Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book Review | Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

What would happen if the world were ending?

When a catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb, it triggers a feverish race against the inevitable. An ambitious plan is devised to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere. But unforeseen dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain...

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown, to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is at once extraordinary and eerily recognizable. He explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant.


You certainly can't judge a book by its cover, but its first sentence, I find, can be tremendously telling—and so it is with Seveneves, the latest doorstopper of a novel to bear Neal Stephenson's name, and his greatest since Cryptonomicon in 1999.

It starts simply: with eleven ordinary words arranged in such a straightforward way that the eye absorbs them almost automatically. It's only when the significance of said sentence registers that the eye tracks back to take in its content more carefully. Still, it takes a few seconds to make sense, for as easy to read as these words may be—as indeed is the entirety of Seveneves—their meaning is a world away from mundane.

This is a sentence so shocking, so appalling, that the brain demands a double-take. But even a second look later, the song remains the same:
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. (p.3)
In this way, the extraordinary and extraordinarily complex content belied by the seeming simplicity of Seveneves is revealed, and the fate of something like seven billion human beings is sealed.

In short, Seveneves startling first sentence sets the tone for much of what's to come, but in a novel approximately a thousand pages long, there's just so much to come that it's hard to know where to start, and when to stop. I won't be giving the game away, that much I can say. Nobody's going to hold it against you, however, if you opt to stop reading this review right now—so long as you immediately start reading Seveneves instead.

So where were we? Why, I couldn't forget if I tried! "Everyone was going to die." (p.178) But why? Because the moon, when it blows up, doesn't simply cease to be; on the contrary, it becomes an exponential presence, shattering into fragments which nevertheless have the heft to shatter other fragments which... well. I guess you get the picture. And it isn't pretty, is it?

The world wastes a week wondering how in the heavens this kind of catastrophe could have happened without stopping to think what it might mean, but Doc Dubois, man of science—and a bit of a Brian Cox, what with his four million followers on Twitter and his frequent appearances on TV to translate unfathomable jargon into language the common man can understand—Doc Dubois, or Doob to his nearest and dearest, eventually puts two and two together.

You have to be asking what could conceivably be worse than the utter destruction of planet Earth's sole natural satellite. As ever, Doob has the answer:
"A meteorite bombardment such as the Earth has not seen since the primordial age, when the solar system was formed. [...] Those fiery trails we've been seeing in the sky lately, as the meteorites come in and burn up? There will be so many of those that they will merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilised. Glaciers will boil. The only way to survive is to get away from the atmosphere. Go underground, or go into space." (pp.30-31)
For fully five thousand years! Given which, space seems the more reasonable option—the thought process being that it's better to get the hell out of the sinking ship than to dig in to its deeper reaches.

A spate of surprising solidarity follows, during which the planet's spacefaring nations fling their political and spiritual differences to the wind in order to create "an ark [containing] a repository of the entire genetic heritage of the Earth. We have two years to build it. Two years to get as many people and as much equipment as we can into orbit. The nucleus of that ark is going to be Izzy." (p.33) So says Julia Bliss Fletcher, the last president of the United States of America and the closest thing Seveneves has to a villain... aside, I suppose, from the unidentified Agent that made such a meal of the moon.

It bears saying that the author never deigns to explain the exact nature of the Agent. What caused the moon to multiply so malevolently—be it a device of extraterrestrial origin, "set to detonate when certain conditions were met" (p.4) or merely some speedy debris—is beside the point. Instead, it's presented as not purely but primarily a theoretical problem. Solving it, and others like it, is what seems to excite Stephenson.

In that sense, Seveneves reminded me of nothing so much as The Martian, but for all that Andy Weir's bestseller had to recommend it, it became bogged down in tedious technical troubleshooting because its interstices proved pointless as opposed to punctuative. Stephenson's story of space-based survival is by leaps and bounds the better book, in that it has a head and a heart in the same frame—sweets and smarts rather than The Martian's grab-bag of impenetrable parts.

Take the president's project—the Cloud Ark, as it comes to be called. The idea, interesting as it is, will be as familiar to science fiction fans as the backs of their hands... but how in the world would it work? Explaining that, clearly and cleverly, is Stephenson's specialty:
The brain trust behind the Cloud Ark—an ad-hoc working group of governmental space agency veterans and commercial space entrepeneurs—had opted for the only strategy that could possibly work, which was decentralised and distributed. Each arklet, as the component ships were being called, would be small enough that it could be heaved into orbit on the top of a single heavy-lift rocket. It would draw power from a small, simple nuclear reactor, fueled by isotopes so radioactive that they would throw off heat, and thereby generate electricity, for a few decades.  
It went without saying that, in the long run, the Cloud Ark as a whole was going to have to be self-sustaining in terms of food production. Water would have to be recycled. Carbon dioxide exhaled by humans would have to be used to sustain plants, which would produce oxygen for the humans to breath and food for them to eat. All of this had been the subject matter of science fiction stories and practical experiments for decades. (pp.73-74)
That said, the experiment is more fully fledged in Seveneves than in any of the other iterations I've encountered, and Stephenson makes it all feel real by draping his decisions in determinedly researched detail. Though there are those moments when he tends toward the digressive, nine times out of ten, the detail is needful, not to mention nicely described. It adds to our understanding of the story and the stakes instead of obscuring it, as in The Martian. And happily, the minutiae of this book is wrapped up in character rather than related in isolation. As the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, Doob daydreams about the president's greying hair, and justifies himself thus:
This was how the mind worked. The mind couldn't think about the End of the World all the time. It needed the occasional break, a romp through the trivial. Because it was through trivia that the mind was anchored in reality, as the largest oak tree was rooted, ultimately, in a system of rootlets no larger than the silver hairs on the president's head. (p.53)
Not too long later, Doc Dubois finds himself assigned to Izzy—the International Space Station, I should say—where he hand the proverbial protagonist's baton to Dinah, a fabulously unflappable robotics crackerjack who takes centre stage in the second section of Seveneves' three.

Doob's down-to-earth perspective is a perfect fit for the first, which chronicles the last years of humanity—specifically our species' struggle to survive the extinction event to end all extinction events—but in the second section, Earth is essentially dead, and the inhabitants of the Cloud Ark are on the edge of a similar precipice. As it transpires, the project's foremost focus was to keep seven billion souls docile until their inevitable deaths. The long-term prospects of the handful aboard Izzy and the arklets was a secondary concern at best, so they'll go the way of the rest of their race unless they can find a way to change that—to produce enough food and fuel to take them somewhere safer.

Hope comes in the form of a cold comet: an irradiated, ice-rich rock that'll have to be manhandled into Izzy's orbit. Dinah's expertise is of huge import here—as is her hard-hearted outlook on life. She single-handedly keeps Seveneves' vast narrative on track by refusing to give in to her grief, or be paralysed by the fears others feel. That isn't to say she isn't sad or scared: Dinah just doesn't let these feelings define her.

Whilst Doob and Dinah are cracking characters, deeply and deftly developed over the course of the respective sections they star in, I'd struggle to say the same about Kath Two, the hero of part three: an epilogue extended, in typical Stephenson style, to the length of a normal novel, which picks up the pieces of books one and two fully five thousand years after the fact. Alas, Kath Two spends the larger part of this last act in transit: an unknown quantity trapped in a poorly paced tale that goes almost nowhere as the author insists on backfilling in multiple millennia of future history highlights.

Though swathes of this section of Seveneves feel more like a showcase than a story, what we have here is a minor weakness in the scheme of things—especially in the scheme of things involving Neal Stephenson. Even his weakest ideas are intriguing, and his best are basically mindblowing. Furthermore, the plot does pick up at a point, and Kath Two is transformed into a fascinating figure before the finale, such that the last act's drawbacks do not substantially detract from the planet-cracking impact of this otherwise awesome novel.


by Neal Stephenson

UK Publication: May 2015, The Borough Press
US Publication: May 2015, William Morrow

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Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
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1 comment:

  1. I've been interested in this book as soon as I read the blurb (+ the author is a game designer!), but the number of pages discouraged me. It's probably shameful, but I shy away from 600+ pages book (though that doesn't apply to series/trilogies and their total number of pages, go figure...).
    Anyway. Seems like a lot of people are enjoying this book. I might give it a try!