“The moon blew up with no warning and for no apparent reason.”
What an awesome opening line wasted on a boring book. This was one of my most anticipated books of the summer and it was nearly a complete letdown. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved the Neal Stephenson I’ve read previously, but his stab at hard sci-fi fell flat for me.
Set in the near future, Seveneves begins with the moon’s destruction. At first it seems harmless, but scientists like Dr. Dubois Harris, an obvious stand-in for Neil DeGrasse Tyson, quickly determine that the remaining pieces will quickly break into smaller pieces and come raining down on Earth in a fiery Armageddon in approximately two years. The novel follows humanity’s desperate attempt to save the species in the face of an extinction level event.
The basic plan is to build hundreds of “arklets”, small spaceships/living area to host a select group of humans chosen from every nation and trained to survive in space and keep the species alive the 5000 years it will take until the Earth is inhabitable again. These arklets, along with genetic templates for every creature on Earth, will be sent to the International Space Station where they will ride out the coming conflagration, known as the “Hard Rain.”
Stephenson populates his story with plenty of real-world analogs. In addition to the aforementioned Dubois, there are characters based on Elon Musk, Malala Yousafzai, and especially Sarah Palin, who is savagely represented as President Julia Bliss Flaherty.
The conflict between President Flaherty and the ISS’s leaders eventually leads to the utopian plan fracturing. The arklets embark on their own desperate attempt to populate Mars while the ISS attempts to use a captured asteroid to ram its way through the coming conflagration to the safety of the last solid chunk of the Moon.
There’s a lot of grist in the story of those two desperate and different methods of survival, but alas, they are glossed over leading to the finale of the story, set 5000 years later.
In fact, a lot of things are glossed over leading to that 300 page coda.
Yes, 300 pages. Seveneves is almost two distinct novels. One documenting humanity’s escape from Earth, and then the second describing its return to Earth, millennia later. An interesting idea, but it failed in execution. And honestly, I think I’d like a third distinct novel that dealt with the struggles of the survivors on a more human level.
But the biggest problem was the endless tech speak. Kim Stanley Robinson can pull off this sort of hard sci-fi, but the gifted Stephenson’s normally electric prose fizzled when describing apogees and the difference between solar and terran orbits.
Stephenson has plenty of great philosophical ideas in Seveneves, discussing political theory and the ethics behind genetics, but he buries them under pages and pages of infodumps. It’s obvious he meticulously researched the physics behind the ISS’s survival odds, but great chunks of the 800+ page book were dedicated to detailed descriptions of the mathematical equations behind the station’s movements.
I also found Stephenson’s timeline and the survival odds of the species to be overly optimistic. The governments of the world, when faced with an extinction-level event are able to pull their shit together enough to orchestrate this massive a project? I don’t buy it. I also don’t buy that humanity would be able to reproduce itself from the slim remains. All of Stephenson’s scientific explanations couldn’t convince me.
And maybe that is the point. Robinson is able to sell his version of the future through his faith in humanity. Stephenson is saying that faith or optimism won’t see you through, cold hard science and a helluva a lot of luck is how the human race will survive. And ultimately flourish.
I don’t know that I want believe that.