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Aurora Paperback – June 5, 2018
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―San Francisco Chronicle
"The thrilling creation of plausible future technology and the grandness of imagination...magnificent."
"[Robinson is] a rare contemporary writer to earn a reputation on par with earlier masters such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke."
"If Interstellar left you wanting more, then this novel might just fill that longing."
"Aurora may well be Robinson's best novel...breaks us out of our well-ingrained, supremely well-rehearsed habits of apocalypse - and lets us see the option of a different future than permanent, hopeless standoff."
―Los Angeles Review of Books
"Humanity's first trip to another star is incredibly ambitious, impeccably planned and executed on a grand scale in Aurora."
"[A] near-perfect marriage of the technical and the psychological."
"[A] heart-warming, provocative tale."
"This ambitious hard SF epic shows Robinson at the top of his game... [A] poignant story, which admirably stretches the limits of human imagination."
"This is hard SF the way it's mean to be written: technical, scientific, with big ideas and a fully realized society. Robinson is an acknowledged sf master-his Mars trilogy and his stand-alone novel 2312 (2012) were multiple award winners and nominees-and this latest novel is sure to be a big hit with devoted fans of old-school science fiction."
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This book was frustrating and sad and then nonsensical. Not even close to Red-Blue-Green Mars. Not even slightly.
Quick basic plot synopsis: A generation ship takes around 200 years to get to Tau Ceti. At the time the story starts we are close to arrival. The ship and crew are beset with several problems. Mechanical issues with the ship and issues with growing various crops stem from what appears to be poor planning at the outset with not enough supplies. A huge them is "devolution", "zoo biology" and "island biology". Apparently about 2,000 people living in isolation for about 200 years causes "devolution" with the population growing dumber and sicker by the generation. The protagonist, a girl named Freya, is incapable of understanding the math her mother, the Chief Engineer, does routinely and that condition is pretty widespread. The crew is afraid they are getting collectively too dumb to operate the ship and also notices every generation is sicker and shorter-lived than the one before. This is frustrating to start with for a couple reasons. We know zoos swap animals around to prevent inbreeding, so too few branches on the family tree is a thing (insert WV joke here), but 2,000 people should be plenty. If this was not so, wouldn't the various Pacific Island nations be populated by subhumans? Then did we totally forget 2018 level biology? Between stored sperm and eggs plus genetic technology we have *RIGHT NOW*, this issue is a solved issue NOW.
Get past that and the next odd issue is the odd relationship with Earth. Sure 5-10-20 year round trips for emails is annoying, but the crew seems to have very little interest in the news from back home and they don't seem to even bother with trying to communicate. They do have a constant news feed they mostly ignore.
Then they get to their target planet and it pretty well sucks. Apparently probes sent out have only given them a very small amount of information, much less than we know about Mars today for one example. The planet seems to have water, mud, and constant heavy winds. They have issues like stripping threads off bolts because torque limiting devices on air wrenches are old tech on Earth but apparently no one went to Home Depot and stocked up on modern tools before they tool off on their trip and now they are someplace even Amazon doesn't deliver. Then it turns out that the planet is infected with some horrible fast prion disease and everyone down there dies or gets killed by the crew on the ship when they try and come back up from the surface. So....basic testing for safety not a thing anymore, no room for rats or monkeys I guess.
After much strife and a low level near civil war, the crew gets the bright idea that half of them will go to another nearby planet and the other half are taking their creaky old beater of a ship back home. So the planet half is doomed because resources they will need are leaving and the ship half is doomed because they will die of old age if for no other reason. They think that it is critical their grandkids make it home, but they don't HAVE ANY yet! The ones they would have would continue to devolve too, so the ones that get home would be sent right to the short bus. None of this makes sense. Then they read on their news feed a way to make zombie drugs and be sleeping the whole way home, so the original crew survives. They get home 400 years after launch, society is about the same, they find out humans cannot ever leave the solar system because some mystery force that keeps them healthy is only found on Earth, and Freya becomes a nudist hippy surfer chick. Really! So... forgot going anywhere and surf.
It is not a spoiler to say that this is not a novel about the colonization of a distant planet. It is a polemic against the very idea that humanity should ever colonize a distant planet. I mean the novel approaches the issue with such passion and really beats us over the head that you'd think this was one of the pressing issues of our time and that we were constantly sending these multi-generational ships out into interstellar space. Everyone in the novel who favors interstellar colonization is a moral monster and everyone who opposes it is a good and decent person. Really. It's very strange.
If you are interested in a novel about the struggles involved in colonizing space, that really grapples with the science and technology this is not the novel for you. Look elsewhere.
** OK SPOILERS NOW **
So by about 1/3 of the way through the book it is quite clear that the bulk of the story will not be about the colonization of Aurora, but about a return journey to Earth, which to me has no drama whatsoever and seems pointless. Had I known this I never would have picked up this book.
Much of what is wrong with this novel has been covered in other negative reviews, but I do want to get my 2 cents in. Here are some points:
* The colony ship left Earth in the 26th century, over 500 years in the future. Much of the technology on the ship demonstrates this. You've got printers that can print any complex object, a big ship that can travel to another solar system and keep 2000 people alive for nearly 200 years, a sentient AI. But much is missing. No mention is made of genetic engineering, which is very odd.
* Much is made in the novel of the zoo effect, or the small island effect. This is the idea that a small population will degrade over time due to--well what exactly is never said. This is a key concept of the novel. Colonizing a distant world is impossible because of this zoo effect but we never get any kind of explanation of exactly what this is or what causes it.
* OK and if the zoo effect another way of saying a lack of genetic diversity--well there are simple ways of dealing with that. See genetic engineering mentioned above. But also, it is possible with current technology to freeze sperm, eggs, and live embryos of pretty much any species for many years. Why did these geniuses not load up the ship with genetic diversity in the form of such things? This really bothered me a lot.
* At one point the people on the ship are starving because their crops are failing. Yeah, they grow crops on the ship. This seemed interesting at first (the growing of crops, that is) but when it got to the point where everyone was starving, well it just seemed stupid. Food is basically certain chemicals arranged in a particular way. It just seems that 500 years in the future there is bound to be a way to create food in a closed system like an interstellar ship that does not involve tilling soil. See genetic engineering mentioned above. Plus, more importantly, as I mentioned, the ship has printers that can print literally anything. Yet no one thinks to ask if said printers can print food for goodness sake.
* This may be me just wanting to read a different book, but these people gave up very quickly. After having lived their entire lives just to get to a distant planet, once they made it (a miracle of ingenuity and technology and hard work), at the first sign of trouble everyone gives up and we are supposed to think that this is the only logical thing they can do. I don't know. We in America are raised to revere the founding fathers. I find it impossible to believe that everyone on a multi-generational ship (if such a thing existed) would not be raised to revere the founders of their mission, to be taught from birth that they are special because their life has a purpose. Everyone would not be so quick to give up when said purpose proved to be a little difficult.
* The group on the ship that decides to return to earth knows that the return journey will take 170 years, so they will all be long dead by the time the ship gets there. So what is the point of returning. They say it is so their ancestors can return to earth, which is just plain silly. They decide to take half the mission's resources and the mission's very valuable AI and half the mission's population away essentially so that they can all feel less guilty about having children. Think about it.
* And one final point (leaving out so much more that I could complain about). So through some nice hand waving (that takes about 150 pages or so) our group of returnees is actually able to make it back to earth while they are mostly still alive. OK, whatever. SF magic to the rescue. To what end you may wonder. Well, so that the main character can go body surfing with some naked hippies back on earth. No I am not kidding. The last 30 pages (30 pages!) of the novel are the main character body surfing with naked hippies. I skimmed most of that section thinking, no, no, surly not. Surly we're not going to just have body surfing till the final page. But yes, yes we did. That whole section of the book was an embarrassment.
Top international reviews
There are a large number of interesting and fascinating characters, not least the ship itself. Yes, there is a good deal of very technical description of various aspects of the ship and the journey. I'm not a scientist but all this complex detail made the story richer and more plausible to me. I would consider this hard sci-fi at its very best and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
I agree with other reviewers, who have indicated that this is NOT a ‘light read’, but that shouldn’t put you off as long as you’re willing to put some effort into understanding subjects ranging from AI, through ecology to time dilation during space flight. If this book doesn’t make you think, then you must already be an expert in at least two of the area involved in astrobiology! One of the unusual aspects of the writing is that the story is told by the AI that controls the spaceship, which leads to some odd descriptions of how to use English – the AI is learning the ‘art’ of communicating through the written word - so, you can learn some use of English as well!
Then there is the whole question of simple life forms, on an alien world, and how they might find the sudden introduction of another biological lifeform nothing but an incubator for their own biochemistry – that’s a really deep, but significant aspect of the questions this book asks.
Finally, there are insights into human behaviour and society’s reaction to the unusual, the unexpected and the contentious issues facing them.
Not too bad a coverage of modern life, all wrapped up in an adventure through space….well worth a read, give yourself time to digest the information though.
I recommend the CVMST lecture by KSR on youtube -- an overview of scifi.
Overall I would highly recommend this novel. Apart from being set in a fictionalised future, the science is all spot on, with future technologies well grounded in current (real) science. Of course that's the point of this novel to a large degree, illustrating just how hard it would really be to visit another star, even with technology we might reasonably have four or five hundred years in our future.