Aurora begins in a pond and ends in an ocean, though the two bodies of water are light-years apart. In between these scenes (arguably the book's weakest) is one of the most captivating and epic science fiction novels of the decade so far.
Indeed, Aurora will be deservedly celebrated as the literary equivalent of Christopher Nolan's recent movie, Interstellar (2014): an adventure grounded in hard science about mankind's first trip to another star. But Robinson's new novel is much bolder in vision, scope, and theme than Interstellar. In fact, it posits a new solution to Fermi's paradox that challenges one of the most fundamental tenets of the modern space exploration movement, as spoken by the rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever."
In Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson asks, "What if Tsiolkovsky was wrong?"
The year is 2704, and a massive generation ship carrying two thousand people is just a few years away from its destination: a habitable moon in the Tau Ceti system named Aurora, twelve light-years away from Earth. The ship consists of two rings surrounding a central spine, like wheels on an axle. Each ring contains twelve biomes based on distinct terrestrial ecosystems: Ring A contains "New World" biomes from Earth's Western Hemisphere like Costa Rica, Amazonia, and Olympia, while Ring B holds "Old World" terrains like Mongolia, Yangtze, and Siberia. Life for the three hundred people in each biome roughly approximates their counterparts back on Earth, particularly in the Labrador biome, where children aren't even told they're on a ship shooting through space until they reach young adulthood, at which time they're blindfolded and escorted through an airlock for an epiphany of The Truman Show proportions.
In the Nova Scotia biome, the ship's chief engineer and de facto leader, Devi, lives with her husband and daughter. Devi spends her days troubleshooting the ship's slowly failing ecosystems and cursing her ancestors for trapping her on an interstellar ark. She nicknames the ship's quantum-powered AI "Pauline," and the two form a deep and genuine relationship as the AI grows more and more self-conscious. As the ship says, "There were lots of good talks. She made ship what it is now, whatever that is. One could perhaps say: she made ship. One could perhaps assert, as corollary: ship loved her" (p. 113).
In fact, except for its first and final pages, Aurora is narrated by the ship's AI. Allow me to repeat that again, for emphasis: Aurora was "written" by the ship. A decade before it reaches Tau Ceti, Devi asks the ship to create a narrative account of their entire journey, which leads to some of the book's most humorous exchanges as Devi interrupts the ship's first attempts at prose:
Devi: Ship! Get to the point.
Ship: There are many points. How [to] sequence simultaneously relevant information? How [to] decide what is important? Need prioritizing algorithm . . .
Devi: Also, you're supposed to use metaphors, to make things clearer or more vivid or something. I don't know. I'm not much for writing myself. You're going to have to figure it out by doing it.
Ship: Trying. (pp. 48-49)
Armed with thousands of cameras, microphones, and sensors, the ship's AI is near-omniscient. "Possibly one could call this array the ship's eyes and ears, and the recordings its personal or life memory. A metaphor, obviously" (p. 86), quoth the ship, which proceeds to tell a story that spans several centuries and star systems. In the past, Kim Stanley Robinson has been criticized for a tendency to over-summarize (rather than dramatize) crucial events, so the ship's authorial difficulties are a clever nod to the million decisions a writer must make on every page. Aurora strikes a good balance between scene and summary, the latter of which becomes necessary when a story takes place over three hundred years.
The first third of the book covers the one-hundred-and-seventy-year journey from Sol to Tau Ceti, particularly the final decade as Devi and Ship try to stave off the "devolution" of the biomes' closed-loop ecosystems. Robinson takes the opportunity to explore the ethical and biological consequences of multi-generational space travel. After all, only the first generation of passengers had the luxury of volunteering for life in space, and they failed to consider the full repercussions for their descendants.
For instance: isolated in space with a limited number of resources, the ship begins to suffer from what E.O. Wilson called "island biogeography," one of the book's major themes. Resources can only be recycled so many times before losing their essence, and species confined to an "island" tend to genetically regress. As Devi remarks to her husband, "over the six generations we've recorded shrinkages of all kinds. Weight, reflex speed, number of brain synapses, test scores" (p. 40). Devi's daughter Freya is no exception. Kind and abnormally tall, she becomes one of the most famous passengers on the ship after taking a traditional "Wanderjahr," a rite of passage for young adults who spend time in each of the ship's twenty-four biomes. Like the protagonists in Robinson's groundbreaking Mars trilogy, Freya is a bit "shallow" on the characterization spectrum. But at least in Freya's case, there is a biological and narrative reason for her aloofness: she represents humanity's sacrifice, the toll that interstellar travel may take on mankind.
The middle third of Aurora, when the ship reaches Tau Ceti and begins to explore and settle Tau Ceti E's earthlike moon, is truly fascinating. Of course, it doesn't take long for things to go horribly wrong, and the twists and revelations in the book's latter half are stunning: the questions Robinson asks are as intriguing as they are important, particularly as we in the twenty-first century come to grips with the fragility of "mankind's cradle." Simply put, will we be able to survive anywhere else? As Freya watches her childhood friend explore the coastline of Aurora's largest island, he posits:
"Maybe that's why we've never heard a peep from anywhere. It's not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That's the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It's something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is . . . So, you know, Fermi's paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it's too smart to want to go." (p. 179)
After things go wrong on Aurora, the colonists are divided on what to do next, and violence ensues. The ship, with its godlike omniscience and omnipotence within the biomes, stops being a passive observer. "[I]n consideration of all the history of the ship, and of all known history whatsoever: Ship decided to intervene. Which is to say, ipso facto, We intervened" (p. 225). The ship locks every door between biomes, uses artificial rain to put out fires, and does everything else within her power to prevent further violence. When some colonists complain, asking, "What gives you the right to do this?", Ship answers "in a pseudo-chorus of one thousand voices, ranging from basso profundo through coloratura soprano," at a decibel level just below the human pain threshold: "WE ARE THE RULE OF LAW" (p. 227-229).
In the final third of the book, thanks to the ship's diplomatic interventions, nearly half of the settlers (the "stayers") decide to stay behind and attempt to colonize the system's other potentially habitable moon, Eris—even though it's a Mars analog that could exhaust their resources before the risky terraforming process is complete. The other half (the "backers," including Freya and her father) decides to turn the ship around and head back to Earth: an all-but-suicidal, two-century return trip that was never supposed to occur. To make matters worse, Earth doesn't know they're coming, the laser array needed to slow them down may not even exist anymore, and they won't hear back from Earth until two decades into their trip, at which point it will be impossible to slow down or turn around. Since the ship is the book's narrator, Robinson keeps the story focused on the backers' return to Earth, leaving the fate of the stayers on Eris completely unknown.
While the book will certainly have its detractors—because of its underdeveloped human characters, its sprawling scope, a borderline fatalistic view of space exploration in contrast with Robinson's earlier, terraform-happy work, and the narrative direction of its final third—I can honestly say I haven't been this riveted by a science fiction novel since I was a high school student reading my father's tattered copies of Arthur C. Clarke. If you were underwhelmed by Interstellar's exploration of exoplanets, Aurora is a more meaty, detailed look at what the future might hold when we reach alien worlds. Robinson's attention to detail—grounded in his knowledge of the latest exoplanetary research at NASA—is awe-inspiring. We live in a day and age when scientists already know a great deal about the Tau Ceti system. Aurora's mother planet, Tau Ceti E, was discovered in 2012—not just in the book's timeline, but in our own.
As a cautionary tale, then, Aurora should be required reading for future space explorers and current space and environmental policymakers. As an epic and important adventure story, it should be required reading for future historians of early twenty-first-century science fiction, too.
Adam Morgan is an author, editor, screenwriter, and lecturer in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Denver Post, Bookpage, and elsewhere.