seveneves by neal stephenson

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In my experience, a new Neal Stephenson book is good news. There is always something to enjoy in his books that I’ve read (Anathem, Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash). I like the way he takes big ideas, fleshes them out, and makes a huge, detailed, and believable world out of them. That’s what he did in Seveneves, a tale in which the human race is mostly annihilated when a mysterious force or object destroys the earth’s moon.

As a result of the moon breaking up, astronomers expect that within two years a hailstorm of falling rocks will both pummel and incinerate the earth’s surface. Nations of the world respond by throwing all of their resources into creating a small, self-sustaining space colony built around the International Space Station. The details are believable, the destruction is harrowing, and the effort to survive is equally believable and harrowing.

The book is kind of like two novels in one, because we get a full story and travails of the survivors in space for two-thirds of the book, then we get what could well have been split into a second volume. It’s a concluding section in which we peer into a world several thousand years into the future, with another set of characters and its own story arc.

I’ll say now that Seveneves wasn’t a favorite of the Stephenson novels I’ve read. Two factors dragged it down for me. The first can be summed in one word: exposition. For stories like this to work, the reader needs enough plausible detail to make the scenario real, but not so much detail that it gets in the way of the plot. Unfortunately, Stephenson chooses to spend pages and pages and pages explaining minutiae of orbital mechanics, the physics of spinning chains, and many other subjects. 

While a reader may be impressed with the depth of thought with which Stephenson worked out every detail, the reader might be forgiven for sighing and saying, “Here we go again,” when the author launches into another tutorial. The eyes glaze over, the mind drifts off, and awareness returns when the plot moves forward again.

The other factor that bothered me was that, for a book that cleaves so closely to science, I found some of the events and outcomes preposterous. That’s not always a barrier in a science fiction book if the setup and characters sweep you forward and bring you along for the ride, but in this case I felt I’d been set up for something pretty straight-edge and relatively plausible. I may be one of the few who have this reaction. I don’t know. Without revealing plot elements, I’ll just say that my problems came in the form of some of the proposed biology, physiology, psychology, and sociology.

One small example I can give: I’m not convinced that a self-sustaining ecology could be created in a lot of “tin cans” in space with today’s technology. (Even with a supply of water that the protagonists procure.) The book didn’t convince me that this was possible – it’s one place where maybe I could have used a little bit more explanation so I’d believe it. I think Stephenson is more interested in physics than life science and the “soft sciences.” Maybe because the last book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, I was more suspicious of the somewhat blithe assumption that we could successfully maintain agriculture in a space habitat. 

In the latter part of the novel, I was hoping to get a hint of what was behind the destruction of the moon, but that wasn’t forthcoming. Just some vague speculation about fate and “purpose.” It was just a big macguffin. Hold on for the next Stephenson novel, and don’t feel like you’ve missed out on too much if you skip the 880 pages of Seveneves. If you do read it, there is, as I said, some compelling material to be found. 

 moon

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