Sunday, February 18, 2018

More Per Ardua than Ad Astra: Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora

A couple of years back I subtitled reviews of Andy Weir's The Martian and Neil Stephenson's Seveneves with the tagline 'space is the worst frontier.' 

For all their faith in science and human ingenuity, both books were unsparing in their treatment of the challenges of space and a welcome corrective to the tendency to handwave them away in favour of a ripping yarn.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora is another book which stands under this credo. It pushes back even harder against the belief that our destiny lies in the stars, to the point of almost calling it into question entirely.

Ad astra, yeah, but very much with the emphasis on the per ardua.

It's difficult to talk about without at the very least thematic spoilers, so read below at your peril.

Aurora takes on an idea well established in science-fiction, the generation starship, where a voyage to a nearby solar system can take hundreds of years in a vessel the size of a city. Heading for Tau Ceti, its mission is to colonise the moon of one of its planets, the Aurora of the title, slowly terraforming it to make it habitable for human life.

Narrative tricks

The novel kicks in a relatively short time (20 or so years) before the ship reaches its destination. We follow Freya, daughter of engineer and general systems troubleshooter Devi and doctor Badim, as she grows up onboard the ship and explores its many biomes and communities. 

A few chapters in, we learn that the story is being told by the Ship's computer, a developing artificial intelligence, Devi's other de facto child and arguably Aurora's second protagonist. Ship does some quite awesome things and would be on my Top 10 literary computers any day of the week.  

As a narrator, though, Ship is learning on the job and its odd perspectives and occasionally jarring prose style deliberately bring out a distancing effect in the reader. In other words: science (chiefly astrophysics, engineering, ecology and microbiology) is foregrounded; character development and reader empathy somewhat backgrounded. 

Hard science-fiction often does this accidentally and occasionally ad nauseum and ad infodumpium. This could be because the author is either not that interested in the capital-I Individual or just doesn't have the chops to meet both scientific and literary criteria. 

But KSR is a much better writer than that. Taking this approach intentionally as an authorial device is a) a very clever move b) allows him to provide the story with the science it needs anyway c) sneaks the heart back into Aurora from an unexpected angle, through reader identification with Ship.

Cake: both retained and eaten.

Through interstellar space on a wing and a prayer

Aurora goes into a lot of detail about the risks of travel between the stars: problems of navigation, of acceleration and deacceleration, of the constant battle by engineers and biologists against entropy, of unrest and social collapse. Whatever you anticipate as a problem and solve before the voyage starts, KSR says, there will be two more you didn't predict that you must deal with when underway.

He cautiously concludes, however, that these issues could be solved with a lot of effort and more than a little good fortune and frontier spirit.

The far bigger challenge Aurora sets, however, is what happens when you reach your destination? Could you deal with many of the same entropic challenges as you did in transit? At the same time, could you establish a safe base for you and future generations and begin to slowly terraform your new home? How would you cope in an environment outside humanity's frame of reference in which the odds of unexpected crisis therefore increase dramatically?

To put it another way, would you risk a thousand Roanoakes for a single Plymouth Colony?

Questions for the space and freedom brigade

This is a novel deeply sceptical of the case for interstellar ventures in a way which would have rarely occured in SF from previous generations. KSR might be revisiting old ground on terraforming - he's best known for his Mars trilogy on the topic - but he's drawing more pessimistic conclusions here in a different context.

He also has a long-standing interest in climate change which he's explored in previous works such as Forty Signs Of Rain and New York 2140. Aurora touches on this in later sections of the book and in doing so offers a supplementary critique of renewed contemporary interest in returning to the Moon or colonising Mars. It basically runs: this is both cool and relevant to my interests, but maybe we should prioritise getting our own planet - our actual home - in order first. 

The novel is no polemic, but it is doing what SF does best as a literature of ideas: using our scientific heritage to examine possibilities and raise questions. The questions it raises about both the practicality and importance of space exploration are very relevant at a time when a very rich man has just sent his sports car up on a rocket in some kind of a symbolic ritual to rekindle our interest.

Those advocating for or romanticising space travel - whether in the short-term or the long-term - should then engage with the questions KSR is asking. They are perhaps still solvable on their terms rather than his, but ensuring any vision of the future passes the tests Aurora sets is for me a necessity of the first order.

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