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Seveneves: A Novel Hardcover – May 19, 2015
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From the 1 New York Times bestselling author of Anatham Reamde and Cryptonomicon comes an exciting and thought provoking science fiction epic a grand story of annihilation and survival spanning five thousand years What would happen if the world were ending A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb In a feverish race against the inevitable nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere in outer space But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers until only a handful of survivors remainFive thousand years later their progeny seven distinct races now three billion strong embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time Earth A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision Neal Stephenson combines science philosophy technology psychology and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is both extraordinary and eerily recognizable As he did in Anathem Cryptonomicon the Baroque Cycle and Reamde Stephenson explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring engrossing and altogether brilliant From the 1 New York Times bestselling author of Anathem Reamde and Cryptonomicon comes an exciting and thought provoking science fiction epic a grand story of annihilation and survival spanning five thousand years What would happen if the world were ending A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb In a feverish race against the inevitable nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere in outer space But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers t
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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?