Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Published: William Morrow & Co., 2015
Awards Won: Prometheus Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Locus SF and Campbell Memorial Awards

The Book:

“One day, the moon was destroyed.  No one really knew how or why it happened, but soon these questions were wiped out by a more urgent concern. The pieces of the moon would continue to collide, and eventually the rubble would wipe out all life on Earth for thousands of years.

Most of humanity will not survive, but some believe that a fragment could endure.  All resources on Earth pour towards building a habitat for humans in orbit, who may be able to live in the darkness of space for long enough to one day return to their home planet.  Will they be able to overcome mechanical problems and human nature, or is this truly the end?” ~Allie

I’ve read a number of Stephenson’s books, and The Diamond Age and Anathem are my favorites so far.  I generally enjoy Stephenson’s creative ideas.

My Thoughts:

If you’re looking for a book about what could destroy the moon, or looking for an action-packed post-cataclysm space adventure--this is not that book.  However, if you’re more interested in what might happen if the moon were to spontaneously break up, and how one might harness current and extrapolated near future technology to ensure the future of the human race--you’re in the right place.  Seveneves is less interested in traditional narrative arcs than it is in exploring the details of a program the human race might cobble together to allow humans to live in orbit for thousands of years.  There are a few recurring characters to get attached to, but there are also many individuals who might show up only on a single sub-project. The pace is pretty glacial, as we go basically day-by-day through the efforts made in the time leading up to the destruction of life on Earth.  This makes for a very interesting technical story, but not one that is necessarily all that narratively compelling.

For me, the highlight of the book was the detailed focus on science and technology. It must have taken a tremendous amount of research to put together such a thorough picture of the scenario and the human response to it. The idea of keeping isolated humans alive in orbit for thousands of years with near-future technology initially seemed ludicrous, but it began to feel more plausible as the novel went through every angle on the proposed solutions. I enjoyed reading about the construction of the swarm of habitats, the collision avoidance system, and the plans for future genetic diversity.  It was also interesting to see how the people coped with the loss of Earth and their suddenly relatively tiny community.  The writing could be very dry at times, but it was a genuinely fascinating idea.

On the other hand, I had some issues with the pacing and the story.  At the beginning, we were presented with a nearly day-by-day accounting of the time leading up to the end of the Earth.  However, time eventually sped up, and later there was a time jump of thousands of years.  I know that was the only way to show what became of the program and humanity.  Unfortunately, the abruptness of the time shift damaged the sense of plausibility I had with the story, since it skipped over so many details of the intervening time.  Also, a jump of thousands of years means jettisoning a cast of characters I had slowly been growing to enjoy, and instead introducing a whole new group of people in a drastically different society.  This snowballing of the pace also made the ending feel sudden, and some things tied up too neatly for my taste. While I am glad to have read this one, it’s not my favorite of Stephenson’s work.  

My Rating: 3/5

Seveneves is hard science fiction with the science front and center, while the characters and story take a backseat.  Stephenson’s novels usually have really cool ideas, and the novel does not disappoint on that account. I had never considered what would happen if the moon spontaneously broke up, and the intense level of detail lavished on the development of the orbital habitat program made the aftermath feel surprisingly plausible.  While I enjoyed the science, I felt that the latter part of the book seemed rushed and the ending was too sudden.  There was also not all that much to hang on to in terms of character arcs, especially since the cast changes completely after a large time jump. For my part, the interesting ideas were more than enough to keep me reading, despite my complaints. I hope we never actually lose our moon, so that we only ever have to consider this as an interesting hypothetical situation!

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