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Seveneves: A Novel Hardcover – Illustrated, May 19, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of May 2015: Stephenson is not afraid of writing big books—big in page count, big in concept, and big in their long-lingering effect on the reader’s mind. Newcomers to Stephenson should reject any trepidation. This science-fueled saga spans millennia, but make no mistake: The heart of this story is its all-too-human heroes and how their choices, good and ill, forge the future of our species. Seveneves launches into action with the disintegration of the moon. Initially considered only a cosmetic, not cosmic, change to the skies, the moon’s breakup is soon identified as the spawning ground of a meteor shower dubbed the Hard Rain that will bombard Earth for thousands of years, extinguishing all life from the surface of the planet. Now humanity has only two years to get off-world and into the Cloud Ark, a swarm of small, hastily built spaceships that will house millions of Earth species (recorded as digital DNA) and hundreds of people until they can return home again. But who goes, and who stays? And once the lucky few have joined the Cloud Ark, how will the remaining seeds of humankind survive not only the perils of day-to-day of life in space but also the lethal quicksand of internal politics? Slingshot pacing propels the reader through the intricacies of orbit liberation points, the physics of moving chains, and bot swarms, leaving an intellectual afterglow and a restless need to know more. An epic story of humanity and survival that is ultimately optimistic, Seveneves will keep you thinking long past the final page. --Adrian Liang
“Stephenson’s remarkable novel is deceptively complex, a disaster story and transhumanism tale that serves as the delivery mechanism for a series of technical and sociological visions… there’s a ton to digest, but Stephenson’s lucid prose makes it worth the while.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“The huge scope and enormous depth of the latest novel from Stephenson is impressive… a major work of hard sf that all fans of the genre should read.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“Well-paced over three parts covering 5,000 years of humanity’s future, Stephenson’s monster of a book is likely to dominate your 2015 sf-reading experience.” (Booklist)
“[Stephenson] plays with hard ballistics, hard genetics, hard sociology. And what thrills me, is that he makes it interesting. That he makes life and death in space about actual life and death .” (NPR Books)
“Written in a wry, erudite voice...Seveneves will please fans of hard science fiction, but this witty, epic tale is also sure to win over readers new to Stephenson’s work.” (Washington Post)
“Seveneves offers at once [Stephenson’s] most conventional science-fiction scenario and a superb exploration of his abiding fascination with systems, philosophies and the limits of technology.… Stephenson’s central characters, mostly women, serve as a welcome corrective to science-fiction clichés.” (Chicago Tribune )
“Seveneves can be fascinating. . . . Insights into the human character shine like occasional full moons.” (Boston Globe)
“[A] novel of big ideas, but it’s also a novel of personalities, of heart, and of a particular kind of hope that only comes from a Stephenson story. Science fiction fans everywhere will love this book.” (BookPage)
“Stephenson… knows the life-sustaining power of storytelling, since storytelling is what he does…Today’s post-apocalyptic stories routinely aim to convey the loss of the old world through the personal losses of a few characters. Stephenson makes you feel the loss of Earth on the scale it deserves.” (Salon)
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Seveneves is an 880 page novel, ostensibly about a very near-future catastrophe where the world must work together in a short amount of time to build out an orbiting habitat (using the ISS as a core), to save what tiny fraction they can of the human race. As you can imagine, this rush to save the essence of humanity is a perfect stage to explore every near-future space technology and Stephenson takes every opportunity to do so. And then some.
Unlike Cryptonomicon, for example, where the Turing code-break/world net/Axis gold story lines are different enough for the reader to enjoy or slog through, the technology in Sveneves is so dense, so similar in purpose, and so relentless, it’s easy for one’s eyes to glaze over. A six page description of delta-V and how to achieve it might be interesting in and of itself, if it weren’t part of many, many more pages of orbital mechanics and how to use a nuclear reactor to power a space-borne craft. And although the subjects he deeply delves into range from genetics, to asteroid mining, water from comets as propellant, and zero-g sex, these components are all in service to a very specific technology problem the survivors are trying to solve.
The first two-thirds of the book relate the challenges of creating the habitat and stabilizing its existence. Unfortunately, the story is but a mere framework on which to hang gobs of technical dissertation, and the characters are poorly formed, used only as chess pieces around which the technology can orbit. No matter how much you may adore hard SF (and Stephenson admits he did play fast and loose with bits of the tech), Seveneves ends up reading, for the most part, like transcribed lectures.
The last third of the book, when the survivors can finally return to Earth, exalts similarly in forward-derivative tech, although the story itself picks up a little more steam. The ending is meh and satisfactory only in that it is an ending.
The secret to Seveneves, however, is spelled out in the author’s five pages of acknowledgements at the end. He tells how he started developing ideas for the book in 2006, and lists the huge cadre of techies, space scientists and enthusiasts, and geeks that helped him vet any number of ideas in his book. The real telling line, comes at the end when he thanks his editor for her patience with him while he spent seven years deciding what to do with all these ideas. To me, that’s tech in search of a story and that’s exactly what you get in Seveneves.
Many reviewers either loved it because it was NEAL STEPHENSON, while many just stopped reading and tossed it on the floor. When I realized less than half way through that I really fell into the latter camp, I nevertheless struggled through to the end because I adore Stephenson’s snarky prose, which is definitely on point. I gave the book three stars, though it really deserves two and a half stars because you have to admire a writer with his cojones to put this out.
Should you read Seveneves? If you’re a Stephenson nut, you can’t not read it. If you’re new to Stephenson, stay away and try some of his earlier books from the 1990s. He is no doubt a very fine writer and I would hate to have a newbie be influenced by what I hope is a vanity project that has emptied Stephenson’s pent-up rolodex of very near-future space tech, and that his next book is more accessible.
You start out decently. You're getting into it, and psyching yourself up for the full journey. Then, you start to hit your stride. You get into a good pace and make good progress. You start to get fatigued, and you look ahead and realize just how much is still left to do. "No!" you say "I signed up for the this, and I've made it this far. I have to keep going". You keep going, but you're losing steam. Your pace and patience are wearing thin. Finally, fully exhausted, you cross the finish line. Was it worth it? Will you ever do it again? After that experience, you can't imagine try anything like this again anytime soon.
To be more specific: it is clear that the author did a lot of research and work to make this seem scientifically accurate and authentic. There are few deus ex machinas and much of the premises feel believable, but in a book nearly 900 pages long, some brevity would have been appreciated. The author spends multiple paragraphs to multiple pages explaining concepts that - while accurate and correct - don't need to be spelled out in such detail for the purposes of the story.
The best example is, as another commenter put it, the pages-long explanation that a massive, fast moving object needs to slow down a LOT before it can enter Earth orbit and meet up with the ISS, otherwise it will just burn up or shoot off in another direction back into space.
See that? See how I wrote that in just two sentences, Neal Stephenson? The rest of the story around that effort doesn't change, but the multiple pages about altering "delta V" on a comet can be thrown out now. There are multiple times in the book that whatever dialog, situation, tension, or build up and interrupted by these long-winded, highly-technical asides; they are very jarring and really pull you out of the moment.
Likewise, there are what feels like 30-40 primary characters over the course of this book, and the point of view switches between them abruptly and awkwardly in a few places. While you might be following one character for 400 pages, suddenly you're seeing things from someone else's eyes without a break or warning.
Speaking of breaks, holy hell the sections in this were long. Some "chapters" were hundreds of pages, it felt like. Given that so much of the story and in-universe history is broken into so many smaller, named segments, it was a little odd that the text itself wasn't as well.
Let me throw one other thing that slows down reading the book: every single thing gets a proper noun. It totally makes sense that language would change over thousands of years, which the author does address well with the evolution and contraction of words (ex: varp, kupol, dukh), but it seems over the course of world building, the author felt that every place, every technology (or version of technology), or every idea needed to be given a name to refer to it, regardless of how often those terms are used or needed. A good example is stopping to explain the evolution of the tech and name for the "ambots". Again, just take a moment and say "these weapons fire little robots that do X" and move on. The etymology of some things isn't important to the story.
The ending of the final act sort of just happens, with whatever resolution to the conflict described in one or two paragraphs, almost like the book had meant to go on a little longer and explore the things introduced in the final 50 pages or so (like literally anything about the Pingers or whatever the Purpose is). What was the point of the final act? We head to the beach to find Pingers, they show up, and it all kind of just ends?
The technical aspects are far too detailed and excessive. I lost count on the pages dedicated to delta-V. This was symptomatic of the book and especially in the first 500+ pages. I can understand character development, but again - excessive.
Will I give the author another chance? Probably - but some folks also remarry an ex.
Without being a spoiler, let me point out just one of the many annoying sillinesses: The characters in the book retain the ability to manipulate the genes of their descendants, but when their storehouse of human genetic material is accidentally lost, they don't have the good sense to collect new samples before sending crewmen out on suicide missions.
Stephenson at his best addresses genuine complexities in cutting edge technologies, difficult philosophic problems, and genuine human behavior. This book does none of that.
Top international reviews
It reads like a long Shaggy Dog story to get to the punchline of the title. He spends pages and pages on the minutiae of orbital mechanics, which to even someone with heavy scientific background like myself felt excessive and overly detailed, and then glosses over loads of improbable science with hand-wavy "never mind about that" dismissal.
Likewise loads of narrative is simply omitted, and there is rather a lot of "tell don't show" too, inasmuch as for example we are told that a piece of information has come from a chap in a space suit drifting away without hope of rescue but still in radio contact, but we never hear the conversation. It's just mentioned in passing. And we're told that Doob fell in love and married but never get to see much evidence of it. In fact a lot of the book is like that - we're told that stuff happened but it feels like he can't actually be bothered to tell us about it so just waves his arms a bit and says "away, some stuff happened". Even the end of the world was pretty much "so anyway, the world ended, and then they..."
It's like in Revenge of the Sith where we are told via a conversation that Annakin and Obi Wan have had great adventures together and saved each other's backs several times, but see little or no evidence of it in their interactions together on screen.
Or, to put it another way, it would be like writing The Great Escape concentrating most of the effort on describing the tunnel digging, load calculations of the tunnel props, how the lighting was devised, construction of the digging implements, and then having half a page of dialogue where one guard mentions to another in passing that there was a breakout but that many prisoners have been recaptured or shot, and a chap on a motorbike had a pretty cool chase but was ultimately caught. And then a German Structural Engineer arrives and the next few chapters describe his admiration of the tunnel.
Anyway, overall it was a fairly disappointing book. And frankly the whole "5000 years later" belongs in a separate book, especially as it stops somewhat abruptly, setting the scene for a sequel.
As with Cryptonomicon, Stephenson really doesn't seem to know how to end a book even though he makes them thick enough to club baby seals to death with.
Frankly I'm not really sure how I stuck with it to the end, but I did.
The issues as I saw them were threefold - as dazzling and epic as the concept was, I really struggled with the writing style. For the first two parts of the book, the author tries really hard to explain every tiny piece of science to the reader, to the point that you feel you are just wading through textbooks. Not having the most brilliant mathematical or physics oriented mind, this meant that despite my best efforts, there were large sections of the book where I just plain didn't understand what was going on. By the time the third part came round, this had somehow evolved into providing the backstory to everything and everyone, and it started to get a little irritating, as though the author was so proud of his world building (and deservedly so) that he wanted to include all of it into the book, unfortunately to the detriment of the story.
The second issue for me was that I was so emotionally invested in the first two parts of the book that the third part just didn't feel as engaging. I think it was partly because we come to know and understand the characters in the first two parts of the story on a deeper level and the ruthlessness with which the author culls them is a brilliant offset for the emotional impact and sheer scale of the devastation of the concept. He actually explains it himself at one point, saying that the death of one character is somehow more upsetting than the death of 7 billion. The interplay between the characters is so realistic and moving that it's incredibly engaging. In the third part, we don't get any of that. The characters are flat and lifeless and somehow drowned in all the worldbuilding and adventuring. As a result, I just wasn't as engaged by the third part as I had been by the previous part. I think that by the 4th or 5th page describing the structure of the eye, when I still couldn't figure out what it was supposed to look like, I kind of switched off a bit.
Thirdly and finally, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. I'm not entirely sure what I expected, but given the epic scale and extraordinary vision of the plot, I had expected something slightly more climactic than the equivalent of "well I guess this is above our pay grade...we should probably just go home". It also just all felt a bit too neat and coincidental. It's hard to explain why without spoilers, but I felt like the origins of the Eves and Diggers and Pingers were just too close.
I know this review has thus far been negative, but I'd like to reinforce again that there are parts of this book that are just dazzling. It's a story that will stay with me for a very long time. As a side note, I'm a very visual reader and there were enough parts of this that pinged as similarities with certain facets of the Battlestar Galactica series that it was hard not to picture certain characters in my head as characters from that series, especially JBF. It's clear that the author did a staggering amount of research into the science of space technology, as well as mining and probably astrophysics too. He is to be commended for that, even if it did leach a bit too much into the writing. I think he's also to be commended for not shying away from some of the darker aspects of human psychology and behaviour. There are parts of the book that are raw and shocking but provide perfect counterpoint to how we perceive civilisation.
In conclusion, I think that had this book finished at the end of part 2, it would have been a 4 or 5 star read for me, even with all the excessive technojargon. It will stay with me for a while and I may even read other books by this author. I would recommend it for someone looking for some epic sci-fi, especially if science is their thing.
It’s good, classsic sci-fi and fits into the more modern and realisitically accessible side of the genre so I liked it, and would recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of that area or who has read Neal Stephenson’s other work. Also, fair warning, it is a long read, and whilst I appreciate the detail, you should take into account this is a read to be enjoyed over a few weeks..
Personally, it’s one of the most original but realistic scenarios I’ve read about in a long time and justifies itself on that alone, so even if you feel the novel is too long, it’s enough of a must read that I would check out the narration on audible as it’s really well acted and clear to follow even on a busy commute!
If you want to learn a whole range of new skills and wish to join NASA this is a great starting point! If you want a thrilling out of this world experience, I'd recommend looking elsewhere.
The second part, though, went all soft and floppy. The descendants of the seven survivors from an orbital refuge start to return to a restored Earth, and encounter two other groups who have, against the odds, remained on the planet and survived. There's a long rambling Lord-of-the-Rings style journey to track down the "remainers", and then it just fizzles out.
There are also several plot failures that only come to light by the end of the book. What was the mysterious "agent" that triggered the global catastrophe? What happened to a splinter group that headed off for Mars? Why did the handful of orbital survivors each give rise to their own "tribe" of descendants who, 5000 years later, had barely interbred? And what's this nonsense about a mysterious "Purpose" that only pops up at the very end and leads nowhere?
Sorry, Neal. I loved the first part, and it's superbly written. But the second part is too vague and woolly and leaves too many unresolved plot points.
I found the technical detail ADDED to the 'this is actually happening' feeling and was really involved with all the major characters.
Snow Crash not withstanding, NS's books are not a super-casual read - but like Anathem, Seveneves really does repay the effort. I'm looking forward to re-reading it a third time and am confident I'll find even more to wonder at than before. If you want to slag off a NS novel - go write a review of Readme ;-) But if you ever stopped reading Seveneves, try going back to it - you'll be well rewarded I promise you!
There is a lot to like about this book and I enjoyed it immensely. Character building is good – there are a few core characters in the ISS that we can really get engaged with. The world-building is just incredible. And the plot, with its political intrigues, is quite dark in places. However, it has huge flaws: there is far too much highly detailed explanation of scientific / physics / maths problems which are just to complex for a lay reader to follow anyway. And part 3, which should be the main story, feels rushed and glossed over – it’s as if Stephenson was more interested in the amazing world he had built than in what happens to the characters in it.
This novel starts in the present time, when an earth-threatening disaster begins. It covers mankind's reaction to this in the first half of the book, and in the second half presents a far-future vision of how humanity has adapted.
I notice that a number of reviews of this book talk about a long and boring discussion on orbital dynamics. I did not notice this at all, and was gripped from start to finish. So i would have to conclude that this section, at least for a layman with a strong interest in astrophysics and space travel, was not at all long or boring.
If you are already a Neal Stephenson fan then it is a must-read, and if you are keen on science fiction in general then you also won't be disappointed.
The first 2/3rds of this book are set in a near future where everything is a frantic race to save as many as possible.
The last 1/3rd of the book advances some 5 thousand years into the future where the descendant species of the survivors have returned to Earth amid a program to bring life back to its surface.
This is a beast of a book, well over 800+ pages of action and high stakes intrigues. Many of the characters are complex and dynamic - the world building is impressive - seeing as it also involves the opposite of world building. World Breaking you might say.
The ending wraps up most of the storyline of the novel - but there are tantalising unanswered threads all the same that will hopefully one day be picked up by the author in another book. Well I hope so anyway. 😎
4 out of 5.
What Stephenson does is combine deep science and technology with detailed cultural, political, and social commentary to produce an ultra-realistic descriptive full of plot and personality. Can you tell I really like his work?
Seveneves is a self-contained novel that deals with an apocalyptic event which sets the scene for a response from contemporary humanity. As a serious follower of all things "space", I really enjoyed Neal's insertion of the current (deplorable) state of our space technology into his tale: Ariane, Baikonaur, Falcon 9, Zvedza just a few examples. For many this may be too technobabble and drag on a bit but as a person who wishes Amiga had worked so that I could have been in the position of Mr Musk (although why an obsession with vertical rockets and Mars rather than flying shuttles and the Moon?), his futurist musings are music to my eyes.
I love the sense of claustrophobia as the human race shrinks, as personalities develop, as men fall by the wayside before the sanctity of the female reproductive treasure.
My only criticism is that the end seems rushed compared to the love and detail spent on the first part. There again, I always find that I never want Neal to end his telling, much like Iain M.
Fleecy Moss, author of "End of a Girl" and "Undon".
It's hard to do this without spoilers but essentially, seveneves takes a massive change of direction 2/3s of the way through and to all extents and purposes becomes a different novel. Up til that point, it is fantastic- the scope and feel of Kim Stanley Robinson at his best, with Stephenson's greater feeling for pace. I can't praise it too highly. The first climax- "Hard Rain"- and what leads up to it is truly superb. From then on, it still occasionally recaptures that but increasingly Stephenson feels less interested- more and more happens off camera, storylines aren't tied off, and plotlines become rushed and begin to lose their credibility. And then it just comes to a grinding halt.
And then, part 3. Part 3 is like terrible 60s scifi. Endless exposition descriptions of tech, all "telling not showing", some excellent ideas but the plot becomes an unbelievable and slapdash mess and just an excuse to show off his locations and tech. I had no idea Stephenson had it in him to be this bad. I suppose he's always been bad at endings... Here, the ending just starts way earlier than usual!
But I still give it 4... Because no matter how bad it gets, it's still worth it for the dizzying heights (and if you enjoy it, go read Red/Green/Blue Mars!). But what a missed opportunity