A prolific and highly regarded author of science fiction novels whose output over four decades has earned him sufficient awards to fill several mantelpieces if not a cabinet, the arrival of any new work from Kim Stanley Robinson warrants attention, particularly as Aurora runs parallel with the themes of the Hugo, Nebula and Locus award winning masterwork with which he consolidated his reputation.
With the Mars trilogy remaining the definitive work on terraforming over twenty years after publication, where those books focused on the migration of humanity to a neighbouring world and the complicated technical, ethical and political challenges and consequences of that mighty labour across the decades and centuries which followed, Aurora is a single volume examining in close detail a similar feat, the establishment of a viable human colony on a much more distant world.
Two toruses each composed of twelve cylinders, each four kilometres long, set on either end of a spine of ten kilometres, with 2122 people currently on board, Ship was launched in 2545 and is now 159 subjective years into its voyage. Their destination is the second moon of Planet E, fifth in the Tau Ceti system, and although Ship doesn’t officially have a chief engineer, if it did it would be Devi, who “fixes things by thinking about them.”
Explaining the processes of Ship to her daughter Freya and by extension to the reader, everything must be kept in equilibrium in long loops to promote stability, but with such a complicated ecosystem it is impossible to calculate all the variables so they are forced to continually make adjustments to compensate, hoping that they will not upset the delicate balance still further. “For anyone to be healthy, everyone has to be healthy. Even bugs.”
Having asked Ship to prepare an account of the voyage which forms the novel, Devi directs and shapes and critiques the narrative, encourages and enhances it; perhaps unsurprisingly, Freya is a focus of the first draft. In the conversations between Devi and Ship’s AI, attention is drawn to the expectations of narrative and the inherent clumsiness of human speech with its reliance on metaphor to illuminate ideas when it is in fact a conscious misdirection, an avoidance of truth.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passengers are in a constant battle with their limitations and side effects of their enclosed environment: despite being planned and populated by the brightest minds of now distant Earth, there is a tendency for any isolated population over time to revert to the mean, and the accumulated data of the journey has made it apparent that IQs are dropping and life expectancy has shortened by 10% since their ancestors set out.
Freya is an example of this, fourteen years old, unusually tall but struggling with her classes, particularly mathematics, the essential grounding of all the hard sciences which are vital for her to become a contributor to their society and successor to Devi, unless she wishes to spend her life farming. Setting out on an extended wanderjahr to see the rest of Ship, Freya finds hers skills are with people rather than numbers, but it is analytical thinkers who are needed on Ship and she fears that will never match the achievements or reputation of her mother.
Perhaps because their journey is close to completion, Ship already well into deceleration phase on their Orion drive as it approaches its destination in the Tau Ceti system, the novel lacks the pioneering spirit and sense of achievement that underpinned the Mars trilogy, and fuelled by hope as much as fusion, when that slim thread is dashed on the shores of Aurora the travellers quickly become factionalised and give vent to their disappointment and anger.
The prose often functional to the point of pedestrian, endless descriptions and comparisons of the rock formations and weather systems of Aurora, the narrative is dry despite the oceans and storms. Robinson is a writer of ideas rather than character, and told as filtered through the clinical eyes of Ship as it struggles towards comprehension of humanity, maybe approaching sentience, it is an academic rather than dramatic exercise.
While on the gross scale the problems are of a similar type as those which faced Robinson’s Martian colonists, here they are magnified, a journey not of months but across almost two centuries, a settlement not of a world charted and sampled and surveyed but where long distance probes have performed only a flyby reconnaissance; though catapulted onward by the collective knowledge of the homeworld of their ancestors, their feet will land in the unknown.
Though on an industrial rather than the individual level, many of the memories triggered are more recent than Robinson’s trilogy of terraforming, the scrabble to create soil and the eternal battle against the elements covered intimately by Andy Weir in The Martian. Though technically the scope and forensic detail with which Robinson chronicles this endeavour cannot be faulted, Aurora tends too much towards a dour resignation, characters born into a situation they have no choice but to accept, even those who actively resist having no alternative but to press on to their destination and a destiny chosen before they were born.