Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Aurora” reviewed by Valentin Ivanov

    The most important thing is back on Earth”:

    review of “Aurora“, a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson

    Probably, the most widely known book, or rather books of Kim Stanley Robinson’s are the three novels from his Martian series (“Red Mars“, 1991; “Green Mars“, 1993; “Blue Mars“, 1996).

    Their titles color-code the different stages of the Martian terraforming process.

    Deeply optimistic in nature, these books tell an uplifting story of human endeavor and accomplishment.

    He also gave to his readers a number of other bright works with a positive (not to be confused with the positivist philosophy!) outlook at the future.

    The novel “2312” that appeared in 2012 is one of these (I wrote about it here:

    I was expecting a similar treatment in “Aurora” (2015), but I was surprised and a bit disappointed.


    This is a generation ship novel which alone sets it in a direct dialog with many other works that are also set on “slow” interstellar ship. One major problem with this kind of space travel is how to ensure the motivation of the second and the following generations.

    By definition, the first crew that left Earth is consists of enthusiasts. They want to be on that ship, they were informed or guessed – the best they could – about the risks, they knew the rewards – if there were any – and then they made the conscientious choice to be there.

    The following generations, however, were born there, but they did not choose to be there. While their ancestors were selected among the best and the brightest enthusiasts that wanted to fly, their kids don’t necessarily share their talents, skills, educational achievements, convictions, etc. The kids of geniuses are not necessarily geniuses themselves, and they are bound to grow in the wakes of their overachieving parents.

    While on a spaceship the geniuses and their families are spared the kind of invasive attention that they would have received on Earth, the expectations from these kids are still high and some of them may choose not even to try to meet them.

    In other words, at first level “Aurora” is tragic family saga, on par with “The Buddenbrocks” (to remember the classics) and “The Palissers” (and to give a share of attention to my childhood TV experiences).

    On various levels there are many parallels, and I would add, arguments with other generation ship works, from the classical (and dark) “Orphans in the Sky” (1941) by Robert Heinlein, and “Spacebred Generations” (1953) by Clifford Simak, “Non-Stop” (1958) by Brian Aldiss until the more recent “Chasm City“(2001) by Alastair Reynolds and “Learning the World” (2005) by Ken MacLeod.

    However, I think “Journey into Space” (2009) by the British writer Toby Litt is the closest to “Aurora” among them – in tone, atmosphere and most importantly – in spirit.

    Both novels describe ships in turmoil. Robinson’s ship reaches its destination, Litt’s – doesn’t, but it doesn’t make a difference – the two crews or the majority of the people on board decide to turn around and head back to Earth because they find the Universe inhospitable and unfriendly, because they think the human kind belongs to Earth and no other place can be made a home, because all those other suitable places are long occupied by something that is poisonous to us.

    Strugatsky brothers also concluded at some point of their writing career, that “the most important thing is back on Earth” (“The Second Invasion of the Martians“, 1968), but they were driven by a completely different reasoning. In fact they arrived to that conclusion out of care for the humanity.

    The space optimism of other writers like Paul McAuley in his “Quiet War” series (2008-2013) comes to mind. In fact, the previous works of Robinson hardly give a hint that he may resign his own space optimism.


    I admit being surprised that Robinson ended “Aurora” on such a defeatist note – and although the main protagonist visibly enjoyed herself, playing in the surf of the Earth’s see, I remain unconvinced.

    The pessimism is my problem with “Journey into Space” and “Aurora“– they are very well written, the stories are engaging and the characters are easy to sympathies with.

    In fact, I think the two books deserve very high praise – Litt is a mainstream literary author to begin with, and over the years Robinson has improved his writing well above the level he showed in the Mars trilogy. In fact, Litt’s language was so rich that I had to resort to a dictionary. I didn’t face the same difficulties with Robinson’s novel, but I could appreciate how well it was written.

    It is hard to discuss the specifics of “Aurora” without giving away too much from the story, and unraveling the plot twists is part of the pleasure that this novel delivers. Robinson succeeded to surprise me a few times, and managed to maintain suspense throughout all the twists and turns. I genuinely felt for the protagonists, although the book may have gained from somewhat deeper characterization of the secondary cast.

    Last but not least, “Aurora” stands apart from most modern science fiction with the realistic portrayal of scientists and the scientific process – many of not most modern genre books still stick to offering us close analogs of Doc Brown, and the search for solutions to scientific problems is thoroughly omitted as not photogenic or suspenseful enough.

    Summarizing, I disagree with the conclusion of this book, but I still recommend it to other fans, because – unlike many other books – it has an idea, a position, and gives a careful reader some food for thoughts.


    Kim Stanley Robinson was born on March 23, 1952 in Waukegan Illinois, USA. He earned a B.A. in literature from UCSD in 1974, an M.S. in English from Boston University in 1975 and a Ph.D. from UCSD in 1982. His dissertation was on the novels of P. K. Dick.

    His first short story collection “Orbit 18” appeared in 1976 and his first novels “Icehendge” and “The Wild Shore” (vol. 1 from Three Califorinias trilogy) – in 1984. Responsible ecological care, social justice and science are the mainstays of his writing. His next novel, “Red Moon“, is scheduled to appear in Oct 2018.

    Valentin D. Ivanov

    Sept 9, 2019, train Munich-Vicenza

    Valentin D. Ivanov (born in the town of Burgas, Bulgaria in 1967) is a Bulgarian SF writer, essayist, reviewer and astronomer working at the European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany.
    Previously, Valentin worked at the European Southern Observatory, mainly at the Cerro Paranal site, Chile. Among his primary research areas are the dynamics of star clusters, formation of stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets around such objects.

    He had obtained his master degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Sofia in 1992.
    He earned a PhD degree at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A. in 2001.
    He became a fellow at the European Southern Observatory, Cerro Paranal, Chile and since 2003 he has been a staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, Paranal where he is instrument scientist for the wide-field near-infrared camera VIRCAM mounted at the VISTA_(telescope).

    In 2006, together with Kiril Dobrev, he has published a Science Fiction story collection in Bulgarian.

    Valentin Ivanov and Ray Jayawardhana are two of the pioneers of the investigation of the planemos, a special cast of exoplanets.
    They discovered the first double planemo Oph 162225-240515.
    This discovery, came just before the debate about the 2006 planet definition, and posed the problem about the distinction between planets and low-mass stars (brown dwarfs).

    Some of his English language SF stories, „Crossroads”, „How I saved the World”, „Job Interview” , “Unstable atmospheric circulation”, are online and also some of his reviews:

    and essays :

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