SEVENEVES – Neal Stephenson (2015)

SevenevesThe first hardcover edition is a beautiful behemoth of a book… 861 pages, quality binding, and 4 top-notch illustrations that really enhance the story. It’s a feast to hold in your hands. Stephenson clearly is on top of the commercial food chain. And when one starts reading, the first sentence (“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”) hits you like the instant classic first line it is. The first 50 pages are excellent, thrilling, and command a feeling of tremendous promise that is rare in any genre.

Gradually, technological and scientific exposition takes over. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is heavy, heavy, heavy. Somewhere around the halfway mark it struck me what a tour de force this book is: Stephenson’s vision is so detailed, so imaginative, so well researched that the constant awe becomes relentless. He has been explicit in interviews on a possible purpose for science fiction, as the genre to lead the way, to think big, to entice the imagination of scientists, leaders, the human race. He has expressed disappointment in that regard too, and sets the record straight with this book.

The fact that it is an intellectual achievement does not necessarily make Seveneves a good book. Not everybody will enjoy this, as the reader has to work, work, work. The focus in this book is on world building and science, not characters. At least, it seems that way at first, and just by page count, it is. This is true to content: in a real cataclysmic scenario about the demise of the human race, individuals wouldn’t be the focus. The book is about the bigger picture, the science that will get us out of the mess, about the human race working together. But then again, after about 120 pages the characters do become a wee bit interesting. Still, by page 240 I still didn’t really care for them.

Yet, somewhere around the halfway point the book had me teared up, for 2 pages. Those were 2 terrific pages. Emotional pages. Amongst the best 2 emotional pages I have ever read. There was so much truth in them. I don’t think they would have been that hard-hitting if they hadn’t been surrounded by all the cold, analytic other pages. The pages worked all the more because they and their context exemplified what emotions really are: tiny, tiny islands in a vast ocean of matter. From that point on, it was clear Stephenson wasn’t only writing about science, but about humans too. At times, and not only on those 2 pages, in a very poignant way too. On top of that, Stephenson manages to come up with numerous interesting social projections. So, near the end of the first story arc, I actually was heavily involved with some of the characters.

I’m just saying: hang on if you are scared off by the info dump, it’s not only that. By which I’m not saying this is a character driven book:  I definitely would have liked 200 pages more about the characters. One can’t have all in life.

Stephenson, as usual, sneaks in liberal thought and contemporary issues. That makes for some lighter, almost funny passages.

The very reason that so many people trusted him when he went on TV was that he was a straight shooter, he said things that offended the powerful, he stirred things up, and didn’t care. Certain of those moments had been enshrined forever in YouTube clips and Reddit memes: taking down a Republican senator who didn’t believe in evolution, destroying a climate change denier in an impromptu sidewalk confrontation, reducing a movie start to tears on the Today show by telling her that her stand against childhood vaccination made her personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of babies. So, in a way, there were two questions in his head at the same time: whether he would lie, and whether he could lie.

The book is all over the place, and outrageously embraces lots and lots of ethical, scientific and political themes, sometimes only for a sentence or two. Parts can double of as a bullet point catalogue of humanity anno 2015.

Moira’s phone vibrated. Looking at its screen she saw that she had an appointment in fifteen minutes. She excused herself from what had become a very strange kaffeeklatsch. Oh well, perhaps it had cured her of some sentimental ideas. She had walked in aspiring to somehow re-create the experience of breakfasting in a sidewalk café in Europe and instead been treated to half an hour of nuclear warfare, mass incineration of protesters, and serious ethical discourse, mixed with a suddenly keen sexual tension between her and Tekla.

Because of marketing and the dust jacket blurb, you know the human race will survive 5000 years, even evolving into 7 distinct races. That spoiler notwithstanding, Stephenson manages to keep things interesting. But it might be worth nothing that the first 2 thirds of the book (about 600 pages) aren’t situated in that distant future. Only in part three we get a giant leap forward: only the last 250 pages deal with this distant future. Needless to say, you’ll be in for some surprises. But again it takes time to build up interest in the characters, and, since exposition keeps on eating up most of the pages, 250 pages are just too short for significant character building. It even takes quite a long time to actually figure out what the story of that last part will be, but the last 100 pages are a feast again.

From a language point of view, I think this book is the best I’ve read by Neal Stephenson. The prose is extremely crisp and clear. Sometimes there’s a whimsical remark or metaphor by a character, but this book doesn’t suffer by the heavy-handed irony and self-awareness of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age or even Quicksilver. As such – and this might seem a strange thing to say after my remarks about all the intellectual info dump – it is not as arrogant.

In setting and themes Seveneves is not too dissimilar from Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2321 and even Aurora. And there’s obviously a dash of Luna: New Moon here too, albeit without the moon itself. The hard disaster driven science of The Martian crossed my mind too at times. Seveneves is the most ambitious of those novels. But, for best 2015 SF book my vote would still go to Aurora, with Luna as close second, mainly because they are more about characters in a story, and not about a story with characters…

I hope Stephenson returns to this universe. Without wanting to spoil too much, there surely is an interesting book or two to be written about the same story, but from different points of view. And while this book is self-contained, there’s plenty of room for a character driven sequel set 5100 years from now. That would be something.

Any serious fan of hard SF should at least try Seveneves. Caveats aside, it’s wholeheartedly recommended.

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5 responses to “SEVENEVES – Neal Stephenson (2015)

  1. Stephenson is one of those authors that seem to cleanly divide the readership, and this kind of antithesis is one of the reasons I still have not tried out any of his works. Your review piqued my curiosity though, even despite the “warnings” – or maybe because of them, since I can never resist a good challenge… 🙂
    Maybe this will be a good place to start.
    Thanks for sharing, it was a great review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the kind words! I think ‘Anathem’ might be the best place to start. It’s much more a story, with less exposition and a great, great premise. It also dabbles a bit in Wittgensteinian philosophy in a really original way, so that’s a plus if you ask me. In a way, it is Stephenson’s most normal scifi book. I consider it to be one of my favorite books, but since it was one of the first scifi books I read after a hiatus from fiction of over a decade, I should reread it someday and see how it holds up – now that my milage is up. Snow Crash was a lot of fun too, but something different altogether.

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  3. Thanks for this, I still haven’t read SEVENEVES although I bought it when it came out. On ANATHEM, which is a wonderful book, you might find this interesting: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/immanentise-plato-on-neal-stephensons-anathem/

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    • For a couple of years now I’m inclined to take a Rortyan stance on all questions concerning the Nature of Truth and Reality, so I’m grateful for that interesting metaphor about the night and the stars rather than Plato’s sun. Your analysis of The Martian is spot on, as I’ve hinted at in my review myself it’s entertainment but not art, amongst other things because Watney doesn’t become a Martian, as you phrase it.

      But, as Rorty, I do not buy the dichotomy monism vs. meaningless relativism though. We do not need to avoid the latter, since relativism is not meaningless: in the sense that if you voice it as a dichotomy, it still presupposes a platonic form of Meaning. I think we just need to sidestep that discussion. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Anathem, but if I’m not mistaken one of the factions in the book does so, and that’s what I meant with the Wittgensteinian philosophy in the comment above.

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  4. Yes, the two main factions are the Procians, who are Wittgensteinian, and the Protans, who are Platonists. I have always favoured Rorty and Feyerabend, so I am making myself the devil’s advocate here. Yet there is an analogy between Stephenson’s and Rorty’s move: Stephenson physicalises Plato’s ideas, while Rorty “linguisticises” them. If we take a step back, both are transposing Platonic transcendent ideas into immanence. I agree that relativism is not a real problem, but a straw man caricature of immanentist positions, that are realist rather than relativist. I have argued this in the case of Feyerabend here: https://www.academia.edu/9332513/FROM_RELATIVIST_EPISTEMOLOGY_TO_PLURALIST_ONTOLOGY_The_pluralist_realism_of_Paul_Feyerabend_and_Bruno_Latour. However, the appearance of relativism needs to be bypassed by injecting just the right amount of “mini-transcendence”. Stephenson’s solution is fictional, and despite making the Platonists the protagonists all through the book, he concludes with the founding of a new Concent. The entry requirements are (1) you must never be sure that you are right, (2) you must understand that “symbols are always in flux and that their meanings are fleeting”. So he ends up favouring the Rortyan perspective.

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