Neal Stephenson starts his big books in one of two ways. Either slowly with a lot of character introductions and scene setting (Reamde) or with a bang, hurling you headlong into the action such that the first time you come up for air you’re on about page 100. Seveneves is that second kind.
One night during the last full moon before I started reading this book, I was out walking the dog around the yard just before bedtime. It was a huge, beautiful full moon, and for some reason as I gazed at it I fantasized: What if as I was looking at it, the moon fractured into a bunch of smaller pieces? What would it feel like to see that, and what would it mean for the future of the Earth and of me?
Neal Stephenson must have wondered the very same thing. (Well, actually not quite, but something similar that he explains in the Acknowledgements.) But unlike me, he didn’t just laugh it off and go in to bed (after giving the dog her customary bedtime treat, of course). He researched the science and then wrote a whopping sf yarn about what would happen to the Earth and its people, both immediately and in the long run. And that very disaster befalls the moon right there on the first page of Seveneves. Actually, in the first four words of the first sentence. So, not much of a spoiler.
Seveneves is divided into three parts. In the first the disaster happens and the governments of Earth mobilize to get as many of the right kinds of people and materials up to the International Space Station as possible before the remains of the moon shower down upon the earth and sterilize it for thousands of years. In the second, after the Hard Rain destroys life on earth, the few hundred survivors in space must scramble to move their home to a different and safer orbit, while dealing with inevitable political conflicts and scientific disagreements, as well as various accidents and mishaps that threaten their very existence. And in the third, we look in on the civilizations created by the descendants of the final survivors and the way their genetic, political and personal disagreements have carried on, as they continue the millennia-long work of re-terraforming Earth.
With some of his books, Stephenson tends to build the stories around huge chunks of knowledge – or perhaps to present these subjects to his readers in the form of engaging stories. In Anathem it was a space opera of sorts hiding inside a complex overview of mathematics, philosophy and the history of science. In Cryptonomicon an alternate history of the 20th century and computer development via a multi-generation tale of cryptography. Seveneves has a bit of a split personality. In the first two sections I learned more than I thought possible about orbital mechanics, and in the third about epigenetics. Some readers love to delve into the details, the science and the symbolism and find what seem to be Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the books on a meta level. Me, I enjoy the use of the science to build a story that feels believable (and this is the hardest of hard science fiction), but I mostly read for the story, experiencing the action through the eyes of the characters, especially if they feel real and relatable.
The first two parts are told mostly from the points of view of two people. Dinah MacQuarie is a robotics specialist with a background in mining and geology, on the International Space Station. Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, Ph.D., is an astronomer and popular science communicator known worldwide as Doc Dubois. Mostly Dinah, who emerges as a natural leader and a participant in most of the momentous events of the Big Ride.
The third section takes on the character of the other kind of Stephenson book, the slow burn of scene-setting that abruptly erupts in violent action. Here we follow a character named Kath Two, a technician taking part in a survey of plant and animal life in Beringia. Because of something she sees on her survey, she becomes part of a group of seven (representing the seven main “races” of humanity surviving in space) on a mysterious mission. The majority of this section consists of explication – what humanity has been up to in its 5,000 years in space since the event called Zero, with lengthy descriptions of the multitude of space habitats, their inhabitants, and their technological marvels. But when the action begins, it’s explosive, and leads to a satisfying denoument.
I’m being cagey here to not reveal too much about the way the first part of the story ends, but suffice it to say that the number and mix of those who actually survive the ride to relative safety has major implications on how humanity turns out after 5,000 years, and on their different strategies for repopulating the new Earth. The third part, which could be expanded into another 900 page epic on its own merits, acts as a sort of denoument to the big action of the first two.
Seveneves was shortlisted for the 2016 Hugo Award. It’s reportedly under development as a feature film, which I think is a mistake. This story should be a multi-season show like The Expanse, but nobody asked me.
(William Morrow, 2015)