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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: Are We Tied to This Earth?

Cover art for Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora

Robinson’s sci-fi novel Aurora is a story about good intentions and flawed realities.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the foremost voices in hard science fiction, trying to accurately predict the future based on modern science. Released in July 2015, his sci-fi novel Aurora looks at what will happen when humanity tries to get beyond Earth and to settle the stars.

The Journey of KSR’s Aurora

Aurora is the story of a generation ship sent from Earth to Tau Ceti in hopes of establishing a human colony there. Starting generations out from Earth, the story starts out a little unfocused, and deliberately so. The ship’s AI is trying to get to grips with the idea of a narrative and in doing so directing readers towards what will be the central characters. One of these is Devi, unofficially the crew’s chief engineer and leader. Another is Freya, Devi’s daughter. Through its relationship with them, the ship itself emerges as a character.

As they travel towards their destination, the settlers pick out a moon called Aurora as the place to make their new home. But even as they approach, the delicate shipboard ecosystems that have sustained them start to break down. The question becomes not just whether they can settle Aurora but whether they can survive.

Robinson’s Warnings from the Future

As a science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson is known for his rigorously researched science and his concern about the future of humanity. His series of books starting with Red Mars looked at what would happen when humans settled the red planet and was grounded in insights from NASA engineers. His Three Californias Trilogy drew attention to the perils of environmental damage.

When Robinson writes on an issue, you know that you’ll be reading something rigorously research and thought out. More than this, it will point toward the real hazards foreseen by one of the smartest futurists working in science fiction.

Reaching for the Stars

It’s impossible to talk about the message of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora without talking about some of the story’s most important plot points. So here’s your warning:

From this point on, there will be spoilers for the first three-quarters of the book. If you haven’t read it yet and think you’re likely to, bookmark this page and come back once you’ve read Aurora.

Don’t worry. SciFi Addicts will still be here when you come back.

Now that that’s dealt with…

Aurora is a story about good intentions and flawed realities. As the colonists try to settle the moon Aurora, they encounter difficulties that make this appear impossible. This creates a huge problem.

One of the central issues of the book is the breakdown of complex systems. The artificial biomes aboard the ship are not large enough to be endlessly self-sustaining. After generations away from Earth, the genetic pools are faltering. Humans and animals alike are not being born as they should. Electronic systems are corroding towards collapse. The colonists cannot simply retreat into their ship indefinitely.

So they are faced with two options – try to settle another nearby planet, with all the risks that entails, or give up on dreams of settlement and head back to Earth, knowing that even this will be a struggle and that no-one on board will see the journey’s end.

Is it better to reach for the stars or to nurture what you have?

The Ethics of Generation Ships

These issues create tensions among the ship’s population, tensions that become an important part of the plot. In the face of failure and a life-or-death decision, people turn on each other.

The arguments that follow raise a lot of interesting questions about the ethics of a generation ship. The people who originally set out on the ship had made a free choice to do so. Generations later, their descendants are stuck with the consequences of that decision. The choice is taken from them.

The same is true for those making a desperate bid for settlement or to return home. Is there even a right answer when you won’t be the one facing the consequences? Do individual lives matter as much as the future of the human race?

Tied to this is what it take to make sustainable communities in space. The need for biodiversity and a mix of human skills means that if the crew separate then each group becomes far less likely to survive. In these circumstances, is it right for the will of the majority to be forced upon everyone? Is there a moral duty to stand together no matter what?

In raising these questions, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora tackles the real ethical issues we’ll need to consider if we’re to head for the stars. Or even if, as now seems likely, we’re going to start colonising Mars.


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Can We Leave Earth Behind?

For an author who’s generally positive about the potential of science, Robinson offers a bleak perspective in this book. He writes about a generation ship not because he thinks it’s viable, but to show how it might not be. Instead of saying “these are the challenges we’ll face in settling the universe”, the book seems to say “these are the challenges that will stop us settling the universe”. The mission is simply too daunting to succeed.
Of course, Robinson’s isn’t the only view on this. There are others who argue that colonization is doable if we can get it right. And though Aurora doesn’t hold out hope for interstellar settlement, it holds out a different sort of hope – that being trapped in our own small environment might force us to make that world a better place.

What It Is To Be Alive

Most positively, this book opens up questions of what it is to be alive. The ship, initially a cold construct, evolves into something sentient and loving thanks to Devi’s nurturing and Freya’s friendship. The very crisis that makes Aurora uninhabitable shows that life might be more than what we think it is. The push to survive and to settle often brings out the best in the people involved.

Aurora is a story that says, with the full backing of science, that not all our dreams for humanity are realistic. But it also shows that by pursuing them we can find unexpected sorts of greatness.

Featured Image: courtesy of Orbit Books

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