The eminent contemporary SF writer K.S. Robinson books are more miss (The Years of Rice and Salt, 2312) than hit (Mars trilogy, Science in the Capital trilogy) for me. But the hits are so good, that I’m willing to try anything by him. His latest book about a generation ship, “Aurora” is a sort of hit, just like Galileo’s dream.
“Aurora” falls in an SF Goldilocks zone. It has just enough action, just enough details, just enough of plot twists, just enough of diverse real-world science to be educating as well as entertaining. The unusual narrator is a plus, as wells as a female protagonist, Freya, and her mother, Devi, who is “the closest the ship had to a captain.” The protagonist doesn’t have a classical love interest, which is also a plus in my opinion. If I cannot warm up to a sketchy, pessimistic Devi that never develops any deep relationships, it probably reflects my indoctrinated mind.
However, if the average SF author invents insurmountable problems for a protagonist to overcome, heroically (The Martian is the latest and most celebrated example), Robinson invents the problems so his characters can fail, spectacularly.
Despite the en-route snags, which you can consider minor in comparison with the classic generation ship novel “The Orphans of the Sky” by Heinlein,” “Aurora” reaches its destination. The crew starts colonising a satellite of a gas giant with the usual “man versus nature” trials. Until on a seemingly lifeless moon, they encounter a pathogen, described as “a fast prion“. Allegedly, this is a polypeptide chain, which infects and rapidly kills people.
This contradicts the current scientific consensus, which postulates that the nucleic acids were the first biological molecules with the proteins arriving later. Nucleic acids are capable of replication, propagation and catalysis, proteins – only replication in some specific, rare cases.
Prions, which convert normal protein molecules into the pathogenic form, like mold converts wax into a replica shape, need high homology to be effective. So the infinitely small probability of an alien protein prebiotic life is multiplied by an even smaller probability of this alien pre-life very effectively interacting with and killing humans. The link between a simple prebilogical molecule and the moon oxygen content, which on Earth appeared relatively late in the biological evolution, is never explained.
But my problem with the alien prion is not biological, but social. Encountering the pathogen, the colonists make no attempts to find a cure or limit the exposure as it would be logical for any science-based society. They immediately run back to the ship and then to Earth, urged on by Freya.
The ship’s society is a representative democracy, ruled by the loose agglomeration of councils. After taking part in the Wikipedia community, I believe in the viability of this mode of government. But given the propensity of human societies adopt a pyramidal structure with a figurehead on top (The French revolution, Jimbo Wales), I don’t believe that a serious crisis will not result in a defined leadership – and a standing security force.
I also don’t believe that a highly structured, aware of the biome fragility and artificially selected society will resort to violence with numerous casualties so rapidly. However, I like the conflict resolution, though, both logistical and “Deux aux machine”.
The main problem
Ultimately, in hard SF – as opposed to speculative fiction – writer should remain an optimist, which I believe K.S. Robertson is not anymore. He invents the problems, including the ultimate idea of the book: humans cannot live not only outside our Solar system but the Earth. If they try, they fail.
At the end of the book, Freya swims in an ocean. I get the recurring metaphor: the boat sailing an artificial lake at the beginning of the novel represents the ship, technology that ultimately fails the humanity. On the other hand, swimming directly in the ocean is an ultimate communion with “the cradle of humanity”, which according to the author, we’ll be unable to leave. It’s a pity that the end of “Aurora” is even more verbose and boring than the beginning.
However, I don’t want to finish on a sad note. The fact that I read 500 pages book in two days and will read any other new book by K.S. Robertson, even if it starts from pages and pages about kayaking, speaks for itself.