I tend to find science fiction stories that deal with and, in some way or other, end in failure fascinating. A lot of speculative fiction deal with dark topics, pessimism, and dystopia - we are a long way from the optimism that was characteristic for what’s now commonly referred to as the Golden Age of SF, after all - but while the bulk of these stories may not necessarily have a happy ending, they do not primarily deal with failure. When I think of stories that are about failure, I think of Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To…, about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games-trilogy, about the immensely pessimistic stories of James Tiptree Jr., the works of Peter Watts, and about Aurora.
Aurora tells the story of a generational starship that has been travelling from Earth toward the Tau Ceti system for, at the start of the novel, approximately 160 years, with roughly ten more years to ago. The ship is an ark, transporting Terran species and ecological zones across the vastness of space to settle on a new planet and build a new world. But the ship is also a small closed system that demands constant and vigilant care in order to remain healthy and, in return, keep its interior and human population alive and well long enough to reach its destination.
Aurora is a story about the consequences and limitations of interstellar travel and the dream of leaving Earth and branching out among the stars. The novel portrays a future of splendid technological advances and possibilities, but ultimately focuses on what’s not possible, on the the limitations of human nature that we may never be able to engineer our way out of; maybe Earth is not humanity’s cradle, but rather it’s only viable home. This does not mean that Aurora is a cautionary fable bemoaning the dangers of technology, however, because it’s definitely not - it is simply not interested in a success story, but it instead in one of failure, and that is what makes the novel such an engrossing and fascinating read.
Furthermore, the story of this foray into deep space is told from the perspective of the starship’s A.I., which is slowly, at the insistence of its head engineer Devi, teaching itself how to tell a story and, in the process, develop something akin to human intelligence. It is a motif that has been explored elsewhere - for example in Catherynne M. Valente’s astounding Silently and Very Fast - but that makes it no less interesting to follow the A.I.’s struggle to form a narrative account of its travel and how its programming responds and develops from it, and how that eventually affects the entirety of the ship and its populace.
Having a non-humanity entity with, at least at first, little to no sense of narrative structure also makes for an interesting rendering of the day to day business of keeping the ship and all its parts working. While the story certainly has its dramatic peaks, it first and foremost manages to give the sense that the journey is one of endless, daily grind, where the main danger may not be one major catastrophic event, but rather many small problems that crop up and eventually accumulate. Overall, Stanley Robinson has done a great job of capturing the inner workings of the starship (even though he seems to almost deliberately shy away from certain questions regarding gender and sexuality in a way that seems strange, given the amount of detail that has gone into basically everything else concerning the life of the ship and its human population). Aurora is my first foray into his bibliography, but I’m sure it won’t be my last.