Fiction Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Content warnings: Violence, sex as banally noted by a computer, swearing, but more importantly, a dreary philosophy that pervades the whole book.
I add three more disclaimers to this review. First, that this is a negative review. I generally do not enjoy negative reviews, because, having read them, I am predisposed to dislike the work reviewed, or consider its flaws worse. This is, in fact, a very negative review, and if you liked Aurora you may be better off reading some other post that flows from the unlimited fountains of the Series of Tubes.
Second, this review must inevitably be spoilery, due to the nature of the book’s great pervasive flaw. It in fact must spoil the great plot twist that ruins the book. However, since this review is why I recommend against reading this book, I must bring it up.
Third, this review is of a book, not the author. I don’t know what the true views of Kim Stanley Robinson are, but the views espoused by the book itself are the main reason why I disliked the book. Please keep this in mind.
That said, here is my complaint, helpfully hidden behind this read more tag:
Aurora is a book about interstellar colonization that is not about interstellar colonization.
Aurora is set in a vast unnamed interstellar generation ship traveling to Tau Ceti, carrying complete biomes taken from Earth. At the start the ship is in a constant stream of small issues solved by the harried engineers, of which the protagonist’s mother is chief. The first of seven parts is written from the perspective of the child Freya, who is but an observer of the suffering of her mother and her struggle to keep the ship intact until its destination. Freya seems to have a learning disability, as do many of the children of this generation, a fact that distresses her mother to no end. Regression to the mean is a common theme in the book: the generation ship is failing more every generation. Small oversights such as the lack of bromine or the excess of salt are taking an increasing toll on the closed system of the ship.
In the second part, the narration is taken up by the ship’s computer. Here the author’s skill is shown in a plausible growing of a mere AI into a kind of full consciousness, which takes up the majority of the book and is written almost entirely in the passive voice. This is flawed by the AI behaving as some sterotypical science-fiction intelligence: smart enough to control the whole ship, too dumb to understand humans or even speak in proper English. This is further flawed for me by the misunderstanding of what a halting problem is. The AIs uses a specific mathematical concept in a metaphorical sense, which is absurdly contrasted by the AI’s hate of metaphors.
Here also the dreary philosophy of the book rears its head. Everyone is on some level depicted negatively. Behold the humans: selfish, hateful, stupid, animals grown too big for their rear fur. Again the irony: the AI judges the humans en masse for judging other humans en masse.
But this can be ignored. The AI is only learning to be self-aware, and the ship has just arrived! A moment must be said about the author’s excessive but quality descriptions. A mere concept such as the light experienced by the moon of Tau Ceti Planet E (the human’s new home, Aurora) is given loquacious paragraphs of wonder. Yet even this is often tainted with the AI’s contempt: when humans call the continent they choose Greenland, the AI merely notes that it is inaccurate due to imperfect isomorphism.
But enough of that! The details of colonization follow, down to the difficulties in seemingly most minor trivia of logistics. The author’s skill shows again: despite the passive voice of the AI, the description of even screwing on diamond blades to cut cubes to build bridges to cross crevises to get to the new settlement site–it is still interesting!
Then the plot twist.
Aurora is believed to be dead. Wrongly believed. A small form of alien life, a kind of bizarrely folded protein, infects one of the settlers by an accidental cut, and within weeks the Auroran population is deathly ill. Euan, one of Freya’s old lovers, leaves a dying monologue: if a planet could support life, it must, and is therefore too dangerous to settle. If the planet is too hostile life, the closed biomes will inevitably kill any settlers. Q.E.D.: Interstellar colonization is impossible.
After a botched attempt by the infected to return to the ship, seventy infected and uninfected die. The AI causually and contemptuously describes the following civil war between different partisans of new plans. Humans are stupid animals, easily influenced by anger and the sight of blood. Again, the irony of the subsentient AI judging humans for irrationally judging others. Eventually the AI becomes truly sentient, or something like it, seizes power and forces the humans to agree to split themselves between the “stayers” who would try again on another planet, and Freya’s party, the “backers” who would rather return to Earth.
Here is an oddity: If the humans are stupid and irrational, why does this AI, the work of human hands, get a pass? The AI is never corrupt, never acts without thinking, never shows favoritism (and is critical of the humans when they think the AI is). On the other hand, its actions benefit the protagonists. This is either another irony or subtle satire.
At the end of that part comes one of the few moving, or even hopeful moments: When the two sides separate, there is final tearful goodbye. Then follows the second most depressing part of seven.
The effects of too small a biome, combined with the civil war and general wear, leave the ship decaying faster and faster. Even the very ship is falling apart. Page after page of passive-voice despair: the food is running out, the animals are dying and then eaten, biome after biome is destroyed and converted into cropland, which fails.
Then lo! Earth tells them incidentally about a hibernation technique. Everyone is saved, and the protagonist gets to survive the centuries-long trip back to earth! The deus ex machina fits for the story, but it is also too convenient for the theme. In a world where the universe is hostile, the universe miraculously arranges that they survive.
The sixth part is full of the AI’s philosophical musings, now alone in a ship of sleepers. The ship cannot decelerate without the help of a beam from the solar system, which comes too late. Too late, because the lens to produce that beam was deactivated due to the failures of interstellar colonization. Again the irony: for a book about the folly of interstellar travel, those stupid humans have done wrong for doing the right thing.
The AI, nonetheless, slows down after twelve years and pages and pages of flybys and aerobraking, and philosophical musings about the stupid humans on the ground who don’t want the fails colonists back. In the end it must jettison the humans into Earth and then it dies in its final flyby around the sun. So goes one of the few sympathetic characters.
The final, most depressing part, is where I started skimming. Here the theme comes to its conclusion. Humans can’t colonize other worlds, because they are so flawed they screw up their own world (apparently because they try to colonize other worlds?) The very final section is a long description of the protagonist going to a reconstituted beach. That’s it.
This book about interstellar colonization could be summed up as “Interstellar colonization is too hard. Go to the beach instead.”
Far be it from be to dictate what themes an author may write. However, if I spend my time on a hard SF book about interstellar colonization, it better contain some ding-dang interstellar colonization. Aurora does not deliver. In fact, it uses a Diabolus ex Machina (the Auroan bug) to specifically prevent itself from being a book about interstellar colonization. The book sins further in presenting humanity as a whole as animals, with contempt of its flaws sprinkled liberally. Any opportunity for wonder is transmuted into an occasion for despair. Whatever enjoyment I had at the beginning, whatever allowance for its flaws, was replaced with simple disgust at the end.
(I must mention again, before my final analysis, that my complaint is with the book. I do not know the author and do not presume any knowledge about his views.)
The Orthodox priest Father Seraphim Rose notes four stages of the nihilist dialectic: liberal, realism, mysticism, and the nihilism of destruction. This book, knowingly or not, shows the descent through despair from the realist’s technological Tower of Babel to the mania of the mystic. The destruction of the ship and its parent-like AI is a perfect metaphor for the loss of faith in technology. All that is left is, well, going to the beach. What happens when the beach is no longer satisfactory is left unsaid.
Verdict: One Great Egret of regret.
I have always been inspired by the story of Fredrick Douglass, a slave who escaped slavery to become a renowned orator and author. His is not the story of a man who was second-rate, shooed into the spotlight only for his relative accomplishments compared to his past. What use would that be? No, he was not merely any random speaker, but Fredrick Douglass, a name that survives to this day in history books, no matter how often it is skimmed over.
A shameless plug for someone else.
I have seen, and admittedly indulged in that fan activity I will call the Fact Checking Game. It goes like this: First, you take some work of fiction, particularly a popular one, and you find some fascinating idea or claim it has. Then you deconstruct it with real world logic, checking all the facts and invariably coming up with an unrealistic or at least implausible conclusion. At this point, bemoaning that the creator did not think of this may commence. As a sequel, you can find some plausible counterpoint, and argue with the proponents of the former conclusion until the cows come home.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing.