Book Review: “Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

In this story Robinson lays out what we know about the challenges of generation ships. A generation ship is one of the classic theoretically possible way to get to nearby stars. The ship is a large habitat populated with a large number of people, which travels at a substantial fraction of light speed. The ship will take a couple of centuries to reach even the nearest star, so the people and all other organisms will breed at least a few generations (and many thousands of generations for the short lived species, such as bacteria).

This story follows one such journey, and shows us the deep problems of such a voyage. Constructing a sustainable biosphere in space is very difficult, and pushing it out from all sources of replenishment is even harder. What did you forget to pack? There is no way to go back or receive supplies. You’ll forget something, and that will probably be fatal.

In order to deliver humans, and to have enough genetic diversity to be a viable colony the ship must carry thousands of people, and an associated diversity of plants and animals. Nevertheless, these populations will inevitably be a small and limited sample, and very close to genetic bottlenecks.

However well built initially, the living systems in the ship form an island ecology, which we know are difficult to sustain even on beautiful, loving Earth. If nothing else, the biome will continue to evolve, diverging and mutating. Everything evolves, but not at the same rate, microorganisms will evolve much faster than plants and animals, and so on.

Whatever was carefully balanced at the start will get out of whack soon enough. Life will probably survive, but not necessarily human life, and not necessarily life that could ever live on Earth. Just keeping things viable for a few centuries is going to be a desperate, close run thing.

Robinson also shows us that there is fundamental problem if and when you reach the destination. You may find lifeless world that can be terraformed. That will take additional centuries or millennia. You have more resources, and you can grow and spread out a bit, but it is still all “under glass” for a long, long time.

Yet, this may be the best scenario. If the generation ship encounters a world with life—any kind of life—then the colonists must try to fit into the new ecology that they are not evolved for. The Earth species will be invasive pests, and the natives will treat them as disease or just plain food. Earthlings will have no resistance to native predation at any scale, and could easily succumb to diseases, allergic reactions, and starvation.

Ultimately, the colonists will need to evolve to survive on the new world. That is a very long shot, and if successful, they will no longer be human.

Finally, Robinson expends a lot of time showing us that small island societies are likely to experience dangerous conflicts among the humans. With no safety valve, and resources near the limits of survival, humans will fuss and fight, even to extinction. Even if nothing else goes wrong, human conflict can end the whole enterprise very quickly.

The basic conclusion is that generation ships are essentially suicide missions. What does this tell us about the current generation of enthusiasm for Mars colonies? Hint: they face all the same issues, at a smaller scale. (And see pp. 381-2 for some Mars-specific issues.) “Not quite as suicidal” isn’t a huge endorsement for such projects.

Clearly, this is science fiction in the classic “big ideas” tradition.

Unfortunately, the story itself is less impressive than the ideas. (Alas, this is a classic failure for this style of classic science fiction.) Just because this is a centuries long mission doesn’t mean that the story should be so l-o-n-g. Sheesh. I think it would have been just as good at half the words. A tenth the words.

The story is supposedly told by the ship’s artificial intelligence (named, wait for it, “Ship”). As such, it contains a lot of stilted writing. Worse, it contains a lot of “learning to tell a story” exercises. There is also yick-yack about “consciousness”, “self-consciousness”, “sentience” and so on, as well as uninformative gab about story telling algorithms. This all may be interesting to the machine intelligence, but they were boring to read.

The tale follows the struggles of the generation that arrives at Tau Ceti, the troubles and challenges of those difficult years. Robinson takes the opportunity to educate us about generation ships (as noted above).  Unfortunately, he goes on and on. So many details of the essentially pointless bickering, devolving into fighting. On and on about the steady erosion of the technical and biological infrastructure.

I get it already.

Perhaps it is deliberate, but the non-human storyteller lacks much sense of what makes for human interest in a story. The characters and interpersonal relations are shallow sketches, lacking plausible motivations and emotions.

For instance, I didn’t find a single love story in the whole book. And the few relationships we do see are mysteriously washed out and uninteresting.

We know that these shortcomings are not due to lack of talent, given KSR’s other works. Perhaps they were a deliberate choice (“see if you can write like an artificial intelligence would write the story”), but I hated it.


  1. Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora, New York, Orbit, 2015.


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