Neal Stephenson
Seveneves Cover

Seveneves: A Novel


The further I got into the Seveneves thought experiment, the more I wanted to like it. It's an epic disaster novel (or is it an epic disaster of a novel? More on that later) that pits the human race against nature as the moon explodes and its meteoric remains begin to fall to Earth, setting the atmosphere on fire. Unless something dramatic happens, everyone is going to die. Seveneves is about that something, that "moon shot" to save a remnant of the human population by putting them in outer space to survive the holocaust of the lunar destruction.

Neal Stephenson takes advantage of the situation to address all sorts of scientific, moral, and philosophical dilemmas. This is fascinating, and I loved this aspect of the book. If the end of human civilization is imminent, who is saved and why? What happens when people won't go along with "the plan?" How does an individual respond when not only their life, but the lives of everyone they know will end? Are humans inherently selfish or selfless? Are we capable of subsuming selfish interests to the greater good? When is the use of force appropriate? How much change can the human genome sustain and remain human, or at least a member of the species? Are our genes our destiny? Can we determine what our progeny will choose by changing their genes? Should we? If so, which traits should we develop? Should we aim for survival, domination, to get along, to evolve faster, etc? What role does the past play in setting our future? Can we ever escape our past? Or is the past only prologue?

In some respects, the thought experiment aspect of Seveneves is the most fascinating aspect of the story. We never really find out what caused the moon to explode, and indeed, it's soon clear that it doesn't really matter to Stephenson. He's created a theoretical framework--the moon has exploded and is falling to Earth, destroying the biosphere in the process--and is now setting out to solve it. He has problems to solve, problems that are scientific, political, moral, genetic, and so on, and he's going to solve it, one problem at a time. In this sense, it's similar to Andy Weir's The Martian, where (if you haven't read/seen it) astronaut Mark Watney is marooned on Mars and spends the book working to "science the hell" out of one problem after another. Stephenson's Seveneves faces exponential numbers of problems over The Martian, and he does an admirable, if occasionally tedious, job of framing solutions. He seems to do better with credible solutions to his short-term solutions to scientific and technological problems than he does to solving social and cultural problems, which sometimes seem to be wrested to match the direction Stephenson wants to go more than what might be credibly considered a solution.

The Martian, however, remains the better book, for the simple reason that Weir seems to recognize the need for a cohesive story to tie his theoretical problems together (and his characters are simply more credible, interesting, and speak in language like real people I know. I can't say the same for Seveneves). Stephenseon, for all his brilliance, appears to have kicked his editor to the curb.

Therein lies the problem, or problems, with Seveneves. Clocking in at 867 pages in the hardcover, the book is divided up into three periods: the first commences with the destruction of the moon and runs until the shattered remnants obliterate humanity; the middle section follows the space bound survivors as they navigate the wreckage of the moon and the travails of a new civilization; and a third section that is 5,000 years in the future.

Yes, really. 5,000 years in the future. The transition is a bit jarring. By the time we get to that second section, appearing sometime 560 odd pages into the novel, we've spent the majority of the novel with a few individuals over a two to three-year period. Suddenly, we're dropped farther into the future than humanity's written history goes back from the present day, to a place that is, while initially alien, more than a little familiar. Even names, alliances, disputes and language are more familiar than they should be over the millennia. Perhaps this is because the subsequent 5,000 years are passed and preserved with the aid of digital memory, an advantage that our Neolithic ancestors did not enjoy, but for me the leap was not enough. The massive technological marvels Stephenson imagines in the third portion are, to be sure, awe-inspiring, but he seems to rely on too much about humanity remaining static... except for when it doesn't (and I won't throw out any spoilers to demonstrate where Stephenson seems to evolve his people faster than others, but keep your eyes open. They're there).

Seveneves has a lot of potential and there were times when I would rush to my better half, who had just finished reading it, to discuss something in the book. But still, I couldn't shake the impression that Stephenson is trying to do too much, and the result is a bloated single cover, when two, or three, might have worked better. The jump five thousand years to the future might have been cut entirely, or visa-versa, leaving the book just as satisfyingly complete. Additionally, there's a lot that could have been cleaned out by a judicious editing without impacting Seveneves' power, leaving it a tighter and more cohesive read.

This is to say nothing of the sudden halt at the end of it all. I don't know if Stephenson got bored, ran out of plot, or his editor finally demanded that he turn in manuscript, come hell or high water. After opening up new story lines, introducing a dozen new characters, and developing more issues than resolved, Seveneves suddenly ends, leaving the story feel incomplete (ironically given the length), if laden with genius.

Seveneves is a worthy work, and I think it bears reading for the serious fan of science fiction, but it falls short of the masterwork that it could be. And yet, a "thought experiment" is the best I could come up with as a way to describe what Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is and why it's worth reading.

(Oh, one more thing: Stephenson seems to like Neal DeGrasse Tyson. He uses him as a template for one of the main characters--and it drives me nuts. Another gripe is the sex: apparently, everyone wants some, and Stephenson wants to give it to them. I just don't see the future of the human race as being as promiscuous as Stephenson.)