Posted in Review, Writing

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

AURORA_KIM_STANLEY_ROBINSONI swore off KSR after reading his novel 2312, which I found turgid and tedious, and so I skipped his recent novel Shaman and wouldn’t have considered Aurora, but for the fact that I stumbled across a Guardian review which praised it as the best ever SF novel about a generational starship. After a KSR hiatus, I was ready to dip in again. I needed lots of reading for the summer, and I knew that a KSR novel would be dense and substantial.

Is it the best ever book about a generational starship? No: that would be Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo — but Aurora is pretty good all the same. It’s thought-provoking and stuffed with ideas and arguments.

The more or less omniscient narrator is the Ship itself, which has an artificial intelligence which has been trained or augmented or improved by a member of the crew who took a particular interest, and then tasked the ship with writing a narrative history of the voyage, which as we join it is already around 160 years into a 12 light-year voyage to Tau Ceti, and starting to decelerate. This conceit allows the author to meditate on the nature of narrative, diegesis, and language. The AI rejects metaphor in favour of analogy, and observes that language itself is almost wholly metaphorical, taking us into Lacanian territory, Name of the Rose territory. The real is unattainable, signs can only be interpreted with other signs, and so on. This is what you might call literary science fiction, then.

I love a good generational starship story, but most of the ones I’ve read have taken a pessimistic view of this method of space exploration for humans. In Ship of Fools, the crew have forgotten their original purpose. In Aurora, the problems of a closed (‘island’) ecosystem, even in a ship whose dimensions are measured in kilometres, are manifold. Biomes! Biomes! Humans don’t understand ecosystems well enough to control them effectively, and yet that is what we are continually trying to do. The analogy here, of course, is that crew is to ship as humanity is to earth.

Our anchor character is Freya, daughter of Devi, one of the ship’s main engineers (fifth or sixth generation), who takes personally the many faults built into the ship’s design, and passes some of her personality on to her daughter. The ship was built too small, the systems not efficient enough, the pioneers essentially mad, volunteering their descendants to face developmental problems, a violent end, or simply, possibly, starvation. Devi is permanently angry about the ship and the fate they’ve been left to; she rails against the people who put them in this situation, the designers of the ship, who were too stupid or careless to see the inherent flaws.

Six generations in, and much has happened on the ship, some of it forgotten, but they arrive in the Tau Ceti system and begin to explore the Earth-like moon of one of the planets in the habitable zone. Here, KSR hits you between the eyes with the challenges of finding a suitable planet to colonise. Size and density affects gravity. Too much gravity would be too much! Imagine living on a Super Earth with gravity three times greater than the one we know! The habitable zone means liquid water, a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, but is the oxygen created by splitting water molecules with sunlight – or through biology? If there is biology, well, then would we even have the right? And if we did attempt to interact with this alien biology, to remove a helmet and breathe the air, it would almost certainly be poisonous to us. Spores, bacteria, viruses, prions! (See Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios for more on that topic.) If there is no life, it would appear to be safe for humans to begin to live there, and attempt to introduce biology. But is there soil for agriculture? Soil implies biology, so if there’s no soil there has to be something we can turn into soil, and how long does that take? Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to terraform, and terraforming takes time. How much time? Who knows? Could be thousands of years. Can we do it? Do we know how? Could we start to do it and somehow avoid killing ourselves with a fatal build-up of waste products or stubborn chemicals – or simply by starving to death?

So there’s the gravity problem, and the atmosphere problem, and the biology vs. a sterile environment problem. Which is before we get to the nature of the light and our Earth biology which has developed over billions of years under this sun and its light. What if it’s almost twice as bright? Or bluer? What about the length of the day? What if a ‘day’ is the equivalent of nine days? What if it never really ever gets dark? What about the weather? What if there is a permanent gale force wind? You’ve travelled for 180 years and when you get there you find that the wind almost never stops.

KSR’s attitude to this idea of a generational starship is critical, it’s clear. He’s clearly taken a leaf from the book of critiques of the closer-to-home Mars colony idea. The designs are flawed: people would be dead within 68 days of CO2 poisoning. In this case, how can you hope to send a viable set of ecosystems on a 180-year voyage and expect things to work properly? People and animals get smaller, appear to get dumber. Bacteria evolve more quickly than we do. They become resistant, super-bugs. We die in a thousand ways, like playing a computer game that’s designed so you can never win. The ship gets infested with bugs and corrosive substances. Critical systems fail and people don’t know why. And then people can’t agree on a course of action when they arrive and things continue to go wrong. Aurora offers a pessimistic view of the generational starship, and an equally pessimistic view of human nature. The question is asked about the original 20 million or so volunteers: from what were they trying to escape? We were all thinking this about the one-way-mission-to-Mars volunteers. Almost by definition, they were unstable, slightly or completely crazy. And in the case of the generational starship, they also don’t live to get where they are going and instead have volunteered their children and grandchildren for some unknown fate out there in the stars. These people are born into a situation they had no say in creating, and have to deal with the consequences of decisions made long before they were born.

You don’t have to dig very deeply to discover the analogy KSR is trying to draw. As we fuck this planet up for our descendants, we are bequeathing them a set of problems they didn’t volunteer to face. Our stewardship of the planet is shoddy, to say the least. The super-rich think they’ll survive the cataclysm, especially if they have all the money, but they don’t know, any more than the rest of us know how to grow fruit and vegetables without blights and diseases and bugs eating them. Nature tends to do better without us.

Earth itself is a pretty big starship. None of us asked to be born here, but we’re stuck with it. And the message is clear: this is all we have. There is nowhere else we can go, and even if by some miracle we could build such a ship and get there, we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers and create a new, safe, habitable, Earth. And for Robinson, the very notion that we might be able to find somewhere else is part of the problem with the way we treat this Earth, and each other. It’s a mass delusion, analogous to those dangerous religions which propose that this life doesn’t matter, because there’s another life to come. And think about it: even if they designed a generational starship and started sending people out to colonise the stars — if there was any chance of survival, who would get to go? Only the rich, only the children of the rich. Stop deluding yourself.

The novel ends tellingly: on a beach somewhere, with waves crashing in and the white noise of surf and sand, the endless pounding created by the extraordinary gravitational pull of a moon, the heat radiation from the nearest star. This wonder, this planet, these forces that are more powerful than us, that we can never hope to harness.

A great book, this, and an important one. People need to read this. Maybe there are answers to some of KSR’s criticisms, but I’d like to see them stated as rigorously.

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World famous writer labouring in obscurity. My other blog is a Porsche.