Voyage to a new world questions the stories of the old

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Aurora
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit; €22.10
Review: Val Nolan

“Two thousand, one hundred twenty-two people are living in a multigenerational starship, headed to Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth.” It is a set-up recognisable to many genre readers given that hard (meaning scientifically cognisant) speculative authors have so often depicted interstellar colonisation as a generational undertaking. Yet, like medieval cathedral builders, their protagonists rarely doubt that the great work ordained by their ancestors will come to eventual fruition.

It is the casualness of just that attitude – one part manifest destiny, one part environmental illiteracy – which this outstanding new novel from Kim Stanley Robinson seeks to challenge. For this is not the easy version of space exploration. This is one in which, like the world around us, the threats derive from carrying capacity or disturbed equilibrium. And there, in that willingness to upset the escapist fantasy by which science fiction has long told us we will easily leave the cradle of Earth, Aurora becomes a story about stories themselves.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in how the majority of the novel is narrated by the starship’s artificial intelligence. This is the result of an instruction to produce a “narrative account” of the expedition and is a tremendous decision on Robinson’s part. The computer’s initial attempts, particularly its first fumblings with metaphor (“always a lie”), are hilarious and endearing, as are its efforts to describe the people on board by simply listing their names (though fear not, it is quickly dissuaded of this; “Read some novels and see how they do it,” the ship is told).

Hence the focus on Freya. Aurora follows her from childhood to middle age as she weathers life aboard a “world ship” which has begun breaking down, “running low on consumables, and filling up with unconsumables” after a hundred and sixty years of flight. Each generation has seen “shorter lifetimes, smaller bodies, longer disease duration. Even lower IQs”. But such are the problems of island biogeography writ large on the most isolated group of human beings there has ever been.

Freya herself is of that generation who lack proficiency in the STEM subjects. Whereas her mother is “legendary for her diagnostic power and ingenious solutions”, Freya’s real strength is people. She travels the ship’s various biomes learning about the lives and hopes of the inhabitants and, in that way, is as important to the mission as her mother is. Indeed Freya becomes a leader of sorts as the novel progresses, not quite a moral authority but a voice to be listened to in times of crisis.

For as much as there is warmth and humour here, this is a novel defined by tense stretches of strife and catastrophe. Its melancholic second half is driven home by the realism which is Robinson’s hallmark and, though the title derives not from the name of the ship but from that of the exomoon on which the characters intend to settle (a new world which Robinson frequently compares to the Burren), Aurora’s interest is firmly in the journey more than the destination.

This emphasis allows Robinson to weave his novel into what is possibly the greatest story of all: the human voyage of exploration and migration down through time. It is not an uncritical engagement – the motives behind expansionary narratives are subject to significant interrogation – however it nonetheless results in a moving and deeply human tale which dares to engage in plausible fashion with the long dreamt of but perhaps ultimately foolhardy goal of interstellar colonisation. Thus, poised between wonder and regret, Aurora is science fiction at its finest.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 8 August 2015 (Weekend, p.34).

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