(2015) Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 470pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50048-5
It is the 28th century and a generation starship is over 159 years into its 170 year voyage to Tau Ceti, travelling at a tenth the speed of light and now decelerating. Onboard there are a little over 2,200 people living within a number of greatly different biomes; one biome might be boreal forest, another moist tropical, another temperate maritime and so forth. Each biome is two and a half miles across and together all of them provide around 40 square miles of environment in two giant rings. Each supports around 300 people.
The ship is fusion powered ion drive accelerating at a leisurely 0.005g, but rotating the ship – hence the rings – provides gravity. So, to many of the crew life onboard is not too distant to that they imagine on Earth. And, of course, they are in communication with Earth.
The whole enterprise is a staggering feat of engineering and resource application and so the ship is only one of a few that have ever been built and set out to star systems known to have exo-Earths.
Onboard, crew member Devi asks the ship's artificial intelligence (AI) to make a narrative record of their voyage, and the novel Aurora we understand is that narrative. We also learn that Devi's daughter Freya has decided to spend some time wandering different biomes as a kind of gap year and this enables us, the reader, to learn more about the ship and its society. We also gather that the crew do not have a complete understanding of their own history, and there is a mysterious Year 68 event occasionally referred to but not understood. Ahead lies the Tau Ceti system and the world Aurora, a moon of a gas giant. The novel is the story of the mission to Aurora and what happens thereafter. Along the way there is an introverted examination of the society within the starship: for example, the need to control the population means that aspects of life are similar to living in a fascist state. Conversely, crew morale and its efficiency must be maximised; there can be no passengers.
Interstellar generation ships are an established SF trope but surprisingly not that often explored in detail. The last one, to my mind, of note was Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three half a decade ago. That novel was shortlisted for the Clarke (book) Award. Though Aurora is as powerful a novel, unlike the very SFnal Hull Zero Three, Aurora is a work of mundane SF: that is to say SF based on real – or conceivable – science. Here it is obvious almost from the beginning that it is very well researched: Kim Stanley Robinson must have sat down and spent some hours crunching the numbers not to mention exploring some avenues of scientific understanding; he knows his perihelion from his periapsis.
This work being well researched is one of this novel's great strengths: it means that the story is not just a story, but it contains a number of possible (albeit loose and vague) reflections of what might happen and almost certainly some of what would have to be considered if one really were to sit down and think about planning a multi-generation star mission: ecological sustainable carrying capacities, elemental cycling, microbiology and a multitude of so forths. Here, for the scientist and/or engineer into SF it can be problematic reading a story written by a non-scientist. Though one cannot expect the author to have the scientific knowledge to provide great detail, one does expect non-science SF authors to have researched the basics. The problem comes with what the scientist reader and the non-scientist SF author decide should count as 'the basics': the two often differ in their respective views and it would be extremely uncharitable for the scientist reader to expect the non-scientist author to be familiar with the latest research. But Kim Stanley Robinson makes a fair fist of this. Let me give you an example.
The world Aurora has, as we find out in the book's first third, a well oxygenated atmosphere which in theory could sustain humans. However, it lacks multicellular life (such as multicellular plants) and even oxygenic bacteria (such as cyanobacteria), so where is the oxygen coming from? This is a good question and we are given a supposedly valid reason as to how the world gained an oxygen rich atmosphere and that is 'hydrogen escape'. This explanation sort of works to satisfy those into biosphere and Earth system sciences, and those who aren't the mention provides a bit of technical colour. Yet biosphere scientists will realise that this explanationb is actually a cop out as it would not work (ozone protection and the low atmospheric water trap etc), but scientist SF readers may be forgiving as one cannot expect a non-science author to have all the necessary expertise. Yet for the scientist reader we know that for the story to work something else must be going on and so, should we wish, we can play the game of what science would it take to put the story back on track. Me personally, at this point I just noted a potential science glitch but carried on with the story as a lot was going on and my attention had been captured. Yet, Kim Stanley Robinson must have had good science advisors because it eventually transpires many pages later that something else really was affecting the atmosphere (though fortunately, while specified, it is kept vague). What I am saying is that this SF novel truly well researched with the science properly integrated into the story and it is not just a yarn simply sprinkled with techno-babble.
Furthermore, Kim Stanley Robinson's device of having the ship compile the text, for what is in effect the book the reader is reading, is also a particularly neat. The novel, at a little over 460 pages, is long enough and we need that page count to convey what is going on with 'the mission'. Yet as an SF reader, I wanted to know more about what was taking place on Earth, how they reacted to mission developments as the years passed, let alone elsewhere with other starships. Indeed the starship's crew would themselves surely have a healthy interest in the communication feed from Earth. Yet while such are mentioned and referred to in the books first three quaters, this is done in passing, with the narrative – supposedly created by the ship's AI – firmly focussed on whatever it is at immediate hand with which the novel's main protagonists are currently engaged. Had this not been the case then the novel's word count would have undoubtedly ballooned.
Several themes emerge. These include the intergenerational transfer of opportunities and constraints: the crew's descendents approaching their new world did not ask to be sent on this mission. This theme is relevant to us in the real world as we bequeath to our children a biodiverse reduced, overpopulated and globally warming world, and this relevance comes to the fore in the book's second half. The idea of population forgetfulness – here of the Year 68 event – is also a theme Robinson has covered before on a number of occasions and notably with his short novel Icehenge (1984) (a novel that really proves that less is sometimes a lot more).
With Aurora Kim Stanley Robinson has given us an intergeneration starship novel for our generation. It has the technical content that a writer such as Arthur C. Clarke would have provided, yet also the new wave, character-driven dimensions of, say, Brian (Non-Stop) Aldiss, to take two notable SF writers of the last century. And added into this mix are passing references to much of the recent gains in our science understanding from the afore-mentioned Earth system science to the new Kepler exo-planet discoveries made in recent years. As is often the case with Kim Stanley Robinson, his novels read as if a slow burn but – again typical of the man – with a lot going on either in the backdrop or due to the momentous nature of the events, and these contrast with brief, dynamic episodes. With Aurora he gives us a cracking tale and takes us on a wondrous voyage. Recommended.
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