Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
Following the science-fiction exploration into the distant past of the Earth's Ice Age in Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson returns again to the far future and some of the themes of the Mars Trilogy books that made him famous; the issues around off-Earth colonisation, terraforming and the human questions associated with it. Moving on from there and from 2312, Robinson starts Aurora in the year 2545 and extends upon themes in the previous books, taking a ship on a journey out of our solar system towards the sun of Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth.
Like many science-fiction stories dealing with multi-generational interstellar travel, there's obviously no-one around to remember exactly why the ship set out in the first place, and even their ultimate destination is uncertain until they more fully explore the planets and moons of Tau Ceti to establish which has the best Earth-like environment to establish a community. What we do know at the start of Aurora is that the ship has been travelling for nearly 160 years and that its population has been controlled to remain around 2,000. It's a Noah's Ark of a diverse human species and ecosystems contained in 24 semi-autonomous biomes which have corresponding Earth-names, meaning that there are travelling space versions of Nova Scotia, Costa Rica, Tasmania, Mongolia, Kiev and San Jose.
Whatever the past (there are ominous mentions of the troubles of Year 68) and whatever their future, the present concern of those on board the ship can be boiled down to simply survival. That has become increasingly difficult as the ship nears its destination. Things inevitably break down and have to be fixed, but there are other problems that were not foreseen by the designers, and which the ship's computer, although powerful and intelligent, is unable to prevent. Most worrying to the chief engineer Devi and her husband Badim is the evidence of regression in a population that has been living in an artificial zoo-like environment for generations. Science, knowledge and engineering skills of a very high level are required to build a new planet and there are concerns that the current generations of youth, and those that follow, might not be up to the task.
Aside from the theory, some other very real problems occur when the ship arrives in the Tau Ceti system and they attempt colonisation of a moon of Planet E, which they call Aurora. There is however an even greater journey and leap for the crew of the ship to come. As you might expect from Kim Stanley Robinson, all the risks of space travel, planetary colonisation are dealt with by the author with hard-SF attention to real science and to the social questions that arise from such activity. Robinson addresses the familiar questions of artificial intelligence and alien life with due regard, but in an individual way. Pretty much the whole of the book is narrated by the ship's computer itself, allowing for some amusing turns of phrase and ways of looking at things as the ship grapples with the concepts of narrative, metaphor, analogy and decision making.
This raises several interesting theoretical strands that build on themes pursued in 'Solaris' as well as the '2001: A Space Odyssey' relating to artificial intelligence, on the question of the inadequacy of words alone as a means of dealing with experiences alien to human experience. It deals with the human capacity to expand horizons that are limited not just by language or technology - which may be able to be addressed - but more seriously restricted by the very nature and make-up of being human. In as far as how this relates to the experience of Freya, the daughter of Devi and Badim, and the potential settlers of Aurora who have spent all their lives on a ship travelling through interstellar space, the fact of the codevolution or zoo devolution of multi-generational travel has consequences for any civilisation hoping to expand to the stars, and deal with already big existential problems of being marooned alone, far from their own kind, on the moon of a planet of a distant star.
More than just being theoretical then - although the science and biological speculation is thorough in its detail (almost too much ship intelligence detail) - such issues inevitably become matters of real relevance and contention to also make Aurora an exciting science-fiction novel in narrative terms. Robinson balances the science theory well with basic human nature, biology and instincts and brings them together into some extraordinary and surprising environments that pushes people to their limits. When you conduct such an experiment the results are always going to be fascinating, but in the case of Aurora, the amount of research and speculation provide so many new ideas and solid theory that it is likely to be a key reference for any work of film or fiction that follows it, and indeed provide much to think about regarding any future bid to take space exploration and travel further than our own solar system.