Review: Aurora

A review by Sam Sheikh

by Kim Stanley Robinson
480 pages

Reaching for the stars—destiny or hubris? This question is at the core of Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest sci-fi work.

Aurora is the moon of Planet E located in the Tau Ceti system. An Earth-analog, Aurora represents the hopes and dreams—perhaps more accurately, the ambitions—of humanity. Like the Holy Grail, Aurora lies tantalizingly within grasp, yet so hard to reach.

In the year 2545, a multigenerational ship carrying over 2000 people is launched from our solar system bound for Tau Ceti and Aurora. Of secondary interest in case Aurora proves ill-suited for colonization is Planet F’s moon, a Mars analog.

It is a daunting journey of 170 years, during which every need and contingency must be anticipated, planned for, and met even before the ship begins its journey. However, as anyone who has attempted to assemble DIY furniture knows, real world physics often makes a mockery of theory. Over the years the crew has had to continually adjust and repair to counter entropy, waste, and the loss of integrity of various systems and biomes.

In the generation to arrive in Tau Ceti, Devi is the de facto chief engineer and leader. The strain of being responsible for seemingly everything—much like being the parent to over 2000 lives as well as Earth’s first interstellar expedition—leaves her constantly worried and irritable. Knowing that she must impart her knowledge and abilities to future generations, she tries to nurture the ship’s artificial intelligence and her own daughter, Freya.

Finally reaching the Tau Ceti system, the crew members are reinvigorated by being so close to fulfilling their mission. However, even in the far future, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. They have to make hard choices about their next steps once in system. Things go wrong, tension overflows into conflict, and lives are lost amid hints of a dark past from previous generations.

Readers dismissing Aurora as just another survival-and-homecoming story would miss a sensitively written and inventive novel. As expected, its award-winning author delves much deeper. Robinson explores what it means to embark on an interstellar expedition as well as survive and come home. Is the goal of the expedition to establish mankind in another solar system, in which case its members are obligated to try every means possible—or die in the attempt? Or does the expedition represent a living feasibility study, in which case the obligation is to return to report its findings? What might it mean to return to a planet no one has seen, to a people separated by centuries of technological, cultural, and social changes?

Aurora also explores other themes such as government, conflict, memory, and reconciliation—key factors for survival in a closed ecology such as a space ship. Furthermore, there is the bildungsroman perspective from Freya as she travels throughout the vast ship-board biomes on her wanderjahr while growing to fulfill her mother’s role despite her own limitations.

As befits a modern sci-fi novel, Robinson experiments with different narrative styles. For example, at the beginning of the novel the narrative delivered by the ship’s AI begins with very child-like descriptions and mannerisms. The AI’s account of the expedition increases in sophistication, albeit with minor tangents as it learns how to relate the core narrative. It switches to first-person perspective as its consciousness begins to fully mature. The effect is to create an omniscient narrator of the ship’s AI, making it very much a character in its own right within the novel.

Aurora is an elegant, thoughtful look at mankind’s decision to grow beyond its planet and solar system. There is a sense of pathos running throughout the novel, like the bass rumbling of a ship’s engines. The novel seems to remind us that there is a price to be borne for our every choice—or ambition.

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