8 Sep 2015

AURORA: interviews & reviews

Submitted by Kimon

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest, AURORA, has been out for two months now.

This video is a great introduction to Aurora. Stan explains the concept and motivation for the novel, and his talking is complete by animation. This is a good piece of promotional material by Orbit Books, similar to their illustration on how to build a terrarium from 2312!

The entire first chapter of Aurora, "Starship Girl", is available to read at Orbit Books.

More than just human DNA inside the human body, the fuel problem for acceleration/deceleration, the non-realism of the staple of faster-than-light travem in most science fiction, the complexity of maintaining a functioning society in a confined space, the way humans and all living creatures we know evolved and are tailored for life on Earth, on the development of artificial intelligence, these are some of the issues tackled in the interviews discussing Aurora.

Beware of spoilers! Aurora, moreso than your typical KSR novel, has twists and turns and page-turner developments as the Aurora mission unfolds.

This short and sharp interview with the Sacramento Bee sets the stage for these hotly debated ideas at the center of Aurora:

Q: “Aurora” touches on the growing notion that humankind will soon be able to leave Earth and start fresh on another planet.
A: It’s a nasty proposition and a wrong idea. The harder you press it, the more you realize it won’t work. Even the closest star systems are too far away.

Q: Your “Mars” series speculated on colonizing Mars, and a new book “How We’ll Live On Mars” by Stephen Petranek says we’ll be on the Red Planet by 2027.
A: Mars is in the ballpark, but we’re still 35 years out. Let’s be clear we’re talking about astronauts going there, doing scientific studies and coming back. The actual colonization of Mars is centuries away, and terraforming it (transforming it to support human life) might be a 10,000-year project.

Q: But what if we could get to another planet for colonization?
A: This is a mistake because there’s no place other than Earth where humanity can be healthy and safe. When we land on another planet, we’ll find out if it’s either alive or dead. It it’s alive, we’ll be in trouble because the life that’s there already will either make us sick or kill us. If it’s dead, we’ll have to terraform it, in which case we’ll die before it’s ready.

Here is an interview for Science Friday radio, on interstellar travel, on Earth as our spaceship -- "There is no Planet B" -- on managing climate change, on who the narrator for Aurora is, plus a reading of an excerpt.

A short interview at Capital Public Radio, where Stan talks about how Aurora was constructed but also reminisces on his 40 year career as a science fiction writer.

In another Aurora interview for The Guardian, for the Books Podcast, Robinson's exploration of time and space are juxtaposed with psychologist Sheldon Solomon's exploration of death. It's interesting to hear him out on future history and the existential underpinnings of thinking about the future of humanity, of having objectives beyond the length of our lifetimes and how we have to cope with our own mortality with the new knowledge that science has brought to us on our size and place in the cosmos. It includes the reading of a passage of Aurora, and a discussion of forms of politics "passengers" might adopt in the context of a generational starship.

Science fiction realism versus fantasy is at the center of this other interview for The Guardian, along with writers Alastair Reynolds and Ann Leckie.

The spacefarers in his latest novel, Aurora, set out on a voyage to a star 11.9 light years away with no warp drives, no sentient robots and no nanomachines. The ship’s technology offers impressive upgrades on familiar 21st-century models, from “printers” that can manufacture anything the travellers require, to aquantum computer so sophisticated it wonders if it should award itself the pronoun “I”. But Robinson’s mission launches in 2545, putting his characters as far away from the world of Taylor Swift and the Apple smartwatch as we are from Niccolò Machiavelli and the matchlock musket. It’s almost as if Thomas More had imagined a captain setting out for the moon in a clipper.

Robinson makes no apology for the 21st-century tech of his 26th-century explorers, arguing that progress in science and technology will asymptotically approach “limits we can’t get past”.

“It’s always wrong to extrapolate by straightforwardly following a curve up,” he explains, “because it tends off towards infinity and physical impossibility. So it’s much better to use the logistic curve, which is basically an S curve.”

“‘Science’ implies the world of fact and what we all agree on seems to be true in the natural world. ‘Fiction’ implies values and meanings, the stories we tell to make sense of things.” David Hume argued that it’s impossible to argue from the way the world is to the way the world ought to be, Robinson continues, “and yet here is a genre that claims to be a kind of ‘fact-values’ reconciliation, a bridge between the two”.

“Can it be? Well, no, not really – but it can try.”

In this interview for Electric Literature, affiliated to To The Best Of Our Knowledge show/podcast, Robinson expands on the technical and human challenges to undertake such an interstellar voyage, and expands on artificial intelligence and the importance of science fiction utopias. Excerpts:

My working principle was, what would it really be like? So no hyperspace, no warp drive, no magical thing about what isn’t really going to happen to get us there. That means sub-lightyear speeds. So I postulated that we could get spaceships going to about one-tenth the speed of light, which is extraordinarily fast. [...] The physics of this is a huge problem.

SP: As you were imagining this voyage, which part was most interesting to you? Was it the science–trying to figure out technically how we could get there? Or was it the personal dynamics of how people would get along when they’re trapped in space for so long?

KSR: I think it would be the latter. I’m an English major. The wing of science fiction that’s discussed this idea has been the physics guys, the hard SF guys. They’ve been concerned with propulsion, navigation, with slowing down, with all the things you would use physics to comprehend. But I’ve been thinking about the problem ecologically, sociologically, psychologically. These elements haven’t been fully explored and you get a new story when you explore them. It’s a rather awful story, which leads to some peculiar narrative choices. [...] Because they’re trapped and the spaceship is a trillion times smaller than Earth’s surface. Even though it’s big, it’s small. And we didn’t evolve to live in one of these things. It’s like you spend your whole life in a Motel Six.

SP: You also wrote a whole series of books about Mars. You still have to get there.

KSR: But there’s an important distinction. You can get to Mars in a year’s travel and then live there your whole life. And you’re on a planet, which has gravity and landscape. You can terraform it. It’s like a gardening project or building a cathedral. I think terraforming Mars is viable. Going to the stars, however, is completely different because you would be traveling in a spaceship for several generations where you’re in a room, not on a planet. It’s been such a techie thing in science fiction. But people haven’t de-stranded those two ideas. They said, “Well, if we can go to Mars, we can go to Tau Ceti.” It doesn’t follow. It’s not the same kind of effort.

[...] I think Earth is the one and only crucial place for humanity. It will always be our only home.

SP: Does the future of AI and technology more generally excite you?

KSR: Yes, AI in particular. I used to scoff at it. I’m a recent convert to the idea that AI computing is interesting. Mainly, it’s just an adding machine that can go really, really fast. There are no internal states. They’re not thinking. However, quantum computers push it to a new level. It isn’t clear yet that we can actually make quantum computers, so this is the speculative part. It might be science fiction that completely falls apart.

KSR: Dystopias express our fears and utopias express our hopes. Fear is a very intense and dramatic emotion. Hope is more fragile, but it’s very stubborn and persistent.

Bonus: Stan teases his _next_ novel! In the Sacramento Bee and Science Friday interviews:

A: I’m postulating a sea level rise and I’m doing a “drowned Manhattan” novel. For a Californian, writing about New York is scarier than writing about Mars.

And let's leave it at that for the time being!

AURORA reviews galore!

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