Kim Stanley Robinson

On my list of most awaited 2015 books, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora was right near the top. KSR is one of my favorite authors and the writer of my current best-of-the-decade choice 2312; his newest project has tantalized since its announcement. Anytime Robinson’s name is followed in a sentence by the phrase “generation starship,” I’m instantly on board. Does he deliver? Yes, and we should never doubt him. Does he somehow take a familiar trope and take it in a completely unexpected direction? Of course – to do otherwise is not in his programming. Should we stop asking silly questions and get on with it? Probably, yeah.

Reviewing Aurora presents a bit of a challenge, because it is not long before we have to stop discussing specifics. The proverbial twist comes early in the book and not only scrambles the plot, but makes it virtually impossible for anyone to talk about the book past the first hundred pages without utterly spoiling the story. More crazy things continue to happen, but the defining, and surprising, turn is fundamental to the story, KSR’s underlying themes, and the final impression that the book leaves. And yet, no matter how shocking these events are, Robinson’s trademark sense of inevitability makes it all seem perfectly natural. Just like in 2312 and, especially, the Mars trilogy, Robinson’s storytelling is so completely air tight that events could never have gone in any other direction. Even when I know he’s rigging the game and see the invisible deity’s hands moving all the pieces on the board, I can’t shake the feeling that Robinson is merely reporting the news. An apt comparison might be bunraku, the Japanese puppetry where the puppeteers are out in view and on stage, dressed fully in black, but the audience gradually tunes them out and only sees the puppets, seemingly moving of their own accord. Aurora might as well be history, since nothing could have gone any differently than the book says. Or, at least, such is the feeling that Robinson closes with. It’s remarkable that he continues to pull this off in every book; KSR is like the magician who performs his tricks in full view of the audience, with no fear that anyone will actually notice.

As usual for the author, Aurora is packed to overflowing with ideas. There’s the science at the base: the nuts and bolts of generation ships, the logistics of colonization, and maintaining life in an artificial environment. Then there’s the biology and sociology that go along with things: social structures inside a ship, ecosystems in ships and other planets, and how humans can contend with it all. There are musings about governance and rights (a KSR favorite), the possibilities of AI, and the connections between humans and their native environment. There is a plot, but there is also much space devoted to exploration, both of the world and the ideas that underlie it. Nobody familiar with KSR’s writing will be surprised by any of this; he remains curious and lyrical, rigorous and passionate. In fact, Aurora might be a good starting point for new Robinson readers. It is shorter and more concise than some other works, much more compact in both ideas and setting than the grander, operatic works.

The heart of the book is Robinson’s contention that we and the Earth are inseparable. This shows up in his other works, but is not the central theme quite like in Aurora. The corollary is that, as our (only?) home, we need to spend more time taking care of the planet and less time scheming to escape to some other paradise. I have heard similarly inclined SF authors bemoan SF’s focus on planetary colonization and the excitement of spreading out into the stars, arguing that this mindset diminishes the attention we pay to Earth. After all, if all we need to do is level up our science enough to put people on another planet, we don’t have to take responsibility for the mess here. I agree with this part way, though I still want to see us with Moon and Mars bases. I doubt that KSR is as strident as some of his characters, but the message in the book is still quite clear.

There is one related argument that I disagree with. Robinson’s characters complain about the unfairness of their situation, saying that being born on the generation ship deprives them of any choice in their destinies. It follows that we should stay on Earth because our descendants have no say in the decision to ship them off. I suppose this is true as far as it goes, but nobody chose to be born into starvation in Somalia either. Birth is the first great injustice of life – I don’t see why the colonists get to whine about it any more than I moan about being born in a desolate Rocky Mountain outpost.

There are plenty of other goodies to explore along with the Aurora colonists, whether AI development, macrobiology, or exo-planet theorizing. The book doesn’t share the depth or widescreen drama of Robinson’s heftier works, but is much more accessible and easier to digest. I expect Aurora to be on many best of the year lists at the least, and probably the major lists as well. It’s a must read for anyone trying to stay current with the biggest happenings in SF and one of the most relevant and thought provoking books since, well, Robinson’s last book.