Kim Stanley Robinson‘s place in the pantheon of great science fiction writers is assured on the strength of his tour de force, the Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). He’s written a number of other novels since then, but I’ve seen none that represented such a serious effort as his latest, Aurora, which strives to match the scope and grandeur of the Mars Trilogy. I only wish that he could have recaptured the magic of that earlier work.
In significant ways, Aurora is a truly impressive, and even engrossing, piece of work. The awe-inspiring, three-hundred-year scope of the action; the depth of the author’s command of ecological and biological science, not to mention political science and sociology; the adroit development of characters from puberty to old age — in all these respects, and more, Robinson’s talent and imagination are admirable.
Other aspects of this novel by Kim Stanley Robinson are less impressive. This is not great science fiction, and I expected better from Kim Stanley Robinson. In lengthy passages dealing with ecological and biological science, he appears to be showing off. There’s far too much detail for a nonspecialist to enjoy. The same goes for the novel’s protracted ending, which would have benefited from a heavy red editorial pencil. Robinson doesn’t seem to know when to stop.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson ★★★☆☆
Even more troublesome are the anachronisms that crop up throughout the story. There are several, but the one that rankles the most is his failure to recognize that language changes in dramatic ways over time.
OK, I admit it. This is my beef with many science fiction novels set in the far future. It’s not unreasonable for a story to be written in recognizable American English, even one set in the 27th century. After all, the writer is telling the story. But it’s entirely outside the bounds of credibility for characters described as Chinese, for example, to speak the same American English marred only by accents that were difficult to follow. At the very least, there would need to be some newfangled translation device to make what would surely be different languages after half a millennium!
Evolution without linguistic change
Consider the evolution of English, let alone other world languages: Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was spoken from the 400s to 1066; Middle English (the language of Chaucer) from 1066 to the 1400s; and Early Modern English (the language of Shakespeare) from the late 1400s to perhaps the 1700s; and Modern English only after that. Yet the story in Aurora begins in the 26th century without any evidence that the language has evolved beyond the vernacular American English of the early 21st century! Robinson might at least have found some way to explain this.
Oh, well, I guess I’ll just have to live with this.
On balance, Aurora might serve well as assigned reading in a course on ecology. The discussion is fascinating. And Robinson’s reading of group behavior in closed systems is entirely consistent with everything I have ever learned about political science and sociology. As an unusual story about humanity reaching for the stars, this book is a winner. Just be prepared to suspend a little more disbelief than usual.
For more reading
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