New science fiction from Kim Stanley Robinson! HOORAY.
(This book was provided to me by the publisher. You can get it from Fishpond.)
PRETTY excited to get this book. Enough that I actually started reading it the day it arrived – and would have finished it that day too had I not decided to Be An Adult and stop reading at a somewhat sensible hour in order to sleep. And overall I was very happy with it – some nice big ideas, characters fairly good, some action and good plot twists. My delight is not unalloyed, but the issues I had are not enough to stop me from being happy about Aurora‘s existence.
The non-spoilers should-you-read-it: did you like Robinson’s 2312? Do you like Alastair Reynolds books? Then probably yes: don’t read more here, just go get it.
Slightly more detail: the book opens with Freya and her family living what appears to be a normal life. Her mother, Devi, is kept very busy dealing with issues of algae and salt and oxygen, because they live on a generation ship that is heading to what they hope will be a habitable world. I love a good generation ship story: Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder series was awesome, I enjoyed much of Beth Revis‘ Across the Universe stories (although the relationships were wearing by the end), and Stephen Baxter’s had a go at it too (plot taking precedence over character, usually). So this is already a good premise for me.
We join the crew within years of arriving at Aurora – of course, because it’s hard to do a good story about the middle of the journey, unless something is going drastically wrong. Anyway, they do eventually get to Aurora, and Things Happen (it’s approaching 500 pages in trade paperback; you didn’t think it was going to be all sunshine and roses, did you?). The Things That Happen are logical and consistent with the characters as revealed; they also give insights into how Robinson views humanity which, while not earth-shattering revelations, are nonetheless poignant and worthy of consideration. How do humans cope with setbacks? How do humans cope with disagreement? What price progress?
For a ship of 2000-odd, the cast of central characters is relatively small. Freya is the central human character, so there’s an element of the coming-of-age story – she’s becoming an adult as the ship completes its quest, there’s dissension within the family, and so on. I wasn’t entirely happy with Robinson’s description of Freya at some points; he suggests things about her nature and then never builds on it or challenges it. Nonetheless I found her a useful focus for the narrative; being young she’s out and about learning and meeting people, rather than stuck in a job. And given that the novel covers a fair amount of time, Freya gets to age and I think that’s often a really great thing in a character.
Interestingly, the other point of view character is the ship’s AI, thus allowing Robinson to have intimate knowledge of humanity and show the broader sweep of actions, decisions, and ramifications. I liked, too, that the AI developed and changed. There’s a little section that tickled the Arts student in me pink: the computer learning about how to construct a narrative. So meta, very wonderful.
However… issues. I had a couple.
Firstly, it surprised me that a book set in the 26th century would talk about the Old and New Worlds. Really? Maybe this is an American thing because it’s not something we in Australia say – and surely in 500 years that will be even less relevant? If the builders of the ship (who lived around Saturn, making this demarcation even weirder) insisted on some Earth-analogue in splitting up the two Rings, why not make it Northern and Southern Hemisphere? It does at least have some basis in geography, rather than an old and surely irrelevant socio-political perspective.
Secondly, the ending. SPOILERS. (Other spoilers follow, too.)
WHY? I presume Robinson is trying to say something about physicality and Earth being the right place to be? I dunno. To me it came across as ‘if you don’t surf you don’t understand the world.’ It felt out of place in the story overall and disappointed me given how much I liked the rest of it. I would have liked a bit more from Freya’s arc.
Thirdly – and something that I’m not sure, overall, whether I’m entirely on board with – the decision to go back to Earth. It’s only feasible, in the end, because they get the hibernation thing worked out, although I guess when they leave Aurora the situation didn’t look so dire. But… it’s been seven generations. Most people haven’t been paying attention to any of the news feeds from Earth for years, if ever. Would they really feel such a deep call to go back, when Aurora is a failure? I guess most of them would just have been thinking they’d be staying on the ship (all they’d ever known), and their children’s children etc would be the ones to arrive in the home solar system… but still. I’m really not sure. It feels like Robinson is suggesting there’s a deep feeling of attachment to this ball of mud that doesn’t just rely on personal experience.