Aurora: Overly long but powerful

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson science fiction book reviewsAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, has major issues with pacing, characterization, and to some extent, plotting. Which would seem to make this review a no-brainer “not recommended.” But if one can overlook issues of plot, character, and pace (and granted, that’s a Grand Canyon-level overlook), there’s a lot here to often admire and sometimes enjoy, and a reader who perseveres will, I think, not only be happy they did so, but will also find Aurora lingering in their mind for some time. (Note: While I don’t think anything revealed ahead will mar the reading experience, it’s pretty nigh impossible to discuss this book substantively without some plot spoilers. So fair warning.)

Generations ago, a starship left Earth with plans to set up a colony in the Tau Ceti system. Aurora begins in the final stage of the journey, with the ship only a few years out. Early on we’re introduced to a young teen, Freya, daughter of the ship’s chief engineer, Devi. The novel moves quickly through the years as Freya grows older, documenting the problems the ship faces as landfall nears: a host of mechanical/environmental issues (power plant problems, crop failures, etc.), biological obstacles (especially island devolution), and social problems. With landfall, new issues arise as the ship’s population lands a small number of early settlers who begin building the colony and preparing it to receive the rest of the ship. Eventually, the colonists come face to face with the basic question of viability — is this mission even possible? This problem — the social division it causes and its eventual compromise solution — drive the second half of the book.

Much of the novel’s narrative point-of-view focuses on Freya. More interestingly, the narrator, or perhaps more accurately, the “author” of the story is the Ship, tasked early on by Devi to “tell the story” of the mission. Ship is a relatively rudimentary AI at the start of the novel, but one who grows in consciousness and responsibility throughout the novel’s course. Thus Aurora is a coming-of-age story both for Freya and, more compellingly, for Ship, in addition to being a generation ship story.

This choice by Robinson to have Ship “author” the text is at times delightful and at times frustrating. Ship’s early difficulties in composing a narrative allows for Robinson to play in the meta-fiction field for the first quarter or so of the book, as Ship tries to nail down basic storytelling concepts and techniques:

This is proving a difficult assignment … Lossless compression is impossible, and even lossy compression is hard. Can a narrative account ever be adequate … Summarize the content of their moments or days or weeks or months or years or lives? How many moments constitute a narrative unit? … What is a particular, what is important?

Devi offers suggestions and some complaints (Too much backstory!), and after a good number of false starts, Ship begins to find her narrative way before bumping into the more complex issues of figurative language:

Clearly metaphors have no empirical basis, and are often opaque, pointless, inane, inaccurate, deceptive, mendacious, and in short, futile and stupid.

 

Nevertheless, despite all that, human language is, in its most fundamental operation, a gigantic system of metaphors.

 

Therefore, simple syllogism: human language is futile and stupid. Meaning furthermore that human narratives are futile and stupid.

How much tolerance you have for this sort of thing will go a long way toward determining your enjoyment of the first 100+ pages. I confess that my patience was less than Devi’s, so that by the time she complains about how tedious Ship’s narrative was, I’d already been at that point for some time. I like the idea, I like the portrayal of the idea, and beyond my enjoyment of some of the “inner weeds” of narrative (Ship for instance has a nicely insightful point re: the distinction between analogy and metaphor), I think all of it is integral to the Ship’s development of consciousness/being. But even getting that it was meant to be annoying, I could have done with if not fewer false starts, shorter ones.

Freya’s story, meanwhile — the actual “plot” — isn’t all that compelling early on. There’s a nice scene that opens the book with her sailing with her father (effective in its characterization as well as a nice bit of foreshadowing), and then some rather perfunctory wandering from biome to biome during a rite of passage known as the Wandering. To be honest, I didn’t feel much for her, or the majority of the characters (most of whom were pretty thin) through to the end; none really felt alive to me, save one or two.

It didn’t help that the story is interspersed with some, for me, over-long nuts and bolts description of how the ship worked. I’m glad Robinson didn’t just hand-wave the whole “how does this all work” question; I do like the science in my hard science fiction. And there’s no doubt the reader will feel like this could be exactly how such a mission would work. But still, four pages on the lighting were a bit much for instance (even if some of the description was absolutely beautiful). At one point a character says, “It must be like an endorphin, or a brain action in the temporal region, near the religious and epileptic nodes. I read a paper saying as much,” and I thought to myself, “I wish less of the book felt like that whole ‘I read a paper’ on it.’” Even when major problems arise that should have driven a sense of urgency in the plot, including several acts of violence, it all felt a bit too academic, a bit too removed.

So, pacing issues thanks to Ship’s narrative difficulties, and long stretches of too much detail. Characters who fail for the most part to come wholly alive. And a plot that moves along but never really compels. What’s to like, right?

Well, let’s begin with the character that does, ironically, come to life. Before our very eyes in fact. Ship. Her character arc is masterfully handled: from rudimentary AI that struggles with language, communication, empathy, and understanding, and that has a basic lack of self-awareness, to a fully conscious, feeling being that can experience (and convey) sorrow and humor. This development wasn’t simply conveyed through her monologue, which runs throughout, but through much more subtle means — the gradual change in pronoun usage, tiny baby steps toward that aforementioned sense of humor. By the end of the novel, I felt more for Ship than probably any character in the book.

Another strong aspect of Aurora is its sheer thoughtfulness. One part of this is the fact that it is by far the most carefully considered depiction of a generation ship story I’ve ever read. Granted, it does at times become perhaps too carefully depicted, but still I appreciate the depth and seriousness with which he approaches the concept. Examples abound — the ways in which such a small population will suffer across generations due to its isolation and size, the problem with differing rates of evolution between large-scale creatures (humans, livestock) and small-scale creatures (bacteria, viruses) over the time scale of a generation ship’s voyage, the very realistic (if somewhat depressing) discussion over the possibility of meeting other intelligent life in the universe or of human colonization of the stars.

This latter was especially striking, as it runs counter to so much science fiction, which often begins with one or both premises (there are aliens to meet, we can live on other planets) as givens. Along those same lines (and here is another spoiler warning for plot as I’m about to discuss how they solve their biggest obstacle so you’ve been warned to not read farther if you care not to know), the decision by some to simply turn around, to return to Earth, was both a shock (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a science fiction story about a colony mission that said “Screw it, we’re going back!”) and a wholly believable and natural outgrowth of the plot up to that point. And this decision, and the depiction of their arrival back on Earth, was again, thoughtfully, rationally explored. And even as it depressed the hell out of me in some ways, because let’s face it, most of us who read science fiction/fantasy don’t do it to be told that maybe we’ll never get to the stars and even if we do we’ll never meet anyone else out there — we do it because we already believe the opposite with every fiber of our beings; even as it depressed me, this section made me think both about the very real possibility that what these characters say might be right and also about why I have such a need to believe them wrong.

In other words, it hit both head and heart; it made me think, and it moved me. And really, aren’t these the two things we ask books to do? Or at least, two of the most important?

If I had my druthers, I would have made Aurora a much shorter novel, maybe even a long novella. I could see it being incredibly effective at about 150-200 pages. Those few non-Ship moments of emotional power would stand out all the more, Ship’s arc could stay nearly entirely intact and thus remain powerful, and the high-concepts could still be explored without the interruption of needing a narrative plot. But since I’ve not been elected King of the Universe yet, I’ll take Aurora as it stands — an ambitious but too-long novel with some major issues that make its reading less pleasant than it could have been, even a chore at times, but that despite its flaws remains worthy of a recommendation for the way it lingers well after the final page is turned.

Publication Date: July 7, 2015. A major new novel from one of science fiction’s most powerful voices, AURORA tells the incredible story of our first voyage beyond the solar system. Brilliantly imagined and beautifully told, it is the work of a writer at the height of his powers. Our voyage from Earth began generations ago. Now, we approach our destination. A new home. AURORA.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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5 comments

  1. Bill, this is an excellent review. It makes me want — really want — to read this book, and lets me know exactly what I’m getting into. Thanks!

  2. Reading your review just makes me want to read the book more, since now I need to know if the problem areas are as weak as you say. Thanks, indeed!

  3. A very comprehensive review, thanks! Definitely putting this on this list of concept and exposition-heavy SF blockbusters like Robinson’s 2312 and Brin’s Existence. I often find myself wanting these authors to streamline their stories and winnow out the less important ideas, sub-plots, and expositions, but that’s what distinguishes them from other writers, isn’t it?

  4. I know it’s months later, and this comment will probably be lost to internet oblivion. (But you published your review 3 months before the novel was released.) I just wanted to comment, with everyone else, how great this review is. I really like KSR’s tendency to go on at length and expect, when I dive into one of his novels, to need patience and to not really care about the individual characters, though I think his compassion for communities and humanity as a whole always shines through his fiction. I listened to the excellent audiobook, which may have made it easier to push through the denser parts of the novel. (In particular the exchanges between Ship and Devi are great.) But, yeah, you have to be looking for exposition heavy, tech and science dense, diamond hard sci fi when you turn to KSR. And you’re right, his fiction lingers in my mind, and he is able, probably more than any other author, to make me see new perspectives, to see the world we live in in new ways.

    • glad you liked the review. Good point about his compassion for humanity versus individual characterization. And I certainly agree with you on your last line, one of the things I love about reading his work. Even if it does call for that extra bit of patience as you say.

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