HarperCollins hc, 2015, Cover by Johnathan Knowles
Rarely is a disaster novel written with the kind of flair and attention to detail as this latest offering by Neal Stephenson. Stranger still is how a narrative on the near extinction of the human race after a mysterious apocalyptic event can be leavened with the kind of optimism and hope that Stephenson manages to radiate with this work. Seveneves (2015) is a multidisciplinary narrative full of grand ideas that lies firmly in the ‘hard sf’ spectrum of science fiction and is, quite simply, a disaster novel of epic proportions.
What’s particularly gratifying about Seveneves is the conveyance of humanity’s grit and gumption; that the species can bounce back from the direst of circumstances notwithstanding those individuals who would continue to pursue their own interests (an almost hardwired propensity) to the detriment of all, even in this most precarious of situations imaginable.
“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason,” is the opening line of the novel, maintaining a tone somewhere between deadpan and “swagger”. Thereafter, Stephenson narrates the effects of this catastrophic event on the global and personal mindset and how the world grapples with the ramifications of the inexorable disaster to come. The novel is divided into three sections, and the first two-thirds are spent detailing a very relatable near future scenario where the human race is credited with a short two year grace period to prepare for the impending ‘Hard Rain’ – a cavalcade of shattered rocks from Earth’s former satellite that will bombard the Earth, burn the skies and kill seven billion people.
Stephenson narrates in the extreme: a large percentage of the novel is exposition. Yet, exposition turns out to be a necessary aspect of the novel. Without the framework that Stephenson provides, it would be difficult to take seriously the plan that’s enacted to circumvent the total annihilation of the species. The technical details actually enhance dramatic tension by highlighting the enormous difficulty of various situations, including the daunting tasks that must be accomplished and the minute margins of error and time constraints that are at play. They also provide logical explanations for choices, events and circumstances in the narrative. Stephenson is one of the few authors who can write exposition well, where almost every digression is edifying and often thrilling; e.g. those long sections describing the expedition to retrieve an ice comet safely to the ISS are incredibly detail oriented and action-packed.
The first few hundred pages mercilessly roots out those readers who cannot abide by hard science fiction’s not unusual penchant for reams of technical exposition, but that does not imply a total lack of characterisation. Whilst characterisation has never been his particular forte, Stephenson nonetheless presents strong, non-caricatured, polymath individuals, each with their various idiosyncrasies, and the majority of them women. And while characters in Seveneves are certainly distinct, Stephenson seems to present them more in an aggregate capacity, where the different personality types have various implications in the kinds of social interactions that play out. This becomes more obvious in the latter sections of the narrative, where even the palindromic nature of the title takes on added meaning.
Despite his exposition-heavy narrative style, Stephenson is a consummate storyteller. Some of his most powerful and thrilling passages describe those series of events set in motion by individuals who prioritise their own personal goals and ambitions, even as Earth dies. The sheer gall of characters who equate their own aspirations through political gambits with the good of all leads to a conclusion nearly as catastrophic as the species extinction-level event that is underway. This section is made all the more powerful for abstaining from unnecessary melodrama and pathos. Whilst there is a strong element of humanity and heroism (and narcissism) in character depictions, it is told from an unsentimental and ruthlessly honest standpoint, making the narrative unexpectedly harrowing and all the more hopeful for the ordeal endured.
The real issue with the novel arrives in its last third. Not because it’s somehow weaker than the previous two sections in its descriptive or intellectual capacity, but because of the proliferation of new themes and suggested plot lines.
In actual fact, the last third is Neal Stephenson at his speculative best, painting imagery of technological marvels with the skill and precision akin to what Seurat displayed in “A Sunday Afternoon…”, where each disparate description unifies into a cohesive whole the monumental efforts expended by a civilisation re-flowered from a millennia-long drought. The explanation of genetically diverse races and the concomitant political divisions that line up directly with the relationships of the original survivors are fascinating in the extreme. Stephenson plays skilfully between examining the characters’ genetic inheritance and their conscious affirmation of cultural identity based on their own version of a ‘book’. This being an archive of video recordings depicting the lives, relationships and decisions of those original denizens of the Cloud Ark Project that permeates all aspects of their culture.
However, these last three hundred pages are hardly adequate to examine the new narrative that Stephenson embarks on, on what is essentially a different novel altogether. In one sense, it’s a shame to leave the original cast behind, but the profound, long-term consequences that play out really seem to be the novel’s raison d’être. At the same time, there is less of an emotional investment with these new characters, likely because they are not suffering the same level of drama and stress from apocalyptic events the original cast experienced.
Whilst on one level, this final section does work as a coda to the first two-thirds, the amount of material introduced (and the complexity hinted at) is worthy of another doorstopper-sized novel and leaves the reader wanting more. It’s much too long to serve merely as a coda, yet not long enough to satisfactorily explore the repercussions of those events played out in earlier sections.
One particular blemish that has tarred some of Stephenson’s works from reaching even greater heights is his predilection for awkward and rather abrupt dénouements, as in this case with Seveneves’ brisk ending which is reminiscent of some pre-Anathem works. If Stephenson had ended at the two-thirds mark, Seveneves might have been nearly perfect. This is one case where it would have behoved his editor to insist on another two hundred pages, both to attempt a more than perfunctory account of some of the new threads presented so late in the game and to execute a smoother end. Instead, the novel ceases with the abrupt and unceremonious termination of a conversation, where even more new ideas are introduced. Or, Stephenson could have made this section more effective by reserving it for a whole new sequel. Luckily (or unluckily), long-time fans are inured to this pattern to varying degrees.
Despite these faults, one of Stephenson’s greatest strengths is how much he does get right that these inconveniences do not adversely affect the totality of the work. And despite also the novel’s heavy, expository nature, Seveneves is a work brimming with bold ideas, thrilling situations and an ingenuity that awes. Whilst the level of droll humour is subdued compared to some of his previous works, he still manages to blithely insert observations tinged with irony and perspicacity, seemingly without conscious effort. Readers new to Stephenson could find this particular title heavy going and might consider starting with earlier efforts such as Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, even though Seveneves is a rather straightforward and accessible read compared, say, to his masterpiece Anathem. Readers with a penchant for detail, a love of gadgets and mega-structures, and an interest in various concepts and branches of science from astronomy, robotics, epigenetics and heterozygosity, orbital mechanics and asteroid mining will find themselves enthralled.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
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Endurance – Neal Stephenson and other contributors give a behind-the-scenes look at the technical development of certain aspects of Seveneves:
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