Science Fiction has long been the domain of “big idea” novels and Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson—an author well-known for “big idea” novels—is no exception. Robinson is famous for his explorations of ecological themes such as sustainability and the relationship between nature and culture. In Aurora, he takes us into space in order to show us a fundamental truth about life on Earth.
Since ancient times, we humans have dreamed of what lies beyond our home planet. Whether we were thinking of the Moon, Mars, or some place much more distant, we have imagined not only finding places which we could inhabit, but places which are already inhabited. In all of this thinking, we tend to at least partially divorce the travelers from their origins, imagining that if one world exists that supports life as we know it, there could be others. Robinson uses Aurora to challenge this notion. “…life is a planetary thing,” a character named Euan says. “It begins on a planet and is part of that planet….So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home.”
The novel begins as the ship is decelerating. After close to 160 years, it is approaching its target, the Tau Ceti system, fourteen light years away from Earth. The ship itself is an ark, basically, carrying representative populations of people, plants, and animals from each of Earth’s biomes. The goal is to find a planet suitable for colonization and then colonize it, making a new home for the ship’s residents.
The story is focused on Freya, a girl of fourteen at the beginning, and her parents—Devi, her mother, and Badim, her father. Devi is the ship’s main engineer. Her knowledge of the ship and its systems and her knack for problem-solving have made her responsible for holding the ship together as the wear and tear of its journey takes its toll. She worries that Freya has not inherited her abilities and will not be able to step in when the time comes.
And indeed, Freya does not possess the technical proclivities that have made her mother so indispensable. However, in her travels through the ship’s biomes, she discovers that her talents lie in a different direction altogether. Where Devi’s purpose was to keep the ship going, Freya’s purpose is to keep its people going. Just as Freya is the heart of the story, she is the heart of the ship as well.
Robinson tells us this story through the use of a narrative device—most of the novel is told to us by the ship’s computer, its artificial intelligence. It’s an interesting conceit and as I read the book, I could see why Robinson chose to write it this way. There are portions of the story that could not have been narrated by a human character and would have been less interesting had they been told by a third-person narrator. But it’s more than that, too.
The ship begins its narration, its story, because Devi asks it to. At first, the story is halting and too focused on technical matters. Ship doesn’t know how to tell a story. It is just a computer, after all. But Devi pushes and Ship tries harder and slowly, over the course of the book, the form of the narrative begins to take shape. The computer is learning and, through the act of storytelling, it becomes almost human, a character with its own desires and motivations, its own personality. Through the act of storytelling, it becomes itself, just as we humans become our own selves through the stories we tell.
I would not call Aurora a quick or easy read. It is deep and challenging and incredibly rewarding. It’s the kind of book that generates epiphany after epiphany as you think more and more about the characters and their predicaments. I ended it with an overwhelming sense of awe at the process of evolution and the fact that sentient life exists at all. It’s also the kind of book that I would like to come back to, as I am sure there are many things I did not catch the first time through.