Book Review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Posted: June 20, 2015 in Book Reviews, Livin' in the USA, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , ,

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson front cover(Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson. HarperCollins, 2015, 867 pp., $35.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Neal Stephenson has written one great book, Cryptonomicon, and several excellent ones, including Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Anathem, and Reamde. They’re oftentimes funny, always innovative and thought provoking, look at big issues, and are very well written mechanically. Now, with Seveneves, he’s done something I thought he was incapable of: he’s produced a novel that’s all but unreadable. At three points in it I almost put the book down, but continued reading because Stephenson is the author and I thought “it has to get better” (it didn’t) and “there has to be a payoff” (there wasn’t).

Seveneves concerns the destruction of the moon and the subsequent near obliteration of life on Earth due to a cascade effect in the moon’s breakup and a consequent storm of impacts on Earth two years after the event on the moon. Every sci-fi novel has at least one “gimme,” and this is one hell of a “gimme.” In contrast with the almost obsessive explanations of other technical and celestial phenomena in Seveneves, Stephenson is very cagey about the nature of the “agent” that caused the breakup, devoting very little space to it, and at times lapsing into passive voice (a means of avoiding assignation of responsibility). One possible “agent” he mentions is a small black hole left over from the big bang (something for which there’s no observational evidence) hitting the near side of the moon. Stephenson never even hints at the mass of the “agent” nor its velocity, nor its angle of impact, for that matter.

The “agent’s” mass and velocity  determine how much energy its impact would impart, and to get the the effect Stephenson describes it would have to hit a “sweet spot” (rather, a “sour spot”). If the impact had much less energy, it wouldn’t cause the moon to break up; if it had much more it might annihilate the moon or at least impart enough energy that the fragments would simply fly away from each other forever. So, Seveneves starts with the mother of all gimmes.

Then the problems really begin. The primary one is that the first two-thirds of Seveneves consists mostly of exposition (telling, not showing)–page after page after page of mind-numbing technical detail about the mechanics of the creation and operation of the orbiting “arks” and mothership intended to preserve at least a few thousand people from destruction on the Earth’s surface. To make matters worse, this grim exposition is occasionally presented in page-length or longer paragraphs, something which went out of style in the 19th century because it makes reading tedious. In this portion of the book, Stephenson is following a standard prescription for novels, putting one’s characters through absolute hell; one wishes, though, that he hadn’t put his readers through hell, and had shown us rather than told us about it.

There are a lot of good narrative passages along the way, but they’re buried in the mass of exposition. Stephenson could easily have omitted 200 or even 300 pages of exposition in the first two-thirds of the book, and improved it by doing so.

Beyond the relatively sparse narrative sections, this portion of Seveneves does have its virtues. Stephenson very obviously spent a lot of time researching the technical details he so meticulously describes; I have no doubt that his descriptions are all well grounded. As well, it’s entertaining to see recognizable contemporary figures appear as major characters. They include two of the heroes, “Doc Dubois” (Neil deGrasse Tyson) and “Sean Probst” (probably Elon Musk), and the novel’s suitably detestable villain, the first female U.S. President, “Julia Flaherty” (Hillary Clinton–a woman who could give cynical opportunism a bad name; Stephenson even has her speech patterns down — e.g., “I’m glad you asked the question,” as preface to evading a question she very much wasn’t “glad” to hear).

Flash forward five thousand years, and the survivors–who are reforming (rather than terraforming) the Earth and are starting to repopulate it–have become seven separate races based on their progenitors from the early survivors. These races are all genetically modified to express certain physical and intellectual traits, and all share their progenitors’ emotional dispositions. Beyond that, they live in orbiting habitats and there are a few, described-at-length, technical innovations. Socially, there’s not much of interest beyond the  interactions between members of the various races, which are all in line with the interactions of their progenitors described in the first two-thirds of the book. As for political and economic innovations, there aren’t any–the characters live in a business-as-usual capitalist society with a (very sparsely described) government.

The one real virtue of this concluding section is Stephenson’s description of the ecological “reforming” of the Earth. Again, he obviously spent a lot of time researching the matters he treats, and the result holds the reader’s interest. (At least it held mine.)

The conclusion of the book revolves around a development that was predictable from the first few dozen pages and telegraphed not too long after that. There’s one minor surprise toward the very end, but it’s hardly adequate payoff for slogging through the previous 800+ pages.

Not recommended.

(If you’re unfamiliar with Stephenson’s work, do yourself a favor and read any of the novels mentioned in the first paragraph of this review rather than Seveneves. You very probably won’t be disappointed.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover

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