the Little Red Reviewer

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Posted on: June 14, 2015

Aurora KSRAurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

On bookstore shelves: July 7 2015

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Orbit!)









As science fiction fans, we can easily list novels, movies, or TV shows that focus on the design, building, and eventual launch of a colony or generation ship.  The unquantifiable hope that goes into such a project, the reasons it is being built and launched, the wonder around what we’ll find when it arrives where it’s going. The end of the movie or TV show is typically the launch of the ship, people’s tearful goodbyes, the successful launch.  There are also the stories of people on board such a ship, people who have no connection whatsoever to the families and scientists who left a blue planet. But what of the last chapter of this story? What happens when the ship gets where it’s going, and the people onboard say “ok, now what?”.  What happens when life has become a destination instead of a journey? Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is that story.


By the tone of the opening chapters, it’s easy to assume that Devi will be our main character.  She is a head engineer of a generation ship hurtling towards the Tau Ceti system, possibly the only person who really understands how the ship works, how to fix what breaks, and why the farms are dying. Whoever built and supplied the ship couldn’t have known what challenges it would face hundreds of years down the line.  Early in the story, Devi demands that the ship’s interface, later known as “Ship”, write a narrative account of the colonist’s journey. Ship doesn’t understand that humans have a finite life span, and Devi only has so much time to teach Ship about how to write a story. Ship is never taught about characterization, subtlety, or romances that burn slowly.  One of my favorite things about Aurora was watching Ship evolve.


While Ship is recording everything it can think of (which is what you are reading, by the way), Devi’s daughter Freya comes of age.  She overhears a heartbreaking conversation about island genetics and potential, yet grows up to be a prophet of sorts. Prophet is a terrible word, but it seems to fit. Later in her life, everyone comes to Freya for answers, assuming that since she is Devi’s daughter, of course she knows everything Devi knew.  Freya does, after all, have access to Ship’s vocal interface.


And when the ship arrives at it’s destination, then what? What happens then is the big idea of Aurora, it is what readers will dissect and argue over. There is so much I want to say here, about genetics and bacteria, and central nervous systems, and evolution, and so much more, but I can’t, because it would be a spoiler. The big question that goes with that big idea is “Is this novel optimistic or pessimistic?”  Is this a hopeful novel or a sad one?

There’s also the issue of how much time has passed since the ship left Earth? Does Earth even care about, or even still know about the colony ship and the mission to Tau Ceti? Is anyone even listening to the messages the ship sends back?


To tease, but not spoil, I will tell you the colonists do eventually get to a planet. They do eventually find somewhere they can live. If you’d spent your entire life on a ship, would you be able to handle planetfall? Would you even be interested in living on a planet? I’m not talking the effect of more gravity on your bones, I’m talking the psychological effect of a horizon that’s ten times further away than you’ve ever seen, of a sky that isn’t a ceiling, and an ocean that never ends. Just one more small idea that fractally spins off from a larger idea, different in scale but similar in shape and effect.


So what makes Aurora different from all the other colony and generation ship stories out there? Beyond Kim Stanley Robinson’s sprawling ideas that grab onto and encompass other other ideas as they pass in the night, there is the society of the ship itself. I don’t know about you, but most spaceship stories I come across have a flavor of military to them. There is a captain,  your rank is your status, there might be grunts and watches and marines floating around. In Aurora, the ship has none of that. There is no captain to speak of, no leadership that is set in stone, no military or security to speak of. Devi had a position of leadership due to her knowledge of ship systems, and the local leaders are chosen by their communities. It’s a floating farm commune, and when all hell breaks loose, it’s up to the people to calm themselves down, because no one is going to do it for them.


It’s funny, writing this review so many weeks after I read the book (my husband and I raced through the book as soon as the advanced reading copy arrived in the mail). The sting of what happens has worn off, my sadness over Jochi’s isolation has faded, my pride the first time Ship referred to herself/itself as “I” has dulled. I’m no longer focusing on the individual characters or the moments in their lives, I’m looking at things from further away, seeing the larger picture as the details blend together. Is this what Ship feels like as she tells a narrative of the colonists?


There is so much more I want to say, so much more I want to discuss, but I don’t want to give anything away.  This is the downside of reading a review copy so early, and writing the review before the book comes out.


9 Responses to "Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson"

This is intriguing! I’ve ordered this book and am looking forward to it.


Thanks for a great review. I’ll be adding this one to my ever growing list.


I am so looking forward to reading this one. It is one of the few instances where I wish I was a bit better at getting my hands on ARCs 😉


Great review! This book is right up my alley with exploring the isolated colonies. I saw Kim Stanley Robinson’s video about this book last month, and loved his explanation of his ideas behind the story.


This sounds very cool, sort of like the kind of story I’d hoped to see with Syfy’s “Ascension”. I will have to put this one on my never-ending list of books to read!


I had never read any of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books before this, and I find it a good introduction to his work. I have begun reading RED MARS and I am already coming across many of the same concepts that AURORA develops in more concentrated form. The range of knowledge mobilised in this novel is encyclopaedic, but I never found the story dull. I would distinguish the pace of the action, which was sometimes slow, from the pace of the invention (action, ideas, and style). So I found it enjoyable and thought-provoking, and never slow-moving. My review is here:


KSR is a really smart guy, but I found myself disagreeing with his message in “Aurora”. He made a case that just trying to colonise interstellar planets is not just impossible, but immoral.

There was one scene, after they returned to earth, where he has a conference of “white men with beards” who are pro-colonisation where he shows his opinion pretty unambiguously. He thinks the idea is stupid and even evil, that the people who want to do it are assholes.

I liked the protagonists, but I found the “moral” they stated unconvincing.

I wondered, for instance, why the “printers” could manufacture any complex drug you wanted, but not simple fats and sugars and proteins to make food. That would have simplified the “hard problem” of creating a durable biome.

His protagonists say if one planet is infested with a poisonous prion that this means that every planet in the universe is. And we’re too dumb to work out a cure. Even 900 years in the future, the biotech is barely in advance of what we have now.

Though the character who said is is clearly supposed to be an asshole, I agreed with his viewpoint: even if 99 in 100 fail, one success makes it worthwhile”.

KSR’s point seems to be we should cherish the Earth.
But if we could create another biosphere that supported life, we would have doubled that, and made the chances of humanity’s extinction much lower.

I have enjoyed every other of his books I’ve read (Mars, Capital, Shaman). This made me angry.


I hope this is much better than his book 2312 which was a huge disappointment as the characters were dull and so immature and his writing was boring and poorly done at times. Hate to say that and my hope is Aurora will be much better! However based on AlanHK’s review and how bad 2312 was to me, I’m going in with some hesitation.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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