Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Over a hundred and fifty years into their voyage, the inhabitants of a generation starship are only a decade out from the Tau Ceti star system. Despite the massive size of the ship, delicate ecological cycles have been slowly deteriorating over the decades. After arrival, more serious problems crop up with the colonisation effort. The issues are so severe that the colonists are faced with deciding whether to stay, or attempt a return to Earth. Both options are fraught with risk.

While the novel ostensibly chronicles the life of a single inhabitant, Freya, it is also fair to say that the AI running the ship is as much a protagonist. Ship, as it prefers to call itself (or is it themselves) develops over time under the ministrations of Freya’s mother Devi, and much of the novel deals with the emergence of its consciousness. Indeed, many pages are spent debating the nature of consciousness and sentience. Is Ship truly sentient? Can a purportedly sentient being even know if it is sentient?

A lot of time is also spent on the suitability attempting to colonise other star systems, or even other planets in the Solar System. Mr. Robinson’s ultimate answer to this question is rather surprising, but hopeful in its own way.

The narrative feels somewhat impersonal, as if the reader is kept at a distance from the protagonist and even the action. This seems to be a conscious choice on the part of Mr. Robinson, given that the story is told in the voice of Ship itself, even as Ship’s understanding of language and humans develops. An interesting narrative device, and finely implemented.

Great North Road – Peter F. Hamilton

GreatNorthRoadIn the early 22nd Century, a body is found in the river Tyne in the northern English city of Newcastle. The murdered man is a North, one of hundreds of clone brothers in the immensely powerful and rich North family. But which one? Detective Sid Hurst is assigned to lead what soon becomes a massive investigation. Earth and its colonies are linked through instantaneous travel gateways, with undesirables and jobless shunted out to the colonies. Massive corporate interests loom over society. Taxation is so high that everyone has “secondary” accounts, a deep grey economy of bribes and favors shadowing what is reported to the government. As Sid investigates, the mystery of the dead North deepens, leading finally to a geophysical expedition looking for clues in the far-flung jungles of the world St. Libra, where mysteriously there is no animal life at all, only plant life.

Great North Road is a singleton book, but still retains Hamilton’s customary “big brick” format at over twelve hundred pages. The characters are many and the plot complex. The backdrop is detailed, with a rich backstory spanning decades. Strange societies and interesting people abound. Unlike most of Hamilton’s works, however, this one is very firmly grounded thematically in the contemporary world. Earth in the early 22nd Century seems stuck in a rut. There are technological advancements over today, certainly, but not as many as one would think. And definitely nothing that has changed the paradigm. The economy is still very much dependent on oil, albeit an artificial variant produced by genengineered algae. Government bureaucracy is powerful, massive, overwhelming and nonsensical. The ultra-rich are disconnected from normal society. The “failed capitalism” theme is powerful, a bit like that seen in the news today. Is this really the best way forward for society, or are humans meant for something more? And yet, forces are conspiring to break out from this path. Hope, as always, is a strong theme for Hamilton. And unlike in his big series, he manages to tie it all up neatly in the end.

4½Rosbochs

Darwin’s Radio – Greg Bear

I saw the sequel to this one in the bookstore and it intrigued me. So I picked up the first book. It’s all about the “next step” in evolution. Sure it’s been done, but this looked cool.

Unfortunately it was monumentally boring. The main characters are very well described and interesting, but you always feel as if you’re at one remove from the real action. A new chapter will suddenly assume that a lot of things have happened since the last one, but none of that stuff is filled in. This sometimes had me checking if I actually missed a page or something. The biology is very interesting, but there is too much of it, disrupting the flow of the story.

I gave up after about 150 pages. Blech.