Written by: Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by: Orbit
Aurora is the story of a generation starship traveling to Tau Ceti to start a human colony. No, that’s not an original idea and it deals with many of the same themes found in other stories about crossing interstellar space at sub light speeds. How do you keep a closed ecosystem healthy and functioning? How do you solve problems the original designers and builders of the Ship did not anticipate? How do you deal with generations who are born to the Ship and come to resent the restrictions that are required to keep the whole endeavor viable? Who cares? The way that Robinson approaches and resolves these issues are fresh and exciting and human.
The narrative of Aurora is focused on Freya. The novel starts with Freya as a young woman, the daughter of the Ship’s unofficial chief engineer and one of the most respected doctors on the Ship. I’m capitalizing Ship because that’s the only name the Ship is ever given. Which says something profound about the people who built and launched the Ship. I’ve still not figured out exactly what that is but it is definitely profound. So Freya spends part of her time at school associating with other children, but she’s a bit of an awkward child. Part of it is her size. She’s large for her age, taller than all of her peers and soon even her parents, but there are hints that her awkwardness may be attributable to factors other than just her size. The rest of the time she spends with her father or tagging along with her mother as she travels all over the two rings and twenty four different biomes of the Ship solving a myriad of problems as they crop up. And the problems are cropping up constantly. Devi, Freya’s mother and the defacto chief engineer can barely keep up. They are several generations into the journey, within a generation of reaching Tau Ceti and everything is falling apart. So much so that Devi often wonders just what the hell the original voyagers were thinking when they launched.
Like many mother daughter relationships Freya’s and Devi’s becomes strained as she enters her rebellious phase as a teenager. So Freya starts her wanderjahr a bit early. It is a Ship tradition for young adults to take a trip walking and working their way across the two rings and through all twenty-four biomes. During her wanderjahr Freya begins to grow out of her awkwardness and starts an informal study of people’s attitudes and begins to catalog the resentments that the population carries about the restrictions everyone has to live under. As the Ship is a closed eco system reproduction is tightly controlled, as well as where people are allowed to live and what jobs they are required to work. Freya makes the trip around the Ship several times, talking to and getting to know a large percentage of the population. During her travels Freya becomes one of the most known people of the Ship. Freya is content circling the Ship but when Devi becomes ill she returns home to help out.
Freya and her mother reconcile and once again Freya finds herself following Devi around from problem to problem. This time around though she is working with Devi in the role of personal assistant or even as an apprentice. The problems aboard Ship are getting more and more dire and Devi’s health is continuing to fail all while they are finally closing in on Tau Ceti. Where a whole other set of problems will await them.
Aurora is not optimistic about interstellar travel. Or for that matter the colonization of other star systems. Robinson makes an excellent argument that life may be tied to the planet of its origin and offers up an interesting solution to Fermi’s paradox. Robinson also takes the opportunity to subtly remind us that the Earth is in a way just a really large generational ship and that with enough abuse the planet will run into the same problems a generation ship with a population of two thousand runs into after a couple of centuries. Aurora warns of hubris and at the same time celebrates human ingenuity and the resilience of the human spirit. While it is a novel of big ideas it is at the same time a very personal story. You will become attached to Freya and Devi and even the narrator and when they hurt you will. Aurora is at times heartbreaking and then again wonderfully joyous.
Aurora has a unique narrator that is omnipresent and intimately involved in the story but at the same time detached. The mechanism that Robinson uses for narration allows him an opportunity to riff on language, philosophy and human nature a few other random topics. In a lesser writer this could be problematic but Robinson has the discipline to not go too far afield on these little tangents. As much as I love the way that Aurora is narrated though it does bring up my only real criticism of the novel. There is a very important part of the book where you have no idea who is telling the story. Other than that minor quibble Aurora is fantastic though it’s not the kind of story I generally like. I don’t like to be reminded just how hard it will be to spread humanity across the stars. I don’t like to be reminded that humanity is likely bound if not to the Earth then to this solar system. I don’t like to be reminded of how unlikely it is that there is a community of star faring intelligences out there for us to someday stumble across. Aurora does all of that but I still love it.