Review: Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves

Few things stuff your book­shelf quite like a new Neal Stephenson novel; his lat­est, Seveneves, is no excep­tion, weigh­ing in at a hefty 869 pages. Now, I’m nor­mal­ly not that kind of guy, but in this case I’m inclined to say that Stephenson could just as well have used twice or thrice that amount in order to fully explore what he want­ed to explore in this book.

First things first: with­out spoil­ing too much, I should say that the book is about an apoc­a­lypse, and the sud­den strug­gles of humankind to escape from Earth and pre­serve itself out there for the next few thou­sand years, for only then will the Earth be safe to return to. The book is about the fate of those first human colonies in space. The book is also about the new cul­tures and soci­eties that have sprung up after five thou­sand years have passed.

The first part is ded­i­cat­ed to the ini­tial strug­gles: how do humans cope with and pre­pare for impend­ing doom? Given rough­ly two years to launch an exo­dus into outer space, how do we decide who gets sent out there, and how, and how do they keep them­selves alive for count­less gen­er­a­tions in space with­out being able to use Earth’s nat­ur­al resources? There is a gen­uine excite­ment pal­pa­ble in this part of the book, which most­ly focus­es around Dubois Harris, a pop­u­lar astronomer — I can’t help but think of Neil deGrasse Tyson here — and Dinah MacQuarie, a roboti­cist serv­ing a shift aboard the International Space Station, both of whom end up as cen­tral fig­ures in the even­tu­al exo­dus and the sec­ond part of the book. The excite­ment comes on the one hand from the rush­ing of minds to think of work­able solu­tions to the biggest prob­lem humankind has ever faced, but also from the sense of des­tiny, the prepa­ra­tion of bil­lions of minds for an immi­nent death. A kind of lot­tery is organ­ised to pick rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all peo­ples to be sent out into space; a fas­ci­nat­ing and inevitably moral­ly trou­bled con­cept. This is one area where the book could have been more thor­ough: what exact­ly would such a process entail in prac­tice, and how would it turn out? Stephenson is able to explore some of the sur­round­ing issues, but then again, the plot has to move for­ward and so many aspects of the whole sit­u­a­tion have to be cov­ered.

The mid­dle, and largest, part of the book is ded­i­cat­ed to the first few years in space, the organ­i­sa­tion of the sur­vivors, their strug­gles, and the issue of how to remain alive out there. As is typ­i­cal for him, Stephenson has the knack for suc­cinct­ly explain­ing the com­pli­cat­ed tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges involved in such a huge endeav­our. I was never both­ered by his ten­den­cy to info-dump in his ear­li­er books, but in Seveneves these sec­tions real­ly blend seam­less­ly into the rest of the story: we have to know how orbital mechan­ics and water-based fuel and aster­oid min­ing work, because those are the imme­di­ate chal­lenges faced by all the main char­ac­ters in the book. I can’t real­ly go into detail about the polit­i­cal strug­gles faced by the sur­vivors with­out spoil­ing too much, but these are excit­ing scenes where Stephenson gets to imag­ine how Earth-based cul­tur­al back­grounds trans­late to a sud­den trans­plan­ta­tion into a whol­ly new con­text. Here, too, read­ing went incred­i­bly fast, but after­wards I was left want­i­ng more.

The third and final sec­tion of the book jumps five thou­sand years into the future. Let’s just say that despite things look­ing extreme­ly grim at one cli­mac­tic point, even when com­pared to the gen­er­al apoc­a­lypse, human­i­ty man­aged to sur­vive and re-expand. Stephenson intro­duces a fas­ci­nat­ing sce­nario where issues of genet­ic selec­tion, space coloni­sa­tion, and the estab­lish­ment of new polit­i­cal blocs play a major role. Eventually, the time is ripe for our future humans to grad­u­al­ly explore and recolonise Earth, but what they find there isn’t quite what they expect­ed. The book ends with an excit­ing ground-based expe­di­tion, which again poses at least as many ques­tions as it is able to answer.

To con­clude, there are far too many issues worth dis­cussing in this book than I could pos­si­bly do jus­tice to in the space of a brief review. As befits a tale that deals with the future of human­i­ty as a whole, Stephenson has a lot of things to say about pol­i­tics, tech­nol­o­gy, genet­ics, and human iden­ti­ties. Many of these things are worth dis­cussing and cri­tiquing in detail, and I hope to see lots of that in the future. Again, I do get the sense that the whole sce­nario (or trio of sce­nar­ios) would have deserved some­thing like a tril­o­gy of books. Stephenson could write three fat yet grip­ping tomes on gold, alche­my, phi­los­o­phy, and pol­i­tics in The Baroque Cycle, and he could have done it again here. Perhaps he did­n’t want to embark on anoth­er such project, and he want­ed to get all of this out of his sys­tem. It feels like an extrav­a­gance to say that a book that spans almost 900 pages might be rushed, but I did find that feel­ing creep­ing up on me after fin­ish­ing Seveneves. That said, this should­n’t be a rea­son not to dive into this charm­ing ode to human resource­ful­ness and tenac­i­ty.

This review orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the American Book Center blog.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.