Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves.

NY: Morrow, 2015.

I read a great deal, well more than a hundred books a year, and by a large number of authors. Neal Stephenson, though, is one of a very short list of “automatic” authors for me, and has been since the appearance of Snow Crash in 1992. When I discover he has a new book coming out, I order it. I don’t even bother with reviews. Anything Neal writes, I want to read. And I’ve never been disappointed. It sometimes takes me awhile to figure out where he’s going with a narrative, what exactly it is that he thinks needs saying, but I always get there. And you sometimes have to be patient. The “Baroque Cycle” took me a couple years to work through, in thoughtful bites and chewing slowly. But it’s always worth the effort and the journey. His latest epic, Seveneves, definitely confirms that judgment.

In some ways, this is an 880-page version of a classic ASTOUNDING/ANALOG science-problem story. On the first page, the Moon is destroyed, shattered into seven large pieces and many smaller ones by some unknown agent, possibly a tiny black hole. But the pieces aren’t going to stay up there for very long. So: The world will effectively end in two years: Who can we save to represent humanity? What can they take with them? How do we do it? And where do they go and how long do they have to wait before returning? We follow the slow development of answers to these questions almost day by day.

As the author himself says, it’s “a tale of straight-up global disaster and hastily improvised technology,” and against impossible odds. Nearly all this stuff is inventive and startling and intrinsically interesting to confirmed SF fans and science nerds — and the final third of the book will be riveting to amateur world-builders — but I’m pretty sure I’m sure it will seem slow-paced, even plodding, to many “ordinary” readers. I counsel patience.

Basically, the story is made up of lots and lots of smaller stories, plot threads, events, incidents, and so on, all set against the broader end-of-the-world narrative canvas. Which is okay. Cryptonomicon, still (in my opinion) Neal’s best book — and which you will also find reviewed at some length on this site — did much the same thing, and it worked very well. But while that earlier book had me engrossed, fascinated, and frequently on the edge of my seat with practically every page. Seveneves, by comparison, seems rather bloodless — at least in the beginning. But Stephenson is a master of pacing. There’s a reason he takes his time, and it’s because the end of the world doesn’t happen all at once. It accumulates slowly over those two years of political maneuvering, lulling of the public to avoid panic, and struggles between the techies and everyone else. Because if even a small part of the species is to saved, it won’t be by making speeches.

As the story progresses, with heavy-payload rockets being thrown together by amateur groups, and innovative expansion of the International Space Station to create the decentralized Cloud Ark — because “Izzy” is the only off-Earth habitat we’ve got and you have to start somewhere — and the global “Casting of Lots” to select the tiny fraction of mankind that will be be sent into space, the pace gradually picks up. And by the time the Hard Rain comes — the visitation of hundreds of millions of bolides on Earth that will turn the entire surface of our planet into a firestorm and consume virtually all life — events have begun to gallop. Decisions have to be made in orbit very quickly, and even the slightest error could mean — literally — the End of Everything. And then, when it all happens, the survivors must find some way of dealing with it psychologically. They must achieve some sort of detachment. The only alternative would be suicide. That part of the story is very affecting and you will want to read it slowly and think about what the author has to say.

Neal is also quite good at devising characters that will hold your interest, and this book is no exception. One of the main POVs is that of Dr. DuBois “Doob” Harris (a sort of stand-in for Neil DeGrasse Tyson), a popular and charismatic purveyor of science to the non-techie world. He gets to break it to the world, too: “The good news is that the Earth is one day going to have a beautiful system of rings, just like Saturn. The bad news is that it’s going to be messy.” Then there’s Dinah MacQuarie, daughter of a family of mining engineers and a roboticist and research geologist on the space station. She’s thinking about asteroid mining, so she went and grabbed a big rock to experiment with, and “Amalthea” is going to turn out to be key to survival. And there’s Ivy Xiao, physicist, naval fighter pilot, astronaut, and overall commander — for now — of Izzy. And Dinah’s closest friend, which will also figure into the story. And there’s also Julia Bliss Flaherty, accidental president of the United States, who is, to be blunt, a real piece of work. She’s also going to be a major player in the survival of the species, but not in the way you might expect.

Each of these folks — and a rather large number of others — is introduced slowly and in depth. By the time you reach the beginning of the book’s third section — where everything changes dramatically as you discover what woerked and what didn’t — you will have come to know each of them so well, you can even predict their movements and reactions to new events. But the big question to be answered for all of them is, “Can a small number of people, even highly trained ones with lots of gear to play with, survive and prosper in space — for thousands of years?”

Okay, I could talk about this book for hours. My book-oriented friends and family are already tired of hearing me rave about it. Neal throws off ideas like a Catherine Wheel, and they’re not WAGs, either. A lot of research went into this book and there’s a lot of cutting-edge science for the reader to deal with, as well as the realities of old-fashioned orbital mechanics. I learned something new on nearly every page and I have a whole bunch of fascinating Real World concepts to read up on now. (The Aitkin loop alone is worth spending some serious time on.) Neal Stephenson does that to you.

There are certain books I buy in hardcopy even after I’ve read them, because I want to be able to stand there and admire them on the shelf. And take them down in a few years and enjoy them all over again. This is one of those books. And I’ll be anticipating Neal’s next one.


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