Monday, May 1, 2017

Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published: Orbit, 2015
Awards Nominated: Campbell & Locus SF Awards

The Book:

“Many years ago, a generation ship set out with the purpose of spreading humankind to the stars.  Their goal was the planet Aurora, which was expected to be both devoid of life and suitable for human habitation.  The original travellers are long gone, but their descendants--who were given no choice in the matter--now struggle to maintain the delicate balance of their ship’s ecosystem long enough to reach their destination.

The humans are aided by the ship’s AI, a sophisticated computer whose interactions with the brilliant engineer Devi have set it on a path toward self-awareness. Freya, the mildly developmentally-impaired daughter of Devi, will be in the generation that must attempt to colonize Aurora and handle whatever comes after.” ~Allie  

I like generation ship stories, and I have been a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson for years. Thus, Aurora was an obvious book for me to pick up.  I bought the audio version (narrated by Ali Ahn), and my husband and I listened to it while driving across Provence and then the eastern US.

My Thoughts:

Aurora is what I would consider characteristic of a Robinson novel, a story constructed with careful attention to scientific detail in its treatment of the future of the human race.  It can be dense sometimes, and there are occasional digressions on topics of interest. The story is told by the ship’s AI, who has been tasked with building a meaningful narrative account of the voyage, so it’s understandable that the narration sometimes focuses on technical aspects.  The development of the AI’s character was one part of the story I particularly enjoyed. She learns about the nature of self and life both through her attempt to create meaning out of events and through her connections to members of the crew.  I also appreciated her understated sense of humor.  The narrator of the audiobook did a pretty fantastic job with the voice and intonation of the AI.

I am a big fan of stories about building societies, so it must be no surprise that this aspect of a generation ship is one that appeals to me.  A lot of Aurora involves exploring how people can structure the ship to survive, both physically and socially.  Not only do the colonists need to deal with the very delicate balance of materials needed to support life, they also have to make sure the people stay happy and under control.  It was interesting to see the social forces that come into play, and to see the decisions people make about priorities.  The ship is large enough to have habitats with different biomes and cultures, and I enjoyed seeing how the various groups of people came to terms with their situation.  

The story takes a darker turn once they arrive at Aurora, and it was interesting to see what the stress from the crisis they face there would do to their fragile community.  There is so much that happens after their arrival that it seems like it could easily have been a series.  The novel has several notable narrative shifts, and by the end it felt a little like there was just too much packed in.  It also makes it a little difficult to talk about in review, since I try to avoid major spoilers. The story wraps up nicely in the end, but the final segment runs a little longer than I would have liked. As a planetary colonization story, the conclusion is pretty pessimistic regarding humanity’s prospects, but I think there is value in stressing that we shouldn’t be cavalier with the health of the one planet that we know will support human life.

My Rating: 4/5

Aurora is yet another novel by Kim Stanley Robinson that I have greatly enjoyed. It is a compelling and thoroughly-researched take on the idea of a generation ship. I loved seeing how people might manage to make their circumstances work generations down the line.  The AI made for an unusual narrator, and I appreciated her digressions about language, humanity and self. The story takes several unexpected turns, and it has a rather dim view of our chances of successful colonization.  After seeing all the difficulties the colonists encounter, I hope that our current planet remains viable for human life for many years to come.

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