Monday, June 27, 2016

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

First of all, the audio version of this was utterly captivating.  The narrator, Ali Ahn, really made this audio fly.  I have a love/hate relationship with audiobooks (lately the pendulum has swung towards love).  Much of what I like about an audio book is the narrator; in the past, I've had a hard time listening to books I've never previously read.  My last two (well, three, if you count two different versions of Little Women) experiences, however, have been magnetic.

Also, I don't usually go for hard sci-fi; I like a little metaphysical mixed in, or some magic; I'm a gigantic fan of time travel; I love aliens.

I don't want to fill this with spoilers, so stop reading if you are wanting to read this!

I have to start with some notes I made half-way through this:


to quote various Star Wars characters, "I have a bad feeling about this."
It started out well; I was reminded of The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene duBois; the island where each household cooks the different food of countries depending on the letter of their last name (Mr. And Mrs. D cook Dutch food, and so on).  The different hubs of the ship, named for different biomes of earth (Nova Scotia, Siberia, Kenya, etc.).
But once they land on the moon Aurora, and then name the island Greenland - haven't they read an Jared Diamond?  Greenland is major foreshadowing, and I can't but think it's supposed to remind us of the failed Viking settlements on Greenland, also beautifully named but deadly to humans.

More notes from about 3/4th of the way through:

Kim Stanley Robinson, who I've never read before (that hard sci-fi thing, which I'm going to definitely have to reconsider now), does a really skilled, brilliant piece of literary impressiveness.  He essentially writes the protagonist into Life.  The setting is a multi-generational starship on it's way to Tau Ceti, the plot starts at the tail-end of a 150 year journey to a planet of that star called Aurora, to create a human settlement.   The crux of the plot happens when the the mission fails, and the colonists split into "stayers" (those who want to keep on keeping on) and "backers" (those who want to go home).  Nominally, the story's protagonist is Freya, the daughter of  Devi, who is the most intelligent problem solver ever born on the ship (and dies early in the novel but remains as a ghost of an idea in the colonists' psyches); the narrator is the ship's AI, which Devi at the beginning instructs to create a narrative story of the journey to Tau Ceti.  
Somewhere mid-way through, Robinson in this genius bit of literary artistry gives you a gradual "a-ha" moment - as you realize he written the ship's AI into life.  Gradually, using the narrative becomes richer, the ship more emotional, until it finally sounds human in its telling of the story (which becomes more and more gripping as the plot progresses; I don't want to give away the farm here).  

So now that I'm completely finished, I have to say how incredible this was.  It was a true performance, to begin with; Ali Ahn voice performing "Ship" was incredible.  I absolutely loved this book.

At some point, I was listening madly, wanting to know what was going to happen,  and becoming so upset by what was happening (it was that moment when they all start to starve to death onboard the ship) that my personal life became shadowed and muddy; I was letting my anxiety and fear about Freya and company bleed into my personal life.  Now that's a book; that's great writing, in this case combined with an excellent performance.


Various thoughts about the book, in no specific order.

The ending - I want someone to talk to about the ending! I guess earth is a biome too, only it can heal itself, unlike the ship, which can't.   Although the earth needs some help.  There was some scientist recently - probably Neil Tegrasse Tyson - who said (I'm paraphrasing, and badly) that our love of science fiction like Star Wars and Star Trek  leads us to believe that there is hope for planet earth in the stars, but the size of the Universe means there isn't really hope out there; we have to fix our problems on earth.  Is that the moral of this book?  And the ending then - the ocean is like space, and it can fuck you up, but you can just get back up again, we can make it?  Is Freya humanity of the near future, wounded, on a planet that we've ruined but are trying to rebuild.

Also, fanatics - they are the bad guys here.  The fanatics on the ship who think of the Colonization as a religion and have to go on.  And the fanatics on earth, who want to continue the colonization, and the awful, almost evil metaphor of the dandelion seeds blowing in the wind.

But I have to admit, the stayers, I wanted them to succeed; I thought the backers gave up pretty quickly, although Ship obviously distilled that narrative down a whole lot.

AuroraAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did the audio version of this book, and I will recommend it to everyone I meet looking for something good to listen to or to read. The narrator, Ali Ahn, was incredible; I particularly thought her performance of the "Ship" was stellar; her voice changes and builds up, as the ship's AI changes over the course of the novel (I won't reveal how it changes; I try not to be a monster in my reviews). I did not think of myself as a fan of hard scifi before this (I'm partial to alien civilizations clashing with earthlings, and time travel), but now I think I'm going to have to modify my partialities.

I don't know Kim Stanley Robinson from Adam (this is my first book written by him, even though he's a prolific and famous author of science fiction), but I don't think calling Freya a "star girl" can be anything but a reference to Star Girl, but I could be wrong. I was also pleasantly reminded of The Twenty-One Balloons, mostly because the biomes on the starship reminded me of the houses of the denizens of that island.

I was unpleasantly reminded of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; I won't go any farther on this train of thought, as to avoid spoilers.

At some point in this book, maybe about midway through, I became so engrossed that not only did I want to not ever stop listening until I was done (I forced myself to leave my car several times) but I was letting my anxiety and fear about the characters and their predicaments bleed into my personal life. Now that's a damn good book.


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