The central strand of the text concerns the journey of several thousand humans in a “Generation Ship” to Tau Ceti, the nearest star with planets assessed as being capable of supporting humans. In a genre which often seems focused technological advance, with hyperdrives and lightspeed, the use of a ship which takes multiple human generations to reach its destination is a pleasant novelty. It also allows for examination of broader questions. The ship of the text is now an old one, theinitial focus of the narrative the last few years before it finally reaches its destination. The reader is drawn into the life of “Ship”, as it is called; and that life is not just humanity. The reader is shown the way in which the entirety of the ship is a closed ecosystem, each ecological niche for colonisation supported by a separate biome. How people are fitted into this system, a self-contained island in the sky. Robinson is known for writing about these sorts of enclosed, elaborate systems, and the detail here is both comprehensive and believable. Whilst the characters are interesting enough, the portrayal of the ship-as-organism, the focus on the whole rather than the sum, may be the most intriguing part of the text.
This interest in systems, and in the role that humans play as actors in those systems, is spun out further, as Robinson explores humanity’s colonisation effort, and the aftermath. In some ways, the text can often feel dry – there are spikes of dramatic tension, moments where pressures simply become too great, and the system spins toward entropy – and these are shown with a certain detachment; at the same time, this clinical approach to human disaster can have a high emotional impact – the separation of the viewer from catastrophe, Robinson’s meticulous, beautiful prose using that separation, paradoxically, to invest the reader in the consequences.
With the larger focus on systems, it’s worth noting that there is a place for people in this story. Perhaps appropriately, we’re largely tied to one narrative focus, who begins as a young child on the ship, and gradually grows toward adulthood and prominence over the course of the text. At the same time, the narrator of the text gives us a view of other characters, the supporting cast around our protagonist. In all cases, it would have been nice to see more of these characters. Their roles are most often seen in dialogue, between them and the protagonist, or their actions reported as part of the wider context of a problem. The environment these characters inhabit feels alive; the way that they speak feels like there are deeper personalities behind them – we just don’t get the time to look at them in detail. On the other hand, what is shown is enough to move the story along, and whilst the supporting cast often feel a little underdeveloped, they’re interesting enough foils to the protagonist, whose own evolution, wrapped in the tale of the ship, and of Aurora, is extremely compelling.
The plot…well, it’s much like the systems portrayed in the text. It begins gradually, easing the reader into this foreign, claustrophobic environment, then gathers momentum toward a crescendo, before slowing to gather pace again. It’s plot in a series of waves, from one crisis to the next – not always the known and the expected either, but always something interesting. I won’t get into it here for fear of spoilers, but will say that I kept on turning pages, hoping to see what happened next . And that’s perhaps the highlight of the book, in a way – it makes a genuine attempt, on a wide scale, to show the reader not just how the human narrative works, but how everything in a system works, and, when a journey comes to a close, what may happen next.
It’s excellent science fiction; it asks fascinating questions, and provides unflinchingly intriguing answers. It has characters you can care about, and an overarching plot which, if I’m honest, dazzles. It can be a bit dry at times, especially exploring the nitty gritty of systemic decay – but at the same time, the weight of the whole narrative means that the pages can’t get turned fast enough. Really worth giving it a try – it’s unafraid of big ideas, and of engaging the reader in those ideas, and that makes it a brilliant read