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This is a very involving story, and very intelligent writing. The narrator is excellent, and makes the book even more enjoyable.
Supposedly “hard-science” sf: hard for the accurate description of the constraints of space travel, but it also contains "soft-science" elements that add a lot of interest to the story. Perhaps it should be called “speculative fiction” in the sense of half science fiction and half philo-fiction. I had never read any of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books before AURORA, and I think that it a good introduction to his work. I have now begun reading RED MARS and I am already coming across many of the same concepts that AURORA develops in more concentrated form. The range of knowledge mobilised in this novel is encyclopaedic, but I never found the story dull. I would distinguish the pace of the action, which was sometimes slow, from the pace of the invention (action, ideas, and style) which is always engrossing. So I found the novel enjoyable and thought-provoking, and never slow-moving.
The text is multi-layered: a hard science attempt to spell out concretely what voyage to a “nearby” solar system in a generational ship would be like; a more philosophical reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the self, and free will; an exploration of the human propensity for “living in ideas” and making bad choices based on fantasy or ideology, a deployment of biological and ecological science beyond the mere fascination with technological prowess; a vision of human thinking and behavior as determined by errors and biases that cognitive science is only now beginning to understand.
The whole story is a science-inspired deconstruction of the fantasy of traveling to the stars, by taking that fantasy literally. Yet the story is metaphorical too: the starship is a prison, and our own ideas are a prison. The novel seeks to establish that what Robinson calls the “technological sublime” does not take us outside of our (mental and physical) prison, but just transports it elsewhere. The whole book is a plea for the use of science as enrichment of our present life rather than as escapism, into some beyond.
Robinson wants to enlarge our scientific vision: he tries to be encyclopedic, and to break with the hegemony of physics and technology in our thinking and imagination. So he includes not just hard physics, but also biology, sociology, systems thinking, philosophy of mind and of language, and cognitive science. Factoring in these considerations gives a very different approach to the generational starship than was customary in classical, physics-obsessed science fiction. This makes the book a stimulating and powerful read.
However, in AURORA politics suffers, as it is subordinated to Robinson’s reflections on biology and cognitive science. This scientistic explanation of human behaviour generates what some people decry as the “pessimism” or the "conservatism" of the vision embodied in the book. I do not think that this vision is pessimistic or conservative. Technological realism is not pessimism, even if it obliges us to relinquish a fantasy we cherish. Ecological responsibility is not conservatism, even if it obliges us to evaluate actions in terms of sustainability. Ultimately the book does not reduce, but enlarges and enriches.