Kim Stanley Robinson's 2015 novel Aurora is many things, but you might, if you're very irritated, characterize it as a very long book about how hard it is to be stuck on a spaceship with the same group of people for hundreds of years. If you want to be less crabby about it, it's a very moving book about how much we need to remind ourselves that finding ways to stick by one another is the fundamental task of being human.

Stuckness is generally understood as a condition to be overcome. It's the paralyzing feeling of having no options, no way forward or through, no viable onramps to some better state of being. Stuckness repels good advice and well-laid plans; like depression, it is a lonely country with citizens who are not loyal to it, but who nonetheless can't leave. Stuckness has some near-synonyms, but most of them aren't burdened by its droning negativity. Stuckness implies motion interrupted, trajectories suddenly and surprisingly halted. It isn't quite the same as lingering, or waiting, which implies a choice to stay in a particular moment and see how it unfolds, and neither is it like the condition of feeling or being trapped, which seems to imply an external force that has deliberately thwarted someone's will. Stuckness feels agentless and objectless. It feels, since we are talking about Aurora, like floating in space.

For a novel that is about a centuries-long voyage to another solar system and back, there are lots of ways for the humans aboard the ship to get and feel stuck, just as there are lots of ways for them to feel trapped and constrained, or even to feel that they're endlessly waiting to figure out what their new home on a far planet will feel like. There are as many ways to get unstuck, to break the routine of everyday life to see the universe and its possibilities differently. Indeed, one of the novel's most compelling arguments is that in some way, stuckness is the condition of being human; we are where we are right now, and we can be in no other place. It is not precisely that we have to overcome the condition of being stuck, the novel argues, but that we nonetheless have to find a way to see the larger (and smaller) universes moving around us. 

If you have not yet read Aurora (and I hope that you do) I can tell you that it is both very easy and very difficult to summarize. Indeed, the problem of summing up or summarizing is at the heart of how the novel thinks about the possibilities and limits of narrative itself. The text follows a group of interstellar travelers as they find their way to Aurora the name they assign to the habitable moon in the Tau Ceti galaxy and their journey back to Earth again. The novel is narrated in large part by the Ship's complex AI system, which is charged by Devi, the ship's unofficial chief engineer, to keep an account of the voyage. One of the novel's plots, if we can call it that, charts the emerging narratological skills and consciousness of Ship, who determines eventually that consciousness might itself be a matter of narration.

But if the novel's plot is relatively easy to describe perhaps we can even experiment along with Ship and make the summary shorter by saying that the novel tells the story of the voyage from and to earth by a supraorganism comprised of Ship and its inhabitants the events of the novel, the multitude of actions, reactions, responses, and changes in the ship's inanimate and animate structure, the millions of decisions necessary for the human actors, the ship, and the supraorganism to respond to the events that happen to them individually and as a whole, take up most of the account, requiring us to pay attention to the heft and richness of the everyday as Min Song's essay in this cluster asks us to do. There is a lot of detail in Aurora, a sea of micro-events that need to be organized, a universe of molecular stories to be accounted for. Ship, who knows every last microevent in the supraorganism, is driven to figure out how exactly a narrative can include without enumerating every detail, how it can gesture to different perceptions of time and reality while still telling something like a single story. 

Readers of Kim Stanley Robinson's work know that his novels revel in detail, in highly technical descriptions of mathematical, physical, economic, and scientific processes. No matter how fascinating those descriptions are, they can feel like a data dump. It can be hard to keep hold of the threads of the plot in his novels. Readers of realist novels, even most speculative or sci-fi novels, are accustomed to human-scale events. Boy meets Martian girl. Martian girl is an all-knowing god. Something like that. Indeed, most speculative fiction is generally in the realist tradition, and Kim Stanley Robinson's novels are no exception. The junk DNA of narrative, as Ship calls it, the dross of everyday life, is elegantly sorted for us in advance by the conventions of the very realist novel that seems to be built on details that edge toward superfluousness. But getting to Tau Ceti is not quite like living in Middlemarch; the junk DNA that Ship needs to organize is the very stuff of life on the ship. Ship is paper, pen, press, and narrator all at once. If no detail in the realist novel is truly superfluous, Ship's narrative is especially difficult because there can be no such thing as a superfluous detail for it as it works to keep the supraorganism alive. Every detail might not contribute to the life of its narrative, but any detail might be a matter of life and death.

Getting bogged down in details can get you stuck, and there is no doubt that the details of Robinson's novels can bog readers down. But Ship, learning to narrate the whole chronicle of the voyage, learns two ways to think about what it might mean to get bogged down or stuck in details. If you are trying to narrate the whole chronicle of the journey and include everything that happened, Ship realizes, it would take longer than the actual voyage. The journey, after all, is a process that relies on the proper functioning of every element of the ship its hardware, its human actors, its systems. All of them work and fail, participate in systems whose effects and parameters change and readjust. The details, Ship realizes, are endless; to tell a story of the voyage, you have to pare them away so some forward motion can happen. Some event has to develop over time, something human-sized and human-scaled. The machinery of the novel form requires the human, an insight the vast AI machine at the heart of the novel must coordinate with its overarching aim to keep the species aboard alive.

Devi tells Ship to concentrate on exemplary events, to find a pattern in the details, and organize them around those events. This is the conversation Devi and Ship have about how to keep an account:

"Keep a narrative account of the trip. Make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars."
"Starting from now?"
"Starting from the beginning."
"How would one do that?"
"I don't know. Take your goddamn superposition and collapse it!"
"Meaning summarize, I guess. Or focus on some exemplary figure. Whatever."

Even as the novel shows Ship working to realize this command, it provides within itself the other alternative to making a narrative that moves forward through time. Paradoxically, it argues that the other way to write that narrative is to immerse yourself in details and data. Far from bogging you down, that surfeit of other details will provide a non-human or more-than-human perspective, allowing you to see that things are happening at scales that lie beyond the grasp of humans.

Ship decides to not include most of those details, but the novel shows Ship thinking about how and why to leave them out. Ship learns to coordinate a plot that unfolds at various scales, through events that range from the finest details of its own emerging consciousness to the species-level changes in evolution produced by the island ecology. Indeed, that island ecology becomes in some ways a narratological structure; the single organism of the ship is composed of species that are evolving, or moving through time, some faster than others, changing the balance of the ecosystem in ways are not immediately visible to human eyes. When things get stuck mechanical valves, growth rates, whatever it isn't because things aren't working. It's because a lot of things are working at different rates, evolving and breaking down under different pressures that are experienced differently.

Ship learns or tries, as it says, "essays" to understand how narrative prioritizes some parts of the interlocking systems on board over others for the purposes of creating a story: "How to decide how to sequence information in a narrative account? Many elements in a complex situation are simultaneously relevant. An unsolvable problem: sentences linear, reality synchronous. Both however are temporal. Take one thing at a time, one after the next. Devise a prioritizing algorithm, if possible." Ship begins by dumping data, creating an account that lists the names of the people on board and the physical specs of the ship, the amount of time it will take to reach the Tau Ceti galaxy, and the mechanics of life aboard the ship. Over and over, Devi tells Ship to learn to think of narrative as a single story, urging it to make decisions about who and what counts, to concentrate on metaphor and analogy, to find a protagonist, to subordinate information to story. To not be stuck enumerating details. Yet even as Ship learns to unstick the story from its details, to arrange events into patterns, and to concentrate on an exemplary person - Devi's daughter Freya it begins to understand the multiplicity of narratives aboard itself, the unseen stories that will pose a danger to the humans who travel to Tau Ceti.

Ship learns to narrate so well in fact that the section of the book in which the voyagers return home in a condition of cryogenic suspension is far less detailed than the earlier sections that recounted the failed colonization of Aurora and the discovery of the folded protein that constitutes the planet's only known life form. That protein what the voyagers think of as a kind of prion causes illness and death and produces the conditions for the ship's occupants to part ways. Some stay on a nearby planet, others elect to return home. In the process of making this decision, Ship reveals that their voyage began with two ships, one of which was destroyed in the year 68 of the journey. When it tells the human inhabitants about this lost ship, it has found the exemplary detail it has kept hidden for the duration of the voyage, and that detail is meant to make the humans understand that they need to find a way forward that prioritizes the life of the collective, however they choose to define it. They need, Ship and Freya argue, to find a plan and stick with it.

The novel's final sections, involving the trip back from the Tau Ceti galaxy to Earth, are uneventful from a human perspective. The novel dedicates relatively few pages to narrating the trip. Ship has put its remaining passengers into cryogenic suspension, and it spends the return journey thinking about the other life on board, and about itself. It writes that "the following years passed quickly or slowly, depending on the unit of measurement applied, as we prepared for arrival by further hardening the ship, and making calculations for the best trajectory, and adjusting our course to the deceleration of the laser beam, so that we were headed for the solar system where it would be when we got to it, rather than firing past well ahead of it, so to speak." Later Ship remarks, "The years passed at a rate of trillions of computations per second as it does always, one supposes, for every consciousness. Now, is that fast or slow?"

Spoiler alert: Ship destroys itself by attempting a risky maneuver near the Earth's sun, and the rest of the novel follows Freya and a few surviving humans as they try to explain to their fellow Earth inhabitants why planetary colonization is a terrible idea. Planets, they explain, evolve life that can live on them. Life generates its own conditions. We're stuck here, they try to explain, and we cannot survive elsewhere. But the novel changes its tone at this point. Without Ship to narrate the closed systems of the world they inhabit, to meditate on their interlocking existences, the returned starvoyagers have to muddle through the chaos of an ordinary day by themselves. Some of them suddenly die, some cling to one another, some search for a purpose.

Freya in particular tries to find something worth her time and attention. It isn't easy; after centuries of purpose, even while in cryogenic suspension, she's finally and really stuck, without a sense of what the future might hold. She is even without what Ship has once given to all of its inhabitants the understanding that even if she feels like nothing at all is happening, life at large scales and small is buzzing around her and she is part of it, moving with it even as she moves through space in a ship that sometimes feels, though never is, completely still.

Near the end of the novel, Ship records this thought:

We think now that 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. At that point, the consciousness that is feeling the love has the universe organized for it as if by a kind of polarization. Then the giving is the getting. The feeling of attentiveness itself is an immediate reward. One gives.

It is one of the most beautiful and moving parts of the narrative, especially because shortly after, Ship will find a way to safely send its remaining human inhabitants back to the surface of the earth, but will not manage to find a way to save itself and its one remaining human inhabitant. The record of how it has learned to think and narrate its own consciousness will be lost. Ship is both stuck and unstuck; the decision to give this attention to the supraorganism that is itself and its inhabitants was a project, a choice, a principle that gives meaning to a universe in which, it observes, there is no real meaning.

Ship often narrates in parenthetical asides to itself or to its human interlocutors that it does not understand some of the colloquialisms used by humans, even by Devi, the first human who paid attention to Ship, and who thus, Ship comes to realize, loved Ship. What does the sentence "cut to the chase" mean, Ship wonders. Or "what goes around comes around." All colloquialisms and cliches have long histories, some of which Ship does not know, though it correctly observes to itself that their accuracy is usually less than onehundred percent.

But I think that Ship would understand the most colloquial version of what it means to be stuck on something as an index of how much love and attention we are willing to spend on it. Ship, which has managed to unstick itself from so many of the epistemological errors that distort human narrative about humanity, and which has managed to find a way to unstick the proliferating narrative details from the larger structure of its account of the voyage, is stuck on its own inhabitants. It sticks with them and by them, and it prioritizes a narrative in which stuckness can become the experience of perfect balance with the small place in the universe where we are stuck with each other.

The final pages of the novel seem to demonstrate that Freya has absorbed this idea; stuckness is only a matter of point-of-view. The life around you is moving at greater or lesser speeds and scales. From that point-of-view, we have no choice but to convert stuckness to balance, to understand ourselves in the short and long term as part of a complex, fragile system composed of stories we cannot know or tell but that we must let unfold at their own rate and speed.

On the beach, learning to body surf, Freya gives herself over to the motion of the waves and the sand. She clears her mind, and bobs in the water, trying over and over to find the exact moment when she and the waves are at one. She cannot think exactly like the giant AI that is Ship as it made a similar and doomed attempt to find the exact moment to slingshot around the sun. But she can think less like a human as she bobs in the water, less like a person weighed down by the incalculability of the past's relationship to the future.  But that requires, Robinson tells us, a sustained attention that is something like love and something like grief. It requires a balance between stillness and motion. Ship, Freya is sure, would have loved to see her getting unstuck and finding her balance in the single moment and the single wave in the endless ocean.

Stephanie Foote (@MandatoryOptio1) is Jackson and Nichols Professor of English at West Virginia University. She is currently working on several projects about garbage and waste in the Anthropocene.  She is the author of two books and numerous essays and articles.  Most recently, she edited (with Jeffrey Cohen) The Cambridge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. With Dana Luciano and Anthony Lioi, she is a founder and member of the editorial collective of the new open access journal Regeneration: Environment, Art, Culture.