Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, or Darkness Overexplained.

Aurora

Read December 2015
Recommended for ??
 ★    ★   

Probably I read it wrong.

I don’t know how else to explain my reaction to a book so many enjoy. I was looking forward to some space-faring sci-fi: I recently read Dune, and with plenty of news about The Expanse, the sci-fi series based on Leviathan Wakes, (review) crossing my feed, I’ve been feeling nostalgic about space travel and unfamiliar planets. Unfortunately, this a disappointment that was a chore to complete.

Aurora begins with Freya and her father sailing on Long Pond. It turns out Long Pond is in the Nova Scotia biome of a spaceship. Narration follows Freya, and the reader knows only as much as she does. It is a clever introduction to a complex scenario, allowing the reader to see the world through child’s eyes, and providing for–somewhat–suspension of disbelief. Freya’s mother, Devi, is the head engineer, and we learn about various problems the ship and its people face through Devi’s troubleshooting. I found myself alternately fascinated by ship logistics and bored by the simplistic structure of the narrative:

Evenings at home are the best. Creche is over and done, her time with all the kids she lives with so much, spending more time with them than she does with her parents, if you don’t con sleeping, so ha it gets so tiresome to make it through all the boring hours, talking, arguing, fighting, reading alone, napping. All the kids are smaller than she is now, it’s embarrassing. It’s gone on so long. They make fun of her, if they thing she isn’t listening to them. They take care with that, because once she heard them making those jokes and she ran over roaring and knocked on of them to the ground and beat on his raised arms. She got in trouble for it, and since then they are cautious around her, and a lot of the time she keeps to herself.

I tried to stay patient, though character and language are two components key to keeping me intrigued. I thought maybe KSR was attempting something interesting with narrative voice and plot–how does a limited colony integrate the cognitively disabled when everything is calculated, almost down to the last molecule? But no–the next section begins with Devi trying to teach the ship narration. Again, interesting device; a clever way to give the reader the technical background on a 159 year old ship that holds two thousand, one hundred twenty-two people. The ship gains a grasp of storytelling and goes back to Freya, now wandering the biomes in a rite of passage common to many residents. She works as a Good For Anything laborer, meeting many of the 3oo people in each biome. Again, fascinating way to show the reader the ship and the way of life.

Throughout the story, plot oriented narration is frequently interrupted by Ship’s philosophical musings. What is metaphor? What is consciousness? What is risk? Once again, ideas with the potential to be interesting, but they are so overt, so clearly interrupting the story as commentary that it’s the literary version of a public service announcement. We witness the situation and then the ship analyzes it in the narrative, as if the reader is twelve year-old Freya. When the ship started learning metaphor, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated, recalling the far more sophisticated story in China Miéville’s Embassytown (review). I remembered how much thought I had to put into reading it, and suddenly realized that KSR was spoon-feeding interpretation. He wasn’t content to create his art and let the viewer define meaning; he wants to control the reader’s conclusions. Does he not trust his story? His skill? The reader?

Section Three centers on arriving at their new home, and it is here that Freya takes a background role as we focus on Euan, one of her childhood friends that is planet-side. Descriptions of the planet are outstanding and lyrical, and I was once again caught in the story as the settlers attempted to create a home. Nostalgia set in as I remembered Anne McCaffrey’s Pern settlement books, but this section didn’t last nearly as long as I hoped.

Further section analysis would no doubt include spoilers, but I will say that Section Four displayed a dismal view of humanity, Section Five is when I hit my ceiling on suspension of disbelief, and Section Six would be better served by reading Wikapedia on language, intelligence and cognition. Colony structure and science that were so painstakingly explained earlier became almost irrelevant as people scurried around reacting like kindergartners during a fire drill. It became a chore to read, thematically and logically, with a character displaying TSTL traits worthy of the worst paranormal romances.

I find that I am irritated with almost everything about this book. The plot is picked up or discarded according to what KSR needs to happen, so that Ship can philosophize about humanity. Characterization is limited at best. When I first read reviews, I thought, “wow, that says something for the author’s skill if the most interesting character is a ship,” but I didn’t realized how ironic that would prove.

The scientific information underlying the story seems interesting and valid. However, like the plot, the science content is mostly there to create situations for humans to react and prove the author’s points. The “printers” are a giant creative crutch. I expect that great science fiction takes the world we know and throws it in the future, exploring the human experience through the unfamiliar, but this just took the amazing and gave it the same behavioral reactions I’d find in the local mall. I wanted the version of this book that explored the behavior of 2000 people isolated for six generations, or, failing that, the experience of colonizing a planet away from any renewable resources.  Frankly, skip this–you’d be better off reading The Martian (review).

 
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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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4 Responses to Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, or Darkness Overexplained.

  1. Redhead says:

    Agreed that people should jump right to the Martian! I love that book SO much!

    Aurora was a tough book for me. I remember being incredibly frustrated while reading it, but liking the ship. I waited a few weeks after reading it to write the review, and by then the frustration had worn off a little. I gave it a neutral to positive review, and it helped that I read it along side my spouse, who is also a huge KSR fan. We’ve been reading KSR for years, and I think that’s one of the big kickers with Aurora – it shouldn’t be anyone’s first Kim Stanley Robinson. Aurora is definitely his writing style, only so much more so – it’s like a very boring and super quiet version of 2312, which also suffered from bizarre pacing but had much more interesting characters. I worry that RObinson is getting to the point of maybe Gene Wolfe or Umberto Eco, where everything he writes now is an inside joke based on something previously written. not very inviting to new fans, that’s for sure.

  2. thebookgator says:

    Martian was such an interesting story–there was one way to integrate your scientific theory into your plot (“stay with me here… the air will escape if I open the door” or whatever that quote was). Like you, I liked the Ship in Aurora, and at the early points, wondered if KSR was experimenting in working with the narrative. But it got lost quickly. You are right, it was my first KSR (that I remember). I don’t know if his work was self-referential or not, but after talking to other fans of his, I wonder if he’s gotten to the point of being untouchable by editors.

  3. I loved the book, but as Redhead says, which hadn’t occurred to me, it may be a book for the fans. I truly enjoyed it, but it was my… 6th KSR book. It’s possible I’m just comfortable in his mode, and I do tend to gravitate toward authors who pace and plot things outside of the editorial mold. It’s not my favorite thing to see a novel so neatly buttoned up the way this one was, so I should have been critical of that, but he wanted to make waves in the Hard SF world and those readers aren’t always very sensitive to metaphor. His Mars trilogy is where he explored all of the colonization and psychology stuff, so that’s an inside joke that he defied those expectations. Hmmm, and the whole time I thought this one felt like his most commercial and mainstream. I guess I’m too deep in KSR waters to judge.

    • thebookgator says:

      Wow, I just read your review and I’m not sure we could have more extreme reactions.Sounds like Redhead has a point however, since you reference a few of his other works. And yes, they were infodumps, but well done. 🙂 I really don’t understand what he was trying to do with his human psychology though.

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