Wow, this was a really great book.
I’ve heard people praise Neal Stephenson, but I’ve always assumed I would find his books to be somewhat… impenetrable. Mainly that’s because of their heady subject matter and their cryptic titles. For instance: Reamde, Anathem, Cryptonomicon. (See that last one even has ‘Cryptic’ in it!) And his author’s photo doesn’t help with his approachability quotient, since it shows him sporting a kick-ass, ‘evil-mirror-universe’ goatee. Pop-culture has conditioned me to stay away from the likes of that facial hair configuration.
Judging by Seveneves, I was very wrong to stay away. This is very fun ‘hard’ science-fiction. Imaginative and thrumming with intriguing characters and ideas and edge-of-the-seat action sequences. It’s an apocalyptic, sublunar space-opera that kept me riveted for all of its 850+ pages.
Here’s the rundown: One day, something (a mysterious ‘Agent’) flies through the moon and shatters it. There’s no explanation as to what the Agent is, and the astronomers in Seveneves are quick to point out that the cosmic phenomena we understand are far outnumbered by the phenomena that we don’t even know exist. Eventually, these scientists figure out that the destruction of the moon will inevitably lead to the destruction of all life on Earth. (I won’t tell you how. I don’t want to spoil it. But it is spectacularly awful.) Nations begin to ally themselves under a global ‘Ark’ project to get a robust representation of the human race into orbit, where they’ll have to survive for 5,000 years, until the Earth’s surface becomes inhabitable again.
First of all, I have to say I’m fascinated by the idea of society on the verge of a doomsday that they know is coming. On the Beach, World War Z, The Last Policeman, Y the Last Man. What will happen to humanity in the face of certain extinction? Will we rise to the occasion? Will we devolve into violence and anarchy? How many people will resort to suicide? Does the birth rate drop? Does everyone quit their jobs and start working on their bucket lists? Are the DMVs and the gyms deserted? Are the beaches overflowing?
If all of that sounds a bit too morbid for your tastes, you’ll be glad to know that Stephenson doesn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on his doomsday scenario. That’s not to say he gives it short shrift, either. For most of the first part of the book, we’re following a Neil deGrasse Tyson analog who is nicknamed Doob. Just like the real-life Dr. Tyson, Doob is a world-famous astrophysicist who is present for a lot of the seminal moments in the planning of Ark project. For instance, he’s there for a solemn ceremony in Bhutan as one community send off their best and brightest to hopefully be selected to join the sampling of humans in space. There are also poignant moments with Doob’s loved ones. His second wife: whom he meets and marries AFTER the moon is destroyed. And one of his college-aged sons, whom he follows on a road-trip to a sort of populist space-launch platform.
Overall, the Earthlings in Stephenson’s book respond to their eminent extinction with gumption and ingenuity. Stephenson’s narrative is not focused on the potential for melodrama. Instead he’s often detours into the prospects of orbital mechanics, geopolitical wheeling-dealing, genetics, jerry-rigged space habitats, and more. Stephenson makes all of these subjects fascinating.
The second part of the book focuses on the exceedingly brilliant and/or brave people who have been chosen to be shot into orbit. Among them are a Hillary Clinton archetype, and a young muslim who seems to be modeled after activist Malala Yousafzai. (I guess Seveneves is big on cultural analogs!) One of the big themes here is leadership, and we see lots of different styles at work here. The Clintonian political maven. A Captain Kirk type. A tech billionaire who registers on the Aspergers spectrum.
And these pioneers have a lot to deal with. Cosmic radiation. Meteors. Solar flares. The drag of the atmosphere. Reactor radiation. Explosive decompression. Space travel has never seemed this lethal, and even though the first part of the book stacks up a body-count in the billions, the book’s second part seems particularly hair-raising.
The third part of the book begins with a time-jump 5,000 years into the future. I’m not a big fan of time-jumps. The first one that pops to mind is from the epic horror novel, The Passage. In that book, the story shifts from an apocalyptic vampire story, to a post-apocalyptic vampire story. And the plot—in my mind—hits a brick wall.
The third section of Seveneves gets off to a bad start when the first character introduced is named Kath Two. (Enter Sci-fi trope #154: If you want your characters to seem ‘futuristic,’ drop a number into their name!) But Stephenson reveals a very intriguing reason for Kath Two’s nomenclature. It has to do with the genetic manipulation that the Ark’s leaders had to resort to ensure the survival of their descendants. (Again, I won’t spoil anything, by describing the last few harrowing and heartbreaking scenes in the second part of the book.)
After all this genetic tampering, the results are slightly troubling. Basically, the descendants are separated into seven different genetic stocks. And those genes determine almost everything about them, from their personalities to their competencies. In the interest of survival, these ethnicities have been created and specialized so that they’re like pure-bred dogs.
For instance, there’s a heroic race of Mal-Reynold-types. And there’s a race of Ivan Dragos. A race of science-focused Asians. And charismatic but shifty Romans. If you consider this for a while, it comes off as quasi-racist. Then there’s the unlikely fact that these racial pigeonholes seem to have held for 5000 years, with very little cross-breeding. That seems like a segregationist’s wet-dream.
But enough focusing on that. Again, Stephenson throws in all kinds of fascinating ideas, and characters that are easy to care about and to root for.
With around fifty pages left in the book, I was worried that the story wouldn’t have space to wrap up in a satisfying manner. But then we get one final excellent action sequence. And room for a sequel?
If you’re a fan of science-fiction, post-apocalyptic stories, or space operas, I’d strongly recommend this book.
Sonar Taxlaw. I love this character’s name, and the reason for it. (Again, no spoilers.) I’m just adding it here to hopefully add to it’s Google results. Long live Sonar Taxlaw!!