BRIEF SYNOPSIS: It’s been over two centuries since Earth launched a generation ship bound for Tau Ceti; the generation that arrives there, though, encounters challenges that threaten the entire point of the mission.
PROS: Detailed discussions of practical issues with generation starships (i.e. decomposition, corrosion, devolution); superb handling of varying narrative voices; believable plot twists.
CONS: Some sections were a little too detailed and distracted the reader from the main narrative.
BOTTOM LINE: You’ve read novels about generation ships and human colonization, but you’ve never read one quite like this.
Aurora is the first of Robinson’s books that I’ve read, and now it certainly won’t be the last. I started the novel knowing that it had something to do with space travel on a generation ship, and the search for other habitable planets, but I never expected such an in-depth, detailed, and downright vast exploration of the implications of human space travel and relocation.
Some of you, I assume, will think about Battlestar Galactica, The Martian Chronicles, Severance, and the like while reading Aurora, and rightly so, since stories of humans setting out to find a new home run throughout American sci-fi. What makes Aurora stand out, though, is just how far Robinson takes the narrative: dropping us into the generation ship as it approaches Tau Ceti, following the small group of settlers who test out the chosen moon, then returning with the ship and its remaining passengers (in stasis) to Earth, and finally following the surviving passengers as they set foot on a planet they’ve never seen but nonetheless call “home.”
Most of the story is told from the perspective of Freya, daughter of one of the ship’s engineers and friend to many in the diverse biomes (around 2,000 people at the time of the story). We gradually learn that the ship left Earth a couple of hundred years before and is in deceleration in anticipation of entering the Tau Ceti system. Freya’s mother, Devi, has been almost single-handedly keeping the ship together for years in preparation for arrival at the destination, but dies before she can witness the outcome. Freya, due to her extensive travels throughout the ship and her many acquaintances, becomes a kind of de-facto Devi, caring for the spiritual/emotional needs of the passengers, rather than the technology on the ship.
In the years before she died, however, Devi helped coax the ship into a form of consciousness, until the ship takes over part of the novel as narrator, trying out jokes and colloquialisms, like a toddler learning how to speak. Devi had insisted that the ship create a running narrative of events both on-board and on whichever planet the passengers settled. And thus it is through the ship’s “eyes” that we witness the growing unrest among the passengers as the ship enters the Tau Ceti system.
Robinson asks us to consider fundamental ethical issues associated with this kind of travel, in which the passengers who arrive at the destination had no say in the entire colonization plan. Those who chose to leave Earth and settle another planet never came close to witnessing the event, and knew that from the beginning; those who do arrive, though, never chose to leave Earth in the first place. On the one hand, you can argue that this is really a metaphor for human life itself, since none of us can choose his/her destiny. On the other hand, isn’t it troublesome that one group of people can influence the lives of a completely different generation, leaving them with the profound problems of settling an Earth-like planet with no first-hand knowledge of Earth itself?
Part of what makes Aurora so successful is Robinson’s ability to make interstellar travel several centuries from now seem absolutely plausible. His video on the science behind the novel, in fact, focuses on the real physical and mathematical problems that arise when considering this kind of journey. Robinson also invites us to think about the people living on a generation ship as guinea pigs in a complex evolutionary experiment, where each generation develops new genetic mutations and an increasingly narrow “worldview,” since the ship’s outer hull marks the boundaries of their existence. With no outside contact, these several generations, and the ship too, begin to deteriorate.
A further, and more dangerous, problem, involves the conditions on the potentially habitable planets and moons toward which the generation ship is moving. If a planet is “alive,” Robinson explains, then it will harbor various forms of life most likely deadly to any humans who encounter it. If the planet is “dead,” though, humans are in just as much trouble because terraforming would take centuries; in the meantime, settlers would have to exchange their one bubble (the ship) for a different bubble (a biome on the planet). One of the main factors driving the ship’s occupants in their decision to return to Earth is the realization that Earth may really be the only home humans could ever really inhabit.
And while we follow the remaining passengers as they head back toward Earth, we also learn that a small group of humans decided to remain in the Tau Ceti system in hopes of settling on a habitable planet. Thus, Robinson leaves us with the tantalizing thought that humans have actually achieved a momentous goal- leaving the solar system to explore and live amongst the stars.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that I never expected Robinson to take the passengers (and us readers) back to Earth, but he does just that. And interestingly enough, the Earth is still intact, populated, and in no immediate danger, even though it has experienced massive coastal erosion and other problems during the centuries that the ship was in space. We’re never really sure why the ship was built and launched in the first place, other than the fact that humans had developed the necessary technology to do it.
Despite the many pages of detailed analysis of ship deterioration, biome problems, and other issues, Aurora is a remarkable story about the potential limits of space exploration and colonization. After all, we’ve seen the destruction and chaos caused by colonization within our own species on a single planet; if humans can’t understand one another because of cultural differences, how could we hope to interact peacefully and rationally with other species on other worlds? How would we even recognize other forms of life? Robinson makes us think about these profound questions, and we’re better for it.