November 2, 2020
Tonight, I finished Robinson’s Aurora. It’s a bit of the Odyssey and a bit of Candide: about finding home and taking care of our garden. Ultimately, this is an odyssey: a search for home. Robinson’s novel argues that our only true place in the universe is on the planet where we evolved. It’s not didactic, but it makes clear that our lives are aligned with Earth, and we better begin to acknowledge that.
The novel is long, but necessarily so. Robinson does a great job communicating the glacial tedium of interstellar travel and the potential dangers that any sort of trip would inevitably entail. It deals with some big issues: the value of human life, the fragility of human live, and also the tenacity of human life. Yes, humans can undertake awesome adventures and endeavors, but ultimately the universe is hostile to our life. We seem to have one environment in which we can thrive: that which produced us. Trying to move beyond that permanently would be futile. Aurora is not cynical or fatalistic, but pragmatic: we don’t know how lucky we have it. We are complacent, and our actions are destroying that which makes our own lives possible: the Earth.
All of this is summed up nicely in the final chapter. Freya goes from being a terrified re-patriot to an acceptance of Earth as a large spaceship in which the biomes must be cared for. This is not about the ship’s survival as much as it is about the inhabitants’. The ending is kind of Zen: Freya learns how to exist with the tidal forces that produce waves on the beach. She learns acceptance and respect: swim with the wave or it will knock you down, maybe drowning you. She feels the sun’s radiation on her white skin as she begins to awaken to the possibilities offered by her only home.
Aurora also deals with the human propensity for ideology. If the last chapter, Freya and her father acknowledge the potential of others’ dreams to imprison and kill:
“People live in ideas,” Badim says again. “You can’t stop it. We all live in ideas. You have to let these people have their ideas.”
“But they kill people with them.”
They’re talking about ships like the one they were born on heading to Tau Ceti. Their ancestors chose to undertake the mission, but Freya and her father did not. They are descendants of these pioneers, and they are literally imprisoned in their grandparents’ ship of dreams. If this doesn't resonate today—after the hasty confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett and on the eve of arguably the most significant general election of my life—I’m not sure what will. Is our collective American problem today? Living in ideas? These questions are profound.
Maybe here is where my comparison to Candide is most apt: Candide is a perpetual victim of others’ ideas. They beat and batter him on his quest for Cunégonde until he finally learns that what’s most significant is tending his own garden. Without talking. In other words: keep your dreams to yourself. Interestingly, Robinson seems to bring another perspective to Pope’s assertion that we live in the best of possible worlds: if we clear the expression of all the ideological baggage that Pope intended, this might be a nice, albeit too simple, morale of Aurora.
I have one burning question: who is the narrator of the last chapter? The ship has been the narrator throughout the novel, but it burned up circling the sun after dropping the crew on Earth. Who became the narrator?