BOOK REVIEW: Seveneves by Neal Stephensen

What happens if the moon explodes suddenly, for no apparent reason, over our heads? This hypothetical question in the book never allows the time for anyone to question what specifically occurred to cause the explosion. Humanity does not have time to address that question. Humanity barely has time to deal with the consequences in a manner where anything survives, at all. The moon particles, you see, are going to collide and break and expand in an exponential fashion until they begin to fall from the sky, in a cascading meteoric devastation that burns up all life, boils off the oceans, and destroys absolutely everything. The clock is ticking. Not everyone is going to make it. In fact, almost no one survives from the beginning to the middle of the book.

While I could go into great detail about the technical aspects, I have to mention that in my humble opinion, this is one of Stephenson’s weakest novels I’ve read for a couple reasons. Firstly, with all the exceptional explication filling in absolutely every gap of technical knowledge, there isn’t really a lot of room for a clear trajectory of characters doing things in the moment of the action, where conflict and energy of human assets are in flux. Those rare instances, for example, when characters are getting coffee in the morning from the International Space Station, making choices about actions in the moment that may not be relevant to the larger picture, or operating independently outside of the mission, are often glossed over with an urgent rush to get absolutely all the technical data across. Much of the dialog is spent describing in great detail the technical data that must be gotten across to understand the next wave of technical data. Despite all the very interesting ideas, the entire novel felt like a long chain of what genre writers call “As you know Bob…” because so very much of the book is spent using every available technique to fill in the technical data. The characters rarely slow down, appear suddenly, and die often. Very important characters are introduced with a jarring suddenness. The Italian woman that will become one of the critical “Seven Eves” of the title is introduced for the first time just before the total breakdown of the larger mission of the moment, for example. She is apparently one of the major villains of the text, and only has a brief moment in the text, where she appears and disappears.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but feel like the wrong author was writing it. Instead of one, large book about one, large cast of characters, I felt this interesting series of ideas deserved the slower treatment of a series of books, where individual character arcs and mission checkpoints could be spread out across a larger swathe. In one section, part of the swarm of ships in the wake of a modified International Space Station that is trying to become the “Noah’s cloud of mini-arks in space” breaks off and goes up towards Mars. Despite the emergence of the Italian woman, and one of the Seven Eves, this whole tragic and difficult set of circumstances is a mere aside introduced abruptly at one moment in the text. The huge jump into the future that occurs at one section, where the reader is taken thousands of years into the future, is only not jarring because jumping around seemingly randomly with little deep connection to the characters present has been such a common thing. Again, the wrong author was writing this series of interesting ideas. Jeanette Winterson, for example, wrote a very similar book with a structure that is also reminiscent of Seveneves with her book, The Stone Gods, with the meaningful exception that she was so focused on the characters moment-to-moment experiences that much of the technology was a gloss. Still, by focusing so intensely on the characters, the meaning came through with greater strength and depth than this attempt at the apocalypse by Stephenson that falls far short. Ultimately, the intense focus on characters in Winterson’s book made for an excellent reading experience and a much more impactful one.

In this, and upon completion, I am convinced that this is a failed novel. All the pieces are running so fast, with so much technical information, that the thing that becomes the plot and focus of the book isn’t really successfully communicated. That Italian woman who appears suddenly nearly halfway through the book and disappears just as suddenly becomes the major demon of human history, creating a race of humans that is always the enemy to the rest. In fact, as a reader, another one of the Eves was far worse, and she was never treated as poorly as the Italian. Without attempting to reveal any spoilers, because – honestly – there’s so little that could be spoiled that I feel like it is best to preserve it: The other surviving races of men, in the alternative manners that they survive, feel contrived due to their close connection to the space station. Everyone that lives is closely connected to one of the Seven Eves, whether born from them or just related to them on the planet, in their alternative survival mechanisms, that each seem to merit, at the very least, a separate novel or idea.

As a failed novel, it can still be interesting to read. The technological descriptions are often more interesting than the characters, themselves, who often die so quickly, anyway. Space is incredibly dangerous, and I am not upset that characters often die. In fact, I was pleased to see it as space is such an incredibly dangerous place to live. I was pleased to learn all these strange and ticky-tacky tools and techniques and ideas towards habitating in near space on such a sudden time scale with the imminent exponential moon cloud coming down. But, ultimately, in a novel, the reader shouldn’t be more interested in the technology than the characters. I shouldn’t have a closer narrative connection to the robots that populate the meteors and ice meteors and external wall of the station than I do with the antagonists of all of humanity and time and space.

I could play backseat quarterback and go on about the areas that needed to be separated and expanded into individual novels or novellas separate but connected to the whole, but this is an exercise more for me than for readers of books. In the end, my suggestion is that readers who are very interested in technology and futurism might find much of the book enjoyable for the nifty and interesting near-future tech that might actually become available to propagate our species into space. But, once the seven eves are revealed in full, there is very little point in continuing the book over the thousand-year jump. I would recommend Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Stone Gods, instead.

This review is not finished, however. One note about the apocalypticism of literature, of late. We actually do live in incredibly dangerous times, what with the failure of our species to address the slow-moving catastrophe of climate change.  In this mode, I found Stephenson’s ideas and attempt at an apocalypse a breath of fresh air in a gloomy, gloomy subgenre. What is never lost in the grim death toll and despair of all living things is the practical sense of tomorrow coming, and what we, as a species, will do to survive tomorrow. I wish more writers in this mode would actually maintain some optimism and hope. Honestly, one of the first things that happens to people, when bad things start happening, is people start working towards solutions as best they can to the problems that they can control. In this, Stephenson’s characters Marcus, Ivy, Dinah, and his take on Neil DeGrasse-Tyson are very successful. They are forward-thinking, always focusing on the problems they see ahead, not on the past. The clear, future-focus of the characters feels correct in the terrible situations that happen. It is a missing gust of wind in the omnipresent apocalypse genre, where everything is always so terrible and humanity often does horrible, nihilistic things. The hope that is present in the novel, though often a manufactured hope for most people in the world, is still a breath of fresh air in the otherwise gloomy subgenre. I, for one, would love to see more apocalypses that base, as the foundation of their narrative, a driving, hard-charging hope where everyone is making the best they can, even the ones who know they won’t make it.

I’d give it two out of five stars, if I were interested in numerical ratings, and suggest that the real reason to read the book is the fascinating near-future technology which is far more interesting than the fiction of the text. Also, it is an excellent reminder as we consider the mining of asteroids that we had best not do anything to mess up the moon. Seriously, mining industry-types: The moon must not be damaged or we all die in a white cloud.


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