Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson

**Note: This is a reaction--a few ill-considered opinions not backed up by textual evidence-- rather than a review.**

Hard scifi and I have a rocky relationship. No matter how many series I try, I never seem to find one that really genuinely clicks with me enough to actually pursue the series. Unfortunately, KSR and I are no different. This entire review is going to consist of carping, and since I turned the book back into the library a few days ago and I find this book incredibly unmemorable, pretty ill-considered carping at that.

The plot of Aurora, which begins just as a multi-generational trek across the galaxy is about to reach its destination, shows a lot of promise. While I've encountered it before, most recently in The Ark, I always find it an interesting concept that opens a lot of questions worth exploring. The one that Aurora primarily targets is why. None of the passengers chose to be there; some distant ancestor did. And yet they are the ones that must complete a mission they might never have chosen for themselves. What right did those distant ancestors have to choose such limited and limiting futures for their descendants? But how different is it, really, from any other such choice in ordinary life?

In my limited experience with KSR, I haven't found characterization to be his strong point, and this book is no exception. The narrator, Ship, who happens to be...the ship... is the most dynamic and interesting character of the bunch, and the only one who goes through any form of transformation or development. I generally like first-person narrators, but Ship is probably one of my few exceptions. The conceit of the story is that it is the act of storytelling that helps Ship to create a self, meaning that the first 30% or so of the book involves purposefully irritating and rather awful narration.

Which would be okay if interesting things were happening, but possibly because I didn't care about the characters, I couldn't bring myself to care about what they were doing, either. KSR goes off on his standard environmental sustainability morality play; there's a planet; there are a bunch of ill-considered ideas; there is an attempt at societal critique that I didn't buy at all. (view spoiler)

But do you know what irritated me most of all? The computer science. I know it makes me an obnoxious pedant to point this out, but a lot of the computer science waswrong. To take one example, when ship goes on and on about using a quantum TSP-solving algorithm instead of using a greedy algorithm to get their gear across...the problem she describes could be solved with Dijkstra's Algorithm. The one they teach college freshmen in CS 101. I get that the whole greedy algorithm thing is supposed to be an allusion to a greater theme, but seriously? At least set up your problems correctly. And reversion to the mean isn't a theory, it's a well-known statistical property. And you know how Ship goes around describing all those "hard" problems as "halting problems?" The Halting Problem is very specific: whether a Turing Machine will halt on its input. The general class I think she means is recursively enumerable, but a lot of the problems she describes aren't even recursively enumerable. For example, summarizing a bunch of facts isn'trecursively enumerable; there are a finite set of words and you can bound the set of possible summaries by the length of facts. Exponential at worst.

Argh. Look, I know it's trivial. But I think what gets to me is this: I don't understand physics, so I read through most of it with glazed eyes. I generally would assume that the technical details are there for those who understand them. But if KSR's physics is as problematic as his computer science, then physics novices like me were actually the intended audience, and the goal was to simply make us admire KSR's presumed prodigious knowledge. Maybe I'm totally off-base and only the computer science was wonky. But to me, it felt like a case of an emperor and his new clothes.