Aurora | Kim Stanley Robinson | 2015, Pb 2016 | Orbit | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book
Once, about 150 years ago or so, 2,000 of Earth’s brightest people left the planet to find and terraform a new home for humanity in the Tau Ceti star system. Their goal is the moon Aurora. To get there will take generations, the link with Earth lessening as each generation is born, the communication gap between the home planet and vessel becoming years. The ship comprises two rings or wheels that spin along a great central axis. Each contains biodomes, individual environments representing Earth’s ecosystems – jungles, tundra, prairies, ice, water, towns, mountains and so on – and each of these may be populated by people who have never strayed from where they were born. Others, though, make a life-changing journey in their adolescence, moving from one environment to another, taking months or even years. Freya, the daughter of the ship’s chief engineer, conducts such a journey, learning about her mother’s ship, making it her own, becoming beloved by its people.
Freya is our heroine and it’s her life that we follow as the ship finally nears its destination. She is a remarkable woman – unusually tall, considered less than bright by her critical mother Devi, and yet she is extraordinarily bright. Devi cannot live forever, someone else must attempt to fill those shoes, and we watch as Freya fulfils a role that she never would have expected of herself. We grow close to Freya, observing her relationships with her parents, lovers and friends, following her into every nook and cranny of the ship, including its axis. But for much of the novel Freya’s story is actually told to us by a most unusual persona – the ship itself. Davi has instructed Ship to create a historical narrative, to prove itself more than just a vessel containing life, to be alive itself. After entertainingly halting beginnings, Ship manages just that. It is such a clever narrative technique by Kim Stanley Robinson but it doesn’t distract from the story itself.
What happens during the voyage is spectacularly imagined and described by Kim Stanley Robinson. The distinct areas of the ship are wonderfully painted as are the people who live within them. There are many little stories that make up this novel as we listen in to the rituals, beliefs and daily lives of the people aboard the ship. It is immensely visual. But this insight into the lives of people aboard is just as powerfully done. Aurora is a novel about people every much as it’s a novel about a ship and its expedition through space. The relationship between Freya and her mother is as important to the novel as it is to Ship and both Freya and Devi are fully dimensional creations, each worthy of the other. Once the ship reaches Aurora, the novel turns a corner and everything changes but human relationships still hold their own against the challenges (and attractions and dangers) that must now be faced.
There are some fabulous set pieces, many of them involving the elements – water and wind play a particularly vital role. There are glorious descriptions of wonders. The biodomes are vividly described. Offsetting that, we are also shown humanity at its most desperate and at its most resourceful. I don’t want to reveal anything of what happens to those aboard the ship – you must encounter it all for yourself. But what I can say is that Aurora is a powerful novel about the path of human life, about its extraordinary resilience and its capacity for hope. Whether either of these proves reliable is another matter. Large questions are raised about the purpose and success of generation ships and the intention of those who build them. One thing is for sure – travel between solar systems takes an inconceivably long period of time and this novel, more than any I’ve read before, shows the stresses that this brings to bear on people who must think not only of themselves but also, and more importantly, of their descendants.
Aurora is a captivating novel – beautifully written, packed with science and filled with wonder. The personalities are large, the vision is enormous. It is also very satisfying to read with an addictive plot. I enjoyed 2312 very much but I think that Aurora has taken everything that I loved about this earlier novel and made it even bigger, even better. 2015 is proving a great year for science fiction and Aurora is up there with the very best of it.