Thursday, September 10, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora is actually structured as seven medium-length chapters that are really connected novelettes (or is it novellas?) All I knew about this book was that it was written by Kim Stanley Robinson (who is best well-known as the award-winning author of the Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars trilogy), that it is one of the most well-received hard science fiction books of 2015 and that it is about a generation ship or arc ship flying 12 light years to Tau Ceti (a trip that takes nearly 2 centuries at sub-luminal speeds). Although Robinson's Mars trilogy is well-regarded by many people, I have never been able to finish one of his books before (including trying the first book in that trilogy). However this time my experience with a book written by Kim Stanley Robinson was quite different since I couldn't put Aurora down and raced through it from start to finish in under 24 hours! Some other readers have complained about a slow beginning to the book but I'm not one of them. I was sucked in right away by the setting of the book on a space ship that has been on a journey to the stars for well over a century. This scenario is one of the classic situations of science fiction and represents a real, possible future for humanity. The verisimilitude of the situation I found completely compelling and this had me immediately invested in the characters, especially Devi, Freya's mom, the unofficial Chief Engineer of the Ship.

Devi's daughter Freya becomes the most important human character in the book, the person we follow for the rest of the book after Devi's departure from the narrative after the end of the second chapter. The character I identified with the most, and the one probably most important to the narrative arc of the story is The Ship, the name given for the central computer on the ship, who is re-programmed by Devi to use "greedy algorithms" and other modifications which eventually lead to something resembling self-awareness by Ship.

There are stretches of the book where I found it impossible to put down, even there is always a LOT of information and technical data being thrown at the reader (providing context and details of the journey of the ship and its human inhabitants). In particular, chapters 2 through 4 are increasingly compelling as the stakes for our Ship dwellers get raised higher and higher and the suspense becomes more and more intense. Interestingly, it is not just the hard science of interstellar travel which comes to dominate the book but the ``soft" sciences of sociology, psychology and politics that become increasingly important as the interpersonal dynamics of the ship's population change dramatically as the ship reaches its destination and the dwellers are forced to respond to what they find there. Also biology (or more specifically zoology) also plays a key role in what happens on the ship and to our Ship dwellers.

I was somewhat disappointed by the ending, which basically seems to make an argument AGAINST the premise of man's colonization of the stars. This seems like a curious position to take for a hard sci-fi author and is a view I think is antithetical to how most science fiction fan's view humanity's future. To be fair, Robinson does seem to endorse man's travel to other planets in the solar system, it's interstellar travel that the book seems to be frowning upon. In fact, Robinson explicitly endorses a notion of Earth exceptionalism that for humans to prosper they need to have the possibility of returning to Earth in  a single lifetime; by definition this curtails the possibility of sub-luminal interstellar travel. 

Regardless of Robinson's questionable concluding message Aurora is a gripping, compelling work of speculative fiction that I am confident will capture the imagination of many other science fiction fans.

Title: Aurora.
Kim Stanley Robinson.

Paperback: 480 pages.

Date Published: July 7, 2015.
Date Read: August 30, 2015.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


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