Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Posted: October 16, 2015 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
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Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson(Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit, 2015, 466 pp., $29.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

“Generation” or “ark” ships, massive slower-than-light spaceships which take dozens or hundreds of years to reach the nearest stars, have been a staple of science fiction since the 1940s. So, it might seem a bit odd that Robinson would revisit this seemingly played out device. But he has a clear, obvious reason for doing so, and he delivers a generation ship novel unlike any other.

The novel begins with a first-person, present-tense section narrated by its primary character, Freya, as a child on a generation ship en route to Tau Ceti, one of the nearest sun-like stars. Present tense is always somewhat jarring, at least initially, and it is here. However, it does lend a sense of immediacy, Robinson uses it skillfully, and it effectively sucks the reader into the story. Throughout this first section, the reader gradually becomes cognizant that several things are seriously wrong, and Robinson finally reveals what’s wrong for Freya personally at the very end of the section.

The novel then drastically switches gear, and its central and by far longest section is written in third person past tense by the ship’s AI computer, though Freya, now into adulthood, remains the p.o.v. character. In this long central section, almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong, short of the ship being obliterated. Robinson did his homework, and most of the technical problems he describes seem plausible, with the notable exception of very rapid “island” (small isolated population) devolution. The turmoil among the ship’s crew/would-be settlers is also quite believable, and vividly drawn. To describe the problems in any detail would involve serious spoilers, so suffice it to say the ship should be named “Murphy’s” and its destination at Tau Ceti should be named “Law.”

The novel ends with a short bookend section narrated by Freya. In it, Robinson overtly reveals his reason for writing the book. Of late, some technophiles have suggested that the only way out of the mess humanity is making of Earth is emigration to the stars. Robinson thinks this is a terrible idea, that its proponents are dangerously deluded, and that it serves only as a distraction from the urgent task of dealing with our problems here and now.

So far so good. The book is a bit on the long side, in part due to a far too lengthy denouement, in larger part due to Robinson’s tendency to rely on exposition rather than narrative–someone once described his novels as (to paraphrase) wormholes of narrative snaking through mountains of exposition–and in equally large part because of his tendency to inflict excessively long descriptive passages on the reader. (Decades ago, I picked up one of the books in Robinson’s Mars trilogy and put it down in disgust after reading 80 pages or so, with no end in sight, describing a rock-climbing ascent up Olympus Mons; that was enough to keep me from even looking at another of Robinson’s books for over 20 years.) In Aurora, there’s an equally boring–though mercifully shorter–20-page section describing Freya swimming, which, forewarned, I skimmed.

Despite all this, Aurora is worth reading.

Recommended (barely) for its political and ecological points.

Two better recent works by Robinson are his novel Galileo and his novella Lucky Strike (originally published in the 1980s, but recently reissued by PM Press).

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover


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