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.

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program – Milton O. Thompson

The X-15 program ran from 1959 to 1968, with three aircraft exploring high altitude and high-speed flight. The research program contributed a wide range of scientific advances that were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle and fly by wire control technology, among other things. The work of flying the X-15 was dangerous and exacting, leading to the death of one pilot and involving numerous emergencies. It remains to this date by far the fastest and highest-flying winged aircraft in history.

Mr. Thompson’s account is matter-of-fact, with few embellishments. (The author does note that he is not a writer.) While it retains a certain flatness of style throughout, the book is nonetheless fascinating for the aviation buff. These men, including a young Neil Armstrong, were exploring the unknown fringes of the flight envelope in an unforgiving aircraft, frequently referred to in the book as “The Bull”. While sometimes the text veers into catalogues of flights with their respective purposes, it is peppered with interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as edge-of-your-seat accounts of in-flight emergencies.

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.