Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

1260745459712720788Obviously, I knew about this book a while ago, but like any normal human, I was offput by its extreme length. At 850+ pages, this is not for the faint hearted.

Another slightly offputting thing was the idea that this novel included a depiction of humanity approximately 5000 years from now. I’ve read enough science fiction to be wary of that kind of thing. You know, the posthuman, post singularity stuff, featuring gene spliced beings with elaborate, stratified social mores and technology indistinguishable from magic. The kind of thing that was visible in that movie Jupiter Rising. I don’t object to that kind of thing per se, but I do sometimes get impatient with all the made up words and the exhausting process of detective work, trying to ascertain what’s going on.
But then a colleague lent me Seveneves, so I started to read it and was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the question of style. It’s written in perfectly clear, plain English, and though it does feature extended discussions of orbital mechanics, it does so in a way that makes you, the arts/humanities student, feel like you understand it.
Secondly, my colleague said that the only (major!) problem was that the plot doesn’t start to happen until the final third of the 850 pages. This is true in the sense that it could in fact have been published as the final third, with the reader left to fill in the complicated back story, in that aforementioned offputting way. You could also, effectively, publish the first two thirds as an Appendix to the final third, for those who want to fill in the ins and outs after reading the main story. But I think that would be to do Seveneves a disservice.

Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

The premise is that something destroys the Moon, which in turn has catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. Within two years, some means of surviving off-planet has to be improvised. That’s the exciting first third of the book: exactly what could we do, right now, with the technology and resources we have. I found this section readable and fascinating, and so far from what I expected that I began to feel undaunted by its length.
The next section details the what now? moment, at which point the surviving humans have to decide how to survive and even thrive. Inevitably, they are riven by conflict and disaster. A small group wants to go to Mars. Others want to go into a higher orbit to avoid Moon fragments. A third groups want less of an eggs in one basket solution. The catastrophic end result is that, five years in, just eight people survive, all women, only seven of them able to bear children.
So ends the second third of the novel, with the Seven Eves deciding what to do next.
The final third takes place 5000 years later. There is a thriving, if not united, civilisation in space, and the sterilised Earth has been reseeded with life. There are seven races of humans, with some hybridisation, but in the main we’re supposed to believe that there are seven distinct personality types. Frankly, this is all a bit handwavy, and it is slightly more complex than my description.
The main plot of this last third concerns the discovery of a group of humans who survived by building a space-type habitat under a mountain. But the real reason for reading is to learn about the nuts and bolts of this far-future society.
And here’s the thing. On a human scale, 5000 years is a long time. I think the Great Pyramid was built around 4500 years ago. What the last third of this novel tries to do is summarise the whole story of a civilisation and provide a narrative plot. In narratology terms, this is fascinating. But it doesn’t quite work because as much book as this is, it ends up being not quite enough. You kind of need less of the first two years and more of the end bit. And yet, the setup matters, because that’s where we meet the Seven, and come to understand them as characters.
That this is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read, I’ve no doubt. It’s though provoking, educational and fascinating. But it’s a flawed masterpiece that probably needed another 200 pages.

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