Seveneves showcases many of the best and worst aspects of Stephenson’s unique brand of ideas-driven science fiction.
Science fiction, in the words of a recent acquaintance, expands the mind’s horizons on what constitutes the possible. Seveneves embodies that ideal, but in doing so neglects some aspects of the writer’s craft – expository flow, pacing and narrative completeness. The result is a bit of a lumbering and confused jumble of otherwise interesting ideas, in which the whole is substantially less than the sum of its parts.
Stephenson approaches the premise of Seveneves as if trying to solve an extended engineering problem: how would human civilization prepare for and live out an extended doomsday scenario, and what would their descendants look like? Stephenson takes this premises and tackles it from a problem-solving standpoint, constructing as scientifically plausible a vision of what could happen.. His doomsday scenario is somewhat arbitrary – an unknown Agent causes the Moon to shatter into fragments, whose orbits eventually decay, causing them to rain down upon the Earth – but designed to give humanity a two-year time window to prepare for the inevitable and plan for the survival of their race. Humanity’s only seemingly viable means of surviving the catastrophe is to escape into space, which clearly presents immense logistical problems – how to grow crops, reproduce, preserve the genetic diversity of Earth – and importantly – to survive the various hazards of space: the stray bolides, the cosmic radiation, and the need for fuel in order to stay in space.
Stephenson’s novel is pretty much his answer to how we could deal with those challenges, at least in the short term. He is scrupulous in his adherence to known science. He has obviously done a great deal of research, and it shows. There is a great deal of detail and information packed within these pages. Stephenson’s even done number-crunching to ascertain the kinds of figures needed to achieve some of the orbital maneuvers that he describes, and proudly features them in the text.
On one hand, scrupulous attention to scientific fidelity is a good thing. It’s not a universal requirement, nor even a necessary component of a good science fiction novel, but its inclusion can give the narrative a certain sort of authentic realism, as well as ratchet up tension as required. On the other hand, Stephenson has converted the ‘expository infodump’ style of writing into a bit of an art form. Seveneves is a classic case of “telling, not showing”, which Stephenson’s authorial voice often going into extended explanations of scientific principles and methodologies, interspersed with bits of narrative flow. This is not in itself a bad form of storytelling – but it definitely requires a bit of patience.
The first part of the book reads like the start of a B-grade doomsday movie, with world leaders being briefed by celebrity scientist Doc Dubois that they are about to be obliterated unless action is taken. There are no save-the-earth heroics, however – it is quite clear that survival will be the name of the game. This first section deals in the preparations of the world’s nations in sending up thousands of people into space to live in distributed Arks, culminating in the destruction of Earth as billions of Moon fragments encase the Earth in a searing white fire as they burn through the atmosphere.
The second part is definitely the most guilty of Stephenson’s info-dumping style of writing, as Stephenson grapples with describing in exquisite detail how the survivors of the “Hard Rain” cataclysm that has destroyed Earth must intercept and bring back a giant cometary fragment and use its mass to help slingshot the remnants of their space station into a higher lunar orbit, where they can render themselves safe from cosmic radiation and stray bolides by establishing their foothold in a large lunar fragment. The orbital mechanics and logistics required for this maneuver are intricate, and Stephenson turns the entire procedure into an extended series of crisis moments, each described in great detail. At some point the non-physicist in me started stringing sentences together into a kind of narrative mishmash, skimming the orbital mechanics to get to the part where he finally describes what happens next. Unfortunately, radiation sickness, mutiny and other mishaps reduce humanity to seven fertile women – the Seven Eves of the book’s title. The picture of seven women being the only representatives of life in the Universe is a powerful and sobering image.
Of all the three parts, Part 3 is the one I was looking forward to the most. Unfortunately, given how extended the first two parts were, Part 3 reads like a half-baked, unfinished coda, added into round up Stephenson’s stable of ideas and concluded without much of a resolution. I’d say that it read like an opener for a future sequel, if I didn’t already know that Stephenson rarely does multi-book sagas (happy to be proven wrong though). Part 3 is almost as much of an excessive infodump as Part 2 was, but at least it was more imaginative and speculative in nature, which is more inherently interesting than the extended discussion on orbital mechanics that featured in Part 2.
The premise of Part 3 is exciting – it’s 5,000 years after the Event and human society has divided into seven distinct races, descended from the seven surviving women, who essentially engineered their offspring to emphasize certain different desirable human traits, thereby creating genetically distinct and diverging races. (For the confused, they produced offspring through implantation of embryos altered through parthenogenesis). Stephenson constructs a vision of a society that has developed under the peculiar constraints of living in space, constructing outlandish but amazing space habitats, just beginning to resettle in a rehabilitating Earth. Unfortunately, it’s not something that was given the same kind of treatment as the earlier two parts, and suffers from a total lack of a compelling and satisfactory conclusion. Personally, I would have preferred – and, indeed, I expected – a book in which the description of the far-future civilization was the main feature. I would also have liked Stephenson to have fleshed out the chronology between Parts 2 and 3 – because it seems like that interlude would have been rife with opportunities to explore how seven survivors could have blossomed into an advanced civilization after five thousand years in space. I did have a problem with how much of a link the races retained with their first ancestors, though – five thousand years is a very long time. Especially given, when – SPOILER – the Diggers and Pingers are introduced later – they, too, seemed to have retained a strong historical and linguistic continuity with their pre-Event precursors, who happen to be common direct ancestors or relatives to the two main characters in Parts 1 and 2. The odd coincidence seems rather sloppy for Stephenson.
So, Seveneves – a work with a lot of stuff in it, some more suitable for a novel form than others, a novel dense with vision and speculative potential, but a novel whose density overwhelms its narrative flow, pacing and structure. It’s a Stephenson hallmark, but it’s more pronounced here because of the demands of the story, which spans thousands of years. Read it for its daring and forgive it its shortcomings.
I give this novel: 3 out of 5 Izzys