Thursday, December 10, 2015

Seveneves Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Neal Stephenson
Publisher: William Morrow and Company
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
Series: Standalone
Pages: 880

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The Moon Blew Up Without Warning And For No Apparent Reason

Those eleven words in the subheading above make up the first sentence of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. It’s a spectacular opening line for a truly spectacular novel, that asks a truly frightening question: what would happen if the moon were to be destroyed?

Well obviously nothing good.

In Seveneves, the destruction of the moon triggers a two year countdown to doomsday.  Only a select few thousand humans are launched into space to form a cloud ark with the International Space Station (called Izzy) at its head. The tale of Earth’s destruction only makes up the first two of three parts of Stephenson’s story.

It’s at this point that I’d like to familiarize people with Stephenson’s writing style, especially if you’ve never ever read anything by him before. This is a man who really likes exposition, or less eloquently called “info dumps.” And Seveneves is loaded with info – I would venture to say about 70% of it is purely facts, theories, or technological explanations. This is as hard of a hard science fiction book you will find. There are detailed descriptions of scientific concepts like space maneuvering, g-forces, and delta-v’s; there are lengthy debates about genetics, evolution, power, and political structures. How certain space technology works is explained in great detail, there’s a lengthy description explaining some Morse Code translations, and even a description of  Python software programming robots.

When Neal Stephenson decides to write something, he goes all the way. The expression “info dump” is often meant to be derogatory because it implies that a writer is lazy. Granted a lot of this book is explanations and exposition, there is no way you could call the author lazy with all of the research and advanced concepts this book is explaining to its readers. In Seveneves technology paves the way for the future, one of the books’ arguing points. But, Stephenson takes technology further, making it essential to understanding the development of his characters, creating realistic scenes of tension and conflict, and, although it’s hard to believe, for emotional catharsis. Speaking for the latter the two most emotional points in the story – for me – involved Morse Code and a selfie. Honestly an author than get you teary eyed over something as archaic as Morse Code, and as self-absorbed as a selfie really knows how to write.

It was hard getting into the gist of Seveneves, but eventually, and although I didn’t realize it at first, the characters really started to grow on me. It’s through these in-depth descriptions that little bits of character slowly seep through, and before you realize it, you actually have some very life-like people all trying to save humanity from extinction.  Aboard Izzy while the moon blows up, readers are introduced to Ivy and Dinah. Both are super smart and while the former is inclined to piss people off due to having a lack of empathy, the latter has an aggressive temperament that turns out to be vital in resolving conflicts. As more humans ascend to the cloud ark readers are introduced to a slew of characters including a former Soviet Olympian named Tekla, a scientist television personality that’s affectionately called “Doob”, a brilliant billionaire who’s come to “save the ark” named Sean Probst, and the President of the United States Julia Bliss Flaherty (called JBF) who arguably comes the closest to being a villain in the story.

The third and final part of Seveneves begins 5,000 years in the future. The descendants of the few remaining survivors are now returning to Earth. While some people might be perturbed by having to literally pick up the threads of a new story with a whole bunch of new characters; this last section was just as good as the first two.

I think the most disappointing part about reading Seveneves was the realization that this was going to be a real divisive book. People are either going to love it, or hate it. I expect that animosity will largely be due to a number of issues: there is a constant stream of information the reader will have to absorb, the absence of time spent on characters pontificating their emotions – there are emotional conversations in this book, and they come exactly when they’re needed –  Stephenson never gives into over-romantic portrayals of many typical “end-of-the-world” scenarios, and of course, despite the ultra realistic tone, there will be moments that require some suspension of disbelief … aka the fiction part of science fiction.

Technology is the worldbuilding of this story, and there is a lot of it. I found it to be essential to understanding the plot and empathizing with the characters, and that is why it stopped bothering me after the early going, and it eventually became something I just enjoyed. Seveneves is truly for the nerdiest of nerdy readers, and it’s a remarkable achievement in science fiction.

Score: 9.5

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