Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2015, 480 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 978-0316098106

(This review contains spoilers, because spoilers are the point of this review)

As I write this, Science Fiction fandom is experiencing another one of its crises that come to redefine it. Reactionary forces are trying to take over the genre’s top award, spinning furious theories of vote rigging and pernicious influence from social justice whatevers. The issue claims to be about ethics in SF journalism whether Science Fiction’s overall aesthetics have been moved too far away from its core audience and if it was about that topic then we’d have a serious argument. (I may be progressive in my politics, but I’m quite old-fashioned in the kind of SF I like.)  As it turns out, however, the current debate about ethics in SF awards nominations is an acute symptom of a larger neo-reactionary movement. Last year it was videogames; this year is about SF awards; next year will almost certainly be a metastasizing of the tendency into American national politics given the presidential election.

In this context, the vigorous debate surrounding Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is almost predictable given the nature of what Robinson tries to do with his novel: question some of the core assumptions of classical Science Fiction. For SF has always taken at face value that humanity is meant to conquer the universe. Thousands of years in the future, humanity will, of course, have colonized other star systems, an expansion that can only be stopped by the heat death of the universe—and we’ll work on that at some point.

For a while, Robinson seems to follow into familiar paths. The story begins aboard a generation ship sent to colonize a nearby star. It’s a clever ship, with dozens of ecosystems contained in large separate compartments. Our hero is a young girl who defies social more to travel across the entire ship, trying to follow in the footsteps of her formidable mother. For a while, all the way up to the descent on the new planet, Aurora seems almost depressingly familiar—an old-hat SF story told using the latest technological vocabulary.

But then Something Happens. Something that doesn’t usually happens in SF stories. People fall sick. The planet rejects humanity. Survivors are asked to contemplate the unthinkable: Head back home.

Some do. Some don’t. Our heroine is among those who choose to come back, knowing that she probably won’t live to the arrival back to Earth. And as the story follows her, we never hear again about those who chose to try again on the new planet.

Aurora gets weirder after that. The return home is simplified by the convenient development of cryogenic technology that can be used by the returning colonists. Much of the book’s second half is a thrilling game of celestial pinball in which Robinson shows, calculations included, how to slow down from a trip at a significant fraction of light speed. Then the novel’s final section deals with the non-enthusiastic reception that the failed colonists get upon returning to their so-called “home”. Ultimately, our protagonist finds some measure of self-peace by getting closer to nature, earth and the everlasting ocean.

Some of this is very familiar to Robinson fans. The almost existentialist need to commune with nature has been an integral part of Robinson’s fiction since, well, forever (see elements of his Three California Trilogy, especially the utopian Pacific’s Edge; see elements of his Mars trilogy, seeking to make Mars more Earth-like; see his Climate change trilogy, stating how unwise it is to disturb the natural equilibrium; see the mysterious illness that affects those who don’t take sabbaticals on Earth in 2312, which is semi-linked to Aurora). His willingness to question the assumptions of SF have never been too far from his fiction, even when he writes from within the genre’s core.

At the same time, it almost feels audacious to star poking at one of the core tenets of SF. What if, indeed, stock humans were simply unsuitable to space colonization? Wouldn’t it make sense for us to be so closely part of Earth’s ecosystem to being unable to function anywhere else? For a genre that prides itself on asking the tough questions, SF needs a good shake once in a while. And if this upsets some of the reactionary readers, well … what are you doing reading the stuff?

This isn’t to say that I’m completely satisfied with Aurora. It wouldn’t be a Robinson SF novel without at least one or two big blunders, and even casually reading the book raised a few questions that were never answered. There’s the curious survival of a guy stuck in a separate compartment that mystifies me as the rest of the group starves in a much larger compartment. I’m not convinced that biomes with wilderness are sustainable in a starship. I hope that the Oberth Maneuver calculations in the second half of the book are exact, but I remain skeptical. Elsewhere on the web, this overview of Aurora’s science problems is interesting.

But technical details aside, I really do admire Robinson for seriously tacking one of the sacred cows of Science Fiction, and doing it in a way that’s not dismissive. (It would have been easy to make a similar point in a short story, but an entire novel—that takes dedication.)  I quite enjoyed the usual games that Robinson plays with the prose—in this case, blending the story with the ship’s internal narrative. Aurora is quite a book, frustrating and exhilarating and mind-expanding at once. Opponents take note: It is not the description of a certain future, nor an attack on your identity as a SF reader … it is a thought experiment taken far along, and a supplemental opinion to integrate in your view of the world. There’s no need to get angry about it. If I was still in the habit of making Hugo nominations, I’d put it on my ballot.

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