Thus far and no further?
Ever since reading the Martian Trilogy many years ago, I have been a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson. His cosmos is understandable and is populated with real people, with problems we can all recognise. I believe he also has an agenda — to knock down the fantasies of faster-than-light travel that have been at the basis of science fiction writing (Asimov) and entertainment (Star Trek) almost since the genre was invented.
Early in his career Robinson decided that his SF writing would be constrained by the laws of physics (as admirably explained by the great Stephen Hawking in a recent television series). Thus Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars deal exclusively with Earth’s near neighbour and the relationship between the two. In 2312 he moves out a little further — to the asteroid belt, the moons of the gas giants, even Mercury — a busy little Solar System.
In his latest novel, Aurora, he takes the leap to the stars, but once again is careful to abide by the dictates of nature. His giant starship travels for hundreds of the years and the thousands on board are born, live and die on the way to the destination — Aurora, the moon of a planet on a distant sun that appears hospitable to life.
Robinson uses some interesting devices to develop his story. The somewhat reluctant narrator is the ship’s computer, simply referred to as the ‘Ship’, which is bullied into constructing a narrative of the voyage by Devi, the brilliant engineer and scientist, who dies just as Aurora is reached.
The mantle of human heroine, for want of better words, falls onto Devi’s daughter, Freya, and as the novel progresses, the thrusts of Robinson’s message becomes clear. Freya, who of course had no choice in her role as a space explorer, has underlying doubts about the entire mission which come more to the surface as difficulties begin to multiply.
She becomes the aggressive leader of a faction that wants to abort the project and turn the ship back towards Earth, which she says is the only place in the universe where mankind truly belongs. Not wishing to say any more about how the novel develops, it seems that Robinson is stating, as Freya comes to believe, that the limit of our exploration and colonisation will be the planets in our immediate vicinity and anything further will be so fraught with danger as to be pointless.
Is he right? Watch this space in 500 years or so.
Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is available on Amazon and in hard copy at most book stores.