Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I have a mixed opinion of this book. It's only the fourth SF novel published this year that I've read so far, but it's at the top of my list for a Hugo nomination. However, it was not the book I was expecting. This is set further into the future on the same time line as his Mars Trilogy and 2312. Both of those did have some conflicts between characters and groups, but overall they were positive and featured ongoing technological advancements that drove the terra-forming of Mars and colonization of other planets and moons in our solar system. Brief mentions were made of proposed extra-solar expeditions. This is the story of one of them, which unfortunately does not end as positively as the two previous stories.
I don't want to go into details of why that is though, because I still recommend the book and don't want to spoil it. As with everything else by Robinson that I have read, Aurora is full of amazing scientific speculation without overlooking character elements that make the events more immediate and relatable for the reader. I originally thought the title referred to the generational starship on its way to the Tau Ceti system, instead it is the name given to a moon of the fifth planet in that system, which the starfarers choose as their first landfall. The ship had been launched by a combination of magnetic pulses and laser cannon-fire, achieving a speed of one-tenth the speed of light, making the journey in 170 years, 40 days. No form of suspended animation had been developed by the launch in 2545, so many of the crew had died and others born during the voyage. Those alive to see Aurora are among the seventh, eighth and ninth generations.
To keep it simple, things don't go smoothly on Aurora. There is heated debate, even armed conflict, between different factions quarreling over what their next step should be. Some want to try another planet or moon in the system, others say there is enough fuel to attempt reaching the next closest star just a couple of more light years away. A third group wants to return to Earth. I'm not revealing which group prevails or what happens to any individual. It would have made more sense for the title to be the name of the ship, since its story is just as important as that of any of the humans, and in fact the story is being told by the A.I. consciousness of the ship. The narrative begins in an analytical way, describing the ship and the various biome habitats, then changes after one of the ship's engineers tells the A.I. to read a lot of books and develop its own literary style.
Even though the ship understands the concepts of consciousness and self-consciousness (at least it thinks it does), it is not sure it can declare it is self-aware. Some of its internal debates revolve around the concepts of love and hate, of friendship and conflict, and it wonders if it is subject to those same emotions. Most of its actions seem to be driven by concepts very similar to Asimov's Laws of Robotics, with its own survival and well-being important only to the extent that it insures the safety of its human crew and animal and plant cargo. Is the ship truly sentient? Can it make intelligent decisions? Possibly as well as any human, or at least the ones on this expedition. It knows of the Turing Test, but wonders whether some of the criteria used for detecting a machine intelligence is also applicable to humanity. Mainly, can it learn from experience? Can it do something completely new and different? The implication is that we fail at that too, continually making the same mistakes.
So, this does not end on a positive note, but I don't think that necessarily means that Robinson is now a cynic and pessimist. This expedition is only one of about thirty others, so perhaps he will tell one of those other stories in the future and it will be more positive. Even more expeditions are in the planning stages, so maybe what was learned on Aurora will lead to a different approach next time. The only thing I'm sure of is that whatever Robinson writes, I will be interested in reading it.
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