Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, August 30, 2015

on Aurora

My friend Adam Roberts, whose critical judgment is superb, loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Aurora; I didn’t. At all. And while such differences in literary experience are inevitable and commonplace — “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like” is the most truthful of all reviews — I’m a little uncomfortable to be so far from Adam in my response.

And that’s because I didn’t like the book. If I had liked it more than Adam did I wouldn’t be bothered; but I’d prefer not to be the sort of reader whose insufficient catholicity of taste, or readily insensitivity, blocks him from appreciating things that deserve appreciation. But I didn’t care for Aurora, and I think I can say why: I was not moved or convinced by the cultural world it portrays.

Adam writes, “Aurora is a magnificent piece of writing, certainly Robinson’s best novel since his mighty Mars trilogy, perhaps his best ever.” So since he compared it to the Mars trilogy, I will too — even though in one sense that’s unfair, since the Mars books gave Robinson at least three times as many words in which to portray a fictional world. But the stories have a fundamental three-part structure in common:

  1. The decision to send human beings to another world.
  2. How they get there.
  3. What they do when they arrive.

The proportions vary greatly: the Mars trilogy is overwhelmingly about number 3, Aurora more focused on number 2. And you could make an argument that the richer cultural world of the Mars trilogy is a function not only of its greater length but its dominant setting. Still, as I read Aurora I kept thinking about the two-dimensionality of lives of the people living on their ship headed for Tau Ceti. They were all focused on personal relationships, political questions, and the technologies needed to manage life in a strange environment. That’s it. One group of people, living in one biome, had developed a kind of ritual in which they introduce young people to the fact that they are living in a starship … but if any of the other biomic cultures had done something similar, we don’t hear about it. Also, sometimes people play music. But that exhausts the cultural life of the ship — which the people haven’t even named. The ship’s AI suggests that it be called “Ship.” But I cannot imagine that human beings living for generations on a starship wouldn’t name the damned thing.

On Mars, in Robinson’s trilogy, there are poets, and composers, and dramatists — a rich cultural and artistic life. There are serious (and endless, and fascinating) philosophical debates about what they’re doing on Mars and why they’re doing it. Is it too much to expect that something of the kind on Aurora’s generational ship? I don’t think so. Czeslaw Milosz writes somewhere — in The Witness of Poetry, I think — about situations of extreme suffering and deprivation in which poetry becomes “as necessary as bread.” And I am persuaded by the governing conceit of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (about which I wrote briefly here): that if civilization collapsed people would value all the more the music and drama and poetry that had seemed so frivolous and ancillary in a fully-functioning world.

I’m trying not to spoil Aurora too much here, but I think it’s okay to say that when the ship finally gets to the Tau Ceti system an intense dispute arises about whether the people should stay there or go somewhere else. When some characters are taken aback by the passionate intensity of those who want to stick with the original plan, one person comments, “I do think it helps to think of the stayers as holding a religious position. The Tau Ceti system has been their religion all their lives, they say, and now they are being told that it won’t work here, that the idea was a fantasy. They can’t accept it.”

But I don’t see any evidence in the text that people think/thought act/acted in a religious way — about this, or about anything else. Robinson seems to portray them as simply being excited about coming to the end of a long voyage. There doesn’t seem to be much (any) reflection about those thousands of people who were born on the ship and died on the ship — like Israelites who were born in the wilderness and died before reaching the Promised Land. Surely this is something that people would have thought about in the 160 or so years that the ship had been sailing through space, and probably even before they departed Earth. It’s hard for me not to imagine that on such a ship there would be whole philosophical schools — not formal, not professional, but comprised of people deeply invested in the key questions. You see something like that in Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, a book I also have commented on. Yet the people of Aurora seem myopically focused on the immediate and practical; and in that sense they don’t seem fully human to me.

That’s why I didn’t like the book very much.


  • I feel a touch self-conscious commenting here, doubly so since you say such kind things about my critical judgement. But I thought I might just make a few brief points, and then slip quietly out through a side door.

    The first is that you're not alone in your dislike: Aurora seems to be dividing opinion in SFdom: some really like it, some really don't. I suppose we might say that there's long been a degree of, shall we say, coolness about KSR's characterisation; a distance that gives him insight into some aspects of human behaviour and a curious blindness into others, that some people don't much like. And others have criticised the premises he assumes for this story: that artificial hybernation would be discovered only halfway through the voyage and so on. That's all fine and fair enough. I'm a very long-standing KSR fan, and it's of course possible that my fanboyishness has blinkered me to the book's shortcomings.

    Then again, one thing that leads to me think that mightn't be true is that the things you list above as bugs did strike me, only they struck me as features, and splendid features at that.

    As I said, though only in passing, in my Grauniad review, the core strength of Aurora as a novel seems to me its eloquence on two great truths: one, the way models distort and falsify reality, and two that entropy is a very powerful force. I thought the latter very grippingly dramatised, with the practical problems the crew face and so on. The former point relates to many things: ideological preconceptions about the world (left or right), pet theories, disciplines like economics and sociology and meteorology, have their uses in terms of helping us orient ourselves. But such versions of the world are always modular and therefore attenuated and mendacious. The world itself is always richer and more complex than any human models; there are always things that escape the grid, more in heaven and earth than etc etc. This feeds through into the novel in several ways: the inability of the factions fighting on the ship to see past their own respective political positions for instance. But it comes into its own with the whole vision of the book, b/c (I think) KSR presents the population of Aurora as a modular version of actual human societies, rather than a fully functioning human society in miniature. So all the little ways in which they are stunted, emotionally and intellectually and so on, which you quite right indicate here, seem to me the point of the novel. The novel is saying we can't take a few thousand people and isolate them for centuries and expect that they will live life as richly and in-the-round as a planet containing billions. Not that they will become mere automata, of course. But they will be lessened, which is what you note in your post. So the payoff is [SPOILER] when Freya experiences Earth for the first time and when she punches the generation starship advocate on the nose. This, I'd say, partly about the question of whether it is ethical to condemn as yet unborn generations to life in a de facto prison. It's about the assumption that such a ship can be any kind of equivalent to life in the world itself. It's an epiphany about the here and now, about what we have on this planet, and therefore about what we're so blindly polluting and degrading even as we speak.

  • One more note (popping my head back through the side door for a moment, before leaving you in peace). I confess I did read the book as, in part, a left-wing author's rebuttal to Tom Godwin's famous-in-SF-circles 1954 short story 'The Cold Equations'. In that tale, a spaceship captain discovers a stowaway (an innocent young girl) and, much though he hates doing so, pushes her out of the airlock, because unless she dies his ship will be too heavy to reach its destination with the fuel he is carrying, and if he doesn't reach said destination millions will die from not receiving the medicines that are his cargo, It's a neat story, though the author's thumb is pretty heavily in the balance in order to generate the ending he wants. More to the point, though, it has been taken up in some quarters as a statement of right-wing ideological faith: the laws of physics are immutable, there's no such thing as a free lunch, tough decisions are necessitated by the absolute nature of the cosmos and so on. For myself (and of course this reflects my own biases) I've always disliked the 'The Laws of Physics Prove My Ideology Is True!' school of thought. And I'm guessing that one of the things KSR set out to do in Aurora was write a book in which people pool their expertise and work together to address Cold Equations-style problems that would otherwise prove fatal. I know that this, though, is a weak-beer defence of the novel as such.

  • Adam, this is all great, and more on this later ... but for now, "The Cold Equations!" I read that story when I was fourteen or fifteen, in some classic anthology, and then patiently cut it out of the book with a sharp knife and burned it in one of my dad's ashtrays. Cross my heart, that's how it happened.

  • Isn't 'The Cold Equations' heartless, though? The grim and frankly self-satisfied joy that story takes in the girl's death has always made me shudder.

  • Adam, you write,

    "So all the little ways in which they are stunted, emotionally and intellectually and so on, which you quite right indicate here, seem to me the point of the novel. The novel is saying we can't take a few thousand people and isolate them for centuries and expect that they will live life as richly and in-the-round as a planet containing billions. Not that they will become mere automata, of course. But they will be lessened, which is what you note in your post."

    A point very very very well taken — I think you are simply correct. I just can't find a way to change my response to the book in light of your correct point, though. I think that's because, while as an exercise in political philosophy Aurora may well be incisive, I couldn't buy it as a novel because I simply couldn't believe that people would be that stunted. If KSR had told me that the ship-dwellers' reflections on their condition were crude and simple-minded, I would have believed him; but his stripping them so nearly completely of culture was a bridge further than I could force-march my suspension of belief, to mix metaphors in a way that I am frankly proud of.

    Back to "The Cold Equations": Memories of forty years back are shaky, but I think what made me so bitterly angry at that story was not its treatment of the girl but its treatment of its readers. "Backed you into a corner you can't get out of, didn't I?" Maybe so, I thought in reply, but that just makes you a self-satisfied little shit and I'll have nothing more to do with you. So up it went in the ashtray along with my dad's Lucky Strikes.

  • "I just can't find a way to change my response to the book in light of your correct point, though."

    Two years in one of my Re-education Camps will sort you out, no problem.

  • I haven't read The Cold Equations for many, many years. Heartless bastard that I am, it didn't inspire the same loathing in me that it did in you. It's obviously time for a reread.

  • I'm sure you've seen this before, but just in case - I've always appreciated this explanation of the failings of the Cold Equations.

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