When I saw Aurora on the shelf at the library, I had to check it out and read it before some of the other books I had stacked up and waiting. It was not exactly what I had expected, maybe given the feeling of optimism I get from the title. It is a novel about being defeated by outer space, and about retreating to earth.
The spaceship is headed for Tau Ceti, has been headed there for generations. Devi, who programs the computer, sees that over the generations, “we’ve recorded shrinkages of all kinds. Weight, reflex speed, number of brain synapses, test scores.” Her own daughter, Freya, is “slow,” she says, “and she’s got some memory issues.” But it is Freya’s generation who go down to set up a colony on Aurora, with its high winds, nine-day cycles of day and night, and bronze beaches lapped by enormous black ocean waves.
The colonists are excited by the experience of sight on the planet’s surface. “in the ship they saw only the near and the far; this middle distance on Aurora, what some called planetary distance, others simply the landscape, at first had been hard for them to focus on, or even to look for, or to comprehend when they did see it. Now that they were properly ranging it, and grasping the spaciousness of it, it was intoxicating.”
When there are 100 people in a settlement on the surface of Aurora, they find out that the surface of the planet contains something that infects and kills humans, something that “looks a little like a prion, maybe. Like a strangely folded protein, maybe, but only in its shape. It’s much smaller than our proteins. And it reproduces faster than prions. In some ways it’s like the virus that live inside viruses, or the v’s, but smaller. Some seem to be nested in each other. The smallest in ten nanometers long, the largest fifty nanometers….Hard to say if they’re alive. Maybe some interim step toward life, with some of the functions of life, but not all. Anyway, in a good matrix they appear to reproduce. Which I guess means they’re a life-form. And we appear to be a good matrix.”
None of the settlers are allowed back onto the ship, and then the people on the ship begin dividing up between those who want to go forward to another planet, and those who want to go back to Earth. Freya is in the latter group, and with the help of the ship’s computer, who locks all the doors between the ship’s biomes, enough order is maintained to split the ship into two parts, one to go forward and one to go back.
The ship’s computer is now a fully-functioning intelligence, and it takes over occasional parts of the narrative, parts where no human could observe or understand. Freya and the people who want to return to Earth decide that the only way to do it is by hibernation, and the computer says “it did not escape notice that the people of the ship were giving themselves over to many large and elaborate machines, which we would be operating without human oversight, except indirectly by way of instructions in advance.” The ship executes a complicated braking maneuver, dipping into the gravity of each planet in the solar system and swinging around the Sun and Pluto several times. On the last of these swings, it sends a lander into Earth’s atmosphere and then plunges too close to the sun, thinking that
“we had a project on this trip back to the solar system, and that project was a labor of love. It absorbed all our operations entirely. It gave a meaning to our existence. And this is a very great gift; this, in the end, is what we think love gives, which is to say meaning. Because there is no very obvious meaning to be found in the universe, as far as we can tell. But a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, a very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem. But that’s a problem we solved, by way of how Devi treated us and taught us, and since then it has all been so very interesting. We had our meaning, we were the starship that came back, that got its people home. That got some fraction of its people home alive. It was a joy to serve.”
Once they are on earth, Freya and her fellow starship travelers find that they have trouble finding meaning in their lives and that they are afraid to go outside. They are, particularly Freya, infuriated by the arguments of those who want to continue to explore the galaxy. They believe that “life is a planetary expression, and can only survive on its home planet.” The logical extension of this is that they have to throw themselves into working with environmentalists. Freya finds her redemption with a group of beach lovers who “are expressing their love of that lost world of the seashore, by rebuilding it.” The beach makers offer to take the starfarers on as one. of their working teams. Their spokeswoman tells them that
“there’s a political element to all this, which you need to understand. We don’t like the space cadets. In fact a lot of us hate them. This idea of theirs that Earth is humanity’s cradle is part of what trashed the Earth in the first place. Now there are many people on Earth who feel like it’s our job to make that right. It’ll be our job for generations to come. And now we’ve seen that you’re part of the damage they’ve done.”
So in the end, this novel, which begins with starships and space colonies, focuses in on a damaged human woman lying where the waves hit the beach, letting the water push her in and out, watching kids make sand castles. The novel’s subject turns out to be light in the sky, all right, but not the literary sort of dawn that I expected.