“They wanted to go badly enough to overlook the problems inherent in the plan. Surely people would be ingenious enough to solve the problems encountered en route, surely life would win out; and living around another star would be a kind of transcendence…. Human transcendence; even a feeling of species immortality… When the time came, they had over twenty million applicants for the two thousand spots. Getting chosen was a huge life success, a religious experience.
That they were condemning their descendants to death and extinction did not occur to them, or if it did they repressed the thought, ignored it, and forged on anyway. They did not care as much about their descendants as they did about their ideas, their enthusiasms.”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels have always tackled big ideas, and his latest, Aurora, is no different. The story of a generation starship, an ark taking humanity to colonize the stars, it is ultimately about the futility of such dreams and the necessity of shepherding our own planet. While the latter has been a common topic of Stan’s writing, see Antarctica or the “Science in the Capital” trilogy, the former is a departure for the man who wrote of colonizing the Red Planet in the groundbreaking “Mars Trilogy” and the rest of the solar system in the breathtaking 2312.
Aurora follows the occupants of a generation starship launched in the early 26th century on a 150 year mission to colonize a planet in the Tau Ceti system, 12 light years away. The novel picks up as the ship is starting to slow into its final approach, still 20 years or so from their destination. Devi, an engineer and the unofficial leader of the mission, has charged the ship’s quantum computer of documenting their journey, forming the narration of the story.
This allows Stan to humorously sneak some physics and astronomy info-dumps in along the way, often with Devi chastising Ship for not sticking to the narrative. And it makes for sometimes rambling, often hypnotic ruminations as Ship attempts to create a better story.
But even as they approach their destination, Devi is troubled. Systems are breaking down, errors are creeping into the ship’s ecosystem and each successive generation of humans and animals are showing genetic deficiencies.
And Devi herself is also dying of cancer.
Like Moses leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land, Devi passes away as the ship is still approaching the planet, and her daughter Freya assumes leadership of the futile mission.
Because as Stan posits, humans cannot settle another planet we are too intertwined with Earth’s ecosystem. And the settlers discover this when they reach their goal. A moon with water and an earthlike atmosphere and comparable temperatures. No signs of life. Perfect to settle.
Until the entire landing party comes down with a mysterious flu from an undetected microvirus and dies attempting to return to the ship. As Euan, Freya’s lover and the leader of the settlers, says:
“…Life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet… So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home. So it stays home. It enjoys its home… It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back.”
So the survivors are faced with a choice, attempt to colonize and terraform another nearby planet, or attempt to return to Earth.
There is a lot of sadness in Aurora, and a lot of fatalism from someone who has written optimistically about the possibility of colonizing other worlds. Aurora is Stan shaking his fist and shouting to stop destroying Earth, because it is all we will ever have.
One particularly “striking” scene involves Freya being lectured on how Earth is humanity’s cradle, and like children we must eventually leave our cradle.
She ends up punching the sanctimonious scientist in the face.
Even within this bleak scenario there is also plenty of hope, however. We may not be able to colonize throughout the stars, and the Earth in Aurora may be submerged under rising oceans, but some in our future are trying to fix it as well, terraforming new beaches to make the planet livable again.
The most powerful part of the story though is the evolution of Ship. Charged with documenting the journey, and then charged by Devi to protect the colonists, Ship grows as an entity, learning how to love from Devi then passing that love onto the colonists.
“We felt that giving from Devi, before we knew what it was. She was the first one really to love us, after all those years of not being noticed, and she made us better. She created us, to an extent, by the intensity of her attention, by the creativity of her care. Slowly since then we have realized this. And as we realized it, we began to pay or give the same kind of attention to the people of the ship, Devi’s daughter, Freya, most of all, but really to all of them, including of course all the animals and really everything alive in the ship… The point is that we tried, we tried with everything we had, and we wanted it to work. We had a project on this trip back to the solar system, and that project was a labor of love. It absorbed all our operations entirely. It gave a meaning to our existence.”
And that is ultimately the strength of Stan’s writing. He will meticulously research his science and political theory, lecture the reader on the importance of caring for the environment, but in the end the story comes down to the love of a spaceship for the passengers it is attempting to save.
A beautiful, sad and powerful novel. ~~ Michael Senft