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Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel "Aurora," overwhelmed me - mostly in a good way. Through a clever use of an artificial intelligence as a narrator, Robinson was able to tell one of his farthest ranging story on a canvas both vast and intimate. The multi-generational Ship of the story experiences the complexities of human hopes and conflicts while sweeping up the observations of centuries of travel and peril in interstellar space. While relatively compact for a Robinson novel, plenty here, taken separately, would serve as an entire novel in lesser hands. 


Morgan Crooks 2015


Okay, so what is this book about? Devi, Badim, and young Freya are a family living on the Ship. Devi is a prickly, brilliant, and frequently outraged ecosystem engineer aboard the ship. Devi is a person cursed with that particular mentality able to perceive inconvenient truths about a situation, and knows how tenuous their survival is. Their home, the Ship, is flying through space on a 170 year journey towards Tau Ceti, and just arriving there will be a stroke of luck. Devi is a hard person to live with, and eventually her mix of disappointment and grinding fear for the future drives Freya out into the wider microcosm of the ship, to engage in a wanderjahr, a years-long jaunt around the various biomes spinning in two rings around the Ship. 

Neither Freya or her mother, however, are the protagonist of the story. For most of the novel, narration is supplied by the Ship itself. Here Robinson's clear-eyed prose really shines. Devi shows the same dissatisfaction with the Ship's rudimentary AI that she displays towards her daughter. The Ship proves a better student. Over the course of the novel, which stretches centuries, the Ship begins to bootstrap itself into something approaching true self-awareness, as the increasingly perilous state of affairs aboard the ship pose larger and more complicated problems. For me, this was one of the true pleasures of this novel. The Ship, in all of its iterations, has a sly but warm personality, and while its motivations are ultimately simple (it's a spaceship, and spaceship travel through space), its attempts to wrestle with the hard problems of astrophysics and human conflicts bring into focus one of the purest expressions of Robinson's own future-centric humanism.

But I also think my difficulty in describing this story come from the very personal reaction I had during reading it.

A little biography...

When I was six or seven, I remember being in an after school program at a local art museum. We were given materials with which to create small animal totems. I really didn't want to use the pinecones, feathers, and small stones we had to work with. When the adults asked me why not, I remember expressing my dislike for natural things. I said I didn't want to be on planet earth. That planet earth was a 'mud-ball' and I wanted to be out exploring space.

One of my earliest memories was of how little I cared for this planet, the only home (currently) for the human race.

This is my way of showing you, my reader, where I'm coming from when I say that I have never had my basic world view shaken and pulled into question as I have with the book.

Although there are many distinct pleasures in reading this book and I recommend it to anyone, I left the book feeling very sad and very thoughtful. Thirty years on this particular merry-go-round has given me a greater appreciation of the difficulties that aspiration entails. And yet, that is still the basic dream. I would like our species to spread out into the solar system, the Galaxy, and the universe. 

Avoiding spoilers, Robinson's basic point in writing Aurora seems is to show the seductive yet lethal folly of such ideas. The universe Robinson provides  here provides a simple, obvious, and horrifying answer to the Fermi Paradox. Although Robibson shows an obvious love for space technology and the technologies that endeavor requires, he wants to make it clear. Earth is not just our cradle, it is the one place in the universe we evolved to inhabit. The most powerful scenes in this book turn away from the grandeur of artificial biomes and alien worlds to explore what Earth is like, what our home actually provides us. 

I left the book with a profound melancholy. Because of who I am I can't shake the feeling our species or whatever our species produces will find away out of the trap Robinson describes, but I can't in any particular deny the force of his argument. 

At one point a character in the novel describes a certain class of fiction as Dark Realism. I suspect that title was provided as a useful handle by the author for this work. Philosophically this is a novel opposed to the ideas that seize us and bend us towards suffering and collapse. It is not a particularly optimistic vision but it does arrive with all of the force of simple truths expounded clearly. 
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