Aurora is a difficult book. It’s technical and depressing. And yet, it’s one of the most accessible hard science fiction books I’ve read, with a compelling story and believable characters. For me, this book was a page-turner, and I feel enriched for reading it. Sad and depressed, but enriched. Kim Stanley Robinson has more hits than misses, and this one certainly hit the right spot.
Robinson has long been skeptical about starship-sized closed ecologies. He was brutal about them all the way back in 1984, when he dismissed the viability of such a ship in Icehenge. So it came as quite a surprise to me when he made a multi-generational ship work in Aurora. Well, maybe “work” is too strong a word. The ship in Aurora has its own issues with deteriorating environments, and far too few people capable of fixing it.
This book has a separate narrator and protagonist. The narrator is the ship itself, while the main protagonist is Freya, the daughter of the ship’s Chief Engineer, Devi. It was Devi who instructed the ship to keep a log of their journey, and it was her who held the various ecologies together for long enough to reach their destination at Tau Ceti. Devi was born and died on the ship, as did several generations before her. Freya, on the other hand, had the chance to be in a generation that disembarked on the planet Aurora, after the first settlers built the necessary infrastructure.
Robinson does his usual engineering work in this book. The first third or so is about the ecological balance inside the ship. He describes the various ecosystems, mainly from Freya’s point of view, as she travels around various habitats. Freya herself is an interesting character. I got the feeling that she was mentally retarded: slow to learn, in Devi’s words, unable to understand mathematics, in her own. She does have considerable emotional intelligence, however, as she listens to people, their stories and worries. She offers no advice, save for repeating Devi’s generic sentences (which then get interpreted by each listener in their own way, akin to a priest preaching the teachings of Devi), but her attentive listening is usually enough for people to feel relieved after talking to her. Only towards the end of the book, when Freya is a middle-aged woman and physically attacks a person in lieu of debating him, we learn how severely damaged she is. Still, Freya is a very likeable and believable character.
The second third of the book deals with settling the planet Aurora. Robinson shines here in worldbuilding, describing the weather patterns stemming from Aurora’s unusual orbit (the planet is a tidally locked moon, not orbiting directly around the star), and the effect of the patterns on the planet’s geology. There is no ecology, as Aurora seems to be barren. He then switches to the building of the colony. The colonists find that planet is not barren. A small strand of DNA, smaller than a virus (one of the scientists describes it as a fast prion) latches onto the humans, and they start dying. The rest is trying to flee back to the ship, where those people, who didn’t yet get down to the surface, lock them out and eventually kill them. This creates a schism on the ship, with one group of people wanting to return to Earth, and another, equally large, wanting to try to settle a less habitable planet in the star system. Things turn violent, and the ship finally intervenes, splitting the two groups and letting those who wish to stay in the star system leave the ship.
In the last part of the book, we’re following the ship back to Earth. The main engineering problem is that the ship started reducing its velocity far too late and has to slingshot around planets and the Sun to slow down enough. Eventually, the ship sheds its passengers at Earth and burns off in the Sun. More important than the engineering issues, however, are the societal changes and the revolution in people’s thinking when they see their first colonists returning. The colonists face significant challenges as well, with many hurt during the long hibernation process (hibernation was developed on the way back, and is still unreliable), and the rest of them unused to wide open spaces. Earth itself had changed due to rising sea levels, and the book ends with Freya overcoming her fear from the open and spending a day on a new beach.
Robinson is presenting some greatly depressing predictions in his book. The most important of these is that mankind won’t be able to expand to other planets, since microscopic life forms will kill us. And those planets that don’t support any life will take thousands of years to terraform. In a departure from his Mars Trilogy, he also describes the Mars terraforming process as nearly impossible to achieve; something that will take far longer than what he described in his previous books. And Earth does not hold a utopic society, either. It’s overcrowded and ravaged by rising sea levels. The only glimmer of hope are small independent communities that manually terraform Earth to be a pleasant planet once again. In this, Robinson is staying with one of his ideas of hippie communities changing their local ecology.
From the Mars Trilogy onwards, the author has been known for creating simple, yet very believable and largely likeable characters. However, he needs a large time span to have them develop, and this is not different here. We know Freya for some good forty years. Badim, her father, is around for the duration, and other characters who come and go are also very authentic. The ship is an exception, and I still consider it somewhat of a cop-out, when Robinson didn’t know how to keep narrating the story via humans. Still, where he managed to keep a balance for the humans (I liked them but didn’t get too attached to mourn them), he was much more attached to the ship: I got to like it so much that its destruction was the saddest part of the book for me. The only issue I found with the characters was a rather unlikely social dynamic. The schism on the ship resulted in a short and bloody civil war too quickly, and whenever there were two opposing opinions, there didn’t seem to be any middle ground. Even the supposedly intimate mother-daughter relationship between Devi and Freya never seems to have changed over the years. All personal interactions were way too static for my taste.
The science, on the other hand, is very believable. The ship may have worked, and its deterioration, fast bacterial mutations and much slower mutations of higher life forms are compellingly described. Worldbuilding and civil engineering are such that I felt I was watching the planets with my own eyes. The slingshot technique to slow down the starship was a little rushed for me to fully appreciate it, but even that seems like something that may have worked.
I can’t truly fault the book with anything. Aurora offers a gripping story, authentic characters and good science. Some may find Robinson’s predictions too depressing, and I understand that. This is not a light read. Aurora forces the reader to think, and I appreciate the novel and its author for that.