Neal Stephenson
Seveneves Cover

Seveneves: A Novel


Would you believe this is my first Neal Stephenson novel? I have Snow Crash somewhere in my to-read closet (I think I've had it for close to 20 years now), but haven't ever gotten around to actually reading it. I've heard a lot about him, and have always associated him with cyberpunk, but I know he's moved out of that genre into something bigger, something more substantial. Seveneves is that something bigger and more substantial, enough so that I wonder why I've waited so long to read his work.

The story begins fairly simply: The moon breaks apart one night. That's not a spoiler, because the first line of the novel is "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Everything through the first quarter of the novel -- and I mean everything -- that follows from that statement follows directly from that statement. The story builds carefully from that one foundation to take us one logical step at a time through what would happen if the moon, in fact, blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

The novel has a lot of weird superfluous details which annoyed me. Neil deGrasse Tyson Doob was described as a "famous astronomer and science pundit" more than once, when he really only needed to be introduced this way once, and the asteroid to which the ISS as attached -- Amalthea -- was also referred to twice in more than one conversation, as "The asteroid", and then "Amalthea", long after we already knew its name. It's like Stephenson wasn't sure if our memories could hold onto details like that, and felt the need to remind us of them at all times.

I'm not an anti-intellectual, and I know enough about the principles of space travel to follow the gist of most of the science in the story, but I felt like Stephenson depended too much on the science and less on the fiction in certain passages of the story. The sequence with the comet, as well as all of the third part of the book, was more like reading a science paper than a science fiction novel. I get that Stephenson is a hard science-fiction writer, and I get that there are a lot of readers who like that, but I like it better when the science -- real or otherwise -- supports the story instead of the other way around. The first part of the novel reads like The Martian by Andy Weir, just better written. And it's not that even Seveneves takes place on Mars, but it's a story of survival and invention on a short time frame. Whenever the novel entered this territory, that was when the story became gripping and compelling.

Speaking of Mars, there's a subplot where a group of rebels breaks off from the structure where the remains of the human race are living and break for Mars. This is a pretty critical part of the story -- about 10% of the entire remaining human population breaks away and tries to go it alone in outer space, which Stephenson makes sure to tell us is constantly trying to kill us -- and once it happens, it's never revisited. There's a throwaway line in the second third of the book where one character mentions that they most likely never made it; is that supposed to be the resolution for a fairly significant subplot?

Throughout the first third of the novel, the main antagonist of the story is space, which Stephenson tells us exists only to try to kill us. After the world is destroyed, the antagonist shifts from space to politicians, which, according to this story, will kill us if it gives them the opportunity to gain more power. In the case of the main political antagonist of the second third of the novel, this theme is foreshadowed by this antagonist willfully using nukes against an already doomed country on a doomed world. I found the political antagonists to be even more chilling, because at least space isn't willfully trying to kill people.

Speaking of killing, I was surprised at the casual nature that Stephenson uses when writing about characters' deaths. Rarely is there an emotional side to them, and thematically, this makes sense. The population in space was selected and sent there not just for their skills, but also for their ability to recognize their own expendability, depending on the necessity of a given operation. The world is going to be destroyed in two years' time, so of course these people recognize that the greater good trumps the individual good. The blase way that Stephenson typified that reinforced that idea, and even made us recognize that necessity.

One aspect of the novel I had a hard time accepting was how all of the technology in the novel worked perfectly all the time (unless someone started messing with it, that is). In the far-flung future society, I found it somewhat easier to accept; the civilization had five thousand years to develop and create these technologies, and given the strides we as a society have made now, just in the last hundred years, suggests that we could conceivably come up with something as complex and dependable as what we see there. But even in the current time (or, as I think of it, current time + 15 years), a lot of complex technology works without a hitch. Given that I work in technology, and see how often even a simple program can cause something to fail, I found it hard to believe that something could run that dependably.

I also felt like we should have seen more of how the people on Earth dealt with the oncoming death of all life on the planet. It was mentioned here and there, but usually through the eyes of Doob, who was someone who understood and accepted that fate better than the average resident on Earth might take it. Stephenson touched on it through small yet powerful scenes -- governments distributed poison pills to people who didn't want to deal with the Hard Rain; the idea of storing DNA in space was mostly a panacea to give the people on Earth something to do for the two years before the Hard Rain began; education practically ended during that time, since most people didn't see the point -- but even those were asides, and not scenes in and of themselves. I felt like Stephenson missed the opportunity to humanize the event, though, admittedly, if he had, the novel would have been twice its current length.

My biggest complaint, though, is that last third of the novel, which takes place 5000 years after the first two-thirds. It feels like an epilogue, and while it does answer a lot of questions, I felt like it could have been much shorter, especially considering how little it compares to the first two-thirds. Of course, if Stephenson had written a more concise epilogue, I probably would have been disappointed that he didn't spend more time on Earth in the future. Honestly, I feel like that part of the story could have been expanded and written as a sequel.

Still, the book is engaging and thoughtful (as evidenced by my 1200-word review), and there's a lot here throughout the book to keep you reading and thinking. As I finished the book, I realized that life is really about pursuit. First, we pursue what is necessary; once we establish and can depend on those necessities, then we pursue what is luxury. Seeing the life of humans before, during, and after the fall is a strong representation of that theme.