Mirrorflaking the ocean’s steely surface

After two decades of going over-schedule and over-budget, the James Webb Space Telescope is finally proving that there is no such thing as over-exposure when photographing deep space. Arriving at its final destination in orbit about the Sun, blossoming and unfolding its hexagonal petals, the JWST began soaking up photons — photons coming to the end of a long journey from the very distant past. Aside from some spacey looking, Chris Foss-esque, snapshots, serious technical data is being collected. By carefully observing the flickers of stars, scientists are measuring light spectra as distant planets cross pass over the face of their sun. From these spectra, the composition of elements on those planets can be deduced.

Most of us will never get to see the Earth from orbit or walk on the moon. The solar system and beyond will remain bright dots in the night sky. The craft of Astronomy is to deduce facts from a limited vantage point, with inevitably limited means, about phenomena that you will never observe directly. Astronomers refer to the chain of reasoning that they have employed as “climbing the celestial ladder”. It’s the oldest scientific game going, with shockingly accurate estimates of the earth’s size attributed to Eratosthenes in the third century BC.

We differ in many respects to those Greeks, not least of all in the extent and power of our technology. But here is another: we possess powerful convictions about the future, animated at least in part by science fiction. Some, when the JWST data is all brought together and processed, will be more than merely curious about the theoretical existence of life “out there”. Those certain people will be looking at those worlds as potential destinations for the future of our species.

When Herge had Tintin set his ligne claire foot upon the moon before Niel Armstrong, so he had to imagine how it could happen. There was a literature at the time, written by scientists and engineers, on the subject of rocketry and a future moon expedition and Herge consulted it. The aim was realism and in that Herge was remarkably successful. The field of “hard SF” — science fiction which sincerely aims to pays its dues to the equations — has shown much less restraint, but nevertheless seems to harbor the belief that they are anticipating similar future developments. Many authors and readers believe these stories have social utility in either inspiring us toward grand feats or in anticipating the inevitable challenges that await us. Either way these writers become prophets, sensitive to the whispers of the goddess Science in their ears.

This review of Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, will stray deeply into the “spoilery” territory some of you like to avoid. Territory where I’m not so much assuming you have read the book, but that you are fine with me divulging the key contours of the plot so I can explain my grand theory about what is really going on. For my part, I started reading Aurora with a good idea what lay ahead. The story, as far as I understood it going in, was going to be a fictionalized illustration of a guest essay Robinson wrote for Boing Boing many years ago — that I read at the time — which laid down a thorough account of the reasons why we aren’t going to be colonising other planets or doing much of any travel outside our solar system.

The premise of Aurora is that humanity reaches for the stars anyway. We alight upon a generation star ship as it reaches the end of a 160 year journey to Tau Ceti — a nearby star possessing Earth-like. The generation star ship is a tool for science fiction writers; a means of carrying mankind across the unfathomable distances between stars. Rather than hyperdrive or cryosleep, you imagine a spaceship as a kind of grand terrarium in which a living, breathing, teeming, reproducing lump of Earth’s ecosystem, humans included, are sent off in a self sustaining bubble. A nuclear reactor provides the constant input of energy required to avoid entropy, and with the turning of a few pages hundreds of years pass, generations rise and fall, and we arrive at their destination.

There are characters, but only three are really important; only two are human. Devi, the ship’s chief engineer, whose existence is devoted to fixing the alarming array of problems that are presenting themselves, and Freya, her daughter, struggling to follow in her mothers footsteps despite lacking inclination toward anything mathematical. Then there is the ship’s AI, who might even dispute their status as a character at all, but has been cultivated by Devi into a storyteller who narrates most of (and I would argue the entire) novel.

Readers responded most strongly to the AI narrator, won over by the ship wrestling with the way we employ metaphor and simile in our language. But this amounts to the ship transitioning from writing with the dispassionate, exhaustive, technical register you’d expect from a computer, to the kind of cliched idiom you’d encounter in the prose of an eager yet unimaginative writer. That is until there is some geography to be described, in which case they invariably write like the singular Kim Stanley Robinson.

To my own liking, Devi is the most compelling character. She lives with a constant sense of anger. Not at anyone who shares the ship with her, but at those predecessors who volunteered themselves and condemned their offspring to the journey. As the chief engineer, she is responsible for addressing the oversights and shortcomings of the original design. As a consequence, she understands better and earlier than anyone else on board how truly nightmarish their reality is.

Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth of eight rules for writing seems especially relevant here:

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

In this respect Robinson uses the generation star ship as a terrible predicament for our characters. They aren’t intrepid voyagers; they are poor souls born in a tin can hurtling through the void. By the end it is the great, great, great, great grandchildren of those who first set off from earth who arrive at the destination. One of the all time great sci-fi speculations, but awful for anyone who would be caught, trapped, sealed inside such a thing.

It’s not Robinson who is the sadist — it’s all of us. The trick in storytelling is allowing the reader implicate themselves in the actions and events of a story. In Aurora’s case we are implicated as science-fiction readers, eagerly anticipating mankind setting foot on another world, with little consideration of the actual fate of the generations of voyagers stuck on the starship. We are with that first generation of volunteers who effectively consigned their descendants to their bleak and unpromising fate.

We are to learn the hard way that “habitable” and “Earth like” are terms-of-art for astronomers, applied to a broad family of planets. What resembles Earth from a great distance might not be a place we would want to live. Aurora is the planet the colonists settle on with its limited prospects: oceans, wind, and oxygen. Filled with relief, they rush off the ship that has been their inter-generational prison and start building a new life. Unfortunately, those who expose themselves to the ostensibly breathable atmosphere start having extreme adverse reactions, quite likely from some mysterious microscopic alien organism that they can barely identify. Thus, they find themselves caught in another great literary trick: the double bind. Either they choose to settle an Earth-like planet can potentially support life, in which case it will be almost certainly poisonous, or they choose an Earth-like planet that is inert and unlivable, on the promise that terra-forming will make it livable in a few hundred years.

It is a long way to have traveled to arrive at such a truth. To be betrayed. The population struggles to accept this reality, falling into violent civil war, and ultimately having to divide itself. The ship is split in two. Half of them remain, believing that colonization will still be possible, while the other half set off on a return journey to Earth. At this point, quite conveniently, our heroes are presented with newly invented hibernation technology that will allow them to sleep through the return journey. Not only sparing them from famine as the internal balance of their limited ecosystem begins to collapse, but also to allow those who arrived at Tau Ceti to confront the society that sent them in the first place.

The final chapter of the book has no clear narrator (although I believe that there is one implied). With insufficient means of slowing it’s approach, the ship performs a sequence of reverse gravity slingshot manoeuvres to slow their trajectory sufficiently so that the remaining colonists can be ejected back to earth, while the ship itself is lost into the sun. Freya and her shipmates arrive on earth, discovering in it a to be a home like nowhere in the universe. Perversely, many on earth are upset that they returned, feeling that they betrayed mankind’s true destiny. It is on this final ironic note that the novel might have ended, but instead we finish with an extended passage where Freya goes to the beach and enjoys the waves. This final passage has proven particularly dissatisfying and mystifying to many readers.

With the ship perishing in its final orbit around the sun, the reader might be obliged to conclude that the ship couldn’t possibly be narrating the final chapter. That is to forget why the ship was narrating at all. The ship’s narration was an exercise set by Devi as a means of explaining to the occupants on board the ship the nature of their predicament.

Devi: Ship! I said make it a narrative. Make an account. Tell the story.
Ship: Trying.
Devi: […] Do what you can. Quit with the backstory, concentrate on what’s happening now. Pick one of us to follow, maybe. To organize your account.
Ship: Pick Freya?
Devi: … Sure. She’s as good as anyone, I guess. And while you’re at it, keep running searches. Check out narratology maybe. Read some novels and see how they do it. See if you can work up a narratizing algorithm. Use your recursive programming, and the Bayesian analytic engine I installed in you.

While we can assume that everything up to a certain point is true, I don’t see any reason why the ship wouldn’t extrapolate further, simply because each story needs an ending. What better way to explain the situation than to imagine what might likely happen? Allow them to foresee a future as it might likely be. The ship would be doing what Robinson argues science fiction writers have failed to do. That the narrative was in large part an AI hallucination would explain many things, not least of all the convenience of the hibernation technology. But also the final passage on the beach, which closely tracks the opening passage of the book, set out on a lake in one of the ship’s internal ecological containers. The ship is solving the “halting problem”, frequently alluded to, with a recursive, oroborean structure, starting where we began.

Back in late 2020, and early 2021 I read a very different generation star ship novel (or really a quadrilogy of novels). The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe. As specific as Aurora’s preoccupations are to Robinson, he readily alludes to it’s influence:

One of the best novels in the history of world literature, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, a seven-volume saga telling the story of a starship voyage and the inhabitation of a new planetary system, finesses all these problems in ways that allow huge enjoyment of the story it tells. The novel justifies the entertaining of the idea, no doubt about it.

The central conceit of Wolfe’s story is that the population of the Whorl have forgotten that the live in generation star ship — something that Robinson’s characters could only wish to forget. Like all of Wolfe’s works there is a literary preoccupation with the internal logic and the implications of who is telling the story. In the case of the Long Sun, save a dropped pronoun, up until the very end the reader must assume that the text is narrated by the omniscient third person.

I don’t think that Wolfe saw himself as a practitioner of hard SF, and although he had given thought to how the Whorl worked, it all seems to be in service of providing the reader with a fantastic literary vista — a setting that forces the reader to reorient themselves in reading the text. The real appeal of SF, as far as I judge it, is not that the authority of science grants the writer powers of prognostication, but rather a certain means of suspending disbelief, and then remarkable destinations to carry the reader away off too once their disbelief is in flight. It has been glibly asserted that SF needs to be more than jet-packs and ray guns, but Wolfe himself, even in his literary shenanigans was all about the jet-packs and ray guns. The problem was never the paraphernalia. The problem with a lot of SF was that the writing was not very good.

The ship was pulling its punches. I half anticipated the ship to arrive back at Earth to find that reintegration of the passengers into Earth’s ecosystem was impossible. How many new viruses would have evolved on Earth in their absence? How dangerous would their own bacteria have become to humans on Earth? Or perhaps they would be received back on Earth with abject horror. Inured to their own true state, they don’t appreciate how irradiated, starved, inbred, and traumatized they. But these would have been endings that would have not have suited the ship’s purposes, nor Robinson’s inclinations as a writer.

In the end mankind’s colonisation of the galaxy resembles less of a science based prediction of the future, than a kind of secular heaven. It lives, like heaven, in our imaginations, where it can be left unchallenged, save for when we encounter true believers. The aspirations of Star Trek, like many religious traditions, are better inherited in a flexible, non-literal form. But that also has grim possibilities as a divide opens up between the naive believers in our science fiction future and the better schooled theologians who will inevitably have to choose their words carefully so as not to alienate the faithful. In the case of the novel, the readers are left to imagine how the passengers on the ship in Aurora might have eventually reacted to story they have presented to them. Back in the real world a work like Aurora entering the “canon” of SF might inoculate us, but if the resistance to accepting Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… into any kind of canon is any indication, Robinson has his work cut out.