aurora, by kim stanley robinson



When I read the outlines of the story behind Robinson’s book, Aurora, I expected something on the order of his Mars trilogy. That justly famous saga, composed of the books, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, tells the story of nothing less than the multi-generational colonization of Mars. It has memorable characters, and is full of politics, ecology, and economics, as well as technology.

Aurora concerns a multi-generational ship bound for a “nearby” star system, to colonize a world there. But this time Robinson had something entirely different and very interesting in mind, and it’s one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in a while. Spoilers ahead. Like the Mars books, this novel also supplies the likely technology along with some interesting characters and social structures. A big difference is that this colonization project doesn’t quite work.

Over the decades, it becomes increasingly difficult to balance the fragile ecology on the ship. Though the destination is finally reached, problems arise there, as well. Some travelers decide to return home, and a harrowing journey awaits them as technological fixes start to fray and social tensions magnify. I suspect the entire book is leading up to a single event back on the Earth. At a scientific conference about star colonization, a somewhat fatuous lecturer quotes the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever,” and for this, one of the returnees from the doomed expedition punches him in the face.

The book can be like a punch to the reader’s face, because you find yourself rethinking common science fiction tropes, and reality-checking many assumptions along the way. Is It really inevitable that humans move to the stars? Is it even possible? Is the Fermi Paradox really all that surprising? In light of these questions, how critical is it that we maintain the health of our home planet?

For long-time science fiction readers, and probably for many others in the nerd-techno culture, this book is subversive. It was fun to read some reviews on Amazon that were complaining along the lines of “What? After all that, they just came back?” or “Well, those people just needed a strong leader to pull them all together and make things right.” In other words, it didn’t have the requisite space battles, important cosmic occurrences, smart aliens, or a heroic captain. It told some hard reality-based truths, which is not what many SF readers are looking for.

 The book is not perfect. It has some “dead zones” and small problems, but it’s well worth the read.

One last note. In the Mars trilogy, an unexpected favorite part involved a description of a lifelong Mars resident coming to Earth for the first time. The description of that person’s sensory overload, his dealing with earth gravity, his wide-eyed descriptions of the lush environment, were terrific. In this book, at first I didn’t like the character of the ship’s AI computer. It seemed a little trite. But I came to enjoy this character as it grew and gradually expressed desires and feelings. In fact, I was fairly transfixed and emotionally moved when, towards the end, it seemed to gain a full-fledged selfhood and a heart.  

it gets worse at 24-hour fitness


I said I wouldn’t complain again about the music on the PA system at 24-Hour Fitness. I even praised them when for a day or two they switched to something that didn’t make me gag.

Of course they always returned to music that I describe as endlessly repeating bleeps and farts. Insultingly bad music that reaches into your head to stomp brain cells. It’s an odd strategy for a health club – playing tunes that make people want to cry and give up.

How could it get worse? By putting advertisements into the mix. Yes, these songs that resemble the soundtracks to chewing gum commercials are now interspersed with spoken ads. Today I heard an ad for Justin Bieber (the King Joffrey of pop). I was supposed to buy something and win tickets to a Bieber concert.

They also introduced a 24-Hour Fitness channel on the TVs in the workout rooms. The channel shows bad music videos interspersed with ads for the powdered protein crap they sell by the check-in counter. Are there any suckers who buy that stuff? There must be a few.

Why does this business work so hard to make the environment as unpleasant as possible for customers? I know they pretty much have me trapped – it’s right across the street from where I work. I don’t have other choices beyond going out into the rain and breathing auto fumes. But still, why bother poking the proverbial sharp stick in my eye?

My guess is that someone told 24-Hour Fitness that they could monetize the environment in the health club. It must have been a realization akin to being struck by lightning.

My god, they thought, most of our customers have working ears and we’re not shooting ads into their heads as they exercise! Good lord, these people have eyes and we’re not putting enough commercials in their faces.

“This is going to be easy. We just put sales pitches on repeat everywhere and it will turn into money.”


cocoa bean coffin – the way to go


Someone else thought of it first – going to eternity in a cocoa bean. I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me. This one is from Ghana, and I saw it at the de Young Museum. I’ll probably be incinerated after death, but if burial was in the cards, this is the preferred coffin.


Here’s the real thing.








And here’s the reason for living.


lawrence ferlinghetti at city lights


When visiting San Francisco recently, I decided to visit City Lights bookstore just to see some history and to pay respects to cultural forebears. I had vague recollections of Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind, the beats, the beatniks, the seed of hippiedom, and so on.

I spent the first part of the day wandering the waterfront and bicycling through the Presidio and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Then I walked over to the bookstore. When I arrived, I noticed a sign on the door, “Ferlinghetti tonight!” I thought to myself, “He’s still alive?”

I came back about an hour later and jammed into a packed room (see photo below) and stood for about 45 minutes until the man himself — 95 years old — entered, spoke for a while, and read a bit with some difficulty due to poor eyesight. One of his editors read the next selection and I then slipped out of the hot, closely packed room.

The year before I was born, Lawrence founded City Lights, and year after I was born he began publishing poetry by Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsburg, and many more. He went on to publish all kinds of books. He was a featured speaker at the 1967 Human Be-In, the event which really pulled the media into examining the hippie phenomenon. He was a world traveller. He’s been a painter, poet, a political activist, and more.

Those are few tiny points in a long career. This year he published a book a travel journals, Writing Across the Landscape, and the pipsqueak that is me happened to be there for the release. That was October 20.




I also visited the Beat Museum, situated in another nearby bookstore. Yes, it’s filled with beat memorabilia, with a particular focus on Kerouac. A couple photos:

beat_museum3 beat_museum2 beat_museum1