Reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2013 novel Shaman (which I discussed here back in June 2014) reminded me of how much I enjoy Kim Stanley Robinson. I was browsing YouTube one lazy weekend morning last Spring when I stumbled upon this video of Kim Stanley Robinson discussing the concept of his forthcoming novel, Aurora:
In eight minutes, Robinson had me chomping at the bit. His description of a multi-generational spaceship constructed with multiple biomes representing the major ecosystems of Earth fired my imagination in a way I had not experienced in a long time. The two months I had to wait until the book’s release felt long but finally July 7, 2015 arrived. I bought a copy at my local Barnes & Noble during my lunch break and began reading it that same evening. I cannot remember the last time I was so excited about a book that I bought and started reading it on release day.
There are some books one can read just for fun and other books that, like the works of Kim Stanley Robinson, require effort. That is part of what I enjoy so much about his novels. While they are not pulp science fiction, they are approachable. Robinson stops just short of being too difficult to comprehend or at least ponder. It is as though he expects his readers to possess above-average intelligence and rewards us with stories that challenge us to dream big.
When the story begins, the spaceship is already en route to Tau Ceti, a star system 12 light years from Earth. Because it will take a couple hundred years for the ship to reach the Tau Ceti system, the population of the ship at the beginning of the story is composed of the children of the children of the original travelers. That thought blew my mind. Imagine living your entire lifespan within the confines of a starship having never stood on real ground, having never breathed non-recycled air from a real atmosphere, and having never traveled to another country in a manner that did not involve simply opening the door from one part of the ship to another. How congested that environment must have felt.
As with all of the Kim Stanley Robinson novels I have read, the characters in Aurora are wonderfully realized. They are people with dreams and fears, ideas and doubts. They have goals that do not always align with the goals of others and the conflicts that arise are written in such a human way—quite the trick considering a computer is writing the narrative! How often do you hear readers complain that the characters in a particular novel or film do not talk the way people actually talk or do not behave the way real people would behave in stressful situations? You will hear none of that from readers of Aurora. Kim Stanley Robinson is masterful in his portrayal of the sociological and political machinations of people and populations.
The most fascinating aspect of this novel is the exploration of language. The majority of the novel is narrated by the ship’s computer. Encouraged by one of the ship’s crew to practice narrative style, the ship begins the story in a very simple manner, almost as though a child were writing the story. As the ship learns about narrative style, the narrative style of the book transforms. There are long passages early in the novel where the narration involves large blocks of information that, which factually accurate, may not be important to the story because the ship does not know if what it is narrating is important or how it fits into the story it is telling. The ship's musings on the flaws of human language, of metaphors and simile, add some welcome humor to the story. As the ship’s narrative skill improves, the novel itself becomes a gripping and sometimes heartbreaking tale of mankind’s journey to a distant star system in search of a habitable planetary body.
In the end, the story is about humanity’s interaction with its environment. It is a beautiful story and while it did not go where I thought it would go, I enjoyed it immensely. Kim Stanley Robinson has proven once again that he is one of our finest authors of speculative fiction.