[Star-sized spoilers ahead]
At the end of 2015, I read two books: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. My spouse suggested reading both of them together. I found out recently that Seveneves is a nominee for the Hugo award for best novel. I was actually a bit shocked that neither of these books made it on the Nebula list for novel this year.
This led to me thinking about what the characteristics of a good book should be, especially an award winning one. Certainly, there are times when I just want a fun, entertaining read. But other times, I want to be transformed. I want to look at the universe, the world, society, or myself in a new light. It’s a tall order, and, for me, it requires a thoughtful theme. The book asks the right questions, and possibly, points to new answers.
An award-winning book should leave you thinking. I was so overwhelmed by reading both of these novels at the end of last year that I spent considerable time processing them both individually, as well as their implications together. At first, I couldn’t even come up with topic for a post because they generated so many ideas. Ultimately, I realized just how delicate our relationship with Earth, our home, really is. We’re not living on a sterile spaceship. We’re part of a vast ecosystem developed over time that we do not fully comprehend. I no longer have copies of the library books so I’m going to do a general review from memory of these two.
In Aurora, settlers were packed onto a ship and sent out to their destination. During that time, the quantum machine guiding them became sentient. (How the AI became sentient was a fascinating piece of characterization, although not what I’ll be discussing here.) It was an amazing feat, and yet, the settlers only hung on by a thread. Generations passed before the settlers arrived, and when they did, the first people that ventured onto their new home were quickly killed. And they had no true scientific understanding of why. The idea here is that if there are the conditions for life in a place, the place is likely already occupied. And the occupants, even if they aren’t sentient, will likely be harmful to us because we aren’t a part of the natural arising of their ecosystem. The settlers disagreed on whether to stay in the system or to return to earth. The narrative follows the ones who returned to Earth. Their return was difficult, and they struggled to survive. They only had enough resources to make it to their destination, if that, and not enough to return. The AI made major contributions to their survival.
Although considerable problems had happened on Earth while the others went exploring, human culture was recognizable and dealing with the consequences of global warming, which emerged from a lack of consideration for the delicate balance of our ecosystem. (This same ignorance of the role of ecosystems led to the idea that people from earth could just fill some blank niche on another planet.) Furthermore, the characters question whether people had a right to send their descendants into the unknown without their consent. This book made me appreciate our home in a new way.
Seveneves was a gripping read from the moment that the moon shatters at the beginning of the book. There is a cast of characters, and they are all constantly trying to survive. It has interesting things to say about community and the breakdown of community. The few survivors of the catastrophe have to wait for many generations for the Earth to be habitable again, and they even help habitability along. Earth is our home, this novel points out, too. It explores how people react in the face of adversity—those who are helpers and those who are hinderers (often trying to ensure only their own survival.) It explored different examples of patterns of in-groups and out-groups. How would a catastrophe impact gender roles? How would our different biological capacities, like for reproduction, shape the decisions that are made when the very survival of our species is at stake? It also explores how humans would survive and change both physically and culturally in vastly different environmental conditions over many generations. Finally, if you had the power to create an actual “race” of people, what traits would be emphasized? When are certain traits useful? And perhaps, we need people of different traits and cultures for survival and to avoid groupthink. Yet, this can also lead to conflict.
Again, paired together, the books left me thinking for months about what our role in the universe is. We’re a part of a delicate ecosystem, and it’s where we thrive. And how we may neglect and destroy our home as we gaze longingly at the stars. I don’t think that either of these books is saying that we should ignore space research and technology; however, we also shouldn’t ignore the world around us. Both books, in their own ways, were optimistic, if cautionary.