Book Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 2015

I’m of two minds as to how I should review Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Taken in-and-of itself, my response to this novel is overwhelmingly positive. It’s damn good. Good enough that I fully expect it to be nominated for some awards (although I don’t know if it’s good enough to win any).

Compared to some Mr. Robinson’s other work, however, my reaction to this novel is less favorable. But, then, maybe it’s unfair to compare Aurora to his other work…

I’ll start by mentioning some of the reasons why this book works well:

The scenario is compelling—a generation ship sent to Tau Ceti to attempt colonizing one or more planets found in that system. It’s an epic idea. Perhaps not the most original scenario in hard scifi but one that remains compelling no matter how often it’s utilized.

Mr. Robinson’s great strength as a storyteller is his ability to focus this kind of epic scope into stories told on a human scale. He discerns the best moments and characters to render a tale that we can relate to on a personal level, without losing any of the power or sense of the grand vision.

Mr. Robinson is a master of exploring the details of these scenarios. How would a generation ship actually work and what kinds of problems would it manifest—mechanically, socially, ecologically, politically? What sorts of challenges might a planetary colonization effort face? He explores these questions unflinchingly. These are the details that absorb him and they’re what make Mr. Robinson’s stories compellingly believable.

He wants to know how these big events affect people’s lives.

What truly elevates Aurora is the choice of narrator. I’m not going to give anything away, but suffice it to say the narrator is unexpected and offers a unique perspective on the events of the story. It also allows Mr. Robinson to explore larger conceptual issues of identity, intelligence, sentience, and the philosophical ramifications of self-awareness in ways that enhance the narrative without becoming too digressive. It also adds a strong emotional gut-punch at the end.

It’s a bold choice and he makes it work to great effect.

Aurora is a very good book. It’s not the best SF novel of the year but it’s certainly one of the better ones.

I feel like what I’ve written so far is the review this book deserves. But it’s not my honest review. My overall reaction to Aurora actually has less to do with the book itself and more to do with Mr. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

Aurora is a story about mankind attempting to colonize another planet over the course of several centuries. It’s impossible not to compare it to the Mars Trilogy. Such comparisons are unfair—the Mars Trilogy stands as his greatest achievement and it’s unreasonable to expect him to ever equal it. But the comparison is unavoidable, nonetheless.

Aurora suffers in comparison to the Mars Trilogy.

Conceptually, Aurora represents a story significantly larger in scope than the Mars Trilogy—a generation ship sent to colonize a distant star system vs. the exploration and colonization of the planet next door. Aurora is a much bigger idea.

But whereas the Mars Trilogy totaled almost 2,000 pages in paperback, the hardcover of Aurora barely surpasses 450. For all his fascination with the details, Mr. Robinson delves far less deeply into this story. Characters and conflicts feel more like sketches of ideas than fully rendered. Consequently, Aurora feels shallow and glancing.

As I said—this type of comparison is probably unfair. In the hands of any other writer, 450+ pages would be an entirely acceptable length for a story of this nature. This is a different story than his Mars Trilogy and so of course he wanted to tell it a different way. Even though they feel a bit shallow, his characters are sympathetic and believable, and the conflicts which drive the story are compelling.

It’s clear, as well, that Mr. Robinson has become far more pessimistic about the future than he was in the mid-90s when he wrote the Mars Trilogy. Indeed, he makes explicit effort in Aurora to contradict several of the assertions he made and stances he took in his previous work.

So maybe I’m being petty… but I can’t help being disappointed by Aurora. It doesn’t even begin to approach the level of mastery on display in his Mars Trilogy.

Aurora is a very good hard SF novel and it would represent a significant achievement in the hands of many other authors.

But this author is Kim Stanley Robinson and so I really wanted it to be better.

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