Light years from home
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.