My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Neal Stephenson came to the fore with his third book Snow Crash, which gave William Gibson a run for his money in the cyberpunk stakes. Since then he’s established his credentials with a range of novels tackling, and often melding, diverse subjects such as cryptography, nanotechnology and cybercrime as well as a three-volume historical sequence – The Baroque Cycle – about the dawning of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.
His latest work, Seveneves, is a huge book, and not just in concept. It runs to 880 pages. The first two-thirds contain one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read this year. The back third – frustratingly – not so much. But still I’d encourage you to read it.
Seveneves begins with ‘Zero’: the moon blows apart for unknown – and perhaps unknowable – reasons. Humanity is stunned. The pieces of the moon still hang together in the same orbital path, colliding gently with one another every now and then. But Doc Dubois Harris (‘Doob’), a popular TV scientist (think a down-home version of Carl Sagan), works out that those collisions will become worse over time and eventually most of the moon will fall to Earth. They call it the ‘Hard Rain’.
‘It is going to be a meteorite bombardment such as the Earth has not seen since the primordial age, when the solar system formed,’ Doob said. ‘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.’
‘Well, obviously that is very hard news if it is true,’ the president said.
They all sat and thought about it silently for a period of time that might have been one minute or five.
‘We will have to do both,’ the president said. ‘Go into space, and underground. Obviously the latter is easier.’
… The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, ‘Dr Harris, I’m an old logistics guy. I deal in stuff. How much stuff do we need to get underground? How many sacks of potatoes and rolls of toilet paper per occupant? I guess what I’m asking is, just how long is the Hard Rain going to last?’
Doob said, ‘My best estimate is that it will last somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand years.’
Imagine a world with our – let’s face it – pretty pathetic level of space technology facing such an event. How many people could we hope to launch into orbit in the two years before the Hard Rain falls? And how on Earth could we make such a fragile colony sustainable for millennia?
What follows is a combination of Gravity and The Martian on steroids as the small crew of the International Space Station realise they can never go home and touch their loved ones again, but instead have to start building an ark for the future of homo sapiens. Stephenson’s attention to the detail of life in zero g, the space tech we currently have and how that could be bootstrapped into something that could give us a fighting chance, is breathtaking. And he explains it all in an accessible way for the non-tech-minded while presenting a range of well-rounded, believable characters with their own hopes, dreams, fears and tragedies. These people struggle against a deadly environment, playing a game where the stakes are the highest you could possibly imagine. And, like Marsnaut Mark Watney in The Martian, they ‘science the shit out of it’ the best they can.
Of course humans, being humans, do not always do the rational or logical thing and even when all life on Earth has been obliterated and humanity is down to its last few thousand souls, schisms emerge to multiply the almost insurmountable problems they face. Although they’re comparatively safe in orbit, the survivors are still between Earth and what’s left of what used to be the moon and so face the likelihood of their own meteor bombardment. Different ideas on what to do about that lead to a power struggle on board:
‘Beyond that, I just want you to listen to her. Because I think that she will try to bring you over to her side. It’s what she does with everyone. You would be a prize catch.’
‘If she does as you predict,’ Tekla said, ‘what should be my response?’
It was a measure of Ivy’s naiveté that she didn’t even follow Tekla’s question at first. Then she understood that Tekla was suggesting she might pretend to become one of Julia’s followers. She was volunteering to become a mole in Julia’s network.
Tekla stolidly watched Ivy’s face as Ivy figured it out.
‘I would suggest taking no immediate action,’ Ivy said. Which, in truth, was Ivy being not so much cagey as timid.
‘Of course,’ said Tekla, ‘to show eagerness is poor tactics, it will only arouse her suspicion.’
Ivy said nothing. Tekla explained, ‘I know many people with such minds.’ And you obviously don’t, honey.
Things go from bad to worse. People die, our genetic heritage dwindles. This could be it for the human race and the end of this section is a fine balance of hard science and dramatic tension that leave the survivors pondering a new path for what is left of humanity …
If the book had finished there, I would have been more than happy. But Stephenson has form in this regard. It may be apocryphal, but legend has it he cut his writing teeth banging away on a plastic typewriter in the basement of a poorly ventilated college during a long hot summer. If he stopped typing, the keys stuck together, so he learned to just keep going. The final section acts as a postscript to what happened next, set 5000 years in the future. As a bookend, it could have been wrapped up in a few thousand words. But in the Afterword to Seveneves Stephenson reveals:
I always viewed the third part of [Seveneves] as an opportunity to showcase many of the more positive ideas that have emerged, over the last century, from the global community of people interested in space exploration.
As a result, backstory and world building swamp front story and character and we are ‘treated’ to a series of technical descriptions of the innovations the survivors of Zero have created in the five millennia since. The story loses all momentum and becomes quite a grind to read through. I persevered to find out what was going on, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. It’s a pity, because the first 600 pages of Seveneves are a tremendous achievement. Read those for the thrilling adventure and marvel at the technical descriptions firmly grounded in today’s space tech that merge almost effortlessly with the plot. Then make up your own mind about whether you want to plough through the back third.
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