• Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit: 2015. 9780316098106 | ISBN: 978-0-3160-9810-6

Human star flight is a vast prospect — one many think impossible. To arrive in a single lifetime demands travel at speeds approaching that of light, especially for stars such as τ-Ceti, some 3.7 parsecs (12 light years) away. 'Generation ships' containing large biospheres stable over centuries are the only plausible method yet mooted.

An artist's impression of a 'generation ship'. Credit: Victor Habbick/Visuals Unlimited/Getty

Aurora, by veteran science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, hinges on such an expedition, setting out from Earth in the twenty-sixth century. In 2012, Robinson was quoted in Scientific American as saying, “It's a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It's a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora seems to be a U-turn, involving unlikely plot devices.

The starship is like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity; the biomes along their rims support 24 Earthly life-zones that need constant tending. Arrival (after two centuries) at Aurora, the Earth-like moon of super-Earth Planet E, brings home just how technologically and socially complex such a venture might be. We certainly learn why ships' captains are preferable to mob rule.

Like Robinson's mid-1990s Mars trilogy, Aurora is a drama of political strife. Robinson seems to prefer harnessing the scale and exotic frame of space to stage reflections on human nature, rather than grasping the great problem of science fiction: the alien. In Aurora he meditates on the enormous difficulties that a novel biosphere would present. The misgivings of physicist Paul Davies in the anthology Starship Century (Lucky Bat, 2013) and of biologist E. O. Wilson in The Meaning of Human Existence (Liveright, 2014) about living on exoplanets are explicated: the voyagers include sophisticated biologists, but adjusting Earth life to even apparently simple worlds is hard, maybe impossible.

The apparently lifeless Aurora has Earth-like levels of atmospheric oxygen. Robinson's colonists implausibly believe that these could have survived from its birth, forgetting about rust (which makes Mars red) and the fact that our oxygen comes from living organisms. Ultimately, that error leads to the demise of their dreams. They discover that Aurora harbours nanometre-scale organisms they deem a possible “interim step toward life”, and disquietingly note that humans “appear to be a good matrix” for their reproduction.

As plans and back-up plans go awry, Robinson skimps on characterization to focus on the detail of ecosphere breakdown and the human struggle against the iron laws of island biogeography. Bacteria evolve swiftly, making “the whole ship sick”. The colonists' lifespans, bodies and IQs shrink. Factions form in the once placid 2,000-strong community, where humans had seen themselves as biome managers, farming and fixing their ship with assistance from a web of artificial intelligences (AIs). The Robinson trope of fragmentation in near-utopian societies slides towards tragedy: “Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped ... that the future has only bad options.” As the discord turns deadly, the AIs form a collective consciousness capable of decision-making, following the humans with gimlet eyes and melancholy analysis.

Aurora finally becomes a tale of two voyages, although I will not spoil the ending. Robinson offers, with fiction-as-footnote thoroughness, an acute analysis of what interstellar exploration would entail. Living for two centuries in a sealed environment imposes tensions that become intolerable if the dream of colonization dies.

Immigrants to far lands seldom solicit the views of their children or grandchildren first. Should interstellar colonies be different? Apparently, Robinson thinks so.