By Christopher Cokinos
Introduction and About Author Kim Stanley Robinson
Novelist Kim Stanley Robinson is a rarity: an artist and a Time magazine Hero of the Environment, a writer of science fiction who has been lauded by science fiction readers and literary realist readers (and critics). The author of such acclaimed books as Galileo’s Dream, the Mars trilogy, and 2312, Robinson is a writer who thinks big but does so via characters. In his most recent novel, Aurora, the narrator is an artificially intelligent computer. The book is part of an SF sub-genre of “multi-generation” ships traveling to other stars. The novel traces the journey of one such ship, a ship that contains multiple biomes for its many inhabitants. Like Biosphere 2 near Tucson, Arizona, the ship is an attempt to recreate Earth. Interstellar travel is a staple of SF or, perhaps we can say, a staple of science fantasy, which is less concerned with the constraints of reality, fundamental laws as we understand them, and science in general. Robinson had joked that while writing Aurora, the working title was The Big Mistake. Things go awry on this vast journey, a reminder that, as Loren Eiseley has written, we live in a cosmic prison.
Stan and I exchanged emails over a few weeks as we discussed the novel and its implications for understanding the human relationship to the more-than-human world, including the stars.
Christopher Cokinos: Hannah Arendt somewhere talked about the space program—I suppose we could say the entire imaginary of space flight—as a form of Earth alienation or Earth hatred. I wonder if you could talk about that in reference to the whole trope of the multi-generation star ship, which perforce contains a whole bunch of contradictory impulses—leaving the Earth to find another world, so we’re talking about home-making, but also such a ship itself must be a kind of Earth, as yours is in Aurora, but such a ship has to be highly technologized. Does Arendt’s contention ring true to you? How can we square it with the novum of multi-generation interstellar travel?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I don’t agree with Arendt on this, if she meant the entire space program. Space science is an Earth science, and Earth is a planet in a solar system, and studying the other planets in the solar system, and the sun itself, our ultimate source of life, is useful, interesting, and beautiful work.
I think it is right to think of the solar system as our extended neighborhood, and since we have inadvertently launched ourselves into a civilization project of planetary systems management (or finessing or coaxing or dealing) here on Earth, because of our surprising ability to harm and even destroy much of the biophysical support system that keeps us alive, it is our duty to do everything we can to learn enough to do this properly. Space science is part of our necessary work now, because of the long emergency we have entered as a species.
So the solar system should be regarded somewhat as we regard Antarctica today: reachable by high tech only, inhabited by scientists rotating in and out to do dangerous work, and later joined by tourists, travelers, and possibly full-time inhabitants in some places; but these last would come much later. For now, the solar system bodies are “sites of special scientific interest,” as the National Science Foundation terms it, and worthy of government-supported study. And humans can do certain researches at hundreds of times the speed and efficiency of robots, so in some senses even sending humans around the solar system is a worthy goal, while at the same time the robotic exploration is doing tremendously good work already. There is no dichotomy there, but merely two parts of a larger effort.
All that said, then I come to my second point: the stars are too far away. There is an idea or meme in our culture which says that humanity is destined for the stars; that “Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you aren’t meant to stay in your cradle forever” (Tsilokovsky, late 19th century). But this idea is wrong. New results in biology indicate that the science fiction idea of the multi-generational starship, which is already the only realistic way for humans to cross interstellar distances, will not work, because any closed biological life-support system will be too small to function over the centuries required. Evolutionary changes described in island biogeography and microbiology, metabolic rifts and choke points in even the most efficiently cycling systems imaginable, all will accrue to the point of causing breakdowns in the small technological surround we could build and send at appropriate speeds. This is a simple function of basic natural processes, like evolution, entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, and the sheer size of the universe.
So at this point, it’s important to point out that the idea of humanity going to the stars is a fantasy and is not going to happen. It delimits our horizon as a species and a global civilization and redirects our attention from the space we can actually inhabit. Looking at the solar system alone, we see it is a beautiful and interesting place, but there is no Planet B for us even here in the zone we can reach. Mars will not serve as a Planet B because of the perchlorates in the soil and the nitrogen lack and the absence of a current atmosphere; it might be terraformed over the long haul, if we stabilize our presence on Earth first, but even that project is likely to take thousands of years. So in the time of our current emergency Mars is useless to us as a replacement world, and all the other planets in the solar system are far, far less amenable to terraforming than Mars (like by many orders of magnitude in terms of energy and resource applications, and time).
So this refocuses our attention to Earth and taking care of Earth as our only possible home. However, to return to my first point and to Arendt: this conclusion comes as the result of doing careful long term space science. It is not an opinion but a scientific result, achieved through doing space science, and then paying attention to the real results and taking them seriously rather than holding on to old dreams formed in ignorance.
Christopher Cokinos: In writing Aurora, how much did you have in mind the sub-genre of writing about multi-generation star ships? Can you describe that field of work from your point of view? Was Aurora a kind of a shot back against interstellar optimism from the get-go or did the story evolve into that?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Writing Aurora was all about the sub-genre of multi-generational starships, yes, but it also was a way of continuing to think about what I believe humanity’s future in space will be. I had already expressed considerable confidence and optimism about our ability to inhabit Mars in my Mars trilogy, then also the solar system in 2312 and some of my earliest novels. But the stars are very much farther away, and although I had described starships leaving the solar system as small elements in earlier novels, I had never written about humanity beyond the solar system. Again, it’s a commonplace in science fiction and now our culture at large that we as a species are somehow “destined for the stars” and to an extent this gets taken for granted and also seen as a measure of our success as a species… as if, if we didn’t go to the stars, it would mean we had failed as a species.
All that seemed wrong to me. For one thing it enabled some very sloppy thinking in which time was distorted as badly as space, such that other planets and even interstellar emigration was seen as some kind of emergency solution if we were to somehow “destroy Earth.” All parts of that thought are wrong, not just that they constitute a moral hazard and make us regard our only life-support system, and in essence ourselves, as somehow replaceable… it also is very likely that it isn’t possible at all.
This was what I wanted to express. We can’t get to the stars, for reasons biological, ecological, sociological, physical, and psychological. When I say this, I want to be careful. It may be that the project is not in the purest sense impossible. But the problems in each area, meaning the trip to other stars, and then the successful inhabitation of another planet, both include so many very extreme difficulties, that together they add up to the functional equivalent of an impossibility. The idea simply should not be discussed as if it is humanity’s destiny and something that the inevitable progress of science is going to make possible.
Details can be saved for the book itself. As to the literary tradition of the starship story, I have particularly enjoyed Heinlein’s “Universe,” Aldiss’s Non-Stop, Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day, and Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun, a seven-volume novel. What these all do for me is provide an exciting and interesting story that also advances the idea of what a multi-generational starship voyage would entail. They make new arguments about it, somehow. I’m aware that there are other starship novels out there that readers have enjoyed and they may be great, too. I can’t say, because I haven’t read them. For sure the sub-genre deserves a thorough study with a full reading list that identifies all the novels and stories that one should read to know the field and would enjoy reading. I’m not aware such a study exists. But I definitely wrote Aurora hoping to add to that discussion.
Christopher Cokinos: So this is about making home and taking care of home, in many ways. I wonder if you can talk about that in relation to how this book and others reflect back on us what we need to do in what you call the “current emergency”? What can science fiction tell us about the choices we must make in the Anthropocene? Here, I’m wondering about how you would see yourself on a sliding scale: ecological modernist on one side or dark ecologist on the other?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I’m not sure I know the last terms here well enough to place myself on a scale between them. I’ve heard of “dark ecologist” as expressing a deep pessimism about our ability to keep the biosphere stabilized given where we are now. I’m not one of those. I don’t know what an ecological modernist would be. It’s a pretty modern field all around, as a scientific discipline. I like the field and discipline we call ecology, and regard it as crucial work, very difficult because always so multi-variant. I think we need to apply ecological methods of study to everything.
Christopher Cokinos: The novel is also very much “about” its narrator—the ship itself: Ship, an A.I. Can you give us a sense of what that narrative strategy does to framing human concerns and how, in writing from that point of view, you found the novel’s characters finding their own solaces and challenges?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Making the ship AI the narrator for all but the first and last chapters was a good move, awkward in many ways, in that it forced me away from the “free indirect” style of narration I usually use, toward some kind of “camera eye” with a “stream of consciousness” for a narrator that doubted it had a consciousness at all. So in terms of point of view it was a huge challenge but then an opportunity for new angles and for comedy. I think that the reader is forced by the method to read into the characters’ interior lives by imagining them from the indirect evidence given by the narrator. Some readers enjoy this, others not. For the characters themselves, the few who recognize the AI as a person have a very interesting problem in thinking over that recognition and coping with an acquaintance that is mechanical.
Christopher Cokinos: And it’s a love story in many ways, yes? “… love is a kind of giving of attention,” the ship comes to realize.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, for sure, the AI in its interrogations as to what it is and what its instruction to “keep a narrative” means for it, necessarily involved it in an analysis of love and other emotions. And the human characters we can see enacting the various aspects of love, from an outside view so to speak.
Christopher Cokinos: There are wonderful long sequences of the ship barreling through the interstellar medium, then a solar system, and it makes me think of your penchant for what I might call cosmic road trips—characters moving across vast settings but in doing so also attending to the details of those settings. It’s gorgeous. Does that tie to your own wanderlust, maybe, at least for being in the mountains? Any writers or scientists that have helped you think and write and live in this way?
Kim Stanley Robinson: For this story in particular, I had the idea that if you were coming back into the solar system fast, with no fuel to deaccelerate, you would have a very serious problem that might have one solution, using the sun and the big gas giants as gravity wells to swing around. This struck me as a new and exciting idea for a story, and I consulted with my friends at NASA to make sure I got the details of it right (mainly this involved coming in much slower than I had first imagined, to make it possible at all). I think it makes for an exciting new story in science fiction, and new stories anywhere are not that common.
As for my wanderlust, it is much reduced from my youth. Now all I want to do in terms of travel is get to the Sierra Nevada of California as much as possible and to my wife’s family place on the coast of Maine. Other places are nice, but I don’t have the same urge to see them as I did when I was young. So maybe what this comes down to is I spend as much time as I can walking in the high Sierra, and on nights out I see the stars and the Milky Way (it being mostly in summer) very well, and it’s a stunning reminder of where we are. Easy to imagine flying through the galaxy—because we are.
Christopher Cokinos: Twice you invoke the technological sublime in the novel. What does that mean for you—what should it mean for the rest of us?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I take the sublime to be a mix of beauty and terror, a specific complex emotion (this is out of Burke). Then the technological sublime is created when some aspect of our technology casts us into a situation that is both beautiful and frightening or should be frightening; this could be even flying in a plane or driving a car over a tall bridge, or so on. In fact we almost live more within the technological sublime than not, these days, so as a default it is very deceptive. Now the profound experience is to get out of the techno-surround and feel ourselves in the old default of normal primate life. Thus the value of being on a beach or swimming in ocean, walking in mountains. The non-technological sublime is more valuable to us than ever. Meanwhile in daily life in civilization it’s good to keep paying attention to how much we’re in an artificial situation of our own making and evaluate it on that basis.
Christopher Cokinos: You have ties to Tucson, where Biosphere 2 is. Did that facility’s current science or its history inform your attempt to create closed biomes on Ship?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, definitely. I have visited it several times and went once specifically to research Aurora. The place as an experiment in a closed biological life-support system taught us a lot. A very worthy experiment and an interesting place. It gave me ideas for my biomes and clarified what some of the problems would be over the long haul if you had only a place like that to live in.
Christopher Cokinos: Recently, an (apparent) descendent of Frank Worsley, Henry, died in the Antarctic trying to be the first person to cross alone with his own supplies. Why do we do this still?
Kim Stanley Robinson: That was a very sad case. I’m quite sure he wasn’t aware he had the disease that killed him and just thought he could finish his trek and then recover, so he waited a bit too long to call for help. Really too bad. It struck me harder than usual, him being a descendant of Frank Worsley. Worsley’s book Shackleton’s Boat Journey is superb, one of the best ever written about Antarctica—way better than Shackleton’s books which were in any case ghost-written. Worsley had only an elementary school education and spent his life at sea, but his skill as a writer comes from the solid elementary school educations of his time, I presume, plus a powerful intelligence and sense of story on his part. The first paragraph dispenses with every part of that long traumatic trip except the boat journey at the end—a wonderful bit of summarization and rhetoric, and it just keeps on at that level of vivid skill.
As for why we keep doing the treks, well, they’re fun. We evolved to walk overland in Ice Ages and we are still really good at it. When you do it, you feel like you’re doing the right thing. You have competencies you didn’t know you had, your body has abilities to walk and navigate and deal with cold that you didn’t know you had, until you give it a try. Big parts of the brain not often used in civilized sedentary life get called on and open up and you can feel this as an opening up, a coming into consciousness of a higher sort. So this is the real sublime, maybe, or just a full human life. So people who have learned this like to do it and keep doing it.
Christopher Cokinos: Aurora is also a story about a family, the death of a mother, the daughter being the focal character of the narration. Do you find that sort of familial focus unusual in SF?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I don’t know science fiction well enough to be sure about this. It’s a huge field now and I haven’t read but a tiny fraction of the work since 1980. So, thinking about what I’ve read, I guess I’d say the family is a bit under-represented as such because SF is so often about the relationship of the individual, or the civilization, to the cosmos itself. In that universal perspective, family gets overshadowed, maybe. There’s a fair bit about marriage and partners (Le Guin, Delany, Stapledon, Banks) but less so about family. I heard someone say SF has little about mother-daughter relationships and realized I wanted to do that in Aurora, just because of that remark. Rudy Rucker is good on family in his novels. Beyond that, I just haven’t read enough to be sure. But I sense an absence there that is structural maybe, in the way I’ve described. SF is about other things, often, as a genre.
Christopher Cokinos: One of the characters invokes a Japanese aphorism: “Live as if you are already dead.” Is that a form of what might be called compassionate nihilism? A freedom to do the right thing after having done the wrong?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I don’t know. The phrase comes from Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an analysis of traditional Japanese culture, and though I found the book insightful, it has been criticized as Mead-style anthropology. I know so little about Japanese culture I can’t speak to its accuracy. There, she seemed to be saying it was part of the samurai code; that you didn’t worry about yourself but regarded yourself from a posthumous position, wanting to be remembered as being an honorable person. A kind of stoicism, I thought. It would be interesting to learn what Japanese culture makes of this phrase. For me it’s always been very suggestive.
Christopher Cokinos: Finally—and thank you for your time over this conversation—I want to note something else that Ship says: “Existence is the experiment itself.” That is lovely! Can you talk about how the experiment is going for you? For humanity?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Very interesting, anyway. Results are mixed. There are too many factors to be able to draw clear conclusions. A very messy experiment, one might say poorly designed. I’m not sure the AI is a great philosopher of the scientific method or of existence. But it may be a suggestive metaphor. I hope so.
Header photo of Earth and galaxy (partially supplied by NASA) courtesy Shutterstock.