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.