Light years from home

SFX - - Rated -

Re­lease Date: 9 July

470 pages | Hard­back/ ebook Au­thor: Kim Stan­ley Robin­son Pub­lisher: Or­bit

The gen­er­a­tion star­ship

novel is a sta­ple of science fic­tion, a meta- story that au­thors from dif­fer­ent eras re­visit and rein­vent. But cer­tain es­sen­tial, and con­tra­dic­tory, el­e­ments re­main. The idea of a craft that will take a cen­tury or more to reach its des­ti­na­tion is si­mul­ta­ne­ously stir­ring and scary, ex­pan­sive and claus­tro­pho­bic, ma­jes­tic yet hubris­tic.

It’s there­fore not sur­pris­ing that Kim Stan­ley Robin­son, an SF nov­el­ist who’s al­ways de­lighted in the ten­sion be­tween hu­mankind’s no­tions about the uni­verse and the way the uni­verse ac­tu­ally works ( so far as we can tell…), would be drawn to the form. What was far less pre­dictable was that Robin­son would craft a book that can be read as the em­bod­i­ment of the idea that in or­der to break the rules, you have to un­der­stand them first.

To put that another way, Aurora is in key re­spects one of Robin­son’s most con­ven­tional nov­els. Here, you won’t find mis­fits liv­ing in the harsh­est wilder­ness ( as in Antarc­tica) or heretic pro­to­sci­en­tists glimps­ing the fu­ture ( Galileo’s Dream). In­stead, you’ll find what you’d ex­pect: peo­ple liv­ing on a sub- light speed star­ship, forced to co­op­er­ate as they travel through space to­wards a dis­tant star sys­tem.

Things aren’t go­ing as planned. There’s un­der­ly­ing ten­sion on the ship, re­vealed as we fol­low Freya, the daugh­ter of chief engi­neer Devi, on a kind of gap- year tour of the ship’s dif­fer­ent habi­tats, each of which recre­ates a dif­fer­ent Earth eco- sys­tem. Then there’s the phys­i­cal state of the ship it­self. While it’s a mag­nif­i­cent piece of en­gi­neer­ing, it’s been in space for decades. As if it were a kind of grand ver­sion of Bio­sphere II ( an at­tempt to build a fully self- suf­fi­cient vi­var­ium out in the Ari­zona desert that didn’t go so well) it’s start­ing to fail. Turns out such fac­tors as build- ups of mois­ture, slow chem­i­cal re­ac­tions and un­ex­pected fluc­tu­a­tions in min­eral con­cen­tra­tions are huge prob­lems when you’re light years from home and can’t nip out to B& Q for the bits and bobs needed to ef­fect re­pairs.

Things get stranger still when the ship ap­proaches its des­ti­na­tion. Sim­ply, it’s hard to live on another world for which you’re not evolved. This isn’t ex­actly an un­fa­mil­iar no­tion within re­cent SF, but Robin­son’s ap­proach to ex­plor­ing the idea – to have the would- be set­tlers’ tra­vails re­lated by the ship’s AI, which ini­tially strug­gles with the very idea of cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive – em­pha­sises the sheer weird­ness, the other- world­li­ness, of the ex­er­cise.

More im­por­tantly, the ploy of hav­ing an out­sider nar­ra­tor, or at least a non- hu­man one who’s in­ti­mately in­volved in the lives of hu­mankind, also serves to take some of the moral ques­tions Robin­son tack­les out­side fa­mil­iar frames of ref­er­ence. Do we have the right to vol­un­teer gen­er­a­tions ahead for lives built on wild dreams and chances? Can hu­mankind ever make a home so far from Mother Earth? And by im­pli­ca­tion, be­cause all SF is at some level about right now and be­cause en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns lie at the cen­tre of Robin­son’s work, have we got the right to de­spoil a bio­sphere that gen­er­a­tions ahead will rely upon?

Not that Robin­son ex­plores such themes in ped­a­gogic fash­ion. In­stead, by ex­pertly tin­ker­ing with the form of the gen­er­a­tion star­ship novel, break­ing the rules as he makes it not about brave ex­plor­ers but ac­ci­den­tal he­roes try­ing to get by as best they can, he nudges you off bal­ance, forces you to look anew at fa­mil­iar ideas and tropes.

The re­sults, it has to be said, may not be to ev­ery­one’s taste. In­deed, un­til around 100 pages in, this is a book that takes a while – per­haps too long – to gather mo­men­tum. No mat­ter, be­cause the wider achieve­ment here, craft­ing an ac­ces­si­ble yet sub­tly ex­per­i­men­tal novel packed with big ides, won­ders, jeop­ardy and, at the end, a real emo­tional punch, is con­sid­er­able. In its un­der­stated way, one of Robin­son’s best nov­els. Jonathan Wright

Packed with big ideas, won­ders and jeop­ardy

Robin­son first got in­ter­ested in SF when, as a teenager, he got Clifford D Si­mak’s The Goblin Reser­va­tion out of the li­brary. SNUFF is an acro­nym for Spe­cial News­reel/ Uni­ver­sal Fea­ture Film, which is what the footage shot by Kar­pov’s drone is called.

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