Aurora cover

by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2015

It has long been held by fans of science fiction that fantasy is a lowly subset of science-fiction, or perhaps a disreputable cousin, one for whom the normal rules of discernment do not apply. If such unlikely and unrealistic things as dragons and magic are allowed, the reasoning goes, then the book cannot be relied upon to deliver any kind of coherent narrative experience, since the lapsed rule-set now allows for any old ex machina plot twists to save the day. A magical "defeat the evil" spell? No problem. A new mythical creature capable of defeating the previously unassailable one? Why not? All reason is gone.

It's more useful though, is to invert the hierarchy of this received wisdom, and consider science fiction as a subset of fantasy. Mentioning this in fandom circles blows mental fuses. Does not compute. But the speculative flights of science fiction are also fantasies. Just fantasies that a particular type of person finds especially beguiling, compelling, and believable. To some extent, I concede that on occasion they are believable because they seem to be a reasonable extrapolation of our current situation. But no matter how reasonable your extrapolation seems to be, it's always possible that reality will zig instead of zag, and even the most humdrum tale of a rocket man's life will find itself at odds with the unexpected reality of suspended human spaceflight in the face of spiraling real-world costs. The vision that one is selling is always, to a greater or lesser extent, a wishful one - a fantasy.

This becomes immediately apparent once we stray beyond the confines of low Earth orbit, to take in the wider scope of science fiction, the vast majority of which encompasses tales across the galaxy, nay, the universe, including time travel, teleportation booths, aliens of every color, quantum reality displacement, and multiversal escapades in which literally everything is possible. These are very clearly fantasies, and it is intensely curious to me why this sort of fantasy is considered more "realistic" or "believable" than, say, flying lizards with fiery breath. Even though the narrative hand-waving that explains away the former - "It's an alternate universe, where different rules apply" - is abundantly adequate to more than completely explain anything in the fantasy realm.

I once asked my guru science fiction critic Damien Walter what makes people consider some stories believable, while other are not. He replied with a statement that has stuck with me ever since: People are willing to invest the effort to provide the conceptual scaffolding around an idea to make it seem believable (e.g. to speculate on the mechanism that might allow for a faster-than-light hyper-drive) when the story fulfills some deeper psychological need for them.

Hence, a story on the same topic as Aurora, of a generation ship sent to colonize an Earth-like planet orbiting the nearby star of Tau Ceti, is (usually) a story about the triumph of modernism. Such stories leverage the sources of strength in the modern world, science and technology and colonialism, and a reader who is invested in a modern world-view will feel validated and empowered by this type of fantasy. They will be will be willing to exercise whatever extracurricular creative effort is required on the part of the reader to make the story believable. Doing so will inspire them with the feeling that their world all makes sense, is leading to something, so that their daily grind is a part of the heroic story of how humanity transcends its planetary origins. This is much more fulfilling than investing any effort getting on board with the waning powers of superstition that are represented by the fantasy genre.


In keeping with this, Aurora's colonists are granted every conceivable boon that science and industry can supply. A ship fully ten kilometers across, enclosing twenty four massive biomes, each stuffed full of hills and lakes, soil and forests, microbes and wildlife. A population of well over a thousand human beings. Miraculous nanotech fabricators, and megatons of elemental feedstock to run them. A miraculous acceleration laser, fired from Titan for decades after departure, allowing the ship to coast up to 0.1c, making the journey in only seven generations, while retaining enough fuel to decelerate for arrival. A miraculous magnetic shield protects the ship from catastrophic collisions with stray particles along the way. A benign AI runs the ship, amusingly pressed into service as the narrator of the tale, and grows visibly more sentient, emotionally robust and capable as the years pass.

And hot damn, they are going to need all these things, because in this story, human interstellar colonization is revealed for the fantasy it really is. Nothing works out, and the problems encountered are far bigger than anything the ship's designers planned for. Although the ship does limp into orbit around the destination planet, soon after that people start dying, major disagreements emerge which descend into catastrophic riots, and the ship's society falls apart - when have humans ever invented a reliable form of governance?

There is a rip-roaring final act, that stretched my credulity, but revives the stakes and entertainment value in what might otherwise be a relentless downer of a read.

The book, and interviews with the author, caused quite a stir in science fiction circles. People were extremely angry. The book was attacking their deeply held beliefs that the future of humanity is as a successfull space-faring species. They had invested their identity in this world-view, because of how it serviced their psychological needs for fulfillment and meaning. They had developed a religious conviction around this particular kind of fantasy.

The point of Aurora is to highlight the idea of human interstellar colonization as a dangerous distraction from the very real project of taking care of the long term health of our planet and our society right here on Earth. It is going to take beyond miraculous levels of technology and resources to start thinking about interstellar travel. If, by some miracle, we make it to a year 10,000 utopia, with infinite resources and the wisdom to manage them, then sure, we can worry about interstellar travel. But for now, can we just focus on some of the very basic problems of existence here on Earth, like how to make everyone fed and liberated, educated and fulfilled, without killing our planet to do it? Maybe invent some sort of government that is reliably able to do that? That would be nice.