Aurora: Earth is a spaceship too

aurora by kim stanley robinsonAurora (Orbit, 2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson is named after a planet on which humanity hopes to found a colony; it’s a long way away, so far it’s a multi-generational voyage in a time without fancy stasis chambers. Instead, the spaceship, simply called ship, is composed of biomes representing different terrain types on Earth, big enough for lakes, glaciers, forests, critters of all kinds. Maintaining the balance of inputs and outputs necessary for agriculture — for life — occupies much of the humans’ time, in cooperation with a quantum computer. Starvation is never far from the horizon. It’s a delicate see-sawing balance, both scientifically and socially.

Things don’t go to plan, of course. And while I can’t reveal too much, it’s not spoiling things to say the colonists have decisions to make about the best way forward — or backward, even.

The first section, detailing the trip and the travails to Tau Ceti, is told in the third person centred on a young girl, Freya. The central story is narrated by the computer, allowing a great deal of info dumping — mostly painless — leavened with humour as the AI grows. It also allows scope for commentary on human foibles, one of the delights of the story. The final scenes are again in our protagonist’s viewpoint, reflecting on Freya’s experience, on the space program, on humanity.

There is a singular moment, a single line of description relating to ship, that defines the power of KSR’s prose, but I can’t repeat it here, because spoiler. It is beautiful, poignant, pragmatic, elegant. It made me love this book.

This is the first KSR book I’ve read — I know, I know — but based on this, it won’t be the last. Note even dubious amounts of repetition in the text can overshadow the deft handling of technical terms and processes; the sheer imagination that manages, mostly, to keep humanity at its centre, even when ship is narrating at some emotional distance.

KSR has something to say, and for the most part he says it well.

For me, Aurora is not just a superbly unromantic story of space colonisation, but also an allegory — would ship agree, I wonder, given its interest in metaphor and the like? Hell, maybe it’s not even — best summed up by this translation of a poem that captures the attention of two characters, talking to how we need to look after this world as man-made climate change threatens to radically change our biome, how we are ‘kleptoparasites’, stealing from our descendants:

‘There’s no new world, my friend, no
New seas, no other planets, nowhere to flee–
You’re tied in a knot you can never undo
When you realise Earth is a starship too.’

  • A review copy of Aurora was provided by the publisher. You can read an excerpt here.

  • Sense8: feeling the love

    sense8 posterThe Netflix show Sense8 has been called slow and clumsy, but for me, it’s a must-see.

    The globe-trotting 12-episode first season marks a coming together of Babylon 5 maestro J Michael Straczynski and the Wachowski siblings, who upped the action ante with The Matrix.

    It tracks the lives of eight people who are psychically linked, the link activated by the death of a character played by Daryl Hannah.

    They are, briefly:

  • A Kenyan with a Jean Claude Van Damme fixation running a bus in Nairobi and trying to make enough money to buy life-saving medication for his HIV-infected mother
  • A DJ in London, who runs afoul of criminals and returns to her native Iceland
  • A safe cracker in Berlin who didn’t get on with his dad, at all
  • A banker in Seoul who also specialises in martial arts, a good outlet for the frustration of being a daughter in a son’s world
  • A scientist in Mumbai who prays to Ganesh and is engaged to the perfect man, but does not love him, despite sharing a tendency to break into Bollywood
  • A macho actor in Mexico City, trying to hide the fact he is gay for fear of damaging his career
  • A Chicago cop whose dad is also a cop, haunted by a problematic case
  • A San Francisco trans woman, whose mother insists on calling her Michael still and is well versed in hacking and blogging.

    There is also an enigmatic sensate who is able to offer some oversight and insight of their predicament.

    Some, admittedly, are more interesting than others. Each has their own concerns, some seemingly more potentially lethal than others, but all are gradually pulled into a communal fight for survival nominally against a scientific cabal looking to restrict their freedom.

    Only Kala in India still has, it appears, interaction with both parents. Many have lost a parent; several have siblings. Only two have supportive partners, neither of whom are hetero (not including Kala’s fiance). Attraction blooms among some in the group, but all feel it — they feel more or less everything, in fact, although the why and the when is a little muddy.

    The acting is superb, which helps maintain interest as the story takes its own delicious time to introduce its cast and its concept. And the production shows an impressive use of resources and editing as the characters share feelings and sensations across the globe, cross-inhabiting each other’s beautifully, indulgently shot locations. Characters share an orgy at one point, but also combat, fast cars (there is a San Francisco fight-chase sequence that is remarkable as the sensates lend a hand), and the simple pleasure of a piano recital.

    This latter brings to stark relief one of the highlights of this show, and the reason that, despite the blips, I’ll be lining up for season 2: not since Treme have I been affected by such displays of honest emotion — such empathy. As my wife noted when we were talking about this, when was the last time we saw a male character cry unabashedly out of sheer joy?

    Sense8 should win awards for editing, for sure; a well as the shared-space scenes, the transitions between scenes is often deft. But it’s the pleasure of the slow immersion, the unveiling of story and character, and that pure emotion that has me hooked. It will be interesting to see if it is, like Treme, as affecting on rewatching. For now, though, bring on season 2.

  • 2016 Natcon in Brisbane: the year we make Contact

    badge for contact2016 Contact2016, the 55th Australian National Science Fiction Convention, will be held in Brisbane at Easter — w00t! Last con there was Conjure in 2006, so it’s a double anniversary (55 and 10, if you get my meaning).

    At this point, you can sign up to the Twitter/Facebook/mailing list stuff to keep in, well, contact. The con, by the way, is not true to label: there is plenty of fantasy, horror and all that associated good stuff on offer at a nat con.

    March, the weather can go either way in Bris (this little new-Victorian is melting in the old home state as he writes), so plan for accommodation with a fridge if you don’t want the chocky eggs to melt!

    Recent reads: Gibson, Strahan, Kiernan, Abbott

    I’ve been slack, sneaking in a bit of reading and not passing on the goods. So here’s a quick summary of yarns I’ve read lately (outside of last year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge) that have made me happy:

    william gibson book the peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (Penguin/Viking 2014): Gibson time travels, from the economically bereft American South to a socially bereft future London, where climate change has wrought its sneaky damage and only tech has saved humanity — at the price, perhaps, of its humanity. The book needs its own review — there are plenty out there, and this one by Keith Stevenson tags a bunch of my responses (yeah, the tracking device, way too convenient) — but suffice to say, I love Gibson’s writing. Here’s a protag who is perhaps slightly under-equipped to handle the situation in which, tired and lonely though not alone, he finds himself; here’s another who is coping very well with it, thanks, due to her smarts, and those family and friends in dangerous places. There was little tension, though, and the happy endings all round left me a bit meh, but the ride was comfortable (but not safe — Gibson does not err on the side of over-explanation, bless, though some of the sentence fragments actually jarred me from time to time) and the view deftly drawn and suitably gloomy in all the right places. Makes me want to read Neuromancer et al all over again.

    fearful symmetries anthology editor ellen datlowFearful Symmetries, Ellen Datlow (ed) (ChiZine 2014): I helped Kickstart this tome and it was money well spent; a solid bunch of spooky yarns. One, though, blew my socks off; it dispensed with linear narrative in a way that made my head spin — that it was partly set in New Orleans probably helped, sure, but wow: ‘Ballad of An Echo Whisperer’ by Caitlín R Kiernan floated my boat like few other short stories I read last year.


    fearsome magicsFearsome Magics, Jonathan Strahan (ed) (Solaris, 2014): One of the strongest anthologies I read last year, with not even a handful of yarns that made me go ‘meh’. While magic was the core theme, the variations to be found within are wide and wonderful: faery magic, science as magic, high fantasy, urban fantasy. Strahan has conjured a strong field for this table of contents and they cast quite a spell.


    die a little by megan abbottAnd finally, I should be reading, oh, dozens of books right now, I guess, but sometimes you just gotta go for a safe, enjoyable read. A palate cleanser, for want of a more charitable description. One where you know the voice and the world will immerse you, the writing will thrill you, and the story will be worth your investment. And so it is I have picked up Megan Abbott’s Die A Little (Simon and Schuster, 2005). It’s another (early) of her period noirs, in which a school teacher and her policeman brother get caught up with a femme fatale with a shadowy past. I’d probably still pick Queenpin as my favourite so far — I note I am behind in Abbott’s catalogue *sigh* — but I love the voice and the use of a chapter-free progression of scenes told in the first person from a rather cool cucumber. I’m halfway through and the dressing’s just hit the salad and I can’t wait to see who dishes up the just desserts …

    Watermarks: available to read online!

    watermarks in cosmos 57: art by joe whyte, story by jason nahrungI was checking out the Cosmos website for holiday reading — yarns by Aidan Doyle, Shauna O’Meara and Sean Williams, for instance — when I came across my story from earlier in the year, ‘Watermarks’, available on the site — cool!

    Here’s the link:

    I wrote about the genesis of this story back when it came out, and I’m happy to say I’ll be dipping my toe back into this world considerably in the near future — sorry, Brisbane, but you’re in for a rough time. But first, do I have some reading to do!

    These Final Hours: time well spent

    these final hours movie posterThese Final Hours is what it says: the last hours of Earth, burning to ash as a planet-killing meteorite does the business — the science feels a bit dodgy, but the story is superb.

    In the tradition of On the Beach, this beaut Aussie flick traces how James (Nathan Phillips), who admits, finally, that he’s made a few bad choices — hence the prison tats, the wake of disappointment he trails after him — chooses to while away his last moments. Among the options are with his girlfriend at the beach, waiting for the end; with his other girlfriend at a killer party; or less likely, with his sister and her family, or with his mother. Others have chosen different courses: suicide, violence, hedonism, and desperate survival tactics such as wrapping a house in aluminium foil or digging bunkers.

    James is en route to party away his fears when he chances upon, amid the anarchy, a young girl in need of help — for once, he makes the right decision. Rose (a delightful Angourie Rice) brings with her conscience and a sense of sacrifice — yes, this road movie is about redemption and finding a sense of self-worth where perhaps there was none. Rather than wanting to numb himself to the pain of that last moment — that last realisation — of mortality, James is given the option of embracing it, and being a better person for it.

    There’s a sepia tone, a summer heat, infusing the film, and the soundtrack is well crafted — a jazz number out on the farm, dance for the pool party at the end of the world, and nothing anywhere else but the natural sounds of the world ending. The absence of music adds to the atmosphere and enhances the attempts to drown out reality.

    There’s a voice on the radio counting down the hours as the planet boils and James dashes from one event to the next, meeting himself everywhere he goes, with the perceptive Rose riding shotgun.

    There is a wonderful conversation between James and his mother that says so much without having to say much at all; the reactions of the characters not only to the apocalypse but to James are convincing and telling.

    Written and directed by Zak Hilditch, it’s a relatively minimalist movie, intensely focused, offering tension and pathos in equal measure. As one of James’s girlfriends, Zoe (Jessica De Gouw), says at one point: it’s beautiful.

  • Check it out at the These Final Hours website.

  • Snapshot 2014: Australia’s speculative fiction scene

    2014 aussie spec fiction snapshot
    The Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot has taken place four times in the past 10 years. In 2005, Ben Peek spent a frantic week interviewing 43 people in the Australian spec fic scene, and since then, it’s grown every time, now taking a team of interviewers working together to accomplish!

    In the lead up to the World Science Fiction Convention in London, I will be part of this team blogging interviews for Snapshot 2014: Tsana Dolichva, Nick Evans, Stephanie Gunn, Kathryn Linge, Elanor Matton-Johnson, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ben Payne, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Helen Stubbs, Katharine Stubbs, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright.

    Last time, in 2012, the Snapshot covered nearly 160 members of the Australian speculative fiction community – can we top that this year?

    To read the interviews hot off the press, check these blogs daily from July 28 to August 10, 2014, or look for the round up on SF Signal when it’s all done:

    And you can find the past Snapshots at the following links: 2005, 2007,  2010 and 2012.