Sunday, March 20, 2016

Interstellar Voyaging 101: Aurora, Proxima, and New Earth

Tales of humanity's first attempts at interstellar colonization have become something of a minor trend in recent years among writers of hard science fiction.  As a sub-genre, hard science fiction focuses on scientific plausibility (or at least quasi-plausibility) within currently understood scientific laws.

So if you're going to write hard SF about interstellar travel, you're going to have to do it without the space opera magic of faster than light travel -- no Star Wars-style hyper drive or Star Trek-style warp drive allowed!  Hard SF reminds us that traversing the mind-devouring abysses of space between the stars would not be easy.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, Stephen Baxter's Proxima, and Ben Bova's New Earth are very different books, but they all offer versions of a syllabus for a course I'd call "Interstellar Voyaging 101."  If we are going to travel to other stars, how might we do it?  What would it take?  How would it affect us?  And most importantly: why would we do it and should we?

Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite authors working today.  As I noted in my Best of 2015 list, Aurora was my favorite book of 2015.  From my blog review...

Aurora may be my favorite Kim Stanley Robinson novel yet.  Given how much I’ve loved his previous work, especially the Mars Trilogy and 2312, this is saying quite a bit.  And the ship itself may be one of my favorite SF characters of all time.   ...
I don’t find the novel to be pessimistic.  I do find it melancholy.  And beautiful.  And intensely thought provoking.  And heart wrenching.  And poignant.  And deeply satisfying. ...
The central message of Aurora is this: like it or not, we are essentially Earthlings.  There’s something melancholy about this, but also something joyful.  We are limited, but we are also grounded.  We become who we are through narratives; we are narratives.  This realization can be frightening, but it's not so bad when those narratives can be as beautiful, as thoughtful, as challenging, and as enjoyable as Aurora

 Stephen Baxter's Proxima 

Baxter is one of the most prolific hard SF authors working today.  He's perhaps best known for his novel The Time Ships (a fun and weird sequel to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine), his Manifold series, and his sprawling Xeelee Sequence.  I also enjoyed his novel Evolution, which tells the story of life on Earth from the distant past to the distant future.

In Proxima, Baxter tries something a bit more down to Earth, er, Proxima C.  From my Goodreads review...

This is an entertaining and interesting book even though it's not always fast paced and the characters are somewhat thinly developed.  In other words, it's standard hard SF fare from Stephen Baxter. ...
The main protagonist comes out of hibernation en route to Proxima Centauri on a ship that utilizes a mysterious alien technology.  He, along with other reluctant colonists, gets dumped on a planet, Proxima C.  A lot of interesting world building ensues, especially since they live on the side of the planet that always faces the sun (there's no night) and there are mysterious lifeforms.  There's also political and scientific happenings back in the solar system, a cluster of robots on a slower interstellar voyage, more alien mysteries, artificial intelligence, environmental devastation on Earth, alternate realities, etc.  ...
... if you want subtle characterization, read Ursula Le Guin.  If you want deft political stories, read Kim Stanley Robinson.  If you want some crazy hard SF ideas with a bit of fun, Stephen Baxter is the author for you. 

Ben Bova's New Earth

Ben Bova has been part of the science fiction world for almost 60 years as an author and editor.  He won six Hugo awards for editing.  In recent years Bova has gained notoriety as the author of the Grand Tour series, most of which revolves around the colonization of our solar system.

While it's also a Grand Tour book, New Earth departs from the rest of the flock by departing from the solar system.  From my Goodreads review...

...we meet Jordan Kell as he awakens after an 80 year journey to the Sirius system.  He and his crew of scientific misfits visit Sirius C where they find a surprisingly Earth-like planet that they call (somewhat boringly) New Earth.  First contact with aliens occurs and the mysteries begin.  As one Goodreads reviewer noted, the story is somewhat like a Star Trek episode (the captain even falls in love with a native), but I think the more appropriate comparison is Asimov or Clarke, albeit without being quite on the level of Asimov's cleverness or Clarke's Big Ideas.
The bad bits: ... The characters are occasionally obnoxiously stupid and shallow; the book would have been half as long if they had just asked a few pertinent follow up questions ...  There's some (usually relatively mild) sexism; the female crew members, professional and competent as they are, apparently are never consulted about decisions that affect the whole crew and the only aliens we get to know are an old man (who knows everything ...) and a young woman (who becomes the shallow love interest) ...
... the good bits: 1.  The basic plot is interesting enough and has enough mystery to keep things going ...  2. I liked the environmentalist message ...  3. I always love the idea of benevolent aliens, which these aliens at least seem to be, and it's worth exploring the distinct possibility that we may not react entirely rationally to first contact.  4. We do eventually get some Big Picture stuff that almost gets us into Arthur C. Clarke territory, but to say more would be spoilery. ...

The Philosophy Report: Interstellar Ethics

Different as they are in style, themes, plot, characterization, and focus, these three novels raise some similar ethical questions in addition to whatever scientific and technical questions they touch on.  Here are some questions that I considered as I read these novels.

  1. What are our motivations for wanting to travel to other star systems?  Are these good motivations?  Is the longing for interstellar travel a kind of unhealthy desire for transcendence? Are we more tied to the Earth that we think?  (Aurora really gets into these questions).
  2. Given the decades or centuries involved in interstellar travel, is it right to ask people and their descendants to sacrifice everything?  Is this especially problematic when considering that the descendants of interstellar travelers will have had no choice in being thrust into what could be hard, precarious lives?  (Proxima and Aurora deal with these issues pointedly).  Could these novels be read as allegories that explore our relationship to previous generations as well as what we owe future human beings?  
  3. Supposing we do find life on other planets, should this affect our decision to colonize?  What gives us the right to colonize other planets, especially if life has already evolved there?  What do we owe extraterrestrial life?  Does this depend on how much like us it is, whether it's intelligent, whether it's hostile toward terrestrial life?  (These questions are taken up in various ways given the various types of life in each book).
  4. Is it somehow our destiny or the next step in evolution for our species to travel among the stars?  Do we need to do so to confront what could be larger threats or to take on greater challenges?  (New Earth gets into these questions most, but it would be interesting to set up a debate on these matters between New Earth and Aurora with Proxima watching on the sidelines).
  5. Given the reality of climate change and the likelihood that it will severely impact our descendants, is interstellar travel a solution to these problems?  An outlet for some of us?  A harmful denial of a problem we caused?  (All three books touch on these issues; climate change plays a large role in each novel, but their responses differ somewhat).
  6. Is the meaning of the life of the human race as a whole tied up with having interstellar travel as a goal or future possibility?  Must we transcend our Earthly cradle to realize our potential?  Would our existence as a species be more meaningful if we survive longer and spread our kind around the galaxy?  (These are also issues I've touched on before in posts about the movie Interstellar; also, I'm excited to say that a panel I proposed with two friends in which I will discuss these issues was recently accepted for this year's WorldCon in Kansas City).


  1. I'll definitely read Baxter's book since I've been a fan of his for years. In fact his book Evolution was like a punch to the gut with the way Homo sapiens failed resulting in a de-evolution to subsentient creatures.

    As for Bova, never been a fan of his and if his character has a relationship with an alien in New Earth I think I'll skip that one. Such things are okay for Star Trek but I can't follow things like that in hard sci-fi.

    I like Stanley's works, especially his Mars trilogy, but I found Aurora a little too pessimistic. Aurora was a great read but my instinct suggests he undershot the actual technology that will be developed to take us to the stars.

    Another good colonization book with a hard edge is Clarke's Songs of a Distant Earth.

    Great blog by the way!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      I really like Baxter. His stuff is always so delightfully weird. Evolution is one of the more interesting books I've read, especially since almost all of the POVs are non-human! I'm planning to get more into his Xeelee books next and maybe finish the Manifold series.

      The relationship in New Earth is not quite as weird as it sounds, but it is kind of lame. I've only read one or two Bova books before. His stuff is alright, but not amazing. At least it's an easy read. New Earth does get into some interesting territory at the end.

      I found Aurora melancholy, but not pessimistic (I explain that more in my full review). It's a beautiful book. I also like that it challenges a lot of science fiction orthodoxy, even if I don't completely agree with it. I think Robinson raises a lot of really good questions about our motivations and aptitude for interstellar travel as Earth-evolved creatures.

      I'm a huge Clarke fan, but somehow I've never gotten to Songs of a Distant Earth. I must rectify this situation soon!


  2. 5.Is the meaning of the life of the human race as a whole tied up with having interstellar travel as a goal or future possibility?

    One last thing, yes, given that we are made up of star stuff, like Carl Sagan and Tyson teach, I do believe human destiny is tied to spreading life out among the stars.

    I know about the Drake Equation but I'm not convinced complex, multicellular life is all that common in the universe. This does tie into the Fermi Paradox and if humanity needs a purpose to make it "grow up" heading out among the stars to me seems like a winner.

    1. Interesting answer! So you might say that we would be in some sense returning to the stars? And, given the Fermi Paradox, might you say that life like ours is too precious to exist on only one planet? Even if we accept all that, I wonder if Robinson is right that we have a special connection to Earth that may be harder to sever than we think. I'm not sure. Something to think about! Thanks.

  3. Recently read Proxima, huge disappointment as the second book just gets into a bore fest. Not a big fan of multiverse stories.
    Never liked KSR writings too much, and Bova is just simplistic. I think we are fresh out of good modern hard sci-fi authors that tackle space colonization

    1. That's too bad about the sequel to Proxima (Ultima?). I was looking forward to it. Maybe I'll read it anyway with low expectations. Thanks for the comment.