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Seveneves Paperback – May 17, 2016
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Five thousand years after a catastropic event sends a small surviving remnant of humanity into outer space the progeny of those survivors-seven distinct races now three billion strong-embark on a journey into the unknown to return to Earth
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Stephenson's later books are all big door-stopper sized tomes. Or in the case of the Baroque Cycle books, three door-stopper sized tomes. Stephenson's plots have been full of digressions and he is notorious for being unable to cleanly pull his plot threads together well at the end of the book. What has made his previous work readable is how well informed and deeply thought out it is. The plot threads may seem divergent, but they are fascinating.
All of this is missing in Seveneves. There are lots of technical digressions, but they are shallow, poorly thought out and do little to advance the plot.
In the opening pages of the book the moon is shattered by the "Agent". The actual identity of the Agent is unknown. It passes at high speed through the center of the moon, shattering it with its passage. Perhaps it's a stellar velocity primordial black hole that was formed when the universe was born. Perhaps it's something else. It doesn't matter because the shattering of the moon has doomed life on the surface of the Earth.
About two thirds of the book is about how a select group of humans are sent into space, in theory to preserve the human race. Unfortunately their technology is not much more advanced than current technology. There are no nanomachines that can restructure matter. No advanced genetic engineering that can build bulwarks against DNA damage from solar radiation. The characters in the book are pretty much making do with what we have now.
There are long digressions consisting of the details of how people attempt to colonize space. Space colonization will only be possible with massive support from the earth. Eventually, perhaps, self sustaining habitats could be established. But not for a very long time.
Unfortunately, this is not a book like Andy Weir's The Martian, which carefully deals with what it would be like to survive on Mars. While dragging though all of the detail on how to extend the International Space Station and create habitats, its hard to forget that they are doomed, since humans will have to be off earth for a very long time. Although the plot is full of boring technical digressions, the central point is missed: space is the worst possible answer with our level of technology. Human survival at 300 feet in the sea would be easier. Survival in deep land structures, like those in Hugh Howey's Wool is more believable. These details are an issue because this is a book mired in detail.
There is also the issue of almost all of the human race dying off. The psychological shock would be more than many people could stand. Survivors guilt would be wide spread. There is some of this in the plot, but there is a great deal more about inane political infighting.
The final plot twist that allows the human race to survive at all is pretty much pulled out of a hat. Up until that point there is no hint that the required level of technology is available. But, voila, there it is, with another third of the book still to go.
The end result is a plot that is extremely slow and largely devoid of any drama. Even the dramatic scenes are drowned in words to the point where they lose any impact. If I had not committed to review the book for Vine I would have put it down much earlier. Reading should be a joy, but this book was a chore.
Detailed review [BIG SPOILERS]:
I can safely be described as a life-long fan of Neal Stephenson's work, and have read and own all of his books. I feel I must say that as a preface to what comes next. Seveneves is by far the worst book written by Neal Stephenson, and that includes the meandering narrative of the Baroque Cycle, and the collaborative Mongoliad effort. Usually fiction of the magnitude of Seveneves, running close to a thousand pages, suffers from some weak points by sheer nature of its size and complexity as a story. That being the case, it doesn't mean that the whole book will suffer from these weaknesses, because if the fundamental structural elements of the story are sound then the whole will stand on its own. Unfortunately, Seveneves is a disaster in every respect.
The moon blows up and humanity has 2 years to find a way to survive as a species before the earth is bombarded by a meteorite shower lasting several thousand years and obliterating everything on the surface of the planet. So far so good, but the humans of Seveneves decide that the best solution from this predicament is to focus all their resources into an escape into low earth orbit around the international space station [ISS], which, if you are technically inclined, is by far the most energy inefficient option as opposed to building deep underground or underwater bases [more on that below]. In effect, the majority of the plot is centered around the desperate efforts of a tiny remnant of humanity to deal with the totally predictable effects of the absurd premise - namely the fact that their survival plan positioned them right in the middle of a millenia-long meteorite shower, and constant solar radiation. Speaking of solar radiation, it's plot role is to magically deal with characters Stephenson doesn't know what to do with. What is more, when compounded over millenia, it turns out solar radiation has zero adverse effects on the human organism.
Facing this world-ending event, all world governments, including the Chinese and the Russians, magically delegate all their authorities and resources to the US President [I kid you not] and a totally US-dominated team of scientists and military led by [I kid you not] Neil deGrasse Tyson. The character of Doc Dubois is such an obvious and lazy reference to Tyson that after the first 100 pages I started doubting whether the book was written by Stephenson and not by a ghost writer. The plot asks us to believe that a TV science presenter is a deus ex machina capable of solving pretty much impossible problems on the go, and that real scientists not only take him seriously but always delegate final decision making to him. Eventually it becomes comical. Same goes for the totally superficial, yet so important in the plot, character modeled on Elon Musk.
Absurdly long stretches of the narrative are focused on detailed technical descriptions of contraptions which will never be encountered again in the story, while major moments in the plot such as losing ones family and children are dedicated a paragraph or less. Apparently scientists do not emote much. Characters constantly appear to value trivial technical problems quite more than the ability to speak to their loved ones condemned to die on earth. It takes Neil deGrasse Tyson all of 5 seconds to decide to abandon his children for the benefit of being on the ISS - this is not presented as a moral issue. Speaking of the ISS. If you know anything about the ISS you probably know that the only way to get to it right now is on a Russian Soyuz module. The commander of the Soyuz is always a Russian, and, while ISS mission commanders can be from other nations, the commander of the Russian Orbital Segment [ROS] of the ISS is always a Russian too. Now, the ROS is important, because it and only it controls the navigation and guidance systems of the ISS. In other words, the control room of the ISS is and always has been controlled by Russians, who pretty much wrote the book on space station building and maintenance. Apart from the Russians, the Chinese are the only other nation to currently put people into space independently, with an active space station program of their own, modeled on the Mir and Soyuz programs. Obviously, if you were to write a book whose plot is entirely centered around a quasi-realistic sci-fi scenario involving the ISS, with a target audience of people interested in these sorts of things, this might be an important fact to consider and weave in your plot. Not so with Seveneves, which magically deals with uncomfortable facts by ignoring them altogether. And so, the Russians play the plot role of space-plumbers and thugs, while the Chinese have no plot role at all. A rag-tag team of US scientists led by Neil deGrasse Tyson is all it takes.
Remember the absurd premise of trying to survive in low earth orbit for 5 thousand years in the middle of a meteorite shower? Apparently someone pointed that out in draft edits, because there is a secondary plot latched superficially to the main plot, involving throwaway characters who somehow manage to successfully survive [5 thousand years] in a mine and on the ocean floor. How did they do that without the major nation-state resources necessary to accomplish it? We are never told. Instead, these characters are superficially tied to the main protagonists through family bonds which conveniently melt into air the moment the meteor shower starts, only to reappear as cherished relics 5 thousand years later [I kid you not]. In Neal Stephenson's version of historical development, 5 thousand years is basically like 50 years - some people die, some people change a bit, some people get a little bit weird, but basically everyone still speaks the same language [naturally - English], and everyone understands each other's jokes. After 5 thousand years of solitary development all it takes to immediately reestablish connection between 3 cultures is taking out the family heirlooms. This is not even high-school level of absurd, so I don't really know what to say about it. Even 50 years in a shared cultural space generates more variety than what Stephenson wants us to believe was generated over 5000 years in communities completely cut off from each other. Imagine bumping into a Sumerian and immediately starting to discuss life, politics and economics in English. That's the major plot moment of Seveneves for you.
Characters make randomly absurd decisions with infuriating consistency. Protagonists who are clearly dangerous for the survival of the species [cannibals] are not only allowed to live, but others regularly sacrifice themselves on their behalf. A protagonist who continuously endangers the lives of everyone is allowed to continue to do so, in a situation where what is at stake is the survival of the species - which we are told is constantly on everyone's mind. Characters do not undergo any dramatic development, they just appear, are given a two page treatment which reads like a Wired advertorial, and then go on their business to die for other characters without an explanation why. The final part of the book introduces a new main protagonist who, and I have to admit this is an achievement of sorts, has no personality whatsoever. Points of view between protagonists shift so often that the reader cannot begin to empathize with the poorly written characters because there is no time.
Coming to think of it, the only redeeming element of the book are the space propulsion ideas. If Stephenson had written a short story collection playing with each idea in turn, it would have been honest, and great. Instead, we have this monolith of bad writing and worse characterization, which, in solidarity with its plot, should be shot into low earth orbit and kept there indefinitely.