Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

July 31, 2015 at 11:52 am | Posted in 3 stars | 5 Comments
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Seveneves coverWhen I started writing this blog, I had a strong preference for writing one review for a trilogy, not three reviews of the individual books. Most trilogies, I felt, were intended to be one work and should be evaluated as such. I’ve learned a lot about reviewing and my tastes have evolved in the intervening…yikes…eleven years, but I still like reviewing series together.

Wait long enough, though, and an exception will arrive. Seveneves is not a trilogy, it is a single novel. It’s long, but maybe not quite so long it could be split into three books. Nevertheless, it is easily divided into three parts, and these three parts really deserve to be considered separately. As a novel, it is rather less than the sum of its parts.

Neal Stephenson has a mix of registers, so it might help to note at the outset that Seveneves is told with the relatively dry, restrained prose that characterized Anathem. Stephenson is never entirely without humor, but this is far from the over the top fireworks of Snow Crash. Also like Anathem, much of the appeal here is in the detailed worldbuilding. The difference is that instead of Anathem‘s exploration of philosophy and quantum mechanics, Seveneves wants to look at the challenges humans face living in Earth orbit, now and in the future.

The novel opens with the unexplained explosion of the moon. Stephenson does his best to signpost the fact this will never be explained and follows through on that promise, something which feels a bit unsatisfying at first but doesn’t prove a serious obstacle. The moon explodes, and after just a bit of wondering, the focus is on what humanity is going to do about the significant amount of lunar material that is about to rain down on the Earth’s surface and render it uninhabitable for thousands of years.

The first third of the novel depicts humanity struggling to belatedly create a vast space program to get someone, anyone permanently into orbit where they can continue the species and recolonize Earth when the surface is once again inhabitable. I’m not a physicist, but there’s a lot of scientific detail here that sounds fairly convincing. The geopolitical details are less believable, but there’s a decent story here.

It’s a bit flat, though. Stephenson’s never been known for his characters and won’t change his reputation with this novel, but this section necessarily spends a lot of time setting up different characters and trying to get us to empathize. Mileage will vary, but I never cared all that much about any of the cast. The whole thing has a surprising (given what is actually happening) lack of urgency. Humanity is facing a doomsday clock counting down to the death of the entire species and the characters sort of putter around ineffectually.

The problem, perhaps, lies in Stephenson’s choice of characters. Foremost among them is Dr. DuBois Harris, a popular astronomer (and really a thinly disguised Dr. Neil DeGrass Tyson). At the beginning of the novel, the narrative allows him (not very plausibly, given he’s not a full-time scientist) to kind-of discover the implications of the moon’s explosion and (also not very plausbily) to brief the President of the United States, Julia Bliss Flaherty. But in the events that follow, he’s a bystander, called on to explain to the public what is going on and to appear at ceremonies.

The other main viewpoint character is Dinah MacQuarie, a robotics engineer who happens to also be an astronaut on the International Space Station. As one of only a handful of astronauts on the ISS at the start of the novel, like DuBois she is theoretically involved in the space program, but in practice mostly an observer as ISS is rapidly built out around her.

What’s missing is any perspective on the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers who are surely pulling 80 hour weeks to create a crash space program that might barely save the species but won’t save them or their families. Stephenson’s choice of characters seems to reflect an interest in political hypocrisy, for DuBois and Dinah are both public figures who present a false image of themselves on social media. But this theoretically promising subject never develops into anything interesting. Both characters feel vaguely bad about it but decide it must be done. Each one also gets a bland romance as well for a smidgen of personal drama, but then it’s back to watching the space program happen around them.

Don’t get me wrong, the space program is pretty interesting. Stephenson has thought a lot about it and few science fiction readers will not find it amusing–perhaps even fascinating, depending on their interest in the subject–to watch him spend national treasuries on rockets and fly them around.

The second part of the novel is set entirely in space after the disaster is fully underway and depicts the embattled survivors trying to overcome a host of obstacles both political and environmental. The on-screen cast grows to include a broader range of stereotypes: the tough Russian, the lying, self-centered politician, the honest but naive scientist, the hard-working engineer.

Throughout this part there is an ugly undertone stemming from the lifeboat morality of the entire space program. If only a few can be saved, who should be chosen? Why, surely it is the scientists and engineers, the same people who are always valorized in Neal Stephenson novels (and in science fiction more generally), since their skills are needed to keep humanity alive! The story swiftly creates a division between Good Guys, who are the conscientious scientists and engineers just trying to make everything work and who, it doesn’t let us forget, deserve to be there, and the Bad Guys, who get in the way by cynically trying to get power for themselves. The bad guys are without exception people who, in the view of the narrative, don’t deserve to be there. This includes the US president, who used her power to secure herself a place on the lifeboat, but also most of the young people who weren’t part of the initial effort to bootstrap the ISS. These theoretically deserving people were chosen by a political process and therefore are suspect as well.

It’s bad enough that you took some deserving scientist or engineer’s spot, the book seems to say to these newcomers, so be grateful you’re here at all and do what your betters tell you to do. Because in one of the least likely decisions among many improbable elements, Earth authorities (first among them the conniving, dishonest US President) put scientists in charge of the space colony. They benevolently rule from the ISS while most of the survivors are spread out among a trailing swarm of small spacecraft. When the political situation decays and the swarm refuses to accept the authority of their masters in the ISS, the narrative blames this on the swarm’s naivete and the machinations of the cartoonishly evil US president. No blame whatsoever is assigned to the allegedly charismatic leader of ISS Markus Leuker, to his chief lieutenant Ivy, or to DuBois, who is supposedly a great communicator but makes almost no effort to keep the ordinary survivors informed and then is shocked, shocked when they fall into believing pseudo-scientific plans. It’s not the leaders’ fault, the book seems to say, because ultimately these are well-intentioned Good Guys who are so good they can’t even conceive of anyone else not sharing their benevolent goals. They’re no match for the vast self-centereness and political superpowers of the US President.

Yet in spite of all this, the second section of the book develops into a very compelling story. After the surprisingly low-key and unreasonably upbeat first third of the novel, out of nowhere the second section takes an incredibly bleak tone. Not only do we finally see that Stephenson isn’t going to give Earth any salvation, we also experience firsthand just how terrifyingly dangerous it is to spend any amount of time in low Earth orbit. Micrometeorites rupture hulls, supplies of food and oxygen-creating algae dwindle, and people are poisoned by radiation from the sun, Van Allen belts, and their own spacecraft. Mistakes and accidents compound and the survivors’ situation gets worse to the point that all hope is lost. Then, it gets worse again. And then still worse! There are some strange pacing decisions where time skips forward unexpectedly, passing over some major events and allowing some seemingly important characters to die off screen, but what is shown has a propulsive pace. Characters struggle and die, and with each death the end of the human species seems to draw nearer.

This golden nugget of narrative, buried though it is within a clunky shell of infodumps and contrived events, is so good it’s worth reading the novel to get it. Too bad, then, that the last third of the book is an unmitigated disaster. Jumping forward a tremendous amount of time to when humanity is prospering again, it showcases a vast space civilization locked in a cold war. Thousands of years later, it seems the descendents of the previous section’s Good Guys are…wait for it…still the Good Guys. No points for guessing who the bad guys are. The story, which is very thinly distributed now between vast sections that are content to simply describe huge space stations and orbital mechanics, involves a mission to the slightly recolonized Earth to investigate reports of humans who allegedly survived the moon disaster without going into space.

This theoretically interesting investigation plays out tediously and with a minimum of drama. None of the characters believe there could really be any other survivors, but as readers we know there are, because otherwise why would we be shown the investigation? Worse, we already can guess who they are, because in the most contrived part of a massive novel full of contrivances, there are no less than two distinct other surviving groups that were each founded by someone related closely to a viewpoint character on the original ISS.

Readers who are really interested in what enormous mechanisms a far future humanity might build in space might still enjoy this section anyway for the exposition. Certainly the space science struck me, a total non-expert, as almost entirely convincing (the one doubt I have comes from the suspicious repetition of a few pet ideas, swarms and chains). But there’s also a lot of time spent on the dubious social dynamics of the two future societies, and here the worldbuilding is less than convincing.

The first problem is the narrative is obsessed with race. I just opened the book to the final third and literally the first sentence I laid eyes on was applying a racial stereotype: “like all [of his race], he put his family name first, because it was somehow more logical”. It would be an interesting exercise to count how many times a behavior is attributed to race in this section, but not interesting enough for me to actually do it. Suffice to say, it happens constantly. At first I wondered if some point was being made about the social construction of race, something David Anthony Durham did to great effect in his Acacia series, but instead it is made clear these races are the products of genetic engineering and therefore this racial behavior is almost entirely genetically determined. This is a legitimate thing to posit about the story’s races given their genetic engineering technology, but it’s aesthetically displeasing due to its close similarity to ignorant claims about the races of the present. Readers who don’t care about that will still find it tiresome, as nearly every page slows the narrative’s slow pace still further with constant asides about the racial origins of this or that character’s minor tic.

The second and perhaps bigger problem is that glacial pace. There have been many great novels written with a slow pace, and if this third section was a novel by itself it wouldn’t be quite so much of a defect. But this is just the third section of a larger novel, a third section that follows the extremely tense and bleak second section. Compared to what has gone before, it seems so slow that it’s stationary.

Additionally, whereas the survival of the human race was endangered throughout the second section and there was a real sense everything might be lost, the stakes in the third section are quite low. Again, the cold war plot might have seemed important in its own novel, but now it seems utterly trivial. Perhaps in some other universe there’s an interesting point being made, because there’s an interesting contrast here between the survival of the species against petty political concerns and showing how the “great events” that the characters (and often we, in our lives) think are so important are really insubstantial when viewed through a world-historical lens.

But the novel doesn’t seem to have noticed this contrast, much less orchestrated it. None of the characters we meet seem to care all that much about the war, either. And with the vast majority of the third section’s narrative is given over to description of space stations, aircraft, and other technological toys, there’s no time to provide any sociological detail beyond the onslaught of racial stereotypes, resulting in contradictions like continued assertions that one Bad Guy race are all masters of psychological manipulation yet the Bad Guy faction’s propaganda channel is a cheesy farce clearly based on hilariously ineffective Communist propaganda of the twentieth century.

And so Seveneves concludes by drifting through towering forests of exposition carpeted with an undergrowth of small events until finally, as in Stephenson’s previous book, REAMDE, everyone comes together for climactic gunfight described in tedious detail. It’s not nearly so long as REAMDE‘s, at least, and once the Good Guys have of course triumphed, representatives from all the different cultures of human survivors come together and–I wish I was kidding–make hotel accommodations. The end. Somehow this is simultaneously a damp squib of an ending and also full of the sort of contrived coincidences that are usually crutches to setup something genuinely exciting. Stephenson’s irritating need to pair off characters at the end of his books also makes an appearance.

Seveneves is a difficult book to rate and recommend because its quality is so uneven. The middle section, as I’ve said, is a great piece of science fiction despite some imperfections, yet it can’t be read without reading the so-so first part for context. And no one who has read that far will want to stop, however well-advised they would be to do so. And the fact is, for readers who enjoy infodumps about spaceships there’s a lot to like throughout, even in the third section. Over the years I have heard at least one person mention every single Neal Stephenson novel as their favorite, from The Big U through REAMDE, and I think Seveneves will attract more adherents than many, perhaps even more than my own favorite, Anathem. Perhaps I should be grateful, because if books like this could be boiled down to a simple thumbs-up or star rating, there would be no reason to read long reviews!

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  1. Great review. I’m reading Seveneves now, and I am disappointed with it in exactly the ways that you describe, and agree with you about what is best in it. What I find most lacking –besides the slow pacing– is that Stephenson isn’t dealing with the psychological motivation and experience of these characters. They are robotic and predictable types, as if written for a mediocre movie script. People in extraordinary circumstances are a fascinating study, and I think that was part of his own motivation in writing this book, but he doesn’t take the courageous leap to investigate what makes people tick in a desperate doomsday scenario. On the other hand, the detached writing is preferable to the usual clicheed operatic nonsense that passes for psychological motivation for many writers. I also think that the robotic predictability of the people is a consequence of the scientific idea that human beings are fully explainable by reference to environment and genome. That would be the interesting question to explore. But, since you’ve indicated that there’s no hope of such an engaging question in this book, I’ll probably stop reading it (I’m into the Kath Two part.) I think it’s a pity because Stephenson is one of the more intelligent writers working today. I’ll take a look at Anathem since you liked it.

    I also feel his world building in Seveneves is an elaborate and dull use of language to describe things that would be better communicated in a diagram.

    Thank you for posting your reviews!

  2. Glad you liked the review! I definitely think Anathem works better as a novel, but my appreciation is also somewhat idiosyncratic: it also has plenty of infodumps, but there I personally found the subject of the exposition (philosophy and metaphysics) fascinating. Mileage will vary. The characters there are a bit better, but characterization is never more than adequate in a Stephenson novel.

    You’re right about diagrams. My (electronic) copy of Seveneves had some pictures at the very end of it showing some of the huge space structures laboriously described in the Kath Two sections. Much prose could have been saved if they were placed better (and if the text relied on it–the map of the orbital ring was placed at the beginning of the section but Stephenson awkwardly does his best to render it with words anyway).

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