Book Review: Seveneves
by Neal Stephenson
I became an Stephenson fanboy back in the 90s. Snowcrash and Diamond Age were nearly mind altering experiences. Interface, written collaboratively under a pseudonym, also really made me think. Cryptonomicon was awesome in its story as well as its length. But it was the beginning of an unfortunate trend, need of an editor. I read the first of the Baroque series, and just couldn’t continue. There wasn’t enough story in the story. That is, it was all ideas. I should be mature enough as a reader not to need the beginning middle and end, but, alas, I am not.
So does that mean Seveneves is bad? Absolutely not. It just means that it is imperfect. And when you have 880 pages, you have to really really like the journey to keep you coming back.
The story is split into three major sections. The first introduces the premise, which is that there is a major astrological event that breaks the moon into seven pieces. The explanation of how this happens is irrelevant, and not really explained. At first, I incorrectly assumed that the seven eves of the title was related to this. Seven moons in the sky. Seven evenings. Then the seven moons start bumping into each other more and more, such that they fill the sky with debris, the White Sky, which in turn falls to the Earth in the Hard Rain.
The first section of the book describes the exodus of 1500 people to space in anticipation of the Hard Rain.This is where the book really shines. For hard sf fans, it’s like Christmas every day. You get a great story about real tech, but taken to its logical next step. Story-wise, you get struggle and politics and self sacrifice. Stephenson is only ok at giving us characters to follow and like. But there are so many that are introduced and killed off, it is hard to find a single story. That is ok, however, there is an arc. And the journey is what makes this and the following section so powerful.
The second section is also truly fun to read. It describes the falling of the Hard Rain and the near immediate political turmoil that starts. Sure, they’ve escaped into space and watched their world die, but they still kind of haven’t figured out how to live in space. There are competing plans, run to Mars, go to high orbit with smaller spaceships called arklets, or move an asteroid into high earth orbit and use that as a base.
Section two ends with only seven women surviving, one of whom is a brilliant geneticist, who can essentially ensure parthenogenesis with modification as the mother decides. This is what the seven Eves is really referring to. Seven mothers of new races of humans.
And this is where I think that the story takes a wrong turn at Albuquerque. If the human race is that close to extinction, I don’t think that the remaining scientists would then create separate races. They would ensure as much genetic diversity as they could rather than going the inbreeding route. But hey, that’s just me.
Section three is the weakest of the sections. It jumps 5,000 years into the future, and there are 3 billion people living in space habitats around the Earth. The story is so far removed from the first two sections that the reader has to reinvest time and energy into a new set of characters, and new technologies and a new struggle, which is honestly not clear until nearly the end of the book.The final reveal was not well hinted at because the main character of this section (there is one, here) is left out of the loop until nearly the final pages.
This main character also has the most interesting genetics of the seven races. Built into her DNA are the ability to undergo epigenetic shifts. These are the shifts that you might see from a proto-wolf shifting to become coyotes or dogs. They are all genetically similar, but when the environment calls for it, they shift to that race/breed. Only the main character can do this in the same lifetime, actually changing in response to trauma in life. This is a great concept and could have been the basis of a great story. Instead, when this shift happens in story, the only impact I was able to see was that she got horny and could hear better.
Some people will really enjoy the descriptions of possible orbital habitats, methods of travel from atmosphere to orbit, and the genetics of the races that were created. For me, however, I wanted more story. In some ways, I think Seveneves would have been more successful as two books, maybe more. Doing so would have allowed the author to have complete character stories and still get to the cool tech and the epic story.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed it. Like in relationships, however, loving means you love the flaws as much as you love the strengths. If you are a hard SF fan, you will really enjoy the first two sections. If you are a big ideas SF fan then the third will really engage you. If you are looking for a traditional story focusing on character then you will be a little less so. That said, Seveneves is well worth the 880 page investment.