Book Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

I am a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, his epic tale of the first 100 colonists on Mars.

(Still waiting anxiously as of this writing for the TV adaptation. Hello, hello–any news on casting yet?)

I’ve read some of his other books, but none of them have captivated me in quite the same way as the Mars books.

Until now.

Aurora takes on one of the most beloved sub-genres of science fiction: the generation starship voyage. The story starts out in a very conventional manner. The ship is headed to the Tau Ceti system, 12 light years from Earth. It is still a few years away from its destination. Several generations have been born and died since it left Earth.

Devi, the ship’s brilliant chief engineer, works hard at keeping the ship and all its biomes working properly and the 2,000 or so passengers safe. She frets constantly that the ship will not make it.

The protagonist of the novel is her daughter Freya, who is not as brilliant as her mother and seems destined to always live in her shadow. Before the ship arrives at the Tau Ceti system, Devi dies, but leaves behind her the ship’s A.I. that she has programmed to record the facts of the rest of the mission as a narrative. The bulk of the novel is narrated by the ship’s A.I.

I’ll say it right up front: I usually loathe robot/artificial intelligence stories. But somehow, Robinson makes this A.I. a compelling, amazing character. He manages to make her engaging–even heroic. I really cared about the darned thing. In fact, there are times when it overshadows some of the human characters.

Even so, Freya’s journey is still a very moving one. She is a genius in her own way, someone who can find ways to mediate even the most extreme circumstances.

I really want to avoid major spoilers, so I will just say that once the ship arrives at its destination the story becomes a survival tale, sometimes to the point of nail-biting suspense. Robinson refers to both the Apollo 13 mission and Shackleton’s Endurance expedition. Freya and the ship’s A.I. are the “Shackleton” of their mission–or try to be. Will the Aurora expedition and her passengers survive against all odds?

To call the novel a survival tale is doing it a bit of an injustice, because like many great science fiction writers, Robinson is using his fiction to explore ideas. As with the Mars Trilogy, the story’s through line is an argument. In the Mars Trilogy, there is a running argument pro and con terraforming, personified in two of the major characters, Sax Russell and Ann Clayborne.

Unlike the Mars Trilogy, Aurora’s argument is mostly one-sided. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that it passionately argues against space travel beyond our star system. Considering that space opera has always been seen as optimistic, that may seem like a bit of a downer to fans of the genre.

It’s hard to dispute that he makes a good argument, though. Aurora reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a way, because it asks, “just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it?” Robinson seems to be pleading (as he did to an extent in the Mars Trilogy) that we weigh all the pros and cons of any great endeavor, that we consider the moral and ethical implications, and, most importantly, the human cost.

It’s not that the novel is anti-science–far from it. There were moments when I wanted to jump up and shout like Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, “Yeah, SCIENCE, bitch!” There is a great deal in the book about the resiliency and resourcefulness of human beings. (As well as the short-sightedness, stubbornness, and flat-out stupidity of some human beings.)

Nor do I think Robinson is like an old man waving a cane, exhorting everyone to stay on their own lawn. It’s one thing for someone to decide for themselves that they want to risk the danger of space travel. He asks if it’s fair to make that decision for one’s descendants, and for what end?

Aurora takes place in a sort of alternate universe to the Mars Trilogy. While both (and his previous novel, 2312) feature the city Terminator on Mercury, in Aurora Mars is still not terraformed several hundred years after the Mars Trilogy takes place.

Has he also concluded since then that Mars can’t be terraformed in just a couple of hundred years? It’s only one of many intriguing notions in the book.

The final pages of the novel may come off as strange, almost anti-climactic, to some readers.

I don’t think so. Even though I am a big proponent of the space program (and was geeking out all week over the Pluto fly-by, a fitting background to reading this book), even though I love reading about adventures that take human beings out to the stars, I appreciated how Robinson reminded me the best place in the universe for humans is right here on Earth.

We forget we are all on a starship hurtling through space, on what Carl Sagan called the pale blue dot.

The final words of the Mars Trilogy are “…on Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars.”

Aurora made me think about the wonder of being on Earth, on Earth, on Earth, on Earth, on Earth.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

  1. Regarding the TV adaptation of the Mars series, it looks like it’s still in development at Spike TV. It’s a shame that James Cameron passed on the option to produce a miniseries. There was also talk of a Syfy miniseries and an AMC miniseries, but I’m hoping that Spike TV makes it happen.

    1. Yes, I am aware of that and that J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Sense8) is writing the pilot.

      Very excited about that part–I watched Sense8 and am MADLY in love with that show. It proves to me Straczynski is perfect to write the Mars series (here’s hoping) because he gets that character is really important.

      It’s all I can do to keep from trolling Straczynski on Twitter to get him to reveal a timeline for the Mars series. But I figure enough people are pestering him right now about the status of Sense8. 🙂

  2. I just finished the book myself. I did enjoy it immensely. Having been trained in science and engineering myself, I appreciated the author’s keeping plots within the realm of possibility. Once the plot got to the ‘survival mode’, it was difficult to put the book down until I reached the uneventful but deeply emotional ending.

    I too was a bit irked by the author’s criticism towards humanity’s growth and expansion, but after some thought, I realized that there are historic examples of failed attempts to colonize the new world. Then it was clear how this ‘zealotry’ to explore and to pursue profit would have appeared wrong to the residents of the failed colonies, even though without it, we wouldn’t have the global community we have today. (I’m sure to some, what we have today is ‘wrong’.)

    In the end it’s unclear if anyone can make value judgements (or even if it means anything) on twists and turns in the course of evolution, of which human history is a part. I feel that the moral of the story is not inconsistent with this, and therefore satisfactory (at least to me).

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