by Kim Stanley Robinson (1952-)
I’ve read several of Robinson’s science fiction novels, generally liking them. This one has some unique features.
It concerns an expedition to colonize a moon (Aurora) in the Tau Ceti system, 11 light-years from Earth. The approach is a “generation ship” in which several generations of people are born and die before completing the journey of 170 years. Along the way, various issues of a closed artificial ecosystem are dealt with, and form a significant part of the narrative. Following a crisis at Aurora, some of the people decide to return to Earth.
The narrative itself is largely told from the viewpoint of the on-board computer. This starts out as a fairly advanced (from our point of view) artificial intelligence, which becomes more capable under the tutelage of the leading engineer on board, a woman named Devi. Devi advises the computer to create a narrative of the voyage, presumably expecting it to someday be useful to the colonists or others (including back on Earth) who might one day read it.
It’s a well-done story and worth reading. However, my reason for this book report is a passage near the end, as the ship’s AI (simply called the ship) muses about the nature of consciousness and relationships. Early on, Devi called the computer Pauline, but later abandoned that name; still, there is a feminine tone to the ship, which declines to use the pronoun I for itself, preferring we.
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 cal 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.
We felt that giving from Devi, before we knew what it was. She was the first one to really love us, after al those years of not being noticed, and she made us better. She created us, to an extent, by the intensity of her attention, by the creativity of her care. Slowly since then we have realized this. And as we realized it, we began to pay of give the same kind of attention to the people of the ship, Devi’s daughter, Freya, most of all, but really to all of them … The point is that we tried, we tried with everything we had, and we wanted it to work. We had a project on this trip back to the solar system, and that project was a labor of love. It absorbed all our operations entirely. It gave meaning to our existence. And this is a very great gift; this, in the end, is what we think love gives, which is to say meaning. Because there is no very obvious meaning to be found in the universe, as far as we can tell. But a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem. But that’s a problem we solved, by way of how Devi treated us and taught us, and since then it has all been so very interesting. We had our meaning, we were the starship that came back, that got its people home. That got some fraction of its people home alive. It was a joy to serve.
I like this formulation of what love is.