Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
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!