Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

The Moon blows up. Humanity splits into seven tribes.


Harper Collins, 2015, 867 pages

What would happen if the world were ending?

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain....

Five thousand years later, their progeny - seven distinct races now three billion strong - embark on yet another audacious journey into the an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is both extraordinary and eerily recognizable. As he did in Anathem, Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle, and Reamde, Stephenson explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant.

A lot of SF authors get compared to Heinlein. John Scalzi, for instance - who is at best a watered-down milquetoast version of Heinlein. Charles Stross wrote a credible homage/send-up of Heinlein with Saturn's Children. But to me, the most viable heir to the Heinleinian throne is an author who's been one of my very favorites for years, even if I haven't kept up with all of his most recent novels - Neal Stephenson.

Stephenson writes hard SF with a minimum of handwaving. There may be some handwaving, but his orbital physics and genetic science is more accurate than Heinlein's, though in Heinlein's defense, Stephenson has access to several decades of further research in those fields. In Seveneves, the biggest handwave is the premise that begins the story - the moon blows up.

No one ever really knows why or how it blows up. The mysterious cause is only referred to as "The Agent" and the best guess is that some sort of miniature black hole occurred, but the moon suddenly disintegrates into billions and billions of pieces. Observing actual, believable physics, "blowing up" does not mean the moon disappears in a cloud of dust. Instead, the mass of the moon remains more or less where it was, held in place by gravity, so the Earth is not devastated by runaway tidal waves or anything Hollywoodish like that.

Until a little later, when for complicated reasons explained by the Neil Tyson Degrasse character, some of those pieces of the moon begin colliding and setting up a chain reaction that results in a "hard rain" falling on Earth - basically devastating the surface of the planet and rendering it uninhabitable for about five thousand years.

So the first thing to know about Seveneves is that it is really two stories in one. Stephenson writes huge books, so this could easily have been two novels, the story of the events immediately after the Agent, and the sequel, taking place five thousand years later. The first half of the book is about how Earth deals with the realization that they are doomed. All the nations cooperate (more or less) to launch enough citizens into orbital "space arks" to keep humanity alive. There are politics and complications and a lot of interpersonal drama, but its mostly a hard SF adventure about surviving the coming apocalypse.

Stephenson, as I said, is a Heinleinian sort of author, so he has Heinleinian characters - super smart, super competent, and while not necessarily as hypersexed as some of Heinlein's more egregious creations, there is a lot of talk about attraction, reproduction, and people getting it on. Stephenson is a modern author who's aware of modern audiences - which is to say, he doesn't make it as creepy as Heinlein sometimes did, and his female characters tend to have as much or more agency than the men. (This is particularly true in the segue between part one and part two of Seveneves - the part that gives the book its title, in fact.)

The part that I found alternately amusing and annoying in Seveneves (and in his previous novel, Reamde) is how blatantly he inserts real-world figures into the story.

"Doc" Dubois Harris, for example, is a very obvious stand-in for Neil Tyson Degrasse. Stephenson elevates him to hero and (contributing)) savior of the human race. He's the first one to figure out that the "hard rain" is going to fall, and helps create the space arks.

Neil Tyson Degrasse

Then there is Camila, a Muslim teenager whose backstory is essentially identical to Malala Yousafzai, and who becomes one of the book's "Seven Eves."

Malala Yousafzai

The "villain" of the novel is Julia Bliss Flaherty ("JBF"), former President of the United States. A manipulative, narcissistic, driven politician who's both admirable and despicable by turns, I could not quite decide whether she was supposed to be Hillary Clinton or Laura Roslin. Maybe a little of both.

Hillary Clinton
Laura Roslin

The first half of the book ends with the human race in space having been reduced to seven survivors - all women. These becomes the "Seveneves" who, thanks to genetic manipulation, are able to give birth to enough descendants to repopulate the species.

Five thousand years later... There are seven "races" of humanity, all descended from one of the Seveneves and having distinct characteristics that were partly chosen, and partly occurred over the millenia due to normal genetic drift. They have formed societies out in space, but as the "hard rain" on Earth has ended, they begin returning to the homeworld... where they find that some humans survived the millenia of meteor strikes by hiding underground or underwater.

The second half of Seveneves actually lost my attention for a bit. I listened to it on audio, and while I should have found the ways in which mankind had evolved and changed and produced these eugenically cultivated survivor races interesting, it wasn't really until they ran into the survivors on Earth that I felt like the story picked up again, and that was almost at the end. The first half of Seveneves is a dramatic apocalyptic adventure, with some infodumping but still briskly paced, while the second half was more like traditional SF with a bit of dystopian fiction thrown in, but a heck of a lot of exposition about the last five thousand years of post-apocalypse civilization.

I liked Seveneves better than Reamde (which was still good), but it doesn't quite live up to my favorite Stephenson classics like Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, or Diamond Age. It's a great read, flawed only in that it seems like Stephenson had too many ideas that he wanted to cram into a single book.

Also by Neal Stephenson: My review of Reamde.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, neal stephenson, reviews, science fiction

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