Kim Stanley Robinson has built a body of work which, after the polish and sophistication of the surface ceases dazzling, is solidly in the tradition of What If fiction which is supposedly the hallmark of science fiction. Large-scale What If, to be sure, which allows for the examination of development of the minutiae of his subjects in exhaustive detail. One of the chief pleasures of a Robinson novel is exactly this level of detail. The bolts are all there, the seams spliced with precision, the pieces and parts fit together as they should.
Or as they should if the scenarios depicted were actually undertaken. At least, that’s the idea, to provide a level of verisimilitude sufficient for a vicariously “authentic” experience of…
What would have happened in Europe had the Black Death not stopped when it did? What would it be like to really terraform Mars? What happens when population keeps expanding and technology keeps trying to keep pace?
All good, solid speculative material for a clever SF writer. And Robinson is nothing if not clever.
Which is where the discomfort comes in. Because Robinson is not in the business in his work of offering feel-good plausibilities about our bright, shiny futures. He’s attempting to tell us what it probably really will be like.
So in his new novel, Aurora, he’s telling the story of a generation ship after it’s long voyage to a new star system for the purposes of colonization—and how it fails.
We follow the story of Freya from late childhood and early adolescence to adulthood. She is the daughter of Devi, who is essentially the chief engineer of Ship, and like any child in a family with high expectations is a rebellious girl. Devi tries to impress upon her the fragility of the ship, the delicate balances that must be maintained if they are to arrive at their destination alive and able to function as colonists—balances which are tumbling down even as Devi, working with the A.I. on board, strives with Herculean resolve and remarkable cleverness to hold everything together till they get there.
Devi never sees the promised land, dying of cancer before “landfall”—at which point the mantle of wisdom falls to Freya, who is not prepared (but then, as Robinson shows, who could be?), but does her best as a kind of mother figure.
The detail of the novel is depressingly well-wrought. Robinson gives us a solid view of the problems such an enterprise must overcome to be even remotely successful, and given those it is remarkable, within the story, that they suycceed in crossing the gulf and finding the target planets. This is sheer Achievement.
But the fact is, we are part and parcel of an ecosystem—Earth—which is unique in so many small ways that to presume an ability to simply put down on another planet and expect to succeed at survival is the very definition of hubris. What Robinson is showing us is the extreme unlikeliness of Star Trek. Not that it couldn’t be done, but not without considerably more understanding of not only alien ecologies but our own genetics and the problems of millennia of adaptive suitability.
And then there are the political problems.
Robinson is not necessarily a pessimist, but he is a skeptic, and his counsel is that we just don’t quite grasp the magnitude of difficulties many of our imagined—and preferred—futures entail. Freya ends up heading a return voyage to Earth, where the remaining crew encounter social and political situations they could not foresee. Even coming home, after so long a time, is fraught with the unexpected and the inconveniences of human fecklessness and failure to comprehend.
Once they do return, for a short while they are celebrities. But when it becomes clear that more ships are going to be built and sent out, Freya finds herself the unexpected advocate of stopping these, in her view, fatal missions.
There are no comfortable conclusions, no easy answers, only a set of circumstances carefully laid out and shown as one potential consequence of our outbound urges. The science and extrapolations are salutary—it is never a good idea to go into something blind, especially something new and untried. Robinson is showing us a suite of problems.
But he’s also showing us people at their most human and resolute.
Aurora is in many ways an anti-interstellar adventure. It says “If you try this, you may find these problems, and it won’t be like you thought. You might want to rethink the attempt.”
On the other hand, these people do go, they make the voyage, and then they bring the ship back. By any measure, this is a success—just not the one they expected.
So it’s a mixed bag and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. And along the way, we get to see a remarkable thing, an adventure into the Unknown. A first-rate What If, and after all, that’s the utility (if there need be one) of good science fiction like this, to wind up the mechanism and let it run to show us the possibilities.