Book Read: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Currently Reading: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Rather than review each book I read – a task that was becoming increasingly difficult as my reading well outpaced my writing – this year I intend to blog weekly about my literary adventures. I’m not entirely sure what form these journal entries will take, they’re likely to change as the year progresses, but at least in this instance the bulk of this weeks entry is given over to my thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.

A few days ago I wrote an introductory post on my statistical analysis of last year’s awards (22 of which I read in 2015).  I was planning to blog the first part on Wednesday but then my tonsils – dormant for the last three decades – decided to remind me they were in my mouth by swelling up and hitting me with a fever. I am getting better – hence this post – and hopefully I should have the statistical analysis up on the weekend. In the meantime, here is my week in reading.


Aurora is my first taste of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels (I’ve read a couple of his shorter piece).  There’s something a little blasphemous in admitting this given his work has been critically praised over the years and won any number of awards.  But the subject matter of his work – whether it be the terraforming of Mars or climate catastrophe – has never compelled me to pick up a book, inspite of all the plaudits.

I read Aurora though because all the talk about the novel indicates that it’ll feature on a bunch of awards lists and I wanted to get ahead of the pack (for a change).  I don’t regret the decision.  While I wasn’t suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to read more KSR, I did like the book.  It was engaging.  Robinson’s take on the generation ship – which can be summarized as “they are a fucking bad idea” – is full of drama and tension as the 2000 occupants face a constant series of life and death choices – especially when they finally reach their destination (a moon in the Tau Ceti system).  Most of the science went over my head, but KSR’s explanation of orbital mechanics in the penultimate chapter makes for some awesome visuals. 

As far as I’m concerned hard SF doesn’t get much harder than Aurora.  And yet James Nicoll, in his review of the novel, points out a number of scientific inaccuracies, especially around the whizz bang orbital mechanics that so impressed me.  I have no reason to doubt James analysis, but then again as someone who failed Year 10 science and doesn’t known an eigenfunction from a greedy algorithm, I don’t have the knowledge or tools to know whether his critique is accurate.  Having said that, the overall point that James was making – and especially those who read his review ands commented on his LiveJournal – is that KSR is faking it when it comes to Hard SF.  And that raises two questions: how accurate does the science have to be for a genre novel to be considered Hard SF?  And who is truly writing Hard SF in the field today?  A response to that second question would be much appreciated because if KSR doesn’t fit the bill then I’m not sure who does.  Greg Egan?  Charles Stross?

Genre taxonomy aside, my biggest issue with the novel was the dry prose. The main conceit of Aurora is that the Artificial Intelligence (AI) that runs the ship is narrating the story. At first it struggles with the concept of narration and in probably the best chapter of the book the AI grapples with the mechanics of story. That chapter led me to believe that the AI would be constantly playing with narrative, that different styles and modes would creep in as the AI became more familiar with the trick of story-telling.  There’s an element of this (the AI tries to get its virtual head around metaphor and analogy), but other than the sprinkling of a few jokes it maintains the same style for most of the novel – deathless, factual, colourless prose. It’s not awful. And like I say the book is engaging and quite tense and dramatic.  But the lack of vibrancy to the writing meant I didn’t care that much about the characters, including Freya – our primary protagonist.

Aurora is very similar to Andy Weir’s The Martian, and frankly any number of SF novels, in that it’s about people engineering their way out of trouble and yet KSR’s message is that we need to spend more time fixing up our own planet rather than looking to the stars.  So while The Martian felt very much like an advertisement for NASA and human ingenuity, Aurora leaves you thinking that NASA’s budget should be spent on finding innovative ways to save the planet.