Seveneves would have certainly worked better as two stand-alone novels, yet, overall, its many flaws notwithstanding, Stephenson’s book remains (mostly) an enjoyable read and one of the most remarkable sci-fi world-building novel of the last decade, at least.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson is a novel about humanity’s resilience and imaginative resourcefulness in the face of an Extinction Level Event. The story centers on how humanity races to survive the sudden and unexplained break-up of the Moon. Studying the debris field formed in the aftermath of the break-up, “Doc” Dubois Harris – a renown public science communicator, who acts very much in the mold of a Neil Degrasse Tyson or a Carl Sagan – predicts that within about three years a “hard rain” of trillions of Moon debris will fall on Earth. It will be “a meteorite bombardment such as Earth has not seen since the primordial age.” Dubois forecasts that there will be so many bolides falling through Earth’s atmosphere that the latter will become a “dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it.” Doc Dubois’ gloomy prediction is that the “entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized.” The planet will become hostile to life for at least several thousand years. So if human kind wants to survive, it must find shelter elsewhere. Space and the International Space Station become the cradle around which humanity builds its twenty-first century Ark. A few thousands humans, selected from all over the world, undergo a space training and, before the hard rain falls, will be sent to the Ark, along with a wealth of “vitamins” (these include actual vitamins, medicines, microchips and all that can be helpful to survive until humanity becomes self-sufficient in its new space dwellings). An important part of the cargo is a database of DNA samples. The hope is to use them to rebuild humanity when time comes. Dr Moira Crewe is the geneticist sent aboard to look after the database and insure humanity’s genetic survival. Naturally, not everything goes as predicted.
Though the book is not without some troubling and annoying shortcomings (verbose style, length, uneven distribution of its three parts, and a score of one-dimensional characters, to name a few), Stephenson deserves much praise for his work and craft. I personally enjoyed the book greatly, especially the first part. At times, I couldn’t put the book down. Then the pace slows down while losing depth and the shortcomings become more evident. Nevertheless, Seveneves remains a book worth reading, if you have time and patience and are a reader inclined to forgive ambitious writers.
Stephenson’ story offers the reader a cornucopia of most of science fiction beloved tropes: the power of high-tech; space travel; space habitats, larger-than life tragedy; lots of techie jargon with an amount of (at times overwhelming) information on how things work in space (most of it, however, probably rewarding for the inner geek in every sci-fi reader); some high-octane action, some interesting villains (though alas none unforgettable); and the novel is populated with a number of interesting and lovable characters (most of them women, especially in the first two parts; in the third part the balance tilts more towards men); some of the characters will undoubtedly remind the reader of real-life persons: Elon Musk and Hillary Clinton to name two. No serious sci-fi fan will be left, overall, cold by this mammoth of a novel. But the novel is not without flaws. And it’s a pity, because with hindsight it is clear that most of these flaws could have been avoided with a more decisive editing and, more importantly, by employing a different narrative structure.
Here (without spoilers) some of the main issues:
Philosophically weak: The book is full of fascinating passages and asks some intriguing questions about how to survive an Extinction Level Event yet Stephenson is more interested in the mechanics of that survival than in its philosophical side. He never really dwells in depth with the many moral and philosophical questions posed by the possible fast extinction of the human race (and who to save and who to condemn to a horrible death). Most of the characters who make into space sport an almost cold-scientific, nonchalant attitude towards the departed (those left behind, even when these are their own sons and lovers.) Take Doc Dubois: he is selected to go to space – hence to be saved – but his children (all adult) and his new wife are not. Not once he has a real moment of doubts that perhaps he should remain behind and suffer the same fate of his beloved ones. Not once he tries to “cheat” (go beyond his one-dimensional persona) and save at least one of his children. They die, and he brushes the whole thing away, rather quickly. The same happens to Dinah (the robot/mining expert, one of the main and best characters), though she – perhaps because she is a woman – shows a bit more emotions than Dubois. But in this book there seems to be never time for emotions or mourning the dead, they all have to rush. So even Dinah brushes away the death of her loved ones in the blink of an eye. In a particular case, it takes her few hours to move on of a particularly tragic death of a main character (cannot say more because of spoilers). These pages show the great limits of Neal Stephenson as a writer. He is capable of describing in great detail how to build a world in space and why delta v i so important, but he has no touch or skills to deal with human emotions.
Seveneves is a very long text and it is in effect two novels in one: one long, the first two thirds (part one and two) which deal with the race to survive the break-up of the moon and its fallout on Earth; and a shorter text, the last third part of the novel which is titled Five Thousand Years Later. The end-result is not as satisfying as the reader might have expected from the book’s promising start. By virtue of shifting the narrative five millennia into the future, at the beginning of part three (no much spoiler there) all the characters we care for are no longer around, they are dead. At the end of part two, readers had closure, and it is difficult to move on and start all over again and somehow try to care about a new set of characters and a story that clumsily tries to tells us what happened “after”. The third part reads more like an underdeveloped draft, than a polished manuscript.
If one excludes the clumsy and rather unconvincing (ridiculous) gimmick that Stephenson employs at the end of part two to reduce the human population in space to its bare survival minimum and, by doing so, justify his title, the ending of part two is probably a much better and much more satisfying ending than the actual ending of the book, about 300 pages later. No reader would have complained about that ending. It was final and full of promises. No cliffhangers, just possibilities. Stephenson then could have expanded part three and make it into a proper stand-alone novel and tell us a bit more about the outcome. Instead he overstretches himself and delivers a lame third act. The first two parts of the book cover five years, the last third attempts to make sense of the next five thousand years. And if it is true that the story in this third part mainly covers a few days of a few chosen characters (mainly men), Stephenson attempts (never really convincingly) to explain the reader what happened in the preceding five thousand years. It is too much for so little. We have no time really to grow emotionally attached to these characters. More importantly, the story in the third part is far from imaginative, in fact it is quite conveniently predictable. No reader (especially those who liked H. G. Wells The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s stories) would be surprised by how the story evolves in the last part of the book; and undoubtedly, many readers would be left cold (or utterly disappointed) but its faltering unfolding. After the long and (mostly) exciting roller-coaster ride in the first two parts of the book, the third part feels like a ride on a children’s carousel. Saying more about this would entail several spoilers, so it suffices here to say that by not separating the third part from its preceding parts, Stephenson cannot expand its premise adequately and remains stuck in it. Disappointingly, we never really find out what happened to the world (especially the non American-world) and more importantly we never really get a chance to really care for the new characters (though some of them – Kath Three, Cyc, and Ty especially – showed promises). Whereas in the first two parts there are, literally, billions of deaths (some of which concern some rather dramatic and tear-jerking sacrifices), the third act has very little drama in it. Stephenson’s let his readers down with the underdeveloped third part. Very few readers, undoubtedly, would be satisfied with it. Both the writing and the tension in the final scenes, especially, the last two pages are, to put it mildly, rather weak. After more than 800 pages one would expect a bit of a juicier ending.
The narrative, especially in the first part of the book, is often bogged down by the author’s desire to be thorough in his scientific expositions (to the last microscopic detail) of how things work. As a student who wants to impress badly his teacher, Stephenson seems to want to impress his readers by showing off that he has done his homework; that what he says, what his characters do it is not fantasy, this is not the Star Trek’s type of impossible science, but a series of plausible outcomes all rooted in hard science (or not unlikely science, at least). His efforts deserve praise, but his technique is sloppy. Instead of integrating the must-know-details within characters’ stories or dialogue, Stephenson’s know-it-all narrator goes off on endless and tedious tangents that never feel like part of the story. There are many passages in the book that read like technical manuals of how to do things or solve problems on a space station rather than a novel. They all read like interesting but avoidable and excessively long footnotes. The reader is given lectures on how things work while the characters and the story are momentarily placed on hold (for far too long at times). Again, some of the stuff is fascinating (and it is part of the charm of this book) but is it really relevant for the story to saddle the readers with several pages on Delta V or Radiations (or many of the other narrative tangents Stephenson takes along the way)? Stephenson’s could have uses those pages more wisely and concentrate more on developing both the characters and the story (for instance, he never tells us about other projects to save humanity, apart the Space Ark. Are there no other government-led attempt to survive on earth? Though the USA President – a woman – plays an important part in the book, Stephenson’s never decides to use her to tell the reader what is going on Earth).
The title Seveneves annoyed me. Without given away any spoilers, the use of one word title is misleading and forced onto the reader without any real justification (except for its palindromic nature, I guess). It is never explained why it is one word, it should have been, as it is clear, by the end of the second part, two words. Seven Eves would have been a better title (at least for the first two parts of the novel, as it doesn’t really fit with the third part narrative.)
Finally, though Seveneves would have worked better as two stand-alone novels, overall, its many flaws notwithstanding, Stephenson’s book remains (mostly) an enjoyable read and one of the most remarkable sci-fi world-building novel of the last decade, at least. However, I hope Ron Howard and Skydance Productions, who are working on the film version of the novel, consider the book shortcomings when deciding on the film’s ultimate structure. Seveneves might be the one case where two films are not just an excuse to milk the proverbial cash-cow (as it was the case of the three-parts The Hobbit), but a justifiable narrative choice. If that’s the case, I am looking forward to watch Seven Eves: Part I and Seven Eves: Part II.