Orbit, 2015, 466 pages
A major new novel from one of science fiction's most powerful voices, Aurora tells the incredible story of our first voyage beyond the solar system.
Brilliantly imagined and beautifully told, it is the work of a writer at the height of his powers.
Our voyage from Earth began generations ago.
Now we approach our new home.
How do you make an AI sympathetic? It's not easy, unless you're using cute droids. I guess it's telling that one of the most endearing characters in Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora is the ship's AI. Robinson is a hard SF author and I kind of bounced off the first book of his Mars trilogy, which was okay but too dry for me, suffering from the same problems at Arthur C. Clarke and Alastair Reynolds — he writes great science, big ideas, well-thought plots, but characters who are just sort of there.
In Aurora, though, the humans are much more human, and the AI is almost as human as they are, towards the end.
This is a generation ship story. The inhabitants of Aurora are descended from the original crew of a giant ship that set out for Tau Ceti centuries ago. The current generation, including large, ungainly Freya, will actually live to see them arrive. The first part of the book features what you'd expect — problems on the ship, requiring both technical and social engineering to resolve, followed by their arrival at the Tau Ceti system.
And here's the twist — they discover that the planet is inimical to humans despite their best efforts to live there, and rather than spend themselves futilely trying to colonize it, they decide to go back. That's right — a generation ship turns around and heads back to Earth.
I don't recall ever reading this premise before, and indeed, Earth has never seen one of its generation ships return before. There is a lot of debate, within the pages, about whether or not humans really can, or are meant to, actually leave their "cradle." The various points of view are well articulated and give one pause for thought about the assumption that someday we should leave our homeworld just because.
While it was not a particularly exciting book, Aurora is a very intelligent book in the best SF tradition, and by the end, I was actually caring about the characters, but especially the ship's AI, which started out as a mere quantum navigation computer but over the course of centuries has had to learn to deal with, and then think like, humans. It struggles with morals, with metaphors, with humor, made to learn to assimilate these concepts, and eventually struggles to answer the question, am I aware?
Making the climax, in which the Aurora executes a high-risk one-in-a-million arrival in Earth's solar system, far too fast and unable to brake and so using planetary gravity wells and skimming and bouncing off the surfaces of gas giants and the sun itself, more compelling because we actually care whether the ship survives, with or without its off-loaded human passengers.
Also by Kim Stanley Robinson: My review of Red Mars.
My complete list of book reviews.