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B : lots that's enjoyable and interesting, but not entirely satisfying as a whole
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason" is a pretty good opening line for a book, a premise of considerable promise. It's not nearly as spectacular as it initially sounds, however -- or so it seems:
In movies, when a planet blows up, it turns into a fireball; and ceases to exist. This is not what happened to the moon. The Agent (as people came to call the mysterious force that did it) released a very large amount of energy, to be sure, but not nearly enough to turn all of the moon's substance into fire.At the beginning of Seveneves the moon doesn't so much seem to blow as break up -- shattered into seven large pieces, and many much smaller ones. These remain, for the most part, in a sort of cluster -- and, realistically, continue in the lunar orbit. But as scientists soon realize, the process will continue: the big and small pieces will continue smashing into each other, the moon will continue to break up. All well and good up there, but some pieces are going to fall to earth, too. The scenario is soon clear: there will be a 'White Sky' -- a white cloud of moon-fragments filling the sky -- and then a 'Hard Rain', "a meteorite bombardment such as the Earth has not seen since the primordial age". And so:
The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized. Glaciers will boil. The only way to survive is to get away from the atmosphere. Go underground, or go into space.Going into space -- or rather expanding the very limited presence already out there, in the form of the International Space Station ('Izzy') -- seems the more viable option, and is the one Stephenson focuses on. (You have to figure a lot of folks must have immediately started and continued digging for all they were worth, but such efforts only rate passing mentions.) .
Set in the near future -- most of the technology Stephenson describes is, more or less, currently available, and in the novel people are still using Facebook, so Seveneves obviously begins very close to present-day -- Stephenson does have Izzy conveniently bolted to an asteroid, Amalthea, which is about the size of a soccer field, a bit of solid ground to work with (and good protection from some of the nastier things flying around space, a constant source of concern) rather than still flying all by its lonesome, making for just a bit more to build on than is presently available.
Stephenson gives earthlings two years to plan ahead: give or take a matter of days, that's almost exactly how long it will take for the Hard Rain to hit, and wipe out seven billion people (another indication that the book is set nowabouts, since the earth population is already in that range). The first part of the book -- just under a third of it -- covers the first year after the moon has broken apart, with much of it set on the soon rapidly expanding space-colony, the distributed swarm of so-called arklets, along with a much-enlarged Izzy (and attached asteroid), that forms the 'Cloud Ark' where humanity -- in the form of not much more than a thousand humans, as well as a lot of genetic material and vast amounts of data -- is to live on (until, they hope, earth might be inhabitable again).
More interested in the technological issues and challenges, Stephenson goes into considerable detail in describing how many of these are addressed during this preparation-phase -- enjoyable and quite well presented 'hard' (and basic) science fiction.
Among the many people with very specialized expertise there's also billionaire Sean Probst, a leading space entrepreneur who has enough remaining clout and influence to get himself launched to Izzy -- and then proceeds to head out on an expedition to collect and -- so the plan -- return to Izzy with a chunk of comet-ice, vital raw material needed to get the Cloud Ark into a safer orbit; with expected travel time of two years, it looks to be a close call whether he can get back in time.
Stephenson does roam around earth a bit, too, but most of the glimpses are fairly narrow. Mankind decides on a 'Casting of Lots', with each nation allowed to select candidates for a chance to be sent up and saved -- twenty-thousand or so candidates in total, from which a couple of thousand (they hope) will make the one-way trip. In describing one such ceremonial handover of the selected, Stephenson opts for tiny Bhutan of all places -- a nice contrast, what with the majestic natural backdrop and quasi-spiritual atmosphere (and an actual king), but very quiet and very out of the way and hardly representative. Stephenson gets around to some social disorder, especially as the end of days approaches, but on the whole earth remains remarkably calm, and most seem to more or less just go about their daily business; even with what limited explanations Stephenson offers, that seems extremely unlikely (and widespread complete social breakdown seems very likely).
From the end of the first part -- exactly one year, halfway between the time humanity learnt earth-life was soon going to be over and it actually being over -- Stephenson jumps ahead nearly a year to start the second part. It's day 700, and there's not much time left. What they've built is impressive but necessarily also jerry-rigged, well-stocked but also, soon, pretty much all the supplies they can count on, since none more will be delivered from earth.
Stephenson doesn't come up with a major twist at this point -- the world comes to an end, more or less on schedule -- and suddenly the human population is very small indeed, and all clustered together in a rather inhospitable environment. Along the way, he's established several of the characters who have played significant roles up in space, some from day one (they were already on Izzy), and some who came aboard later. One significant twist is the last-minute arrival of someone who definitely doesn't belong, a presence whose presence involved breaking all the rules; not surprisingly this figure become the main antagonist to the in-space establishment, and messes pretty much everything up -- a rather simplistic fall/bad guy for Stephenson to fall back on (though he partially redeems himself by eventually twisting that just a bit further, though that adds yet another foolhardy antagonist to the mix).
The core of the ark is Izzy (and what's been built around it), but most of the survivors are housed in the swarm of 'arklets' -- somewhat isolated, somewhat cramped. This population of 'Arkies' is rotated through Izzy, but there's only room for a small number at a time -- and many apparently resent Izzy's General Population, the decision-makers leading the way. Ridiculously quickly an opposition -- to the plan known as 'The Big Ride', involving the comet-ice and getting everything into a higher orbit -- develops, and splinter groups go their own way; not a great idea in space and with such extremely limited resources, one would think (and predictably, the smallest splinter group, which sets out for Mars, soon isn't ever heard from again).
Much as Stephenson didn't explore the social dynamics that the end-of-days announcement would surely have explosively changed life on earth, there was apparently very little planning or thought about some of these issues that might arise once the Cloud Ark was all that was left of civilization. Admittedly, the unexpected late arrival added to the complications, but you'd think they'd have a much better-thought-out organizational plan and structure in place: surely as essential as the technology functioning is the certainty that everyone on board is actually on board with the direction of things. And they failed miserably in that regard. (Stephenson does suggest that issues of governance have been carefully thought-through, but given how these matters are handled no one seems to have been paying too much attention; it's hard to believe that this isn't an issue as complex as many of the technological ones, and that the planners wouldn't have spent as much of the two preperatory years they had to figure every last detail regarding this out.)
'The Big Ride' wins the day eventually, sort of, but it's a somewhat hollow victory. The title of the book is Seveneves -- referring to the 'seven Eves', the seven fertile survivors (there's also one post-menopausal survivor) -- that, after a few years, reach what finally amounts to safety. A place to start over.
Good does not triumph over evil, here. Stephenson reduces his cast to the bare essence, but he maintains diversity; the survivors are very different 'types' (a bit cartoonishly so ...). From early on it had been recognized that maintaining genetic diversity was going to be key in helping ensure the survival of the human race -- if not their mantra, heterozygosity is the one thing they know they must constantly keep in mind. The absence of any males is only a minor problem: the ... seminal technology has remained intact, and the surviving expert in the field can even tinker with the genetic material, both ridding it of recognized defects -- and enhancing it. It's this potential that Stephenson grabs onto, setting the stage for the future by giving the seven future mothers of the human race the ability to shape things beyond what natural evolution would. Each is offered:
One alteration -- one improvement -- of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child. And your child only. You cannot force it on any of the others.Leaving off pretty much there, the novel's final part jumps a full five thousand years ahead, and we see what's become of this experiment: yes, Seveneves is also a story of eugenics, and the seven master races the seven Eves initiated.
While the first two parts cover longer periods, the final part of the book takes place over a much shorter time. It centers on one character, who is then brought together with representatives of each of the other races for a mission, a rare 'Seven' where all seven groups (should) work together.
Here Stephenson takes his time in covering all the changed terrain (and space), focused on the present and then filling in a variety of the gaps. Mankind has blossomed once again, the population orbiting the earth now up to three billion people. There are two large factions, 'Red' and 'Blue' -- mirroring old antagonisms --, who don't get along, but otherwise civilization is well-established. Work on making earth inhabitable again proceeds apace -- TerReForm, as the project is called -- and has picked up speed in recent decades. And while earth isn't being properly (re)settled yet -- the stage isn't fully set yet -- there's considerable surface activity.
The mission which this section centers on turns out to mark another milestone, another shift in many of the assumptions about the survival of humanity. It's a fine additional little twist, even if Stephenson only deals with a limited part of it and all the ramifications. Good is again forced to battle evil -- or Blue to compete with Red, at any rate -- in a somewhat simplistic head-to-head competition for this next beachhead for humanity, but it makes for decent drama.
Still, Stephenson clearly revels much more in the technology (and biology). It's well woven-in into the story, and it's certainly fun and interesting, but it kind of swamps any story too; the individuals, the characters, barely matter here: literally representative (of their races) types, they function mainly like the chess pieces one of them uses in an analogy.
Stephenson's technological vision is of considerable interest throughout, and Seveneves can be enjoyed just for that. Both the problem-solving in the mad rush to get as much into space before the world comes to an end and then the making do with what they have is entertaining. In the part five thousand years later, Stephenson can then offer a much more expansive vision of what steps humanity might have taken. There are interesting contrasts: flying about is common -- but in gliders, as there are few planes and "high-capacity turbofan engines were extraordinarily difficult to make". Traveling to the earth's surface, or aboard the orbiting ring where most of mankind lives and works, is relatively straightforward, but involves technology and engineering that are still completely foreign in the present-day. Meanwhile, printed books are still popular and the future-day version of the e-reader is still easier to load up by cable rather than wirelessly; the equivalent of the Internet seems to be at about 1990s levels, as:
In the decades before Zero, the Old Earthers had focused their intelligence on the small and the soft, not the big and the hard, and built a civilization that was puny and crumbling where infrastructure was concerned, but astonishingly sophisticated when it came to networked communications and software. The density with which they had been able to pack transistors onto chips still had not been matched by any fabrication plant now in existence. Their devices could hold more data than anything you could buy today.In Stephenson's future, the focus had understandably been on 'the big and the hard'.
Among the most amusing moments in the book comes in the laconic description of one all-out battle for the future of mankind while what was left of it was drifting in space:
The real battle was, you know, on the Internet. Social media.That, at least, has proved less of a problem in the new world.
If the technological capabilities are consistently interesting, one of their consequences is certainly a lot creepier: the genetic tinkering, and especially the establishment of the various races. Obviously, there's a solid scientific foundation to this -- genetic differences do make people 'different', in all sorts of ways -- but it's dangerous territory, too, and Stephenson goes down at least one very questionable road in suggesting a sort of Sippenhaftung carrying on over generations, regarding one of the original seven mothers-of-all
She knew that the other six Eves would always loathe her personally and that this feeling would inevitably be transferred to her offspring. Human nature being what it was [...] They would never be assimilated into the society descended from the Four.A bit of paranoia is fine, but with his Red/Blue divide still there five thousand years on, Stephenson supports and confirms this ridiculous hypothesis. His weakness in describing and dealing with human relationships was already apparent in the early part of the novel, and here too he goes for broad strokes and black/white reductionism, limited in what he can imagine -- at least on any larger scale (he's much better on the individual scale) -- of social interaction (and how it might be guided). The clash of personalities that already wreaked near-havoc in the early sections is extrapolated -- much larger, now -- in the present-day rather than addressed and treated when it first arises -- yet again an odd contrast to all the technological-problem-solving, which is always carried out quickly and efficiently (though admittedly these are often more obviously pressing). In a novel where humanity is willing to fundamentally change anything they can get their hands on -- space, earth, their own DNA -- it's odd that fundamental social issues don't get a bit more attention; Stephenson seems to just write the difference off -- "Human nature being what it was".
Seveneves is good on a great deal of (especially technical) detail -- the danger of cosmic rays as well as debris, for example, a constant concern while anywhere in space -- and offers a neat picture of the potential of some relatively simple technological advances (robot technology; advances in flight technology (of a very different sort than the prevalent ones)). The story, or stories, are decent too -- Stephenson unspools them well enough to keep the reader engaged and entertained -- but given how significant the occurrences are (the end of the world ! for one) it can also feel underdeveloped. There could have been a whole lot more to this.
It ultimately makes for an oddly limited work -- a decent read, with some very memorable bits (though rather fewer memorable characters) but ultimately without enough to it.
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 June 2015
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American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.
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