Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora. New York: Orbit Publishing 2015.
It’s summertime and many of us are traveling. I’m in Cyprus and Greece and NDQ’s other editor is in Germany. In fact, a “high-level editorial correspondence” (is this really a thing?) preceding this review involved travel delays, complications, and adventures. There is nothing like travel to transform my view of the world and my place in it.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora, is a summer travel novel. It’s set in the summertime of humanity when interstellar travel and the tools to colonize distant planets are possible. Robinson’s novel tracks the final stage of a multi-generational voyage of an interstellar starship destined for a system which contained a number of planets suitable for human habitation. The 2000-odd occupants of the massive starship first contend with an increasingly imbalanced ecology within their sealed environment as they approach the end of their journey. Then they have to negotiate the challenges of setting up a permanent habitation on a new planet. Finally, they have to negotiate the possibility of their destination not being suited to human life, and make the difficult choice either to return home or stay for good.
Robinson excels in describing the tyrannical boredom of long-distance travel. The time aboard the starship as it approaches the Tau Ceti system was profoundly mundane even as the vessel showed signs of its age, and Devi, the mother of the novels main protagonist, fretted and hustled her way from zone to zone trying to keep the ship’s 24 spinning, sealed habitats in balance. The balance between freedom for the ships inhabitants and the control needed to maintain safe and sustainable operation tended toward tyranny. But this is familiar to any travelers who has had to endure the indignities of TSA procedures and the regimented reality of modern air travel where we surrender control of our bodies to the cramped capitalism of corporate finance. Pilgrimage today, at least by air, offers a (sometimes literally) twisted version of Victor Turner’s egalitarian, if not downright utopian, communitas.
Their arrival at Aurora, an apparently habitable moon orbiting planet e in the Tau Ceti system, was likewise familiar to any traveler. The need to approach their new home deliberately tempered their excitement of pulling into orbit and depositing the first colonists on its windswept surface. The travelers, who were the sixth or seventh generation born on the ship, had to wait for the shuttles to transport them to the surface, for the camps to be built, and for scientists to determine that the surface is safe. Anyone who has arrived at a foreign airport knows the feeling of waiting to disembark, to pass through passport control, to collect luggage, and to make it through customs. Without trivializing the dramatic tension in Robinson’s descriptions, he captures an almost universal experience of arrival.
Robinson’s descriptions of the surface of Mars made his Mars Trilogy a landmark in contemporary science fiction, and his description of Aurora is very much in that tradition. Robinson presents an uncanny world surrounded with water, with month-long days, scouring wind, and towering waves. His view of the rocky, lifeless, incised planet lacks any conspicuous dependence on Terran (Earth) analogues leaving the reader to supply them and quickly discard them. Like a visit to any foreign land, analogies can only go so far toward making a new place familiar. The fate of the colonists on Aurora speak eloquently to the limits of travel and the challenges of fully inhabiting a different place.
Robinson’s novel does more than narrate a 26th-century travelers tale. In fact, the narrator of the multi-generational voyage is, at least in part, the starship itself. The quantum computer slowly develops consciousness over the course of the over 300 year journey and through contact with the ship’s inhabitants. Like a futuristic version of Latour’s famous Aramis, the ship gradually comes to understand its own relationship with its passengers. In a kind of playful irony, the ship contemplates the limits of human agency during the voyage and decides more often than not that humans should have less control over their fate. Ultimately, the ship’s passengers descend gently into a chemically induced hibernation and the ship assumes control of the voyage.
The final part of the book encounters Freya, the daughter of Devi, playing in the sea on a reconstructed beach. It’s a fitting place for Robinson to end his novel. Aurora offers a beachhead of sorts between the present and the future, between home and abroad, and between an expansive sense of human potential and the stark realities of our limited agency.
Robinson speaks to the tension between living in both a local and global way during our podcast interview with him here.
Bill Caraher is an rather undistinguished associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota.