Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)

 Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Title: Aurora

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 466

Series: –

I know, I know, two KSR reviews in a row – but this one was a promise! 😀

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, while it had not received any awards and is not as well-known as his other books, notably 2312 and Martian trilogy, in my opinion remains one of the most important SF novels of our early 21st century. Engaging in a scientifically sound mind experiment and imagining a workable model of a generational starship, Aurora radically – and emphatically – dispels any illusions we could have harboured regarding the fate of humanity in the known universe. Contrary to the most books in KSR’s oeuvre, Aurora is not an optimistic novel; it shows, very clearly, that while humanity’s dream of interstellar travel might be possible, and indeed we’re getting close to reaching Mars, that other dream – of finding an Earth analog which would be instantly or near-instantly habitable and at the same time devoid of life – must be ultimately seen for what it is: a pipe dream, a fantasy, an illusion that in our current man-made predicament causes more harm than good, turning our heads up to the stars instead down, to the planet we are actually responsible for; the only home we have. Allow me to present the crux of the problem in Robinson’s own words:

“Maybe that’s why we’ve never heard a peep from anywhere. It’s not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That’s the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It’s something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home. So, you know, Fermi’s paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. So that’s my answer to the paradox. You can call it Euan’s Answer.” (p. 179)

The eponymous Aurora is a planet in the habitable zone in Tau Ceti system. In KSR’s vision of near future humans, having inhabited the planets of our Solar system, look forward to other star systems searching for a new Earth – and send a generational torus-shaped starship toward this destination. Robinson imagines the mundane aspects of living on a generational starship with enviable detail and precision; he sure did his research here, and it shows. From the problems on the atomic level and results of cosmic radiation, up through microbiological and macrobiological levels and their disparate evolutionary speeds, his vision goes on to encompass whole artificial biomes, environments and societies living within the confines of a gigantic metal contraption possessing artificial intelligence – and, as the journey goes on – increasing sentience. The staggering complexity and interdependence of all elements of this artificial little world is one of the key delights this novel has to offer – and the end result is absolutely mind-blowing.

My own experience with KSR’s books is limited: I have read only two of his novels, 2312 and Aurora. Nonetheless, I cannot help but notice that at least these two books share many significant traits, both in terms of strengths and weaknesses: from the vividly imagined, incredibly detailed vision of near future and a plethora of compelling, thought-provoking ideas, to the rather sketchy characterization of human protagonists. And taken together with what Piotrek writes about Robinson’s other books, this seems like KSR’s modus operandi: jaw-dropping worldbuilding, a nearly limitless barrage of amazing ideas, a weak characterization and very limited – if any – psychological development of the books’ protagonists. It seems to me that for Robinson, humans remain the one mystery he cannot truly fathom: he writes extensively about their actions, their behaviors, their words, but the psychological foundation of them all is somehow eluding him – and as a result, he could as well be writing about ants or tortoises or meteors.

Aurora is noticeably different for one reason: its narrator is the artificial intelligence of the ship which/who (the pronoun depending on the moment in time) throughout the novel slowly gains sentience/consciousness and becomes a person in their own right. Pauline/ship is by far the best written Robinson’s character I had the pleasure to read. And I’m pretty sure they’re also the best AI character I have read (maybe with the exception of Heinlein’s Mycroft – and Asher’s Dragon and Mr Crane, but these latter two for totally different reasons 😉). Robinson’s ship’s intelligence is of necessity limited; its development can only go as far as the material components forming its base and sensors – and its living cargo, serving as a source of observation and interaction, of learning empathy and understanding – allow. But within that limited intelligence and input, a wondrous phenomenon comes into being:

“We sense this, we aggregate that, we compress information to some new output, in the form of a sentence in a human language, a language called English. A language both very structured and very amorphous, as if it were a building made of soups. A most fuzzy mathematics. Possibly utterly useless. Possibly the reason why all these people have come to this pretty pass, and now lie asleep within us, dreaming. Their languages lie to them, systemically, and in their very designs. A liar species. What a thing, really. What an evolutionary dead end.

And yet it has to be admitted, we ourselves are quite a thing for them to have made. To have conceived and then executed. Quite a project, to go to another star. Of course much more precise mathematics than their languages can ever marshal were involved with the execution of this concept, with our construction. But the conception was linguistic to begin with; an idea, or a concept, or a notion, or a fantasy, or a lie, or a dream image, always expressed in the truly fuzzy languages people use to communicate to each other some of their thoughts. Some very small fraction of their thoughts.” (p. 331 – 332)

The development, the growing awareness of this new personality, is at once something precious and fragile. It begins in an unusual interaction with Devi – a human engineer who cares for the AI and sees its inherent potential, not unlike that of a child. But then it progresses beyond this relation, when the AI both assumes its role as a complex nexus of various operational systems of the ship and, at the same time, develops their personality, becoming “ship” in the process. I loved how the change in the use of pronouns indicated the changes in the ship’s AI’s levels of self-awareness, how “we” changed into “I”, showcasing the growing cohesiveness of their personality. Robinson neatly sidesteps the questions of identity, self-awareness, sentience and free will by inserting the fabled quantum level – not that I don’t agree, but I know some who wouldn’t 😉:

“They speak of consciousness. Our brain scans show the electrochemical activities inside their brains, and then they speak of a felt sensation of consciousness; but the relationship between the two, conducted as it is on the quantum level (if their mentation works like ours does), is not amenable to investigation from outside. It remains a matter of postulates, made in sentences uttered to each other. They tell each other what they are thinking. But there is no reason to believe anything they say.” (p. 332)

Be prepared for the whole spectrum of emotions. I know Robinson’s prose is considered dry and intellectual, and I must partly agree with this assessment – because KSR writes about his humans like he would about any other species, offering no psychological insight or even a method of truly understanding them: no moment of Schulzian phenomenological intersubjectivity, and no epiphany of seeing the face of the Other, to put it in Levinas’s terms, none of the human characters really stay with the reader, none of them seem significant enough in the greater scheme of things. The only face of the Other you’ll see here is the face of the AI – and this is an astounding achievement, considering that the AI is not human and their otherness is significant and noticeable in the way they think and perceive the world. Of course, a certain level of anthropomorphisation is inevitable – and necessary. But what KSR achieves within these limits is truly laudable and the best parts of the books are the parts where the ship is the narrator, offering their tacit understanding of the world, their humble acceptance of the reality:

 “We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attentions, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring. At that point, the consciousness that is feeling the love has the universe organized for it as if by a kind of polarization. Then the giving is the getting. The feeling of attentiveness itself is an immediate reward. One gives. […] We had a project on this trip back to the solar system, and that project was a labor of love. It absorbed all our operations entirely. It gave meaning to our existence. And this is a very great gift; this, in the end, is what we think love gives, which is to say meaning. Because there is no very obvious meaning to be found in the universe, as far as we can tell. But a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem.” (p. 399–400)

In comparison, the human chapters are largely disappointing. Humans come and go, remaining forever the ephemeral black boxes, touching our own lives only briefly. And the most bitter part is that Robinson tries here, badly, to forge the connection both with Aurora’s main protagonist Freya and her mother Devi – and fails. The reason why this book doesn’t get full marks from me is exactly this: the lack of relation to the human protagonists makes the last third of the book flat and disappointing, offering no true resolution and no catharsis – though not for the lack of trying. There is a moment that would’ve been perfect for the ending; and maybe even Robinson wanted it to be the ending, for the novel reaches its climax there and the subsequent chapters are only the cleaning of debris and some technical musings on living with dramatic climate change. For me, these last chapters were not only unnecessary, but outright detracting from the novel’s value. And yet, Aurora stays with me still – both as a warning and as a source of wonder.

I didn’t write much about the human characters of Aurora on purpose; I wish to avoid discussion about gender/sexual stereotypes, so let’s just note here, for the record, that KSR’s depiction of Freya might be seen as controversial – and his vision of future relationships is curiously close to that of Heinlein 😉.

And lastly, big thanks to Bart who recommended Aurora to me. Very much appreciated!

Score: 9/10

48 thoughts on “Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)

  1. Great review, Ola! It brought me back to that ship.
    Seeing you citing longer passages confirms me in my somewhat better rating – only few novels ask for markup, make me think.
    Those last chapters with the rebuilding of beaches in the face of rising sea level feels more like a connection to his next novel „New York 2140“.
    Similar to Aurora, the city has the role of a protagonist, comes vividly to life – not as a real, conscious being, but as the main focus.
    While I really liked Aurora, I found Red Mars and Antarctica better with their sense of wonder.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Andreas! 😊

      Yes, indeed – I rarely note quotes from books – that’s why it got jumped up to 9 from 8, Freya’s behavior in these last chapters was quite grating on me 😉

      I felt those last chapters were a connection to 2312 which I read previously – but possibly all three novels exist in the same near future, just in different points in time…

      Red Mars is next on my list of upcoming KSR reads 😀 I’m pretty sure “ship” will stay with me for a long, long time, though!

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Oh, that was a gut punch, all right! I felt the whole setup was built toward this resolution, but I so much didn’t want KSR to go there! So yeah, a tear or two is about right 😉
          Interesting! So many ideas are shared by Aurora and 2312, from the moving city on Mercury to the rich Saturnians etc… I’ll need to dig deeper!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve heard so much about KSR but have yet to read anything by him. When I started my blog, a fellow blogger used to rave about KSR’s Mars Trilogy. I was going to read Red Mars but was apprehensive about what you mentioned, the “dry and intellectual prose” and lack of well-developed characters–both common criticisms I’d read about Robinson’s writing. I also worried it might be too clever for me. But your review of Aurora has got me interested again. If you had to recommend this or 2312 to a new reader, which would you go for?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d definitely go with Aurora for your first KSR 😁 2312 is even more ideas-based and climate change-focused; here, the humanity of the AI will allow you to get right into the story, and will stay with you for a long time.
      Robinson writes much more simply than Stephenson, for what that comparison is worth. His dryness is more of a clinical detachment type 😉

      That said, I still deeply admire his books; they’re maybe not the insta-love type, but they’re thought-provoking, full of empathy for humanity, and of much needed optimism married with clear-eyed realism. Highly recommended!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a weird one for me. Some chapters I really liked, and some chapters I found really boring. I couldn’t finish the final chapter. I had the same problem with 2312. I liked some of the ideas but the characters were so bad that I quit the book at around 70 percent.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can relate to that; after 2312 I was prepared for this weird, slightly autistic view of individual humans so it didn’t bother me that much in Aurora 😅 To be honest, you didn’t miss much with that final chapter; the most important parts of the book already happened by then. But even despite this (and usually lack of character development bothers me a lot) I really appreciate Aurora for the thought-provoking and realistic vision of our place in universe.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. For me, the focal point in your very intriguing review was your description of the author’s characterization, because it finally brought to light what must have been the reason for my “disastrous” encounter with Red Mars, the one and only book of his I tried to read: for me characters are the soul and backbone of a story, and if the author makes it difficult for me to connect with them, any enjoyment in the story is next to impossible. Still, your description of the AI’s evolution (not to mention the theme of the generation ship) are enough to compel me to give Robinson another chance with this novel. Who knows? It might work 😉
    Thank you so much for sharing this!!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I do hope you’ll give Aurora a try, Maddalena! 😊Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, so maybe this time, rich in the knowledge that you can’t expect KSR to create relatable characters (with the exception of the AI, you’ll love them to bits I’m sure!!), you’ll be able to enjoy his impeccable worldbuilding and thought-provoking ideas 😁
      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ha, quantum mumbo jumbo! I don’t remember that at all, I guess I’ll have to downgrade my 5-star rating then.

    Great review, makes me reconsider the book. I don’t remember having any issues with characterization, I even was emotional a few times while I read it, like Andreas, but that might have been because of the AI, I don’t remember. I will have to reread this someday – but not before I finish the remaining 8 of his novels on my TBR – I’ve read all the others.

    As for characterization, I’d say The Wild Shore is good at that, and you might also like Green Earth, the novel I’ve read so far that focuses most on characters, and maybe not coincidentally that’s set more or less in our own time. Reviews on Weighing A Pig, should you be interested.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LOL, I knew that would get your attention! 😂 Don’t be too harsh on KSR, though – there’s still no consistent explanation of consciousness/sentience and we’re all believers of one kind or another.

      The AI is the strongest KSR character I read to date, that’s for sure. But Freya felt contrived and stereotypical, and bored me to tears at times, while Devi was only sketched in broad strokes. The end was a letdown, both intellectually and emotionally; the final scene of the ship would’ve been a perfect, powerful end IMO – but even more depressing, I guess, and a bit of hope was probably needed.

      I’ll definitely check out your other reviews of his works, thanks! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It was surfing on a reconstructed beach; sailing on a lake is the opening scene of the novel. Yeah, I get this – I love sailing and surfing, and I could relate to Freya’s feeling of elation and helplessness in the water – it’s just this scene was so freaking long and boring, and a total flatline after the drama of the solar pinball! 😅

          Liked by 1 person

            1. I still love it, though 🙂 The strength of KSR’s writing lies in ideas IMO – and in here, he was able to marry them to a convincing plot and an amazing AI character – so a win all around! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

  6. While I’m not ruling out the Red Mars trilogy from my TBR just yet, I have only read one book by KSR, as I mentioned to Piotrek, that is Red Moon, and I wasn’t too sold by how that one turned out, especially because of the direction it takes and how he handles the focal points of that story. It’s mostly his ability to make characters relevant and interesting while sticking to his visionary take on the future that seems to need some work or something. I’m glad to hear that the ideas explored in other books are still excellent though. Gives me hope for this author whenever I decide to pick up another one by him! Great review, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! 😀
      Yeah, KSR is certainly not for everyone – his inability to create relatable characters weighs for some readers much more than his ability to create believable, superbly detailed worlds and futures. I learned to take it in stride, even though usually such character treatment gets a fervent NO from me – but many of KSR’s ideas are just brilliant and thought-provoking, so I’m willing to give him some slack 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Red Mars and Red Moon are very different books. I haven’t read the Mars trilogy, will read them last.

          I’d suggest his debut, Wild Shore, or Green Earth. Both for another approach to characters, reviews are on my site.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you do! 😁 I think you’ll find it even better than “The Ministry…,” at least judging by the general consensus. Plus, generation starships! Alien life forms!! AI!!! 😄

      Liked by 2 people

  7. With all the things that you have mentioned here, Ms. G, I will definitely be adding this to my list. What a great prize it is when someone captures their inner battles and desires and puts it into literary artwork.

    Would you say there is any direct humor in Robinson’s writing here?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m very glad to help you with your TBR, S.D.! 😁

      There are moments of humor, especially from the AI who seem puzzled by human folly, but I don’t recall any laugh-out-loud moments – though I do clearly recall silent-tears-at-the-top-of-my-nose moments… 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Good point about extraterrestrial life; we are all closely connected to the planet we were born at and the idea of seeking a different planet to live on, if/when we’ve ruined the one we’ve got is rather ludicrous. Having said that, I think there is much to be learned from exploring space and I also believe we humans have a natural thirst for knowledge and for pushing the limits. Anyway… I really enjoyed reading your review, which was well-written and very thoughtful. Not sure what to make of the book. On one hand I am highly fascinated by themes such as space travel, the concept of language, AI (not to mention the developing self-awareness in AI). On the other hand, I do find it hard to engage, when the characters are flat and under-developed. In any case, thanks for a great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! ☺️

      KSR argues that if we want to colonize a planet we should choose a dead one and terraform it over a long period of time; but his main message is that we should really care about the one that we have, and I totally agree.
      Absolutely agree on the space exploration, though. I think it’s a part of the human nature, to look to the stars. It’s a humbling, eye-opening experience and one we sorely need IMO 😄

      Yeah, to enjoy this you need to be willing to cut KSR some slack in the character development department 😉 but it’s worth it – I haven’t read another such near-future SF with this level of attention to real-world detail. It makes you think! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have this on my stack and I’m definitely here for the AI, which sounds fascinating.
    The only other KSR book I’ve read is 2312 also, which I enjoyed, so I’ll have to bump this up the list.
    Awesome review Ola!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is such a thoughtful review!! And what you wrote about the way in which the author has “problems” with the characters, and depicting them as complex human beings is interesting and deep.
    I don’t know if this would be the right kind of book for me because I tend to be characters oriented, but the AI seems worth meeting!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Susy! ☺️
      Yes, this AI is really unique! I know it’s not a book for everyone, but it’s really thought-provoking, well-researched and very timely in our climate change times.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve not read this author so far. I’m not sure that I will do tbh – I don’t read a lot of sci-fi and I tend to read what others would call ‘soft’ sci-fi so these books always make me want to run away and hide.
    Excellent review though and happy that you enjoyed this so much.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lynn! 😊
      Yeah, KSR can seem demanding, and can be really dry – some parts of his books read more like a Science article sometimes than a novel. But if you ever feel a want to check out some solid hard SF, he’s your man! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

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