This is a very involving story, and very intelligent writing. Supposedly “hard” sf: hard for the accurate description of the constraints of space travel, but soft (i.e. magical) for the quantum computer that becomes self-conscious. (Perhaps “speculative fiction” in the sense of half science fiction and half philo-fiction, to be seen in the light of François Laruelle’s call for a “philo-fiction” using “quantum thought”).
The text is multi-layered: a hard science attempt to spell out concretely what voyage to a “nearby” solar system in a generational ship would be like; a more philosophical reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the self, and free will; an exploration of the human propensity for “living in ideas” and making bad choices based on fantasy or ideology, a deployment of biological and ecological science beyond the mere fascination with technological prowess; a vision of human thinking and behavior as determined by errors and biases that cognitive science is only now beginning to understand.
The whole story is a science-inspired deconstruction of the fantasy of traveling to the stars, by taking that fantasy literally. Yet the story is metaphorical too: the starship is a prison, ideology is a prison. The novel seeks to establish that the “technological sublime” does not take us outside our prison, but just transports it elsewhere.
The novel is a critique of the fantasm of transcendence that animates a lot of science fiction:
“living around another star would be a kind of transcendence, a transcendence contained within history”.
Those who do not share this dream of transcendence are the heroes of the story, emblematised by the “Earthfirsters” (who have a lot in common with Bruno Latour’s “Earthbound”). The Earthfirsters do not want us to be shut up in boxes, both physical and mental, and seek an immanent use of science. The same use of delta-v that permits the manoeuver of spacecraft is at work in the more embodied activities of sailing and bodysurfing, and can enrich our pursuit of those activities. The whole book is a plea for the use of science as enrichment rather than as escapism.
In like fashion Robinson does not describe or implement the construction of a qualitatively new paradigm. His focus is quantitative: he tries to be encyclopedic, and to break with the hegemony of physics and technology in our thinking and imagination. So he includes not just hard physics, but also biology, sociology, systems thinking, philosophy of mind and of language, and cognitive science. Factoring in these considerations gives a very different approach to the generational starship than was customary in classical, physics obsessed science fiction. This makes the book a stimulating and powerful read.
However, in AURORA politics suffers, as it is somehow subordinated to Robinson’s reflections on cognitive science. I think this is a doubly reductive move. Politics is not science; and epistemology, much less philosophy in general, is not cognitive science. This scientistic explanation of human behaviour generates what some people decry as the “pessimism” of the vision embodied in the book. I do not think this vision is simply pessimistic, but I do think it is conservative and reductive. The dreams of technological and human transcendence that led to the construction of the starship created a “fascist” structure, as the voyagers themselves complain. But the social experimentation on the ship does not generate a functioning democracy, as the ship’s AI must intervene forcefully several times to establish the “rule of law”. The novel ends with a moment of immanence that is more symbolic than practical, an immanent sublime. All through the book there are such moments. However, the political vision of the book is an unstable mixture of immanence and transcendance tending towards its own halting point of: “It’s…just the way things are”.