8.5/10 – Is space travel only for machines?
We start off with a generation ship that is spinning and decelerating after a long voyage through space. The chief engineer Devi does her best to keep the damn ship together, but we see everything through the eyes of her daughter Freya, who gives a running commentary and apes her mother’s frustrated exclamations. It is a really touching and inviting opening chapter and I quickly have warm feelings towards these characters.
One day, Devi asks the ship computer to give her a summary of the trip so far. More like a rhetorical question of frustration, like, what the hell are we doing this for? And why did it turn out this way? But the AI doesn’t know how to tell a narrative. Still, it attempts one, and the rest of the book is the AI’s story of what happens with its ship and its inhabitants.
It is funny to have the ship write the story of its inhabitants, but there are odd things about this frame. Devi interrupts the story now and then to give the ship storytelling instructions and after getting to know Devi as a character first, her interest in this story seems out of character. Shouldn’t she get a good night’s sleep and be fixing a mechanical problem somewhere? And, it also feels like Robinson’s faults as a writer, and every writer has faults, have now become the Ship’s faults as a writer. But do we fault the ship or Robinson? Eventually Robinson I suppose, as he is the final editor presenting this work to us.
The ship itself turns into quite an interesting character, but the rest remain very undeveloped. Especially Freya is more like a mouthpiece for Robinson’s opinions, it seems. But Ship, Ship gets a stronger personality as the story evolves. This is very deftly done and one of the strong points of the novel.
At first I thought the book would be solely about the generation ship, but thankfully it is much more than that. We quickly reach the destination, Aurora, and the narration jumps around a lot with keeps things fresh. In a way, the setup reminded me of The Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun series of Gene Wolfe. A generation ship with different biomes and villages and lakes reaches a new planet, and the inhabitants need strong leaders to help them with all the difficulties. It also has this sense of wonder from Interstellar, about finding a new planet for the first time. It also has the same claustrophobic community feeling of Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice and Hugh Howey’s Wool.
This book gathered quite some controversy. Robinson paints a very pessimistic image of interstellar travel. He puts a lot of focus on the difficulties of interstellar travel, the technical difficulties, the emotional strain this puts on people, and especially on the biological and physical difficulties. His conclusions are very depressing.
But the problem is that some of his assumptions sound bogus. Not only the social-psychological aspects, but also, to me, being a biologist myself, Robinson seems to have very little understanding of ecosystems. How they develop and how they work. His plot rests on some ideas like zoo devolution that could have gotten a better explanation. Also, Robinson sure likes to namedrop scientific language, even though the narrator is a computer. Saying more would unfortunately spoil things, but a sign of Robinson’s lack of biology was his idea of having “wildlife” foodwebs of wolves, deer and bears on half a square kilometer. That’s just an example though, not a plot point.
Aurora is quite an achievement, still. It is touching, tense, exciting and melancholic. As a story it is adventurous, occasionally comedic and beautiful, and intellectually stimulating. It is just a really strange feeling to admire a book greatly, while disagreeing with the opinions of the protagonist and the writer. Robinson frustrated me because he followed the wrong characters, I think. Told the “wrong” story out of the events that happened, if that is even possible.
PS. Spoiler comments… beware
My appreciation of this book went violently up and down with each chapter, so that I was thoroughly confused about how to regard this book. It starts out well with Devi and Freya and the whole introduction to the ship. And the next chapters are also high quality, where we deal with the arrival at Aurora and the whole ordeal of trying to live there. This is quality stuff.
But then the book dived sharply down. We get these “mob rule” chapters where everyone is fighting and I didn’t buy it. The social element of the story seemed unrealistic. And I was baffled when Robinson started following the “backers” instead of the “stayers”. I didn’t agree with their reasoning. And then there was a whole chapter of the biomes falling apart that got really tedious. When the hibernation started I was relieved that the story moved on.
And then everything picked up again. I loved the narration of Ship alone among the stars, and the pinball journey around the solar system is seriously one of the best chapters out of any book that I have read this year. But then… I didn’t even finish the final chapter. He closes his story with an overlong rambling chapter about Freya that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything. I skipped the last pages in total boredom and confusion.
I can’t believe how one writer can fluctuate so much between awesomeness and frustration.