(Yeah, I’m jumping forward.)
Aurora is the tale of a set of interstellar colonists sent from Earth around 500 years from now, bound for the Tau Ceti system. Because this is hard SF set in a near-future real-world, there’s no magic propulsion: they’re cruising along at a pretty good clip — about a tenth of c — but Tau Ceti is 12 light years away. At that pace it’ll still take far more than a human lifetime to reach their destination.
Enter the idea of a generation ship. Generation ships are science fiction “arks” — you load them up with a critical mass of people, resources, animals, soil, etc., and establish a sealed and self-sustaining biosphere in the ship. People are born, live their lives on the ship, have children, grow old, and die, all in transit. The original volunteers will never see the destination, but their descendants might!
It’s an interesting notion, and is by no means unique to Aurora. Check this subset of the Wikipedia article, but you’ve probably seen it before in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and episodes of the original Star Trek as well as Voyager. Earth’s wasteful, bloated humans are hanging out on a generation ship in Wall-E, and SyFy’s (pretty awful) Ascension was set on a simulated generation ship that the inhabitants thought was real.
I read this because the notion of a near-future hard-SF interstellar colonization story was interesting to me, especially if it was handled with the same deft hand that Stanley brought to his Mars trilogy twenty years ago. (And regardless of what I say here about Aurora, the Mars books are solid and fascinating.)
Boy howdy was I disappointed.
Candidly, this a bad book. Robinson believes — probably correctly — that the whole idea of a generation ship is inherently and fatally flawed, and that the very idea of dooming subsequent generations to a life lived in space is ethically dodgy at the least. On these points, he’s not wrong. What’s wrong here is that the book is basically a 480-page polemic with only occasional bursts of action or dialog. There is zero character development to speak of, presumably because it would’ve gotten in the way of his Galtian rants about the inevitable collapse of synthetic biospheres or whatever.
Also? Remember those parts in The Martian where Weir goes on at length about the science involved in this-or-that survival project undertaking by Watney? He was dinged for it by some people (not me), and the rightly elided most of it from the film (because films are not books). Robinson goes all in on those sorts of pursuits — about ecology on the starship, about micromanaging the starship during maintenance, and most egregiously for pages and pages and pages (often without paragraph breaks) about the orbital mechanics involved late in the book. What Weir did worked on paper because the book was from Watney’s perspective, and we needed to know his thinking. It fails here for a myriad of reasons, including the overwhelming volume of the repeated technical info dumps, and also the amount of story and development that they shove out. (Seriously: the text is so bloated that you could tell the actual story here in a short magazine article.)
It’s a long, lazy, and fundamentally irritating book. Absolutely skip it.