Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is a real establishment figure in the SF scene.  I remember being blown away by his Mars trilogy and its take on a multi-generational dynastic story, but with extra terraforming.  So I was very excited to have the opportunity, via NetGalley to read and review his new novel, Aurora, which is published later this week by Orbit, even though I have yet to catch up with 2312 or The Years Of Rice And Salt

Aurora follows the inhabitants of a colony ship headed towards Tau Ceti, where it is believed that there are planets suitable for colonisation.  Because of the distance (it’s a 170-year journey), this is a multi-generational colony ship.  Families have chosen to commit not just themselves, but their descendants on this journey.  The community on the ship maintains its tiny ecosystem through rigorous family planning, clearly defined roles, as much recycling as possible and the preservation of animal and plant species that it is expected will be necessary for colonisation.  The population is spread across a series of climate-controlled biomes, each designed to replicate a particular Earth environment.

We pick up the story as the ship starts its final approach to Tau Ceti, focusing on a young girl called Freya and her parents.  Freya’s mother Devi (who acts as a de facto Chief Engineer for the ship) is becoming increasingly concerned about the ability of the ship to reach its destination.  She’s identified metabolic rifts (as she calls them) in the closed-loop environment of the ship which are creating excesses of some chemicals and shortages of others.  The small population sizes are also starting to affect the health and wellbeing of those on the ship.

Aurora presents quite a pessimistic view of colonisation.  Aurora is not the paradise the crew thought it would be, creating violent rifts within the ship’s crew and forcing hard decisions about what should be done once the certainty of the ship’s ultimate mission is removed from the crew.  And Robinson makes some wry comments about the optimism of his Mars novels when he remarks that terraforming is a lot of more complicated than people had at first thought.

It was interesting reading Aurora so soon after Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.  Both deal with colonisation at immense distances from Earth, and both show the conflict that desperation can create.  But I think  Aurora is the more accomplished novel.  By focusing on Freya and her family we are given real, flawed human beings we can connect with and care about.  The narrative is much less choppy and, for all its bleakness, Aurora carries a real and pertinent message.

Aurora hammers home the idea that humans are not individuals: we are part of a larger ecosystem which is highly intricate and co-depends on all the other elements.  That is most apparent in the tiny environment of the colony ship: even with the most careful resource management, environmental collapse seems inevitable.  While the margins for those of us on Earth are a bit more flexible, we should still take care because those hard environmental limits are there and we risk fatally jeopardising our own world if we exceed them.

Fundamentally, Aurora also tells us that we cannot run away from our problems.  We carry them with us wherever we go.

Goodreads rating: 4*.