Veteran California science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson grounds his new novel squarely in a recognizable convention: the generation ship. In this case, it's a 26th century starship sent from Earth to find a home in some distant galaxy, as generations live and die onboard during the long journey.
"We've been rats in a cage, two thousand at a time for seven generations, and for what? For what?" asks Devi, an engineer and the putative head of the mission from Earth to the star Tau Ceti. She often poses serious questions that tend to sound a tad cynical, and her physician husband, Badim, responds with more questions. "What's it been," he says, "about fifteen thousand people, and a couple hundred years? In the big scheme of things it's not that many. And then we have a new world to live on."
"If it works," Devi says.
Does it work? Is there anything new to the way that Robinson works this old storyline? For yours truly — who as a reader has one foot in the world of the genres and another in the main flow of contemporary fiction — it works quite splendidly. First of all, Robinson creates an absolutely convincing population of generations yielding to generations, and he imagines an absolutely convincing shipboard environment of various biomes modeled on Earth, from the Arctic to the pampas. Mountains, lakes, streams, plains, all scaled down to fit into the ship and still preserve the illusion of expansiveness.
Devi plays the role of de facto interlocutor between the passengers and the ship — specifically, the ship's computer, a benign, even enterprising and sometimes downright charming version of HAL 9000 from 2001. Early on in the novel, Devi charges the computer with compiling an all-encompassing narrative of the ship's passage, including all the technical elements of the journey and interweaving them with the human lives of the starship's population.
This stands as a brilliant stroke. Almost the entire narrative, with all its science and all its strong characters and weak, its heroes and whiners, explorers and those fearful of settling anywhere, and all of its speculation about the nature of consciousness, comes alive in the computer's humane construction of the ship's journey. And at the center of the story is Freya, Devi's tall, galumphing, inquisitive daughter, who takes over her mother's functions partway through the book, as the colonists reach Tau Ceti.
"Strange, perhaps," the ship tells us at one point, "to wake up one morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, all the while knowing that one was going off to a meeting that would change the world. Decisions are hard ... Freya sat next to Badim at their kitchen table, restlessly pushing around cut strawberries with a fork.
" 'What do you think will happen?' she asked.
"Badim smiled at her ... 'It's interesting, eh? ... Up until today, history was preordained. We were aimed at Tau Ceti, nothing else could happen. We had to do the necessary ... Now that story is over. We are thrust out of the end of that story. Forced to make up a new one, all on our own.' "
You're going to have to trust me here: First of all I am not a computer like the one that runs the ship. I'm only human. And unlike the ship's computer, I've been thinking about narrative and what makes it worth following for a long time, not just handed an assignment that I have to figure out in a hurry midway through the voyage.
I also am quite aware of steering clear of spoilers. So you don't have to fear that I'll sketch in the thing that happens midway through the ship's journey, the thing that puts Freya and the entire Tau Ceti expedition in the middle of a life-changing dilemma.
I will only suggest that it makes an already compelling plot, with its near-perfect marriage of the technical and the psychological, and with its (mostly) endearing cast of characters (from Devi and Badim to Freya, her generation of friends, the agreeable and naysayers alike, and the absolutely delightful and radically essential ship computer itself), even more compelling.