Space travel – it’ll screw you up. That’s one of the big lessons of Kin Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, a book about a generational starship on the verge of reaching its destination, where the descendants of the original crew are due to found humanity’s first colony among the stars.
It’s hard to discuss the plot of this book without getting into spoilers. It takes a lot of dramatic turns, breaking from the structure you might expect from such a novel. I often found myself saying “how can I be only this far through if we’ve reached event x already?” Then low and behold, KSR would show me how. This is an author unafraid of breaking out of his audience’s comfort zone.
Which brings me to the problem with this novel.
Intellectually, it’s fascinating. KSR delves deeply into physics, ecology, AI and the social sciences. While I’ve seen the science criticised by those in the know for taking certain elements too far, to me as a non-scientist it offered fascinating insights into how the world works. Or perhaps more accurately, how it breaks down.
Because this is a bleak book. Bad things happen, as is necessary to create drama. But because of the way the story is told, the bad things have far more emotional impact than the good. There are pauses in the deep darkness, rather than breaks into the bright light. For me, that made it gruelling to read at times, despite the smooth prose. And not gruelling in an “I’m deeply emotionally engaged with these characters, I feel their hurt” kind of way. Gruelling in a “can’t they catch a break?” way.
If you like hard science fiction or are interested in the potential for inter-stellar colonisation then this is worth reading. But though it’s skillfully constructed and full of fascinating science, I can’t say it hit the spot for me.
The thermostat in the quarantine room was broken, telling Dan that it was at room temperature when he could feel himself breaking out in a sweat. He’d already shrugged off the spacesuit and sat on a metal cot in shorts and a t-shirt, waiting for someone to tell him what was wrong.
At last Jean appeared at the observation window, looking every inch the doctor in her white coat, a coffee mug in her hand.
“Hey Dan.” Her voice was crackly through the intercom. “Sorry about this.”
“It ain’t exactly a hero’s welcome.” Dan walked over to face her through the glass. She was still as stunning as she’d been on their first date, as vexing as she’d been through the divorce. “You remember I saved the other shuttle crew, right?”
“Oh yes.” She looked away, stiff with tension, sweat beading her brow. “That’s the problem. They came back with some kind of superbug. Not the first time a virus has got stronger in space, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it change so much. We’re fighting to contain it, and there’s a risk you were infected, so…”
“So here I am.” It made sense, Dan had to accept that. “How long will it be? No-one’s even brought me food yet.”
His stomach rumbled.
“I’m not sure.” Jean grimaced and bent over. “Sorry, I…”
The mug exploded in her hand as she let out a cry of pain.
“Hungry.” She looked at Dan with bloodshot eyes. “So very hungry.”
Hand pressed against the glass, looking at him with a strange longing, and then slid to the ground.
“Jean?” Fear knotted Dan’s stomach with its own pain. “Jeany, are you alright?”
There was no answer.
“Help!” Dan yelled. “Help!”
But there was no answer. The quarantine room was sound proof, and without someone standing outside the intercom would have switched off.
Jean needed his help. And he needed to see that she was OK, to hold her, to feel her warm flesh. The tension of the moment was muddling his thoughts, but he could find a way out.
He flung himself against the window and then the door, trying to break through, all the while shouting for help. But there was no response, and the door and window held.
A technician appeared on the other side of the glass.
“Thank God!” Dan’s relief turned sour as he saw that this man too was hunched over in pain, his grey overalls drenched with sweat. He stumbled to where Jean lay, then crumpled over over beside her.
“Dammit!” Dan was scared for himself as well as Jean. What if everyone in the base was infected? Would he be forgotten, left to starve in the quarantine cell, while Jean died inches away from him? His heart was pounding, his whole body quivering with tension.
Desperate, he looked around for something he could use, but there was only a toilet and the cot bolted down in the corner of the room.
The cot would have to do. He grabbed the aluminium bedframe, cold and hard beneath his hands. He’d expected it to be attached securely to the floor, but it came up surprisingly easily, metal screaming and screws popping as he wrenched it free. Then he ran at the window and swung the frame with all his strength, ready to batter the reinforced glass into submission.
It shattered with one single, explosive blow.
Leaping through the gap, he saw Jean and the technician on the floor. He could even smell them, an unexpected moment after so long alone.
The technician hadn’t collapsed as Dan had thought. The man was crouched beside Jean, blood on his lips as he chewed her arm.
In a rage, Dan grabbed the man and flung him aside. He hit the wall so hard that his head smashed open. The scent of blood was overpowering. Blood and something else.
Was that brains? Could Dan really smell brains?
He looked down at Jean, faintly aware that she needed help. But he was hungry, painfully hungry, a sensation he couldn’t even resist.