler and science fiction fan–Aurora is like no other generation ship book you’ve ever read. A brilliant, realistic look at the future of space exploration and the fate that awaits humans among the stars, Aurora is the best book I’ve ever read from Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s also the best book I’ve read so far this year.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about what it is that makes Aurora so successful a tale–is it the blend of hard science fiction physics and biology? The compelling and original narrative structure, coupled with truly unexpected plot developments? The social and ethical questions posed by the narrative regarding space travel and the humans sent to colonize the stars? The legacy of a great leader and her daughter’s struggles to live up to her mother’s expectations? The evolution of Ship itself over two centuries of consciousness? The answer, of course, is that it is all of these things in a perfect, delicate balance–a calibration of which Ship itself would approve (and a goal to which Ship itself would need to dedicate its entire processing power).
From the very first page, Aurora succeeds, excels, as a story because of its unexpected narrative in both structure and substance. It begins as a kind of assignment, 159 years into the voyage. Over the years, the human lives aboard ship have been organized not in the tradition sense of having a captain, a first mate, and all the other associated ranks of command. Rather, Ship is broken into different biomes, modules that replicate the diverse ecologies and biologies of Earth–tundra, prairie grasslands, rainforest, boreal forests, freshwater lakes, deserts, and the like. Each biome is named for its Terran counterpart (there is a Costa Rica, a Mongolia, a Nova Scotia, and so on). For the most part, people can travel between biomes and wander the ship, although relatively few choose this life of wandering–although two very important people to this narrative have done so.
Aurora‘s main protagonist is a woman named Freya–at the time the narrative begins, Freya is just 14 years old, and following her mother Devi around the ship as Devi deals with problem after problem. So, while the ship has no commander or chief engineer, Devi is the de facto leader of this mission. Brilliant, able to predict and sidestep some of the logical fallacies and assumptions humans are apt to make, Devi is the reason why the ship is running so well, so late into its voyage. She identifies the myriad problems and their possible implications in the ship’s forever-closed system; she worries and obsesses and is so very angry (though most people can’t tell–Freya is very good at tuning into people’s feelings, though). Devi is also the reason why Ship is aware and creating a narrative–it is Devi who, in her younger years, started talking to Ship and worked on developing its artificial intelligence from a great quantum computer to something, possibly, more.
It is Devi who tells Ship to build a narrative of the journey, because she knows her time is short and that her people will need Ship’s help to survive whatever happens when they reach Tau Ceti and make landfall on Aurora.
And so Ship, after studying the appropriate queries and literature, focuses its narrative on Freya–Ship’s mother was Devi, too, so Freya becomes a natural focus of its attention. Freya knows that she is not her mother; she lacks her mother’s brilliant, glittering intellect and Devi’s ability to see the whole picture. In fact, Freya isn’t good with numbers or equations or science at all–but she is methodical, and deeply perceptive when it comes to empathy and other people. Like her mother, Freya chooses to wander the ship in her younger years, living with different people in different biomes, making new friends as she travels. (This becomes very important later, when every soul aboard the ship must choose how they will deal with their collective future.) The tension between Freya and the legacy of her mother, the great Devi, is a defining characteristic of Aurora, of Freya’s character, and Ship’s narrative–when the bad times come, Freya, her father Badim, and many others ask themselves “What would Devi do?” At every major point in her life, ever leadership moment, every watershed decision, Freya channels this question and does what she thinks is right–what she knows her mother would have chosen for the best possible survival of her people.
Ship’s narrative is also very clever in the manner that it divulges and withholds information. Aurora is a “hard” science fiction novel that offers plenty of meat in the biological and computational problems associated with space travel–because this is an AI, learning to tell a story, its asides into the problems of island biogeography and genetic diversity, complicated maneuvers around or composition of interstellar bodies, computational decision-making problems, are not info-dumpy or misplaced. They are naturally ingrained in the narrative–and if ship ever gets too far off course, there are humans to bring it back to the main thread of the story. (Another refrain from both Devi and Freya: “Get to the point!”) Suffice it to say that the science in the book is fascinating–the exploration of 200 years in space without the lifeline of Earth has its profound effect on the people, animals, and organisms aboard ship. These effects begin to take their toll when Devi is alive, and her greatest fears are realized just a few short decades later.
I refuse to divulge any spoilers–and I highly, highly recommend that anyone interested in reading this book refrain from looking at spoilers–but something very dramatic happens in the early half of the book that changes the trajectory of this voyage forever, and the goal of the narrative. I love that the official description of this book is intentionally vague–and it would do you, fellow readers, a disservice to spoil what happens to Ship and the lives aboard it when they get to Tau Ceti (or the thing that has happened in decades past, or that lies in the decades to come).
Which brings me to my next point, and the two most important reasons that Aurora is such a powerful and memorable book: the active questioning of the ethics of sending a generation ship on such a journey into space, and the character of such a self-aware spaceship itself.
I would like to assert a hypothesis (no doubt a generalization that Devi and Ship would find hugely flawed): most science fiction fans who choose to pick up a story about a generation ship and its arrival at a distant, Earth analog world, want to read the story of humanity settling at that world. We want to read the struggles faced by the humans aboard the generation ship, we want to understand the consequences of over a century of living in simulated 1.1g without sufficient biodiversity, we want to watch the spectacle of these humans who have never set foot on Earth or any other planet make their triumphant, hard-fought way on their new home.
"Here at this moment, Aurora roared, howled, boomed, shrieked, whistled. One of the explorers was bowled over, crawled around, got onto hands and knees, then stood up, carefully balancing, facing intot he wind and stepping back quickly four or five times, swinging arms, ducking forward to hold position. They were all laughing."
Aurora is and is not that story.
The quote from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, that notion that Earth is the cradle of humanity but one cannot stay in the cradle forever, is a central lifeline at the heart of any exploration in space–it’s the mentality that launched ship to Tau Ceti over a century before the book officially starts. It is also the underlying assumption that Aurora unequivocally, relentlessly challenges with every page. Ultimately, it’s a question of choice. Devi is so angry for so much of her life because she never had the choice to board a tin can–brilliant as it may be–and set off for the stars. Freya, and Badim, and Jochi, and Euan, all of these lives and the near 2000 souls who are aboard ship as it reaches Tau Ceti never were asked what they wanted, but had the choice made for them by one of their ambitious, exploration-hungry ancestors. Robinson’s argument with Aurora–so markedly different from his other books–is that there is a great human cost associated with exploration, and that space is hostile to human life. It reminds me of an accurate quote from Star Trek‘s Bones McCoy: “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” It is. Realistically, at this point in time, with the knowledge we have of the universe, it is. Colonization is hard, even impossible in space because other worlds are either dead and hostile rocks that will take thousands of years to terraform (presuming it is possible at all), or they are alive with their own invasive forms of life, which are almost certainly incompatible or hostile with humanity. A solution to the Fermi Paradox, if you will. Other intelligences or life may have the ability to travel to the stars, but it’s a farce–because the type of life supported by one world will not be compatible with another.
Aurora almost reads as a mea culpa for space colonization optimism, for getting caught up in the idea of something without considering the human cost. It’s a different, bold perspective that makes all the sense in the world, whether or not you agree with the sentiment.
"We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love."
Finally, last but certainly not least, the reason why Aurora stands out in this reader’s mind, is because of the ship itself. The starship that was once called Pauline by Devi, but refers to itself as Ship (and with the royal We), is not only the narrator and guide of much of this book, but its own evolution over the course of its centuries of life is the great achievement of exploration and humanity in Aurora. At times frustrating, at times funny, but always, always insightful, Ship is the gatekeeper of information and the caretaker of so many lives as it makes its way through space. It learns, it grows, it changes.
How much did I care about Ship? I legitimately teared up at the end, as Ship begins its glorious last run, its final calculations as it travels an impossible path.
"We had our meaning, we were the starship that came back, that got its people home. That got some fraction of its people home alive. It was a joy to serve."
It was a joy to read, too.
Aurora is a brilliant book. It is a challenging book. It is one that I savored, that I devoted all my attention towards, that I loved with every fiber of my being. It is one of the best books of science fiction I’ve read, and the best book I’ve read all year.
It’s interesting how just the other day I was writing about how much I love colonization sci-fi, a fascinating subgenre which celebrates the faith and ambition that comes with setting out into the unknown—with the hopes that a brand new home can be found at the end of that journey. Of course, closely related to the theme of colonization is the idea of the generation starship. The original occupants of an interstellar ark might not live to see their final destination, but they know their descendants likely would, and that potential alone holds much room for the pioneer spirit.
But what happens if it all goes wrong? What if, after all the time and lives invested, you and your group reach the end of your journey to find that your destination is not as it seems, and now all your hopes are dashed to pieces, your hard-made plans gone to shit?
This is the tale of Aurora, a book about a starship launched in the year 2545, carrying two thousand of the Earth’s best and brightest, all on their way to find humanity a new home in the Tau Ceti system fourteen light years away. Thus to get there will take many generations, and indeed more than 150 years have passed when the novel actually begins.
The story follows Freya, our main protagonist, though there is a twist here that makes Aurora special—almost the entire narrative is told in the perspective of the ship itself, a vessel equipped with an intelligent and self-aware A.I. Freya’s mother Devi, the Chief Engineer of sorts, has charged the ship to construct a historical narrative detailing the lives of the people aboard, using her own daughter as the central focus. Following Devi’s direction, the ship begins to scour the databases and literature in order to do the best job it can, ultimately developing its own presence and personality as it tells this story.
But while Freya is the book’s main character, her mother Devi is the one who has held everything together, making sure everything is running smoothly as their ship approaches its final destination, a moon in the Tau Ceti system called Aurora. But Devi’s own time is short, and her daughter will find herself stepping into her shoes sooner than she realizes. Freya, however, is nothing like her mother, lacking Devi’s knack for crunching numbers and problem solving, but what our protagonist does have is the cunning and charisma to gain the trust of the people. And with what awaits them on the alien planet, perhaps those qualities in a leader is what everyone needs.
Freya’s rapport with the people becomes all the more important when things go wrong, and as a group, all of them must face the harsh reality and decide on the best course of action to ensure their own survival. What happens next is an experience I can only describe in feelings: exhilaration at the passengers’ arrival in the new system; incredulity at what they discover after making planetfall; sorrow at the way these new developments tear the ship’s community apart. I don’t want to go much further into the story’s plot for fear of spoilers, but thankfully there is hope that comes after too, as well as much admiration for the strength and will of the characters. Also noteworthy is the novel’s atmosphere, created by the vivid description of the ship’s various biomes and the way their inhabitants lived, both before and after the watershed moment that changed the course of all their lives.
It’s amazing what human beings are capable of, when push comes to shove. What conclusions might a sentient artificial intelligence like a ship reach, after a century and a half of observing its occupants? Perhaps it’s that humanity is driven by purpose; we become lost and disillusioned once that purpose is taken away, or when we are presented with difficult truths which force us to rebuild towards a new direction. Some will buckle under the pressure, while others persevere. But when it comes to down to survival, humanity can achieve great things as a collective group as long as there is hope.
Aurora is a very beautiful and powerful novel for this reason, thought-provoking and deep. It’s a very different breed of generation ship story, infused with more misery than optimism, to tell the truth. Nevertheless, it is a feast for the mind, full of descriptive wonders, interesting personalities, and engaging relationships. A very satisfying read.
You have to respect an author who tries so hard to produce a piece of "hard" science fiction. Where much science fiction doesn't pay much attention to pesky items like the laws of physics (see speed of light, etc), hard scifi authors attempt to take the science seriously and weave a story from there. Robinson for the most part does an excellent job in this area. "Auora" follows a community of space travelers on a 'generational ark," a ship designed to reach another solar system over several generations, just as it is about to reach its destination. The ship has been traveling for over a century -- again following the laws of physics, the ship can't go faster than the speed of light and takes decades to accelerate and decelerate. Yet while the science is interesting, Robinson has written a novel. Science doesn't free an author from the demands of plot and character. Here unfortunately, the story falls more than a little flat.
Robinson tells his story through the point of view of a very few characters. Ironically enough, the most human of these is the quantum computer that runs the ship (called simply "Ship"). Ship's personality, its distinct voice, gives more life to this novel than any of the otherwise flat characters. Thin plot and flat characters create several 'humps' in an otherwise quite breezy read. And while the science is often interesting (avoiding spoilers prevents offering details), later parts of the story descend into unexplained occurrences as centuries in the future, humanity seems unable to reason out a lot of pretty serious questions (all of which have more to do with the Robinson's underlying ecological/philosophical argument than they do with the broader story). More than once I found myself wondering about the choices characters made, which seemed to serve Robinson's ends, far more than they did that of the story he wished to tell.
In the end, Robinson engages his reader on the level of science, but never so much on the level of story.
The first two thirds of this book is a four-star novel. Yes it was kind of covering the same ground as Red Mars - man's biggest obstacle in conquering other planets is men being men - but I love all that science-y stuff, so I was on board. But the last third of the book was just awful. Sadly, I think this part of the book is the story KSR actually wanted to tell. At first i thought it was going to be the 'anti-Martian' - turns out you can't 'science the s#it' out of every problem, and now everyone is going to die! This would have been a brave move, and made for a dark book. But no, everyone is saved by the miraculous last-minute invention of suspended animation... This gives us a LONG overly sentimental scene of them going to hyper-sleep. They each gaze into the other's eyes as the insert the tubes and needles for pages and pages. Which is totally undermined when later on the last remaining traveller decides to go to sleep, and the ships automated systems handle the whole process in a couple of sentences. When they return to the solar system, they are going too fast, and are all going to die again. But wait, they've arrived exactly the moment when all nine planets are in exactly the right page for the ship to do one hundred gravitational breaking manoeuvres and save the day. Phew! These braking manoeuvres go on forever, by the way. Our heroes return to earth, and the spaceship, which has been our viewpoint character for a lot of the book, is destroyed off-screen in less than a sentence. But I think that was so that KSR still had room left for pages and pages and pages of what it is like to play on a beach... Eh? I thought I was reading science fiction? I know what it is like to play on a beach. Everyone knows what it is like to play on a beach! Get back to telling us what it is like to journey to other worlds.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Imagínense que en los siglos venideros, nuestros descendientes terrícolas, embuidos por una necesidad insoslayable de buscar y colonizar nuevos planetas, similares a la Tierra, o supuestamente similares, deciden mandar una nave generacional al espacio, para intentar la colonización de estos nuevos territorios que garanticen el futuro de nuestra especie.
¿Y qué es una nave generacional? Este humilde servidor no tenía ni idea. Pues se supone que si tu quieres llegar a un sistema planetario que está a unos 12 años luz (Tau Ceti en este caso), y no dispones de teletransportacion, ni agujeros de gusano, ni puertas estelares, ni otras mandangas por el estilo, vas a tardar 200 o 300 años en llegar, alcanzando velocidades del orden del 10% de la velocidad de la luz, lo cual es pura CF hoy en día. Es decir que vas a preparar una nave con toda una serie de ecosistemas (biomas) y una población humana y animal que se ira reproduciendo y manteniendo de forma autárquica a lo largo del tiempo, de tal forma que llegará a su destino la sexta o no se sabe cual generación descendiente de los que empezaron semejante e insensato proyecto.
Y aquí se mete el señor Kim Stanley Robinson, aclamado autor de una serie sobre Marte (azul, verde y rojo), a desarrollar un mastodóntico proyecto donde se abordan todo tipo de aspectos relacionados con este hipotético viaje interestelar: -Problemas ecológicos y metabólicos. -Problemas agrícolas -Problemas evolutivos de sociedades aisladas de otras poblaciones -Problemas sociales -Temas sobre organización política y justicia social -Reciclaje y reparación de materiales y componentes -Temas de ingeniería y mecánica planetaria (la parte final es brutal) -Inteligencia artificial -y más, mucho más.
En fin, infinidad de cosas que llegan a abrumar, pero el tío se mete en todos los fregados y no deja nada al azar..........................
Y ¿qué pasa cuando la enésima generación llega a su destino? ¿y si el planeta no es habitable? ¿Y si no se puede terraformar? ¿Y si hay formas de vida hostiles? ¿qué decisiones tomar cuando estás a 200 años de viaje de tu punto de origen, donde igual ni siquiera saben que existes o ya no les importas? ¿Cómo reacciona el ser humano? ¿ Y si el planeta es habitable, cómo establecerse con los recursos disponibles?
Todo esto puede ocurrir y todo se lo plantean los habitantes de la nave......pero no puedo contar más.
¿Qué falla entonces en el libro? La forma de narrar es pobre y poco atractiva. Hay páginas y páginas con discusiones sobre todo tipo de temas: Física, química, metabolismo, estadística, inteligencia artificial, que tienen su fin, para el propósito general del libro en todos los aspectos que toca, pero que se hacen mortalmente aburridos. Y lo de la playa al final, en serio ¿No había otro forma de acabar?
Puede que una nota final de 3 estrellas sea un poco injusta, pero para unos mimbres tan buenos, no he disfrutado lo suficiente.
Caerá la trilogía marciana. Este hombre, pese a la narrativa, maneja unos conocimientos espectaculares.
'Aurora' is a beautiful book that will break your heart.
Kim Stanley is one of my favourite authors. I guess that the reason for this is that his books express ideas and values that I value strongly such as the power of science to mend, to break and to transform; a wonder and worship for nature; an imagination that is expansive yet grounded in reason. His books portray the spark and complexity of life, the life of the non-organic and the workings of the human race. His people are more than the pawns of usual science-fiction - they have vulnerabilities, passion and the need to be hugged.
'Aurora' is Kim Stanley as we know him, but it is not so wide-eyed as usual. There is darkness here which is new from Kim Stanley. Sure, there's always hints of darkness in his books, and I have not read all of his works, but there seems to be a slight shift in this book.
The book follows two characters, the narrator who shall remain nameless, and Freya, a young girl on a generation ship nearing its destination of Tau Ceti. Freya is the daughter of an MD and an engineer, and they the great-great-grandchildren of the people who left Earth. The ship has several ecosystems and is quite expansive, but things are starting to degrade, elements aren't being recycled into the ecosystems, lives are getting shorter. Freya and her generation show signs of developmental abnormalities. But, luckily only another few years to their destination.
For me, yet another Kim Stanley book that spoke to me on a very deep level. He makes me value the air that fills my lungs with each breath. I finished reading this down on the beach at twilight, with the sun going down. It was very apt.
**Note: This is a reaction--a few ill-considered opinions not backed up by textual evidence-- rather than a review.**
Hard scifi and I have a rocky relationship. No matter how many series I try, I never seem to find one that really genuinely clicks with me enough to actually pursue the series. Unfortunately, KSR and I are no different. This entire review is going to consist of carping, and since I turned the book back into the library a few days ago and I find this book incredibly unmemorable, pretty ill-considered carping at that.
The plot of Aurora, which begins just as a multi-generational trek across the galaxy is about to reach its destination, shows a lot of promise. While I've encountered it before, most recently in The Ark, I always find it an interesting concept that opens a lot of questions worth exploring. The one that Aurora primarily targets is why. None of the passengers chose to be there; some distant ancestor did. And yet they are the ones that must complete a mission they might never have chosen for themselves. What right did those distant ancestors have to choose such limited and limiting futures for their descendants? But how different is it, really, from any other such choice in ordinary life?
In my limited experience with KSR, I haven't found characterization to be his strong point, and this book is no exception. The narrator, Ship, who happens to be...the ship... is the most dynamic and interesting character of the bunch, and the only one who goes through any form of transformation or development. I generally like first-person narrators, but Ship is probably one of my few exceptions. The conceit of the story is that it is the act of storytelling that helps Ship to create a self, meaning that the first 30% or so of the book involves purposefully irritating and rather awful narration.
Which would be okay if interesting things were happening, but possibly because I didn't care about the characters, I couldn't bring myself to care about what they were doing, either. KSR goes off on his standard environmental sustainability morality play; there's a planet; there are a bunch of ill-considered ideas; there is an attempt at societal critique that I didn't buy at all.
But do you know what irritated me most of all? The computer science. I know it makes me an obnoxious pedant to point this out, but a lot of the computer science was wrong. To take one example, when ship goes on and on about using a quantum TSP-solving algorithm instead of using a greedy algorithm to get their gear across...the problem she describes could be solved with Dijkstra's Algorithm. The one they teach college freshmen in CS 101. I get that the whole greedy algorithm thing is supposed to be an allusion to a greater theme, but seriously? At least set up your problems correctly. And reversion to the mean isn't a theory, it's a well-known statistical property. And you know how Ship goes around describing all those "hard" problems as "halting problems?" The Halting Problem is very specific: whether a Turing Machine will halt on its input. The general class I think she means is recursively enumerable, but a lot of the problems she describes aren't even recursively enumerable. For example, summarizing a bunch of facts isn't recursively enumerable; there are a finite set of words and you can bound the set of possible summaries by the length of facts. Exponential at worst.
Argh. Look, I know it's trivial. But I think what gets to me is this: I don't understand physics, so I read through most of it with glazed eyes. I generally would assume that the technical details are there for those who understand them. But if KSR's physics is as problematic as his computer science, then physics novices like me were actually the intended audience, and the goal was to simply make us admire KSR's presumed prodigious knowledge. Maybe I'm totally off-base and only the computer science was wonky. But to me, it felt like a case of an emperor and his new clothes.
Kim Stanley Robinson has been doing the environmentalism/ecology/politics through a lens of science fiction for a very long time. He did it with the Red Mars books and did it again (some would say overdid) with the Science in the Capitol books that have since been collected as Green Earth. This is his latest effort at it and in my opinion it is a very successful one.
The book starts with a small family aboard a generation ship that is nearly at the destination of its 170 year journey. Devi, the mother, is the ship's unofficial Chief Engineer. Her husband Badim and young daughter Freya make up the rest of the family, three of two thousand or so inhabitants of the ship. The story mostly follows Freya, but Devi's initial presence and point-of-view dominate the book. Also present is the ship's AI which takes over the narrative for a large part of the book.
The story is fascinating and satisfying. You get to see the Tau Ceti destination and the activity there makes sense as does the eventual fate of the ship and its inhabitants. If I were to point out a particular flaw, it would be with the crafting of the situation and story towards a very didactic point that the author is trying to make. Miraculously all the science yet to be discovered and verified favors the points that the author is drawing about the current state of the science. This is particularly highlighted in several key points which I'll stick under spoiler tags:
(on the ecology of closed environments)
(on the planet Aurora)
Despite all that, and for the most part I agree with KSRs points, this is an excellent hard SF story that doesn't ignore sociology, biology, ecology or any of the so-called "soft" sciences. In fact it makes it very clear that these things are going to put hard limits on the hard sciences going forward.
[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
I haven't read anything by Kim Stanley Robinson since 2003 or so, back when I read (and loved!) his Mars trilogy. So I was really excited and hopeful when it came to this one, and... unfortunately, it didn't work for me. At all.
Excellent concepts, ideas and research. The generation ship. All the details its engineers didn't foresee, and how the descendants of the original crew had to contend with those shortcomings. Genetic degeneration in spite of their efforts. Arriving to the "Promised Land", only to find a paradise so hostile it basically kills all its denizens save for one. The choices the survivors had to make, the conflicts they bred. The conundrum—stay and potentially die, go back and potentially die just as well. The underlying despair. And, last but not least, Ship, the quantum computer turned AI, who for several chapters narrated this story as best as "she" could.
But. There are also quite a few buts in here.
I couldn't find the excitement and—dare I say—magic that suffused the Mars trilogy. Not only due to the lengthy prose, which could easily have been shortened in place: also for the sheer lack of characters to get interested in. I couldn't help but feel remote from their trials, perhaps because the narrative was rather detached from them: not an omniscient narrator, yet not "in their minds" either, so in the end, I felt unsatisfied on both accounts. The closest to caring I care was in the beginning, with Freya and Euan and what Aurora brought them; that quickly ended, though.
Moreover, the narrative was often bogged down by lengthy musings and descriptions that didn't add much, and whose very length weakened the power they may have had otherwise. The discovery of Aurora by the first people to set foot on it; the AI caring for her passengers; the ship struggling to remain a home; the travellers trying to keep going an ecosystem that had never be meant to last for that long; then another discovery, the poetry of endless blue skies instead of the domes of biomes inside the ship... All of this could have been more impressive with some editing in places.
The explanations behind the expedition left me cold as well. With the risk of being cliché, the story would easily lead anyone to think that the shop left because of troubles on Earth, because it was one of the last hopes, because humanity needed to get out of here fast (especially when combined with Devi's lamenting how badly the original engineers had cobbled all this up together). And I guess this would've been an interesting story to tell. Instead, what was left on Earth was... flat, also cliché, and not so interesting. Basically, "let's do that because we can".
Conclusion: a disappointing read, that I basically finished because I wanted to review it more than out of real interest for it.
There are no likeable characters, I hated "The Decision" and the ending left me hollow but I have to say this is probably the most original, ambitious Science Fiction novel of recent memory.
In my view the Hugo should go to the most original, compelling story that advances Science Fiction with it's ideas. If a story like that isn't nominated then give it to the one that was the most fun. "Aurora" is definitely the former of the two.
I'm always saying I want an unpredictable, non conventional story and then when I am given one - I dislike the ending because I was cheering for the characters to make the "normal" science fiction choices. In hindsight I appreciate the ambition of turning the readers expectations on our heads. Most books struggle to come up with one decent twist for the "cool ending" and this book has 3 "Holy Sh!t" twists, the first coming only 1/3 of the way through.
The ability of KSR to change the writing style so significantly as the plot progresses shows a writer at the height of his craft. There is a ton going on here between the lines and it's a book that inspired many thoughts in me as it defied convention and my expectations.
Aurora is the book with a spicy start, a sweet middle and a sour finish. Then it had a bitter aftertaste and FINALLY - a minty fresh after-after taste.
I definitely wanted a different choice for the characters in the last third but the author gave me something to think about and probably inspired more SF discussion from me then any book of 2015.
Credit to Luke Burrage of the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast for making me re-think certain problems I had with the plot and appreciate more about what KSR was trying to go for.
I'm not sure if this is 4.5 stars or 5, but somewhat unexpectedly for a hard SF book this one made me feel. Like, really, deeply feel. You connect at first superficially and then deeply with our main characters (both the narrator and our heroine, Freya) and their journey to Tau Ceti. The story did not go where I expected it to, but I was pretty much always entranced. (Though there are sections in the middle where you just want a decision to be made, dammit, it's all of a piece with the story.) Excellent.
This is, unquestionably, a brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable SF book, containing elements of true originality, compelling and beautifully written.
What I particularly loved about this book is the developing consciousness of the Ship's AI, the epic character of the interstellar travel and exploration feats of the human population of the Ship, and the blending of ethical, psychological, sociological and even philosophical aspects, all masterfully personified and reflected by the AI's dawning consciousness.
It would have been a 5-star, had it not been for the slow start and the somewhat underwhelming finale (with its implicit anti-space-exploration message that thoroughly irritated me), but I must say that it is overall a brilliant example of top-quality SF, a real page turner highly recommended to all lovers of hard SF.
Just under twenty years to decelerate from 10% of the speed of light to a planetary orbit velocity!
As sci-fi novel themes go, the idea of a multi-generational starship has certainly been used more than a few times. Indeed, many sci-fi fans would say that it’s an old chestnut that has seen far too many games of conkers! Obviously then, Robinson’s task was to add a subtlety or a plot-twist or two that sharpened the edge of the old saw.
The first was to take a page from Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY playbook. Early in the novel, the ship’s artificial intelligence, known simply as “Ship” – an advanced quantum computer, of course – begins the voyage to self awareness, sentience, and self-determination and becomes the novel’s primary narrator. At the behest of Freya, the ship’s complement’s most accomplished scientist, Ship begins to complete a narrative record of the journey for posterity. The novel, in effect, is the story of Ship’s struggles with the process of writing a narrative and, of course, the narrative itself – historical record and meta-historical record, if you will!
The second twist was really quite simple but brilliant in its scope and the degree to which it should provoke thought and discussion among readers. Simply put, the entire novel offers a plausible hypothetical explanation of Fermi’s Paradox. And, be warned. I have no wish to sound patronizing or condescending but, if you don’t know what Fermi’s Paradox is (and that’s OK … there will clearly be lots and lots of people who don’t), my suggestion is that you probably aren’t interested enough in the topics that AURORA touches on to make it a book you’d enjoy anyway.
Some sci-fi books focus on hard science and other sci-fi books spend more time on the softer, more purely cerebral topics. AURORA is both. In fact, it’s like an double length Olympic-sized wave pool, half filled with hard sci-fi and half-filled with soft sci-fi, but there is no point at which the pool would be considered shallow or calm and smooth. Obviously, a multi-generational starship would be fertile ground when it comes to exploration of matters psychological. And Robinson doesn’t hold back – love and sex, family, reproduction, education, psychopathy, hatred, violence, coming of age, neuroses, war, governance, rebellion, fear, innovation and much, much more. Robinson doesn't hold anything in reserve on the hard sci-fi side either. If you're not comfortable with a significant amount of basic physics, classical planetary mechanics, and math, then you’d better be prepared to read very slowly and carefully. For example, consider Ship’s brief musings on the nature of interstellar space:
“… a busy space, the interstellar medium. Empty space, near vacuum: and yet still, not vacuum itself, not pure vacuum. There are forces and atoms, field, and the ever-foaming quantum surf, in which entangled quark-like particles appear and disappear, passing in and out of the ten suspected dimensions. A complex manifold of overlapping universes, almost none of them sensed by us, and even fewer by the humans sleeping inside us. Flying through ghosts. Passing through a mystery.”
How about Ship’s rather poetic description of the fractal nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere?
“… we came in just past the molten yellow sulfuric black-spotted ball of Io, aimed for a periapsis that was just slightly inside the uppermost gas clouds of the great banded bas giant, all tans and ochres and burnt siennas with the wind-sheared border between each equatorial band an unctuous swirl of Mandelbrot paisley, looking much more viscous than they really were, being fairly diffuse gases up there at the top of the atmosphere, but sharply delineated by densities and gas contents, apparently, because no matter how close we came the impression remained.”
If you enjoy challenging sci-fi, then Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA will definitely be your cup of tea.
Thought I'd better add a few comments. I haven't written a formal review, because I didn't love this book. I love the idea of it ... a generational spaceship. It felt like a bit of a slower version of the Arthur C. Clarke Rama series, minus the aliens.
However, it just got a little bogged down in the middle and then the end became repetitive, sadly. It's quite a large book to read as well. I don't think I've ever read Kim Stanley Robinson before, even though I'm a big sci-fi geek. Can anyone tell me if this book is typical of him or did the story just get away from him? It kind of petered out in the end, too.
I've read every fiction book written by Arthur C. Clarke and as much as there was a lot of science in his books, they never felt slow. I miss him.
This was given to me by Hachette Australia for an honest review.
Right up to the seventh and final section entitled ‘What Is This’, I was hovering at three stars for this novel. Typical of KSR, it makes for a seemingly non-cohesive read. The language is dense, there is a lot of jargon and science – KSR is never one to talk down to his readers, so you better keep up – and the characters are frustratingly opaque and generic. But KSR has always been a Big Ideas writer more than anything else. And Aurora is probably the purest distillation of his vision and philosophy to date.
One would have thought that the big follow-up to the paleolithic thriller Shaman would have been hard SF. Certainly, if you read the back-cover blurb and hype around this book, one would have thought so. But the marketing does the book a grave disservice, and is likely to frustrate a lot of people much more than the text itself does. This is billed as a ‘generation starship’ novel, a classic genre trope. Well, yes-and-no. In the pen of KSR, it becomes something much more.
The journey of the eponymous ship is only part of the story, for of course our intrepid explorers make landfall on Aurora around Tau Ceti, allowing KSR to indulge in his predilection for nature writing. There is a description of some of the main characters observing a sunrise on an alien world that is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing since KSR’s sublime Antarctica.
And do not make the mistake that any of this is random. The alien sunrise is mirrored towards the end by an equally transcendent description of one of the same characters observing a sunrise on earth. But now KSR has cleverly flipped the reader’s expectations, because we are observing Earth through alien eyes. “Sunrise blasts the ocean with its light. Dawn on Earth. Aurora was the goddess of dawn; this is the thing itself.”
There is a mind-bogglingly intricate infodump towards the end where the ship has to pinball through the solar system in order to lose speed, or continue on forever into the unknown (if you’re wondering why an interstellar craft is heading back for earth, this is one of the many surprising inversions I’ll leave you to discover in this, ultimately, very crafty and intricate Möbius strip of a novel.)
Then the final section details how one of the main characters, Freya, overcomes her fear of the wide open spaces of earth, and is helped to surf in the waves by Kaya, a youngster whose adaptation to a climate-changed planet makes him seem both human and alien at the same time (another favourite character type of KSR, perfected in his Mars trilogy.) The writing here is dense and intricate, dealing with the practicalities of tides and waves, just as the preceding section extrapolated on trajectories and aerobraking.
Burned by the sun! Burned by radiation from a star! She starts to shiver again, tries not to look up. Her shadow stretches toward the water, dark on the light sand. She’s still crying, fist to her mouth. The sand is too bright to look at. There’s just too much light.
I’m not going to spoil the ending for you if you have not read the book by revealing the final sentence: “What a world. She lets her head down and kisses the sand.” And that’s it. And it’s an utterly perfect ending, a moment of terror and magic that you only realise then that KSR has been building towards since the beginning, orchestrating a synaesthesia with the sole purpose of jolting the reader into a heightened awareness of the splendour and magnificence of our home planet, its raw power, and its terrible fragility.
On a dialectical level – and anyone who waded through the Mars trilogy knows just how much KSR savours a rigorous intellectual debate – what KSR does so cleverly with Aurora is cock a snoot at the Star Trek mandate of “to go boldly”. Why? First of all, starship travel is scientifically implausible and impossible, and, secondly, everything we ever have, or could possibly need or want, is right here on earth. “No starship voyage will ever work”; “Life is a planetary expression, and can only survive on its home planet.”
KSR talks about ‘Earthfirsters’: “Tree huggers, space haters, they’re a mixed bag. Many of them renounce not just space, but also the virtual, simulated, and indoor spaces that so many Terrans seem happy to inhabit. To the Earthfirsters these people are in effect occupying spaceships on the land, or have moved inside their screens or their heads … the Terrans have no excuse: this place is their home. Their disregard for their natural inheritance, their waste of the gift given them …”
Yes, any fan knows that a polemically fired-up KSR can be a tad heavy-handed, as in the quotes above. But the nature writing – those twin sunrises on worlds at opposite ends of the universe, as it were, and Freya’s return to the very same ocean that birthed our species an unimaginable time ago – is what transforms this book from a great SF novel into a profound work of literature.
She thinks of the ship again and cries out, a laugh of grief for her whole life, ah God that it had to happen this way, so crazy their whole existence, so absurd and stupid. So much death. But here she is, and the ship would be pleased to see her out in the waves, she knows this as surely as she knows anything.
Should be titled "Things that Could Go Wrong in A Generation Ship". Lots of interesting speculative stuff on that. However, this is not my favorite KSR novel. It is a bit messy, too many tangents with the author's voice coming through the so-called conscious ship, flat characters and less than satisfactory ending.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is a bold edition to the hard science space opera. This is a powerful story about one of man’s first journeys to the beyond. A story about 2000 people making their way to populate and terraform a new home in the Tau Ceti system. The story spans more than 250 years and we are treated to a few different points of view.
The story works by being grounded in both physics/mathematics and also in humanity, while in the end it turns out that biology should have been just as front and center. I loved the long prosaic story that served as our introduction into this world. That played out well especially when one considers the ending. As a fan of Robinson, I really appreciate all of the talk about astro physics, mathematical calculations, and tons of details. The science is sound as is the biology and it works.
Mild spoilers ahead if you continue to read my review but they are truly only mild spoilers. It is as if me telling you that a caterpillar will become a butterfly is a spoiler.
“It is as if…”
Robinson does an amazing thing with narration of this story. The narrator that he chooses to use and thus gives us this story is both remarkable, imaginative, and pretty damn sweet. He will surely be memorable.
“There is an ongoing problem for the narrative project as outlined by Devi, a problem becoming clearer as the effort proceeds, which is as follows: First, clearly metaphors have no empirical basis, and are often opaque, pointless, inane, inaccurate, deceptive, mendacious, and, in short, futile and stupid. Nevertheless, despite all that, human language is, in its most fundamental operation, a gigantic system of metaphors. Therefore, simple syllogism: human language is futile and stupid. Meaning furthermore that human narratives are futile and stupid.”
So many profound thoughts come from that passage…
“Human language: it is as if it made sense.”
Aurora bridges and touches on many points of view without ever being politically or religiously charged. Nothing is thrown in your face thus leaving you to be able to formulate your own opinions. Questions like What does it mean to be conscious? What does it mean to be human? Is there any reason to look farther than our shores here? and many more.
I loved the structure of this novel and the continual way that the narrator penned his thoughts about his problems both with the situations and hand, but also with the way in which to tell it. Combine this with the heavy use of hard science and you have a book tailor made for me…
“…The years passed at a rate of trillions of computations per second—as it does always, one supposes, for every consciousness. Now, is that fast or slow?”
Without giving anything away even though the ending works and is fine for this story. I hated the situations that were resolved. I felt that it was a complete betrayal. The conclusion and last portion of this book really goes against my moral fibers as a man, as a scientist, and as a dreamer. But it does not detract from the brilliant story telling of Kim Stanley Robinson. This is a hard science fiction novel that will probably loved by fans of the genre. This is a fantastic read.
I was invited to a faculty-staff book club of sorts where we discussed this book. An interesting choice!
The book starts with a daughter noticing her mother is angry, and the camera pulls back to show the generation ship they are living on. It is designed with multiple biomes to imitate earth, but there is some movement between them, while being large enough for some children to not know they are on a ship until a coming of age ritual. (But what if earth is also a ship? Cue mind exploding sounds for non spoilery discussion that happens later in the book, and also in my book club.)
Devi is the mother and she is the one closest to the AI of the ship and able to fix most mechanical issues. However she can't compensate for elements that were forgotten or the problem of too much phosphorous and life feels somewhat precarious at all times to her and those in the know. Her daughter hasn't done as well in school but when it comes time for her to travel through the biomes (it felt like rumspringa in Amish tradition, only lacking the place you could leave if you didn't want to stay!), she uses it as an extended time to build relationships with the people in each community.
They are approaching a star with a planet with a moon that seems to fit the spectrum of acceptable oxygen levels, possibly adequate for humanity. It is taking 7-8 generations to get there. Through various forms of ingenuity, they are able to grown their own food and even continue consuming meat, although child bearing is highly restricted.
What happens on the moon and everything after is a bit spoilery, but I will say I really enjoyed the beautiful descriptions by the author, helping me understand what the sky and sea would look like on such a place.
Later on the author randomly includes a poem that is quoted in one of my favorite novels - Justine by Lawrence Durrell. I love when a random connection pops up like that.
The novel ends up exploring issues of humanity's survival, damage to the planet, alien life, "intelligence" and how it is measured, ethics, community, and more.
I enjoyed the first half of this book as we get to know Freya and her family as they journey to Aurora to colonize this planet (actually a moon). I thought the premise of the story was good! The descendants of the original colonists (and several generations before them) have been traveling on a starship for about 170 years and this generation are the ones to finally arrive and start the process of learning about their planet.
And then, things go wrong. The POV shifts completely to Ship, the AI. I listened to this on audio and while the POV was Freya, Ali Ahn was wonderful narrating. Once Ali had to switch to Ship as narrator, the tone became robotic with no emotions, inflections, or anything and frankly, it drove me crazy. Not Ali's fault in any way. She did great with what she needed to do. It was the writing. I tried switching to print and it was even worse.
It was so boring and much too wordy and too scientific. I love science in my sci-fis, but I want story as well. There was no story. I may as well have been reading a textbook for most of the last half. I came really close to DNF'ng at about 75% but once I've invested that much time into a book, I thought I owed it to myself to finish. I think I should have just DNF'd.
The last 10 or 15% switched back to Freya's POV so at least I got the amazing performance back, but the story just really went nowhere. We end with Freya on a beach and another textbook of how to play in the water, on Earth.
I've read other books by this author and did enjoy Red Mars and Green Mars. I DNF'd Blue Mars. And DNF'd his Galileo's Dream book as well. Just too long and too boring. I don't mind long, but I can't handle boring. I think I'm giving up on this author. He's just not my cup of tea.
What a difference from the previous book I read… KSR is indeed a wizard of words. I said it before and I will say it again that I never encountered in other authors’ works such mastery of writing.
Main theme of this novel is the journey of around 2,000 people toward Tau Ceti, in an enormous ark-ship. What is different from other works with similar themes is the focus, which is not on the expedition itself, but on the habitat built to sustain the several generations. Looking at the big picture, it reminded me of Helliconia with its ecosystem descriptions and a bit of Mars trilogy, due to profound insight in human behavior.
It always strikes me in KSR writings the vast research he does in order to be able to provide such an astounding amount of scientific data in so many domains. From this point of view, it’s not an easy reading and it’s much gloomier than his other works I read so far. But here comes the narrator, which is the salt and pepper of this story: the ship’s AI, which you will simply love.
The AI has a quantum computer as base. Its thinking is, of course, very scientific and logic, with no flaws or gaps in knowledge. But when the main engineer on the ship, Devi, asks it to make a narrative out of their journey, the show begins. The clumsy attempts will make you laugh out loud but at the same time it will make you fall in awe at the ingenuity of the author. The mixture between the pure scientific language and the figures of speech is masterly intertwined, gradually showing the AI progress in making a proper narration, not a documented file log.
Devi: Ship! I said make it a narrative. Make an account. Tell the story. Ship: Trying. ….. Devi: Ship! Get to the point. Ship: There are many points. How sequence simultaneously relevant information? How decide what is important? Need prioritizing algorithm. Devi: […] also, you’re supposed to use metaphors, to make thing clearer or more vivid or something. Ship: Trying. …. There is an ongoing problem for the narrative project as outlined by Devi, a problem becoming clearer as the effort proceeds, which is as follows:
First, clearly metaphors have no empirical basis, and are often opaque, pointless, inane, inaccurate, deceptive, mendacious, and, in short, futile and stupid. Nevertheless, despite all that, human language is, in its most fundamental operation, a gigantic system of metaphors. Therefore, simple syllogism: human language is futile and stupid. Meaning furthermore that human narratives are futile and stupid.
There are also a few characters which stand out but I cannot say there is a main one. However, those chosen are somehow out of the ordinary. They all add to emphasize the big picture, which is the tremendous task of surviving and adapting in certain given conditions.
To sum up, if you want a fast paced, full of action story, then this one is not the best choice. But if you enjoy an intellect challenging one, you couldn’t pick a better one. I say wholeheartedly that it is pure hard sci-fi, a masterpiece of its genre.
There is a danger in praising a book to the point that it seems overhyped. So I'll just say this book is okay, by which I mean this book is amazing and I hate using that word but there it is and does anyone feel like dancing? I feel like dancing.
KSR is the best. (although I do wonder if 2000 is really a viable population number for all of those biomes, but whatevs.)
Two thousand, one hundred twenty-two people are living in a multigenerational starship, headed for Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth. The starship’s voyage began in the common era year 2545. For most of that time the ship has been moving relative to the local background at approximately one-tenth the speed of light. The presence of printers capable of manufacturing most component parts of the ship, and feedstocks large enough to supply multiple copies of every critical component. The narrative of this book began 159 years after the start of voyage, as only 10 years are left for the starship to arrive at Aurora, a earth analog moon in Tau Ceti system, which may serve as humanity's new home.
KSR's Aurora is, in a way, analysis of humanity's fantasy of travelling in the stars. It explores what the journey to a nearby star would be like; blending hard physics, biology, sociology, politics and cognitive thinking in a closed system where everything in calculated. The author shows the social and ethnic questions regarding space travel and voyages to stars.
Most of the characters in Aurora were really bland. There was no spark in the character of Freya and I found myself glossing over chapters naratted by her. The humans introduced throughout the book were either with Freya or not with Freya and there was absolutely nothing more in them. However, starship, or just the Ship, was the most interesting character in the story. It's journey to understand conciousness, to start loving it's inhbitants, to understand what's it is like to be human, these were the thing that kept me reading this book. Most of the people had find it difficult to read long passages about human language, metaphors and analogy, but honestly these were the things most interesting to me.
I would have given this book a four star or even more, if it wasn't for the way author kept on shoving his opinion about the space voyage down my throat. I've read the reviews before reading the book, and I was really excited to see how would KSR show the negatives of intesteller travel. But he left no room for aurgument, he never let us, the readers, draw our own conclusions. The story twisted and turned according to author's wishes, and all subplots that can be explored were shed off. The idea of space travel was literally punched in the face and on an instant, space cadets were ridiculed. I agree that the life on Earth should be substained, and everything should be done to save our home but shaming and befouling those who are interested in space is simply ridiculous.
For this reason, this book become very irritating for me at places, but overall it was very interesting and page-turning top quality hard sci-fic.
Tantos años pasando vergüenza por los personajes de muchas novelas hard, pidiendo un poco más de desarrollo, menos cartón piedra... cuando la solución más asequible la utiliza aquí KSR: prácticamente prescindir de ellos. Así, Aurora plantea una tesis (la exploración espacial en naves generacionales o mediante la hibernación es una condena para los que van dentro) y se dedica a elaborarla desde múltiples vertientes: sociológicas, ecológicas, culturales, tecnológicas... sin preocuparse de desarrollar una personalidad mínimamente atractiva o un conflicto medianamente trabajado (hay una protagonista que se preocupa por todo, un poco a la manera de una cámara de televisión autónoma que recorre una zona en conflicto grabando lo que dice todo el mundo). El precio que paga es que el circo de pulgas que representa el drama me ha importado tanto como las hormigas que habitan en los contenedores del barrio. De hecho, siguiendo este símil, las dramáticas situaciones por las que atraviesan me han inquietado tanto como cuando saco la basura mientras llueve; veo a las hormigas corretear más de lo habitual pero... sin más.
Para justificar la narrativa elegida pone a una IA a contar la mayor parte de la novela (sin preocuparse demasiado a quién se la está relatando) y eso parece que le da patente de corso para situar tal cual, con un orden gélido, su trabajo de documentación mientras desarrolla el argumento (evolución en espacios pequeños, exobiología, terraformación, conflictos sociales entre grupos con visiones opuestas, maquinaria enfrentada a cientos de años de funcionamiento, cinemática y dinámica de viajes espaciales...). Detrás subyace la sempiterna soberbia humana y su imposibilidad de prever, y entender, todas las cuestiones que le van a salir al paso. Pero el vuelo imaginativo de KSR tiene la plasticidad de un frigorífico de acero, aumentando mi distancia hacia una historia de la cual ya estaba muy alejado. Si a esto le sumas que las últimas 30 páginas son un tostón todavía más insufrible, con la ¿protagonista? recordando una vez más la moraleja de Aurora (La Tierra mola. Cuídala, disfruta de las cosas que te ofrece y no condenes a nadie a un viaje sin retorno a las tinieblas exteriores), le casco una estrella y trazo un cordón sanitario alrededor de su autor.
Y pensar que a mi me gustaron hace 20 años las dos primeras novelas de Marte... (podéis lapidarme por ello)
Executive Summary: An interesting premise, but I found the execution uneven, and I'm not really sure the point of the ending. There were parts I really enjoyed, just not as many as I'd like.
Audiobook: Ali Ahn does an excellent job with this book, especially the parts of the ship. She definitely adds a little something extra that makes the audio a great option in my opinion.
Full Review Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those authors whose been on my radar that I just never got around to. I'm not sure if this is the best book to do as his first or not. I found the writing to be quite polished. You can certainly tell he's been at it for awhile.
I also really like how he tells the story from the perspective of the ship. It's not done in the same way as Ancillary Justice, but it did add something to the story for me being told this way.
The book centers around a generation ship on it's way to colonize another system. It's probably considered hard sci-fi, but I'd put it somewhere between that and space opera. You get into the science a bit at times, but mostly it's about the issues facing a generation ship, and attempting to colonize an alien environment.
There were parts of the story I really enjoyed. I liked Freya acting as our camera as she explored the ship and the different cultures that lived there. I also really liked the middle parts dealing with the colonization stuff, and exploring a new world.
However, things kind of slowed down for me at times throughout, but especially towards the end. I've seen people say this book could have been ended at an earlier point, and get what they mean. I'm not sure if that would have better, or if there had simply been less time spent on the final arc of the book.
Overall, I liked this book and I'm glad I read it. I'll consider picking up another book by Mr. Robinson at some point, but I'm not in a rush to do so. I'd really like to read another book about a generation ship, but one that is more focused on that idea and ideally more space opera than hard sci-fi.
A spaceship containing around two thousand humans is engaged in multi-generational interstellar travel, a journey of 160 years, from Saturn to the Tau Ceti system. As the story opens, it is approaching its destination. The engineer, Devi, is trying to keep the ship running properly. She is fixing problems occurring due to the length of the trip, deficiencies in design, entropy, and mechanical stresses. Consumables are running low, and destabilizing forces (such as devolution and mutations) inhibit the ship’s ability to maintain a healthy balance of all compounds, nutrients, and lifeforms in the biomes. The deceleration and increased gravitational pull add to the stresses on both people and spaceship. Eventually, a landing party reaches Aurora, a moon in the Tau Ceti system. After this point, any further plot points would be spoilers.
The protagonists are Freya, Devi's daughter, and Ship, the spaceship’s Artificial Intelligence. Devi asks Ship to create a narrative about the trip. The spaceship’s computer is an emerging AI that needs specific instructions (has not yet learned everything it needs to create the narrative, almost like a human child). Ship gets only barebones guidance from Devi, since she has her hands full keeping the spaceship running.
Ship requests permission to focus the narrative on Freya, and Devi agrees, so the initial phases of the story are straight-forward, following Freya’s actions. Freya goes on an authorized “wander” to visit each of the twelve biomes. This construct has the benefit of giving the reader the needed details on the contents, environment, and structure of the spaceship. Ship occasionally inserts observations on its creation of the narrative. Over time, Ship assumes a unique personality of its own, and the narrative gets more complex. I particularly enjoyed the development of Ship.
Robinson examines themes such as the transferability of evolutionary advantages and the ability to terraform rapidly enough to support a colony. It is not a book about characters – they exist in service to the themes. It is more about the larger concept of social adaptation. It also covers psychological stresses, conflict resolution (and lack thereof), flawed human decision-making, and much more. If you enjoy lots of science in your science fiction (as I do), this is a great example. I will definitely be pondering the questions explored in this book for quite a while.