Book Review: ‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson

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sevenevesMost authors, who are not Neal Stephenson, would have started writing Seveneves at page 565. They would have told an epic hard sci-fi tale about seven races attempting to colonize a planet. There would have been tension and politics, spaceships and gadgets, heroes and villains. Those not tempted to start at page 565 might have written an apocalyptic tale about the destruction of the moon and the resulting disaster for planet Earth. They would have written about the great escape. There would have been spaceships and gadgets, tension and politics, heroes and villains.

Only an author with the vision and audacity of Neal Stephenson would have tried to do both. Stephenson has taken two halves of intriguingly premised stories and stuck them together like a literary cut and shut. He stops the action abruptly, with humanity on the brink, before fast-forwarding his story 5,000 years. The characters from the first 565 pages are dust. Nothing remains of them but memories. How could the final 300 pages possibly deliver anything like a coherent overall narrative? It’s a brave move, that, if attempted by lesser authors, would have resulted in an unholy mess. Stephenson pulls the trick off with aplomb.

The novel opens with an ‘Agent’ cleaving through the moon, breaking it into several pieces. The resulting cluster of rocks, still in the same position as the moon, is, at first, little more than an astronomical curiosity. An event everybody will remember but that will have little impact on their daily lives. The mass of the moon has barely changed; its position is the same. Life continues. Until a smart astronomer does some math and realizes this spectacular event is not just a curiosity, but also spells the end of life on Earth.

There follows a desperate scramble to make the International Space Station, ‘Izzy,’ habitable by as many as people as possible, in order to ensure the continued existence of the human race. The plan is to send Earth’s finest and brightest into space, with digital copies of the sum total of human knowledge. It is hoped that this will be enough. It has to be. It is all we’ve got.

Anybody who has read Neal Stephenson novels will know that they are detail-heavy. Seveneves is no exception. The opening three hundred pages detail the infrastructure required to build a space station with the capability of supporting human life for the next few thousand years. The novel is set in the near-future, giving Stephenson the opportunity to utilize some not-quite-in-existence technology. He outlines his vision for this space-faring ark in painstaking detail. I say painstaking, some readers might prefer excruciating.

This being a GeekDad review, I’ll cover the parent angle. This is not necessarily a book for the sleep-deprived. I read my first Stephenson novel (Cryptonomicon) before being married. The Baroque Cyclesqueezed in just before the arrival of my firstborn. In those days, Stephenson’s rich explanations brought me great joy. I loved to wallow in them. Even then, however, I could appreciate they wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste; you definitely need a certain mind-set to fully engage with a Neal Stephenson novel. Now Seveneves is here and I have three children. Time to wallow is not in great supply, and there were times when I felt myself wishing he’d get to the point. There are some chunks of description you can skim and still pick up the general point, without detracting too much from the story.

A general measure of how much I’m enjoying a book is how often I fall asleep reading it. It is rare these days that I read something so compelling, I don’t wake up at some point with a dead arm and spittle hanging off my chin. It goes with the parenting territory. Seveneves sent me to sleep a lot. Despite this, I did enjoy it. The story moved fast enough to compel me to read on, but sometimes there were a few too many detailed explanations of orbits, apogees and mass ratios.

Although clearly a demigod of technical description, I think the true mark of Stephenson’s stature as a novelist is his characterization. There are a host of characters in this book, and they are all brilliantly drawn. Their interactions and interpersonal relationships are what made this novel fly for me. It’s also why the huge break in the book doesn’t completely break the book. The vividly rendered lives of the pioneers of the first section inform the history and cultural backgrounds of those in the second. It’s a staggering accomplishment and anthropologically fascinating.

The destruction of the planet is deeply affecting. Since becoming a parent my reactions to apocalyptic novels has completely changed. They make me sad in ways they never did before children. The reaction Seveneves produced was almost visceral. I’m not afraid to admit I shed more than a few tears over it. The depth of emotion and insight showed is remarkable. These passages alone are worth the effort of reading the novel.

In both halves of the book, Stephenson presents a depressingly accurate picture of human nature. Even with the very existence of humanity at stake, politics and personal gain ride high in some characters’ minds. It is the novel’s contention, that even when we must be at our most together, humans will still find a way to fight one another. It’s a bleak view to offer, all the more so due to its accuracy.

Seveneves may contain the darker side of human nature, but it also explores our altruistic side too. Our ability to reach out and help others, at great sacrifice to ourselves. Humanity’s ability to work together for the common good. This book has true heroes and definite villains, and a few who are both. I loathed one or two of the characters for their actions. At times I almost forgot they weren’t real people: another testament to the quality of Stephenson’s character writing.

If you haven’t read any Stephenson before, I’m not sure I’d start here. The break in the narrative is quite hard to swallow. If you spend pages and pages detailing the minutiae of your world, it feels like cheating to then leave out 5,000 years’ worth of information. Much of the second section is bewildering, and I felt there was too much ramble for the size of the overall pay-off. This is not a book for those who like ends neatly tied. With an artificial end in the middle and a finale that leaves as much unresolved as completed, Seveneves leaves the reader with lots of unanswered questions. Within the context of the novel this is perfectly fitting. This is not a neat tale, but a future history and testament to the ingenuity of the human race.

With a spine of politics-technology-colonization, the book is inevitably going to draw comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson’s much-loved Mars Trilogy. Such comparisons would be entirely fair. Seveneves will appeal greatly to fans of the Mars Trilogy; they share the same roots of human endeavor and technical accuracy. They meld politics and technology in very similar ways. Seveneves is a more compelling read, but I think makes a less satisfying whole. For fans of Stephenson, a new release is always a thrilling event. Once again he delivers a behemoth filled with deep science, heavy detail and fascinating characters.

Seveneves is available now and is published by William Morrow in the US and Borough Press in the UK. Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. 

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