“We’ve known for a long time that Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you’re not supposed to stay in your cradle forever … So eventually it will happen, because we are going to keep trying. It’s an evolutionary urge, a biological imperative, something like reproduction itself. Possibly it may resemble something like a dandelion or a thistle releasing its seeds to the winds, so that most of the seeds will float away and die. But a certain percentage will take hold and grow. Even if it’s only one percent, that’s success!”

This sentiment, expressed by a minor character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s space colonization tale, is probably a familiar one. You may even have expressed something similar yourself. After reading Aurora, though, you might find yourself questioning the premise and the consequence of pursuing such a philosophy. Like another character, you may come to consider the advocates of multi-generational colonization “criminally negligent narcissists.” This thought-provoking book travels the distance between those two outlooks on space exploration and leaves the reader with deep questions delivered in an absorbingly layered tale.

Aurora is the story of the sixth generation of inhabitants of a world ship traveling to the Tau Ceti system where they hope to settle the fifth planet’s moon, eventually named Aurora. The ship itself is an engineering marvel of 24 semi-autonomous rotating biomes that contain ecosystems from every Terran ecological zone. People tend to the ecosystems, farm crops, and husband livestock such as the dog-sized cows engineered to be sustainable on the 170 year voyage. It is an idyllic setting, but undercurrents soon come to light.

Our narrator is Freya, daughter of Badim, an important ship doctor, and Devi, who might be called the ship’s chief engineer. We see Freya grow up and she provides a window into Devi’s increasing tension as the engineer vainly tries to keep all of the ship’s cycles going despite “metabolic rifts,” that slowly bind nutrients and volatiles critical to life into inaccessibility. Every year it gets harder to close the cycles adequately, resulting in nutrient deficiencies that weaken crops and microbial organisms that evolve faster than the crew can keep them at bay. New diseases strike and each generation—including the human generations—is less robust than its predecessor, in a process Robinson labels “regression to the mean.”

It seems that the ship reaches Aurora just in time. And that is when the challenges begin in earnest.

It is difficult to say more without revealing too much of the story. Robinson addresses in turn a spectacular array of life’s greatest questions. Is it ethical to commit your descendants to settle new lands they might never reach? Is it possible to create a self-contained ecosystem as robust as Earth itself? What is artificial intelligence and how does it evolve? What holds a society together when every person depends on every other and no one can leave? Is it possible to find another star system hospitable to Earth’s lifeforms? What does it mean to be alive?

Robinson visits each of these questions in turn, describing social behaviors and human reactions so realistic that the fantastic nature of their settings is almost beside the point.

For those who are sticklers for accurate science in their science fiction, Robinson does alright with a reasonable premise for Coriolis-induced gravity simulation, slower-than-light-speed communication, an interesting combination of propulsion mechanisms, 3D printing, and a broad array of the details of life in space. Occasionally he’ll spout some technobabble, stringing together his favorite phrases, including “statistical syllogism,” “greedy algorithms,” “halting problem,” and “allopatric speciation.” What becomes one of the loveliest bits of the story begins with a preposterous setup involving Devi instructing the ship computer to write a story using parameters no programmer would ever consider. She later instructs: “You need to bring into play your transrecursive operators … you might need to use fuzzy computation to break the calculation loop, and for that you need semantics.”

Despite the occasional technological silliness, Aurora has a lot to say about how we live on Earth and our aspirations for a future in space. You’ll come out the other side with a deeper understanding of the human cost of planetary settlement and a decision to reevaluate: is it worth it?

Although Robinson is well known to the space colonization crowd from his Mars trilogy, Aurora was released in 2015 to little fanfare. It deserves more. This gripping tale altered my perception of space colonization and interplanetary travel as inevitable human achievements. It brings humanity and balance to the dream of exploration and exposes the complexities inherent in questions we too often consider settled. It’s also a smashingly good read. I highly recommend it.

-Kim Stanley Robinson discusses the science and speculation behind his novel, Aurora.


About the author

Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.