Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015) 466 p.

There’s a famous quote by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky which is inscribed, among other places, at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington:

“The earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.”

Yet the stars are too far away. Even if you approach the speed of light it will still take hundreds of years to get there. Thus the old stalwart of science fiction: the generation ship, an enormous self-contained ark in which multiple generations can live and die while their descendants carry on the voyage. The science for a vessel like this is far more feasible than stuff like wormholes or warp drives or hypersleep, so it’s no surprise that the modern master of hard science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, chose a generation starship as the setting of his latest novel Aurora.

The ship is unnamed. It consists of two rotating wheels around a central spine, split into twenty-four self-contained environments each a few kilometres long, containing plants and animals from all of Earth’s different biomes. The population hovers around two thousand. The ship has been travelling for 160 years, or about seven generations, and is soon to arrive in the Tau Ceti system, where probes have identified an Earth-like moon suitable for human colonisation.

Given my mixed feelings about Robinson’s Mars trilogy and his more recent novel 2312, I was surprised by how much I was anticipating this one. I spent a lot of time hunting through English-language bookstores while travelling through south-eastern Europe, to no avail, and eventually picked up a copy back here in Australia. I think the reason I looked forward to it so much, despite Robinson’s patchy record, is because it promised to continue to push the envelope. The Mars trilogy focused on the colonisation of our nearest neighbour; 2312 ventured further out to explore the entire solar system; and I was interested, as always, to see Robinson’s imagination take on a voyage out to the next frontier.

What’s fascinating and surprising about Aurora – and I’m going to try to talk about this while avoiding two critical plot twists – is that in many ways, it’s a complete repudiation of Robinson’s previous optimistic, utopian narratives, and even a rejection of the long canon of science fiction space exploration entirely.

Humanity’s expansion to the stars being both desirable and inevitable, as exemplified in the Tsiolkovsky quote I opened with (which also features in the book), is a rarely challenged orthodoxy not just in the science fiction community, but in the broader scientific community as well. It’s an orthodoxy I believe in, one which I thought Robinson believed in, and one which I can safely bet most people picking up a novel about a generation starship by Kim Stanley Robinson believe in. And it’s this orthodoxy which Aurora questions, challenges and entirely re-evaluates over the course of the story.

Robinson is a hard science fiction writer, interested in everything from astrophysics to biology to human sociology, and he attacks the expansionism orthodoxy in ways which are scientifically grounded – within a hypothetical framework, of course. I can’t discuss all of them without spoiling the plot, but one of them is “island biology” or “zoo devolution:” the issues the ship’s inhabitants face in managing such a tiny, cut-off ecosystem, especially given that viruses and bacteria mutate and evolve faster than larger organisms like humans. Another concern, from a social standpoint, is the ethical quandary of condemning thousands of unborn future generations to live their lives sealed inside a small, inescapable environment – an environment which must be tightly controlled in terms of reproduction and freedom of movement, and which inevitably tends towards a dictatorship.

Robinson is, as always, wedded to ideas rather than characters; I can’t remember a single name from 2312, and only in the Mars trilogy, where he had room to properly stretch out, did I feel he managed to write some memorable and well-drawn characters (albeit only about five of them). Aurora doesn’t break this trend – there’s not a single well-sketched human character. There is, fortunately, the best character Robinson has ever written, which is the ship itself. Tasked by the chief engineer with writing a narrative of the vessel’s voyage, the ship effectively has to learn how to tell a story, how to properly understand humans, how to sort relevant information from irrelevant information, and – by the end of the book – how to make decisions without human input. So as well as being a generational spaceship novel, Aurora is a story about an AI gradually becoming self-aware. When problems with the voyage and political schisms within its human population force it to take an active hand in managing their affairs, referring to itself as “the rule of law,” it’s hard not to cheer for it. The ship’s changing narrative voice as it learns, grows and develops into something similar to a human intelligence is a deeply satisfying character arc, and its final monologue towards the end of the novel, in which it reflects on what it has accomplished and how it has found the meaning of its existence, is one of the most affecting and emotional (and terribly sad) passages I’ve ever read in science fiction.

Whether or not Robinson totally agrees with the message he lays down in Aurora is questionable; I don’t believe someone who has devoted this much of his life and work to promoting the colonisation of outer space could have such a road to Damascus conversion. Nor do I agree with the black and white dictum he makes about other worlds and the inability of human enterprise to overcome them. (Again, this is hard to discuss without spoilers.) I, for one, have a certain level of faith in the technological curve and human ingenuity, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s old quote about magic.

But all science fiction novels are products of their time, and we’re no longer in the shiny and optimistic future of the 1960s or even the 1990s. As well as being deeply scientific, Robinson’s writing has always been concerned with questions of ecological, political and social morality. Aurora presents a moral conclusion which, though I might disagree with it, is being put forward because of the situation on Earth as it presently exists, and the problems currently facing the human race. Aurora aims to make us re-evaluate our goals as a species, our attitude towards our lived present, and our position on the spaceship we all occupy already. It’s an excellent book, a very original book, a deeply important book, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

“Wherever you go, there you are.”