Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Blackstone: Aurora

For September's convocation of the Blackstone Fantasy & Science Fiction book group, we discussed Kim Stanley Robinson's newly-released novel "Aurora".

In "Aurora", Robinson ventures out of the solar system for the first time, following a group of colonists on a generational starship to Tau Ceti (a popular SF destination). The generational starship is a staple of interstellar SF that eschews FTL, since it's one of only a few ways one can get characters to other stars without violating the laws of physics.

The twist here is that Robinson is directly challenging the easy optimism that characterizes the overwhelming majority of space exploration science fiction--the Tau Ceti mission runs into a slew of deep problems, from biology, from sociology, and from the laws of physics. In so doing, he's both making this a bit harder than the usual "hard SF" and also making a point about Earth and the folly of assuming we could easily leave it.

Our general consensus was that we really liked the novel, but felt (as many reviewers have) that KSR stacked the deck a little too hard to make his points. Probable spoilers below!

Steve's first comment--and a major theme in the novel--was about the moral question of generational projects. "The kids don't sign up for it," as someone put it--so embarking on a mission that will put ones descendants in a dangerous, confined environment not of their choosing seems very problematic. One could make the point that the difference between this and having children under normal circumstances is only one of degree--but the degree is pretty severe, especially for something with as high a potential fatality rate as relatively untested space programs like this. A really thorny, interesting problem, and I'm not sure where else in SF this has been examined. We all applauded Freya when she decks the guy back on Earth who is blithely pushing for colonization plans that will probably result in a high number of deaths.

One wonders: if we were r rather than K selectors, would we feel differently about this? Essentially the guy that Freya punches out is saying that we need to think more like mass-spawning, high-infant-mortality species in order to spread across the stars, which goes against our current morals (which are themselves at least partially based in our nurture strategies).

Most of us liked the writing, were surprised by the strength of the characterization (with the caveat that there was an awful lot of teen angst), and liked how science-based it was. We compared it to some of Hal Clement's work, the films "2001" & "Interstellar", and I really like the way it builds on some of the themes from KSR's previous work, particularly "2312" (2012).

Most of what we spent our time talking about, though, is that the mission fails, and must return home, and it seems like Robinson went a little too far in setting it up to fail.

Before I list all the reasons we talked about, a quick defense: Robinson doesn't break his own rules--things don't break down against logic or natural law. And part of what he's doing here is pointing out the way that most interstellar SF--even the minority of that subgenre that tries to stick to known physics and avoid various isotopes of unobtainium--is far too optimistic, particularly in how it doesn't consider deep problems of biology, ecology, and sociology. In an interview, asked about interstellar travel, Robinson came right out with it: "It's a nasty proposition and a wrong idea. The harder you press it, the more you realize it won't work."

That strain of thought is pretty rare in SF, and, while it very well may be realistic, it's easy to classify it as negative, coming from a tradition that has constantly looked past these kinds of stumbling blocks in order to imagine fantastic interstellar futures. When the Tau Ceti colonists are debating whether to go home, start terraforming a different planet, or move on to another system, one of Robinson's characters seems to anticipate and address this criticism:
    "...Our descendants would get sick and die. They would go extinct."
    This pessimism, or dark realism, whichever it might be, enraged Speller and Heloise, and everyone trying to make the best of things, trying to find a way forward. Why be so negative? they asked.
    "It's not me being negative," Aram would reply. "It's the universe obeying its laws. Science isn't magic! We aren't fantasy creatures! We have been dealt a hand."
And, of course, another theme here, present in most of Robinson's work, is a deep awareness of and respect for ecology, the way that we are inextricably (literally) part of complicated living systems, that may be too complex or too large to replicate in space-ship size, even quite large ships.

I'm really intrigued by the reaction to "Aurora", which I certainly felt myself--a kind of outrage at this science fictional staple being critically poked so hard. It's especially interesting because so much of it is just about which stories we choose to focus on--we wouldn't be upset about successful version of "Aurora" that included a backstory about failed ships. It's a kind of fragile optimism. We like success & survival stories, even if they don't represent the real range of what's happened or what's possible. Which is another point Robinson anticipates--when Freya asks the ship for stories of human explorers in survival situations, it tells her that's "a good idea, although we can advise you in advance to avoid the classic Antarctic literature, unless it pertains to Ernest Shackleton."

All that said! Critiques we had of the deck-stacking:
  • The ship is still communicating with Earth. Granted, at a very long time-lag, but still. It seems ludicrous that, given that two-way communication is going on, that someone back on Earth wouldn't be paying attention and giving advice. It'd be one thing if communication broke down, or if there was a technological collapse or something back home--but those things don't happen, and indeed the development and transmission of cryodormancy techniques is a game-changer in the 4th act.
  • The failure of the crew to have any ongoing command structure seems pretty weird. Varieties of anarchic utopianism are at play in much of KSR's work, and it makes sense that the ship might normally run like that--but that there is no protocol to put people in charge (at least in certain circumstances) in order to prevent general disaster seems pretty dumb slash crazy.
  • We debated on whether the killer microorganism is believable or not, whether they could have detected/developed countermeasures for it. On the one hand, I brought up the point that probes have a hard time finding things they're not programmed to look for, and novel super-micro-micro-life would fall into that category. On the other hand, they seem to have pretty sophisticated nanotech (printers etc.), so it seems like they might have been able to figure something out.
  • A few people thought that the entire crew (barring Devi perhaps) were unbelievably dumb--every time decisions come up, they seem to make bad ones. Personally, I found them neither overly dumb nor at all unbelievable. The ship has a population of about 2,000, and that just seems WAY TOO SMALL to CONTINUALLY PRODUCE AND EDUCATE a large number of really savvy, competent specialists. Especially given that, as mentioned--only the first generation chose this life. After that, they're effectively conscripts.
    • Also, I couldn't help thinking of my hometown--the first 18 years of my life I lived in a town with 2,000 people or less. Who I'm sure have a pretty standard spread of intelligence, competence, creativity, etc--but there's only 2,000 of them, and I wouldn't want to plop them all on a spaceship and trust they could figure out any problem that comes up on the fly.
  • On a related topic, we talked about their lack of "common" sense, such as building their settlement in a flood plain--but a few of us pointed out that for generations they have been incredibly sheltered in a very weird artificial environment, which would seem to preclude Earth-type common sense.
  • Much laughter when these crew-critiques led to a comparison to the telephone-sanitizers of the B Ark.  Also pointed out: if even one kid on this ship had spent some time watching old "Star Trek" episodes, they might have foreseen and avoided some pretty clear red-shirt-type doom-inviting.
  • Some of also thought that setting up the AI's survival as possible, but then plunging it into the sun anyway, was kind of a cheap move on Robinson's part.
There have been a lot of great critical reads of the situation here--I particularly liked SF authors David Brin & Stephen Baxter's takes on it-- and it also reminded me a lot of Mike's critiques of Neal Stephenson's "Seveneves" last time at Chi-SF. I imagine that both "Aurora" and "Seveneves" will be up for a lot awards this coming year, which is interesting given their different conclusions. In my opinion, "Seveneves" will probably trounce "Aurora" by virtue of its sheer page-turning competence porn factor, but it'll be neat to see more of these comparisons.

A good read, highly recommended. We also talked for a bit about the writing, some unusual bits--the lengthy rehab section, and the nature-writing/prose-poem of the final chapter, and the AI-narrated bits. I'm still keeping my eyes out for this, but apparently it's not available: Robinson has a kind of radio play of the chapter "The Hard Problem" which I got to hear at Wiscon last year, that was a really amazing experience, and I had that sound in the back of my head throughout.

The next selection for the Blackstone FSF is Jo Walton's "The Just City" (2015): Monday, October 26th at 6:30pm.

No comments:

Post a Comment