Top positive review
Awesome and Depressing
Reviewed in the United States on October 15, 2015
“Aurora” is probably the closest Kim Stanley Robinson has come to the feel of his Mars trilogy. As in “Red Mars”, KSR takes his own approach to a classic SF theme, in this case, the colonization of a planet outside our solar system using a multi-generational starship. In many ways, there is no writer on Robinson’s level for such a story – at least, I have never experienced anyone else who has examined both the scientific and social challenges in such a thorough and logical manner. This is as “hard” as hard science fiction can be, and loaded with fascinating explorations of topics ranging from the Fermi Paradox to the nature of prions. There are no “deus ex machina” surprises in the form of warp drives or alien civilizations – everything is believable and logical – coldly logical, in fact.
I enjoyed “Aurora” more than any other book Robinson has written since the Mars series. The style and pacing has been criticized by some, but I found the framing (the story is narrated by the starship’s computer) valid and certainly much more readable than a lot of recent experimental styles.
In truth, I enjoyed the first half, maybe two-thirds, of “Aurora”, but the last third was so depressing that I believe it actually made me feel moody throughout the days I finished the book. I don’t usually like to spoil in a review, but this book takes such a turn that I feel disclosure of its nature is necessary. First, the book is mistitled, as “Aurora” is the name of the planetary body the colonists attempt to settle. That implies the story focuses on that place, but in fact, less than 10% of the book involves it. A more apt title for this book would be, “The Failed Mission to, and Attempted Return from, Aurora”. An even better title might be, “Two Thousand People Leave Earth and Die”. Here’s a summary:
1. 2,000 people in a generational starship reach a planet they name Aurora.
2. 200 of those people go to the planet’s surface, which seems highly promising for colonization.
3. An unidentified infectious agent on that planet makes them sick, and about 100 of them die on the planet.
4. Another 100 try to return to the starship, and the people aboard kill them.
5. The people still on the starship fight each other about what to do, and some kill each other.
6. About half the remaining people stay in the new system to try to establish a colony anyway. The book never relates any more information about them except to say that they failed and died.
7. The other half decide that space colonization is a terrible idea and try to return to Earth.
8. Their starship starts failing on the voyage, a famine strikes, some people starve and some commit suicide.
I actually think that in KSR’s first draft of “Aurora”, at this point the famine and system breakdown progressed and killed the remaining voyagers and his book / humility lesson ended here. If so, his editor made him add a *slightly* less depressing ending. He inserts an uncharacteristic “technological savior” in the form of human hibernation, and from this point ignores the points he had made about hyper-evolved bacteria damaging the ship’s mechanisms, so I truly wonder at this turn. So:
9. The starship’s AI puts the remaining survivors into hibernation and flies them back to Earth.
10. Some people die during hibernation, some die upon awakening.
11. About 600 people land on Earth, though some – you guessed it! – die during reentry.
12. The survivors keep dying after landing on Earth. The rest feel their lives are pointless. Oh, and the starship’s AI itself tries to reach a stable orbit but fails and crashes into the sun.
Now, I don’t need all stories to be unrelenting optimism and tales of the inevitable, easy, human conquest of the galaxy. The trials and challenges, especially when supported by serious scientific analysis and speculation (which KSR does superbly), make a story stronger. I’m certainly not unhappy that I read “Aurora”, and I recommend it – to people who know its dark perspective and want to consider it. Just understand that this book is essentially “Anti-Science Fiction”, as Robinson seems to be on a mission to debunk all the Heinleinian / Asimovian tales of space colonization. This is really apparent when, near the end, he adds – almost spitefully - that not only did the colony attempt that remained in the Aurora system fail, but that Earth had sent out many other starships attempting to colonize other star systems, and they ALL failed, too!
The book ends with an odd-feeling section on Earth in which Robinson expounds on humanity’s abuse of the homeworld’s environment, and even says that the belief in space colonization contributed to people taking Earth for granted. It seems as if one of the most respected science fiction writers of his time is disavowing the genre, even pointing a finger at hopeful speculation as harmful.