Said in the future

The meaning of life, according to a spaceship

Reflecting on Kim Stanley Robinson’s angry optimism in a bleak world.

Said in the future

Said in the future

The meaning of life, according to a spaceship

Reflecting on Kim Stanley Robinson’s angry optimism in a bleak world.

About three-fourths of the way through Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, a spaceship nears the end of a 300-year failed colonization mission. Its systems are breaking down, and strange bacteria are infesting its circuitry. Its passengers have been put into experimental hibernation because their crops have failed and they’re starving. The ship is almost out of fuel, and it spends its days calculating, over and over, the odds that it will be able to slow itself enough to jettison its passengers near Earth and possibly save their lives. At this point in the novel, the artificially intelligent ship decides the time is right for a soliloquy on love:

“Love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring.”

The ship doesn’t argue that love will magically get it back to Earth safely or help it keep its passengers alive. Instead, it just notes that paying attention to something and caring for it makes life interesting. This is good because, as the ship notes, “There is no very obvious meaning to be found in the universe, as far as we” — the ship refers to itself as “we” — “can tell.”

This is one of the more optimistic moments in Robinson’s novels, but it’s also one I’ve always had trouble with. What good is love when everything is crashing down around you? Why take a science fiction novel that has detailed so carefully the damning physics, ecology, and sociology of generations-long space travel and give one of its key moments to a machine philosophizing optimistically about love?

Lately I’ve been thinking about Aurora and debating what it means to be optimistic in the face of a shit situation because living on a planet constantly threatened by environmental disaster has begun to feel a lot like riding on a failing spaceship with slim odds of making it home. I have no idea how to respond to global warming, repeated oil spills, or the crushing political momentum that seems to make these disasters inevitable.

I have a hard time accepting care, attention and love as good responses to these horrifying events. In the middle of disaster, what is caring other than false hope? After all, for the attention and care woven throughout Robinson’s novels, the results are still pretty disastrous. Characters attend to and care for ships (Aurora), real estate markets (New York 2140), and entire planetary ecosystems (Robinson’s Mars trilogy). But inevitably ships break down, apartments crumble, and entire moons are destroyed. In New York 2140, the superintendent of a partially submerged skyscraper spends his life keeping water out of the building, even though it feels like a constant battle that will never be won. He remembers, as a child, watching a giant berm built around downtown New York break: “The first breach was said to be a gate down near Pier Forty that gave way. After that the river tore the berm open a couple hundred yards wide. All the buildings near the breach went down. Water is strong.”

What good is love when everything is crashing down around you?

In Aurora, the ship reflects that despite the meaninglessness of the universe, its journey has been “so very interesting,” because it had the duty of caring for its passengers. It has watched over them from birth to death and helped put down rebellions that would have endangered the voyage. In the book’s later sections, the ship watches over the passengers as they hibernate, hoping to keep at least a few alive. Attention and care, the ship proposes, “organize” the universe, marking what is important and what is not. Caring helps to sort the data; it gives meaning to static and noise. “We had a project on this trip back to the solar system,” the ship thinks, “and that project was a labor of love.”

Robinson is often called an optimist, but it’s important to understand that his is a strange form of optimism, something he refers to as “angry optimism.” “The optimism that I’m trying to express is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “But after the disaster comes the next world on.”

Robinson assumes that disaster is inevitable — that the ship will crash into the Sun or that global warming has and will continue to cause the sea to rise. Angry optimism basically says that everything will crash but maybe what comes after will be better. I may have trouble with optimism, but I’m coming around to angry optimism.

At the end of Aurora, the surviving colonists join a group on Earth that recreates beaches lost to sea level rise. Their work — slow, tedious, and joyful — gives a glimpse of the other side of angry optimism, the creation that happens after collapse. The book’s final pages exhaustingly describe the composition of sand, the geology of reefs and the physics of waves. Here, attention and care do more than make life interesting; they also create something new.

Daniel Carter is an assistant professor of digital media at Texas State University. He last wrote for The Outline about Twitter parties.
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