Kim Stan­ley Robin­son

SFX - - Kim Stanley Robinson - Words by Jonathan Wright Por­trait by Will I re­land

Even if your back yard is as huge as the so­lar sys­tem, there comes a mo­ment when you need not just to look over the fence, but to open the gate and ex­plore what lies be­yond. Fig­u­ra­tively, that’s what Kim Stan­ley Robin­son has done with his new novel, Aurora, his first science fic­tion novel set on a star­ship out in deep space, far be­yond the warm­ing glow of the Sun. “I wanted to do what I usu­ally do, take a com­mon science fic­tion idea and push it to: what would that re­ally be like if we did it?” Robin­son says when SFX meets up with him in Lon­don.

Dif­fi­cult is one an­swer that springs to mind – and not just be­cause of the tech­ni­cal prob­lems in­volved. In Robin­son’s sce­nario, hu­man­ity, or at least a sec­tion of it fas­ci­nated by travel be­tween the stars, has de­cided to send set­tlers to the plan­e­tary sys­tem around Tau Ceti, 11.9 light years away. Even in a craft cov­er­ing 30,000 kilo­me­tres ev­ery sec­ond, this is a jour­ney that takes around two cen­turies. It’s a multi- gen­er­a­tional un­der­tak­ing with those who sign up for the jour­ney also com­mit­ting their own chil­dren to the en­ter­prise.

“The star­ship literature is mostly by physics guys and it’s mostly con­cen­trated on propul­sion, on how do we get it to go that fast, be­cause that is a prob­lem,” says Robin­son. “But what I was think­ing was, ‘ Well what about bi­ol­ogy, ecol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy?’”

With­out un­der­es­ti­mat­ing our ca­pac­ity for con­flict, one an­swer here is that hu­mankind, liv­ing in habi­tats that im­i­tate ecolo­gies found on Earth, might cope sur­pris­ingly well with liv­ing on a star­ship, es­pe­cially those born en route. “Hu­mans are so adapt­able, you could think of an anal­ogy as kids brought up in the mid­dle of a city like Lon­don, an ut­terly and com­pletely ur­ban con­text,” Robin­son says. In other words, the en­vi­ron­ments with which we’re most fa­mil­iar be­come nor­mal to us. Ex­cept, of course, this isn’t any­thing like a nor­mal sit­u­a­tion. As Robin­son puts it in the novel, a ship trav­el­ling through space and at­tempt­ing to main­tain “a bi­o­log­i­cally closed life- sup­port sys­tem” will in­evitably be fight­ing “‘ a rear­guard bat­tle’ against en­tropy and OC­CU­PA­TION: BORN: 1952 FROM: Illi­nois G REAT­EST H ITS: The Mars ( Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, 1993- 96) tril­ogy gar­nered BSFA, Ne­bula, Hugo and Lu­cas awards.

R AN­DOM FACT: Re­search­ing Aurora, Robin­son en­listed the help of top sci­en­tists: “NASA/ Ames and [ plan­e­tary sci­en­tist] Chris McKay as­sem­bled a lunch group that an­swered all my physics ques­tions.”

Nov­el­ist dys­func­tion”. And what hap­pens if its pas­sen­gers find their new home less than wel­com­ing?

We’re ap­proach­ing spoiler ter­ri­tory now, but these are ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances and one way Robin­son con­veys just how ex­cep­tional they are is by hav­ing much of the book nar­rated by the ship’s AI. “It sud­denly came to me that a star­ship would have to have a very, very pow­er­ful com­puter aboard run­ning things, and if it were a quan­tum com­puter, as seems likely or at least pos­si­ble, then this could be like the AI Pauline in 2312 [ Robin­son’s Ne­bula- win­ning tale of ten­sions within a so­lar sys­tem- wide civil­i­sa­tion], say­ing things so in­ter­est­ing that it seems hu­man, passes the Tur­ing test,” says Robin­son. This, he adds, was his “way in to the book”. It also makes the book dis­tinc­tive, as we fol­low events from the per­spec­tive of a nar­ra­tor that, at first at least, can’t get its con­scious­ness around the idea of sto­ry­telling.

As for Robin­son’s long- stand­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, they may not be as front and cen­tre as usual, but they’re cer­tainly present, al­beit more tan­gen­tially than in, say, the Mars tril­ogy, where a re­cur­ring theme is whether hu­mankind has the right to ter­raform a pris­tine exo- wilder­ness. “It’s in­ter­est­ing to think that we are on ‘ Star­ship Earth’ and it needs to work for the gen­er­a­tions to come; that it’s theirs too and they will need it given to them in work­ing or­der,” Robin­son says. “So the star­ship is a good metaphor for our sit­u­a­tion here and now, and once again science fic­tion has pro­vided the great way in for talk­ing about the whole story, the big pic­ture – history it­self.”

If this all sounds dread­fully se­ri­ous, one rea­son Robin­son, al­ways a man to choose in­ter­est­ing projects over com­mer­cial en­deav­ours, was drawn to this tech­nique was be­cause it was “fun”. Sim­i­larly, his pre­vi­ous novel, Shaman, set in the Pa­le­olithic era, was a book he “loved writ­ing ”. And not, as you might easily as­sume, be­cause it was a de­par­ture from his SF work. “In essence it was like a plan­e­tary ad­ven­ture ex­cept it re­ally hap­pened that way, some ver­sion of that had to hap­pen,” he says, draw­ing par­al­lels be­tween the novel and a tale where hu­man be­ings are “strug­gling to sur­vive on an ice planet”.

In this con­text, it’s in­trigu­ing that Robin­son views char­ac­ters who would have lived 30,000 years ago not as peo­ple adept at cre­at­ing the tools they needed to make the most of their en­vi­ron­ment. “My idea was they were re­ally hi- tech,” he says. “They were com­fort­able most of the time un­til an ill­ness got them, that’s just like now. They were work­ing in leather and in stone and in bone and in wood, and most of that stuff has rot­ted away but we have their paint­ings in caves. I bet there were paint­ings on ev­ery cliff face but they’ve washed off.”

As for his next novel, Robin­son is “ex­pand­ing on those scenes in 2312 that took place in a drowned New York”, al­beit not us­ing the same timeline as his pre­vi­ous novel. As Robin­son him­self jokes, it will find a ready read­er­ship. “I’m kind of a brand now, peo­ple are used to me, at what I do, and if they don’t like it they don’t read me and if they like it, there’s another one.”

Aurora is pub­lished on 9 July and re­viewed on page 108.

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