Kim Stanley Robinson
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.