Utopia Here: On Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora

A broken wave rushes up the strand, stops, leaves a line of foam. Big slab of water sheets back down the slope at her, crashes into her wrists and knees, sinks her farther into wet sand. Bubbling water swirls the sand under her to the sea, black flecks forming V patterns in tumbling blond grains, sluicing new deltas right before her eyes.

– Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora, 466

What kind of science fiction novel ends with a fifteen-some page excursus on body surfing, with its full sensory rush, the gasping dread of a nose full of water from a misread wave, the crash force of another set, the slight, pleasurable drag on the body floating in the shallows, the little flows of sand? Breathing, tumbling, floating, rubbing in sunscreen, and blinking in the bright sun. Robinson’s prose is radiantly specific through this sequence, as attentive to the smallest signs of the tug of gravity on sand, water, and human bodies as to the pulls of anxiety and release, desire and alienation in the minded experience of the character through whom the beach scene unfolds. This is environmental writing, tracking the interrelations in a particular planetary location among lifeforms, atmospheres, predictable regularities, and contingent, fleeting moments. The novel opens with a scene of a father and daughter in a sailboat, engaged in the oddly human activity of taking advantage of the forces of nature, wind, and waves, and nearly disastrously misjudging the play of those forces, as their little boat crashes into a pier. Any reader of realist novels would find much to consider in these opening and closing scenes, but why are they here, in a post-Accelerando, mid-far future science fiction story?

Here is a very short version of the plot of Aurora: humans, already distributed around the solar system in various post-Earth living arrangements, have sent a multigenerational starship to Tau Ceti to find an inhabitable planet, a trip that takes about 170 years. The candidate planet, a scene of sublime waves echoing the novel’s opening and closing, proves impossible to live on. A period of violent struggle and bitter debate among the travelers ensues. The ship and many of its inhabitants decide to return to Earth, a place none of them has ever been. What it means to live on a ship, in a closed environment with limited resources for renewal; what it means to be a ship and to be a person born on that ship; and what is at stake in finding or having a planetary home are the questions that run through the novel.

My short version of the plot says almost nothing of what is beautiful, cognitively estranging, and warmly involving in Aurora. It gives away however what looks, at least at first glance, to be the central problem of the book, both in terms of its politics (or what kind of orientation toward the future it suggests) and its place in Robinson’s work and in science fiction more generally. That central problem is the decision for the travelers to return home, or rather “return” (since this is not where they or their forebears left from) “home” (since Earth is nearly as unfamiliar to them as the planets of the Tau Ceti system).

Robinson is best known for his extraordinary Mars trilogy, a long-duration story of a project to make Mars an alternative living space for humans in a near future period of economic, political, and environmental crisis on Earth.[1] The trilogy focuses in particular on the struggle between seeing human life on a new planet as a process of changing the planet, terraforming, or as a process of changing human life itself. The Mars books are in a utopian tradition, dialectically responding to among others the Red planets of early Soviet science fiction,[2] Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future,[3] and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.[4] Robinson’s utopianism is of the warm variety, in which the utopian is what is lived toward, the possibilities that are constituted in struggle, disagreement, contingent events. [5] Perhaps more than anything else, his utopianism in these novels is also  in the extraordinary bringing to life of Mars as a planet, as a natural world that is not ours but is for all that still natural, given to the reader in Robinson’s detailed, geology-rich writing. What does it mean, then, for Robinson to have written a novel in which the utopian hope of a new planet is refused us, in which the Noah’s ark of the voyage out turns into a lifeboat, its few human survivors into refugees from nowhere? Is this a story about end of utopia?

The foothills of Mount Sharp, the central within the Gale Crater on Mars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The foothills of Mount Sharp, the central peak within the Gale Crater on Mars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

One critical response to Aurora, an implicit response to the question about utopia that I’ve just posed, has been that the novel is driven not by utopian hope but by something counter to it: realism, in particular by a realism about what kind of future we might be in for given our current historical living conditions. Realism in this way is understood as a kind of temperament of moderation, a thoughtful, reasoned, imaginative response to what is increasingly understood as the environmental crisis of our lives.[6] Such assessments of this novel and of Robinson’s work generally get something right, certainly. His Science in the Capitol trilogy, for example, gives us climate disaster in the spaces of dailiness —a rising river, a tent in a tree, and sleeping bags configured for ever-colder winters; human problem solving made urgent but still framed by political and economic structures that bend or extend at best but never shatter.[7] Part of the point of this realism, I suspect, is to argue that there isn’t an apocalypse just ahead of us, ready to rend ordinary life, but that instead we are already in it, and in fact it’s not much like an apocalypse at all, but much more like the series of accommodations, frustrations, and localized disorders in which we are already leading our lives. We’d like an apocalypse, please. Let us start anew, however bad it might be (and indeed, whether it’s Katniss’s bow, all those guns in the Walking Dead, or dad’s self-sacrificing love in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that we most like to imagine ourselves wielding or yielding to, you might well suspect that there’s a lot of longing for the arrival of that big bad day floating around in our conjuncture). Robinson’s novels, and Aurora in particular, insist that the struggles that will save us will take place on terrain we already recognize, in the attachments we have already formed, in our historical and natural being as creatures of our planet.

That claim is, I think, what makes Robinson feel like a kind of realist. He’s never trafficked in the rush of difference and sensory intensity that often seems to be what we take science fiction to be—the tentacled alienness of aliens, the super-whooshing of faster-than-light drives, the rad bodymods of posthuman clades (though Swan Er Hong’s self-soothing purring in his 2312 is certainly on my list of biological additions I’d sign up for).[8] Indeed, it’s not just that Robinson makes his science fictional estrangements feel so plausible that allies Aurora with realism. Aurora is a novel in many ways about realism, the generic kind, the kind we associate not with temperament or mood or even plausibility but with the novel form in its most familiar incarnation, the one we inherit in good part from nineteenth century Britain and Europe. Aurora is in part a Bildungsroman, the story of how you grow up, leave home, figure out how you’re not exactly your mother’s daughter (and yet are exactly that) when the home you’re trying to leave is a spaceship (and the mother you don’t want to turn into is the person whose intelligence and drive keeps that ship, as it were, afloat). And central to Aurora are meditations on the place of figuration in human thought, life, and logic, and the entanglement of narrative and narrative form with human life itself (meditations that to me read like an excursus on and love letter to Fredric Jameson).[9]

The girl who grows up is called Freya. The voice who gives us a crash course in the logics and illogics of narrative (and the classic realist problem of balancing the stories of the many and the one) is that of the quantum computer—that is the ship itself, or rather, the ship themselves, since they refuse singular identity—from whom we hear most of the story. In its deliberate play with the problems of literary realism, it’s Ship in good part who makes me hesitate over the thought that this novel is choosing a realism suited to Space X-ian neoliberalism (where the rights to mine asteroids have been agreed on even though the rockets are still routinely crashing), contracting the utopian horizon back down to something like a warning and a lesson. There is something in the thought that even to a quantum computer the problem of how to live life, especially how to live life with others and how to convey what we know about living life with others to other others is a real problem, one that can only be approached through misdirection and flashes of figures of speech that strike me as in itself utopian, as it decouples humanness and sustaining human culture from individuality and biology.

But the thought that what we have is a choice between utopia and reality, which might also be a way of saying between red and green, leftist faith in progress and environmentalist faith in the return to nature, is also the wrong way of thinking about what science fiction does (though it may not be all that wrong about what realism tends toward). It’s not that science fiction gives us the future we might be in for. It’s that science fictional futures in their very difference—however temperately that difference is figured—from our everyday give us a glimpse of that everyday, lets us see our lives and our historical situation in a way that we never do from our little nests inside it. That is, there isn’t a choice between realism and utopia. The latter, in the Robinson, Le Guin, Stapledon form at any rate, is a way of getting us to think about how the terms of the former aren’t just obvious, just natural, just how things must be.

Let’s go back to the beach for a minute. The So-Cal beach where Freya learns to body surf feels utterly familiar or at least readily imaginable—water, sand, surfer kids. It obeys the laws of nature as any natural space must—gravity tugging at water, sand, boards, and bodies. But this beach—where Freya, the woman who has spent her entire life, extended long past the typical human lifespan through periods of hibernation, on a spaceship, finds herself getting her first glimpse of what it would be to be at home on Earth, her “home”—is itself a humanmade thing, a new beach built by an activist-artist collective where a beach once was, the first beach long since swallowed by the risen sea levels of the Anthropocene. Is this a natural space or a cultural space? An ecosystem or historical artifact? The answer is there is no choosing between those.

We learn late in Aurora that the humans who have dispersed through the solar system live longer if they occasionally return to Earth to let their biology and being hang out again on the planet, the only planet on which their particular form of life developed. Here the thought seems to be about a profound kind of attachment, one directly experienced only when it’s been broken. This isn’t a metaphor or a hope but a fact, the novel tells us, about being the kind of lifeform that develops on a planet. Whatever our nature may be, even in its historicity, it is part and parcel of this world, this world we live on and in and deform and build. But Earth is no cradle, no womb either, Aurora tells us. The return to Earth can also produce a profound alienation, earthshock Robinson calls it, something like an allergy to being on the home planet again. There’s nothing easy about being in the place you come from, nothing just comforting, given and right. It’s not a refuge, our safe mama Earth. It’s not a launching pad, to the stars you pioneers! And what it means to belong to it is not to be connected to something outside of us, to be in touch with nature. Read the book (I haven’t given that much away), look again at Freya, spacewoman on the artificial beach, old woman in a young woman’s body on an old world that’s been made anew (at least in part), diving into the waves out of which our kind of life first emerged, out of which surfer girls and plastic forks and fishing tackle and strange-colored kelp and the last of the mussels have all washed up and back, pulled by gravity. It’s very hard to picture what it means to belong on a planet, to live on, in, and through a world as we do. Yet it’s urgent, and Robinson suggests that we try to do so. It’s in science fiction that we get a chance to glimpse what our world is, what another world might be, even if at first glance it looks just like this one.


[1] Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1993); Green Mars (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1994); Blue Mars (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1996).

[2] For example, Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia (1908; repr., Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984).

[3] Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (London: Methuen, 1930).

[4] Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

[5] On the cold versus warm streams of utopianism, an idea drawn in part from Ernst Bloch, see Darko Suvin’s “Locus, Horizon and Orientation: The Concept of Possible Worlds as Key to Utopian Studies (1989).” in Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2010), especially pages 118 and 127. See also Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979). Suvin’s account of utopia and science fiction is my lodestar in this essay and in general.

[6] Aurora has inspired a number of substantive, interesting reviews. For sense of the novel’s realism, I’m thinking in particular of the very smart accounts by N. Katherine Hayles for Public Books, “Searching for Purpose’’; Gerry Canavan in the LA Review of Books, “The Warm Equations”; and Steve Paulson in National Public Radio, "No Warp Drives, No Transporters: Science Fiction Authors Get Real."

[7] Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain (London: Harper Collins, 2004); Fifty Degrees Below (New York: Bantam Spectra, 2005); Sixty Days and Counting (New York: Bantam Spectra, 2007).

[8] Robinson, 2312 (New York: Orbit, 2012).

[9] It might be fun to read Aurora alongside Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982). His Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005) has influenced my thinking about Robinson and science fiction in general.