I’ve been seeing neopagan themes in a fair amount of my reading this year, but a generation ship novel by hard SF author Kim Stanley Robinson is the last place I expected to find them. Published in 2015, Aurora tells the tale of a spaceship 160 years into its journey to an Earthlike planet in the Tau Ceti system, carrying around two thousand people in 24 realistic biomes, complete with an array of animals and plants. This far into the voyage, it’s becoming harder and harder for the ship’s chief engineer Devi to reclaim vital minerals from its closed system, population genetics are going badly wrong and people are chafing under a regime that’s necessarily relentlessly authoritarian and intrusive. And that’s before they reach Tau Ceti, where they find the planet they’ve named for humanity’s new dawn may not be so welcoming after all.
Aurora’s been described as a bleak novel, but despite its utter rejection of the generation ship as a useful concept and the increasingly desperate decisions its ship-bound characters make in their attempts to survive, that description doesn’t seem quite right. Like all of Robinson’s novels, Aurora has a headlong, rushing energy occasioned by a prose style that’s inclined towards breathless run-on sentences:
Gravity drags within the solar system, caused by close approaches to the sun and planets: each of these would have a negligible effect, but if there were enough of them, sequenced…this becomes a question of orbital mechanics, navigational finesse, and the remaining fuel that would be needed for maneuvering, and the strength of decelerative forces while near gravitational bodies.
A large part of the novel is narrated by the ship itself, which suits Robinson’s tendency towards top-down narratives that dramatise the progress of societies rather than individuals, while also giving space to musings on what makes an entity sentient, intelligent, worthy of personhood. Coupled with that exuberant prose style, Ship’s analysis of its population’s problems and the many variables that influence them showcase an exuberance for scientific knowledge, or more specifically in the complexity that knowledge makes visible in the universe around us, that informs one of the novel’s central themes, the one I’m most interested in for its neopagan resonances: that of humanity’s relationship to the environment we evolved in.
Specifically, Aurora‘s central contention is that the dream of leaving Earth is folly, that the fragile and astonishingly complex feedback loops and systems that sustain us here are impossible to replicate aboard a generation ship or upon a distant planet; and that, therefore, we should be directing our attention to protecting and replenishing those systems rather than assuming we can make a fresh start somewhere else. The only other SF-adjacent novel I’ve read that approaches such themes is Charlie Jane Anders‘ All the Birds in the Sky, which I found unsatisfying on a number of levels, but particularly its obfuscating insistence on nature’s resilience and hidden power. What’s refreshing about Robinson’s novel is that its environmentalist message is couched in unequivocally scientific terms, that it so plainly delights in science, so that the problem of replicating an Earthlike environment is presented as not one of theoretical comprehensibility but one of complexity. That is, in theory every process can be analysed and understood, but the relationships between them are so many and so various that it’s extremely difficult to predict ahead of time what will happen if you change any particular variable. This complexity, this interrelatedness, is more wonderful and I think ultimately truer than a handwaved insistence on the power of nature; the first deepens our understanding of, and thus our relationship with, the planet that sustains us; the second actively hinders it.
It’s this sense of, and delight in, complexity that I respond to in Robinson’s novels, I think; the sense that more knowledge is what will save us, the understanding of the world as a series of interlocking systems that can be hacked (as the householder’s union does in New York 2140) or bolstered if only we’re willing to do the work to understand them. And Aurora is Robinson at his best, taking on a venerable SF trope to examine how the genre and wider culture understands the greatest threat humanity faces. It’s sensawunda SF that also feels realistic, science fiction that’s relevant to neopaganism, hard SF with an interest in people and deep characterisation: like the universe it depicts, it contains multitudes.